December 2000 Safety Thoughts

Cold Weather Riding

by Dave Hansen, Safety Officer

For some of us, colder weather doesn't always signal the end of the riding season. What it does bring us though is a different set of riding conditions that must be accounted for, both in our physical and mental preparation for riding.

Physically, it's important to be properly dressed for the weather conditions. Hypothermia and frost bite are real and obvious concerns when riding in colder weather. But so also is dehydration.

First line defense against frost bite is to make sure that you don't have exposed bare skin, especially the head, including ears, nose, cheeks & neck. Most of us will always wear gloves & boots without giving it a second thought, but then leave parts of our face/head exposed. A full helmet with a neck skirt can provide a good choice for protection, but a good alternative is a balaclava, particularly one made of Gore Windstopper or a similar wind-proof material, worn under your normal full or half helmet. Top this off with a pair of fog-free goggles that seal eye opening in the balaclava. Good wind-proof gloves and boots are also essential to help keep your extremities warm.

Hypothermia is a condition that happens when your body's core temperature drops noticeably below normal. Remember, your body core must maintain warmth in order to pump warm blood to your extremities. The warmer the body core, the more heat it pumps out to the extremities. There's two approaches to maintaining this warmth.

The first approach is to use clothing that allows the body to maintain its' own heat. To this end, forget wearing your normal leathers. Find specialized riding gear specifically designed to block wind and provide insulation. Harley-Davidson has carried a line of cold weather riding clothing for many years that works well, but you could also consider 2-piece snowmobile clothing. You'll want bib pants that aren't too loose to get caught in or touch the motorcycle engine or pipes. Top that with a good jacket that provides adequate arm movement to allow proper control & operation of the motorcycle. Thinsulate insulation seems to provide the best warmth with the least bulk. Once the gear has been assembled, before riding make sure you've had a good meal that includes carbs. Remember that with this approach your source of heat is internal and if you don't "stoke the furnace" with carbs & "turn up the circulation" with adequate amounts of water, the best clothing in the world won't keep you warm.

The second approach is to provide a supplemental heat source. This can be accomplished by wearing electrically heated clothing, either as an intermediate layer under your leathers, or as specialized electrically heated outer wear. Specifically, Harley-Davidson and other manufacturers currently offer a selection of heated vests, inner jackets, pants and gloves. Almost all of these systems will require an electrical connection to the motorcycle's charging system. Some have on/off switches, others have thermostat devices to control temperature of these products. On a personal note, strongly consider a jacket or vest design that includes a heated collar. This design provides additional heat to the head, the most critical heat loss part of the body.

Electric gloves can be a bother because of the electrical cords required to be run down the arms, but many cold weather riders will find them indispensable. Other may find a pair of knit gloves inside a size larger than normal windproof leather gloves perfectly acceptable for most conditions. Remember that tight fitting gloves will restrict circulation causing cold fingers to set in much sooner.

Boots should also be windproof, fitting loose enough to add thicker socks for insulation. I find that my regular riding boots topped by my rain boots for additional wind-proofing work quite well for me.

Now that we've addressed the physical, let's now discuss mental preparation. Remember earlier I talked about hypothermia? Well, one of the effects of hypothermia is a clouding of judgment and sluggish reaction times. Ride cautiously, maintain proper spacing to the traffic ahead of you and be aware of feeling cold. If you get chilled, stop & get warm. Drink non-caffeinated and non-alcoholic beverages (both caffeine & alcohol restrict good circulation) to maintain hydration.

Colder weather riding usually means limiting rides to daylight hours, but remember this time of year, we're really short on daylight. Clear fog-free goggles are a must for good visibility.

Visibility is important because you're going to find a new set of road hazards to be vigilant of. These include reduced-traction riding surfaces caused by salt, sand, snow, water and ice. Particularly treacherous is patches of water or wet surfaces that hide an underlying layer of ice. Even roads that appear clean & dry can hide a condition known as "black ice" were there's a thin layer of moisture frozen on the cold road surface.

If all this seems too much to cope with, then winterize your bike and wait for warm weather. For those that enjoy riding and would like to extend their riding season, these tips will provide a good springboard to cold weather riding.

For myself, the bike's ready to ride 12 months a year. During colder weather, I watch for days with dry roads after a rain has washed the salt off the roads. Then I "play hooky" from work, don my cold weather gear, and enjoy riding my motorcycle!

Words of Safety