If you had a choice you probably wouldn’t choose to ride in extremely hot weather. But you don’t always have the option, like when you’re out on a road trip and need to be home sooner than later. Assuming shedding layers of protective gear isn’t an option—and for purposes of this discussion, it isn’t—how do you keep your cool when the very pavement you’re riding on is melting?
The first step is wearing the right riding gear. Most jackets designed for anything more serious than posing on Instagram come with zippered vents in the front and back to let air flow through the interior and cool you down.
For maximum cooling, mesh jackets are the way to go. Large areas of mesh admit every stray breeze, although you don’t want mesh in areas where you might contact the road in a crash.
There’s one more piece of gear you should stow away in your saddlebag for extreme heat, and that’s a cool vest. Some are just water bladders in the shape of a sleeveless vest that you fill with cold water and wear under a vented jacket. I have a lot of miles on the other kind, which is made of a polymer-based stuff sandwiched between a water-resistant inner liner and a ventilated outer layer.
Soak the vest in water for five or 10 minutes, wring out the excess, and put it on over your T-shirt. The moisture trapped in the vest speeds evaporative cooling and lasts for hours between recharges. I store mine in a one-gallon ziplock baggie, and pour the water directly into the bag to charge the vest.
If there’s a way to look at a helmet’s vent system and tell if it works without trying it out on your own bike, I haven’t found it. I have two helmets, both with vents. One flows air like a mini-tornado, the other admits a bare trickle of breeze. Size and placement have something to do with it, as well as the channeling molded into the comfort liner and EPS layer inside the shell.
Make Sure The Bike Is Right
The bike itself can affect how well your vented gear works. When I had a Gold Wing I rode it from Oregon—nice, cool, green, coastal Oregon—south to sere, brown, basically-a-desert Southern California in the middle of a record heat wave.
The big ol’ barn-door windscreen I loved so much during the winters at home became the focus of hatred and loathing. It shouldered aside the wind, routed it around me, and closed the stream about a foot aft of my back where it did me fuck-all good. I could have been wearing Speedos and flip-flops instead and I’d have still been roasting.
You’re certainly not going to buy one bike for cold weather and another for hot, and riding gear is an unpredictable variable until you road test it. But no matter what you ride and wear, there are things you can do to stay comfortable and safe during hot rides. Staying hydrated is one of the most important, and one of the most often ignored.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Your body sheds excess heat by sweating, and the more you sweat the more fluid you lose. Lose too much, and you get dehydrated. The symptoms of dehydration include a dry mouth, headache, extreme fatigue or sleepiness, and dizziness. Those last three are obviously not states in which you want to be at the controls of a speeding motorcycle.
It’s not really good enough to ride for an hour or two then stop and guzzle a couple of liters of water. Near the end of every stint, as you approach drink time, you’re at your worst, and you’re more likely then to make a critical error in judgment. Gulping down a bottle of water isn’t going to snap you back to 100 percent right away, either.
It’s better to smooth out the bumps in the curve by drinking water as you ride. A CamelBak water bladder with the drink tube clipped to your jacket lets you take a drink whenever you’re thirsty, and generally speaking, if you’re thirsty you’ve already waited too long to drink. It’s better to sip constantly to avoid triggering the thirst alarm at all.
Some of the long-distance riders of the Iron Butt Association mount 1- or 2-gallon coolers on the passenger seat when they know they’re going someplace stupidly hot, and fill them at stops with water and ice. I’ve done this myself, and it made a remarkable difference in the miles I was able to ride in hot weather.
Notice I’ve been referring to drinking water at stops, and not beer, soda, or coffee. Beer is a stupid choice for obvious reasons, but the caffeine found in coffee and many soft drinks, as well as the sugar in the latter, give you a short-term high that fades quickly, sometimes leaving you more tired than before. (Many people think drinking coffee makes you pee more often—I thought that myself—but the research says moderate caffeine consumption doesn’t have a significant diuretic effect, although alcohol definitely does.)
A doctor once told me that to help retain the water I drink, I should eat a salty snack, because the salt binds to the water and keeps it in my system longer. Or something like that; it was a long time ago, and I’ve forgotten the exact reason, but I do know it works. I stash a small bag of corn chips in my tank bag and munch a few every at every gas stop. That seems to be the right salt-to-water ratio for me.
Finally, ride smarter, not harder. If you know you’re in for a sizzler of a day, get up early, ride until the heat gets unbearable, then stop in the shade for a few hours during the hottest part of the afternoon.
Stake out a booth in a diner and drink iced tea while you look at maps, or find a library and settle in with a book for a while. Take a snooze on a picnic table in a park. As evening approaches you’ll be ready for another stint.