This posting is for you crazy riders who wants to try out winter riding. I'm no expert, but I'll try to gather as much info as possible to make this a good guide for the discerning winter motorcycle rider.
Oh, and do read the International observation of Norwegian Temperatures before you start.
Also including Sakke Häyrinen from Finland's best winter riding tip. Sakke is member of WOBBLS - Wonderlust Old Boys Biking & Leisure Society- and participates in long distance winter riding competitions.
The '93 Ural rig I used to have. Not so enjoyable to own. Had a couple of nice winter trips on it though. Photo: HP 2006
Some years ago I started to enjoy winter riding on a Ural sidecar rig. Even though the Ural wasn't so enjoyable itself, the riding and the rallies were. I've picked up the activity again after getting me a proper Guzzi sidecar rig. On the road and sometimes on web forums I've met Brits, Scots, Germans, Dutch, Welsh, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Belgians and even an Italian who are riding to winter rallies all over Europe, many of them for the last 20-odd years. However, we all had the same initial questions regarding this rather unusual activity, ranging from “Is it at all possible to ride a bike on snow and ice?” to “How can I avoid going out of my tent to pee during the night and the temperature is -25C?”. As far as I've seen there are some scattered info on the web on how to do winter riding, so this posting is an effort to gather relevant info in one place for all of you who wants to have a go. I'm by no means an expert in the area, so I'll try to tap into other seasoned winter riders' experience to make this guide as comprehensive as possible, given time and inputs. So you are all welcome to mail me if you have specific questions that are not yet in the guide, or have other inputs that may be valuable for this guide.
Ok, so what’s the best bike for winter riding?
You can in theory ride any bike. Some say you should only ride sidecar rigs, but I know plenty of riders who ride their two wheeled bikes in the winter. I've seen Triumph Rickman Metisse, Suzuki GS1000s and even Harley Davidsons on winter excursions. But I think those are not optimal for winter riding - even though this guy (site in Norwegian only) has ridden his Suzuki "Svartolf" all the way to Nordkapp in February one year and have used his bike extensively all year round for several years.
A small selection of bikes used for winter riding. Two or three wheels is up to you.
Photo: Tor G. Seim 2006
So which two wheeler then?
Andy from UK rides a Honda C90 "Cub" which he has modified somewhat to have some more control on icy roads when touring Scandinavia in the coldest depths of winter. But most I know of ride off road-like bikes with soft knobblies with studs, or spikes if you will. The BMW F650GS is somewhat heavy but popular because of its ABS system, which may be nice to have on snow and ice. Others swear to their KTM LC4, which is lighter and more nimble. I know several who prefer the older Honda Transalp 600 because of its ability to withstand corrosion and winter abuse year after year. It all boils down to preference. I was warned against Yamaha XTs, though, and that from a seasoned Yamaha mechanic. He claimed that the metal alloy in the wheel bearings didn't withstand the salty conditions on winter roads very well, in any case a lot poorer than other manufacturer's bikes. So I've crossed Yamaha off my list of usable winter bikes. As a matter of preference, I don't do 2-strokes and kick-starters in the winter, but plenty of others ride Jawas, MZ, Ural, Dnepr, Honda XRs, etc that are either 2-strokes or kickers or both. I'm more of a push-button guy. Consider electrics reliability, dynamo capacity and battery power in any case as winter riding rapidly drains your battery due to the low temperatures. I also think that spending a lot of money on a bike that is going to be literally abused during winter is not so smart. Cheap bikes should do the trick. But make sure you have proper wind protection, e.g. a proper wind screen.
My T5/Watsonian hack will be used for winter riding. I've equipped it with studded knobblies for better traction. The lady in the sidecar is my mum, btw. Photo: HP 2008
And three wheelers?
I ride a Moto Guzzi T5 with a Watsonian-Squire sidecar. I think having a sidecar 1) adds to stability – obviously, 2) let you bring a lot more equipment to make your winter camp more comfortable, 3) is very fun to drift away with on icy roads. Mine is a very inexpensive rig, and I know I'll have a huge job making it somewhat representable after a good winter's riding. But that's what I prefer to ride. Many ride cheap Russian or Czech bikes with a sidecar, e.g. Urals or Jawas with a Velorex sidecar. Others bring out their expensive French Zeus, or well-worn Cordas, but all agree that having a sidecar is nice for winter riding. Wind screen is a must, also for the lucky passenger in the sidecar.
General engine tips from Andy Gower (N. Yorkshire, UK):
Simplicity is the order of the day, less cylinders gives better traction, use lightweight oil.
