A lot of people put the moto away this time of year, waiting for the return of long days and endless sunshine. But although it’s cold, winter can be a great time to ride – moody days on winding forest roads, warming yourself with a hot lunch in the pub or soaking up the warmth of the campfire. Winter riding does come with challenges but understanding how to stay warm, dry and safe means never having to forsake your bike or sense of adventure.
The first thing to know is that cold-weather riding saps your energy and impacts your decision making ability quicker than you realise. Your first response to the cold is shivering – the contraction and relaxation of your muscles generates heat, but this comes at an energy cost. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you have a good feed and are well hydrated before heading out into the cold. Stiff joints make it harder to control your bike. Learning to how to layer will keep you warm and dry and in control of your bike and your thoughts.
Base Layer: A base layer sits next to you skin and serves two purposes. Firstly, it creates a pocket of ‘dead air’ that your body can easily warm. The base layer also serves to ‘wick’ sweat away from your skin before it has the chance to cool you. It’s easy to forget that even when it’s cold outside we can sweat under all that gear. Most camping and outdoors stores stock long-sleeved tops made of natural fibres like wool or synthetics like nylon.
Mid-layer: Your mid-layers are there to insulate and keep you warm. I’ll often opt for a flannel shirt and a wool jumper or puffer jacket. Fleeces with a zip-up collar are a great option, as you want to cover as much of your skin as possible.
Outer-layer: The jacket is perhaps your most important item – it has to keep you warm, while keeping the rain out. Gore-Tex is a popular breathable ‘waterproof’ membrane for a variety of applications, from hiking boots to motorcycle jackets. Just be aware that no breathable membrane is fully waterproof and a sustained downpour will saturate even the best gear. If it’s worth paying good money for one item, it’s your jacket. Not only does it have to protect you from the elements, it may need to protect you from the bitumen.
Pants: I learned pretty fast that jeans aren’t great winter riding pants. The problem with jeans (other than offering no protection in a crash) is that cotton is very absorbent. When it starts to rain, my jeans get soaked. If I’m only commuting a short distance, I’ll keep a pair of waterproof over pants in my tank-bag or backpack. At the first drops of rain, I’ll pull over and pull them over my jeans. For longer rides though, the over pants don’t really hold up. If you’re expecting to be riding for an extended period of time in the rain, buy a pair of motorcycle pants built for the rain. Not only will they keep you warm and dry, when you lose traction on a wet corner you’ll be glad you had motorcycle pants on.
Accessories: A couple of extras will keep you snug as a bug on a winter ride. Warm gloves are a must – we’ve all experienced the numb hands and stiff fingers after riding on the highway in the cold for an hour. When it’s time to slow down, your fingers hurt, you can’t feel the levers, it really has the potential to end badly.
I keep a ski mask in the pocket of my jacket. I wear an enduro-style helmet and although the ventilation is great for Aussie summers, the winter wind really bites my face. I pull on my ski mask after buttoning up the collar on my jacket, creating a seal that no wind gets through. A friend favours the half face head sock – the important thing is protecting your neck and lower face from the wind.
Footwear is often overlooked when dressing for the cold, but you’ll quickly notice it. A thick pair of wool socks helps, but solid boots will keep your feet toasty. Waterproof boots are even better – it takes a long time to dry out saturated boots in front of a hostel heater.
Some people like to carry a plastic poncho to pull over their jacket in case they caught in a deluge. I don’t bother as I find my jacket offers enough waterproofing in most situations, but if you feel you’re getting too wet for comfort, the poncho takes up very little space and a thin plastic one can be carried inside your jacket.
A lot manufacturers sell jacket/pants combos that zip together, thereby creating a water and windproof fit. If you’re planning longer trips, such as a weekend touring, I can’t recommend these enough. The more time you spend on your bike, you more thankful you’ll be for spending a few dollars more.
Winter can be a great time to ride but you need to be prepared. Warm clothes with no gaps (between gloves and jacket cuffs, around the neck) will trap your body’s warmth and keep the wind out, and wet weather gear will keep you happier and safer. Don’t neglect a good feed as you’ll need to keep your energy up and as always, there’s no shame in pulling over and waiting out the storm.