Beating the Heat

As I write this, it’s 112° here in Texas. Summer being hot in Texas is a given, but this last week has been particularly gnarly. The thermometer on my motorcycle has registered temperatures as high as 114°.

It’s like cuddling with Satan.

What’s a rider to do in order to combat such intense heat? There’s no possible way riding in this heat can be safe, let alone enjoyable, can it? I’ll tell you first hand that it actually can. I ride an hour each way to and from work every day, plus the riding I do on weekends, and even when the heat index is as high as, let’s just pull a random number out of thin air…114°, I am honestly only a bit uncomfortable at worst. Sure, I sweat a bit (ok, a lot), and I can feel the heat, yet I remain safe and cool(ish), by utilizing a few relatively low-tech (but high-science) and cost-effective tricks and sound habits that any rider can utilize.

First, let’s get an understanding of some of the basic principles behind the heat and what it entails.

When you’re riding in the heat you have several things to manage in order to be as cool and safe as possible; the air temperature/heat index, wind, the sun, and sweating/dehydration.

The measured temperature and heat index, and the way heat transfers to objects is a lot to contend with on its own. Heat always transfers from the hotter source to the cooler one. What that means is that once the air is hotter than your body temperature, the heat will transfer from it to your body, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Wind speed has a fairly significant effect on temperature. Once you get over a certain temperature; about 95°; traveling at any speed faster than a walking pace actually increases the temperature of the air. This chart breaks it down:Think of it as being similar to how the fan in a convection oven increases airflow, pushing hotter air toward (and cooler air away from) the food, and cooking your roast faster (and more evenly). Only in this case, the thing cooking faster is you, not brisket.

Then there’s the sun. Radiant heat and UV rays from the sun will, respectively, rapidly increase your body temperature and cause sunburns. Add to this the fact that wind against skin causes it to be less protective against the harmful effects of the sun.

Finally, when you’re out in the heat, you will sweat. You’ll lose that precious water that makes up most of your body, as well as valuable electrolytes which are only used to keep your cells, nervous system, brain, and organs functioning properly. It’s not like you need properly functioning organs to live or anything.

If your body is unable to regulate its temperature effectively, and your core temperature reaches 104°, you’re in big trouble. On a motorcycle, it’s very easy to be subjected to an effective temperature in excess of 104° by just the relative humidity and the speed you’re traveling, which literally makes heatstroke an inevitability. Unless, that is, you practice some sound habits and employ some clever tricks to stay cool.

Here’s what I do to beat the heat.

Cover up. In addition to preventing road rash and injuries, some good riding gear also helps regulate your body temperature in virtually all riding conditions. My daily riding kit in this heat consists of an RSD Truman Perf waxed canvas riding jacket (read my review of this awesome jacket) or Reax Apex Pro jacket, RSD or Rokker riding jeans (the single layer Rokker jeans are much better when temps rise into triple digits), RSD Rourke leather gloves, RSD Fresno perforated riding shoes, some sort of breathable neck gaiter, and either the uber-versatile Scorpion ST1400 Carbon, Bell Eliminator, or (especially when the ride might carry over from day to night and I need the photochromic shield) a Qualifier DLX MIPS.

Fully geared up, despite the fact that it was 105° when this was taken.

At first thought, one may think that level of coverage is a one-way ticket to heatstrokeville, what with all those thick textiles, leathers, and what-not trapping all that heat, right? Removing layers of clothes would seem to be the sensible thing to do when it’s hot. Just remember that heat transfers from the hotter source to the cooler one. When it’s over 98°, the hotter source is the air, and the cooler one is your body. You’re not actually trapping the heat in, you’re blocking it out. If properly covered, the heat has to het through your jacket, gloves, riding pants, riding shoes or boots, and helmet before it can get to you.

Another benefit of being covered is that it holds in and helps control the rate at which the perspiration on your skin evaporates, rather than it being burned off almost immediately by the sun and wind. This gives you a longer, more sustained evaporative cooling effect. If you’re going to lose water and electrolytes to sweat, you might as well put that sweat to use in an efficient manner. Granted, in climates with higher relative humidity, like here in Texas, the effects of your sweat evaporating and cooling are reduced, as the air is already saturated with vapor particles (so your sweat basically has nowhere to go), but it’s still better than nothing.

All told, my gear alone, without any other tricks, allows me to remain surprisingly comfortable (if a bit sweaty) at temps just around 100°, give or take, for at least an hour, without any ill effects.

Don’t sweat it. While sweating is inevitable, I like to come up with ways to not sweat at all, or at least reduce the amount of sweat my body has to release, in order to keep cool, thus also staving off the dangers of dehydration. The classic wet bandana trick comes into play here. Soak a bandana in cool water, and put it around your neck. The water will evaporate, helping you keep cool.

Handy, sure, but the effectiveness is limited, and your true goal is to keep your core cool, not your neck. I take it a step further by not wringing the water out of the bandana, putting it on, and letting the water soak into my shirt before zipping up my jacket. Now we’re talking. This keeps my core even cooler, reaping the benefits of evaporative cooling without actually having to sweat to achieve it.

Now, let’s say it’s 110°, and the heat index is hovering around 115°. It’s probably (definitely) dangerous to even be outside. “No problem,” I say as I stuff ice cubes into my jacket pockets. Problem solved. While solid, the ice keeps me cool, and as it melts, the water flows into the material (especially the mesh inner liner) of my jacket for more evaporative cooling.

And keep a cool head. While a full-face helmet with a good moisture wicking liner and some decent airflow blocks the heat and helps sweat evaporate, there are ways to make it more effective. First thing I make sure I have is a dark or reflective shield that blocks/reflects as much sunlight as possible, including UV. That’ll prevent the heat of the sun from roasting my head, and the UV blocking will stop sunburn. I’d estimate the internal temperature in a helmet with a dark shield vs. a clear one is probably cooler by 20°.

Before a ride in the heat, I’ll soak the liner and pads of my helmet with cold water. If it’s exceptionally hot, I’ll plan ahead, soak the pads, put them in the freezer, and reinstall them before riding. By introducing an actively cold or wet element as well as a source of moisture and evaporative cooling that isn’t my own sweat, I am able to keep my temperature down as well as reduce the amount that I end up sweating.

The most important thing when riding in the heat is to know your limits, and know the signs of heatstroke. If your heart rate is elevated, or you start feeling weird, get out of the heat, get some water, and cool yourself down. Don’t try to push through it. Take care of yourself. The road isn’t going anywhere.

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