Heated Gear and What you Need to Stay Arm This Winter
We’ve all been there, you decide to go for a ride thinking “It’s not that cold, I will be fine,” but then a few miles down the road you realize it’s going to be a miserable ride. See, where most riders end up messing up it they dress for the temperature it is. In actuality it is best to dress for about twenty degrees colder than what it is, so say it’s 50 degrees outside, you should dress like it was 30. The problem with this approach is that wearing all those layers can restrict your movement and delay your reaction times. There’s also the matter of gearing up. It takes a while to get on that many layers and keeping them all in the right pace can be a chore, but if you don’t then you let wind in and freeze. Thankfully the industry is good about providing us with everything we need, hey, it’s in their best interest too right? So, lets take a look at some of the gear you should invest in this winter to keep you warm and safe on the roads. I will also include some tips for those on a shoe string budget. Not everyone is going to want to opt for a full system.
Keep that Noggin Warm
Let’s start at the top and work our way down. When most people think of headgear they never think beyond a helmet and maybe a bandanna, but there is a much better option for keeping you warm when you are riding. A balaclava is a full face mask similar to a ski mask, but made out of a thinner, smoother material to help with getting your helmet on and off. You could use a ski mask, but you are not going to get the same level of warmth you would from a balaclava. You will also end up increasingly frustrated because the course materials used in cheap ski masks will grab your helmets liner and pull the mask down. This means you will not only have to struggle with getting the helmet to go over it without tearing it, but then you will have to go back and make adjustments after your helmet is on. This can end up costing you several minutes and is, quite honestly, just an unneeded hassle.
There are several factors to look for when selecting a balaclava. For example, they are not strictly for motorcycle use, so a large portion of them will be out right from the start since these would never fit under a helmet. Second, you need to look for one with some type of wind proofing layer. Cheaper balaclavas will not have this layer, instead opting for a simple cloth covering. The problem with this is that without a wind proof coating the wind coming up into your helmet is just going to blow right through it and chill your face anyway. The third thing we need to look for is one with a fleece inner liner. This will help keep you even warmer than a basic balaclava with a wind shield.
In addition to keeping you warm some higher end balaclavas have a moisture absorbent liner to keep your breath from fogging your face shield. This is especially good in the winter. I don’t know about you, but everyone I know that rides in the winter wears a full face helmet full time. This can prove invaluable since even just stopping at a red light on a cold night can fog you shield faster than you would think.
One last thing to keep in mind when selecting a balaclava, it should cover your head and neck without restricting your vision. Ideally a balaclava will leave just enough room around your eyes that you are not going to have issues seeing and it is not likely to slip into your line of sight. It should also be long enough to comfortably cover your neck and tuck deep into your jacket to prevent any drafts from getting in.
Be sure to avoid cheap balaclavas that don’t have these features since they will do little to nothing to keep you warm this winter. Also, as a general rule of thumb, avoid buying any face covering with a skull unless you intend to use it solely for aesthetics. These are mass produced Chinese face coverings that will not do anything to keep you warm. I speak from experience here, though I did buy it just to wear with my Bell Rogue helmet, these things will not do a thing to keep you warm, the wind blows right through them.
On a closing note, I would like to mention that you can buy heated helmets, but these usually just heat the face shield. This is still something to consider, however, since if you live in a really cold area this is about as close to the convenience of a defroster as you can get on a bike. These helmets are marketed for snowmobiles, but the good ones still have DOT certification, so you can wear them on the street as well. The downside here is that these are still off road helmets, so if it has a visor this can cause issue at speeds if the wind happens to grab it and can increase buffeting. If you take the visor off though, these will translate well to highway use. The addition of a heated face shield means you don’t have to worry about it fogging up when you stop at a red light or stop sign. This can be a life saver on really cold nights when it is humid. Sitting at a light in the cold sucks as it is, you don’t need to be left blind by the experience too.
