When people start acting like riding season is over, I always pity them. For one, it’s never winter everywhere. You can always head further south to escape the cold if you have the time. Riding motorcycles abroad is a treat, and the balmy climes of Central America are closer than you might think.
But even if you’re sticking close to home, cold weather doesn’t mean you can’t get out on your bike. It just means you need to change the way you ride. Beyond cold weather motorcycle maintenance and common winter riding hazards, like snow and ice on the road, there are a few things you can do to simply make yourself more comfortable on two wheels when the temps drop low.
1. Keep Your Dome Warm
Head protection is crucial on a motorcycle no matter the season, but winter brings a new angle. Now your helmet isn’t just keeping you protected in a crash, it’s also keeping your head warm. So for starters, ditch half and open-face helmets. Always opt for a full-face helmet when riding in cold weather. Even the most basic full-face helmet will go a long way towards keeping your face warm.
The second thing to consider is eye protection. I ride with goggles instead of a visor 90% of the time, but in winter, it’s a terrible move. When I rode up around 15,000 feet in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca last fall, I thought my open full-face and a pair of bulky goggles would be enough to keep me warm. My nose was borderline frostbitten after an hour of riding in alpine snowstorms. No bueno. So don’t just opt for a full-face in winter. Look for one with an integrated visor, too. Make sure the anti-fog on the visor is reliable, as well. Cold temperatures often exacerbate fogging.
The third thing to think about is airflow. Most motorcycle helmets have some venting, but not all vents close reliably, or at all. The Biltwell Lane Splitter, for example, is an amazing helmet for summer riding. It has excellent airflow. But the large vents on the chin guard don’t close. Wearing a Lane Splitter in winter is horrendous. You’re blasted in the face with ice-cold air. So if your helmet does have vents, ensure they close completely. If not, maybe tape them up for the colder months.
NOTE: Some riders wear tight beanies or other winter headwear under their helmet when riding in cold weather. This may seem a slick move, but chances are if you can comfortably wear a beanie underneath your helmet, the helmet is too big for you. Helmets should fit snugly against your head, and regardless, putting anything between your head and the helmet lining (like a hat) can allow the helmet to shift, decreasing the protection it provides in an accident.
2. Prep Your Phone
For many riders today, smartphones are an integral part of the riding experience. Most modern bikes feature a HUD that’s designed to be paired with a smartphone. Maybe you prefer to keep it old school and wish you could chuck your phone off a cliff (and don’t worry, you’re not alone). But you probably at least use it to listen to music, navigate, and stay in touch with friends and family.
But in cold weather, a phone touchscreen is hard to operate, and you’ll also likely wear thicker gloves, which may not be touchscreen compatible. So be ready to access your phone sparingly.
In summer, it’s easy to adjust your route, mute a notification, or change songs with the flick of a finger. In winter, you may have to take off bulky gloves to do that, and even then, your fingers might be too cold to activate the touchscreen. So get your navigation, music, and other phone features set up before you start riding. (For this reason, hand-free headsets are especially useful in the winter months.)
Note: Cold temperatures will sap your phone’s battery, as well. Winter is a great time to invest in a mounted phone charger.
3. Layer, Layer, Layer
This one is fairly obvious, but when riding in cold weather, you should be prepared for, well… cold weather. The same principles apply when dressing for cold weather riding as they do for any sort of activity in cold weather. Namely, instead of wearing one big, bulky jacket, you should wear multiple layers for optimal warmth.
How you layer will depend on the conditions you’re riding in, such as temperature, wind, rain, snow, and elevation. But layering in the first place is the most important part. For example, you might wear a cotton or synthetic thermal base layer, add a fleece mid-layer, and finish off with a warm, windproof riding jacket. You can layer your bottoms as well, combining thermal long johns with thick, windproof outer riding pants. Proper layering keeps you warmer, but also gives you the freedom to remove and add layers as conditions change.
Note: Layering gloves is another way to stay warm. Pair a lightweight, touchscreen-compatible skin liner glove with a leather outer glove for maximum warmth and protection.
4. Wind Management
A gusty breeze can be the icing on the cake of a hot summer ride. But the same wind that’s a blessing in the summer is killer when riding in winter. Layering is great, but it won’t help if you don’t manage wind properly. You can wear half a dozen layers, but if your cuffs and hems are loose, those layers aren’t worth squat. The wind will blast underneath and straight to your core.
So when it comes to managing cold temperatures on a bike, it’s often more about windproofing than it is insulation. Wind-deflecting outer layers, whether leather or a weatherproof synthetic, are a must-have. Along with layering up and choosing windproof outers, ensure you’re wearing apparel that can be locked down and streamlined to keep out the wind. That means jacket sleeves with cuffs that properly lock snug around your wrist, paired with long gloves that secure over (not under) those wrist cuffs. The same goes for your pants and boots. Ensure there is no gap between the top of your riding boots and the bottom of your pants when you’re sitting on your bike (even if you’re wearing long socks), and ensure that the overlap is considerable enough to lock those pants down over your riding boots so no wind gets in.
On top of apparel, give your bike a once-over. Windshields, hand guards, and even clip-on wind deflectors may call to mind geriatric, overweight tourers with no sense of style. But after a few sub-freezing winter rides, you might temper that disdain…
5. Check Your Vert
Some of the best riding in the world is in the mountains, windy roads twisting up to lofty passes, spiraling back down into valleys. It’s great, but in the winter, elevation changes often come with dramatic changes in temperature and conditions, even if you aren’t in an alpine climate.
So check your intended route on a topographic map, and consider elevation changes as you plan your ride. A vertical climb of 1,000 feet over a few miles feels like nothing on a motorcycle, but the temperature could vary upwards of 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, even if you’re only coming from sea level. Plan accordingly.
6. It’s the Fourth Season
When you’re winter moto camping do a double-take on your gear, and tent in particular. All tents are rated by season. The most common categories are two-season, three-season, and four-season tents. This refers to the seasons you can use the tent in.
Two-season tents are designed to be used in summer (and early fall or late spring, depending on the region), while three-season tents feature additional weatherproofing and are typically good for spring, summer, and fall. Most three-season tents can handle heavy rain and maybe a bit of snow, but they generally won’t hold up under harsh weather over a long period. Four-season tents, meanwhile, are purpose-built to keep you safe and warm during extreme winter weather. They’re built to withstand heavy winds, snow loads, and so on. So if you’re on a multi-day camping trip in winter, you’ll want a four-season tent.
However, the majority of motorcycle-specific camping systems are three-season tents, at best. That’s because most people don’t ride motorcycles in the winter. Most motorcycle tents usually aren’t designed to stand up to heavy snow or high wind, the sleeping bags and mattresses integrated into moto camping systems aren’t rated for freezing temperatures, and so on.
So recognize that winter is the fourth season, and it’s a whole different ball game. Chances are, the camping gear you use for moto camping during the rest of the year isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to need to shop for winter-specific technical outdoor gear (or adventure moto tents) if you want to camp off your motorcycle in winter.
Note: If you’re camping off of a motorcycle there’s a hell of a lot more to think about than just one tip. Here are “The Four Biggest Mistakes I’ve Made Motorcycle Camping” if you want to learn more about what NOT to do.