Common Tread

How not to winterize your motorcycle: Nine mistakes riders make

Nov 13, 2018

We’ve all heard “fire it up once a week” or “gotta put cardboard under the tires.” There are as many superstitions floating around as there are different, but effective schools of thought on motorcycle storage.

If you have a system that works well for you, by all means, don’t let me rock your boat. Skip the lecture and get straight to the goods. Open to some new tips? Allow me to debunk nine of the most common bits of misinformation I’ve heard — cases of riders either doing too little, too much, or the wrong thing. You might learn a trick that saves you some effort and works just as well or better than what you’ve been doing. If you're a longtime Common Tread reader, you know Lemmy touched on a few of these tips for how to winterize a motorcycle previously, but the more I hear the same myths being passed around, the more it made sense to cover what not to do.

Don’t start your bike up every week

Make no mistake, regular exercise is good for your bike — but like putting on workout clothes to sit on the couch, idling in the garage doesn’t count. Not only is a cold start hard on the motor, but if you aren’t running it under load up to full operating temperature, moisture condenses out of the air into places water doesn’t belong. If you don’t plan to actually take the bike for a rip to cook off moisture and recharge your battery from that cold crank it took to get her going, don’t even fire it up. Plan to ride once a week? More power to you — consider investing in some heated gear and a can of stabilized fuel to top it off after the ride.

Don’t drain your tank

Unless you’re getting your bike “museum-ready” to put it up for years on end, you’ll have better luck with a full tank and a quality fuel stabilizer additive. An empty tank is vulnerable to corrosion and dried out seals, while a tank full of treated gas keeps everything fresh. If you have a carbureted bike, be sure to turn the petcock off and drain the carb bowls. However, if you don’t trust your old petcock or the needle valves in your carbs, address those issues first! Should fuel leak past both and overflow onto your bike (or worse, into your motor) it can create more problems than a tank full of stabilized fuel prevents.

The scales start to tip toward draining the tank for older, multi-cylinder bikes; the more carbs (and thus more, smaller needle valves) you have, the more potential failure points in your fuel system. Neither route is a silver bullet, but for modern fuel-injected machines and carb bikes in good working order, just stabilize, fill and fire right up come Spring.

Don't remove your battery
The battery can stay. Just make sure it's on a float charger so you're ready to ride any time. RevZilla photo.

Don’t remove your battery

Why pull the battery if you don’t have to? Sure, if there isn’t a power source where you store your bike, you’ll want to take your battery inside and hook it up to a tender. But if you can plug in a battery maintainer near the bike and your battery is healthy enough to take a charge, it really isn’t necessary — even if it will be subjected to subzero temps. Electrolytes in a fully charged lead acid battery (conventional or AGM) won’t freeze until it dips to an unthinkable -92 degrees Fahrenheit, and even at only 40 percent charge, you’re good down to -16. Plus, when that unseasonably warm day crops up, your bike will be ready to roll — no assembly required.

Just be sure you use a reliable “float” charger/maintainer that reads feedback voltage from the battery and tops it off as needed, rather than a “trickle” charger that blindly feeds a small amount of current to the battery nonstop. The terms are often thrown around interchangeably, but a straight trickle charger can overcharge and waste your battery. (Worst-case scenario? Battery acid on your bike. No bueno.)

Don’t mistake coolant for antifreeze

If you have a water cooled bike, your coolant could be just that — plain distilled water is a perfectly serviceable coolant for summer. To complicate matters, many popular high performance motorcycle coolants and additives change the properties of the water they mix with (to increase surface contact for better heat transfer and/or raise the boiling point) but do not lower its freezing point. Two outstanding products, Water Wetter and Cool-Aide, can be mixed with antifreeze, but purposely don’t include it in the jug for peak race applications. For winter riding or storage in an unheated/uninsulated garage, be 100 percent sure you have antifreeze protection. Don’t know what’s in there? Change it.

Change your motorcycle oil
Don't store your bike with old oil. Your engine will thank you. RevZilla photo.

Don’t put off that oil change

The beginning of the season seems like the perfect time for an oil change, right? Here’s why you shouldn’t wait to change your oil until it’s time to ride again: Combustion gases gradually seep past your piston rings and get trapped in your oil, forming carbonic and sulfuric acid. It’s no big deal when the motor is run regularly and the oil is changed at recommended intervals, but if you’re creeping up on time for an oil change, why let acidic oil go to work on your bearings over the winter? Change it now, keep your motor happy, and you’ll have one less thing to worry about come riding season.

Don’t store a dirty bike

The same way acidic oil can eat away at engine internals, road grit, grime and bugs that have found their final resting place on your motorcycle will take a toll on clear coat, anodized aluminum, polished metal finishes and even stainless steel if left to cement themselves on surfaces for any length of time. And if you’re unfortunate enough to live somewhere they salt or brine the roads, that stuff is kryptonite to metal and rubber parts alike. Giving your bike one last good wash and wax will help keep its finish factory fresh for years to come.

Don’t use a tarp or cheap cover

A heated garage and indoor dust cover is the gold standard for winter motorcycle storage, but we don’t all have access to such posh digs for our bike’s off-season hibernation. A storage unit can be an economical solution (especially when split with buddies), but not all have power to run your battery tender, and the cost can be prohibitive in certain areas. Sometimes, a quality weatherproof motorcycle cover is your bike’s best option for the big snooze. Just make sure you invest in one that is tried and true, 100 percent waterproof and vented. A cheaply made cover that traps water, doesn’t stay secured, or chafes against paint is actually worse than nothing at all.

Inflate tires for winter
Overinflating your tires won't stop flat spots. Inflate them normally, or consider replacing them if they look like Spurgeon's poor TKC80s. Spurgeon Dunbar photo.

Don’t overinflate your tires

Riders do all sorts of voodoo in the name of preventing flat spots or rubber breakdown. Flat-spot paranoia is a holdover from the days of bias ply car tires, which flat-spotted overnight and rounded back out from the heat of driving. Modern motorcycle tires have superior rubber compounds and carcass construction (even bias plies), putting this issue pretty squarely in the rearview.

As for the alkaline nature of concrete “eating” rubber, I wouldn’t lose any sleep either — at least not over the course of a winter. (What do you think highways are made of?) If it gives you the warm fuzzies to put cardboard, plywood, or carpet squares under your tires, it certainly won’t hurt. But don’t overinflate your tires to “compensate for the weight.” All I do before putting the bike to bed is check the tires for proper inflation with an accurate gauge, but many riders prefer to put their bikes up on front and rear stands, lifts or dollies, which offer the side benefit of standing the bike upright, taking up less space in the garage.

Don’t think motorcycle thieves take winter off

While it’s true that motorcycle thefts spike in summer, that doesn’t mean thieves take the winter off from thievin’. Even the four slowest months of the year still account for 25 percent of all motorcycles stolen year round (per the latest statistics published by NICB). Take into account riders who store their bikes remotely and may not discover and report the theft until spring and this number could be higher. Don’t spend the money and effort to winterize your bike properly only for someone else to reap the benefits of your well kept machine. Secure your bike properly and it’ll be ready and waiting when riding season rolls back around.