Cold weather riding: A primer

The reality of motorcycling in Canada is, if you don’t ride in cold weather, you’re going to have a short riding season – probably from mid-June to mid-September.

If you want to ride earlier in the spring, and later into the fall, you’re going to have to figure out how to stay warm. Learn how to dress properly, and prepare your bike, and you can extend your riding. We’re not telling you how to ride in snow — that’s another article, for the truly hard-core, who know the risks and the limits of their skills and their bike.

So, here are the hot tips for cold weather riding:

Outfitting yourself

Clothes
The most important thing is to find a way to stop the wind from cutting through your clothing. The faster the wind, the more quickly it cools you down (check out this wind chill calculator for proof), so finding a way to stop that is your first big step.

There are two basic theories to dressing warmly on a bike. The first school of thought takes a warm, windproof, thick, outer layer (something like a freezer suit), then adds standard motorcycle gear underneath. This is how Ed March dressed on his mid-winter travels across Canada with Rachel Lasham, and he also dressed this way on his trip to the Arctic Circle. On those journeys, he did not wear a heated vest.

The idea behind this method is to use a puffy outer layer to keep cold from transferring through, sort of like a down jacket. This allows you to cut down on the amount of clothes you wear. Paul Mondor (a.k.a. The Iceman — he’s famous in adventure riding circles for his winter adventures) says he managed to get down to only two layers while riding in -63 degrees in Labrador, due to proper clothing.

Ed March's freezer suit kept him warm across Canada. Photo: Rachel Lasham
Ed March’s freezer suit kept him warm across Canada. Photo: Rachel Lasham

The second school of thought is perhaps more for the budget-minded, and involves the opposite approach – wearing layers, lots and lots of layers. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach, and some riders have no use for it at all.

The benefits: It’s affordable. Oliver Solero, a.k.a. “Brokentooth,” says he’s done this for years (check out his adventures here), using cold-weather clothes he’s picked up at Value Village and similar thrift stores. This approach also allows you to customize your warmth level; on sunny fall days, you can wear less clothing than on the chillier mornings.

The downsides: Multiple layers can get pretty bulky, and restrict movement. And multiple thin layers might not hold off the cold as capably as thicker outer layers (windproof layers can help, like this shirt from Aerostich). However, if you’re on a budget, or commuting, it’s an option.

No matter what clothes you pick, remember the outdoor adage “Cotton kills.” Pick your clothes wisely; the wrong fabrics can encourage hypothermia.

While the heated jacket is the most important part, if you can complete the whole package of heated kit, it'll keep you toasty.
While the heated jacket is the most important part, if you can complete the whole package of heated kit, it’ll keep you toasty.

Heated vest/jacket
Heated vests and jackets will transform cold-weather riding from simply surviving the cold, to being comfortable – they replace the heat your body loses, instead of just insulating. They allow you to wear lighter clothes. For commuting, they’re great. But don’t rely on them for touring, as they can crap out at the worst times (like this Heat Demon vest did, on the 2012 CMG Fall Tour). Then, as Paul Mondor says, the heating element can actually conduct warmth away from your body, making your situation worse.

There many brands to choose from. Super-tourer Warren Milner has tried a few of them and says he’s had good luck with Gerbing, and adds, “Jackets are much better than vests, because your shoulders are the parts that are in the wind flow, more so than your torso.” He’d know, he rides to Daytona from Toronto every winter …

Boots
It’s hard to keep your feet warm on a motorcycle. Simply adding multiple layers of socks isn’t a great solution, as it can actually make your boots too tight, restricting bloodflow and making you colder.

Combining the right socks with the right boots is the answer; Oliver Solero uses Sidi Gore-Tex boots combined with Klim snowmobile socks until about -5 C.

Below that, he and other adventurers typically wear snowmobile boots. But for your average commuter, good Gore-Tex boots and good socks (heated socks are a major bonus) should keep you going until the snow flies. If you’re touring, you might have to look at getting more serious footwear.

Heated gloves offer advantages over heated grips, but it's nice to have both.
Heated gloves offer advantages over heated grips, but it’s nice to have both.

