On a motorcycle, wind chill can turn cold into very cold. For a rider at 55mph, it can turn a cool 63°F day into temperatures approach freezing point. So on a cold day, a rider gets really cold. Coldness distracts from riding, cold fingers cant feel the bike controls and a chilled body gives hypothermia where one cant think clearly. Yet with the right gear, you can be snug in almost any weather.
The layer system
The layer system lets you adapt to the cold. I have a warm jacket but sometimes in winter it is not enough. The layer system lets you add layers for extra warmth. It is not the thickness of each layer that counts but the number of layers, because the air between layers is also an insulator. On a long cold trip, I might wear:
- A warm body vest (thermal optional).
- A warm shirt over that.
- A warm woolen waistcoat over that.
- A light windbreaker over that.
- And a full riding jacket over it all.
Can it really get that cold? Sure it can, especially on a long trip! The layer system gives flexibility. If it warms up, take a layer off, like the waistcoat or windbreaker. If it gets colder, stop and add one. I always carry a windbreaker as a spare layer. Layering also works for rain, as if water gets through one layer, the next one stops it.
The layer system also works for feet, hands and legs. Two pairs of socks, an thin inner pair and an thick outer one, are better than one very thick pair. Glove liners, thin fingered gloves worn inside your main gloves, increase warmth in cold conditions. In extreme conditions, glove covers worn outside your gloves give extra warmth and waterproofing. For the legs, inner long-johns add warmth, and lightweight leggings can pull over heavy leggings for an extra layer.
Don’t be an iceberg
Even with good gear, in mid-winter you can often only go an hour or less before you have to stop. When the body isn’t regenerating the heat you are losing fast enough, you slowly turn into an iceberg. Normally you generate heat by moving about but its dangerous to move about to warm up while riding. Recognize that once your main body heat drains away, you have to stop. It only gets worse from here. And when you stop at a cafe to warm up with a coffee, it can can take 10-20 minutes for your main body heat to return. Stopping every half hour is not a good way to take a long trip so warm gear is the way to avoid that. When traveling, keeping warm is mostly about hanging on to the heat you have.
The weakest link
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so what about a freezing wind coming up under your helmet on a cold day? As you go faster, the problem increases and a frozen face is bad news. I find a scarf helpful here. Push one end up under the helmet to stop the wind chill on your face. A balaclava is better, but you have to put that on in advance under your helmet. A scarf is like a cheap balaclava that you can just pull up over your face as needed. Flexibility rocks!