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7 Tips for Winter Motorcycle Riding

Author's 2002 Suzuki V-Strom DL1000, ugly but winter friendly
Author’s 2002 Suzuki V-Strom DL1000, ugly but winter friendly

Cold-Weather Motorcycle Riding Tips

In March of 2010, I attended the Cornerspeed roadracing school at Virginia International Raceway. The weather was unseasonably warm, so instead of trucking the track bike there,  I decided to pilot my long-distance sport-tourer there, a  ’98 Honda VFR800.

The trip south from Northeast Pennsylvania was without issue; I rode out almost 600 miles on a desolate path, stripped the bike down of touring necessities, and had some fun at VIR. But the ride home was much, much different when winter’s soul silently crept up on me.

About 100 miles from home, a cold front moved through, and the temps plummeted into the 20s. Heavy winds began, and then came the snow. I was in a full Weise cold-weather riding gear, but failed miserably in all other preparations, such as base layers and a fog-free shield. My sweat quickly proved cold, and my fingertips were almost sacrificed due to minor hypothermia.

Details aside, I ended up in the bathroom of a Turkey Hill for almost two hours, wasting loads of electricity trying to heat my phalanges and dry my boots. Only about an hour from home at this moment, I stupidly continued with snow falling with absolutely no feeling in my fingers, and enough distractions to create dire devastation.

Luckily, though, I made it. A hot bath and two bottles of Syrah later, everything registered. I realized I made a stupid decision, and wondered how those 60+ mph winds didn’t launch me off the side of the highway. But instead of deciding against riding during the winter months, I began searching for the things that would allow me to safely and warming ride when dead-man winter raises his anti-motorcycling head.

Nearly four years later of riding 12 months a year, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Wear Correct Motorcycle Gear in a Layering Fashion

Riding comfortably in cold weather begins with correct gear choice, and it’s all about layering. Base Layers (full leg, full sleeve), such as those offered by UnderArmour and many motorcycle apparel companies, are a must. Even while riding we sweat, and the base layers allow our skin to breath, wicking away moisture. This helps sweat evaporate rather than turning to cold perspiration on the body. I also don socks that wick away moisture.

For most conditions in the 20s or teens, I simply wear a zip-up fleece with a neck collar over my base layers, which helps create an insulating barrier. If things get cooler, I always have another mid-layer, such as a snug wool button up, but it’s rarely used.

Next is your outer gear; I swear by Gore-Tex due to the waterproofing and breathability, and my usual winter suit is either my Klim Badlands setup, or my Weise Explorer setup. As for boots, again, Gore-Tex. Most of my winter riding is completed on my 2002 Suzuki V-Strom adventure tourer, and though they don’t have the full grip I prefer for such riding, my favorite boots are the Alpinestars 365 Gore-Tex series. To compensate, I added grippier riding pegs.

There are two gloves I swear by for winter riding – the Klim Element in  short cuff (think like a skier, and put the jacket over the glove for true waterproofing), and the Held Freezer Glove. I bring the Held Freezer Glove for backup, though the Explorer does everything needed. Some wear glove base layers, but with heated grips, this isn’t needed.

Next is a neck warmer, such as an Aerostich Windstopper, and a tightly-sealed helmet with a fog-free faceshield. Fog free is absolutely necessary. My favorite winter lid is the Shoei Neotec modular helmet, though I use a bit of insulation to plug the huge, upper-front vent, but keep the rear ventilation vent open so the head doesn’t sweat.

As for heated gear, I’ve tried it, but am not a fan. Simple layering keeps the core hot, and as long as that core is protected from direct wind, things remain comfortable. Though the technology much of today’s electric-heated gear is top notch, there’s possibility of failure. I stick with gear, thank you.

2. Proper Motorcycle Prep for Winter Riding

When my V-Strom is set up for winter riding, it’s one ugly son of a bitch. But this is futile, considering I’m out riding while most are suffocating in their cars.

The basics needed for cold-weather riding arrives at element protections, such as a huge windscreen, and handguards. I also crafted some awkward aluminum windguards that I put on my Touratech crash bars to keep wind off the legs, but both were ripped off during a spirited ride.

My V-Strom, and my VFR, both sport heated grips. There are many aftermarkets available (Hot Grips, Bike Master), and installation is simple.

Also, if your bike is water-cooled, make sure the antifreeze is fresh (should be changed yearly anyway), and its mixed properly. Also make sure all hoses are in great shape. Nothing can be more devastating than a busted radiator or hose when miles away from home.

Adventure-style riding pegs are also a great addition. My V-Strom uses Touratech’s Rallye Foot Pegs, and they provide optimal grip regardless of how slick conditions get.

3. Cold Weather Equals Colder Tires

It’s that simple – cold weather means colder tires. And as everyone should now, cold tires equate to limited traction. Riding helps increase heat in the tire, but even the briefest stop can quickly cool the tires down, providing lack of traction.