One last plus about a good balaclava, they are great for earbuds. We have all been there, you are trying to get your earbuds to stay in while you put your helmet on, but they just keep coming out. Well, with a balaclava they are not going anywhere. This is thanks to the design of the balaclava. First, it hugs your head, so it’s going to actually be holding the earbuds in. Second, since it is a tight, smooth covering there is nothing for your helmet to grab onto to pull them out. Usually it is one of the cords that has gotten caught and keeps pulling, but that won’t be an issue here. The disadvantage of this is that either your headphone cord will either end up going down into your jacket, then coming out of your collar, or coming out of the bottom of your jacket. I usually run the cord around my ear and out the face of the balaclava. This lets me have the cord coming out of my helmet like normal and doesn’t force me to have the cord pulled tight which can ruin your earbuds.
Warm to the Core
Moving on down the line, next we arm going to take a look at jackets. Here we have a few more options than we did with out face. When it comes to jackets we have the option of getting a wind proof base layer and a normal jacket on top which is warm, but still isn’t ideal for anything below 40 or so degrees without additional layers. The next option is to buy a heated jacket. This is the perfect solution for anyone who wants to ride in the winter, but lives in an area that is too cold to ride in normal gear. The last option is simply to add more layers. As I mentioned earlier, this is less than ideal since you eventually get to a point where movement is more difficult. This may not seem like much when you are standing still, but once you start riding and the fatigue from the extra effort and the cold starts to set in you will begin to notice a drastic increase in your reaction time. Especially during the winter your reaction time is vital and needs to be at its best. You don’t want to wreck because you weren’t able to react fast enough because of all your layers.
Let’s go ahead and talk about a base layer first. When it comes to a good base layer you need to look for several of the same qualities we were looking for with the balaclava. It needs to have a wind proof outer layer, a heat retaining middle layer and a fleece inner layer for maximum warmth. The problem here is that most base layers lack the wind proof layer, instead relying on your jacket to already have this layer. This is fine if you already have this, but given the price of these jackets can be prohibitive for some riders. Others, like myself, choose to ride in different jackets. Personally, I have a Vietnam era Army jacket that I ride in. It is thick, heavy, and warm, but it doesn’t have a wind proof layer, so it is less than ideal to be matched with these cheaper base layers. A good base layer will let you keep riding in the same jacket you already have and will cost much less than a dedicated motorcycle jacket.
Let’s move on. As I mentioned, a base layer is a great way for someone on a budget, but what about those of us who are looking for the best possible solution to staying warm this winter? Well, good news, there is an option for you an it will blow anything else out of the water. The absolute best solution for keeping your core warm in cold weather riding is something snowmobile enthusiast have known about for years, heated jackets. These are not just jackets though, they also come as liners, so you can wear them under your jacket of choice. The downside here is that you have to be plugged in to your bikes battery, but this is a small price to pay for the comfort they provide. Some of the cheap ones don’t come with the hardware needed to wire it up to your bike. We want to avoid these. I don’t know about you, but if a company is too cheap to include a few stretches of wire and a fuse I don’t trust them with heating elements on my body.
If you are looking for the cheapest heated option then you will want to go with a heated liner. This option allows you to keep using your current jacket, but the liner plugs in to your bikes battery and is lined with heater elements to warm you up. These liners can be had starting around $100, but the price can go up substantially. I would recommend buying a middle of the road one with good reviews. I certainly wouldn’t recommend buying the cheapest thing you see on eBay. While I would say buying the top of the line model is overkill, I certainly wouldn’t want to be wearing a low quality liner. Another thing to watch out for with cheaper ones is to make sure the entire liner is heated and not just a portion. A quality liner will heat uniformly throughout, including the neck. The heating elements in these liners can usually reach close to 120-150 degrees. This does not mean you are going to be roasting though, you have to remember how much heat will be lost to the cold. Even with the heat loss though, a heated liner is going to keep you much warmer than any other option that just uses you own body heat.
