Capable of keeping you dry when it's wet, cool when it's hot, warm when it's cold and alive in a crash, motorcycle safety gear is the most advanced apparel this side of a space suit.
This guide is going to focus on street motorcycle gear and the kind worn on dual-sport and adventure bikes. Maybe we'll look at dedicated dirt bike or track gear in the future.
Why Wear Motorcycle Gear? "But what happens when it rains?!" That's one of the questions I get asked most often when people find out I don't do cars. For purposes of talking about something else (and appearing tough), I usually just say, "Well, you get wet." But, that's not really true. When it rains, I just make sure I'm wearing a waterproof full-body suit, waterproof gloves, waterproof boots and, if it's really coming down, maybe a silk scarf to seal the gap around the top of my neck. Then, I'm as dry and toasty as you would be in your minivan and you can thank me because I'm incrementally reducing the congestion you face.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, there's a couple things you need to understand about motorcycle gear: 1) It's expensive. But, 2) It's nearly as fundamentally important to the act of riding a bike as the motorcycle itself, so you simply need to factor its cost into your overall budget. If you've got, say, $5,000 budgeted to buy your first bike, expect to spend $1,200 to $1,500 of that on stuff like a helmet, suit, boots and all that. Over time, the financial burden will decrease as you acquire new items separately; you know, a new helmet here, a better back protector there and so on.
Those guys you see riding around without any gear or the ones who go helmet-only to satisfy minimal legal regulations? Well, those guys are total poseurs who are riding around in wide-eyed terror, even just traveling in a straight line at moderate speed.
The very act of riding without motorcycle gear is so ridiculous that it serves to demonstrate a total lack of comprehension about what it's like to operate a bike with skill, what it's like to spend a lifetime on two wheels, the effect weather has on the human body and even compromises their ability to control and operate the motorcycle itself. You are not able to fully appreciate your motorcycle unless you are wearing gear.
This applies no matter what kind of bike you're riding. While yes, a one-piece leather race suit is going to be more applicable to a sportsbike than a cruiser, the laws of physics remain the same whether your bike goes "vroom vroom" or "potato potato." Our bodies evolved to travel no faster than about 25mph; even at that speed, hitting something hard can hurt or kill you and, if you're going any faster, your bones and organs simply can't handle the forces on their own.
Nor can your skin. The general rule of thumb, given the average coefficient of friction for a road surface, is that you'll lose 1mm of flesh for every 1mph you're going over 30mph when you hit it. Extrapolate that to 55mph and tell me where on your body you can afford to lose an inch of flesh. Any faster and we're talking about wearing down into your bones too, which will likely cause a fatal bone infection if you haven't already been killed by the impact itself. Which, for your sake, I hope you were.
And these absolute truths apply to everyone, no matter your skill level; everyone crashes. Marc Marquez, the current and likely next World Champion MotoGP racer recently walked away from a 209.9mph crash with hardly a scratch on him. He doesn't get on a bike without full head-to-toe gear. No one you know has anything approaching his skill level. The "I know what I'm doing and I'm being careful" line of reasoning is simply bullshit. I've been riding nearly half my life now and have been a professional motorcycle journalist since about 2005. I know what I'm doing and I'm being careful, yet I still crash sometimes.
In the last big crash, I was only going maybe 35 or 40mph — still faster than the human body evolved to handle — and was wearing all the gear with the exception of proper riding pants. Know what happened? I lost a good chunk of my butt to road rash, tore a previously-installed titanium plate out of my forearm, two ribs popped out of my chest, I fractured my coccyx and put a two-inch hole through my knee. The total medical bill was around $40,000. Better gear and a more complete outfit would likely have helped me avoid being injured whatsoever.
That super-safe gear that saved Marquez's ass at 219mph? You could buy it all for about $6,500. Doesn't seem like such a bad deal now, does it?
Falling off a classic bike hurts just as bad as falling off a modern one. Take advantage of the huge safety advances made over the last few decades and wear real, effective stuff.
Helmets: The most essential — legally and safety-wise — item of gear there is, is also one of the simplest. A motorcycle helmet is basically just some Styrofoam glued into an outer shell, with a hole cut in the front so you can see out.
