February 22, 2022

The Ultimate Guide to Winter Riding

The Ultimate Guide to Winter Riding

by Hailey Arnold 

Picture this: it’s a gloomy wet Winter’s day in Seattle, and you’re wrapped up in a blanket like a burrito on your couch, scrolling through Instagram with glazed eyes. Suddenly, you see a photo of some smiley jerk who lives in San Diego, posing on their bike in a t-shirt as the sun glints off their tank. “Damn you!” you mutter out loud, throwing a sharp glance out your window at the miserable conditions outside.

 For the hundredth time, you fantasize about moving somewhere nice and warm, with an endless summer riding season. Meanwhile, your bike sits abandoned in a cold, dark garage, as it has every day since mid-October. You find yourself mournfully reminiscing about days spent ripping through the mountain roads, or even a simple work commute on a beautiful sunny day. Sound all too familiar? You might be a fair-weather rider. And who can blame you? Riding in the winter kind of sucks. 

Winter road conditions can be downright dangerous for motorcyclists. First and foremost, we must contend with the rain. Fall and winter seasons also bring on rotten leaves, pine needles, slick moss, ice patches, salt or sand de-icer, and limited visibility. Even on dry roads in the winter you’ve got to overcome cold tires and frigid wind chill. But you know what they say, where there’s a will there’s a way. With the proper gear and riding technique, you don’t have to end your riding season when the rain clouds roll in. You can even – dare I say it– enjoy riding your motorcycle in the winter!


The Gear

In climates that are cold and wet for several months of the year, gear can make or break the riding experience. Being warm and dry is absolutely critical in the winter. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that comfort can be considered a safety factor.

Keith Code’s famous book, The Twist of the Wrist, proposes that everyone has a limited amount of attention, like a ten dollar bill, to spend on riding. The figurative ten dollar bill represents your attention budget, which you spend on the physical mechanics of riding as well as assessing and reacting to potential hazards on the road. 

Bankrupting your attention budget results in fear and panic, reactions that can cause you to make dangerous mistakes. Keith Code uses this analogy to describe how riders can stretch their attention budget by learning techniques for smoother and more controlled riding. 

I’d take his analogy a step further and use it to argue why comfort is a safety issue. Being uncomfortable can distract you from being an attentive rider. So, if your attention span is a ten dollar bill, the last thing you want to spend it on is thinking about how cold and miserable you are. If you’re wearing proper gear and feeling comfortable on your bike, your attention can be spent entirely on riding safely. Winter riding requires a lot more attention and care than summer riding. (P.s. This is the perfect argument to justify spending money on proper winter riding gear, either to yourself or your spouse!)

The best way to regulate your body temperature is to wear appropriate base and mid-layers. Everyone has a different level of tolerance for the cold. Wearing multiple layers allows you to make adjustments as temperatures fluctuate. If you run cold like me, you’ll probably end up looking like the Michelin man once you’re fully geared up. My favorite winter base-layers are made of merino wool or heat-trapping synthetics. Merino wool is ideal because it wicks moisture, which is great if you’re prone to getting sweaty. It’s also naturally antimicrobial, which helps keep you smelling fresh…ish. I’ll usually wear a tank top, a thin thermal baselayer, and a fleece or packable down midlayer under my insulated and waterproof winter riding jacket for maximum comfort. I also wear thermal long-johns or leggings under my riding pants. Tighter base layers will do a better job of trapping heat, and although you want to wear breathable fabrics, in order to stay warm, you need to minimize the amount of outside airflow. Chunky wool socks and thin thermal glove liners also do an amazing job of keeping your hands and feet warm. To top it all off, I wear a balaclava or neck tube to protect my ears and neck from wind chill. My goal is to leave no skin exposed to the elements. See this wind chill chart to understand why motorcyclists are especially vulnerable to the cold. 

Not all waterproof gear is created equal! Goretex Pro is, by far, the most effective waterproof material available on the market right now. Seriously, nothing beats it! Goretex is a breathable waterproof membrane which utilizes billions of tiny pores to prevent water from getting through without completely sealing off air and sweat vapors. Breathability is important because your sweat needs to evaporate in order for your body to naturally regulate its climate. Unlike materials that are simply coated with polyurethane, Goretex won’t wear out with regular use. Goretex is also safe to wash. In fact, if your Goretex gear gets dirty or stops working as well, you can reinvigorate its waterproof membrane by washing it in warm water. Note- You specifically want to look for jackets and pants that have a Goretex shell or outer layer, rather than an inner liner, for maximum performance (more on that later!) My one qualm with Goretex is the price tag. It’s expensive stuff… But listen, I’ve been selling motorcycle gear for years, in which time I’ve heard feedback and testimonies from countless riders who have tested these products to their limits. In my professional experience, you usually get what you pay for.

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Here are some of my favorite examples of Goretex riding gear:

Rev’it offers some of the most stylish Goretex motorcycle gear out there. My personal favorite men’s jacket is the Trench jacket, which boasts an understated, classy aesthetic without sacrificing winter performance. 

