Riding a motorcycle in the winter can be treacherous. The risks are even higher during the colder months, with icy roads, limited visibility, and frigid temperatures. While more motorcycle accidents happen during warmer seasons, this is mainly because there are more bikes on the roads when the weather is nice.
But with the right preparation and heightened vigilance, motorcyclists can stay safe even when the temperature drops. This guide provides tips to help you maneuver the hazards of winter riding.
Winter motorcycle riding requires you to carefully consider your risk versus benefit assessment before deciding to ride.
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 to three seconds. While this works well in the warm season for attentive riders, consider increasing this distance in the winter. 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.
Choosing the right bike: There are different schools of thought about what a winter motorcycle should be:
At one end of the spectrum is the approach that suggests acquiring a “beater” motorcycle for winter riding since it has low monetary value. The premise being, if you fall while winter riding, damage to your machine is a low-value loss. Further, a low-value bike reduces your worries of exposing your bike to road salt and other harsh elements.
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.
There’s merit to both approaches. Either way, take good care of your bike if you’re hoping to experience safer and more comfortable winter motorcycle rides.
When the temperature drops, having the right gear can make the difference between an enjoyable ride and a bone-chilling endurance test. The key is layering pieces that provide insulation while blocking wind and moisture. Here are some tips for outfitting yourself and your motorcycle to stay warm and safe on the road when the weather turns frosty:
Choose a moisture-wicking base layer as the foundation for warmth.
Layer clothes for flexibility - base layer, street clothes, heated gear, insulating layers, jacket/chaps/suit.
Use a helmet with a tight neck seal and chin curtain. Add a balaclava.
Protect hands with insulated, well-fitting gloves and thermal liners.
Use waterproof, roomy winter boots with thick socks and liners.
Try electrically heated gear like vests, gloves, and socks for added warmth.
Opt for windproof, waterproof, abrasion-resistant jacket/pants/gloves.
Equip your bike with a windshield, heated grips/seat, and hand guards.
Riding a motorcycle during cold weather months intensifies hazards compared to other seasons. From deteriorated road conditions to reduced traction, threats to safety abound for motorcyclists once the temperature drops. Here's what to be aware of:
Winter wreaks havoc on road surfaces. From icy patches to gaping potholes, the condition of pavement can become highly unpredictable and treacherous for motorcycles when the weather turns cold. Here are road conditions to be aware of during winter riding:
Black ice is a dangerous winter road hazard, especially for motorcyclists. It forms when temperatures rise above and then quickly drop below freezing, leaving a thin, clear sheet of ice on the road. Unlike snow, black ice is almost impossible to see, so it catches riders off guard. Here are some tips for dealing with this invisible threat:
Reduce speed and avoid sudden braking or acceleration when conditions are ripe for black ice.
If you do hit a patch, don't overreact. Gently decelerate and steer straight until you regain traction.
Equip your motorcycle with winter tires designed to grip slick surfaces. These can dramatically improve stability.
Stay vigilant for conditions conducive to black ice formation:
Air temperatures below freezing after a mild spell
Moisture present from rain, fog, sleet, and wet snow
Puddles on the roadway
Shady areas and bridges freeze before roads
Adjust your riding style to account for potential hidden black ice. Ride cautiously and be prepared to respond appropriately if you lose traction.
Black ice isn’t the only road hazard to be aware of during colder months. Other changing road conditions can also catch motorcyclists off guard. Here's what else to keep an eye out for during winter motorcycle riding:
Salt and sand: Roads are often treated with salt, sand, and other chemicals to melt ice and snow. These substances can reduce traction on surfaces, especially for two-wheeled vehicles, as well as corrode metal parts on your motorcycle.
Potholes: Freeze/thaw cycles over the winter cause roads to expand and contract, forming large potholes. Hitting an unseen pothole can easily throw you off balance or damage your bike.
Frost heaves: When water under the road freezes and expands, it can create bumps called frost heaves. Going over them at speed can unsettle your motorcycle and traction.
Tar snakes: Cracks in the road are often sealed with patches of tar called tar snakes. In cold weather, these can rise up and become slippery bumps.
Snowplow grooves: Plows used to clear snow leave behind uneven grooves and ridges on the road surface. These present an unpredictable traction pattern for motorcycles.
Frostbite is damage caused to skin and tissue from extreme cold. It's a serious risk for motorcyclists exposed to frigid winds and temperatures while riding in the winter. Here are some tips to avoid frostbite dangers:
Watch for early symptoms like numbness, stinging, and changed skin color in extremities like fingers, toes, ears, and nose. Discoloration may appear white, grey, yellow, or blue.
Take frequent breaks to warm up inside a building or vehicle. Limit rides to 30–45 minutes if temps are below freezing.
Insulate your torso, head, and neck to keep blood circulating to vulnerable extremities.
Use high-quality winter gloves and boots. Heated versions provide extra protection for hands and feet.
Keep gear snug but not constricting. Tight clothing can reduce blood flow.
Avoid touching cold metal parts of your motorcycle with bare skin.
Carry chemical warm packs in case you need emergency warming.
If frostbite occurs, gently rewarm the affected area and seek medical attention to avoid permanent damage.
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*Data accuracy is subject to this article's publication date.