(A version of this story was first published in September 2018.)
Days are getting shorter and temperatures are dropping. Yep, fall arrives next week. If you want to keep riding when the weather gets cooler, start thinking about it now, not when your fingers start growing numb.
It’s no fun riding in the cold, and it can be dangerous even before ice and frost make the roads slick. If you’re cold, your reaction times slow, and that’s no good when you’re on two wheels.
However, you don’t have to despair when the mercury starts to drop. There’s plenty of riding season left if you start using heated gear. There’s a wide choice of stuff on the market now, not just old-school wired vests.
Remember: Your local dealership can recommend specific gear and will stand by the product it sells. You can try on heated clothing to ensure the proper fit. Compare prices, but remember that your dealer can often bring in a product and sell it to you for the same price you would pay online, taking the profit from the dealer’s discount while giving you peace of mind.
Gear for your bike
Heated grips should be included as standard on every motorcycle sold in Canada, but sadly, they aren’t. You will find them as standard on many touring bikes (cruisers, sport tourers, adventure tourers), and they’re available as OEM options on many others.
You’ll pay a lot for the OEM heated grips (well over $300 in some cases, after tax and also purchasing the necessary wiring components). You’ll likely pay a lot for the dealership to install them as well, so this is a very good DIY project. You can find decent grip heaters for less than $150 from online Canadian retailers, and install them yourself to save money.
A few words on the different kinds of heated grips available. First, you can buy just the heating elements and wiring harness for very little cost. Go on eBay or AliExpress, and you will see them for $10 or less; you remove your existing handlebar grips, install the elements on the handlebars, wire them in, and install your old grips (or new ones) over the elements.
This is the cheap way to go, but you get what you pay for. These elements and their wiring tend to be flimsy. Unless you’re careful with installation, the wires often come apart, leaving you to redo the job in a few months.
Another option is heated overgrips. The best-known ones are probably Oxford’s HotHands grips. Installation is simple; wrap the heated overgrips around the existing grips, run the wiring back and attach directly to battery. These are by far the easiest option on the market, and can be installed in a half hour.
Unfortunately, they come with some drawbacks. They aren’t as warm as other heated grips. They do offer more cushioning from vibrating handlebars, due to their added layering, but that also means the grips are thicker than most 7/8 grips and also have a bit of play on the handlebars. They aren’t dangerous, but might not provide the precision handling some riders want.
Finally, you’ve got replacement grips with the heater elements built-in. These are what most people think of when you talk about heated grips. To install them, you remove your old grips and slide the new ones on, then wire them in. These grips might be a bit fatter than your stockers, but they’ll work well for most people, and usually have a long life and throw out plenty of heat if you buy quality product. For most people, this is the best way to go.
Some notes on heated grip installation: It’s more work, but it’s best if you tap into your bike’s wiring harness instead of going straight to the battery terminals. With some research, you can usually find an empty plug in the wiring harness that’s intended to power accessories like these, shutting them off when the ignition goes off. If you wire them directly to the battery, you may find yourself accidentally killing your battery by leaving the grips on when you turn the bike off. Some grips are supposedly engineered to avoid this scenario, but I know riders who’ve had the problem, despite the promises on the packaging.
Most riders stick with just heated grips, but some touring machines also have heated seats included as factory options. It’s not as common a DIY modification, because you’ve got to tinker with upholstery and that’s outside the average wrencher’s skillset.
However, the kits to make your own heated seat are available online, and if you don’t mind tearing your bike’s seat apart, they can provide an extra level of comfort on those chilly days. But given the difficulty of installation and the fact the heated seats must warm the rider through their riding gear, it makes more sense for most riders to opt for heated pant liners, if you need all-day warmth. Where heated seats come into their own is their usefulness to around-town riders, who don’t want to be bulked up like the Michelin Man at every stop.
Gear for you
Along with heated grips, this is the most common bit of heated gear you’ll see, because it does the best job of keeping you warm. If your core is warm, then there’s more blood circulating to your extremities. For many riders, this, with the heated grips, is enough to keep them riding into cooler temps.