Much to my chagrin, gear manufacturers have yet to produce a wide range of performance-oriented Goretex products for women. In fact, Klim is one of the only brands that utilize Goretex shells in women’s gear. Luckily, Klim has options for both street and off-road riders. The Artemis jacket is my top choice due to its fit and versatility. 

If you can’t get your hands on gear with a Goretex label, the next best option is something with a similar waterproof membrane built into the outer layer of the jacket or pants. Gear manufacturers have attempted to imitate Goretexwith their own waterproof membranes,  such as Hydrotex, D-Dry, and Drystar. These materials usually work decently well, but aren’t quite as dependable in really wet conditions. Details such as laminated seams are a good sign of a reliably waterproof garment. 

My pet peeve when it comes to motorcycle gear is internal waterproof liners.  I cannot understand why they are so popular and enduring in the moto gear industry. Excuse me while I step onto my soapbox for a moment… Internal waterproof liners allow the entire outer jacket to become saturated with water, taking on water weight and drawing heat away from your body. So, even if you technically stay dry on the inside, you will be weighed down and chilly as your gear becomes drenched. Additionally, soaking wet gear rarely has a chance to dry out completely before the next day, and it’ll likely develop a musty smell after a few weeks. Therefore, the waterproof material should be the outermost layer of your kit. You want the rain to be repelled off of your gear like water off a duck’s back. 

If you’re working with a tight budget, packable waterproof jackets, pants and coveralls are a good solution. These light layers do not offer abrasion resistance or crash protection, so they’re intended to be worn over top of your regular riding gear. It’s important to buy moto-specific rain shells, because they’re designed to fit over bulky armor. The biggest downside of the packable rain shell system is the cumbersome dressing and undressing process. A simple rain shell set is a great addition to any gear collection and very convenient to pack on road trips or commutes in case of unexpected rain showers. 


To keep waterproof gear performing as it should or to add a water repellency to any material (including leather!), check out Nikwax’s range of products. Nikwax cleaners and sprays are well loved by all outdoor gear industries (including camping, hiking, farming and construction). If your waterproof gear starts to fail, Nikwax products can give it a boost of life.


Feet – Being the Goretex fan that I am, I think Goretex-lined boots are the only boots worth buying for winter riding. Most anything else is prone to leak. It’s also important to note that you’ll want taller, mid-calf height boots. Short boots and waterproof sneakers will not protect you from water that splashes up from the ground. A good amount of overlap between your pants and your boots will keep your feet driest. Boot dryers are a very handy tool for winter commuters that struggle with boots that never quite dry out on their own. This surprisingly simple gadget will help extend the life of your winter boots and prevent them from getting moldy. Boots take a beating in the winter, so if your feet are getting wet and you’re really in a pinch, plastic grocery bags can be worn between layers of socks inside your boots as a makeshift waterproof liner. Plastic bags aren’t a permanent solution, but they can save your feet in a soggy emergency.


Hands – Winter gloves can be funky and it may take a little experimenting to find a pair that works for you. When trying gloves on, I always recommend grabbing a bike’s handlebars and messing around with the controls to see if the gloves feel good in action. Super heavily insulated gloves are typically quite bulky and awkward. I prefer thinner gloves for better dexterity, but thin gloves aren’t as cozy. Personally, I have yet to find the perfect pair of winter gloves. Cue, heated grips! Heated grips are the most popular winter bike accessory, with OEM and after-market options available for almost all bike models. The biggest caveat with heated grips is they don’t keep your fingers warm while you are operating your brake and clutch levers, often resulting in hot palms and frozen fingers. Another solution for cold hands are handlebar covers such as Hippo Hands. Handlebar covers are actually very popular in Europe! They work by shielding and insulating your entire hand and bike controls from the wind and rain with a flexible mitt. Admittedly, they look kind of dorky, but they are very effective in keeping your hands warm and dry. If you combine handlebar covers with heated grips, the duo forms little ovens for your hands, thereby keeping your fingers warm without inhibiting dexterity.


Visibility – Winter riding conditions such as rain, fog, and darkness limit visibility for both you and the other drivers on the road. It’s obviously very important to see and be seen, especially in the darker months. Nothing is scarier than being blinded by condensation from your breath on your visor. Anti-fog visors or inserts are an absolute must for winter riding. Nicer-quality helmet brands offer Pinlock lens inserts for their visors, which essentially create a double-pane window that traps a pocket of air between the visor and a moisture-absorbent lens. As long as the beading around the lens is sealed and undamaged, Pinlock inserts work like a charm and keep your visor clear even when your helmet is completely sealed off from ventilation. If a Pinlock lens isn’t available for your visor, you can also try an anti-fog spray treatment, which coats your visor in a moisture-absorbing or repellent film. Spray treatments require frequent re-application, and aren’t one-hundred percent effective, but they’re certainly better than nothing! Utilizing your helmet’s visor vents will also help prevent condensation from gathering in the first place.  Another factor that impacts visibility is the brightness of your bike’s headlight. If your bike’s headlights are dim, look into replacing the original bulb with an LED conversion. You may need to consult your local technician or parts expert about compatibility because not all motorcycles are equipped to accommodate an after-market LED conversion. 

