Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #10: Dressing for the Occasion (aka Riding Gear)


Riding gear is one of the hotly-debated topics within the motorcycling community. Many riders suit up and look like storm troopers, while other will go riding in a t-shirt and gym shorts. While the debate rages on, riding gear can be even more important to a touring rider than a casual rider for several reasons. 

The first reason is safety. Many riders forego some or all of the riding gear that is available to riders. The risks of doing so are evident, but touring riding can greatly increase those risks. Let’s say a rider goes down while going through a corner on a country road. If the rider is not too far from home, someone may be available to come aid them. When that same accident happens in rural Wyoming where there may not be help for miles, injuries can grow far worse by the time help arrives. This is particularly true for large areas of road rash. Wearing proper riding gear can limit road rash and allow a touring rider to patiently wait for help rather than have large open wounds. 

The second reason is protection from the elements. A rider only needs to try riding in the rain once without enough protection to know how painful it can be. Plus, rain is only one of the elements that can dampen a tour (pun intended). Even the best sunscreen can wear away on hot days, leaving a touring rider with a nasty sunburn. Cold weather can also be a tough adversary. Once a rider gets cold, it is very difficult to warm back up without heated gear or stopping and resting in a heated building.  

The third reason is comfort. Gloves can make holding onto motorcycle grips more comfortable. Jackets and pants that are equipped with vents can move air around a rider’s body to keep them cool yet protected in hot weather. Face shields can keep bugs from making it into a rider’s teeth. Heated gear can extend the riding season by months for those living in cooler climates.  

Personally, I subscribe to the all-the-gear-all-the-time (ATGATT) philosophy. I wear a full-face helmet, riding jacket, riding pants, motorcycle boots, and gloves. I also carry a balaclava several different kinds of gloves with me that cover almost any riding condition. I do not criticize those who choose to wear less gear: I simply choose to take every precaution I can to ensure my safety. Distracted drivers, animals, and the like make motorcycle dangerous enough. Personally, I do not see the need to risk even more to have the same experience. 

My decision to adopt ATGATT is in large part based on my riding experience. When I first started riding, I wore the riding jacket, helmet, and gloves. I usually just wore jeans or even sometimes shorts, and typical work boots. That changed when my best friend crashed in front of me. He went down going over a set of railroad tracks on a curve. He lost traction on the front and his bike almost took me out. At the time I was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans with a helmet and gloves. If I had gone down as well, I would have been looking at some pretty bad road rash on my upper body. While I escaped unharmed, my best friend did not. He was wearing a helmet and gloves, but was also wearing a long-sleeve polyester shirt. The portions of the shirt that made contact with the pavement melted into his skin. He told me cleaning out the wounds was the most painful thing he had ever endured. After that I began wearing my riding jacket all the time, and eventually added riding pants as well.  

A full complement of riding gear for touring consists of the following: 

 

Helmet

Helmet 

While the debate rages on about helmet use, a helmet is especially important for touring. Full face and three-quarters helmets help knock down wind noise and provide maximum protection in the event of a crash. Many full face and three-quarters helmets with face shields have swappable shields. That features allow riders to carry multiple shields (clear, tinted, amber, etc.) for different riding conditions. It also saves a touring rider from having to clean their shield every time it gets covered with bug guts. 

Any helmet used for on-road riding needs to be DOT-approved, and are recommended to be Snell 2010 (or newer) approved. Additionally, a rider needs to find the helmet that is the right fit for them. For newer riders, a helmet the “feels” comfortable may actually be too big for them. When I started riding, I was wearing an XL-size HJC helmet. When I had my measured by an Arai sales rep, he told me I should be in a medium Arai, which is roughly the same size as an HJC medium. I took his advice and bought a medium HJC and it made a huge difference. 

The most important part of the fitment is the “crown”, or how the helmet fits with the curvature of the top of a person’s head. Another fitment factor is the length and width of a head. This involves measuring the circumference of one’s head at its widest point (just above the eyes). Most helmets are sized off of this measurement. Additionally, some heads are more oblong, while others are more rounded. Most helmet manufacturers who offer several different shell sizes. Riders need to try on different sizes find the one that fits them best. For more information about fitment, consult we resources like The Service Pavillion’s Online fitment service, or RevZilla’s write-up on helmet fitment. 

