It is possible, and even fun, to ride a motorcycle in cold weather. I have been riding often at temperatures as low as 50 and in a few occasions as low as freezing temperatures. Some hardcore bikers out there may laugh at it, as some of them have been riding at times much colder than that, but keep in mind that I don’t like to use electric vests, my bikes don’t have windshields, and I don’t like to dress up like an astronaut.
Most people park their motorcycles when temperatures dip, but you can safely – and comfortably – ride in colder temperatures than you might believe, if you prepare properly. You can ride in temperatures below freezing safely and even comfortably, but you have to dress properly. An extended ride in cold weather can get you into trouble if you are not prepared.
To plan for a ride in frigid conditions, it’s important to understand how your body deals with cold. The prime directive of your body’s warmth-management system is to protect the brain and other vital organs. It will therefore direct warmth to those areas at the expense of other less critical parts, notably the extremities. If your hands and feet start to get cold, it may be because your body is using its resources to heat the more important components. On the other hand, if you make sure your head and torso are protected from wind and well-warmed, your hands are likely to stay warm with fewer layers.
A wind-chill chart. such as this this one from the National Weather Service, can give you some idea of what you are up against. You can see how dramatically the air moving over your skin sucks away your body’s warmth. Therefore you should make busting the breeze a prime consideration.
How I do it
I use a full helmet, protect my neck with a scarf or bandana, and wear ski undergarments under regular pants and jacket. The gloves I use are thermal protecting. The neck area should be thoroughly covered, since blood circulates through it between your brain and your vital organs.
On cold rides, inserting the thermal liner and an additional layer or two underneath the regular riding jacket keeps me comfortable, and a ski jacket keeps me comfortable in nearly freezing temperatures.
One of the problems you will encounter in cold weather is a fogged face shield. If it’s cold enough, the fog will turn to frost. I like to wash the face shields in warm water and polish them with some shampoo or hand soap to prevent fogging.
What if you get caught in the cold unexpectedly? One of the reader’s tips we receive most frequently is the old trick of putting newspaper under your jacket for insulation.
If you start to get cold, get inside and drink something warm. Stay there until you are warm again. Once you become thoroughly chilled, your ability to control the bike will deteriorate. As cold permeates your body and hypothermia sets in, you will get clumsy and then stupid (or stupider).
I don’t ride in snow
Riding on snow requires you to slow down, be very smooth, and allow plenty of distance to stop. Make ultragentle inputs with brakes, clutch, steering and throttle. Make sure no one is following too closely. Falling down at low speed on a slick surface probably won’t hurt you, but if the car behind you can’t stop or doesn’t know how, it will be nasty. Also, don’t expect drivers to recognize how precarious things are. Falling snow will make you harder to see and they will cut you off, turn in front of you, and stop without warning. Unless it’s a light, brief snow or you are close to home, head for the closest motel or eatery, or the quickest way out of the storm.
The other hazard of cold weather is ice. Watch out for those bridges that freeze before the roads do, and be alert for black ice in shady areas. You also have to watch for sand placed in corners to deal with the ice, and salt all over the place. It’s a nasty situation with very high potential for accidents, so when it snows I consider it an emergency situation for a biker.