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Tips for riding your motorcycle in winter

Added November 23, 2020
Motorcycle in the snow

Many riders view motorcycling as a three-season activity. Once the first sign of a snowy forecast comes around, they start prepping for winter bike storage and wonder about the sanity of raiders who see winter riding as an invigorating experience.

There is reason to be cautious. Winter motorcycle riding has all 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 truly can be an 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 break the ice on winter riding—pun intended.

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 vs. benefit assessment before deciding to ride instead of winterizing the bike. 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 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 be as slippery as ice, 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 bleak barren landscape. Contrary to the assumption that it will stand out against snow, it won’t. This season, wearing brightly colored and reflective gear can help the problem of being invisible to other road users.

2. Review 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 for winter riding opens questions, not of brands, but of riding philosophy. At one end of the spectrum is the approach that suggests acquiring a beater motorcycle for winter riding since it’s got low monetary value. The premise being, if you fall while winter riding, damage to your machine is a low value loss. Further, this line of thought accepts neglect of the machine to winter wear by elements like road salt.

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: Cars can get rear-studded snow tires in winter and there are a wide variety of all-season radials or winter and snow-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. They 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 in 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-wheeler 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. So, 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
    • Developing numbness
    • Experiencing tingling, itching, or burning sensations
    • Displaying unusual clumsiness 
  • Hypothermia: While being 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. It is a life-threatening condition. Here are some symptoms of the onset of hypothermia you should be aware of:
    • Uncontrollable shivering
    • Feeling numb and weak
    • Reduction of fine motor control
    • Mental confusion
    • 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. Consider that 50º F in a valley may be fine but riding up a mountain at greater elevation can result in dramatic drops in temperature. Considering the possible temperatures not only where you plan to ride but also the time of day you’ll be riding—temperatures can drop rapidly after sunset—will help you stay safe and ride comfortably.

6. Wear cold-weather motorcycle clothing

Wearing all the gear all the time 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. 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. Heated grips may help, but they don’t replace the need for winter motorcycle 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 we face during our rides. The skin on your face is delicate and can get frostbite quickly, especially the nose and ears.
  • Layering: Layering cold-weather motorcycle clothing and paying attention to avoiding gaps where the layers overlap is vital. Use a base layer that wicks away sweat. We do sweat in winter and that can make you cold faster. Next up, include a street layer that 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—your hidden bonus—let’s not forget that winter presents challenges for our beloved motorcycles.

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 oils will increase. 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 used 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 its optimal performance.
  • Warm-up time and performance: Prior to beginning your winter rides, 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 is 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. This may be harder during the COVID-19 pandemic, so call ahead.
  • 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 in the winter is a matter of personal choice, but with some extra planning, the right gear, and some common sense, it’s possible to safely and comfortably ride your motorcycle during the winter. After all, more motorcycling is more joy. Share the good news!

Till next time, ride safe.

Related links:

Road hazards can be specific to seasonal weather changes. Before you take your bike out for a cold weather ride, review more winter road hazards so you can avoid them.