 

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Jacket 

A riding jacket is extremely important to successful and enjoyable motorcycle touring. A jacket protects a rider in case of a crash, can help keep a lot of precipitation out, is a place to carry items needed in an emergency, and it essential during cold weather riding. 

Motorcycle-specific riding jackets offer riders several benefits over non-specific leather or textile jackets. For one, motorcycle jackets will often have armor built into them in high-impact zones like shoulders, elbows, and back. Motorcycle-specific jackets will also be constructed of abrasion-resistant materials like thicker leather or treated textiles that hold up much better in a crash (especially when sliding). The choice between leather and textile is really rider preference. Leather provides maximum protection, but is harder to maintain, is much heavier, and is usually more expensive. In my experience, it is best to find a jacket that has as close to an exact fit as possible. This prevents the jacket from “puffing” out when wind gets inside of it and allows for additional layers (like a long-sleeve shirt) to be worn underneath it. 

Additional features such as high-visibility materials and reflective piping can make it easier for drivers to see a rider in dark or inclement conditions. Many jackets include interior pockets which can be useful for carrying a cell phone and/or small first aid kit. In the event of an accident, a rider may become separated from their motorcycle and not be able to walk or crawl back to it. Having a means to call for help and tend to minor injuries on your person can make all the difference in an emergency. Many jackets also come with vents to allow air to flow into the front of a jacket and out the back. This can make wearing a jacket much more comfortable in hot weather .  

Some companies also make “air” versions of their jackets, which use less material and allow maximum airflow over the rider’s core. While the cooling of such jackets is desirable in hot conditions, it can also represent a major safety compromise. While more traditional motorcycle riding jackets can become extremely hot during hot weather, modern venting and pre-hydrating can alleviate the majority of the discomfort. 

 

Pants 

One of the most neglected pieces of riding gear are dedicated riding pants. Motorcycle-specific riding pants are usually constructed with waterproof and abrasion-resistant materials. Those features provide additional protection to a riders’ lower extremities in a crash (which are the most likely to come into contact with the ground), as well as make wet-weather riding less uncomfortable. Additionally, many sets of riding pants are designed to be worn over regular pants. Many also feature full-length zippers for easier dressing and undressing.  

Like with jackets, it is important to find as exact a fit a possible with riding pants for maximum crash protection and comfort. Pants that are too big will flap in the wind and can come into contact with hot engine or exhaust parts. 

 

Boots 

Motorcycling-specific riding boots often include several design features that make them more comfortable and safer for long-distance riding than typical work boots. Motorcycle-specific boots usually extend several inches above the ankle and include armor in the ankle area. They usually use zippers instead of laces, which increases their waterproofness. Many motorcycle-specific boots also have hardened toe areas to help with shifting without the added weight of a steel-toed work boot. Wide-footed riders should be advised that many motorcycle boots tend to be on the narrow side. 

 

Gloves 

Unlike other types of motorcycle riding gear, gloves tend to be made for specific riding conditions. Regular riding gloves are designed to be comfortable in warm to hot, dry conditions. However, they provide little protection from the elements. Rain gloves provide excellent protection from the elements but can provide inadequate warmth in cold conditions. Cold weather gloves provide excellent warmth and comfort on cold conditions but can become unbearable in hot weather. During a tour, a rider can encounter a wide range of weather conditions, and therefore needs to carry several different types of gloves with them. 

The good news is that gloves are the smallest and cheapest of all major riding gear. Personally, I carry a couple sets of traditional riding gloves, a set of rain gloves, and a set of nitrile gloves to wear underneath the rain gloves for additional cold protection. For safety reasons, gloves with a full gauntlet (go over the wrist) are usually best. The gauntlet provides maximum crash protection and does not allow air to shoot up into the jacket through the end of the sleeve. I do carry one set of non-gauntlet gloves for hotter weather when I want additional airflow through the jacket. Some riders also carry heated gloves for cold weather riding in lieu of using heated grips. 

For fit, it is best to find as close to a perfect fit as possible. Gloves that are too tight will easily become uncomfortable on an 8+ hour ride. Keep in mind that some gloves may be a tad bit tight at first, but will adjust to your hand after a few rides. Gloves that are too loose can bunch up and make it hard for a rider to operate their bike’s controls.

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