How to gear up for winter motorcycle riding

riding motorcycles in cold weatherYears of living in tropical and sub-tropical climates spoiled me. Being able to ride all year was easily taken for granted. Now that I’m nearly 40 degrees north of the equator, it’s a little more complicated.

But while most of my fellow riders around here surrender in November and don’t come out to play until May, I still use my motorcycles for transportation all winter, whenever possible. The sportbike is hooked up to life support on the battery maintenance charger, but the other two remain in duty.

When there’s no snow or ice to worry about, riding is simply a matter of being prepared. The attitude to adopt is: There’s no bad weather, just bad gear. Most of the following is common sense, and some is even common knowledge, maybe. But here’s a reminder of the basics for gearing up for cold weather motorcycle riding.

The basics: essential layers

Dressing in layers is always a good idea. For motorcyclists, doubly so. Layering up gives you the flexibility to subtract layers as needed on those days when the morning ride to work is 35 degrees and the afternoon ride home is 55 degrees.

You need three basic components: a base layer next to your skin, an insulating layer, and a weatherproof, waterproof shell. Fortunately, the modern materials in today’s gear provide great options for all three.

A Motorcyclist’s Wind Chill Chart
Temp. F 40 35 30 25 20 15 10
30 mph 28 22 15 8 1 -5 -12
40 mph 27 20 13 6 -1 -8 -15
50 mph 26 19 12 4 -3 -10 -17
60 mph 25 17 10 3 -4 -11 -19
The wind steals your warmth. Regular wind chill charts tell you what it feels like at 5 mph, but who rides at 5 mph? These are velocities you need to know. (Data source: National Weather Service)

Base layers have come a long way from your grandfather’s long underwear. Modern synthetic materials wick moisture away from your skin. It’s easy to break into a light sweat while walking around off the bike, even for a minute, and then feel a serious temperature drop once moving. A base layer that fits snugly and manages moisture is critical.

The second layer (or layers) is insulation. Insulation is the barrier that resists transmitting your precious body heat out into the cold, cruel world. Modern motorcycle jackets typically have a removable, insulated lining, but old standbys can be great, too. I have a favorite 100 percent wool sweater that I always turn to as an insulating layer on the coldest rides.

Finally, there’s your shell, the windproof, waterproof outer layer. Today’s waterproof textile riding jackets provide this weatherproof layer plus the abrasion resistance and body armor you need. If you prefer leather gear, then you’ll want to wear or at least carry a rain suit. On a 90-degree summer day, getting caught in a downpour may leave you uncomfortably soggy, but it won’t threaten your ability to ride. On a 40-degree day, however, getting wet can put you in danger very quickly. So even if you wear waterproof gear, carrying a rain suit is good insurance for two reasons: your textile gear could spring a leak 50 miles from home and, if you miscalculate the temperature,  a rain suit on top of other gear can make a surprising difference in keeping you warm.

Accessories make the outfit

balaclavaOur fashionista friends tell us that accessories make the outfit. That applies to function as well as fashion. Our other gear leaves one important spot, the neck, exposed to sub-freezing wind or, worse, a cold trickle of water down your back. I wear a balaclava under my helmet, which makes a surprising difference despite being thin. I also have a fleece neck roll for serious insulation. It also keeps drafts out of my helmet.

In addition to carrying a rainsuit for insurance, as mentioned above, an extra pair of gloves is wise, in case one gets wet or the temperature changes. Nobody can ride a motorcycle adeptly and safely with cold, stiff hands.

The next step: electrification

All of the gear mentioned above is meant to conserve body heat. If it’s cold enough or you’re out riding long enough, a time will come when your body can’t produce enough heat to keep you comfortable. In that scenario, the only way to keep riding is to add heat to the system, and that’s where electric gear comes in.

Electric gear can be on your bike (heated handgrips and heated seats) or on your body. The most basic piece is the heated vest, which is based on the principle that if your core is warm, your body will pump warm blood to your extremities. But if your core gets cold, the body will sacrifice the extremities to maintain the temperature of vital organs. Today, electric gear has moved far beyond the original vest to include heated pants, fully sleeved jacket liners, gloves, even boot innersoles.

How much of this can your motorcycle’s electrical system handle? Late-model, large-displacement motorcycles typically have plenty of generating capacity. If you’re in doubt, look up your motorcycle’s alternator output. For example, the alternator output on my Kawasaki Versys is 336 watts. Add up the wattage needed to run the lights, ECU, ignition, fuel pump and (occasionally) the cooling fan and I’m a little over 200 watts. The difference is how much I have left for heated gear. The manufacturers of electric gear can tell you how much power each one draws. Always leave a margin of error because your alternator output at idle could be as little as half the maximum figure you’ll find listed.

The advances in motorcycle gear in recent years have been impressive and considering what you get in terms of technical features, comfort and safety, the prices are low. The more serious you are about riding, the more serious you need to be about choosing the right gear to extend your riding season.

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