Gloves
Gore-Tex is your friend here, too. Mitts (like the ones snowmobilers use) can keep your hands warmer, but may interfere with controls. Ideally, you want heated gloves, as they keep the back of your hands warm, not just the palms, although this is less important if you’re running handlebar muffs – more on that later.

Scarf/balaclava/buff
It’s important to avoid losing heat through your exposed neck.
An old-fashioned scarf can do the trick, but a “Buff” or similar product can do the same job without flapping in the breeze. A tight-fitting balaclava or ski mask can also do the trick, and also keeps your head warm if it fits under your helmet.

Outfitting your bike

Windscreen
This is one of two must-have bike mods for cold-weather riding. Windchill is the greatest enemy when the temperature drops, and the screen will reduce that heat loss. If you’re pushing really deep into cold weather, though, be careful – Warren Milner says a too-big windscreen can accumulate road salt build-up, reducing visibility.

Heated grips
Heated grips are the other must-have for cold-weather riding. Without them, you risk losing control as your hands lose feeling. As mentioned above, heated gloves do have advantages over heated grips, but if you have both, you’re even better off.

Oliver Solero's handlebar muffs keep him warm in temperatures far lower than what you can expect on your November commute. Unless your November commute is in Prudhoe Bay.
Oliver Solero’s handlebar muffs keep him warm in temperatures far lower than what you can expect on your November commute. Unless your November commute is in Prudhoe Bay.

Handguards/muffs
Many dual-sport and adventure bikes come with handguards as standard equipment, which is a good start. But if you’re really committed to riding when the temperature drops, you can look into a pair of handlebar muffs, available here, here, or here. (Paul Mondor recommends Hippo Hands, but the cheaper ones get the job done for commuting around town). The beauty of these muffs is that they really lock heat in, meaning you can wear lighter gloves – Ed says they’re even more important than gloves. And they don’t draw any current from your charging system.

Upgraded stator
Speaking of charging systems, heated gear requires more electrical output. If your bike can’t handle the added electrical load, an upgraded stator is a fairly simple modification, and it will let you add all the heated bits you need (click here for a detailed explanation of a motorcycle’s charging system). There are several aftermarket companies that specialize in replacement stators: Electrosport, Rick’s, and RM Stator are good places to start your search. You may find a local electromechanical shop that can handle the job, as well, or even do it yourself.

LED lighting
What if you can’t find a stator for your bike? You can still free up a bit of electrical output by switching to LED lights. That might let you add lower-wattage heated grips; throw in a battery vest like the Heat Demon, and you’re in business.

Tires

If you're pushing your riding into cold weather, see if you can find a pair of winter tires, like these ones from Michelin.
If you’re pushing your riding into cold weather, see if you can find a pair of winter tires, like these ones from Michelin.

This tip has nothing to do with keeping warm, but everything to do with safety — it’s another of Paul Mondor’s most important pieces of advice.

Even if you aren’t riding on ice or snow, you need to remember your tire performance will change as the weather cools. Colder roads mean less traction, which is why car experts recommend winter tires below 7 degrees Celsius.

So what’s a motorcyclist to do? You can see if there are winter tires available for your ride (we’ve heard of some sizes available for adventure bikes and scooters). If there aren’t, then pay careful attention to your tire pressure, consider switching to a stickier compound, and be mindful of the hazards of reduced traction — longer stopping distance, less cornering capacity.

6 thoughts on “Cold weather riding: A primer”

  1. Staying warm is only one part of the equipping for cold weather riding. Keeping your visor from fogging is a must. Pinlock visors and fog free solutions help but for the long run you will need a way to divert your breath away.

  2. Another factor to consider is when the weather is cold, the days are short. Daylight arrives late and leaves early, so depending on your riding preferences and how far you intend to travel, you need to plan accordingly.

  3. Don’t forget visibility. As invisible as you are in the summer, drivers are watching for motorcycles even less when the weather gets cold. Time for auxiliary lights, reflector tape and even the dreaded high-viz yellow gear.

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