While on this subject, let’s also discuss how you get heat in your tires. Many riders sway back and fourth like a NASCAR driver, but simply put, this is a waste of time. To truly get heat in the tires, accelerate and decelerate quickly for a bit, obviously being aware of traction. Hard on brakes to hard on the throttle puts heat in tires more quickly than riding like some redneck. Plus swaying looks stupid.

Also, make sure you have adequate tread on your tires for winter riding. Penny pinching on tires is about as stupid as penny pinching on the quality of a motorcycle helmet, and this is truer-than-ever in winter-motorcycling scenarios. It may snow, and you’ll need to channel water/snow more than ever on wet roads that are cold.

And check your tire pressure; I check mine religiously before every ride. This is more than crucial during the winter months when optimal traction is needed.

4. Watch for Salt, Fresh Cracks due to Plows and Black Ice

Salt is not only an enemy to metal, but also traction. Treat salt like ice; if you see crystalized appearances on the side of the road, stay away. I low-sided my V-Strom once due to the age-old fault of getting into a sharp corner too quick. I was forced to run too much lean angle, and my front tire quickly washed out. It was winter, though, and I slid into a snow bank, walking away unharmed.

Also remember that those plow trucks destroy roads, causing new cracks, sometimes huge and able to chew up rims. Once again remember to run correct tire pressure; you don’t want to bend a rim or pinch a tube.

And black ice. If it even remotely looks like ice, stay away.

While on the subject of salt, remember that motorcycles weren’t designed for winter riding. Like salt from the ocean, motorcycles can quickly succumb to rust. I have a car wash less than a mile away. Whenever the sun is out and the roads are clear, I give my bike a thorough wash to free it off as much salt as possible. This is a great time to further inspect your bike.

5. Increase Visibility and Following Distance

While riding in the winter, increase your visibility and space. Increasing visibility simply means looking further down the road, helping you recognize hazards before they occur.  Increased visibility allows you to react to a potential threat well in advanced, and this is more than needed in winter when traction is limited from the cold roads. My rule of thumb is always looking 15 seconds ahead.

As for following distance, open it up. I maintain a few car lengths of space ahead of me, allowing me to react to hazards, such as cars ahead stopping, or being able to see something on the road.

Riding on a car’s ass is completely stupid, and I’ve witness even the most experienced riders doing this. Just think for a moment; in optimally-dry conditions, it takes an experience rider about 85 feet to stop a bike traveling at 35 mph. An average car is around 16 feet, so it would take about five car lengths to stop. Do the math…and of course, the faster you’re riding, the more distance you should maintain.

6. Have a Motorcycle-Specific Towing Service

Accidents happen, and are more likely to happen in cold-weather riding due to, once again, lack of traction. Make sure you have a towing service that is readily available; nothing can get a rider out of the sport faster than wasting a few hundred miles on a tow.

A fateful member of the American Motorcyclist Association, I have the organizations Roadside Assistance. And the best part? It arrives as a comp with my yearly membership. The AMA’s Roadside Service company’s usually tow motorcycles, too, so there’s a better chance your bike won’t end up on its side atop some flatbed.

Motorcycle Insurance Discounts

7. Don’t be a Dummy; If Snow Starts Falling, Get Home

The title says it all. If it begins snowing, get home. The white stuff can accumulate quickly, providing the slickest conditions.

Keep an eye on the forecasts, and if there’s even a threat of major snow, keep the bike home. Or buy a kit to create some studded snow tires. In controlled environments, riding on snow/ice can become quite an addiction. Plus, it’ll allow you to further build skill for riding in normal weather.

Riding in the winter can be challenging, but these tips will allow motorcyclists to garner more miles throughout colder months.  Though a resident of Pennsylvania, I typically ride about 30,000 miles on my bikes  – and winter riding makes this possible.

Have any winter-riding tips you’d like to share? Share them here; the more tips, the safer we’ll all be while motorcycling in the winter.

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  • http://ultimatemotorcycling Larry Cohen

    I’m sorry, but heated clothing, particularly a vest or jacket liner, far outperform any combination of normal layering. Yes, bring along extra proper layers just in case but not to use heated gear because of the remote possibilty of trouble is like saying we should all have kick starters because a starter motor might fail. I consider it a safety item that allows you to ride with proper focus and dexterity.

    • J. Rocket

      Speed is another factor that isn’t talked about much. It’s much easier to stay warm at 45 mph than at 75 mph. As speed increases, wind protection becomes increasingly important. I have a couple of bikes, and the ones with more wind protection go deeper into the fall/winter, while the sport bike stays home.

  • http://www.advgrrls.com Leslie S.

