Touring Tip: Know Your Cold Weather Riding Risks


Feb 08, 2013  by

Touring Tip: Know Your Cold Weather Riding Risks

We’ve recently been caught in the grip of a particularly cold blast of winter weather. So it bears repeating, from a previous Touring Tip, some of the additional risks of riding in cold weather. Here are seven worth keeping in mind:

  1. Wind Chill: As most everyone knows, wind velocity effectively lowers ambient temperature. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services publishes a wind chill chart (www.nws.noaa.gov/os/windchill/index.shtml), quantifying the effect that wind has on temperature. For example, a 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 Fahrenheit. 
  1. Colder Temperatures at Higher Altitudes: Anyone who has ever ridden in the mountains knows that the temperature drops as you 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 Fahrenheit. To understand the impact of gaining altitude, just do the math. 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 is now around 29 degrees, without considering the effect of wind chill. Are you still comfortable? 
  1. Hypothermia: Once core body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (remember normal is 98.6), hypothermia has begun to set in. The initial symptoms, which usually begin slowly, are likely to include one or more of the following: 
  • Shivering
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Drowsiness
  • Slowed breathing and/or heart rate

An advanced stage of hypothermia, requiring immediate medical attention, is indicated by one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Poor articulation of words
  • Disorientation
  • Amnesia
  • Decrease in shivering followed by rigidity of muscles
  • Decrease in respiration
  • Blueness of skin
  • A slow, irregular, or weak pulse

These symptoms indicate that the body’s metabolic processes are shutting down. Because the next and final symptom of hypothermia is likely to be death, it’s important to recognize and address a hypothermic condition promptly.

  1. Frostbite: Prolonged skin-tissue temperatures of 23 degrees Fahrenheit 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 of blood flow to the extremities. The risk of frostbite in cold weather is dramatically higher for exposed skin.
  1. Accidents Resulting from Impaired Thinking, Judgment, and/or Dexterity: 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 a crash are potentially made more serious by cold temperatures.
  1. Accidents Resulting from Loss of Traction: Once the temperature falls below freezing, the risk of a slippery road surface, caused by ice or snow, is obviously greater. Black ice is a particularly 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.
  1. Getting Wet and Cold: 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.

These risks are especially critical for riders on multi-day tours, because, unlike being on 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.

Now, tell us the coldest temperature you will ride in and how you mitigate the risks.

5 thoughts on “Touring Tip: Know Your Cold Weather Riding Risks

  1. Actually wind chill has nothing to do with temperature. If the temperature is -20 and the wind is 30mph on the thermometer, it is still only -20 and not -53 as the chart indicates.

    It (wind chill) is the measure of the degree of heat loss effect on warm items. So with the same scenario a warm blooded human’s exposed skin, would lose heat at the same rate as it was -53f.

    That being said it is easy to see that even a small increase in wind speed created by riding can increase the rate of heat loss on exposed skin but the temperature of the outside of your jacket etc would still only be the temperature of the air around it.

    • I saw a couple of sport bikers the weekend of Feb 2 riding in rally foggy and cold temps in nothing but riding jeans and their short Joe Rocket jackets. No sign of heated gear…it was about 2 C but between the fog and wind I bet it felt like way below zero on their bikes. I can not imagine having a good time riding that way or lasting long.

  2. Great tips on recognizing symptoms of hypothermia as it applies to riding. The problem is that most people don’t realize that hypothermia can happen to them and what to do if it happens. Carrying a first aid kit is essential as well as some kind of hypothermia prevention gear such as Blizzard Protection (www.blizzardprotection.com).

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