Well, I use the term "basically" very loosely, because that Styrofoam is made in several layers of precisely tailored densities designed to slow the rate of deceleration your head experiences in an impact. The shell that's then glued into is made from a strong, yet flexible material like plastic that can prevent penetration, deflect some of the impact energy and help absorb it by flexing. The visors (or "shields" as they're known in 'Murika) that protect your eyes are tested by firing steel ball bearings at them at over 100mph. Helmets work.
But yeah, even if they're effective, they're still simple devices. The old adage, "If you've got a $[insert cheap price here], then buy a $[cheap] helmet," simply does not apply. Independent testing has shown that cheap helmets can be as safe as even the most expensive ones. And, in some cases, even safer.
Rather than worry about spending up to a fancy brand, worry more about fit and which safety standard the helmet meets. I like to tell people that helmets are like bras — there's both a shape and a size to consider. Your helmet should fit your head tightly, but also with all-day comfort. There should be no pinches or pressure points.
To see if a helmet is the right size for you, put it on and try to move it around your head with your hands while holding your actual head still. If the helmet doesn't want to rotate, it's the right size. No one's ever bothered to quantify the various differences in head shape and size, so you'll just have to try a bunch on. Shapes vary throughout the ranges of even a single manufacturer.
Do this at a large brick and mortar store, but don't necessarily listen to the advice of the staff; motorcycle dealerships and similar businesses are notoriously shitty. Do your own research and go in armed with substantial knowledge about what you want and what you want to spend. Notable exceptions are the people that work at RevZilla (you can chat with their staff online or ask for Kat if you visit the Philly showroom), Sportbike Track Gear, Portland's MotoCorsa, Beach Moto or Pro Italia in LA, Transportation Revolution in New Orleans and the D-Stores in San Francisco, Orange County or Chicago. Otherwise you're just going to get taken advantage of.
The minimal legal standard for helmets to be road legal in America is DOT — you'll see a sticker with those letters on it affixed prominently to the rear of any legal helmet. But, that's only a very, very minimal standard. Two voluntary standards then vie for your dollar on top of DOT. Snell M2010 was cooked up by Arai and Shoei to try and make you think the helmets they sell are safer. They're not. The basic formula for that standard involves simulating two large impacts of equivalent force. Rumor has it, the only reason for that is the ceiling in their original test lab wasn't tall enough to create a drop for one really big impact. Which is what ECE 22.05, the superior European standard, is designed to deal with — one big hit, followed by several smaller ones. Makes sense, you fall off the bike, take a big whack to the head which slows you down, then have some subsequent, smaller whacks as you continue to slow. This disparity has been subject to much controversy and you can read about it at length if it interests you.
As it stands right now, you'll get a lighter, softer, marginally safer helmet if it's made to ECE 22.05. Icon, AGV, Schuberth and many other reputable brands sell helmets made to that standard in America and every single racer on the MotoGP and SBK grids is wearing an ECE helmet, even American riders sponsored by brands which sell Snell helmets in America. Having said that, a Snell M2010 helmet is still pretty safe, just don't believe the marketing hype and don't feel the need to spend more for a helmet made to it.
There's also the question of full-face or some other type of helmet like a ¾ or those ridiculous half-helmets preferred by middle-aged accountants on Harleys. I'll make this very simple for you — 45 percent of all impacts to the head in motorcycle crashes occur to the face region. Getting your face smashed in and ground off would be no fun.
Full-face helmets do not impair your peripheral vision; the minimum peripheral vision they can allow is 105 degrees to either side. Us humans are only able to use 90 degrees of that. If you feel claustrophobic in a full-face, just suck it up and get used to it — you will in short order.
My favorite helmet going right now is the $180 Icon Airmada. Made to ECE 22.05, it's as safe as anything out there and it's the best-ventilating helmet I've ever worn regardless of price. It's also comfortable, has relatively slim external dimensions, is respectably light and exceptionally stable aerodynamically. Spending more money than that may net you more "features," a fancier paint job and a more desirable brand, but it will not give you a better product.
