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Motorcycling in Winter & Extreme Cold

Adventure Motorcycle Riding in Winter

Why wrap your bike up every winter, wrap yourself up instead and get out and about to enjoy some of the most rewarding motorcycling experiences available. Winter riding is more challenging, and takes more consideration however is equally as enjoyable as any other time of the year. Here are some tips to get the most out of it. See at the bottom of each section for Extreme advice, for Arctic or Alpine travel.

 

Bike Prep

Shorter winter rides need little extra preparation above a warm set of clothes, however be aware that riding in winter should always be done with forethought and preparation. Check your tyres (more on this below), lights and brakes. All must be in good order, with spare bulbs being carried, as there is more chance you will need them to get home, than long summer ride outs. Be sure to carry tools and a torch so you can use them.

It is worth applying anti corrosion measures to the bike before setting out, roads are salted in winter to bring down the freezing point of water that settles on the surface therefore preventing Icing.

The salt on the roads will eat into the highest quality bike parts, ACF90 is a common one, as is Scottoiler FS365. I hear of people using WD40, I find this good as a water dispersant, so it chases out any water from the bike, but not as a rust inhibitor. Although others might disagree I see WD40 as a good thing to use just after you have washed your bike, rather than before the ride. Also, Waxoil can be used for inside steel frames and pannier racks, this is highly effective and only needs be applied once, but not for outside surfaces. If you don’t mind the mess, don’t be afraid to grease parts that might be vulnerable, just be sure the parts are not near where you will be in contact with the bike or you will transfer the grease all around. Keep any application away from the brakes and importantly, after finishing any application be sure to wipe clean your light and indicator lenses, a dirty lens seriously impedes the light output. Regardless of the above a good hose down after use will help wash away road salt.

Another less obvious consideration is Icing of Carburettors, I had an old ZXR 750 H1, and if I set off and got hard on the throttle I’d get fuel starvation. It turned out to be the carbs being prone to icing inside. This was solved by warming the bike up gently and thoroughly before pinning the throttle back. I expect this will be less of an issue on modern bikes, but be aware of this for older and modified bikes.

Your winter ride will be a little more fun if you have a windshield and hand guards equipped, although not essential the benefit of keeping the wind at bay will allow you to be less well layered and only prove to help keep you warm and dry. This also helps keep road salt contamination more to the outside cleanable areas of the bike. Some Riders wear a gaucho type leg cover, great for a scooter and used all around Europe and gaining popularity here. 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • Prepare for difficulty starting, at low temperatures oil thickens and the heat differentials between cold and warm are greater. Also the battery performance is reduced due to the cold, and starter gears have been known to freeze. If you live in the far North you will already have the means to pre-heat your oil sump with a plug in heating element that is wired to the vehicle. See the videos by Saak Lucassen, this will give an insight into using heating wire to help. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCc2PljqnXA

Alternatively Heat pads can be placed around the battery to warm it up, (or take it off into a warm room) and it has been known to warm the sump with a stove, but this is obviously a risky move only as a last resort.

  • Apply any measures you can to the bike to deflect wind, wind chill becomes very serious, and any gaps in clothing that expose skin can get frost bitten. So fairings, handlebar muffs are a must have.
  • If your only journey is in the cold consider changing the oil to a thinner viscosity. Take care when doing this as often the start point of such rides is warmer than the main event, so selecting a good multigrade will help. Try contacting Motorcycle Forums in Alaska or Scandinavia for tips on oil selection for your bike.
  • You will fall off…… so check your bikes protection, crash bars, or the addition of crash bobbins (crash protectors).  Take spare brake and clutch levers and scrutinise your bike for items that can be broken if dropped. Practice picking the bike up, be sure you have a good technique as picking the bike up on ice will be more difficult.
  • Have a way to defrost your ignition lock.
  • Most riders in these conditions have a side car equipped, many others fit small ski’s each side of the bike. These are stabilisers, however I  have seen riders actually standing on the ski’s while riding.  
  • A bike cover can be helpful, it will help keep some of the snow and frost off the bike.
  • If your motorcycle is liquid cooled, drain the coolant and refill with new coolant mixed to cope with the temperatures you expect to encounter. 

