Should You Start Your Motorcycle In The Winter?


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In many parts of the world, the motorcycle riding season is cut short by low temperatures and bad weather. That means the majority of riders end up parking their motorcycle for an average of 3-4 months until the weather warms up again.  

Having owned close to 20 motorcycles in the last ten years while living in northern Utah, I’ve been able to get a good idea about the right balance of what to do with your motorcycle during the winter.

So, should you start your motorcycle in the winter? All motorcycle owners should start their motorcycles once every two weeks for at least 15 minutes during the winter.  Letting it run will keep all the engine components and gaskets lubricated, eliminates condensation buildup, ensures the carburetor will not gum up, and recharges the battery.

Each component mentioned will be explained in further depth about how it works, why it’s important you start your motorcycle in the winter specific to that reason, and what happens when you don’t properly care for your motorcycle with that system considered.

Keeping All Engine Components Lubricated

One of the most important reasons to start your motorcycle in the winter is to keep the engine components lubricated.  Engines have hundreds of small moving parts inside and in order to function properly, all of those parts need to have a thin layer of oil covering them to keep them cool and to reduce friction between moving objects.

The leading cause of motorcycle engine failures is lack of proper lubrication.  Old oil, not enough oil, and the wrong type of oil are catastrophic for engine performance.  When you start your motorcycle once every two weeks during the winter months, you ensure that all those little pieces are getting the proper lubrication they need.

If you don’t start the motorcycle periodically then the metal parts inside can start to stick together and get stiff, causing problems next time you go to start the motorcycle.

Many of the engine components get oil whether the motorcycle is running or not, like the crankshaft.  It sits in oil near the bottom of the engine all the time. But the majority of high consequence engine components like the pistons, valve springs, lifters, pushrods, and connecting rods need to be sprayed with oil while it’s running.

The last thing you’ll want is a higher risk for a seized engine when spring rolls around. See my article here for a helpful guide if you suspect your engine is seized or is on it’s way to that point.

Eliminating Condensation Buildup

I’m sure everyone has noticed that when you have a cold drink on a really hot day, condensation will immediately form on the container.  Your engine acts in a similar way. When the air temperature around the engine is higher than the temperature of the engine case then condensation will form.

There is usually only a small amount of condensation that forms, but if left unchecked it can cause serious problems like making valve springs brittle, causing valves to stick in their guides, piston rings seizing to the cylinder wall, causing rust in the cylinder, rusted spark plugs, and even rust in the crankcase in serious cases.

By starting your motorcycle once every two weeks and letting it run for 15 minutes will ensure that the engine gets up to full operating temperature and evaporates all the condensation out of the engine.  The condensation will mix with the oil as oil gets sprayed around, and then as the oil heats up the water will flash off.

If you only turn it on for a brief amount of time then it will just condensate even more and you’re just perpetuating the problem even worse.  It’s better to not even start it at all than to turn it on for a short time.

Remember, this is very, very small amounts of condensation and flashing. It’s not like having a large oil/water mixture. But even a small amount of water can have horrible consequences.  The point of running the motorcycle for 15 minutes is to make sure that the oil gets hot enough to flash off the condensation.

Gasket And Seal Breakdown

One problem that is really a pain to deal with is gaskets cracking from not getting used enough.  This doesn’t just happen in the winter either, this is something that needs to be watched year-round.

Engine gaskets require a lot of time to repair, so the best option is just to start the motorcycle once every two weeks and let it run.  This will heat up and exercise the gaskets. Think of it this way: gaskets are a lot like rubber bands. If you just let them sit they’ll get brittle and crack.  If you stretch them consistently then they last a lot longer.

Gaskets can crack in as little as a month with no use.  I had to deal with this on my old Triumph while I was restoring it. I didn’t run it enough that winter and one of the engine gaskets had a crack in it which is why it leaked oil. Keep in mind that I just replaced that gasket the prior summer.

Ensuring The Carburetor Does Not Gum Up

It seems the number one repair done on all motorcycles worldwide is carburetor rebuilds. By not starting your motorcycle during the winter and letting it sit, this allows the gas to break down molecularly and become sticky and thick.

If motorcycle owners simply let their engine run for 15 minutes once every two weeks then this would never happen, and people would not have to do carburetor rebuilds every year.

I get questions from people constantly asking me why I think their engine won’t start in the spring.  When I ask them if they ran the engine during the winter and they respond with “no,” I know the answer is issues with the carburetor.

Letting the motorcycle run allows fresh fuel to be cycled through the carburetor and burns up the fuel that was sitting stagnant in the carburetor bowl.  Many people suggest to empty your fuel tank to store the motorcycle for the winter. I agree with this if you are considering long-term storage (months to years where you will not need access to it).

However, I think the best winter storage (which I consider short term) option for fuel is to fill up the tank and then add fuel stabilizer.  Rust has a much harder time forming with a full tank and your gas won’t gum up if you add fuel stabilizer.  You can get a bottle of stabilizer at any of your local auto parts stores for a few dollars.

Extending Tire Life

This is a little nugget of information that many motorcycle riders don’t think about when they store their motorcycle for the winter months.  Tires are expensive and you’ll want to get the longest possible life out of them.

To get that long life, the tires need to be stretched and exercised.  When you start your motorcycle up once every two weeks during the winter, just sit on the seat and roll it forward and backward for a few minutes.  This will let the rubber stretch and reform to its correct shape.

When a tire sits in one spot for a long time it relaxes and starts to deform, decreasing its strength and lifespan.  By starting up your motorcycle regularly during the winter and rolling it back and forth you’ll be extending your tire life.

Easy Battery Maintenance

Another reason to start your motorcycle in the winter is to perform battery maintenance.  Motorcycle batteries do not function well in cold weather, and if left uncharged during the cold months it can completely ruin the battery.

By starting up your motorcycle once every two weeks during the winter, it allows the battery to charge back up to full capacity.  You’ll be performing battery maintenance with almost no effort at all, and saving yourself money as well.

Battery replacements are the 2nd largest motorcycle maintenance expense in the spring (behind carburetor rebuilds) simply because people don’t start their motorcycle up enough during the winter which allows time for the battery current to deplete and then freeze. Click here to see my other helpful tips on keeping your motorcycle battery charged during the winter.

Conclusion

Having owned many motorcycles myself, I have found the best way to maintain a motorcycle during the winter is to simply start it once every two weeks for about 15 minutes. This lets the motorcycle get to optimal operating temperature, dissipate condensation, exercise those gaskets, and provide vital lubrication the engine needs. If you take good care of your motorcycle, it will take good care of you!

Related Questions

How should you store a motorcycle during winter?  Store the motorcycle under some structure, whether it be a garage or awning.  Snow, road salts, and cold temperatures are not kind to motorcycles. If you have to store it outside during the winter then make sure you have a good cover that can handle the weight of snowfall. Click here for more information I’ve written about this.

Do I need to use different oil in the winter? I use the same oil type year round and the motorcycle stays perfectly lubricated.  Modern oil grades like 5W-20 have two different viscosities, the cold viscosity and the hot viscosity.  You can use the same oil year round, just make sure you change it regularly.

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Kyle Cannon

Kyle currently works as a mechanical engineer and graduated with a minor in automotive engineering. He loves restoring motorcycles, has a vast knowledge of how they work, and has sold his restoration projects to customers from all over the United States.

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