Helmets have a lifetime of five years from their date of manufacturer. After that time, the glue bonding the layers of Styrofoam together and to the shell begins to degrade, impairing their safety. No, you can't wear your dad's old helmet from the '80s. Helmets are also designed to destroy themselves in a crash in order to protect you. Throw them out after one crash.
Gear really does get the job done. Want to walk away from a 210mph crash? You'll need a Shoei X-Twelve ($600), Alpinestars GP-Tech Gloves ($300), Alpinestars Supertech R boots ($450) and a TechAir race suit ($5,000).
Gloves: After your helmet, these are the most important item of safety gear. Why? We humans instinctively try to catch our falls, so your hands are likely going to be the first thing to touch down in a crash. Hands are also an awesome combination of extreme fragility and utter necessity. Even a parking lot speed get off will injure them if you're not wearing gloves.
Like other items of safety gear, only products made especially for motorcycling by brands that specialize in motorcycle gear should be considered. The leather or textile used in motorcycle apparel is vastly different from "fashion" materials and the way it's stitched together also differs greatly.
A proper pair of motorcycle gloves will protect your hands both from impact and abrasion. To do this effectively, the gloves need to stay on your hands throughout the crash and, to do that, they need a retention strap, which wraps your wrist tightly. Do not bother with "motorcycle" gloves that do not fasten tightly and securely around your wrist.
While most gloves include "armor" for the top of your hand and knuckles, it's actually the base of your palm that tends to hit the road first and with the most force. It's that impact which frequently breaks wrists by shooting energy straight up into the radius and ulna. I learned this the hard way, breaking my left wrist four times. What I wish I'd known before is that palm sliders are capable of shearing off those direct forces, allowing your hand to slide on the pavement rather than "grab" it. Racer has the most comprehensive range of palm slider-equipped gloves and generally makes a great product.
Poking out into the wind, your hands can also become cold very, very quickly, even at relatively moderate temperatures. You'll need a quality pair equipped with a windproof, waterproof membrane and insulation for bad weather. Well, if you want to retain control of the motorcycle that is.
Want to have an adventure? I've crashed a long ways from nowhere in this Dainese Teren suit and AGV AX-8 helmet and lived to tell the tale.
Jackets, Pants And Suits: Losing skin across large swaths of your body, breaking bones and suffering organ damage sucks. Enter motorcycle jackets, pants and suits.
Any quality item of motorcycle gear made by a reputable manufacturer will be able to protect you from abrasion. Heavier materials and thicker and/or stronger leather (or Kangaroo skin!) will be more capable of providing protection throughout very high-speed crashes or across multiple offs. Consider that when looking at the cost of this stuff — you can get a crappy motorcycle jacket for $200 at CycleGear, but it'll only protect you moderately well in one crash whereas a quality $500 jacket from Dainese or Alpinestars will provide more outright protection and last through multiple offs.
In textile garments, look for a named material such as Cordura. 500D Cordura will adequately protect you in a single crash. 1000D will last multiple crashes.
With leather, think about the quality, stitching and thickness. A heavyweight Vanson will last a lifetime. A paper-thin Bilt jacket might last one crash.
Apply a similar approach to waterproof membranes — off-brand materials might get you through a quick shower, but motherfucking Gore-Tex will keep you dry through anything Mother Nature can throw at you. Also look for storm flaps and multiple front zippers and zippers made to tightly seal out water. You'll basically be riding through a car wash if it rains, water can enter with force from all sort of odd angles. Good gear that fits properly will keep it out.
Oh yeah, buy gear true to size, never size up in order to layer, the space to do so is already built in.
The padding that protects you from crashes is called "body armor." You want it to cover as much of your body as possible. Elbow armor in a cheap jacket, for instance, will just cover the point of that joint. Quality armor will extend down your forearm and wrap it around a more complete radius. It should go without saying, but the armor should locate accurately on your joints and be held to you tightly; loose-fitting clothing can allow the armor to shift out of position in a crash, leaving your joints exposed. If you can roll the armor off your elbow or shoulder with your hand, you can't rely on it to stay in place during a crash, when the forces experienced have been shown to exceed 25Gs.
