Winter is a testing time for motorcyclists. If you ride all year ’round, then good on you; it takes a decent amount of willpower to get the bike out on a frosty morning and battle the elements.
You don’t need bulky clothing to keep warm on your motorcycle. You don’t need heated kit either (but frankly, it does help).
The secret to staying warm on the bike is to wear multiple layers, which all do a different job but work together to ensure you are comfortable, warm and not restricted.
Table of Contents
How does layering work?
The functions of each layer are different but they work together to help trap air in between each layer, which helps to minimise heat loss.
There are three main layers:
Base Layer – Moisture management
Mid Layer – Insulation
Outer Layer – Weather Protection
In this guide, we’ll run you through what each layer does and suggest some good options.
Base Layer – Moisture Management
As the name suggests, a base layer is worn next to the skin. It helps regulate your body temperature by wicking away moisture and retaining heat. A base layer doesn’t have to be thick, so even a thinner summer one will do a good job if paired with a mid and outer layer.
Merino wool is a great material for a base layer as it’s anti-microbial, has good moisture-wicking properties and it’s great at insulating. However it is pricey but you get what you pay for.
Cheaper alternatives will use synthetic fibres, such as polyester but they’re still a good choice. They’ll dry out quicker than natural fibres too.
Cotton isn’t a good material for a base layer. So just putting on a thick T-shirt probably won’t do you any favours in fact it might end up making you colder. The cotton soaks up moisture rather than helping it escape. On a long ride, this can make you feel very cold.
Base Layer – Tops
Made with a clever mix of fabrics to enable fast drying, anti-bacterial odour resistance and it’s breathable to keep your skin feeling dry. Thick enough to help you stay insulated and easily machine washable for convenience.
Base Layer – Trousers
Made from a polyester and cotton mix, these thermal trousers add a layer of warmth and allow greater ease of movement. They’re one of the highest-rated Amazon picks.
Outlast is a material originally designed for NASA and it gets cold up in space, so we’re told. But have any astronauts tried to ride the B660 at 7am on a freezing cold winter’s morning? I think not. These long johns are designed to regulate your temperature and they get great ratings.
Mid Layer – Insulation
The role of the mid-layer is to trap as much heat from your body as possible, while at the same time keeping as much of the outside air away from your body as possible.
A quality mid-layer will be breathable and also able to wick away moisture. Any microfleece will do the job well. If it’s really cold you might want to pick a thicker fleece.
Again a cotton mid-layer, like a thick long-sleeve T-shirt is not a great choice. It’ll trap moisture and end up drawing warmth from your body.
There’s not a huge amount of difference between any decent fleece top but one of your considerations might be whether you want a full-length or quarter-length zip.
The Men’s Camber Fleece is a soft microfleece with a zip neck collar. Lightweight and breathable, it is ideal as part of an effective three-way layering system.
Experts in motorcycle gear, this EDZ mid-layer is a great choice. A thin performance micro-fleece with good thermal properties, it’s quick-drying and features flat seams for added comfort.
Outer Layer – Weather Protection
This is your protection from the elements.
A jacket also needs to be protective in the event of a crash but you (hopefully) spend most of your time on the bike, not sliding down the road alongside it. So it’s important that it keeps the wind and rain out in order that your internal layers can work efficiently.
One of the best-known and most effective materials is Gore-Tex, which is great at keeping water out but it also lets moisture escape. One of the reasons that products featuring Gore-Tex are more expensive than others is that Gore-Tex has standards that they want manufacturers to build their products to meet. So when you buy a Gore-Tex jacket or pair of trousers, it’s not just lined with a special material, it’s been made to a very high standard.
Some manufacturers have produced their own waterproof membranes which work in a very similar way to Gore-Tex. So look out for things like Drystar, D-Dry, H2Out which should work better than a simple ‘waterproof’ jacket or pair of textile trousers which usually only feature an outer layer with a waterproof coating.
Our top choice for many reasons. With a reinforced poly-fabric textile, Drystar 100% waterproof and breathable fabric, the Andes V3 is abrasion-resistant and suitable in all weathers. The removable shoulder and elbow protection are complemented by the reinforced fabric in these areas and pre-curved sleeves combat fatigue. Other features include reflective detailing, adjustable waist, removable fleece liner, and large utility pockets
A top-spec Rukka waterproof jacket for a sniff over £500. The Pathfind-R is made with a Cordura 500D shell and a detachable Gore-Tex lining. Armour includes CE approved shoulder and elbows, plus a pocket for a back protector and 1500D fabric in abrasion zones. The collar is made from soft neoprene for comfort. Shorter in body length but most will zip it into Rukka trousers, making a waterproof suit. Register the jacket with Rukka for a warranty.
The strengths and weaknesses of different materials used in base layers:
Polyester is one of the most common materials used in base layers and mid layers. A man-made material, it's cheap to produce, easy to work with, hard-wearing and light weight. Moiture-wicking, it also only absorbs under 1% of its weight in water, meaning it dries quickly. It loses its thermal properties when wet.
Sheep have evolved themselves into a tasty Sunday lunch and a quality base layer material for tens of thousands of years. Thank you, sheepies. Merino wool keeps you warm at low temperatures and cooler at high temperatures. It absorbs more moisture than polyester and hence doesn't dry as quickly but unlike polyester, Merino wool will retain its thermal properties when wet.
Cotton isn't a great material when it comes to base layers. It has poor moisture-wicking properties and can absorb 2000% of its weight in water, meaning it takes a longer time to dry out. This is where most bikers go wrong when they use a thick T-shirt as a base layer. If you like cotton as a fabric, look for a base layer with a polyester/cotton mix.
