Riding a motorcycle year-round is no easy task. Impossible in some places. However, a lot can be learned about staying warm and what not to do from those who brave the cold and wet of winter atop two wheels. And with that, I share some advice following a cross-country motorcycle ride in the depths of December that took me across Arkansas, through Texas, then directly west into New Mexico, Arizona, and eventually the Golden State, where I consumed some long-awaited Christmas cookies. Hopefully these insights help you prepare for your cold ride, or whatever you’re doing outside in the winter.
Start With Your Extremities…
Your fingers freeze first. In the spring and summer when temperatures are warmer, your body pushes blood to the surface, increasing heat loss. When it’s cold, however, your body constricts the same blood vessels that dilated on your sticky summer ride. This works well for preserving the body around the essentials: heart, lungs, and brain. But it’s no good for the small bits and pieces (fingers, toes, etc.) that rely on blood flow for warmth. That being the case, keeping your extremities warm is essential. An inability to operate a clutch lever and other controls can spell disaster on a motorcycle.
As anyone who has ridden a motorcycle when it’s cold will tell you, the loss of warmth is accelerated parallel to the speed at which you’re traveling. And when that happens, small tasks become mountains to climb. Heated grips are a nice option (and not wildly expensive in the aftermarket), but if you don’t have that luxury, then windstop material and insulation are your best bet. Look for gloves that offer an inside/outside cuff that keeps cold and wet from finding their way up your sleeve. For your feet, tall wool socks like those from Smartwool in addition to Gore-Tex boots will keep the cold out for a while. Ultimately, if you sacrifice your extremities for additional layers elsewhere, I guarantee you’ll be stopping every hour for a hot cup of coffee to help bring feeling back into your fingers.
Head Cold, Everything Cold…
Helmets are crucial, but not all helmets are created equal when it comes to cold rides. Dual-sport and off-road helmets offer unequivocal ventilation, which is great when you’re climbing hills or romping through a sunny meadow. But when it’s cold, well, ventilation means ice cream headache. So a standard full-face helmet will do the trick, right? Sort of. The quieter the helmet, the more insulation it likely has. The tighter the fit, the less likely it will let air in, unless requested through venting.
A cold head is not only distracting, it’s dangerous. Headaches come quickly and your ability to make crucial decisions can be adversely affected. And while research suggests that warmer weather makes people “more likely to rely on simplistic patterns of decision-making, which in turn led to inferior choices,” it also taught us that as our bodies struggle to maintain a healthy internal temperature, they use up resources that would otherwise be available for mental processes. Therefore, we are less able to make complex decisions when we’re cold—we give up early, make mistakes, and avoid making decisions in the first place. Keeping your head from being cold is yet another crucial piece in the winter motorcycling puzzle.
Prepare For The Worst…
Riding across the country in the dead of winter is a dumb idea. With proper preparedness, however, it’s less dumb. For instance, be ready: for mechanical failure, inclement weather, navigational errors, and so on. Extra base layers are a good start. My favorites are the merino wool variety made by Finisterre (as well as a pair of Space Emergency Blankets). The ability to layer is essential, and merino wool long johns provide essential warmth at the bottom of what could be a big pile of clothing.
Additional items that we may have otherwise overlooked if this weren’t a winter motorcycle adventure? Rechargeable cellphone battery packs, an assortment of maps that “could” guide our way if our offline Google Maps are unavailable, headlamps and spare batteries, snacks, and a small pack of disposable hand warmers. Also, the Hotel Tonight app, which allows you to book a hotel room, last minute, with the simple swipe of your thumb—a lifesaver when you decide to stay somewhere unexpectedly.
A 10-degree drop (Fahrenheit) can make all the difference. Check the weather before you go, if you don’t have to stay an extra night if it’s going to be below your comfort level. We learned from early morning exits that the difference between 45 and 55 degrees meant we were either freezing for an hour or ready to ride. If you’re not going too far, leave a little later and let it warm up.
You Can’t Stay Warm When Everything You Own Is Wet…
It’s easy to be swayed by the stylings of Instagram motorcycle celebrities. With their three-quarter helmets and bubble visors, skintight leather coats, and cushion-soled work boots that have acquired an envious patina. But none of what I just mentioned will help you stay warm. To be perfectly honest, I’m guilty of most of what I’ve mentioned. But again, when it comes to riding across the country in the heart of a western winter, waterproof and warm are what I’m after. The same logic about keeping yourself warm and dry also applies to how you carry everything you’re not wearing. Roll-top dry bags make sure all your accoutrements stay dry even in the most serious sprinkles.
Multiple bags (one inside the other) can work wonders as a second (and third) line of defense against the elements. Redundancy is all right when warmth is on the line. But what happens when things do get wet? Separation is essential. A lot of the modern motorcycle bags include waterproof liners that you roll and then stow inside another sack. We pack extras, which allows us to separate anything that might get wet from all the things that are not. An easy stop-gap is to pack a handful of gallon-size Ziploc bags, which can come in handy for several reasons. With so many companies making near-watertight, heavy-duty vinyl bags with fully sealed radio-frequency welded seams, it’s easy to avoid wet gear.
Small Goals And Mental Preparedness…
Being mentally prepared for the cold is almost as important as your physical ability to withstand it. As I mentioned earlier, when you’re cold, especially your extremities, small tasks can suddenly become monumental achievements. But if you turn miles into milestones, it’s often easier to get from A to B when the temperatures dip near freezing. Knowing there’s something warm awaiting you can often create a semi-euphoric feeling, relieving you of the impermanent pain associated with frozen fingers. Or so I keep telling myself. But it seems to work!
And that’s the trick: to quite literally trick yourself into accepting your circumstances because you know this feeling (or lack thereof) is only temporary. That said, don’t let the lack of feeling fool you. The early stages of hypothermia and frostbite can be achieved quite easily. If your fingers and toes go from cold to painful to numb, you’re well on your way to doing permanent nerve damage. And when those same conditions can be said of your core… Well, let’s hope it never gets to that.
Fundamentals And Final Thoughts…
Layers, heated gear (if available), wind management to reduce the rapid rate of heat loss, and small goals (more frequent stops to warm up) are the keys to keeping relatively warm when riding a motorcycle in the winter. Snacking and hydration are also crucial to keeping yourself from getting too cold. A full belly means your metabolism is hard at work, which increases blood flow and subsequently overall core body temperature. Additionally, dehydration causes an accumulation of cells to support a system that’s starving for fuel. An 8-ounce glass of water will go a long way to keeping you warm. And drinking room-temperature water will allow your body to process the H2O faster, hydrating you sooner.
Lastly, knowing when to call it quits is of the utmost importance. When your core temperature reaches 95 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re hypothermic. Your body will begin to shiver to generate heat, and you’ll likely be unable to do much of anything. As your core temp drops beyond that you’ll encounter muscle stiffness followed by involuntary contractions and confusion. Being aware of these symptoms is the first step to preventing them. Being a “tough guy” (or gal) is all too often associated with motorcycling, but being cold can kill you, so putting aside these attitudes in exchange for some basic knowledge could very well save your hide.