Any and all armor should be "CE" rated. Back protectors come in CE1 and CE2, the latter is twice as safe. Back protectors that go in jacket pockets are convenient, but only cover a limited area of your back. Separate, strap-on back protectors provide a greater area of coverage. Many cheaper pants and suits scrimp on hip and coccyx protection. If they do, you can wear a pair of padded shorts underneath to add protection in those areas. Take it from me, fracturing your coccyx sucks. Also, it's impacts to your hips that lead to torsion on your spine, which can lead to paralysis; hip armor is a good idea. Chest armor is inconvenient to wear, but protects your heart, lungs and rib cage. I've heard those are important.
Some of the armor I wear under that Teren suit for ADV and dual-sport riding.
If your budget only runs to a jacket and not pants, go ahead and buy the top-half of a two-piece suit. That'll be designed to zip to a pair of matching pants, so you can upgrade to full protection at a later date. Or just start with a two-piece and wear only the jacket at times when the full thing is too unwieldy.
One-piece suits are awesome to wear on the bike, but awful off it. The best suit out there, hands down, for commuting, touring and even adventure riding is the Aerostich Roadcrafter. It zips off and on in 10 seconds, adding race-level protection and total weatherproofness in the process. It's my favorite item of riding gear ever.
One-piece race suits make the athletic contortions and control of sport riding possible. Good ones feel like you're wearing pajamas, but are also the safest possible thing you could zip yourself into. They're high-dollar though (or should be, cheap suits suck), so unless you're carving canyons or doing trackdays on the regular, then you're better off spending a limited budget on more widely applicable stuff. Showing up at your local good riding road in a one-piece will net your far more appreciation and respect than simply financing the latest GSX-R ever will.
Worried about getting hot? Look for a jacket or suit with good ventilation. Vented gear will actually keep you cooler than going without will. At speed, the wind will blow sweat off an unprotected body too fast for the evaporative cooling process to work, a process ventilated gear is designed to facilitate. High-end textile gear often has zip-open vents that, when closed, keep out water, making them broadly applicable to riding in virtually all conditions.
Riding in a very wet climate? Look for a suit that has its waterproof membrane laminated to the outer shell. That stops water at the first layer, keeping out sneaky leaks and runs. Again, that's something the Aerostich Roadcrafter excels at.
The fastest ICE bike in the world, read about it on Road&Track.
Boots: Let's say you weigh 185lbs and your bike weighs 450lbs. You're going to need to support at least 635lbs on one foot on uneven, broken, slippery surfaces every time you come to a stop. Sounds like job for a very serious boot to me.
And, like your hands, your feet and ankles are so remarkably fragile you can even injure them during everyday activities or while playing ball sports. Sports in which you again never exceed about 25mph and don't have to deal with multi-ton cars, buses and such running into you or over your feet. Take it from me, not being able to walk also sucks.
The good news is, there's many excellent motorcycle boots out there that are capable of providing bomb-proof protection for you feet. Know what I've never injured in any of my crashes? Anything below the level of the top of a motorcycle boot. I've slid down the track at 100+ mph with the bike on top of me, been run over by multiple bikes on a motocross track, been sideswiped by a car on the highway and just generally fallen off several times. No foot or ankle injuries whatsoever.
At the very minimum, you'll need a rugged work or combat boot that provides your foot with good grip, your ankle with tight support and protects your foot from being crushed in an impact with a strong sole. Around town, I wear a pair of Corcoran Jump Boots. Those look nice, support my ankle with dedicated internal webbing and protect from crushing injuries with a steel shank running through the sole.
For anything faster, you'll want a specific motorcycle boot. Sport boots are designed to provide good articulation and feel without sacrificing protection. Dirt boots are designed to limit the articulation of your ankle and provide a solid, comfortable platform to stand on for long periods. Touring boots are designed to be comfortable no matter how bad the weather while providing decent protection. Dedicated motorcycle boots will also interface better with motorcycle pants, working together to increase weather protection, control and comfort.
