San Francisco Bay Area

126 - Protective Clothing

Probably the most important difference between a motorcycle and a car is that a motorcycle offers little— or no—protection for its rider, and only one item of gear—a full-face, DOT/Snell/ECE-approved helmet (properly fitted and worn)—is proven to reduce fatality rates. Other gear may reduce the severity of injury, especially that resulting from abrasion (sliding), and make your ride much more comfortable.

But you can have too much protection! Bulky, inappropriate "protective" gear can even be a causal factor in some mishaps. The comfort aspects of other gear can help reduce distractions/impairment while riding which can have an effect on mishap rates. Don't let anybody tell you—or imply—that motorcycling can be made "safe" with the right gear purchases. The CE armor standard, which most impact armor (the kind on your knees, elbows, shoulder, chest and spine) is designed to absorb about 10-12mph of impact. If you hit something solid faster than that, you may as well be wearing nothing at all.

Still, it's better than nothing, and the single most important function of motorcycle clothing should still be to protect your skin and body during a crash. That means fashion and comfort are secondary. When considering your clothing, look at durability and safety first, comfort second, and fashion/price last. Keeping your body complete and as undamaged as possible is cheaper than spending more time injured or unable to perform regular life functions.

Let's look at some items of gear. We've ranked them in order of protection.

Off-Road Protective gear

Building your exoskeleton

Yes, that’s you flying! Not soaring off a 20-foot jump doing X-Games acrobatics. You’re flying over the handlebars after your bike followed the laws of physics and you didn’t keep up. Now you’re watching the summer-baked adobe zoom into macro-focus, suddenly realizing jeans and a T-shirt might not be the best landing gear.

Wham! Most falls are over before you know you’re in trouble. Which means you should have an exoskeleton strapped on tight before each flight. So let’s dive head-first into protective gear. Here’s what you can’t ride without:

  • Health insurance
  • Riding buddy
  • Helmet (full face)
  • Off-road boots
  • Eye protection
  • Gloves
  • Kidney belt

Here are some other items you really should have:

  • Chest protector and/or a ballistic jersey
  • Elbow guards
  • Knee guards
  • Off-road pants
  • Padded shorts
  • Off-road jersey
  • Drink backpack

And here’s stuff that really helps when the going gets fast and furious:

  • Knee braces (like Asterisk)
  • Neck brace (like Leatt or EVS)

All this protection can be costly. If you’re on a budget, buy quality used instead of cheap new. Craigslist is overflowing with good deals on boots, jerseys, and chest protectors that have seen only a few rides.

What price fun?
Unless you are in the One Percent, you can’t afford to ride without health insurance.

Care to pony up $40,000 for a broken leg while being off work for three months? Sprains, fractures, dislocations, and abrasions are part of the fun so be sure you are covered for medical costs..

Ride with a crowd
Misery loves company…meaning if you get hurt, you’ll love having someone to pull your bike out of the coyote bushes or ride for help. Even in well-populated parks like Hollister Hills and Carnegie, if you sustain an immobilizing injury on a rarely traveled single track, you could lay there for hours before someone (or a hungry wild hog) happens by..

Heads first
Helmets spread out and absorb impacts that would otherwise transform you into a drooling wallpaper watcher. Your helmet also protects you from flying rocks and hard knocks on tree limbs and handlebars. Forget your street helmet: it don’t do dirt duty…too hot and no space for goggles. Get a full-face off-road helmet with DOT and Snell Foundation stickies. Removable washable liner and cheek pads, light weight and ports for ventilation are must-haves.

Feet second
Aside from your bike’s tires, nothing takes more off-road abuse than your feet. Boots provide ankle support and impact protection. Wear boots made for off-road riding, not work or hiking. Look for thick leather and/or plastic uppers, multiple quick-release adjustable straps, water- resistance and replaceable soles.

Eye armor
Airborne rocks, branches, and mud are three good reasons to wear eye protection. Less dramatic is dust. Follow another rider without wearing your goggles and the micro-grit will have your ojos itching and oozing for hours. Goggle gold stars include a comfortable, sealed face-fit with sweat-absorbing padding, large ventilation ports, polycarbonate lens, interchangeable lenses with availability of various tints and dual-pane lenses (to minimize fogging), tear-offs or roll-offs if you mud-ride, and over-the-glasses (OTG) oversized frames for us fearless four eyes.

Gloves
Everyone knows gloves protect your hands. But they also improve your hold on handlebar grips, minimize calluses, and keep your pinkies warm on chilly days. Although gloves sold for yard work or automotive repair will do, off-road gloves provide a better fit and feel of controls, extra padding for knuckles and palms, and non-irritating seams between the thumb and forefinger. Buy gloves to fit your hands when they’re wrapped around the handlebar grips.

Kidney belt
This elastic girdle wraps around your mid-section between the hips and ribs so you’ll look like Charles Atlas. Actually it holds your innards in place to prevent kidney damage as you bounce along the trails. Available separately or built into ballistic jerseys, your kidney belt should fit comfortably with no pinching. Look for simple and secure Velcro closures, and a stiff area covering your lower back.

Sports bra
Women (and big boys), keep your breasts close to the chest to prevent injury and needless distractions to other riders.

