Those of us living in the northern latitudes have recently been in the grip of a particularly cold blast of winter weather. Although many of us like to ride throughout the year, there are additional risks that need to be mitigated for cold weather riding:
Risk—Wind velocity effectively lowers the air temperature a motorcyclist is riding through. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services publishes a wind chill chart that explains the effect wind has on temperature. For example, 40-degree ambient air temperature with 60 mph of wind converts to 25 degrees. Riding in 10-degree weather at 60 mph is the equivalent of -19 degrees.
Mitigation—A rider’s first defense against wind chill is a windscreen, fairing, and a wind-resistant outer layer of riding gear, including a full-face helmet, gauntlet-style gloves, heavy socks, and boots and neck protection. This can be supplemented with insulating base layers and/or heated gear, depending on the level of protection needed.
Colder Temperatures at Higher Altitudes
Risk—Temperatures drop as riders gain altitude. The rule of thumb is that for every 1,000 feet of additional altitude the temperature will drop by approximately 3.5 degrees. Let’s say you’re riding along, moderately insulated, at a comfortable 50 degrees. When your route takes you up an additional 6,000 feet, however, the ambient air temperature will be around 29 degrees, without considering the effect of wind chill. Are you still comfortable?
Mitigation—Ride at lower altitudes in cold weather; reroute where necessary to avoid high mountain passes.
Risk—Once core body temperature falls below 95 degrees (remember, normal is 98.6), hypothermia has set in.
The initial symptoms, which usually begin slowly, are likely to include one or more of the following:
- Loss of coordination
- Slowed breathing and/or heart rate
An advanced stage of hypothermia is often indicated by one or more of these symptoms:
- Poor articulation of words
- Decrease in shivering followed by rigidity of muscles
- Decrease in respiration
- Blueness of skin
- Slow, irregular, or weak pulse
These symptoms indicate that the body’s metabolic processes are shutting down. The next and final symptom of hypothermia may be death.
Mitigation—It’s vitally important that riders recognize and address a hypothermic condition promptly. The body needs to be warmed up by getting off the bike at a location with warm shelter, consuming warm liquids, and evaluating whether it is safe to continue in current weather conditions. In the case of advanced hypothermia, seek medical assistance promptly.
Risk—Prolonged skin-tissue temperature of 23 degrees or less can cause temporary (superficial) or permanent (deep) damage to skin and blood vessels. Once blood stops flowing to frostbitten skin, tissue death begins. Ears, nose, hands, and feet are particularly susceptible. Another factor that can accelerate frostbite is if core body temperature is also falling. Your body is programmed to preserve the brain and other vital organs first, which may cause a reduction in blood flow to the extremities. The risk of frostbite in cold weather is dramatically higher for exposed skin.
Mitigation—Riding gear should cover and adequately insulate all exposed skin, and it should leave no indirect pathways for cold air to enter or warm air to escape.
Accidents Resulting from Impaired Thinking, Judgment, and/or Dexterity
Risk—Even the early stages of hypothermia or frostbite can substantially decrease a rider’s situational awareness and ability to avoid an accident. Injuries sustained in an accident are potentially made more serious by cold temperatures.
Mitigation—Seek warm shelter and medical attention as necessary.
Accidents Resulting from Loss of Traction
Risk—Once the temperature falls below freezing, the risk of a slippery road surface, caused by ice or snow, is greater. Black ice is a treacherous hazard, because riders may not identify it before it’s too late to take evasive action. Because mountainous areas can create their own climatic conditions, weather conditions and road surfaces can deteriorate quickly at higher altitudes.
Mitigation—Avoid riding in sub-freezing temperatures.
Getting Wet and Cold
Risk—The evaporative cooling effect of water on skin will cause a wet rider to lose body temperature much faster. Failure to adequately anticipate and prepare for the possibility of precipitation compounds a motorcyclist’s exposure to any and all of the above cold weather riding risks.
Mitigation—Don’t leave home without a complete set of raingear.
Cold weather risks are especially important on multi-day tours, because unlike a day ride there usually isn’t the option of quickly returning to the warmth of hearth and home. Long story short, use extra caution when riding in winter weather and seek shelter and/or medical assistance sooner rather than later.