Riding a motorcycle in the rain is often not planned. The worst conditions I’ve ever ridden a motorcycle in almost always developed while I was already on the bike. Sometimes, however, you need to get somewhere on your motorcycle and it is pouring with rain outside.
Being prepared for a ride in the rain will make it that much safer and enjoyable.
Riding a motorcycle in the rain is dangerous, but you can increase your safety in the rain by understanding how wet road conditions impact your motorcycle’s traction and your visibility. Staying relaxed, using smooth throttle and braking inputs, and anticipating the grip of your tires will make you a safer motorcyclist in the rain.
If you ride regularly, it is inevitable that you will ride in the rain at some point. If you tour on your bike, it is just a matter of time that the weather takes a turn and provide you with a shower. I remember riding through some of the wettest conditions on a two week bike trip through the Namibian desert. It was the last thing we expected, but ended up being a lot of fun.
Being prepared for a rainy day is key in ensuring your safety. Let’s look at a summary of the basics first, before diving into the detail in separate sections.
Do this to safely ride your motorcycle in the rain
There is no reason to hate riding in the rain. Make sure you tick these four boxes and you may even start to enjoy it:
- Adjust your riding style
- Pay attention to the surface of the road
- Wear weatherproof riding gear
- Make sure you bike is set up for wet weather
Probably the most important aspect of riding a motorcycle safely in the rain is adjusting your riding style. I’m not only talking about speed and refraining from popping wheelies. Keeping it smooth and relaxed improves your chances of staying on your bike.
Whether you are riding your motorcycle on the tarmac or on gravel, the road surface changes when it is wet. If you understand how rain affects your motorcycle’s traction on various road surfaces, it will be much easier to maintain proper grip and keep the right side up.
Riding a bike in the rain requires a lot more concentration than riding on a dry road. Add to that the likelihood of colder weather and now you are using much more energy to keep focused and warm. Wearing appropriate riding gear while riding your motorcycle in the rain will keep you comfortable and allow you to concentrate on keeping the bike upright.
On some modern motorcycles you can simply let the bike know you are riding in the rain by pressing the ‘Rain’-button. Yes, the bike’s computer will adjust throttle inputs and other electronic safety aids to do a lot of the thinking and reacting for you. These systems are not foolproof and it pays to understand the effect your tires have on your motorcycle’s ability to hold onto the slippery road.
For miles of upright riding pleasure in the rain, memorize the infographic below before you leave home. And then read on for the detail and some tips for extra safety.
Adjust your riding style in the rain
While your bike’s tires generally have more grip on a wet roads than you think, it is definitely less than on a dry road. Adjusting your riding style is the most important thing you can do to decrease your chances of coming off your motorcycle.
The key to staying on two wheels instead of landing up in a puddle on the side of the road is to ride less aggressively. Smooth clutch, throttle and braking inputs will prevent a sudden loss of traction which might cause a crash.
That means accelerating at a moderate rate to make sure the tires maintain grip and don’t start slipping. Light, progressive braking will prevent the friction between the brake pads and the discs to exceed the friction between the tires and road surface.
By first lightly touching the brake to move the weight of the bike forward and loading the front suspension, the front tire can find grip through the wet surface. Then you can progressively add more front brake to bring the bike to a stop. Don’t just grab a fistful on a moving motorcycle with momentum.
You need to also take it easy when changing direction. Avoid sudden flicks of the motorcycle to turn in. Pretend the bike is a horse that spooks easily. You don’t want to surprise it. Let it know gently what is coming next.
If you’ve ever watched MotoGP then you’ll know how the riders hang off the side of their bikes with their knees down in a turn. The reason they do this is to keep the bike as upright as possible during the corner. The more upright the motorcycle remains, the more of the tread stays on the road to hold on.
On wet tarmac roads, try to keep the radius of the corner as wide as possible and try to lean in as little as possible. This is especially necessary on knobbly tires (like the ones you fit to adventure bikes or dirt bikes) where grip is much less than on street tires.
This is such an obvious one that you would think no-one needs reminding, yet I often see bikers (and motorists) tailgating traffic in the rain. It is almost as if they want to die.
Maintaining a longer following distance between the car in front of you will give you more time to react if the traffics slows down. This is vital, since your braking distance will be much further on a wet road. And if you do brake traction in a sudden stop, not being too close to the vehicle in front will give you time to swerve out of the way.
You need to also constantly know what is going on behind you. Remember, the person following you also has a longer stopping distance. If you try to maintain a proper following distance behind the person in front of you and that annoys the car behind, it might move in too close behind you. Don’t get aggressive. Let the driver pass and fall back.
Never ride your bike faster than you feel comfortable. If you are riding in a group, let the slowest rider ride in front. There is nothing worse than pushing yourself outside of you comfort zone trying to keep up. This is where accidents happen.
In poor visibility, cruising speed is a constant balancing act. Riding slow enough to see dangers in the road ahead, but fast enough to not get rear-ended by someone racing up from behind. If it gets real foggy, this becomes an impossible task and pulling over at a gas station (or better yet, a warm restaurant) is your best bet.
