How To Ride A Motorcycle In Snow And Icy Conditions

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In 2016, I got caught in possibly the worst riding conditions I’d ever had the misfortune of riding in.

It was the start of April, and we wanted to ride Scotland’s NC500 before the tourist season started.

And whilst we correctly anticipated that the roads would be quieter and the hotels cheaper, we didn’t plan for the sheer level of snow in the highlands.

We saw around a dozen tumbles between the eight of us on the worst day. It was traumatic.

In any other circumstance, I would never have chosen to ride a motorcycle in that snow with those icy conditions. But when you’re stuck in the middle of the Scottish Highlands without shelter, your only option is to ride out of trouble.

A few members of the group were incredibly unlucky. Others had a few near misses, and one or two of us made it completely unscathed.

I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t a better rider – I was just fortunate. So in this post, I want to pass on a few simple tips that got me through.

And whilst I would never advocate riding in the snow and ice of the Scottish Highlands out of choice, the tips might just come to your rescue if you find yourself there like we did.

motorcyclists scotland nc500 - How To Ride A Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions

Riding Your Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions: Prep Your Bike

I’m not a fan of acronyms – they remind me too much of my corporate days! But in the case of your bike, I must admit they come in handy.

It doesn’t matter which of the following examples you choose – if any. You may choose to use common sense or your own system of checks.

But the important thing is that you know your bike is safe. 

The most popular one is T-CLOC:

  • Tyres
  • Controls
  • Lights
  • Oil
  • Chassis

Another one that works is BOLTS:

  • Brakes
  • Oil
  • Lights
  • Tyres
  • Steering / Suspension

Pay particular attention to your tyres. Not only should they be in good condition (and appropriate for the weather – i.e., not slicks!), but they should be at the correct pressure.

It’s worth mentioning that tyres can lose 2-3 PSI when riding in cold conditions. If your tyres are underinflated to begin with, and you lose another 2-3 PSI to the cold, it could land you in serious trouble.

mechanic with bike

Wear The Right Kit

The more experienced riders reading this piece will know that your kit is just as important to your safety as your riding.

Coldness affects your riding capabilities immensely. Research has shown that concentration declines significantly as your body shifts temperature to the vital organs.

This shifting of temperature means your extremities will get cold first. So not only are your reaction times slower, but now your hands are slower to react even when your brain does spot a hazard.

We’re big advocates of layers rather than bike-specific kit. Base layers are essential for winter riding. As is a mid-layer fleece or even a technical down jacket.

And a heated jacket is perhaps the best way to keep your core temperature toasty.

On top of these, consider Gore-Tex boots to keep your feet warm and dry, a waterproof textile suit, and/or a waterproof top layer. Heated gloves or heated grips (preferably both) are also highly recommended.

A neck tube, balaclava, or windjammer could also come in handy to reduce those icy drafts from coming in beneath your helmet.

And finally, whilst divisive, hi-viz is worth wearing in these awful conditions. You want to take advantage of anything and everything that makes you visible.



Riding Your Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions: Prevention Is Better Than Cure

You can’t predict the weather. It can catch you off-guard – and it’s impossible to prepare for all eventualities.

But if you think the weather might turn mid-ride, there are a few things you can do before you leave to help increase safety further down the line.

Know Where You’re Going

This is easy enough if you’re commuting to work. But if you’re touring, it’s worth studying your route over breakfast.

I’m not saying you should study it like a bobsledder at the Olympics. But having at least some knowledge of the route means you’re not riding it completely blind.

Missing turns, clamping on the brakes at the last minute, making impromptu U-turns, and going around the block on small, untreated roads are avoidable by knowing your route.

Visor & Pinlock

If the snow comes down, your visor will certainly mist up. It’s not a maybe or perhaps – it will.

Clean visors mist up less than dirty ones. So simply cleaning it before you set out will put you in a better position to combat it.

Secondly, ensure you have a Pinlock fitted. The last thing you need is to ride with your visor up with the wind and snow blasting into your face because you can’t see with it down.

Related: For more on helmets, visors, and Pinlocks, check out our Helmets category

How To Ride A Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions - biker on bmw

Understand You Will Need To Take Breaks

Breaks from riding are often ad-hoc and decided on the fly. And that’s fine when you’re riding in Spring and early summer.

But in the winter months when you’re cold, tired, wet, and generally pissed off, you’ll just want to get to your destination – so breaks are pushed down the list of priorities.

