Just getting started riding motorcycles? Here’s everything you need to know about riding gear — helmets, jackets, gloves, boots and such — in one digestible package.
One of the most frequent inquiries we get here at RideApart isn’t about which motorcycle to buy or how to learn to ride, but what gear to buy and wear once you’ve accomplished all that. Here’s the info you need to make smart decisions, to be more comfortable, safer and, hopefully, save some money in the process.
Why You Need Good Gear
Last time we checked, the fastest human in the world is Usain Bolt. During the 100-meter sprint, he peaked at 27.78 mph. If he were to fall going that speed, he’d likely sustain serious injury; the human body simply didn’t evolve to go any faster. Which is why even falling off a horse (Guinness World Record top speed: 43.97 mph) can lead to death.
On a motorcycle, you’re going to be traveling much faster. Even around town you’ll be hitting 50 mph or more and, on the highway, you may find yourself exceeding 85 mph. Your skin, bones and organs were not designed to withstand impacts at those speeds.
Then there’s the question of abrasion. As a general rule of thumb, figuring the average road surface, you can expect to lose one millimeter of flesh for every mile per hour you’re going over 30 when you crash. No, we don’t know why the thumb mixed empirical and metric units. So, at the top speed of that horse, you’ll have lost 1.4cm (or more than half an inch) of skin and muscle. Where on your body can you afford to lose that much? And that’s at only 44 mph. What if you crash at 70 mph and lose an inch and a half? We’re talking serious, life-threatening injuries from abrasion alone.
Then there’s the weather. What if it’s kinda cold out? Even at, say, a 50F ambient temperature, windchill at 55 mph is going to make it feel like it’s 25F. In other words: from the kind of temperature in which you might need a light sweater, to the kind of cold where you want long undies and a down jacket. Getting wet would compound that much further.
Gear can even help when it’s hot, by better allowing your body’s natural evaporative cooling effect to take place. Under constant wind blast, the sweat is blown off your skin too quickly for it to have a cooling effect. Put on a (summer) jacket, helmet, boots, gloves and pants, however, and your body is free to cool itself as designed.
Luckily, mankind has achieved through science what evolution has failed to provide: clothing that protects you from accidents and the elements, and makes riding an easier, more comfortable experience.
According to a study published by Dietmar Otte, 45 percent of all impacts to motorcycle helmets occur around the face, in an area not covered by open-face or three-quarter-type helmets. You really, really, really want to be wearing a full-face helmet. As an added bonus, they’ll keep the wind out of your eyes and bugs out of your teeth, too.
A jacket covers the other stuff on your body that’s fragile and important: arms, back, ribs, organs – all that fun stuff. You absolutely must choose a motorcycle-specific jacket for purposes of both safety and comfort. Fashion leather jackets and similar are not made to withstand either the windblast or crashes that real motorcycle jackets are built to deal with.
Regular denim jeans will not protect you in a motorcycle accident.
Jeans that are either made from or include Kevlar panels offer slightly more abrasion resistance, but are still a compromise, offering nothing like the protection of a true pair of riding pants.
Like jackets, pants are available in leather or textile materials and should be equipped with CE-rated armor in the hips, shins and knees. They should fit snugly, but be comfortable and allow full leg articulation. Try them on a bike, or stand in a riding position close to that of your own to determine if they’ll work.
Most street bikes weigh more than 350 pounds. Frequently, they’re much heavier. You’ll need to support that weight and your own through your legs, ankles, and feet on slippery, uneven, unpredictable surfaces. For that reason alone, a sturdy pair of boots with oil-resistant, non-slip soles and good ankle support should be considered a minimum.
Your feet and ankles are also vulnerable in a crash, so you’ll want to protect them. To see what will happen to your feet in a crash in a given pair of footwear, grasp them by the toe and heel, then twist. If the result doesn’t look like your foot would survive intact, then it probably won’t.
Your hands are an awesome combination of extreme fragility combined with utter necessity. You need them to do stuff and they’re also the first thing to touch down in any crash. So you need to protect them. Motorcycle gloves should fully cover your fingers, palm, the back of your hands and your wrists. There should be significant overlap between glove and jacket so that you never see any skin exposed between the two.
There’s nothing like a full, head-to-toe motorcycle suit for comfort and protection from both crashes and the elements. But, they also tend to be very expensive.
A good way to get started on a budget, is with a jacket and pants that zip together. This will allow you greater flexibility in the way you wear it, for instance allowing you to wear the jacket alone for a short trip, or zip into the full suit when it’s more appropriate. One-piece suits typically allow more flexibility and movement than two-pieces, but at the expense of that versatility. Same advice on armor and materials as the above items.
As mentioned above, motorcycle body armor protects you from impacts by absorbing energy that would otherwise be transferred to your joints, limbs and body. Whether purchased separately or included in an item of riding gear, you want it to fit snugly in a manner that won’t see it shift or move around in a crash. It should be comfortable and not restrict movement. Also think about it’s area of coverage; you want it to cover as much of you as possible. Some cheaper elbow protectors, for instance, don’t extend very far down your forearm while the real quality stuff does. Back protectors should ideally cover everything from your coccyx to the base of your neck.
Other things to consider when thinking about riding gear are long underwear, earplugs, and eye protection.
Long underwear is available in both summer and winter versions, the former working with your natural cooling process to better facilitate moisture wicking, keeping you cool and sweat-free. If you’re trying to stay warm, look for long underwear made with a wind-resistant membrane such as Gore Wind Stopper. You’ll be surprised at how many drafts get inside your gear in cold weather. Extend this protection to your feet, hands, and head and neck to reap its full benefits.
Riding a motorcycle exposes you to extreme risk, variations in weather, and requires your full concentration and physical ability. Luckily, motorcycle gear is available that can keep you safe in a crash, comfortable in any weather condition, reduce fatigue. As such, it should be considered a necessity when riding a motorcycle. Factor its cost into the overall price of purchasing a bike. There’s no such thing as not being able to afford good gear; reduce the price of the bike you’re buying until you can afford to buy the helmet, jacket, gloves, pants, and boots necessary to ride it.