Don’t be a fool
This goes without saying, but I will anyway: Don’t be a fool! No wheelies, power slides or spinning tires. If you are reading this because you are really concerned about riding in the rain, this one shouldn’t be a problem.
When riding a motorcycle in the rain and cold, there is a big temptation to tuck in low behind the windscreen to stay dry and not freeze to death. You might be thinking, if you can just get to your destination without wet undies, you’ll be okay. This is a bad idea. When you ride in this position, your arms and whole body is tensed up and you can’t see the surface of the road well.
It is important to stay relaxed and flexible. You won’t tire as fast and will be able to react with smoother inputs if you need to avoid a puddle or a pot hole. Sit upright in a neutral riding position and let your rain gear do its best. You are more than likely going to get wet. Don’t let it get into your head, just enjoy the experience. It is just water.
If it gets too cold and you feel your energy draining, rather stop and take a break. Don’t be a hero by riding as far as you can in the pouring rain and the freezing cold.
Pay attention to the wet road surface
In the rain, the road surface can change in unpredictable ways. Try to avoid any area you are not sure of and pick the driest line.
If possible, try to avoid puddles of water at all costs. You never know deep it is or whether it is concealing a large pothole. Even if it is just a standing puddle of water an inch deep, you risk aquaplaning with potential disastrous consequences.
Aquaplaning happens when the water is too much for the tire tread to dissipate. A wedge of water forms in front of the leading edge of the tire which forces it up and off the pavement. This could result in a total loss of traction and an uncontrollable motorcycle. While it is not always possible to avoid every single puddle, it pays to be prepared in case you do start aquaplaning. Stay relaxed, don’t panic and ride the slide until you find grip again.
Stay off painted lines
Painted lines on the tarmac have less traction due to the coarse tarmac being filled with the paint to form a smoother surface. It is okay to cross these lines, but avoid accelerating or braking on them. Also avoid riding on a painted line while leaning into a corner. When changing lanes, just stay relaxed and move over the line with smooth inputs.
Pick a dry line
Try to follow the lines where the car and truck tires have dissipated the moisture. On roads with high traffic you should be able to clearly see two dry (or at least drier) lines. There will be more grip in these drier areas.
Avoid riding right in the middle of the lane between the car tire lines. Not only will there be more water there, but this is where leaking cars drip their oil, transmission fluid and coolant.
First 30 minutes are dangerous
The first few minutes after it starts raining is the most dangerous. Water is displacing oil and grease that is stuck in the little grooves in the road surface. Since oil floats on water, it will rise up to make the road surface more slippery. After a few minutes of hard rain or a few more of light rain, the worst will have washed away and grip will improve. Be extra vigilant when it just starts raining and don’t try to rush it.
Be wary of oil or diesel spills
Oil and diesel spills in a corner or at a robot is dangerous on a dry road. In the wet, they can cause a wipe-out in a split-second. I personally know of at least three riders who has lost control of their motorcycle and wiped out in a slow corner due to oil spills.
You won’t see it before it is too late, so approach every blind corner or run-up to a robot as if a dirty old truck took a leak there. Avoid leaning too far over or braking mid-turn. Staying on the drier line where car tires have cleared the road surface is the safest.
Tarmac vs gravel
Most of the tips above apply to tarmac roads. In gravel, the effect of rain depends entirely on the type of road you are riding. On sandy roads, rain can actually help to compact the soft surface to make riding easier.
On many hard-pack gravel roads, the same principles that apply on tar is relevant. In some cases, a dirt road may have fine dusty surfaces that turn into very slippery mud. It may look okay on top, but the slightest blip of the throttle could spin up the rear wheel and remove the motorcycle from underneath you. It is surprising how quickly you can lose control of a bike in mud.
Take it easy, keep it smooth and adjust your riding style to the amount of traction on offer. The right tires can also make a big difference on wet gravel roads. Knobbly tires will bite through the loose upper surface to find grip underneath, whereas slick street tires may have other ideas.
Keep your eyes peeled for any obstacles in the road. Anything that is different from the main surface of the road is a potential hazard. Manhole covers are slick and can lock up a wheel under braking or spin a tire upon pulling away. Puddles can hide deep potholes or manholes without covers (scary thought!) that want to swallow you and your motorcycle.
I remember leaning over quite far into a corner on a mountain pass when the rear wheel of my CBR 600 RR slipped off a fixed crack in the road. Luckily the bitumen strip was only an inch wide and the rubber gained traction instantaneously when it hit the coarse tarmac again. It was quite a weird feeling.
Wear the correct weatherproof riding gear
Riding a motorcycle in the rain requires extra concentration as the amount of traction can change very quickly. The more comfortable you are the better you can focus.
A rain coat and pants over your bike gear is an effective and cheap way to keep dry. I usually store mine in a PVC tube zip-tied to the underside of my luggage rack. If you have to quickly jump into your rain pants along side the road, pulling a plastic bag over your boot is a neat trick to get it to go through the leg.