Liners are a great option for those of us that either already have a riding jacket or are on a tight budget, but there is one option beyond that that is even better, A full heated jacket. This is going to cost a bit more than a liner, but it is also going to do more to keep you warm since it was designed as a unit. If you have a heated liner, but a thin jacket that doesn’t do anything to keep out the cold then there is only so much the liner can do, but with a full jacket you don’t have to worry about that. The entire unit is designed from the ground up to keep you as warm as possible. These usually start around the $200 mark, but can be much more. When you consider the cost of a riding jacket this really isn’t a bad price point. The main disadvantage here is that the cheaper ones may not have a removable liner, however, a quality brand jacket will allow you to remove the liner. This essentially turns it into a normal riding jacket, so you can use it even when it is not cold enough to justify wearing heated gear.
A riding jacket is never a bad idea to have. I don’t have one myself because I prefer to ride on an old army jacket, but if you are trying to decide whether to get one or not your have to decide if the reasons you want you wear a normal jacket justify giving up the safety of a riding jacket. These arm usually reinforced in key areas to keep you safe in a wreck. The pad materials can vary, but most manufacturers will use materials similar to what is used in helmet, though much less of it. If you are planning on buying a riding jacket anyway and think you may be riding in the winter you should strongly consider spending the extra money now to buy a heated jacket with a removable liner to save yourself money down the road.
Keeping Your Hands Toasty
Let’s move on to our hands now. This is perhaps one of the most important things to consider since your hands are what controls a large portion of the bike. If your hands are too numb from the cold to move then you can’t stop since you will have no clutch and no front brake. I have actually hand this happen once. I was riding in 30 degree weather, which for us here in Alabama is frigid, and I got off of the interstate to get gas and realized my hands weren’t working anymore. I hadn’t even noticed them go numb, but they did at some point. Luckily I managed to get just enough life out of them to stop, but had this been an issue where I needed to react quickly, like say, a wreck ahead of me, there would have been no way I would have been able to react fast enough. The reason for this story is because I can’t stress enough just how important it is to keep your hands warm, but also flexible enough that you are not going to wear them out with normal riding.
The first option, like with our balaclava, is wind proof glove inserts. Yes, most riding gloves have some type of lining already, but this is usually not enough to keep out the cold when the temperatures really start to drop. Goof glove inserts will be made in the same way as a balaclava or base layer, that is with a wind proof outer layer, heat retaining mid layer, and fleece inner layer. The problem with this is that if your gloves are already thick winter gloves then it can make your hands a bit stiff. This is not a huge deal in most cases, but can be tiring in traffic when you are having to work the clutch and brake often. This is not an ideal solution, but it is much better than the alternative of having your hands go numb while you are riding and not realizing it until you need them.
Now, let’s take a look at another example of the industry giving us exactly what we need, heated gloves. While you can buy just a heated liner to go under your current gloves we are not going to cover those since they tend to be bulky and will exacerbate the issues we mentioned with the wind proof liner, namely the gloves become too thick to move your hands easily. On the other hand, heated gloves are made from the factory to be as comfortable as possible. This means they will essentially feel the same as a normal pair of winter glove, a little stiff, but nothing like wearing a liner.
These gloves start at below $100, but I would recommend spending a little more here. The reason is because while the cheaper gloves are heated and will keep you warm, they usually lack the protection we expect from riding gear. A cheap pair pf heated gloves may have a palm guard, but usually will not have any type of knuckle guard. Look for a pair that has a carbon fiber knuckle and palm guards to make sure your hands don’t get torn up if the worst happens and you take a spill. The last thing you want is for your gloves to gets shredded and wind up with road rash and burns from the heating elements.
The last option for keeping your hands warm that we are going to discuss is not a piece of gear at all, but instead as an accessories for your bike. Heated grips. These won’t do as much to keep your hands warm as a set of heated gloves, but if you are not ready to switch to heated gloves just yet or you don’t want to have to plug them in when you want to ride then heated grips is the way to go. There is really nothing special going on here, you install them like any other grips and wire them to your bike. These are great for keeping your palms warm which should keep your hands from going numb, but they won’t do anything for the backs of your hands beyond keeping feeling.
