Google+ Two-Wheeled Tourist: Long Distance Cold Weather Riding - Part One: Outfitting Yourself


Long Distance Cold Weather Riding - Part One: Outfitting Yourself

Nearly seven years of riding in CA has gotten me spoiled.

I was fortunate to have begun my motorcycling career in Southern California, a place where the weather is always tolerable and/or pleasant and the traffic made every freeway and street a jungle gym for two-wheeled vehicles. To touch on the first part of that last statement, preparing for a constant streak of truly "cold" weather (this definition will cover temps below 45°F, also known as a "state emergency" in Southern California) in combination with ATGATT (All The Gear, All The Time) never crossed my mind. Back at home, a normal ride would consist of throwing on all the gear and riding across the freeway with the breeze flowing through the helmet with any and every air vent on the jacket and pants wide open to prevent sweat. On some days, we Californians may have had to *gasp* put the liners in our mesh jackets. A tragedy to say the least.

Flash forward to a December in Central Ohio. While many motorcycles in my area have already been winterized and have begun their several months of hibernation, Matt and I are still riding our mechanical beasts for as long as the winter weather doesn't bring the snowfall. I am still a believer in riding year-round, although this adjustment to Midwest conditions will make this a slight bit more challenging. One of the largest hurdles in this accomplishment (and I emphasize that word, accomplishment, because it does take willpower to pull off what we do), is bundling up and riding against potentially painful cold winds and weather.

Earlier this week, Matt and I rode 600 miles in two days from Columbus to Urbana, IL and back. We had decided to ride because, well, it's cheaper, and weather forecasts stated that there was less than a 15% chance of any precipitation at all the major cities we would cross (technically, just Indianapolis, IN). In preparation for the run, we planned our riding gear and stops for this trip. I will try to break this down into "factors" we had to consider during this journey.

Windchill factor: The temperature in Columbus on the day of our departure was 37°F (and falling). That's before factoring in that we were maintaining a constant speed of 65-75MPH on I-70. This meant that the actual temperature we would be experiencing would be significantly lower than what my on-bike thermometer would read. I've pulled the wind chill chart from NOAA to show this point.
Using the table, 40°F in calm weather combined with a speed of 60MPH brings down the temperature to 25°F. Yeah, that's below water's freezing point.

Now, consider that our return to Columbus averaged approximately 25°F in calm weather. That combined with a speed of 60MPH brought the ambient temperature down to 3°F. So, our riding temperature range during this trip was anywhere from 25°-3°F at 60MPH. Since our speeds were, at times, reaching 70-75MPH (Indiana's speed limit is 70MPH), the range lowered even further to 19°-1°F.  That's what we were riding through for 600 miles. Holy crap, that's cold.

Constant exposure to cold temperatures: If this was a short, typical ride to work on I-270, dealing with 19° degrees (assuming freeway speeds) wouldn't be that bad. However, long distance riding also compounds the cold weather problem because you are exposed to a constant stream of wind, like getting locked in the giant dairy refrigerator room at Meijer with nothing but a polo shirt on.

As much as you bundle up properly, the equipment that you wear doesn't have time to defrost or warm up when it's being battered by the wind. So it's either doing one of two things: (1) keeping you insulated for the first 60-70 miles and then beginning to slowly refrigerate your appendages or (2) if it's electrical gear, trying to cancel out the cold by producing its own heat, leaving your body parts "comfortably" cold but not freezing.

Unfortunately, after the use of wind-blocking gear and thick, heat-conserving clothing, there aren't many solutions to steady refrigeration without resorting to heated gear and constant breaks. Of course, there are short-term solutions such as chemical heat packets as well. My personal strategy for defrosting was to take a break that was long enough to allow my gear to return to room temperature. That would give the gear more endurance against the effects of the cold until the next stop.

Insulation factor: As a veteran of four cross-country trips over 2,500 miles (as of 2009), I've learned that having a wide selection of gear to mix and match makes riding in any possible condition more comfortable and increases ride confidence and stamina. In this situation, I thought about my gear and came up with this pretty effective combination for this winter riding. Please keep in mind that some of this gear has been in my collection for a while; these were not whim purchases. Links are included for your reference.
In the end, all this gear fit comfortably and movement wasn't a factor at all. In addition, this gear fit in a such a way that there were no holes where wind could enter. Typically, weak points in gear are the neck and hand areas. Those are sensitive areas to cold so we took extra diligence to seal any openings.

So, what does it really feel like? Depending on the bike you own, whether or not you've got a windshield installed, and other factors, it is cold, but covering your bases on the areas I mentioned above will make the ride more tolerable and enjoyable. Besides, it would put a smirk on your face when you can tell all your CA riding buddies, "Hey, where I ride, I can freeze ice cubes!"

Some important tips to remember while preparing yourself to ride in the cold:
  • Check your tire pressure on your bike before leaving. Cold weather will decrease your tire pressure and affect control and fuel economy. Invest in a small tire gauge and keep it in your bike. It's a good habit to do so anyway, regardless of the weather.
  • Layers are your friend. The basic rule of thumb when dressing for the cold is to keep your core warm by wearing the tightest layers first and then building over them. Find your own combination of compression shirts, wind blocking jerseys, face coverings, and other riding gear that will keep you protected while still allowing for a good range of movement.
  • Block the wind. Cover every part of your body. Once wind finds a hole in your gear, your ability to ride through it will diminish because you'll be spending your time freezing as the air will shoot up any area you leave open. Remember that insulation is useless unless you've properly sealed every orfice that wind (and in some cases, water) can enter.
  • Consider electric gear. So far, I only have a pair of electric gloves, but they have been excellent in keeping frostbite and loss of feeling to the hands at bay. Although, this is a luxury option for most people, it can greatly enhance the cold weather riding experience, given that you've already bundled up properly.
  • Stay hydrated. You will stay warmer if you have liquid in your system. Drink water. Have a hot chocolate at your stop. Your body will thank you later.
  • Stay dry. Ever had cold water poured on your skin? Not fun. Moisture attracts the cold, so stay dry and you'll last longer out there.
  • Take more breaks. Being cold already takes a lot of energy to manage so try not to wear yourself out before you arrive at your destination.
  • Practice riding with your gear. Please experiment with your gear at shorter distances and in familiar areas before trying to go for the big trip. An effective collection of motorcycle gear takes miles to perfect. Even after 100,000 miles on my own all-time odometer, I'm still enhancing equipment on both my bike and my person.
It's not an easy task to ride at these temperatures, but with a little preparation and understanding of cold weather, you can extend your riding season by weeks, months, or even close to year-round. Good luck!

I plan to address issues on the actual motorcycle in Part Two of my commentary on long distance cold weather riding. Stay tuned!