By July 22, 2011

Random Motorcycling Tip #24: Riding in the Heat

Last Wednesday I rode my motorcycle to work. As usual, I wore street clothes (shorts, A-shirt, t-shirt) underneath my motorcycle jacket, and overpants. As usual, I wore my chest and back protector, my motorcycle boots, and motorcycle gloves. While hardly anyone in Minnesota wears a helmet, I wore my full-face Bell Star helmet. As usual.

The only thing unusual for riding in Minnesota? 119°F temperature with heat index.

“You wore all of your gear today?” My friend BigDubb said when I arrived.

“Sure did,” I said. As usual, I thought.

July 20th wasn’t the hottest weather I’ve ever ridden in, and my 40-minute ride wasn’t the longest, either. However, the same basic principles of staying safe — and as comfortable as possible — still apply. Here’s how I ride in hot temperatures while still wearing all the gear, all the time.

  1. Get your mind right. Yes, you are going to be warm. You are going to sweat while basically sitting still, and when you stop at lights you will notice the heat from the engine and the street. Your breath will feel extra hot as it bounces off of your chinbar back into your face. So what. Read my prior tip about becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. We are too used to our air conditioned homes, our air conditioned cars, and our air conditioned buildings. You’re going to be hot, and you’re going to sweat. So what? You’ll cool off when you arrive at your air conditioned destination, and if you plan accordingly no one will know you rode in after about ten minutes. So stop fretting about the heat and be prepared.
  2. Stay hydrated. This is probably the second most important tip here after getting your mind in the right place. You need to stay ahead of the dehydration curve in order to stay as comfortable as possible and also to stay safe. As you get dehydrated you lose focus, your balance suffers, and your fine motor control starts to go. You’ll need all three to motorcycle safely.

    Drink a big glass or bottle of room-temperature water right before you leave. I try to drink 16 ounces / half a liter before I go anywhere, whether I am thirsty or not. If you are riding a longer distance, try to drink a liter of water every hour. Warmer water is going to be easier to chug, but if you prefer refrigerated water that’s fine — just take it easy to avoid cramping. Remember, it’s better to drink too much water and need to stop to pee than to not drink enough and need to stop because you can’t ride safely.

  3. Choose the right gear. Tight weave textile gear or solid leather is going to be hotter than loose-weave textile gear like the Carboflex fabric on my Fieldsheer Corsair jacket. I had an overheating experience while wearing the otherwise great Tourmaster Transitions II jacket in 2008. Looser-weave textile or perforated leather may let some air in for relief, but the main reason to wear it is so that your body heat can radiate away from you. The thicker, heavier traditional textile or solid leather will not only keep air from coming in but will also keep your body heat from going out.

    I do not recommend complete mesh overpants, jackets, or gloves. Mesh has a reputation of melting to a rider’s skin under heat from exhaust pipes or from sliding on asphalt. If you must have mesh on your protective gear, make sure it is in areas unlikely to come into contact with the road or hot parts of your bike.

  4. Wear moisture wicking gear. If I am doing dedicated, longer-distance rides in the heat I will wear moisture wicking bottoms and a long-sleeve wicking shirt. The special synthetic fibers will help pull sweat away from your skin to your gear, where it can hopefully evaporate better. Get the lightest weight possible, and the lightest colors possible.
  5. Soak your shirt. I used to do this any time the air temperature was over 90°F in Virginia. Take your base shirt off and soak it in a sink. Wring it out slightly, but not to the point where it’s damp. You want the shirt a little more than damp. Put it back on, and suck in a deep breath; it’ll be cold at first. As you ride the moisture in your shirt will evaporate, helping to keep you cool. Back home my slightly-more-than-damp cotton t-shirt would be almost completely dry at the end of a 27 mile ride.
  6. Avoid the wind …. This is a little counter-intuitive at first. If the outside temperature is warmer than your core body temperature, the wind won’t cool you. It will make you hotter, and will leech the moisture from your body at a faster rate. My core temperature is 96.7°F. If the outside temp is higher than 96, my visor stays closed while I’m moving, and my windscreen is all the way up.
    Those of you on naked bikes and/or bikes without tall windscreens won’t be able to do much about this. However, minimize your exposure as much as you can. It’s like sitting in front of an open oven while a fan blows hot air on you.
  7. … Unless you’re riding at low speeds or are at a stop. I crack my visor or lower my windscreen when I am going less than 30MPH. It sucks to be stuck in stop-and-go traffic at over 100°F and unable to crack your visor because one hand is on the throttle and the other is managing the clutch. Once I detect a slow down the screen comes down and the visor opens up.

These tips may not make you feel as comfortable as the guy you pass in his air conditioned cage, but they will go a long way to making hot weather rides tolerable. Don’t deprive yourself of riding days because the temps rise — a little preparation and the right mindset can make the difference.

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5 Comments on "Random Motorcycling Tip #24: Riding in the Heat"

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  1. EdH says:

    It routinely gets over 100 here on desert rides and I am amazed at the number of riders in our group that strip down to a tank-top and jeans thinking that will keep them cooler. They look at me and my wife like we are idiots for keeping our leathers on.

    What I try to convince them of, unsuccessfully, is that while I am sweating under the jacket and chaps, the sweat isn’t evaporating as quickly as it arrives at the surface of the skin, so our “cooling system” is working more efficiently than theirs.

    You’d think after one couple pulled off after feeling dizzy they’d get this concept. Yet the next week, first gas stop and off came all of the outer protective layers. They said “it just feels better.”

    Can’t fix stupid.

  2. OSPF says:

    I just want to know how you know your core temperature.

  3. DrFaulken says:

    OSPF — take your temperature. We use the inside-the-ear thermometers, but I am sure someone could help you with a rectal reading. ;)

  4. Andrew says:

    As I was packing out from the office a couple days ago – a mid-90s day – a coworker commented, “You are going to die in that helmet.” I think you’ve got that observation backwards, friend.

  5. TheSper says:

    I’ve been riding through Latin America for the last year and have a lot of experience dealing with the warm weather. Your tips are great, especially soaking your shirt before you start riding. I’ve found that it helps more than almost anything else to have a damp shirt and riding shorts (boxers or compression shorts) in addition to a hankerchief soaked in water wrapped around your neck.

    When it’s really hot out, I’ll jump into a shower, lake, pond, or pool with all of my gear on (minus my boots and helmet) to get my entire body wet, then hop on the bike and keep riding. In the desert, the water evaporates after a short period of time, depending on the humidity.

    Another important factor in keeping cool in the hot weather is your gear color. I was riding with a black helmet for the first year of my trip and have noticed a drastic difference since switching to a light gray helmet.

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