Cooling is a major issue, on a watercooled machine, (like my TA650 sidecar), the temptation is to use loads of antifreeze. Only use enough for the conditions, too much and the engine will overheat, because glycol has poor heat transfere capabilites compared to water. And grinding up steep snowy hills is hard work for an engine!
If the engine has been stood overnight when properly cold (this especially for boxer twins), do a carefull preheat with a stove on the sump, the starter motor has a hard enough job to do without trying to stuff solid oil through its oil pump. This could potentially force seals apart (rubber being brittle) and you are straight into a starved bearing situation.
Bike choice considerations from Andy Metcalfe (Leeds, UK):
Twins are easier to start than singles of the same size. Simple twins can be started on one cylinder and will warm the other until it runs. Simple singles that come with a kickstart can of course be easier still as you can prime them before wasteing the battery.
Engine temp tip from Trygve U. Skar (Fagerstrand, Norway):
For liquid cooled bikes: Cut out the sides of a plastic can (e.g. a windscreen washer fluid can). Put them between the radiator and the plastic protection grid that most bikes have. Depending on the ambient temperature you can move these plastic fins up and down covering more or less of the radiator thus adjusting the airflow. The point is to increase the motor temp faster and avoid riding with cold engine too long.
What kind of tyres to you use?
I prefer knobblies on my Guzzi. Trelleborg makes an Army special type that is popular among Norwegian winter riders because the rubber stays soft even when the temperature gets really low. Some ride on Pirelli MT21s. For my Guzzi I've used a semi-knobbly for the 18” rear wheel, and a Taiwanese produced knobbly for the 16” front wheel (see pics below). I have no brake on my sidecar, so I don't mind riding a road tyre from Uniroyal there. For me, studs or spikes are important for that extra traction on the bike itself. I've come over some spikes from the Norwegian Agri Purchasing Cooperation (“Felleskjøpet”) which you can screw into the tyre and presumably take them out again when spring comes, although I'm not able to do that because the spikes are usually too deformed to unscrew. But they are really solidly made, sticks to the tyre even if you mainly ride asphalt and last the whole winter through – even longer if you don't ride on a daily basis. If spikes or studs are prohibited where you live, soft knobblied tyres are the only grippable option you have, unless you start putting ropes and chains on the tyres. I've never done that myself, but I can't imagine that it is particularly comfortable to ride with.
Studs or spikes to be screwn into the tyre.
These are what I will use on my Guzzi's tyres.
This is the front tyre after some 2000 km's. At least 2/3rds on asphalt. One stud has fallen out, and in one the tungsten head has fallen out. But in general the tyre is in ok condition, it should be good for at least 2000 km's more. The studs are for all purposes impossible to unscrew from the tyre, so I'll just take the whole tyre off and replace it with a standard one and re-use this one next winter.
Same front tyre only from another angle.
Rear tyre. It has WAY to few studs in it. I should at least have doubled the number of studs to get enough traction in the steepest hills. The tyre itself was ok though.
Tyre tip from Xander Kabat (UK, aussie ex-pat):
I have put my Conti TKC 80 down as low as 10 -15 psi (usually run them at 32-34 psi). Just remember that tyre pressure changes a lot with temperature so check it regularly.
Tyre tip from Andy Gower (N. Yorkshire, UK):
Use tyre cleaning spray. When transfering from asphalt to snow, get all the tarry stuff off the rubber, and the friction coefficient of ice on rubber is better than you imagine.
Below -20c, on the ploughed compact snow roads, (Central Scandinavia), small knobbly catspaw tyres are better than full on knobblies, because they bite into the surface better. On smooth ice, the colder the better as far as grip is concerned. Some road style tyres have a high silica content, better for cold traction.
Be careful dropping air from the tyres, too much and the treads will close up and you loose traction, also then when you hit a lump of ice that has fallen off the truck, you will pinch the inner tube. I just leave them at road pressure.
Tyre tip from Trygve U. Skar (Fagerstrand, Norway):
Trelleborg Army Specials are great, but doesn't last too long. I ended up using Trelleborgs in the front and a Kenda something on the rear wheel. This is a good compromise between traction and longevity. I studded the tyres myself.
I also tried Bridgestone TW 301/302 and Metzeler Karoo. The latter was ok, while the Bridgestones were very slippery.
Tyre tip from Andy Metcalfe (Leeds, UK):
For areas where studded tyres are illegal: Snow chains work. You only really need one on the drive wheel in deep snow but in areas where you'll be in out out of snowy/cleared areas they do give a chance to stay legal in towns and on the motorway. The trouble is, for a bike they'll be modified from a car version, so test before you really need them.
