Have you ever been cold on a motorcycle? If you answered no, you’re either lying or you only ride on sunny days in the summer. The rest of us know that even if it’s 65º out, you can still freeze your ass off. It’s now November and even in LA, most people have parked their bikes for the winter. Here’s how you can stay warm and ride year round.
It’s the obvious answer but in practice, layering effectively is not something that just happens. The goal is to get maximum warmth with minimal bulk. Adding clothes until you look like the little brother from A Christmas Story is a pain in the ass and probably won’t keep you as warm as a few well chosen items.
Layering for motorcycle riding is much different than what you would do for snowboarding or other cold weather activities. When I go snowboarding for example, I often end up wearing a t-shirt, thermal and a well ventilated shell. Because it’s an intense physical activity, my body generates a lot of heat and I stay warm. Cruising down the freeway at 80mph is not an intense physical activity though. You’re sitting motionless for miles at a time, and when you do move, it’s a small head twitch, a few degrees of rotation in your right wrist, two fingers pulling a brake lever, or a twitch of your left ankle to shift gears. None of that is going to generate any appreciable heat.
What your clothing needs to do then is retain the heat your body produces at rest and insulate your extremities from the cold. Start with something very thin and close fitting. On top, this means something thinner and tighter than a t-shirt and with long sleeves. I wear Alpinestars summer tech performance long underwear (there’s also a dedicated winter variant) that’s made of high-tech fabric, cost real money and works fantastically well. Works great under my leathers too. Ashlee accomplishes the same thing with soft cotton long-sleeve t-shirts. Next, I add a t-shirt or tight fitting fleece pull-over. Under a warm jacket with a liner, this is almost always enough, at least for me. Ashlee usually adds a vest to stay warm. Vests, especially puffy ones, are ideal for layering on a bike because they fill the space between you and your jacket to keep cold air out and core temps up without adding bulk to your arms.
Don’t shy away from non bike-specific base layers too. Often items engineered for winter sports work very well on a bike, so long as you still create plenty of dead airspace inside an utterly windproof, waterproof shell. Wes, used to colder climates, swears by his 10-year old Mountain Hardware thermals. They’re made from Gore-Tex Windstopper, so insulate and block any remaining windchill that gets through your shell.
One area you shouldn’t forget about is your neck. With a huge number of blood vessels just below the skin and not usually benefiting from coverage by a jacket or helmet, this is a major area of heat loss for motorcyclists. Luckily, it’s easy to cover. Even one of those $2 cotton neck tubes helps, but something made from Gore-Tex Windstopper is best, with it, you only need the one layer there. Off the bike, wearing a scarf around your neck on a cold day has a similar warming effect to wearing a sweater. On a bike, on a cold ride, covering your neck is crucial.
Your legs are less important for overall warmth, but there’s no reason they can’t be warm and toasty too. I start with the same Alpinestars base layer, but nylons or tights (if you’ve ever been curious about cross dressing, here’s your excuse) work 90% as well. On top of that I add fleece or thermals, or jeans if I’m planning on wearing winter pants or my Roadcrafter. If you’ve been riding in regular old jeans, now is the time to add knee armor. In addition to protecting you from impacts and abrasion, knee armor does a fantastic job of blocking airflow to a very exposed part of your body.
Last is your feet. When you’re picking out socks, height and fit are most important. A tight fit keeps blood from lingering in your feet and calves where it loses heat and if one pair doesn’t do the trick, it’s easy to add thick MX socks on top.
Your hands are often the first parts of your body to feel cold and the first to go numb, impacting bike control. But, most people don’t understand why they get cold.
If you’re wearing windproof, waterproof, insulated gloves and your hands still get cold, it’s not because you need to wear more layers or bulkier gloves (which can impair your ability to operate the clutch, throttle and brake), but rather it’s because your body is keeping all its warm blood in your torso to keep your organs up to temp. In short, your hands feel cold because your torso is too cold.
To prevent this, it’s often a case of better insulating or heating your torso. Put on an extra fleece under your jacket, seal off drafts better, cover your neck and tuck in your sweater. If that’s not enough, look into a heated vest. Most of the time, a heated vest alone will be enough to keep the entirety of your body warm. By keeping your core up to temp, it will keep warm blood actively pumping around your entire body, including your hands. This is why heated grips often feel hot to the touch, but still leave you with cold hands.
Another easy fix is to remove your hands from the airflow (although this doesn’t change the theory of core body temp above). Barkbusters do a good job, but cheapo bar muffs are even better. With muffs, you can ride in summer gloves year round, in any weather, you’ll just look like a total weirdo.
The only way to go is a motorcycle specific jacket and pants combo or one-piece suit. In addition to regular motorcycle things like impact protection and abrasion resistance, you should wear something that’s water and wind proof.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: nothing short of a vinyl rainsuit is 100% waterproof right out of the box. Even then, water can easily get past your neck, wrists and ankles. The trick is to not worry about getting wet and when you do, note how the water made its way in. Get creative and fix the problem. After a few cycles of this, you’ll have a waterproof outfit you can trust. Use silicone and tape (apply silicone, tape over, remove once dry) to seal up leaky stitching on boots. Use a spray-on or wash-in treatment for textiles. Use Seam Grip for (obviously) seams and around zippers.
You should also consider your gloves and boots. Cold weather gloves make an amazing difference. Despite what grizzled old pirates will tell you, operating clutch and brake levers with frost bike is incredibly painful. Arriving with pale blue hands and a bad mood sucks too. The solution is easy: buy and wear insulated cold weather gloves. If they’re not warm enough, wear glove liners too. Boots are even easier. Just about anything that isn’t a racing or summer boot will be reasonably water and wind proof and if yours are leather, it’s easy to add mink oil and beeswax. If you’re caught out in the rain with leaky boots, the quick fix is a couple of plastic bags. Put them on over your socks and ride on. SealSkinz take this idea one step further by tailoring fit and using modern materials.
There are other things you can do to stay warm. Grip heaters can be had for $20 or less, install easily and quickly on any bike and keep your hands warmer, even with thinner gloves. Do you check the weather before heading out? You should. And don’t just check temperature where you are, look up your destination as well and a few places along your route. Plan for changing weather too. If it’s 46º when you leave in the morning, but 84º when you’re coming home, make sure you have somewhere to store your extra layers. Also pay attention to windchill. At 85mph, 46º feels like 32º. I usually guess with a fair degree of accuracy what a given temperature will feel like at speed, but if that’s not your area of expertise, use a windchill calculator. If air is leaking past your collar, wear a scarf. They’re comfortable, cheap, effective and cool. Don’t have a dedicated winter riding suit? Tuck everything but your jacket into your jeans. It helps. Cold wrists can often be fixed this way too. Try wearing your gloves inside your jacket and tucking your shirt sleeves into the gloves. If your face gets cold, consider adding a Quiet Rider to your helmet and/or wearing a balaclava. Moist, warm air will make shields fog though, so you’ll probably need a pin-loc or fog city insert too.
Just because it’s a little colder outside, doesn’t mean you have to park your bike. With some forethought, you can stay warm and dry for very little money. Even a worn out old leather jacket and jeans can be warm if you wear the right stuff underneath them. And, if you’re a commuter, consider how much money you’ll save by not driving. Even if you spend it all on gear and break even, the fun you have will make it more than worth it.
What do you do to stay warm on cold rides?