Don’t forget, you also need to be visible. It’s so much harder for people in cars to see you when it’s dark and rainy. You know what that means… Head to toe high-viz, baby! Just kidding, you don’t have to cosplay as a safety cone. But even if you aren’t usually one to adorn yourself in reflectivity, consider at least wearing a hi-viz vest in the winter. Here’s a hard to swallow pill: comfort and safety always trump looking sexy in the winter. 


Tires – Fresh tires with plenty of water siping, such as Michelin Road 5’s (my absolute favorite street/commuting tire!) will perform best in winter conditions. Knobby dirt tires and SuperSport tires will feel EXTRA sketchy on wet pavement!

Cold tip: Cold air condenses, causing your tire pressure to drop. When temperatures fall, always check your tire pressure to make sure it hasn’t gotten too low! See manufacturer websites for recommended tire pressures.



Winter Riding Techniques

Chill out! A good rule of thumb for winter riding is simply to ride a lot more carefully than you normally would. Slow down and increase following distances to give yourself more time to react. Don’t be ham-fisted with your brakes or throttle. Stay vigilant and avoid hazards on the road’s surface, because when it comes to black ice, snow, or slick banks of rotten leaves, there isn’t much you can do to avoid losing control. Stay calm and keep your body relaxed. It’s easy to become stiff in the cold, so I try to remind myself to shake it out at stoplights and straightaways. Moving your body can help warm up your extremities and relax tense muscles. Most importantly, remember to stay hydrated!

How can you improve your riding technique to maximize control over your bike in poor riding conditions? The best possible way to improve your street riding skills is through track day coaching. This is the hill I’m willing to die on: Track days are the perfect way to practice intermediate-expert level riding skills in a safe and controlled environment. The skills that I’ve learned on the track translate perfectly to street riding and lay the foundation for safely riding in the rain and cold. To break down cold and wet weather riding techniques, we’ll borrow some wisdom I learned from track riding coaches.

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Motorcycle tires have a limited or finite amount of available grip. That grip can be influenced by the amount of force put into the tires and the resulting contact with the pavement–a contact “patch”. The largest contact patch is slightly off-center of the tire, meaning the bike will have the most traction when it is nearly straight up and down. The safest time to add brake pressure or throttle is when the tire’s contact patch is largest. Adding lean angle at the same time as either brake pressure or throttle can cause your tire to exceed the available grip for the conditions.

 Track day coaches teach the concept of “loading the tire” to increase its grip. Loading the tire means shifting the bike’s weight onto the tire, thereby increasing the size of the contact patch and available grip. Braking loads the front tire (which can help with turning), and accelerating loads the rear tire. To maintain grip in a corner, you want to load the front tire by braking before the corner, and release the brake pressure gradually as you add more lean angle to turn in and get your bike pointed in the right direction (this technique is called “trail braking”). 

Once your front tire is loaded and you are leaning into the turn, avoid applying throttle until you can straighten up the bike’s direction and reduce lean angle. If you apply the throttle too early or too abruptly mid-turn, weight will shift backwards to the rear, causing the front tire’s contact patch to shrink and potentially lose traction, inducing a lowside.  

Watch this quick video on 100 Points of Grip for a visual demonstration of these concepts.

 Riding in cold and wet conditions just means that there is less available grip, so we need to be mindful that the bike can take less input force before exceeding its limit. The key to winter riding is to apply super smooth and linear inputs. You’ll want to avoid harsh braking and acceleration, instead applying both brake and throttle with gradual and gentle pressure. Memorize these steps for cornering with limited grip: Brake while the bike is straight up and down to reduce your speed and prepare for the corner. When you turn in, release brake pressure as you add lean until you are lined up with the corner exit. Then, straighten up as you gently add throttle to exit the corner. Remember to keep your body relaxed and eyes focused to assess your surroundings!

Yamaha Champions Riding School  is a track day riding course that teaches riders of all skill levels the fundamentals of riding in a track day setting. I highly recommend enrolling in their online course if you’re interested in learning how to become a faster, safer, and all around better rider. 

 We all make mistakes. If you find yourself losing traction and control, try to stay relaxed. If possible, release your brake and throttle and allow the bike to right itself and find some grip before attempting to brake (with gentle, gradual pressure). Panicked braking will cause you to tuck the front and go down before you’ve even had a chance to process the fact that you’re crashing… ask me how I know! 

Winter riding requires a lot of preparation and focus, but it’s so worthwhile if you’re a motorcycle addict living in a colder climate! We can’t all live in California, but we can enjoy a year-round riding season with the proper gear and some adjustments to our riding technique. If anything can keep seasonal affective disorder at bay, it’s motorcycles, right? Hang in there, warmer days are on their way. 

Hailey Arnold

Hailey lives in Seattle with her wonderful partner and her funny little dog. She has spent the last few years working at motorcycle dealerships and takes great joy in acting as a source of information and encouragement to new riders. Hailey loves exploring the incredible Pacific Northwest scenery on her Ducati Streetfighter, soaking up quality time with friends, and savoring little moments of happiness in everyday life. You can follow her on Instagram: @coldheartedsnek 

 

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