Planning Your ride

Road Salt (Grit) works well down to -5C and becomes ineffective at -8C. So be aware of forecasts when choosing to ride. Keep in mind to prepare for rain at 1C, but below that prepare for snow. If riding in mountains then this can be difficult to prepare as you will need to be equipped for all weathers and be sure not to get wet before climbing to colder area’s where what was manageable at a lower altitude can quickly become hypothermic.

Personally, I don’t like to be the first and last person on the roads, as the pressure and friction of car and truck tyres will keep a busy road ridable. Also it is probably true that winter riding has its own risks, so if riding alone it is wise to leave your route with someone. Finally, about planning, with night’s drawing in fast, it is essential to be able to keep to your intended route, it’s no fun being lost in the dark and cold, there is less room for error. 

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • You will need to build up experience for Extreme weather riding. Do not just go for it, without a lot or preparation and planning. People who live in these regions make it look easy, but it comes with a lifetime of experience of the cold.
  • Don’t be too ambitious, not all high passes will be possible or even open, so try and use forums or local motorcycle clubs to understand road conditions in advance so you don’t find yourself with long back-tracks due to closed roads.

 

Tyres

Tyres are vitally important due to reduced road grip. Most tyres will suffice for UK riding, a decent tread pattern is an advantage as it will help displace water, consideration needs to be more seriously taken when venturing into Europe or Scandinavia.  Legally you may be required to equip winter tyres or even studded tyres to ride in ice or snow. Here is an example of the German legislation which states you do need to have winter tyres if riding in Ice or Snow. http://www.adac.de/infotestrat/reifen/winterreifen/Winterreifenpflicht/default.aspx

Look out for tyres marked, (Winterreif or M+S). For Adventure bikes look out for options from Continental, Heidenau, Mitas and Anlas.  I have found that Winter Tyres do improve grip, so worth the investment if you expect to ride a lot in winter. Winter tyres have a fit for purpose tread pattern and often are made with Silica added to the tyres rubber compound so they don’t harden up in low temperatures. They do wear out quicker, but do seem to give improved grip (my experiences are with TKC80’s and K60 Scout’s).

A final note on tyres, you will need to be aware or variants in tyre pressures for extreme temperatures. This doesn’t mean you will need to adjust the pressures, it just means if you check them expect to see the pressure reading higher in hot weather and lower in cold. Look online for details on this as it’s a detailed subject that can’t be covered well here. Some will advocate lowering tyre pressures a few psi so the tyre footprint is increased therefore giving better traction, there is sense in this however to date I have always run standard pressures with good tyres unless going off road. 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • Studs set into knobbly tyres gives good traction on ice, better than any other alternative and is the first choice if riding to the Primus, Fjord or Krystal rallies. If travelling North for this type of event or going for the Arctic Circle in winter, then contact a motorcycle shop in a big city on route and ask what Studded tyre options they have. The studs grip the ice, and the knobblies carve through deep snow. Note: the ice will get less slippery the colder the temperature, the ice we are used to in the UK is normally smooth and slippery, however in Scandinavia, the ice is mostly not like this, making it a less frightening prospect.   
  • If you want to stud your own tyres, studs are available from Best Grip http://www.supatracks.com/pdfs/bestgrip-screw-in-ice-studs.pdf 

Ice racers and other more serious fitters of studs may line the inside of the tyre with a liner to stop the stud penetrating the tube, however with a deep tread tyre it is possible to stud your own tyres with the aid of a power drill without breaking through.  Studs should be applied randomly around the tyre, typically you will need a minimum of approximately 80 studs per tyre depending on configuration.

  • If you are riding in alpine regions or regions where the ice and snow is only at altitude or intermittent or where surprise downfalls of snow are possible, then studded tyres may be at best impractical and at worst illegal.  In this circumstance, Tyre Chains are a good option, as they can be carried and fitted with relative ease, although they do require some practice. Wunderlich.de offer these for BMW bikes, I believe these are made by Staudacher in Germany, however it’s easier to communicate and order with Wunderlich although on the Motorang website all the details of the manufacturer are present and this website has a lot of information about chains and winter riding in general, so if a non BMW rider see the link. http://motorang.com/staudacher/index_english.htm
  • If using chains, don’t try and fit them to studded or knobbly tyres. The studs can damage and the deep wide tread surrounds the chain so it cannot do its job. Winter tyres are recommended as they stay soft in low temperatures.

Clothing

Wind chill and rain are the main enemies. I found my Summer riding trousers and jacket are too tight to get my winter layers beneath. So it might be the case that larger outer layers are required to remain comfortable. The key to getting clothing right is to apply what you know about summer riding and rain repellence and add in more layers. It is not always a great idea to pack in the layers too tight because your outer clothing is too small, keep the clothing comfortable and allow for loft of the insulating layers. The same goes for boots, you will need space for the extra layers to feel their benefit.  

For short rides the addition of Merino wool base layer is good, as merino wool is warm and wicks away any perspiration.  I find wearing a Buffalo windshirt and buffalo trousers as a base layer particularly good, these are very warm when worm next to the skin and keep you warm even if your outer clothing leaks.   http://www.buffalosystems.co.uk/products/windshirt/  Importantly the windshirt is windproof but has a detachable hood, as neck space is a problem on almost all clothing I have tried, once the layers get piled on, so integral hoods are to be avoided.

Down jackets also work well over a base layer and under a shell layer but you must keep them dry, so have a failsafe outer layer. Although winter spec motorcycle clothing should be the first choice, Mountaineering clothing does give great cold, wet and wind protection, however lacks the armour, so it can be considered if you want to supplement this with stand alone bike armour from say Knox or Forcefield. I tend to go this route, but mainly because I already have good cold weather mountaineering clothes.

Before your first long ride, get geared up and take a short fast ride, try and feel for the cold spots in your set up, these are most likely to be neck, cuffs, helmet shins. Ensure your trousers are long enough, gloves have a gauntlet, you have a windproof neck and chin protector and helmet vents seal closed. It may be required to wear a thin balaclava under your helmet or tape over the vents to keep the heat in. I wear a Cyclists under helmet cap from Aldi, it is a small cap for the very top of the head and works great, and when I stop I put my wool hat over the top of this, so don’t lose any heat. Remember the Eskimo saying, “if your feet are cold put your hat on”. Most heat is lost from the head. Do the same in the rain, test your kit for leaks, as the cold will exploit any area that gets wet.

For long rides heated clothing is ideal, I prefer heated gloves to grips, although grips are a certain benefit, and work very well with handlebar muffs. I also prefer a long sleeve heated jacket to a vest. Heated trousers are rarely needed in the UK, and I wear Sorel boots, rather than motorcycle boots, so my feet stay warm and dry without heated insoles or socks. If you are going to use heated clothing, (I use Gerbing) check out the advice online about fuse ratings, and if your bike’s electrical system is up to it. Two of the best things I equipped to my bike is a Large Odyssey Battery and Voltmeter, although voltage is not the best measure, it tells me if with lights, satnav, clothing etc in use if I am >12v or <12V. Obviously, if you stay at <12V for too long the battery will be being drained. This method has served me well and helped identify faults in the charging system straight away, with enough battery reserves to get to my destination. Gerbing have a very nice panel mounted temperature controller, this will help, as it regulates the current required therefore not taking up so much valuable alternator output. An important note regarding heated clothing, it is possible to slip heated clothing under your normal bike gear and ride very comfortably, it is normally thin, and will fit and keep you warm. This is well and good until there is a problem, or you stop riding. These jackets/ trousers do not have much insulation in them, so once you stop you get cold quick, and if a long way from home the journey could be punishing if you don’t have a back up plan, so use them as a luxury, enjoy the warmth, but have ample clothing with you to put on if needed.  

Finally a real problem is visor icing or misting, a pinlock insert works very well, and mine remains fog free below zero. Riding with your visor up is not pleasant so it is useful to keep something to hand to keep it clean, particularly for night riding. It is handy to wear some safety glasses under your visor, so you can ride on a little further if your visor does need to be lifted due to dirt.