Tyre tip from "Dysco" (Colorado, USA):
Studded tires should be run at the upper end of the pressure spectrum. The Kendas worked best from 28-32 PSI on my F650GS and the same pressures for a KLR650 with the Dunlop D606. Running at lower pressures removes much of the value of using the studs because you distribute more weight across the studs and get less "bite" into ice. The other reason for leaving pressures up around 30 PSI is for dry pavement performance and decreased wear.
How do I avoid corrosion on the bike?
You don't. Not completely, anyway. But there are remedies that at least offer some protection to the bike from the sinister road salt. I know that some sprays their bikes with WD40 on a regular basis all through the winter. They don't wash it unless it gets really mild, and then only to re-spray it with WD40. It seem to give a certain protection, but it doesn't seem to be optimal. When I rode my Ural I didn't treat it with anything, only gave it a thorough wash when the weather allowed for it – and it rusted like hell. Surprise... When I rode the E-Ton Vector ATV on a daily basis to and from work one winter, I sprayed it down with a two-component Tectyl stuff, and it held up pretty well. The exhaust bend broke due to corrosion but was easily fixed. It was HELL to wash it off when spring came though. So now I've opted for ACF-50, which I hear is very popular among winter riders in UK. F2 Motorcycles Ltd have done a test which they have published on their webpage. When I cleaned the bike after the first winter: Lo and behold! No corrosion, except on the exhaust cans, but they were already withering before I started riding. The alu valve covers have lost some of their lustre, but otherwise the bike is in great condition given the rather heavy amount of slushy salt it has been through. No electrical problems either. ACF-50 is the way to go, people!
From Xander Kabat (UK, aussie expat):
From personal experience ACF-50 is great stuff. I simply spray it on everything. I paint it on the spokes and rims with a 1/2 inch paint brush. I add a bit more every few weeks. Remember: Road grit can speed up chain death, so clean it often and keep it well lubricated.
This piece of metal was left for 10 days in salt water. The left side is untreated, the right side treated with ACF-50. Looks promising. Photo: F2 Motorcycles Ltd
Other winter riding preparations?
I'll also insulate electrics as good as I can to protect them from salty water. With regard to control cables, I hear one school saying that you should oil the cables thoroughly to avoid them from freezing over. The other school leave the cables dry, that way they cannot freeze. I let it be and had no problems, although I brought some de-icing spray just in case. I also greased joints and bearings with some anti-corrosive grease from the same guys who makes the ACF-50.
Corrosion Block grease from the same guys who makes the ACF-50.
How about the battery?
Needless to say, it need to be in top shape all winter. I leave it for maintenance charging in my Ctek charger when the bike is not in use. That way I always have topped up batteries. The Guzzi needs the battery to deliver some serious cranking power, so my pal Tor for instance carries a spare car battery in the trunk of his Guzzi sidecar rig when on winter tours. Just in case. I've adopted that practice.
Battery tip from Andy Gower (N. Yorkshire, UK):
Make sure the last 1/2 hour on the road is done with minimal current drawer, to get as much charge in as possible. And if you can, get the battery somewhere warm overnight.
Light tip from Andy Gower (N. Yorkshire, UK):
Convert as many lights on the bike to LED as possible, and have lots of ultrabright red LEDS on the back of the bike as possible. In heavy snow, you don't want a 44 Tonne Artic driving over you.
What would be appropriate clothing?
Well, you obviously need to stay warm and dry. You need to be protected from the cold wind and snow. Personally I have opted for snowmobile clothing. They are made for riding outdoors for hours and hours. I wear wool underwear, a middle layer of fleece and then the snowmobile clothes which I've bought from www.duells.no. If it gets really cold I add a layer of fleece or wool. In addition I've bought a balaklava to keep my head warm under the helmet, which is a size larger than my normal size to accommodate the balaklava. Some use electric heated clothing, however I think they strain the battery too much and while they are comfortable to use – what if the battery goes dead or your bike stalls in the middle of nowhere? I prefer to dress in a way that keeps me warm no matter what happens.
A purpose-made suit
for snowmobile riding.
A balaklava - not for bank robbing,
but for head warming.
I have a pair of these to go over each end of the handlebars. They keep your hands very warm, especially if paired with heated grips. You can even go down on your glove thickness thus having better lever control.
Clothing tip from Andy Metcalfe (Leeds, UK):
Layers are your friend, damp inside or out is the big enemy. Avoid cotton next to the skin, them layer up wool or synthetics and top off with a semi-waterproof layer. Add a fully waterproof layer if it rains, but stop and get it off when you need to.
Chemical heat packs work, ex-army tin boxes with charcoal sticks inside don't. The best chemical packs can be recharged by boiling up when you get the stove going and can be slipped inside clothing for a nice boost when you start to feel the chill.
Any suggestions regarding helmets?