    Oh I so have to disagree with you about heated gear…too much layering can equal bulk which equates to unsafe riding. Heated gear allows for lean layering which equates to safe riding, better shoulder checks, mobility and with heat equal distribution of heat around the body and hands. Even more so with heated pant liners and inner soles. Core body temperature much easily to regulate.

    Preparing for a possible failure of heated gear is imperative when riding in the colder months, but used as a back up. As Larry said heated gear with the technology of today totally allows for better dexterity and alertness.

  • Ron Lieback

    Hello Leslie,

    Thanks for the reading! As I mentioned, I layer very small – UnderArmour, a fleece and my jacket. That’s all – no bulk whatsoever. And I’ve used this setup successfully for well over a decade of cold-weather riding, sometimes in the teens and single digits. But this is me; I have loads of fellow riders that use heated gear – and some of it is really, really good. I just have no use for it, especially considering I do most of my winter riding on an ADV bike, and I’m usually working up a sweat while riding.

    Heated gear would be optimal for riding a bike with no protection, such as a cruiser without a windscreen.

    But for me, I’ve been completely fine with a base layer, a fleece and my actual riding jacket/pants.

    Best,

    -Ron

  • Anonymous

    Watch for paint lines and railroad tracks when the road is wet. Go easy on turns over these surfaces.

  • Josh

    Ron,
    I also have a DL1000 and my question is about your set up. Did you make that windscreen or buy it? The spoilers mounted next to the windscreen? AND finally, I am curious about the aluminum spoilers that were on the crash bars. I have several different windscreens and I can’t say that I have a favorite among them.

    • Ron Lieback

      Hey Josh,

      This is an older photo of my DL1000; it was a homemade upper screen with some Laminar extensions next to the windscreen. As for the aluminum spoilers, they were simply a folded piece of thin aluminum that were crafted to mount to the fairing bolt.

      I use the stock windscreen in the summer months, and a GIVI touring screen in the winter. The GIVI is by far my favorite, and keeps all cold air from reaching me. For a pictures of my V-Strom in its current form, check this link out: https://ultimatemotorcycling.com/2012v-strom-dl1000-touratech-accessories-review/

      Let me know if I can assist any further!

      Best,

      Ron

  • http://N/A Nate Cash

    I’ll add a couple of Ninja tips I learned in the past two seasons of riding.

    Bring an extra pair of gloves, those waterproof 10,000 nanotechnology with water shedding robots may not be up to par when the temp is hovering around freezing. Also pack a couple of hand warmers in case your electric gloves decide to quit working during your 2 hour drive to Ft Wayne in -10*F weather.

    Speaking of cold, stop more often and drink hot beverages to warm up. hypothermia sneaks up fast. A can of lock de-icer in the middle of nowhere is better than trying to pull your 1″ junk through 5″ of clothing and trying to aim on the lock.

    I also keep a rag in the tank bag to wipe off any spray from the visor.

  • Randy O

    I have to disagree with the reasons for cracks in the road surface, its not heavy trucks, is cold weather, frost heaving that cracks the roads in winter, but that makes no difference, cracks are still there

    sometimes I layer, sometimes I use heated gear, I’m learning with high tech fabrics, layering is not any bulkier than heated gear and more reliable

    brake calipers really like to be cleaned with a can of CRC Brakleen or similar product after a ride

    Don’t work up a sweat before you begin your ride, if you have to do physical work to get your bike out, do it before you get dressed for the ride, starting a ride all hot and sweaty is a popcycle waiting to happen

    Studded tires can keep you upright is pretty bad conditions, if your serious about riding in any conditions, consider going to the darkside, believe it or not, they make car tires designed for extreme winter conditions

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  • Alex

    AMA. Yeah, I loved my roadside service until I needed a tow 2 miles for a minor tip over (clutch snapped off). They charged me full price for the tow. I let my membership lapse and use BMWMOA now.

    • Don Williams

      Your clutch snapped off? That must have been some tip over! 😉

      So, why did the AMA roadside service not cover you?

      • Ron Lieback

        Yeah, I’m confused on why the AMA’s service didn’t cover you either. I used it twice for the motorcycle (one massively bent rim, the other a bad stator), and didn’t have an issue. One time was about 800 miles from home. I also used it last year for a broken-down car without issue.

  • Joseph Musumeci

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

    I don’t, personally agree with your assessment of heated gear, but I’m a winter commuter, so I do a lot of highways rides in sub freezing. I did, however, do my first two years of year round riding before I could afford heated gloves, so I discovered two tricks that really helped: surgical gloves, carried as a backup, or worn regularly as a base layer, because dry hands are warm hands, and ANY glove can fail; and making sure that your glove (many do) has a “squeegy” for your visor built into the thumb on the left hand… because while the precipitation may not be sticking or even slick enough to coat the road, it can still build up on a visor and obscure visibility, especially if you are getting spray from a car off the street.