A heated vest typically has two advantages over a jacket: it’s less expensive, and it’s less bulky and likely to bind up your arms. For shorter rides on slightly chilly days, it might be enough.
But if you want to ride longer days in the cold, or into colder weather, you want a heated jacket with wires that run down your shoulders and arms. I’ve used both, and there’s no real comparison; the extra output of the jacket is simply beautiful when you’re out in the really nasty stuff, and can be the difference between surviving and thriving on the road.
You can find cheaper no-name heated gear on eBay, AliExpress and similar sights, but it’s worth spending the money on something with a recognizeable name. Fieldsheer, Gerbing, Tourmaster and other well-respected touring gear companies have been making these garments for years, and will usually back up their products if something goes wrong. That’s where you should spend your money.
You don’t see as many riders with heated pants, because most are able to get by with layered clothes and insulated riding pants. They make sense for touring riders, who need all-day, full-body warmth, but if you’re just tootling around town, they aren’t as necessary, as they’re then just one more layer to remove when you get where you’re going (that’s when the heated seat is nice).
Most heated pants can be plugged into a heated jacket, meaning you’ve only got to run one cord from your gear to your bike.
Now this is a piece of gear worth having! Most heated gloves and glove liners are paired with heated jackets, as most heated jackets have connectors for the gloves at the end of the sleeves. You can jury-rig a setup to work with a heated vest if you buy some wire and some splitters, but it’s much easier to just connect them to a heated jacket.
The great thing about heated gloves and liners compared to heated grips is that they heat the outside of your hands, where they’re most cold from windchill. In-the-know touring riders prefer them.
The not-so-great thing about heated glove liners is that they can be too bulky to fit under your regular riding gloves. Heated gloves that are meant to serve as outer gloves don’t have this problem, but they might not be as waterproof as you’d like, or offer enough protection. In any case, if you’re putting down serious time in the cold, look into these. They keep your hands warmer than heated grips, and if you pair the two, then you’ll never have to worry about cold fingers unless you’re out in silly cold temperatures.
Talk to serious cold-weather riders, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: It’s hard to keep your feet warm on the bike when temperatures drop. Sure, wool socks or better boots can help, but it’s not easy. So, heated socks, insoles or boot liners are a big, big help in these conditions.
Just as heated glove liners wire into a jacket, heated footwear is typically made to plug into a pair of heated pants, but you may find other ways to connect the power supply. You also might find them too bulky or uncomfortable to fit into your normal riding boots, requiring new footwear as well. Your mileage may vary!
Battery-powered, or wired?
When heated rider gear first came out, it was intended to be wired to your motorcycle, but now there are battery-powered options on the market. Which is the best way to go?
There are advantages to both. Battery-powered gear is universal; if you own multiple bikes, you don’t have to worry about adding power cords to each machine, and you don’t have to worry if each of your machines has the electric output to handle the heated gear. The downside is that battery-powered gear typically puts out less warmth than hardwired gear, and the batteries usually only last a couple of hours at high power. There are also fewer options for quality battery-powered gear, although just about anything is available if you want to risk your money on no-name products from China.
As well, battery-powered gear can be worn off the bike. Other hockey parents will envy you your heated vest on the stands at your local rink, while they’re huddled under a blanket; heated glove liners can be great for skiing.
The big advantage of gear wired directly to the bike is its impressive heat output, and it’s also great that you don’t have to worry about battery range. The disadvantage is that your bike’s charging system might not be able to handle the draw of the added electrical components.
A jacket can draw 90 watts, and pants/socks/gloves added together can equal that or more, so if your bike only has 30 watts of electrical output to spare when running, you’ll be in trouble. Before you go crazy and buy a jacket, pants, socks and gloves to wire into your bike, make sure your machine has enough electrical output to power it.
This is one area where it really pays to read the specs on what you’re buying, as you may be able to find newer, more efficient gear that draws less power, and that’s what you want if you can afford it. You don’t want to end up on the side of the road this fall, cold and with a dead bike that won’t start.