However, as mentioned above, the cold affects your concentration, core temperature, and dexterity. And regular breaks combat these symptoms by increasing blood flow and revitalising you mentally.

A warm drink every hour or so will do wonders for your morale.

Prepare for this in advance of your ride by sourcing cafes, towns, and tourist hotspots where you know you can sit somewhere warm and enjoy a hot drink.

Anticipate Conditions

If snow is forecast, be aware that you will need to adjust to the conditions. For example, in the snowy months, the low-setting sun can be a nightmare to navigate.

If the sun is in front of you, you’ll need to be ready either with a tinted visor, a tinted drop-down visor, or sunglasses.

But if the sun is behind you, it means oncoming traffic will have the sun in their eyes – which means they may not be able to see you.

Is that your fault? No, of course not. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adjust your position on the assumption that oncoming traffic has limited visibility and may not be able to see you.

Also, if the sun is behind you, be prepared to have blazing balls of fire in your mirrors. This means shoulder checks are vital as you’ll have zero visibility at the rear.

iced over fjord in norway

Know When To Leave The Bike At Home

Most of this post is written on the assumption that you’ve been caught out by the conditions – as we were in Scotland.

But if you’re at home and find yourself umm-ing and ah-ing about whether you should go on that ride out or not, the best thing you can do is simply not go. After all, Spring will be here soon, and the risk isn’t worth the reward.

The smartest riders know when to take the car or book a taxi – and leave the bike in the garage for a better day.

Consider Group Rides

I’d like to think I would’ve made it back alive from our Scotland trip even if I’d been alone.

But the fact remains that it’s a million times easier when you’re in a group. If something goes wrong, the group comes together, and everything is so much easier.

If you take a tumble, there’s somebody there to pick you up and dust you down. And you can also take turns to uphold responsibility for navigation or leading the group – allowing everybody else to concentrate on their riding.

Related: Group Motorcycle Riding: 12 Tips You Should Know

How To Ride A Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions - riders off-road touring

Riding Your Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions: Rider Skills

Thinking riders anticipate and pre-empt. Reactive riders react to changes around them.

From the outset, these sound similar. If the end justifies the means, there is no difference, right?

Not quite!

Thinking riders are hyper-aware of their surroundings. Their observations (in every direction) are honed, and they will notice possible hazards around them.

Observations

Thinking riders slow things down – because this gives them more thinking time. With more thinking time comes better observations. And better observations allow for smooth and controlled reactions to hazards.

Reactive riders don’t have this luxury. They are unaware (mostly) of what’s going on around them, and any reaction they make is knee-jerk, hasty, or hesitant.

They lack the smoothness that comes with time and anticipation. And any last-minute changes to braking or throttle (especially with lean on the bike) could lead to sliding across the tarmac to an undignified stop in a puddle.

Thinking riders don’t ride twice as slow as reactive riders. Their observations simply give them twice as much time to react.

And there’s a big difference between the two.

rider checking mirror

Give Yourself Time & Space When Riding Your Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions

We just mentioned the importance of observations. So let’s look at thinking time and stopping distance to see how they affect our behaviour when riding in the snow.

A reasonably fit and healthy rider will need about 0.75 seconds to think about reacting to a hazard. At 30 mph, 0.75 seconds of thinking time equates to about 9 metres travelled before you react physically.

Then, once the brakes have been applied, you’ll need another 14 metres to actually stop.

Combined, you’ll travel 23 metres (9m + 14m) when stopping from 30 mph.

In the wet, you need to double these numbers. In the snow and ice, you could be looking at up to 10 TIMES the distance to stop safely.

With this in mind, make a conscious effort to give yourself plenty of space when riding in these conditions.

Vision Creep & Target Fixation

On the same topic of observation, make a conscious effort to look ahead. For many of us, our observations are usually way up ahead. And that’s great.

But in snowy and icy conditions, your vision will come closer and closer until eventually, you’re staring down at your front wheel.

The aim is exactly the same as summer riding. You look ahead and see hazards early. Don’t fixate on your front wheel – because you’ll miss out on the bigger picture of what’s happening around you.

How To Ride A Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions - rider and pillion

Sacrifice View For Grip When Riding Your Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions

In the advanced riding world, you might have heard the phrase “don’t sacrifice safety for position.”

And the same is true for riding in snowy and icy conditions.

