Being the VP of my local Legion Riders and a member of the Patriot Guard in addition to riding year round, I tend to see a lot of people riding their motorcycles out of respect in weather they normally would not ride in. It is pretty easy to spot who does not spend a lot of time riding in cold weather. They are usually either blue or look like Ralphie's kid brother in A Christmas Story.
Being comfortable when riding in the cold takes some education as well as trial and error. If you want to make a habit out of riding in colder weather, the #1 thing you have to accept is that you will constantly be putting on or taking off clothes to keep you warm but not sweating. The second rule to live by for cold weather riding is that if you wear it you can take it off, but if you don't have it you can't put it on.
This "spring" in SW Pennsylvania has sucked so far. The average high has been in the high 50's with night time temps dipping much lower. Of course six weeks ago it was much colder than that. Since picking up my bike after a rebuild in mid March, I have ridden over 2000 miles, over half of that at night, without a windshield. I can only think of one time that I was cold, and that is because I was wet, but that is an article for another day. Here I will attempt to share everything I ever learned about keeping warm outdoors and adapting it to the motorcycle. First, let's start with the feet. For the rest of the article, the wicking layer and base layer are the same thing.
The reason for starting at the feet is two fold. First, it is the one part of your cold weather clothing that will be the least adjusted. Second, not knowing what you are doing can lead to them to get cold faster than anything else because they are so far away from your core. First things first, and you will see this again...NO COTTON. Cotton soaks up moisture which can lead to hypothermia and frostbite, especially on your toes. No matter how cold the ride is, if you get off and walk around for a while your feet will begin to sweat. Once you start to ride again you will feel what I mean. You should always carry a spare pair of socks for this reason. If you absolutely have to wear cotton socks, wear a pair of dollar store knee high nylons underneath them. Not only will you feel vulnerable, but the nylon is incapable of retaining moisture and will act like a wick to carry the moisture to the cotton sock where it will be retained. Hands down my favorite sock is Fox River over the calf wicking boot sock. I wear these year round, except for the coldest of days. At about $10 a pair, they may be a bit salty for some until we cover what I wear on those days when they are not enough. On the coldest of days, I wear Alpaca socks. You can usually find good ones for about $25 to $35. The fibers are hollow and they are super warm. You can also wear them for days without them stinking because they are naturally antibacterial. My advice would be to just bite the bullet and get three pairs of the Fox River and one pair of Alpaca. DO NOT put Alpaca socks in the drier unless you need baby booties.
Boots- I don't have motorcycle boots. Riding for me is not a weekend thing. It is an everyday thing, so I wear the boots that I wear every other day. Most of the time that means Doc Marten 6 eyelet classics. These using either the Fox River or Alpaca socks keep me warm and dry save for about a handful of days a year. On those days, I wear my Merrill Men's Wilderness hiking boot. They are pricey but they are also the only hiking boot made in the US that can be resoled. They have a GORE-TEX liner and when coupled with the Alpaca socks have never let my feet get cold.
Whatever boot you wear, remember that socks are the important part, your base layer. Be sure not to lace your boots too tight as it reduces circulation, and circulation is key to keeping warm.
The legs, or more importantly the crotch. Even though most do everyday, you don't want cotton all up in your wedding tackle. You can either get some Bare Naked undies from Deluth Trading or go commando. Being the Cheap Biker guess what option I choose. When you are done bleaching your minds eye let's talk long underwear. Again you are going to want to ditch the cotton and go with something synthetic. You will usually find these in three weights; silk, medium, and heavy. Avoid the heavy unless you want to look like you have a load of shit in your pants. These do a great job of wicking the moisture off of your nasty bits out to your pants. Obviously the old standby for bikers is jeans....jeans made out of cotton. I ditched them several years back in favor of these and have never looked back. The first time you get caught in a little rain wearing them they will pay for themselves. Being a blend, they dry super fast....unlike jeans. Chaps do a great job of keeping everything else warm except for your jewels. For this reason, I usually wear my rain suit bottoms instead.
