Winter motorcycle riding has the hazards of the other three seasons and introduces a few more. It requires more preparation and planning, plus a keen awareness of current road and weather conditions. That said, it can be a truly exhilarating experience and, once you’re skilled at riding your motorcycle in winter, you can kiss cabin fever goodbye. Here are eight tips to help you get the most out of winter riding.
1. Understand the risks of winter motorcycle riding
Being a safe motorcycle rider depends on your training, knowledge, skills, equipment, and risk management. While many view motorcycle riding as a physically low-impact sport, it actually requires a reasonable level of fitness, strength, and good health.
Winter motorcycle riding also requires you to carefully consider your risk versus benefit assessment before deciding to ride instead of winterizing and storing your bike for winter. Let’s look at some of the riding risks you’ll need to manage:
Speed: Generally, you’ll need to drive at lower speeds. Reduced speed gives you more time to respond to evolving traffic and road hazards in front of you. Another benefit of reduced speed is reducing stopping distance, especially when traction is a greater issue in winter.
Following distance: The normal rule for following distance is two to three seconds. This works well in the warm season for attentive riders. In winter, consider increasing this distance. Remember to check your mirror frequently for tailgaters. Your reaction times could be slower in the cold. Plus, other road users could react more suddenly or erratically when experiencing loss of traction or traffic issues.
Road conditions: Surface hazards increase dramatically in winter. Black ice—which is practically impossible to see until you’re almost on it—must be expected anywhere the road surface may be at or below freezing. Morning frost, while more visible, is still very slick. Avoid ice, frost, and places likely to have black ice. Road salt, sand, or cinder can accumulate and become slippery as well, causing you to lose traction. Due to temperature changes, potholes develop—along with frost heaves—and snowplows can catch on the road, causing edge traps and debris.
Visibility: This breaks down into two functional aspects:
Seeing: Seeing as far ahead as possible can help you manage the increase in surface hazards and higher potential of sudden changes in traffic and traction. Seeing hazards sooner gives you more time to avoid them or stop if needed.
Being seen: If you sometimes feel invisible to other drivers in the middle of summer, expect this to increase in winter. One of the last things car and truck drivers expect to see in winter is someone riding a motorcycle. Wearing black or dark riding gear will make you blend into the winter scenery, contrary to the assumption that the dark colors will stand out against snow; they won’t. This season, wearing brightly colored and reflective gear can help the problem of being invisible to other road users.
2. Evaluate the best motorcycles for winter
There are different schools of thought about what a winter motorcycle should be, leading to conflicting and confusing information.
Reviewing the possible models of motorcycles to use for winter riding opens questions, not of brand, but of riding philosophy. At one end of the spectrum is the approach that suggests acquiring a “beater” motorcycle for winter riding since it has low monetary value. The premise being, if you fall while winter riding, damage to your machine is a low-value loss. Further, a low-value bike reduces your worries of exposing your bike to road salt and other harsh elements.
The other approach is to ride a motorcycle best suited for handling winter conditions. A motorcycle with ABS and traction control can better handle the reduced traction found on winter roads. Having a robust electrical system will support better lighting for the increased darkness of shorter days, along with easier starting and power for electric riding gear to keep you warm. Low fairings or at least a windshield can help protect you from the cold wind.
Simply put, it’s better to ride the best bike you can afford and take good care of it if you’re hoping to experience safer and more comfortable winter motorcycle rides.
3. Use winter motorcycle gear
Perhaps you’re planning to use the bike you’ve already got to ride during winter. Making some improvements to your motorcycle can help to keep you safer while riding through this season. Here are some winter updates to consider:
Winter motorcycle tires: For cars driven in winter, you can find studded tires and a variety of all-season radials or winter-rated tires. For motorcycles, it’s a different story. While there are a few winter or snow tires made globally, they are rarely available in the United States and come in limited sizes. Studded tires for ice racing are available but are not street worthy. There’s good and bad news when it comes to winter motorcycle tires. The good news is that the thread compound is designed to be sticky below about 40º F. The bad—above 40º F they’re less effective than normal tires and can deteriorate rapidly.
Windshield: Windshields can do wonders to keep the frigid wind off your body. If you own a touring motorcycle, you likely have one already. If not, there’s a wide range of aftermarket windshields available for almost every type of motorcycle.
Handlebar-mounted thermometer: Seeing ambient temperature while riding in the winter is a great way to maintain awareness of your hypothermia and frostbite risk. Remember to factor in wind chill. Thermometers can be helpful all year long too. Summer heat, which we miss during the cold, has its own risks.
4. Avoid riding a motorcycle in the snow
Winter motorcycle riding begs the question, “Can you ride a motorcycle in the snow?” While there are some exceptions, like trail riding on specially prepared adventure motorcycles, or living somewhere like Finland or Canada, the simple answer is no. Acceleration, leaning to turn, and braking all require traction that is provided by two small contact patches on a motorcycle. Snow, even in small accumulations, will quickly zero out your traction.
Additionally, falling snow can rapidly cover your face shield and windshield if you have one, leaving your visibility compromised. If there is even a remote possibility of snowfall in the area you plan to ride in, stay home. After snow falls, allow ample time for the roads to be cleared and consider taking a four-wheeled vehicle for a reconnaissance drive before getting your motorcycle back out there.
5. Check temperatures before riding your bike in winter
Even when the skies are clear and blue and there’s been no snow or other winter precipitation for many days, we still must contend with cold temperatures that make winter riding unique. So you ask, “How cold is too cold to ride my motorcycle?”