If using only a single visor, the mist from your breath will freeze on the visor making it impossible to see through. To avoid this, there are a number of tactics. One is to actually make heating threads into the visor and couple it to the battery through a switch and fuse. Another is to add an inner visor, like the fog city. I have opted to buy a snowmobile helmet, which again is made for riding in cold temperatures. The visor is double and stays pretty much ice and mist free down to less than -23C, which is the lowest temperature I've ridden in.
The SnoPro Flip Up helmet, made for snowmobile riding and ECE 22.05 approved.
You want to avoid mist on the inside of the visor, as it freeze up and blocks your view. If you want to use your ordinary helmet, you can try to install the Fog City inner visor that prevents fogging. I haven't tried it myself, but it may work.
Any special recommendations regarding tents?
I would say tipis, or lavvus as we call them over here, is the way to go. They are spacious and you can make a fire or use your kerosene/petrol stove inside it if needed. (BTW: Don't use propane burners, as they are not usable in low temperatures.) Add some reindeer skins and you'll be warm and comfortable inside the lavvu. Lavvus tend to be a bit heavier and bulkier to carry around compared to ordinary tents, but hey – that's why we ride sidecars, isn't it?
Hot tip from Andy Gower (N. Yorkshire, UK):
When trying to start a fire in a pile of damp wood, use petrol! BUT the trick is to make a proper fist sized snowball, and soak it in petrol WELL AWAY from the fire area, and place under the twigs/small stuff. (Please make sure you are well dry of petrol before lighting it). The snowball will burn with a sensible flame for a minute or so. Easily enough to get a fire going.
Solo camping without a heated tent gets depressing after a week!
Tipis, or Lavvus as they are know as in Scandinavia, are in my view the most suitable winter tent. If it gets really cold or you need to dry your clothes you can light a bonfire inside, use a purpose-made oven (picture), fire up your kerosene/petrol stove or use any other means to heat the inside of the tent.
I guess I'd need some polar type sleeping bag?
Yes. Buy proper stuff. I have a winter sleeping bag capable of keeping me warm and cozy down to below -35C. And strip down to the undies before entering the sleeping bag. If you don't, you'll bring the dampness from your sweat that is deposited in your clothes into the sleeping bag, making it colder and uncomfortable to sleep.
Camping tip from Andy Metcalfe (Leeds, UK):
Insulation is the key to a good nights sleep. A camping bed can be nice, but having extra cold air under you alone won't help. A Thermarest AND foam mats should go in your luggage first.
Cooking fuel can freeze or refuse to light. Gas cannisters freeze first, then unleaded petrol. I never met cold that stopped my Optimus burning kerosene. On say the Elefant Treffen there are enough places to buy so maybe you don't need a working stove, but in e.g. Scandanavia you will.
A Thermos flask is useful. It'll stop water freezing for the first drink of the day and is an alternative to getting the stove out for a mid journey break. If you have mechanical issues, a bit of warm water helps you clean the salt off so see what the issue is and can unfreeze things enough to get to work with the WD-40.
So now I'm ready for some real winter riding
– but where should I go?
There are several rallies in Scandinavia and elsewhere. The Elephant rally by the BVDM in Loh, Germany is a well-known venue that attracts many winter riders. I've never been there myself, but many have obviously. In Samara in Russia you have the Snowdog Winter Rally and Unimoto drag racing. Never been there either, but a Brit I know of is planning a tour there. Maybe I'll join in... In Norway we have the Winter Season initiation rally, the Wood Gatherer Rally ("Vedsamleren") held at the first weekend after the first winter day. Which is sometime in October. Not really a winter rally, but cool enough. The venue is the same place as the Primus Winter Rally, Bjoneroa some 120-130 km's north of Oslo. Next up is the Busk Winter rally which is held in November in Nordkisa just north of Oslo. Then we have The New Year's Rally held in Vestfold county every 1st weekend after New Year's Eve, and the "Heteslaget" - the Heat Stroke Rally - the last weekend in January mid-way between Stange and Skarnes in Hedmark county. The traditional Primus rally is held every whole last weekend in February. You also have the “winter rally light”, Krystall winter rally, where you are required to spend the nights at the hotel where the rally is held. There are also others, like one outside Molde in the North-West and even the Primus Borealis in Alta in Finnmark, which is the northernmost county in Norway. Not a tour for the faint hearted...
Another option, if you live in the area, is to join this Dutch gang for their annual winter ride to Scandinavia. They have a limited number of participants, max 16, and you need to ride your own rig through Sweden and Norway. Their web page is found at www.sidecarwinterrally.nl. Trips start in January each year and lasts for some 10 to 12 days.
Do you have any inputs, tips, hints and/or advice?
and I'll take it into this Winter Riders Guide!