Keeping Your Legs Warm
Next to your core this one is the most important. Your legs make up a huge portion of your body, so naturally they have a lot of blood flowing through them. So, if the rest of you is warm, but your legs are cold your entire body is going to be chilled. The good thing here is that we have a lot more flexibility with pants than we do with anything else but socks. You aren’t really going to notice as much if your legs are stiff as you would your arms or hands. You just don’t need to be able to move them to the same degree. Because of this we can simply bundle up more with our legs, but this is still uncomfortable after a point, so read on and we will go over some of the pluses of thermals and heated leg gear.
There is not really much new here, for thermals. Just be sure to follow the same rules as for your balaclava and base layer. One thing that is different, however, you should be sure to get a pair that has foot straps. If they don’t you will have trouble getting your boots on without them getting caught and rolling up.
Generally pants liners won’t be completely covered in wind resistant fabric, this would cause the knees the be stiff. Instead it has it in key areas like the shins. This allows the to stretch and flex. The wind resistant fabric is stiffer than normal fabric and doesn’t stretch well. This would lead to a very uncomfortable ride and likely a lot of torn thermals.
Next, let’s consider heated pants liners. Unlike jackets and gloves, it’s pretty difficult to find heated pants. Most manufacturers make liners that go over your pants while riding. If you have the same brand jacket these can usually just connect right to the jacket, rather than having to hook it right to the bike. They will usually also be wired to connect heated socks as well if you get a pair that will match with it.
You can also get these as heated chaps. These won’t keep the back of your legs warm, but should be sufficient for the front. The main advantage to heated chaps over pants is that they are easier to get on and off. Personally, I would not take this trade off to save a few seconds gearing up. These will usually have a connector for heated socks as well should you choose to go this route.
Keep Them Piggies Toasty
Last, we get to socks. Socks are easily the most versatile thing to cover. You don’t have to invest in any additional gear if you don’t want to here, but it may be the better option when you consider how weird it can feel walking in multiple layers of socks.
The first thing I would invest in would be a good pair of wool socks. Again, this is something snowmobile enthusiast wouldn’t even think twice about, it’s old news to them, but to us southerners who have never had to wear them this may not be something you have thought of. Wool socks are much thicker and warmer than cotton, so they will keep your feet from getting as cold, but they are not wind proof. The other thing to keep in mind with wool is that it shrinks. You can’t just toss them in the dryer or you could end up with socks that are way too small. This is likely to be your cheapest option here, but it also gives you the least protection. What I have done in the past, before investing in thermal liners, was use grocery bags around my socks. It may sound silly, but put a couple of grocery bags over your feet and type them as tightly and as far up your ankle as you can. Make sure the bags have no holes in them as well. This won’t do anything to keep the cold out, but it will keep the wind out which will make your wool socks that much more effective. There are really only two downsides to this. First, your feet can’t breathe anymore, so if your feet start to sweat then it is not going to dry up simply because there is a plastic bag around your feet. Let’s be honest here, no matter how cold it is, if you are wearing plastic bags over wool socks your feet are going to sweat. The second issue is more of an annoyance than an issue, but your feet will slip around a bit in your boots. This feel especially weird if you are used to having layered or thick socks anyway and your boots are usually tight. Because plastic has so little friction even if your feet are stuffed into your boots they are still sure to slide a little. This is not going to cause you any issues since the amount is so small, but it does take some getting used to. This may not be a perfect solution, but if you are on a tight budget this should help keep you a bit warmer at least.
The next thing is our usual go to, thermals. If you search for thermal socks you are going to get thousands of results. This is simply because people will pay for them, so companies keep making them, but these are not any use to us. Sure, you could wear them, but they won’t offer much more warmth than wool socks. Some brands are even just wool socks relabeled to get people to spend more on a pair. You will need to be sure to narrow your search to motorcycle gear to find a pair that is actually what we need. Believe it or not, unless you have air tight riding boot you will still need a wind resistant liner on your thermal socks. Even the best boots let air in and this can really chill your feet to the point where they go numb.