Here are several important factors for cold weather motorcycle riding:
Wind chill: Wind chill is the effect of rapidly moving air to reduce the felt temperature and its impact on you. What feels like a warm winter day while standing in your driveway properly dressed for a winter ride will be much colder on the road. Here’s an example: An ambient air temperature of 40º F with a road speed of 65 mph translates to a wind chill factor of 24º F. Exposed skin at 24º F can develop frostbite. Here are some warning signs:
Feeling very cold
Experiencing tingling, itching, or burning sensations
Displaying unusual joint clumsiness
Hypothermia: While exposed to subfreezing temperatures, you’re at risk of developing hypothermia. This life-threatening condition occurs when your body’s core temperature falls below 95º F. Here are some early signs of hypothermia you should be aware of:
Feeling numb and weak
Reduction of fine motor control
Loss of consciousness
Dangerous temperature ranges: As a rule, temperatures below freezing (32º F) are high risk. Depending on where you plan to ride, a higher temperature can still present a high-risk ride. For example, 50º F in a valley may be fine, but riding up a mountain at greater elevation can result in dramatic drops in temperature. Temperatures can drop rapidly after sunset, too, so it’s important to consider the time of day you’ll be riding to stay safe and ride comfortably.
6. Wear cold-weather motorcycle clothing
Wearing all your gear for every ride is best for your safety. This is doubly true in the winter. You should have two main goals in choosing and wearing your cold-weather motorcycle clothing. First is to maintain core temperature to avoid hypothermia. Second is to keep extremities from exposure to cold air.
Winter motorcycle gloves: Winter-rated gloves are an absolute necessity to protect your hands. They should both block the wind and have insulation to hold in warmth. It’s a balancing act to find warm gloves that’ll also provide good feel at the controls. Consider using electric gloves that plug into your bike’s electrical system. Don’t assume that heated grips can replace the need for winter riding gloves.
Helmet with face shield: Your face and eyes must be protected from the cold blast of winter wind at road speed. Vision is your most powerful tool in managing all the hazards faced during a ride. The skin on your face is delicate and can develop frostbite quickly, especially the nose and ears.
Layering: Layer cold-weather motorcycle clothing and avoid gaps where the layers overlap. Use a base layer that wicks away sweat. We do sweat in winter which makes you cold faster. Next up, include a street layer you’re comfortable removing at rest stops. If you use electric riding gear, put that on over the street layer and under an insulating layer. Last is a layer that provides crash protection and stops the wind.
7. Start your motorcycle before riding in the winter
While riding your motorcycle on a regular basis over the winter removes the need for storage preparation, don’t forget that winter presents challenges for your beloved motorcycle.
Cold weather can have a dramatic effect on the mechanics of your bike. Here’s what you should consider:
Starting: In cold temperatures, battery performance declines and the viscosity of motor oil increases. Cold motors need more energy to turn the starter and move internal engine parts sitting in thicker oil. If your battery is getting old, plan on replacing it with one that has enough cold cranking amps (CCA). Your owner’s or service manual should provide a CCA rating.
Lubrication: The standard specification for the viscosity of your motorcycle’s oil is typically based on three-season riding. Your owner’s or service manual will have specifications for changing the viscosity of the oil for colder weather based on expected temperature ranges. Changing the motor oil to correspond with the normal range of winter temperatures can help your motor maintain optimal performance.
Warm-up time and performance: Prior to beginning a winter ride, warm up your bike’s motor. This heats the oil and circulates through the top of the motor, helping to protect the high-stress components. This is especially important for motors that are built with different metals for different components—they heat up at different rates. An example would be an air-cooled bike with iron cylinders and aluminum heads. While gasket separation is not that common, it does happen, and a warm-up period helps protect your motor’s service life and performance.
Idling without riding: If you decide not to ride your bike for an extended period in the winter, you might wonder, “Does it benefit my bike to just run it without riding?” The answer, “Not really.” In fact, it could do more harm than good. Internal combustion produces byproducts, one of which is H2O. While that’s not harmful for the environment, it’s not good in your motorcycle’s systems. We’ve all seen water dripping from car mufflers in morning winter traffic (a great source for black ice). That water collects in an idling motorcycle’s exhaust system and causes rust. Byproducts of combustion can also contaminate your motor oil, promoting corrosion. Idling just can’t be trusted to get your motorcycle up to normal operating temperature. Some riders won’t start their motorcycle unless it can be ridden a minimum of 30 miles or more.
8. Practice winter motorcycle safety
An underlying thread in our winter riding discussion is motorcycle safety. Safety starts with planning ahead and knowing your personal limits. That said, there are some good habits you can build into your rides to make them safer during winter:
Make frequent stops: You’ll surely get cold and stiff after some time in the saddle, so plan some stops along your route. Look for places that offer warm food and a comfortable place to take off your outer layers and warm up.
Fuel your body: Eat food that provides sustained energy for your body, like protein and complex carbohydrates. Avoid alcohol, sugar, simple carbohydrates, and junk food that can cause you to crash in more ways than one.
Check on fellow riders: If you’re riding with a passenger or other riders, think about their well-being. You might feel warm and ready for more miles but remember to check on them often to see if they feel the same.
Set riding goals: Set a mileage and time goal for your rides to get home before the sunset.
Whether or not you decide to ride your motorcycle during winter is a matter of personal choice, but be aware of the risks associated with doing so, do some extra planning, wear the right gear, use common sense, and ride cautiously and safely.