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Old 12-08-2009, 05:20 PM
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MotoTrails MotoTrails is offline
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Default Riding Safely in Cold Weather - Part 1 - Knowing The Risks


Although winter’s cold blast has arrived in northerly areas, many of us will continue riding and touring on our bikes. Once the thermometer sinks below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, riders should begin considering the additional risks they are assuming and take appropriate steps to mitigate them. When temperatures drop below freezing, knowing and mitigating those risks are especially critical to your comfort and safety on a motorcycle. Simply stated, cold can kill!

This month we’ll only focus on the risks of cold weather riding, which are:

1. Colder Temperatures at Higher Altitudes: Anyone who has ever ridden in the mountains knows that the temperature drops as you gain altitude. The rule of thumb is that for every 1,000 feet of additional altitude the temperature will drop by approximately 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit. To understand the impact of gaining altitude, just do the math. Let’s say you’re riding along, moderately insulated, at a comfortable 50 degrees. When your route takes you up an additional 6,000 feet, however, the ambient air temperature is now around 29 degrees, without considering the effect of wind chill. Are you still comfortable?

2. Wind Chill: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) Office of Climate, Water and Weather Services publishes a Windchill Chart (www.nws.noaa.gov/os/windchill/index.shtml), quantifying the effect that wind has on temperature. For example, a 40-degree ambient air temperature with 60 mph of wind converts to 25 degrees. Riding in 10 degree weather at 60 mph is the equivalent of -19 degrees Fahrenheit.

3. Hypothermia: Once your core body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, (remember normal is 98.6) hypothermia has begun to set in. The initial symptoms, which usually begin slowly, are likely to include one or more of the following:

• Shivering
• Weakness
• Confusion
• Loss of coordination
• Drowsiness
• Slowed breathing or heart rate

An advanced stage of hypothermia—requiring immediate medical attention—would likely be indicated by one or more of the following symptoms:

• Poor articulation of words
• Disorientation
• Amnesia
• Decrease in shivering followed by rigidity of muscles
• Decrease in respiration
• Blueness of skin
• Slow, irregular or weak pulse

These symptoms indicate that the body’s metabolic processes are shutting down. The next and final symptom of hypothermia is likely to be death, so it’s very important to recognize and address a rider’s hypothermic condition promptly.

4. Frostbite: Prolonged skin-tissue temperature of 23 degrees Fahrenheit or less can cause temporary (superficial) or permanent (deep) damage to skin and blood vessels. Once blood stops flowing to frostbitten skin, tissue death begins. Ears, nose, hands and feet are particularly susceptible. Another factor that can accelerate frostbite is if core body temperature is also falling. Your body is pre-programmed to preserve your brain and other vital organs first, which may cause a reduction of blood flow to the extremities. Of course, the risk of frostbite in cold weather is dramatically higher for exposed skin.

5. Accidents Resulting from Impaired Thinking, Judgment and/or Dexterity: Even the early stages of hypothermia or frostbite can substantially decrease a rider’s situational awareness and ability to avoid an accident. Injuries sustained in an accident are potentially made more serious by cold temperatures.

6. Accidents Resulting from Loss of Traction: Once the temperature falls below freezing, the risk of a slippery road surface, caused by ice or snow, is obviously greater. Black ice is a particularly treacherous situation, because riders may not identify it before it’s too late to take evasive action. Because mountainous areas can create their own climatic conditions, weather conditions and road surfaces can deteriorate quickly at higher altitudes.

7. Getting Wet and Cold: The evaporative cooling effect of water on skin will cause a wet rider to become colder much faster. Failure to adequately anticipate and prepare for the possibility of precipitation compounds a motorcyclist’s exposure to any and all of the above cold weather riding risks.

These risks are especially critical for riders on multi-day tours, because, unlike being on a day ride, there usually isn’t the option of quickly returning to the warmth of hearth and home. Next month I’ll review my top 10 strategies for mitigating the risks of riding in cold weather.


We reviewed the risks of riding (especially long distances) in cold weather. The following are my top 10 recommendations for mitigating those risks with an effective cold weather riding system:

1. Test Your Gear Beforehand: Before venturing far from home on your bike in winter’s icy grip, take a test ride or two to identify any weak points (cold spots) in your cold weather riding gear. It may not be pretty, but duct tape can be used to seal leaks if all else fails. After making any needed changes, test it again.

2. Check Battery and Antifreeze: Cold weather can degrade battery performance, so make sure your battery is in good shape and fully charged. For liquid cooled bikes, confirm that the antifreeze reading is sufficient for the temperatures expected.

