This is a little thing I wrote up in response to a question about REAL winter riders in another forum. I finally updated this as of 8.29.2010 to be a little less militant, more helpful, and incorporate some of what other people have been doing. It's been great to see people posting about their experiences.
In the fall of 2002, I bought a BMW F650GS and rode it through 2 and a half winters as my primary commuter. I wore out four sets of studded tires, which adds up to around 12k miles on studded tires. I learned many lessons, but the most important was that (without heated gear) at a certain point, highway speeds aren't safe for extended periods. I was experiencing the first stages of hypothermia on nearly every ride under 10F on my 32 mile freeway commute across Denver. At that point I started to rethink my bike-only strategy.
Here are some other things I learned:
Success depends a lot on the bike, and a lot on the rider. If you're new to riding, starting on the snow cold be a pretty bad idea, especially if you're going to be in traffic. Here's a few other things to think about
If your engine sits 5" off the ground, then a 6" pile of snow will cause your engine to push against it and you'll lose momentum. Now apply this to 2 FEET of snow (parking lots and residential streets) and you'll be doing a LOT of work to get the bike through. It's a workout on your body and your clutch.
You're gonna use your feet. It's not pussing out to dab in the snow. I use a foot outrigger at speeds from 0-75MPH when the bike slides, wobbles, or when I got bored. On snow and ice your foot glides along and it's a great balancing tool. You don't want to be 4 feet off the ground or you'll be falling over all the time. Also, think of the leverage you'll need to hold yourself up if your feet have no grip- you want to be able to lock that foot way out from the bike and make your tripod bigger.
It helps to have REAL DOT knobbies if you want a reliable snow bike. Others have done great with a more street-oriented dual-sort tire like Gripsters, but they're not ideal for a lot of fresh snow and slush. I used Kenda Trakmaster IIs because they're cheap and last at least 3,000 miles with the studs. I had one front go 8k. They make them in a 17" up to 160mm wide. If you don't have a 21" front rim, you may have to use a rear-use tire on the front which KILLS your cornering confidence and ability. Basically, you turn like a rookie when you're running that setup but It's stable. A 21" Dunlop D606 I put on a KLR650 one year handled great on the dry and took studs with no problems. My F650GS with the 19" rear on the front end was miserable in the corners.
I believe heavier is better- more weight on each knob gets it farther into the snow and makes things more stable. I.E. a 200lb dirtbike will be a handfull and my 400lb BMW will ride smoothly. I also tried to keep the tank full when I knew it was going to snow. Keep in mind this is more weight you'll have to hold up in the slippery stuff and more weight to potentially pick up if you go down. (2010 note: I'm going to try studding a 300lb WR250R this year, so we'll see how that goes.)
If you only have a sportbike the above info means:
a) You can stud an SV650, F2, F3, or any other sportbike with a 160 rear and 120 front but you'll probably have to remove both fenders.
b) Your sportbike will SUCK in deep snow and dry pavement.
c) It'll kick ass in compact snow and ice (with studded tires) because of the horsepower, weight, and low genter of gravity.
If you have a bigger dual sport this gets much easier.
I use street-legal automobile studs on knobby tires. Ice screws, sheet metal screws, and spikes aren't what I'm talking about. Sheet metal screws can be used in an emergency, but tire studs have been proven to help a motorcycle get around handily on snow and ice. There's a mostly helpful instructional website for studding here,
or you can read on for how others are doing it.
Stopping with studs:
If you have studs, you have to slow down on dry pavement and leave greater braking distances. The only part of the tire you need to stud is the middle and that's what you stop with. You'll also engine-brake a lot more because locking the front becomes a lot easier with less rubber and more metal on the ground. I slide the rear end a lot at stops with the engine and it's pretty effective. On snow, slush, and dry pavement, my stopping distance is about the same. On ice, it all depends on how fast you're going. This doesn't mean your stopping distances will double, only that you'll have to ride less aggressively if you're an aggressive rider. If you're a calmer rider, you may not even notice a difference.
The Good Stuff:
You can maintain a pretty high rate of speed without the instability that you'll get in a car- basically because the gyroscopic forces of a bike wheel have more effect than car wheels. This means you can do normal highway speeds on the highway... in anything but unpacked snow over 2-3". I've seen indicated speeds of 85MPH on compact snow- with NO traffic around me. I can accelerate with minimal slipping on any surface faster than any 4X4 I've met. In a straight line, the traction is unbeatable on the snow and corners can be taken at a reasonable pace if you know what you're doing. Changes of direction need to be planned and executed with a decent amount of concentration. Fast avoidance maneuvers are possible depending on conditions but I try not to get into situations requiring them. I can "legally" drift-turn around corners and basically play around in the snow and I've never been pulled over on a snow day. The vibe I get from cops I've spoken to is as long as I'm not crashing, I'm golden.
The big thing to watch for is strips of snow left unpacked or tire tracks that cross your path at an angle other than 90 degrees or the big one: snowplow tailings. Since everything is white it's hard to guage the height of these tracks and your bike will change course a little bit and you'll feel REALLY unstable. Staying on the throttle and maintaining your composure is important at any speed. Obviously this can happen anywhere and it takes a long time to get used to.
I've never crashed on the street with studs. I did lowside in a parking lot at 10mph trying to drift turn with a passenger. We both slid softly to a stop and got right up.
It can be done safely but I only reccomend taking passengers with a LOT of riding experience who ride very neutral- any movement can bring you down around a corner or over a bump. See above.
I've done it. I'd do it again on knobbier tires but not street tires: A flat surface will compress snow and make it slippery while a bumpy surface will compress snow and maintain some grip in it. I prefer riding without studs on sanded snow but once rode about 20 miles of highway in 1-2" of fresh snow at an average speed of 45MPH on Dunlop D607s. It can be done, but I wouldn't bet my job on being able to make it to work every day on non-studded tires. There's no way I could have made it to work every day for 2 winters without them. Update: on an '81 XT250 with bare knobbies, I found it difficult to navigate city streets that had a base of packed snow. It was really slick and I fell once in the middle of the road. In fresh, untraveled snow, I was fine, but once I was on the streets it became pretty dangerous. Sanded roads are much easier than unsanded.
Sweet. Great traction, easily installed and removed, but a less balanced, more bumpy ride. Great for emergencies or the occasional fun ride. Crash and AnnieGS have pioneered a lot of chain stuff, but I have never used them.
Like a car, your bike will get REALLY dirty when it snows. So will you. Get tough gear that will last sand rubbing into it and ice forming on it. You can't be afraid to scratch your bike and you may go a month without being able to wash it because of sub-freezing temps.
Before heated grips or electric clothing, I recommend an electric visor. The HJC CS-12 fits a snowmobile visor that runs a cord to the bike battery. This keeps ice from forming on your shield and lets you maintain visibility without fog and without developing frostnip on your face from leaving the visor open. The visor says not for street use right on it- it won't take a hit like a solid street visor but my opinion is that it's safer to see than to have the strongest equipment. Without an electric visor, falling snow and spray can cake on your faceshield and eventualy entirely obstruct your vision. A finger-squeegee helps a ton, too.
I've worn a Firstgear Kilimanjaro jacket for 2 years in the snow and waterproof them once a year. I also wear Coldwave Sno/Ice bibs and Baffin boots. I prefer wearing waterproof motocross boots because the armor is nice to have when bumping off of big chunks of ice from trucks but it's hard to find a cheap pair that'll keep the waterproofing longer than a few snow days. I've never worn electric clothing, mainly because of power restrictions on my bike. Instead, I layer up. My gloves vary but I tend to prefer my lobster claw ice-climbing cloves in extremely cold weather.
On my BMW F650GS
in a bad winter storm with sleet, snow, ice, and generally awful conditions on my 32 mile commute between Broomfield and Aurora, CO.
On a Honda Ruckus
with studded 10" tires, I found that packed snow was lots of fun, but tracked snow and loose snow was miserable because of the tiny wheel diameter- the small wheels followed tracks randomly.
In Denver, we experience storms that accumulate fresh snow in a hurry and we see a lot of fresh snow and churned snow/slush. We also see ice and compact snow, but less often as it melts quickly in the Colorado sun. The studs I used made the ice and compact snow simple. The harder parts for me have always been how to deal with the snow and the muck left by snowplows, sand trucks, and traffic.