Surviving a winter road trip like a noob

Winter riding without the proper gear is a whole other level of cold

If you have never ridden in winter, and you are considering a road trip, read this first and learn from my experience. Don’t make the same mistakes I made on my first trip.

The beginning of my first winter road trip…

That Friday evening as I got off work, I was excited to head south for the night. It would be my first bike road trip and my head was chocked full of anticipation of the fun ride and visiting my cousin I hadn’t seen in years. This short trip was going to be a joy ride from Dallas down to  a town an hour south of Austin.

In planning the trip, I took into account that day’s temperature, 65°F, and assumed it would get a little colder. I packed for about 40°F, with an extra hoodie in case it really got cold. I brought a pair of ski pants to go over my jeans and had some ski gloves to wear.

Once I was out of Dallas traffic, it was smooth sailing down Interstate 35E . I was having a blast, hitting the hundo for the first time on that GS500, going downhill of course. Uphill, my under-powered GS500, loaded with my gear, seemed to just want to die.

By the time I reached Austin city limits it was dark, it was cold, and I had noticed my bike was acting like it was running too lean. I examined the petcock, made sure I had fuel, and checked the inline fuel filters I had added the week before. Everything seemed okay, but something still wasn’t right. I continued on to the next fuel station. The temperature had dropped enough that stepping into a station to warm up seemed like a good idea.

A bad late night decision…

At this point my bike was struggling a little more to stay running, something definitely seemed to be up with the fuel system. It was about ten at night and I had a decision to make. Either stay in Austin for the night, spending money I didn’t have on a hotel, continue an hour further from home, where I might end up stranded at my cousins, or turn back towards home and my tools. Forking out money for a hotel seemed like a huge waste to me, that was money I could use towards any parts I might need. I thought on my choices, none of them feeling great.

I figured that with fewer cars to contend with, I could take my time with my struggling bike if I headed back right then. If I waited, there was no guarantee I could fix my ride and then I would have to deal with my bike’s antics and traffic. I decided to head back to Dallas. I chugged some warm coffee, got back on, and turned around.

At the time I was newly back into riding, I didn’t think to have roadside assistance or trip interruption coverage. Now, I wouldn’t even consider not having roadside assistance or trip interruption coverage just for the peace of mind it brings.

Surviving the incoming polar vortex…

About an hour into leaving, and with about 3 hours remaining, it began to get very windy from the North. At this point, I started to regret my decision to head home. Stubbornness kept me from turning around and heading back down south. I also figured the closer I got to home, the more likely I would be to either make it, or get help. I reasoned that if I stayed near Austin, I risked being stranded there, or inconveniencing people in Dallas who would have to drive down to rescue me. Not to mention the embarrassment I would face from not returning from my first bike trip.

Chugging down the road, I knew I was unprepared for the cold wind that I felt. Not only did this frigid wind keep my bike at around 60 – 70 mph with it’s head on intensity, but it was a cold like nothing I had felt all year. As I approached the next city I checked the temperature on my phone app and saw it was about 15°F. I didn’t even consider that with the windchill of highway speeds the temperatures I was feeling were significantly colder.

Stopping in at a gas station, I could see the sympathy on the clerks face as I stumbled in shaking, looking for coffee, which the clerk offered up for free. I took a seat inside until my core temperature seemed almost normal and headed back out.

I found this useful windchill calculator once I got back and checked on the temperatures I was feeling. In case you don’t know riding in 15°F at between 60 and 70 mph, the windchill is about -12°F. At that low of a temperature it only takes about 30 minutes time for frostbit to occur. I did have some gloves on, I was dressed for about 40°F with an extra hoodie in case it got cold for real. (laughing).

Back on the road, thirty minutes was about the longest I could go before having to stop again. I wasn’t stopping to go to the bathroom, or because I was tired. I was stopping because my body was shaking so violently I was afraid I would crash. My shaking was making the bike so unstable at any reasonable speed, that I simply had no choice but to stop and warm up my core again. I continued this process from an hour north of Austin all the way back to Carrollton, Texas.

Getting home and hypothermia

With all of the stops, my 3 hours ended up being more like five hours. At three in the morning, after what seemed like an eternity, I finally could see the neighborhood. I was shaking, unbelievably cold, and more tired than I could ever remember feeling. I could barely walk straight, see, or think, every part of me wanted to just lay down on the sidewalk, the front door seeming too far to reach.

Exhaustion comes on before the loss of consciousness when you are experiencing hypothermia.  It is when you start getting tired that you have to find somewhere to warm up. I’ve read that once you lose consciousness at those temperatures, you only have about an hour to survive.

I managed to get inside, wrap myself up with a few blankets, and fall on the couch to try and sleep. While I was laying on the couch my muscles shook violently, desperately trying to warm my core. I figured I would survive, although earlier as I was nearing the house I had thought that I might not make it. In hindsight, I probably should have went to a hospital but hypothermia makes it hard to think clearly. On the couch for about 30 minutes, I shivered, trying to trap heat under the blankets with me. I was so cold though, that even with multiple blankets, and fully dressed, I felt almost the same as standing in the 15°F temperatures outside. I did not warm up quickly like I imagined I would. Finally, after what seemed like hours later,  I did warm up enough to fall asleep and I went on to live another day.

What I learned…

First, I will never go anywhere on my bike without checking the weather and bringing more clothing than what I expect to need. Second, if I am going on a road trip I will bring something to sleep in even if it is just a space blanket. Third, I will always insure my bike with roadside assistance and trip interruption coverage because I want to get home and I want someone to come help me if I become stranded. Lastly, if I am ever making a long trip, more than an hour in the winter, I will don motorcycle muffs and rig my gear with heat. Some of the heated gear is pricey but survival and comfort are well worth it.

Taking a trip in the cold without the proper gear was almost unbearable. The cold on the freeway that night was something I did not anticipate and hope to never experience again. I will take winter trips again, because I love to ride and I ride all year round, but I will never again make those rookie mistakes. I hope this story, while slightly embarrassing for me, is educational for you so that you never have to experience such a torturous ride.

A Web Developer by trade, find me on Github
A motorcycle enthusiast at heart.
Most days I’d rather be in the woods anywhere.