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • Specialist clothing will be required for Arctic travel. In these conditions waterproofing is not so important as it doesn’t rain, so most Snow Mobile clothing focusses on insulation more than high levels of waterproofing.  This can be a problem, and is the reason Ski suits are not a great option as over-wear unless you know for sure temperatures will always be sub-zero.
  • Use a layering system, like the above, but end with a large quilted over suit, Sallopette type trousers help keep wind from around the middle and the mid layers need to be substantial. If using heated clothing, have ample surrounding clothing to hold in the heat, so when you stop it is not wasted.
  • Do not sweat…. Remove layers if you get too hot. Sweat is a real danger, it’s ok while you are warm, but if you get cold the wet areas of your clothes can freeze. This will then put your bodies heating system under strain to fight against ice next to the skin.
  • If you wear a balaclava expect for it to freeze around your mouth as the condensation turns to ice. Klim make an arctic balaclava with a wind proof front, closed eye are and a breathing channel around the nose and mouth to allow the vapour to go out easily. 
  • Check out snow mobile boots and helmets, also snow mobile helmets do come with optional heated visors, this will help stop the visor from freezing. In the UK such equipment is hard to find, so look in Scandinavia, North America or Canada for online shops. FXR is a reputable brand.
  • Snow mobile helmets often require goggles, get goggles that fit the Helmet, shops can advise which products match, what you don’t want is a mismatch where cold air can get to exposed skin. Also snow mobile goggles are not vented like other goggles we can get in the UK, so be sure to consult a specialist retailer when purchasing. I am told it is always wise to take a spare set of goggles as they can freeze up and be hard to clean/thaw out.
  • Do not pack the clothing layers tight, give room for the thermal insulation to have some loft, starting with a merino wool or fibre pile base layer next to the skin (these both wick away sweat) which can be a snug fit, be sure the mid and outer layer is neither too loose or tight. You need to move and be comfortable without tight spots of clothing.

 

Riding Techniques

Slow and steady… Grip is reduced so gives obvious braking cornering issues and in freezing conditions a smooth riding approach is essential. Not having ever had a bike with ABS or traction control it is hard for me to comment, but on a traditional bike the difference in technique is preparation of the mind first. Most importantly give more braking distance, pay more attention to road surfaces, keep your visor clean (it will need attention), limit where possible breaking into a corner or acceleration while leaving it, avoid tar strips and manhole covers when cornering, don’t let the cold or needing the toilet (I am always reluctant to peel off the layers to go!) compromise you attention, expect to stop more often. Plan to stop every hour, when sat stationary for long periods the body only generates a small amount of heat, unlike when active, so sitting still on a bike for long periods will make you more prone to this than usual. Take breaks, walk around (but don’t get sweaty), eat something calorific, drink hot chocolate, or soup.

There are more advanced riding techniques that I am not qualified to teach, such as pulsing brake pedals, changing front/rear brake balance, shifting weight and steering rather than leaning into bends. Taking care, being alert and not in a hurry has always served me well.

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • More taking care!!! When running studs and tyres, both can be damaged with excessive wheel spin. I have heard stories of people getting to NordKapp on studs, only to have lost most of them along the way, leading to a more slippery return journey.  If a chains is worn or damaged and breaks it can cause serious damage and will almost certainly lead to a crash. 
  • Expect slow progress on snow and ice, certainly with snow chains speeds of 30-40km/hr are to be observed.
  • Take care if riding with legs down, in a crash your legs are more likely to get trapped and you be under the bike.

 

Health

Dehydration can be an issue, when wrapped up and cold, drinking can be overlooked, and the hassle of using the toilet when fully geared up can also put you off drinking. Be sure not to overlook this, as alertness and attention span can seriously be effected. Be aware of symptoms of Hypothermia, if caught out in the cold, through accident, breakdown or sudden change in the weather an awareness of what to do is invaluable. Below are useful links with detailed information.

 

http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Dehydration/Pages/Symptoms.aspx

 

Arctic-Extreme Tips

  • If heading North, understand and prevent frost bite and hypothermia at all cost.

http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Frostbite/Pages/Treatment.aspx

http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/hypothermia/Pages/symptoms.aspx

 

  • Learn some survival skills, and carry some basic items that can make fire, and warm drinks and food. A foil blanket or bothy shelter is worth having, or use your bike cover for an emergency shelter! Most Scandinavian roads will see regular traffic, but if venturing away from civilisation even by a few hundred meters, you really need to be able to take care of yourself. A foot through some ice into water can be enough to put you in real danger. Consult other sites on this subject for detailed information.

 

The information provided here is opinion only from personal experience, and other sources verbal and online, this information is to help stimulate your ideas, so please take it as it is meant, and research heavily for yourself if planning an extreme cold trip.

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