Traditionally, you know that riding in Position 1 is the optimum position for view when taking a right-hand bend (in the UK.)

The thinking rider knows to override this if they can see that the optimum grip is elsewhere in the lane.

You’re constantly balancing optimal view against optimal grip when riding in these conditions.

Finding Grip In The Snow

In a nutshell, grip comes about as a result of texture. If your tyres have a textured surface to ride on, they’ll find grip. Remove that texture, and you’re riding on an ice rink.

In the case of snow, fresh snow is the better option. Compacted snow becomes smooth. And as the temperature drops, it will turn icy and slippery.

If you have a choice between fresh show or compacted snow, choose the fresh stuff.

On the other hand, if the snow is beginning to melt and the gritters have been out, you will likely be better off riding wherever you can see the tarmac.

iced over norway

High Gears & Clutch Control

As mentioned above, smoothness is the operative word when riding in snowy and icy conditions. And that goes for acceleration, too.

You’ll be better off switching to rain mode (if your bike has it) and setting off in second gear.

This reduces power/torque going to the rear wheel, preventing it from spinning out when you set off.

Use Running Commentary When Riding Your Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions

We all ride on autopilot. And a good way to force you to notice stuff around you is to employ a running commentary.

The first thing you’ll do when providing a commentary is slow down to give yourself the best chance of noticing everything. And that’s a good start when riding in the snow.

It also forces you to observe in all directions – preventing vision creep and target fixation.

Finally, it gets you to notice and anticipate hazards. For example, you might ride straight over a dark patch under some trees on autopilot. 

But the observations from commentary will allow you to notice the dark patch, comment that it might be icy, and act accordingly.

You may adjust your position. Or you might slow down. If you can’t avoid it, you may ride over it with your feet out and/or anticipate the bike sliding.

Either way, commentating will slow you down whilst improving observations.

There’s a caveat to this, though. Running commentary is hard at first. It’s a skill that’s well worth practising and honing in the summer so it’s second nature when it really matters.

How To Ride A Motorcycle In Snow and Icy Conditions - rider looking through helmet

Leaning & Lean Angle

It’s a common misconception that leaning is only for the track. It’s a technique you should be employing in your riding if you’re not already!

To be clear, I’m not saying you should be getting your knee down. But a small amount of lean is an incredibly efficient way of getting around bends.

Secondly, you can lean in such a way that it allows you to keep your bike upright.

On a left bend, for example, you can hang a cheek off the seat and lean your upper body into the bend whilst keeping the bike upright.

Your weight will take the bike left – but keeping the bike upright decreases the lean angle and is more likely to stop you from skidding out.

Straight-Lining & Lean Angle

Straight-lining is a riding technique I use often – but I can’t emphasise enough just how careful you need to be.

If your observations are crap, you shouldn’t be straight-lining – it’s as simple as that. So the solution here is to get good at it in the summer months so you employ it perfectly in the winter months.

Straightening out a mini roundabout or a bend mitigates the need to lean the bike over unnecessarily.

In the summer months, straight-lining is safer, keeps you away from oncoming traffic, avoids crap at the side of the road (or roundabout) and is faster than going around it.

In the snow, straight-lining keeps you upright, avoids the hazards above, and offers you more control.

rider off-road on snowy surface

Stay Relaxed!

I know, I know – this is easier said than done. But if you have even the faintest whiff of experience riding bikes, you’ll know that staying relaxed makes a massive difference.

Even in optimum conditions, the bike won’t steer if you’re stiff. You’ll approach a bend, and the bike will keep going straight.

Maintaining a relaxed state will help you control the bike, and it also encourages your stressed-out mind to relax as well.

And when riding your motorbike in snow and ice, this is even more important.



How to Ride a Motorcycle in Snow and Icy Conditions: Conclusion

I don’t recommend anyone ride their motorcycle in snow and icy conditions for the sake of it – it’s just not worth it.

However, if (like me) you sometimes push your luck, it’s worth knowing how to get out of a sticky situation.

When looking at how to ride in snow and ice, the best thing to do is practise in advance. Take advantage of the summer months to master your commentary and observational skills.

Use the time to learn how to lean into bends – and how to lean to maintain clearance whilst keeping your bike upright.

And cometh the time when you need to get out of the mountains in snow and ice, take your time, stay loose, take breaks, and use every ounce of that finesse you’ve been working on over the summer!

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