Chest protector
Polycarbonate or plastic chest protectors are lightweight upper body armor. Although the lawyer label reminds you it only shields against flying debris (aka roost), a chest protector will help fend off spearing branches and upper body injuries during falls. A proper fit should not inhibit movement. Look for padded edges, large covers over shoulders, and abundant slots for ventilation. Use your drink pack to secure the armor in place and provide added back protection.

All-in-one protection
Ballistic jerseys combine plastic guards for chest, spine, shoulders, and elbows with a kidney belt, all sewn onto a ventilated jersey. Just zip it on and you’re conveniently covered. Wear it under a traditional chest protector for added safety.

Elbow guards
If you think painful road rash makes you look like a real dirt biker, don’t wear these simple padded plastic guards for your elbows and forearms. After a little adjustment period, you won’t know you have them on. Choose guards with adjustable straps or Velcro closures that hold them in place without inhibiting arm movement.

Knee guards
Remember how debilitating a dinged funny-bone feels? Your knees are very vulnerable and can suffer long-term injuries. While expensive knee braces offer the best protection, good quality knee guards can keep a minor fall or flying rock from ruining your mobility. Look for thick plastic construction that extends around the sides of your knees, comfortable padding, and adjustable closures for a secure fit.

Jersey
In addition to style, a jersey provides a soft, non-absorbent lining between your body and armor. Fit should be loose around the neck, arms and shoulders for unrestricted movement, but not so floppy it can catch on branches. Elastic closures around wrists and padded elbows are nice. Avoid embroidered areas or fabric that can irritate skin and nipples. Mesh jerseys are great for high temperatures. In winter, polypropylene tops sold at ski/outdoor shops keep you warm and wick moisture away from your skin.

Riding pants
Save your jeans for the disco. Tough nylon riding pants resist rips and include padding in the knees and hips, with wide legs to accommodate knee guards. Ventilated pants keep you cool in the summer. Waterproof over-the-boot pants help keep winter water off your tooties. Avoid pants with short legs unless you’re a self-flagellating penitent.

Padded shorts
CYA with bubble-butt briefs. Wearing padded shorts under your riding pants provides good hip and tail-bone protection. Check out the shorts sold in ice hockey stores for better padding than those sold in off-road catalogs.

Drink packs
Anyone who rides more than 30 minutes at a time and can’t get back to a supply of water should use a portable drink pack. Staying hydrated prevents heat stroke. Plus it’s convenient to sip on the fly. Drink packs also provide an emergency source of water for an overheating bike or trailside goggle washing. Thirty or 50-ounce packs are adequate for most rides. Extra stars for a large filler cap that lets you add ice for hot weather rides, wide padded shoulder straps with adjustable connector straps between them, and zippered pockets to hold keys and tools.

Watch the clock
Time is perhaps your best protection against injuries. Rolex, Timex, or your own body clock: whatever you use, pay attention to how long you ride and how tired you become. The infamous ‘last ride of the day’ accounts for more injuries because riders don’t realize they’ve become fatigued just enough to lose the mental and physical alertness it takes to prevent a fall. Take regular breaks, keep hydrated, wear all your armor, and head home safe and happy while you still feel like a Trail Titan.

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One-Piece Leathers


Primarily for racing use, many say this is the best way to slide to safety.


2-Piece Leathers


Like a one-piece, but more comfortable for street use, although some say the zipper that joins the two pieces is a weak spot.


Leather Separates


Jacket and pants that may not be designed to fit together—that's a spot where some of your skin may be exposed during a long slide!


One-piece Cordura Suit


Not as resistant to high-speed crashing as one-piece leather, but pretty good at the speeds most street riders report crashes. Cordura is a textile product from DuPont that is far more resistant to abrasion than ordinary Nylon.


Textile Separates


Like leather separates, may expose the skin between the pieces to roadrash— ouch! Zip them together if you wear these.


Rain Suit


A good-fitting rain suit will keep you dry, warm and more visible to other road users.


Chaps


Leather is good, but odds are you will slide on your butt: more ouch! Designed for riding horses through shrubbery, not motorcycles.


Exo-Armor


Wearing impact armor under abrasion-resistant clothing is a good idea, as impact armor can protect you from some low-speed impacts. Wearing it over street clothing with no abrasion-resistant gear is almost pointless.


Jeans and street clothing


You look good, but you may as well be naked—even brand-new denim will rip in a few feet of sliding. Be smart and protect your body from abrasion and impact injury—if you have to wear jeans, get a pair with abrasion-resistant fabric sewn into the seat and knees.


Back protector


Riders use this to protect them from some impact injuries, but a back or spine protector may not protect you from getting twisted or bent enough to injure your spinal column and cause paralysis. But if it fits well and doesn't restrict movement, it's worth wearing, no?


Motocross/Dirt


Good stuff to wear in the dirt, where you are exposed to different hazards than the street. NOT FOR STREET RIDING! How well will it protect you from the dangers of asphalt and bad drivers?



Image credit: Bill Klein

Footwear


Motorcycle-specific footwear will keep you safe, comfortable and in control, but at least wear sturdy, over-the-ankle footwear—and double-knot your shoelaces!


Under your suit


Cotton underwear gets bunched up and soaked in sweat—no fun! Motorcycle- specific undergarments are designed to keep your body temperature regulated and your skin dry.


Knee Pucks


Hard plastic, nylon or leather discs used to let the rider know how far the bike is leaned over and to help out with body positioning—but they don't offer any real protection. Not a good thing to use on street rides!