Silk has similar properties to Merino wool. It's a natural fibre produced by the silkworm (who haven't evolved to be as tasty as the humble sheep). It's lightweight and compact but it's really expensive, which is why it's rarely used in base layers for outdoor pursuits.
You don't really want a base layer that's made purely from Nylon as it has poor breathability. However it shares a lot of its traits with polyester but it's harder wearing. You'll probably find a small amount of Nylon used alongside polyester and a stretchable fabric like Spandex.
Do You Need Heated Motorcycle Gear?
If there’s frost on the bike when you go to get on it or if you’re going on a long ride in seriously cold weather, then heated clothing definitely has a role to play.
Some people swear by heated grips but I’m not one of them. They’re a nice-to-have and when they’re already fitted to a bike, I do use them.
But when it’s really cold, you’re doing big speeds or when your gloves are wet, I don’t think they make a noticeable difference.
Your fingers might tell your brain that they can feel some warmth and that makes them happy but ultimately, heated grips aren’t stopping your body from getting cold.
You should try them and see if they work for you.
Heated clothing, however. Yes, sir!
One of the best bits of kit I own is a 12v heated motorcycle vest. I bought it over a decade ago. It wires into the bike and it’s a brilliant bit of kit.
When I was young and foolish, I rode through winter with just a set of leathers and a heated vest underneath.
Not only does it keep you warm by warming your core, but it’s also a seriously good morale booster on long cold rides.
The technology has moved on a lot in recent years, so you don’t HAVE to wire them into the bike but the good ones come with a battery back and they can be wired in.
When you’re off the bike you can power it from the battery. Handy when you’re mooching around on a cold day. Double bubble.
This Keis V501 can run on an external battery or 12v, wired into the bike. If I was buying again today, I’d grab this one.
Another popular item is heated gloves. Like the heated grips, I’m not a big fan but a lot of people do choose them. We’ve written a heated gloves buyer’s guide here.
While they do keep your hands warm(er), I don’t think they do enough to keep your body warm. There isn’t a huge amount of choice when it comes to heated gloves, so I’d rather go for a decent set of winter gloves than a mediocre set of heated ones.
The M Word
If you are serious about riding in winter and you suffer with cold hands, I think a better option is to fit bar muffs.I know they’re about as cool as wearing socks and sandals but if you have a decent set of winter gloves, paired with bar muffs, you’re in business. Your hands will stay dry and be far warmer due to the lack of wind blast.
But if I could only recommend one bit of heated clothing, it’s a heated vest. Every time.
The Other Winter Essentials
This feature is predominantly about layers. What to wear and how to wear it. However, you also have to factor in boots and gloves, which aren’t technically layers. Or are they?
Fortunately, we’ve written some pretty good guides on boots and gloves and other winter clothing that will keep you warm and dry throughout the winter period and beyond.
I cannot praise the virtues of a neck tube highly enough! If you’re riding in winter, you really need a neck tube like the one pictured. Wear it over your base layer but under your mid-layer for maximum effectiveness. See our other neck tube picks here.
A good pair of socks makes all the difference. You want them to be long enough to reach the top of your boots. I’ve tried wearing two pairs and find it makes my feet feel colder than with just one decent pair. You don’t need waterproof socks, just get decent waterproof boots. Two good socks picks are these ones from EDZ and these ones from walking specialist Bridgedale.
Freedom of Movement
A lot of motorcycle jackets will come with a removable thermal liner. In my experience, they are really good and make a noticeable difference.
However, if you are wearing a baselayer, mid-layer, your jacket’s thermal liner and your jacket, it can become a bit bulky. Ease of movement becomes an issue. Personally I hate feeling restricted when I’m on the bike and the restriction usually becomes apparent around your shoulders.
If you’re having this problem there are two areas to consider. The jacket’s removable thermal liner might have sleeves or might be sleeveless. If it has sleeves and you can remove them, try doing so. If it’s longsleeved, you might want to wear a thinner mid-layer or lose it completely.
Alternatively, you could replace your long-sleeved mid-layer with a short-sleeved gilet. A microfleece body warmer like this one will help keep your core warm but allow you more freedom of movement.
Which brands should I go for?
You don’t NEED motorcycle-specific products to form your layers. Other outdoor pursuits, like skiing, mountaineering and sailing all preach the layering technique and you might already own some of these items.
You can spend a lot of money buying technical gear designed for these pursuits. The likes of The North Face, Rab, Arc-Teryx, etc. make great kit but a lot of these brands design their gear to be ultra-light and that comes at a price; they’re not cheap.
For biking, you don’t need cutting edge gear and therefore you don’t need to shell out a fortune to stay warm.
It’s the layers rather than individual products that make the difference.
Motorcycling in Winter FAQs
How often should you check your tyre pressures
Check your tyres once every fortnight if you’re riding regularly. Always do this on cold tyres; how do you know if your tyres are cold? As a rule of thumb, a cold tyre hasn’t been ridden for around 2 hours or only ridden on a short run of less than a couple of miles at a reduced speed. If your motorcycle’s stored, check them before you go out and after any long journeys to ensure you haven’t got a slow puncture.
Don’t muck around with tyre pressures to adjust them for the rain or cold conditions. Letting some air out of your tyres might sound like it’ll help them grip but it can close up on the tread pattern meaning water can’t be channelled away as efficiently.
How can I see better on the bike?
Ditch the tinted or dark visor for a clear one. Make sure your visor isn’t scratched as that can diminish vision. Use an anti-fog mask or anti-fog spray for your visor, to minimise the effects of fogging.
Can you get heated motorcycle socks?
Yes you can and you can also get heated inner soles but a quality pair of winter or all-season boots, paired with Merino wool socks should ensure your feet stay warm.
Thanks to the following websites which helped us research and write this How To Keep Warm on a Motorcycle Guide: