Thursday, July 01, 2010

How to Ride Through A Desert Summer and Not Die

I've been riding to work year round here in the desert for about five and a half years. One question I get, over and over, usually asked with a mix of awe and disbelief, is "Don't you get hot?"

Well, yes.

I'm lucky because I seem to be physiologically well-suited to cope with heat. I know some folks just get sick after a long time in the heat and would probably keel over if they tried riding through the heat I ride through.

That said, I try not to be the stupid macho guy. Exposure kills people.

So, here are a few tips and tricks for riding through a Phoenix summer.

Maintain a good attitude. I know this is really hard. I hate the cold and fight against it instead of accepting it and getting on with whatever I need to do. And I know some people fight against the heat the same way. If you can just accept that you're going to be hot, and be OK with that, it's a lot easier to deal with the heat. Hey, some folks pay good money to sit in a sauna, right?

Try not to ride when it's really hot. I leave for work around 6:00 a.m. because the temperature rises significantly as soon as the sun comes up. I do my best to stay indoors, or at least in shady areas, during the hottest part of the day. I don't ride in the early afternoon unless I absolutely can't avoid it.

Cover up. You know what cowboys wear? Boots, jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves and a broad hat. Bedouins wear long robes and head coverings. Staying covered up serves two purposes.

First, it keeps the sun off of you. The sun is ridiculously intense here and anything left exposed in the sun, including you, will heat up very quickly. You can get sunburned in a very short time, even if you tan easily. Sunburn reduces your body's ability to cool itself.

Second, staying covered keeps your sweat from evaporating. Between the wind and the lack of humidity, it's possible you won't even notice you're sweating because your perspiration evaporates so quickly. Staying covered up slows down evaporation, which means your sweat can do it's job.

So don't be one of those dummies out there in shorts and a t-shirt.

Wear cotton. The desert during the summer months is the one place where cotton is actually a good fabric to wear outdoors. It stays wet, and keeps you cool. That would be bad in the winter, but it's a very nice thing indeed in the heat of summer. (Incidentally, synthetic underwear that wicks moisture away from your skin is just about the best thing ever when you're spending a lot of time on a hot motorcycle.)

I have heard that wetting a bandanna and tying it around your neck will help you stay cool. I haven't tried this yet, but I'm going to. I have also heard that soaking your t-shirt in water and wearing it while riding is almost heavenly.

Stay hydrated. It's extremely easy to become dehydrated in the desert. Drink tons of water. Drink enough water to "piss clear." When you think "Man, I don't want to drink any more water," have some water. If you feel thirsty, you're already dehydrated. If you're riding a long ways, stop every hour and have a bunch of water and a salty snack like peanuts or pretzels.

The pavement in summer around here can reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit. That's hot enough to give you a third degree burn. Scary, huh? You're more or less riding around over a hot stove. You are going to sweat quarts of water. Keep drinking.

Also, carry water with you. Should you break down or otherwise end up stranded, you're going to need it, and water is scarce in the desert.

Keep your bike maintained. Once again, you're riding around over a hot stove. Extreme conditions are hard on mechanical things. Watch your tire pressure and tire condition. Blowouts suck. Check your oil and coolant levels regularly. Overheating also sucks.

Ride every day. Getting somewhat acclimated makes a huge difference in your comfort level. If you've been living in air-conditioned comfort all summer, and decide to go for a ride at 1:00 in the afternoon in August, you're going to have a miserable time. On the other hand, if you ride in the heat every day, well, riding at the hottest time of day in August is still going to suck, but it won't be nearly as traumatic if you're somewhat used to heat.

I have no doubt there are some things I'm forgetting, but I think this will get you on your way to surviving a desert summer on your motorcycle.


Tinker said...

It's hot here too, though not 109 (yet) Here the weather geeks get off on saying "43 100 degree days since the start of summer" And last summer stated early for the triple digit excess. Tied some sort of record, though it really seems hotter this summer.

What, no pizza?

red said...

Ugh...remind me never to complain about the heat here. I remember a story a few years ago from AZ where a lady fainted on some blacktop and got 3rd degree burns.

drink them fluids!

Gary France said...

I am going to copy and paste this post to my tour notes so I can remeber to read this again as I get further south. This is very helpful and I will try to learn from it. Thanks!

What do you think about hydration jackets / vests for riding?

Lucky said...

Tinker - I should have added pizza as a salty snack option.

Red - Yeah, Arizona is the state where nature is actively trying to kill you...

Gary - I haven't used cooling vests, but I've heard they're great. I'll have to try one this summer. Another thing I want to look into is getting a Camelback kind of system, but I tend to forget... :D

Steve Williams said...

Maintaining a good attitude is the most important lesson in my book. That's why I love the cold. I have a good attitude I guess.

As far as riding in the desert in the summer is something I just can't imagine. When it's hot here, in the upper 90s, it is just miserable to ride. When stopped I feel as if I am baking. I wonder if my brain is frying or if I am slowly becoming infertile.

Your post is a good one though. I will carry it's lessons with me.

Oh, by the way --Give me the cold any day!

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

irondad said...

One great tool for staying hydrated is a cold beer. After the ride is done! I've heard of carbo loading. How about hydro loading?

Wyckedflesh said...

I commute with a Camelback. This year has been lacking in 2 wheel commuting, but parts on back order can screw that up. I fill the bladder 3/4 full with crushed ice, then fill with water. I drink a Gatorade when I get to work, and right before I leave for the day. Smart Water is great, but it doesn't have the electrolytes that Gatorade does. At the proving grounds we had Cool Vests and Cool Danas for when we were out in the heat, and just because the sun is down, this concrete jungle can hold its heat for HOURS. I can kill both the Camel Back and a Cool vest in one 45 minute commute and still come out drenched in Mesh Gear (airflow) and other layers underneath to catch the sweat.

Lucky said...

Steve - I really don't like being cold, although I think a big part of the problem is acclimation. When I lived in cold places, I was rarely outside long enough to get used to the cold, so it was extra miserable.

irondad - Yeah, having a beer after a ride in the heat is always a good option. You want to be careful how much you load up on it, though, unless you're going to stay put for a while...

Wycked - I just got a cool dana, and I'm going to try and remember to pick up a cool vest as well. And one of those Camelbacks. So much to buy. ;)