While searching for thermal socks look for a pair that has the wind proof liner and fleece inner layer, just like the others. You can also find thermal liners similar to what we saw with the gloves. These are simply liners that go over your socks, but would not be comfortable to have directly on your feet. This is the same reason that thermal pants are not completely covered in wind resistant fabric, it doesn’t stretch well and would be a hassle to get on and off. Not to mention you would likely end up tearing them at some point.
As we mentioned in the last section, you can buy heated socks. You can also get heated insoles, but these will not do anything for the tops of your feet which will still be exposed to the cold air blowing in through the laces. Heated socks usually start below $100 and can be had from most of the major heated clothing manufacturers. These are usually sold as liners, rather than actual socks. Think about it this way, the heating elements can’t stretch because they are steel elements, but a sock need to be able to stretch to properly go on. The heated liners get around this by using velcro straps to fasten it on. This is fine of you have a layer between you and the liner, but a small bit of velcro scratching at you for any distance is eventually going to become irritated. Not to mention it is just plain annoying and the last thing you need when you are out riding is a distraction like that.
More expensive versions will have other advantages. The differences, however, are mostly around wiring into your existing system. Other than that the more expensive ones may get a little warmer, but this difference is negligible. The one thing the $200+ pairs do have is that they are usually longer and will reach up to your knees to keep your calves warm. This is great if you don’t already have a heated pants liner, but if you do or you are planning on getting one then it is simply not worth the investment.
Honorable Mention: Heated Seats
I did not want to include this as a part of the main article since it is not a piece of clothing you can wear, but I felt it was worth mentioning. Think about it, your rear is taking the most abuse of anything when you ride. It’s gonna get sore before anything else and is going to get cold just like everything else. It doesn’t even have to be cold for you t benefit from a heated seat. How many times have you been in the middle of a long ride and started to hurt? Well, just turn on the heated seat to help you relax.
That’s not to say this won’t benefit you in the cold. Sure, it may not be an area that gets much air flow, but a heated seat will work wonders for keeping your whole body warm. Plus, think about how cold you get when a gust blows up your legs. This will help keep you a bit warmer down there.
While you can find whole seats for some bike, most of the time you will need to buy a kit which can either be sewn into a sleeve and stuck to your normal seat with velcro, or your could have it upholstered into the seat. I would call this option overkill for most riders. It will cost way more than simply making a sleeve that can be put on and taken off when you need it, but a permanent solution does have its advantages as well. You can have it upholstered into your seat and have the switch wired into your handle bars. If done right this will give it a from the factory look and allow you to use the heated seat anytime you want without having to plan ahead on whether or not you will need it.
If you decide to go with a sleeve you will save a good deal of money, but it will cost you convenience. If you choose to keep the heater disconnected when not in use then you will have to have some type of quick connect for the wiring which will make it more difficult to give it a factory look. Additionally, if you want to leave it on all the time then it can mess with the look of your bike since these are usually just flat, square elements. This shouldn’t discourage you though. You can take this opportunity to add a custom touch to your bike. Maybe someone you know is a leather worker? If not you can find a professional, but at that point you may as well have it upholstered into the seat. Have them make you a leather sleeve that adds your own personal touch to your bikes seat.
I hope we have answered some of your questions about winter riding gear today. Remember, there are always options beyond “I’ll just add more layers.” These days the motorcycle industry aftermarket is able to provide us with plenty of cold weather gear for year round riding. This is true whether you choose to invest in heated gear, or save money and buy wind proof base layers.
When buying heated gear try to stick with the same brand across the board. The reason for this is because most of the higher end brands will allow you daisy chain your heated gear together, making the entire process of gearing up and down much faster. Would you rather disconnect one wire and go or have to disconnect five wire connected to different outlets. This also makes wiring them up easier since you won’t have to add additional outlets, simply link the pieces together.
If you are working on a tight budget, I hope you have gained something from this article as well. Everyone deserves to be able to enjoy riding comfortably any time of year.