    I love the Klim suit, and may get it this year, (I wear a First gear weather suit now) but for those first years, my “cold gear” consisted of my regular riding jacket (Meteor 4, I think) with the lining in, over a couple of micro-fiber and fleece layers, with the bottom being handled by a (forgive me) pair of quilted hunting coveralls I bought from Wal-mart. They were padded, insulated, waterproof, and cheap, and I wore my shin and knee armour underneath. I used to use the anti-fog spray, because no visor I found really held up for long, but the new “pinlock” inserts on HJC helmets seem to work GREAT. (I also find the amber insert great for night driving in the winter.)

    I’m in MD, on the NW border with PA, so we get our share of winter weather, and I love being able to two-wheel it through all but the worst.

    • Ron Lieback

      Hello Joseph,

      Thanks for reading and sharing some great tips. I agree on the “squeegy” being a necessity for riding in the cold temps. As for the Pinlock inserts, from my experience, they are the only true devices that provide a true fog-free lens. I’ll also try the amber insert this winter; I’ll report back afterwards!

      It’s nice to have a cold-weather rider so near; I’m sure I’ll be taking a few treks down south this winter, so let’s get together for a ride. Email me at onlineeditor@ultimatemotorcycling.com, and maybe we can ride together while the others let their bikes hibernate 🙂

      – ed

  • Michel Keidel

    I ride my Genuine Stella scooter all year. I don’t have a fancy Kilm suit but I do have a armored jacket and plenty of layers. The best thing I have is the Tucano Urbano turbo scud/lap blanket that they use all over Europe.It keeps my legs & core warm no matter what. People look at me like I’m insane, I don’t mind, I ride a scooter remember.

  • Tarzanman

    I disagree with your assessment of heated gear. Although it is not absolutely necessary for your core (especially if you have a windscreen), there is not a glove in the world that will keep your fingers warm at 25ºF and 50+ mph while you sit sedentary upon a motorcycle.

    For those of us on naked bikes or sportbikes, heated gloves (and perhaps a jacket) will keep you comfortable enough to keep your mind on topics other than how cold it is outside. Heated gear is simply an inner layer and it not robust enough to be used by itself.

    Like Joseph, I commute in the winter, albeit in a climate which has very mild winters (Georgia).

    • Keil Miller Jr

      Rode by naked zx7 today. Wore my thick work gloves. Hands were fine. Weather.com says 31F feels like 24F. When it’s a little colder and I ride an hour away, I wear thin work gloves underneath my thick work gloves. Totally fine. Ride length can determine how cold you get. Riding a half hour in the cold is totally different than an hour or more.

      Important to note winter techniques. Mainly, take corners real slow and don’t accelerate. When in doubt, throttle out. Last thing you need when you loose traction is to get traction real quick when your ass end is out to the side. It will snap you faster than a snap bracelet.

      • Ron Lieback

        Thanks for the tips, Keil! And I agree with ride length..I didn’t quite prepare for a short 50-mile ride last week (no base layers), and it was miserable. The week before, though, I rode much longer in much colder temps, but was fully prepped. Let’s say I had a much-better experience.

  • sunyjim

    Hikers say cotton kills. It doesn’t wick, and once damp it just doesn’t work
    http://sectionhiker.com/why-does-cotton-kill/

  • NorthStar

    Good write up. I am surprised that you don’t run bar mittens. I live in MN and ride all winter and use vented MX gloves down to 0*F with no problems. (No heated grips)

    By the way, a bottle of corrosion inhibitor goes a long way.

  • seth

    I live in ohio and ride a naked sportbike all year. The weather hit -7F last year without factoring in a windchill, much less a 65 mph wind chill. On top of this I have a 40 mile commute to work. An important note about layers, more does NOT equal better, you can’t just put all the clothes you own on and expect to keep warm. What matters is how well you can create pockets of air between your base layer and outer layer. Think like bubble wrapping something to ship. And as others have said, always carry some sort of plastic, it can save your digits in a worst case scenario! Last thing, merino wool is the best fabric I have ever found for base layers, synthetics like under armour pale in comparison to nature. Safe ridings!

    • Ron Lieback

      Thanks for the tips, seth! My father still swears by merino wool as an underlayer, but I’ll stick with my UnderArmour; it has never let me down. Safe travels!

  • Scott Conley

    I have a Vic Hammer, I usually ride when I feel like it cold or warm. Base layers absolutely. Use the Heated gear for comfort, but do not rely on it exclusively. I keep some small emergency blankets in my side panels on both sides of my bike for emergency cold conditions IE… Yesterday it was 50 in the morning and 27 by dark getting colder throughout the day. If you have emergency blankets you can wrap your core and arms under your jacket. Not ideal, but it keeps you focused on the road. Great article, this one should never expire.