3. Windproof: As discussed last month, the wind chill effect on motorcyclists, riding at highway speeds, can be quite dramatic. The place to start windproofing is on your bike: attach a windshield and as much other wind-blocking equipment as the bike can accommodate, particularly in the vicinity of the hands and feet. Because so much body heat can be lost from a rider’s head, a full-face helmet is highly recommended. Next, make sure the outer layer of your riding gear is constructed of a material that’s effective at cutting the wind, like leather or a waterproof/water resistant textile riding suit. Insulated winter gloves are a must.

4. Waterproof: One of the fastest—if not the fastest--ways to get hypothermia is riding wet in cold weather. Always take rain gear on cold weather rides. It also provides an extra layer of windproofing and insulation if temperatures plummet. Waterproof boots and gloves (or glove shells) are also a must have.

5. Layer-up: Now that you’re protected from wind and water, let’s consider how best to create an envelope of warmth around your body. Start with a synthetic or other similar body-hugging garment for your upper torso and legs. This will trap warmth generated by your body close to it. Thin synthetic glove liners and under socks are also helpful when temperatures are below freezing. The middle layer provides your primary insulation and should be constructed of wool or a fleece type of material. Your outer layer is the windproofing material described in number 3 above. Additional insulation is created by the layers of air trapped between each layer of your riding gear. Gloves should have high efficiency insulation like 3M Thinsulate.

6. Bare No Skin: To help guard against frostbite, make sure you have no bare skin exposed to the elements. A neck sock or a balaclava can help to seal off the neck area from cold air currents and further insulate the head. But don’t over do it and restrict you’re your neck’s mobility, because that could lead to an accident with an unseen vehicle. Make sure there is still full side-to-side movement of your head.

7. Monitor Weather Conditions: Before leaving on a cold weather trip, and through its duration, stay alert to weather and road conditions for your intended route. Don’t hesitate to change course when circumstances dictate it.

8. Keep Hydrated: During cold weather, you may not feel as thirsty as when it’s hot; I know I don’t. Although it’s unlikely you’ll be losing a lot of body fluids through perspiration, it’s still important to keep your body well hydrated for it to function properly, both mentally and physically. Hot liquids have the added benefit of warming the body from inside and can be an important part of maintaining normal body temperature.

9. Electrify: Although your body’s metabolism is the primary heat source, it must constantly battle the relentless cold air trying to penetrate your cold weather riding system. As temperatures fall lower, the job becomes harder and a second heat source may be needed to overcome the cold. Heated clothing, in addition to the other components of your cold weather riding system, can make riding in very cold temperatures an enjoyable experience.

10. Know When to Stop: Even after employing all of the above cold weather riding strategies, there may come a time when the best tactic is to simply stop and find a warm place to avoid slick pavement, freezing rain, snow, darkness or the onset of hypothermia. As Kenny Rogers intoned in “The Gambler,” “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…”

If you have symptoms of frostbite or hypothermia, pull over, as soon as possible, and employ immediate counter measures:

• Frostbite: Given that rapid re-warming of skin can be painful, start by taking an over-the-counter pain reliever. Then, immerse the frostbitten area in very warm water for about an hour. This should dilate the blood vessels, helping blood flow to return. Do not rub the frostbitten area, because the friction can further damage the frostbitten skin. Consumption of nicotine will constrict blood flow and delay the healing process. Cover the damaged area with a bandage and warm clothing and go to the nearest emergency room.

• Hypothermia: In this case the entire body needs to be re-warmed in water or by layering on additional external insulation. Drinking hot liquids will complement the external warming with internal warming. Seek immediate medical attention.


Last edited by MotoTrails; 12-08-2009 at 05:30 PM.
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Old 12-16-2009, 09:31 PM
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GR GR is offline
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Which is why I wear a Gerbing's heated jacket liner controlled by a no-name heat controller as well as use the standard equipment heated grips on my BMW.

Those, along with my Aerostich suit enables me to ride all day at sub-freezing temps.
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Old 01-05-2010, 10:02 AM
Tat-n-Tel Tat-n-Tel is offline
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Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: Oxford, MA
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Once the temps get near the freezing point, I leave the bike at home. It's not a matter of staying warm (yes, heated gear and grips take care of that) but the road conditions become too unpredictable. A road that is merely wet where the sun hits it can become a sheet of ice in a shaded area. An otherwise dry road can have an unexpected patch of ice on it where someone washed their car in a sloped driveway, and the rinse water has now frozen on the street (right in a corner, in my case!)

Picking up a BMW K1200LT (and the bits that fall off of it) in the middle of a busy intersection in sub freezing temperatures will change your mind about riding when it's that cold in a hurry.
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