TOTW: Keep warm and rested: hypothermia kills

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

What’s the problem?

When you’re wearing your riding gear (leather or synthetic jacket, boots, gloves, helmet, pants) non-riders will often ask you “aren’t you hot?” Experienced riders know the answer to this question: On a motorcycle, you aren’t hot for long, but it’s easy to be cold.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Imagine a warm summer day, where you are standing in an unsheltered field with a 100 Km/Hour wind blowing. You’ve experienced how chilling a wind can be, and this same effect happens when you’re sitting on a bike moving through the air at high speed. The chill is even more severe at night, when solar energy isn’t replenishing your body heat. And, of course, it is worse still if you are riding when it actually is cold, such as in spring or fall, or at high altitudes.

Being cold is a concern on a motorcycle, and not just because it reduces your riding pleasure. Hypothermia (loss of body heat) will slow your mental and physical response times, seriously impairing your ability to avoid accidents, and cold leads to fatigue, increasing the chance that you will make an error that causes one. Fatigue, of course, also leads to sleepiness. While you may have experienced nearly “nodding off” when driving a car while over-tired, imagine how much worse this is when on a vehicle that can tip over.

While short cruises around town might not expose you to these threats, if you are going to do any longer-distance riding, heat loss and fatigue are among the most important problems you must learn to deal with.

If you are riding any long distances, or at night, or in colder climates, you need to be alert for symptoms related to hypothermia and know what to do about it.

Symptoms

If hypothermia and fatigue are starting to affect your riding ability, you will notice some or all of the following symptoms, generally in roughly this order.

  • You would think the most obvious symptom of this problem is “feeling cold.” That’s a good warning, and a reminder to take preventative measures, but it’s not the real problem. A few seconds of cold as you pass through a pocket of cold air is not hypothermia. We’re concerned about a “system-wide” loss of internal heat for a prolonged period, which will slow your physical and mental reactions. The symptom that should alarm you is if you stop feeling cold when there is no reason to. If you were cold a while ago and now feel “acclimatised,” ask yourself if that makes sense in the environment you’re riding through. Unless your environment has changed, maybe you are still cold, but are losing the ability to notice it. What else aren’t you noticing?
  • Any unusual degree of physical discomfort, or any significant change in your physical abilities, is also a sign that you are getting fatigued. If you find yourself moving less: staring, moving your head infrequently, getting a stiff neck; if you are developing aches or cramps; if your bathroom cycle is changing; and, obviously, if you are feeling any numbness, it is time to take action.
  • Finally, and most seriously, if you find your reaction time slowing, you have a problem. If you are having trouble with physical coordination — causing, perhaps, sloppy gear changes when you normally are smooth, or if you are having trouble keeping your mind alert — not noticing potential hazards till they pass you by — you are in need of warmth and rest. Unfortunately, the very loss of mental alertness we are describing makes it less likely you will realise you have a problem, so it is important to act before you reach this stage.

Prevention and treatment

If you detect the symptoms mentioned above, you are in danger. It is much better to avoid this situation through prevention than to deal with it after you are already impaired. Basic prevention is simple.

  • Dress for the cold, or at least take extra clothing with you, even on a warm day. On a ride of any length, especially if you will be riding into the night, at high altitude, or through desert, take extra layers of clothing with you, and force yourself to stop and put it on early.
  • If you will be doing any amount of long-distance or overnight riding, an electrically heated liner for your jacket is an excellent investment. Most larger motorcycles can easily handle the electrical load, and many serious long-distance riders list an electric vest as one of their most important accessories.
  • Finally, head off hypothermia and fatigue by taking frequent breaks during your ride. This point is so important that we’ll discuss it again below.

If you do find yourself experiencing symptoms such as those listed above, the most important thing you can do is stop and rest. If you must ride for a while longer, however, (for example, to reach a place you can safely stop) the following are additional short-term measures you can try.

  • If you haven’t made the time to put that sweater on, do it now.
  • If you have any way to get a warm drink (carrying a thermos with you, or pausing at a passing coffee shop) do so now. However, you must never use alcohol as a treatment for being cold. It is a myth that liquor warms your body. It creates a chemical reaction that feels like warmth, but actually has the reverse effect, accelerating heat loss. And, of course, you should not be riding a motorcycle with alcohol in your system anyway.
  • Crack your visor open if it has been closed. A blast of fresh air will give you a few more minutes of clear head.
  • Deliberately, but slowly, make physical changes. Vary your speed up and down slightly. Force yourself to turn your head, not just your eyes, to look around. Vary your view — look far ahead, nearby, and off to the sides.
  • Consciously pay more attention to scanning for hazards and planning your reaction than you normally do.

Know When to Stop

The most important prevention, and the most important treatment, for hypothermia and fatigue is to make frequent rest stops. Long-distance riding organisations (such as the Iron Butt Association) list frequent short breaks as the most important technique a rider can employ.

Rather than one long, infrequent, stop at which you gas your bike, eat, stretch, go to the bathroom, and do other sundry chores, organise your trip so you spend the same amount of time stopped but as frequent short stops. For example, make meals and gas stops separate if you can. Trying to go for a longer period without stopping will not save you time and may get you hurt.

Ideally, you should be stopping before you are cold or tired, and you should certainly stop at the first sign of any of the symptoms above. When you stop, take measures to warm the centre of your body. Don’t just rub your hands together. Walk around your bike to restore circulation. If you can, get indoors, unzip your jacket, and let some warm air in around your chest. Have a warm drink (but no alcohol.)

If some schedule pressure is forcing you to hurry, call ahead and tell them you may be late. Remove the pressure to hurry, and take the breaks you require.

Next time some bystander asks you “aren’t you hot in that outfit,” smile, use the phrase “experienced riders,” and tell them that story about standing in the 100 Km/H wind.


Fleece liner and electric vest shown above are images from Aerostich Rider Warehouse.


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