Don't bother with boots that are claimed to be for riding, but look like a casual shoe or sneaker. By and large, most of those provide substantially less protection than those Jump Boots, and at a higher price. Riding a motorcycle is a serious job for your feet and legs, use serious footwear.
Want a way to quickly see if a pair of boots is going to protect you in a crash? Grab the toe in one and the heel in the other, then twist them as hard as you can. Does the shape they contort into look survivable for you foot?
Riding Jeans: There exists a wide variety of jeans that claim to offer protection for motorcycle crashes. None of them provide anything approaching the impact or abrasion protection of a real pair of motorcycle pants. No exceptions.
Having said that, if you're a normal person, then there'll be times when going full ATGATT just isn't practical. I still wear jeans if I'm just scooting through town to a meeting or to see a friend.
Jeans with Kevlar liners or weaves or made from similar materials will give you a little more protection than that offered by normal, fashion jeans — which, don't fool yourself, is zero.
It's up to you to effectively manage your own risk. Riding jeans can provide a good halfway house between no protection for your legs and some.
Photo: Kynan Tait
The Gear Mix: I wear a custom kangaroo skin onesie anytime I'm going fast, that Roadcrafter anytime I'm going far, a Dainese Teren two-piece anytime I'm getting dirty and a mix of various jackets and jeans (some riding, some not) around town.
Which setup will work best for you? Well, there is no single answer. You can likely get away with the same helmet, boots and gloves for most situations, but protection for the bits in between that is another story. A leather two-piece is probably the most versatile riding suit, giving you the ability to buy something once that'll last a long time and work across a variety of situations. But, you probably won't want to wear it on a dual-sport ride or when it's insanely hot.
If you're just getting started or you're a reformed jackass looking to buy your first real gear, there is no super easy answer. Think about the kind of riding you'll be doing, where you'll be doing it and what the weather will be like. That two-piece is a good place to start, as is the Roadcrafter. Over time, you'll figure out what works for you best, in which situations and add flexibility to your setup. A diverse range of gear will enable you to enjoy different kinds of riding across most weather conditions.
Photo: Kynan Tait
The Other Stuff: Oh, it doesn't end there. Let's quickly touch on a few other little things that can vastly improve your two-wheeled experience.
Earplugs: The noise level inside a helmet passing through the air at highway speeds can reach 115db or more. Permanent hearing damage can occur at just 85dB. Howard Leight MaxLite earplugs are comfortable, effective and cheap. Never ride without them.
Tinted Visors: Or "shields" for you Reagan-on-a-Raptor types. These are much more effective than sunglasses at totally blocking the sun's glare. Never wear one at night; always carry your clear spare.
Fogging: If you weren't smart enough to save money and buy an AGV or Icon, then your visor's going to fog. You'll want to fit a Pinlock visor insert to stop that. No, I can't explain why "premium" helmet makers can't sell you a fog-free visor.
Scarves and Balaclavas: In cold weather, you'll need some extra insulation for your head. A basic silk or textile scarf, balaclava or neck roll is all you typically need to achieve this. It's amazing how effective even a little insulation in this area can be.
Luggage: Never strap stuff that could injure you in a crash onto your back. But, a backpack does make the most convenient luggage solution around town. The best motorcycle backpacks and soft luggage are made by Kriega. Know how hiking packs carry the weight on your hips? Kriegas pull it through your chest, similarly unburdening your shoulders for long-term comfort.
Looking like a biker: So you're riding to a meeting/social event/whatever and you're worried about rocking a leather jacket, heavy boots and helmet hair. The thing is, you're looking at this all wrong. Rather than trying to fit in with everyone else's conformist fashion, just embrace the biker look and standing out. You ride a bike man, you're a fucking badass, be happy about that.
I think that's about it. If you have any questions, ask them in comments. Nothing is too dumb or basic, I'm here to help. And remember, while the cost of this stuff may appear extreme at first blush, it's utterly necessary in order to operate a motorcycle with safety and control. Instead of getting your heart set on a brand new Ducati, you'll be able to ride better for longer by settling for a used Honda and spending the savings on better gear. Well, that and tires.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.