The torso is most easily explained with the graphic in the beginning of the article. Just a tid bit, when that picture was taken I was picking my bike up from the shot in February and it was 18 degrees. It was a Merrill hiking boot and Alpaca socks kinda day.
No doubt that when you purchased your base/wicking layer you got the top too. It needs to be worn against your skin, not over a cotton t-shirt. Over that is your insulation layer, which should also be synthetic. This is where lots of people wear a cotton sweatshirt. If the cold starts getting to you at your hands, feet, and legs it probably won't kill ya. That comes from a cold torso because of the percentage of your over all skin that makes up the torso as well as the fact that your heart and lungs are in there. Moisture is either coming from the outside in like rain, or from the inside out like sweat. Either way, if it is stuck against your skin, you are going to have a bad day. The insulation layer should be a little baggy giving a place for air to be trapped to be heated up. If it is synthetic, it will dry from the heat of your body. I like to have a few different weights of insulation layers to choose from depending on the weather as well as the plans for the day.
The last part of protecting your torso is the wind/waterproof layer. When it comes to the top layer, I wear have four different options depending on the circumstances. The one thing all of them have in common is that they are all a little baggy so that I add insulation layers if needed. From heaviest to lightest, they are my leather motorcycle jacket, a garage jacket, a Frogg Toggs Toad Rage Jacket, and a wind shirt.
Not sure how I survived before I had my Schampa Pharaoh face mask. Not only does it keep my head warm while wicking away moisture, it is long in the front and the back to protect your neck where cold air loves to sneak in. In my opinion, it is a must have, especially for the price. I am not a full face helmet kinda guy, so I use Big Ben over glasses goggles along with my Daytona Slim Line helmet. The Big Ben's are hands down the best goggles I have ever worn personally or professionally and I have worn many. They are inexpensive, flexible, and give you great peripheral vision.
Being a long time fan of Mechanix gloves, especially the Fast-Fit series, I use their M-Pact gloves for riding. If it is pretty cold, I wear them under a pair of USGI Shooters Mittens. When it is "holy shit" cold, I wear the Shooter Mittens with the issued wool liners. This combination has kept me warm on the coldest days. Now, how to make it all work.
Piping is the practice of hiding your skin from the wind. For example- you tuck your base layer top into your base layer bottom and pull your insulation layer over it as well. If your base layer top was outside of your base layer bottom, wind would easily find your skin by just blowing up. Tucking it makes the wind have to go up under the insulation layer and make a U-Turn to go down the base layer to find the skin. This is also the idea of using the shooters mittens or gauntlet style gloves that you pull over the sleeves of your top layer. If not, the wind would blow up your sleeves.
Cinching is most often done with your top wind/waterproof layer. Remember we said how important it was to keep your core warm? This is how you do it. Tighten closures at the wrist, around the waist, and around the neck to trap the heat generated by your upper body, most specifically the armpits.
It is imperative that you don't allow yourself to get overheated which will lead to sweating. This most often occurs when you are out for a ride, all dolled up in your cold weather gear, and stop somewhere like a stop and rob or a restaurant and don't want to be bothered with taking some of your gear off. You will begin to sweat in four places- feet, crotch, armpits, and the small of your back. Once that moisture is there, especially if you are not wearing wicking layers, and you get back on the bike, you will soon be freezing. To avoid this, first remove anything on your head or around your neck. This is a super vascular part of your body and you can literally let off steam by doing this. Next, undo the piping points at your wrists, and waist. Then, depending on temperature and length of stop, take off your torso's top layer and maybe even the insulation layer. This is a good time to check all your gear for moisture. The hand dryers in restrooms are a great place to dry things out.
In closing, whenever you ride and it is not a perfect day, it is still a great day to ride. At the end of the day, ask yourself how comfortably you were on a scale of 1-10 and adjust fire accordingly the next time you go out on a day like that. Soon it will be second nature.