There is nothing worse than that feeling when you first realize the water has seeped all the way into your underpants. Even the most waterproof clothes will let some water in if it is allowed to remain trapped on it. It may help to stand up every once in a while to allow the water that has collected in your crotch area to drop off.
Keeping warm in the rain is not only more comfortable, but it will burn less energy and keep you alert for longer. Your rain coat will keep water and wind off your body, and gloves will keep your hands warm. Anyone riding in the cold will know what frozen fingers feel like. It will hurt like hell and be difficult to move. And moving them is necessary to change gears and stop. Remember to pull your gloves over the ends of your jacket to prevent water blowing up your forearms.
High visibility clothing
I know, deep down one of the most important aspects of adventure biking is looking cool. Why else would you spend thousands of dollars on BMW riding gear?
In the rain, however, your priority shifts from being noticed to being seen at all. High visibility clothing is the most important safety gear you can wear in gloomy weather. Not only will you be less visible if the sun does not shine, but the rain will be distracting all the other motorists as well. Water on the dirty windscreens and wipers that need replacing will make you invisible if you are not looking like a traffic cop (or a traffic cone).
I always carry a few spare plastic bags in my jacket pockets in case it starts pouring. You can stash your wallet, passport and cell phone in it to keep it dry. I learned this the hard way when a torrential downpour in Uganda soaked my ‘waterproof’ jacket inside and out. I had to hang my passport out to dry in my room that evening, being careful that the pages do not stick together.
Prevent a fogged up visor
Helmet visors can easily fog up in the rain. It is usually colder outside and you are breathing more heavily due to expending more energy.
Closing your helmet’s vents might sound like a good way to keep the water out, but they need to be open. The added airflow will prevent the visors from fogging up by equalizing the inside and outside temperatures. In heavy rain, you might have to open the visor completely. Riding like this will shower your face with rain and remove any protection your visor provides. In situations like this I wear my sunglasses (yellow lenses are best) and reduce my speed significantly.
If the visibility gets so bad that you struggle to see changes in the surface of the road, you are better off stopping in a safe spot and waiting it out. There is no point in risking your life riding blind.
TIP: If rain drops keep collecting on your face shield (and you have a potato in your pocket – I mean, who doesn’t ride around with one, right?) you can cut it in half and wipe it across your face shield. The sap will make the water roll off your screen like water from a ducks back. To be clear, I’ve only tried this on a car windshield once when my wipers stopped working. It worked fine above 50 mph.
Make sure your motorcycle is set up for the rain
Most motorcycles will be set up the way you ride it most often, so there is not much you can change when it start pouring with rain. It does help understand how your setup will react to wet weather.
Motorcycle traction depends on the tires
If you are riding an adventure bike that is wearing knobbly tires like TKC80’s, grip will be greatly reduced on wet asphalt. And new tires are slicker than run in tires, and will therefore need some time to get sticky as the oily surface wears off.
Street tires have a lot more grip than you think. While it pays to be careful in corners, you may be worse off not trusting your tires. If you overcook a turn, lean in more or brake harder. There is usually more grip and the alternative (shooting off the road) is not great.
You can test how much of the contact patch you are really using like this: (1) ride with dusty tires around tight corners and lean as far as you feel comfortable; and then (2) stop and check how much tread is still dusty. Most amateur riders never get close to the very edge of the tire’s tread.
Electronic rider aids
On older motorcycles you are the only brain that is making decisions about inputs like how hard to brake or how wide the throttle opening should be. On most modern bikes, electronic rider aids can take over and control many of these functions.
Anti-locking brake systems (ABS) prevent the wheels from locking up when losing grip which is very helpful in wet weather. Traction control work the other way around. Using the ABS sensors (on most bikes) the system measures wheel speeds and if it detects that the rear wheel is moving faster than the front (spinning, in other words) it cuts the power. This prevents the rear from losing traction as a result of applying more power to the wheel than the rear tire can transfer to the road.
Some top-end modern motorcycles even have lean-sensitive ABS and traction control that measures your bike’s lean angle and adjust the throttle accordingly based on relative wheel speeds.
When riding in the dirt, you may want to disable ABS and traction control so you have more control yourself. If you did so earlier and you are back on the tarmac in the rain, remember to switch it back on. Luckily (and annoyingly for many riders) these systems switch back on by default when you switch off the engine.
Some bikes have different riding modes as well. The BMW GS for instance, has a rain mode which adjusts the throttle inputs and traction control sensitivity for riding in the rain.
Final thoughts on riding a motorcycle in the rain
Riding in the rain affects how you feel and how your motorcycle will behave on the road. Adjusting your riding style and not allowing the rain to get into your head or negatively affect your mood is priority number one. If you are not able to connect with your inner zen, rather pull over and wait it out.
Pay attention to the changing road surfaces and understand how the wet weather and your bike’s setup affects the traction. All of this will be much easier if you are wearing the appropriate gear to stay cozy and focused.
And most important of all, try to enjoy it!