Nothing beats the freedom of a bike. When you’re on your motorcycle, riding the open road, feeling the wind on your gear, everything seems right in the world.
Yes, gear, you read that right.
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Almost every motorcyclist is familiar with the term ATGATT — which stands for “All The Gear All The Time,” and most follow it to varying degrees, but WHY should we? And how do we know which gear is best?
Safety is often a choice, and nowhere is that more prevalent than on a motorcycle. Yes, you can choose to wear jeans while you ride, but don’t be shocked when that denim melts to your skin during road rash.
To put this in perspective let’s look at a few simple safety facts…
There’s an old saying that most long-time bikers will agree with, and it goes “there are those that have crashed, and those that will.” Essentially, it doesn’t matter if you’re a first-time rider or Valentino Rossi, if you ride long enough you will experience some kind of accidental meeting with the pavement. Whether it’s due to a mistake on your part, bad weather, road conditions, or another roadway user, sooner or later you will find yourself post-crash.
With that in mind let’s take a look at what to expect…
Crash Costs — Physically
Though there is a lot of variance on crash cause and outcome, the data suggests that by far head injuries are the most common result. According to a 2019 National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) cross-sectional study of over 4,200 motorcycle crashes —
“The head was the most commonly injured site of the body, followed by the foot, face, and forearm. In this regard, 59.7% of the admitted patients and 85.4% of total death cases had head injuries. Additionally, 67.1% of the target population had traumas in more than two regions of the body.”
After head injuries, foot, face, and forearm are the next most vulnerable areas (which we’ll cover shortly). Road rash is another highly common injury, so common in fact that there is actually a rough equation to calculate how much you could sustain while riding:
Given the average coefficient of road surface friction, you’ll lose 1mm of flesh for every 1mph you’re traveling at over 30mph. For example, at 70mph (113 kph) you can expect to lose 1.5 inches (38mm) of flesh due to road rash. Even more dangerously, with this level of tissue loss riders can expect potentially fatal complications like bone infections, grafts, and amputations.
Crash Costs — Money
Motorcycle gear is expensive, it’s an unfortunate but true part of riding (though select used gear can sometimes be found at a discount).
A quality set of gear can set you back anywhere from $600-$6,000+ USD. But when you take into account the average medical bill for treatment, surgery, and long-term care (which can range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars), suddenly that total gear cost doesn’t seem so shocking anymore.
It might seem counterintuitive, but purchasing good gear will save you money (and untold amounts of stress) in the long run.
By now we’ve established that:
1) If you ride long enough, you will crash at some point.
2) When you do crash, some very important body bits will be at risk of serious injury. And,
3) Good gear, while costly, is much less expensive than medical bills and emotional stress.
To be clear, these facts aren’t meant to scare… Riding is one of the most freeing and rewarding hobbies in the world. It’s an effective mode of transportation, incredible opportunity for self-expression, and rewarding activity to do with friends or solo.
So the question is, how can you ensure that your riding experience is as safe as possible without literally costing an arm and a leg?
Choosing Motorcycle Gear: Everything You Need to Know
Choosing the right helmet
Considering the statistic above it makes sense to start your safety journey by buying a good helmet. But what classifies “good?”
Interestingly, “good” does not necessarily mean expensive. When it comes to a “good” helmet there are a few key things to look for:
- Type: If you like the form and function of your head then it would be wise to buy a full-face helmet. While half-helmets and even the new thin-chinbar retro designs may be attractive, studies show that almost half of all helmet impacts (the most common injury in crashes) are to the chin, face, and cheek area.
- Safety Rating: The baseline standard safety rating in America is DOT, but riders should know that this only means that the helmet meets the minimum legal safety requirements. Ensuring your helmet has the European ECE 22.05 rating is the next step in buying a “good” helmet. This rating was tested to withstand a large-level impact, with additional smaller impacts (simulating a crash). Arai and Shoei have also developed the Snell M2010 rating, which was tested to withstand 2 moderate impacts (overall, ECE is generally accepted as the superior rating).
- Fit: Helmet sizing goes way beyond Large, Medium, and Small. Helmet models have distinct shell shapes and padding distribution, with most helmets falling under a “round” or “oval” shape category. Helmets should be snug enough not to move on a rider’s head, but not so tight as to cause pain or pressure points (which can also be an indication of incorrect shell shape). Most manufacturers will provide sizing charts and shell type information, and you can often try on helmets at stores or trade shows.
- Age/Returns: Helmets, by design, are created to withstand roughly 1 big impact. This could be anything from a crash, to simply dropping your helmet while traveling. After that the shell integrity is compromised, putting you at risk. For this reason it’s important not to buy used or model-display helmets. According to the Snell Memorial Foundation, helmets should be replaced every 5 years, and many manufacturers recommend 3. This isn’t necessarily due to the EPS foam degrading, but because helmet shells begin to become brittle and vulnerable due to UV exposure and wear.
- Face Shields (Visors): Though it may look fashionable, be wary of pre-tinted visors as nighttime visibility will be dangerously limited. You may also find that your visor fogs up at low speeds, which can typically be fixed by installing a pinlock. All visors are usually required by law (depending on what country you live in) to provide 120° of visibility, with human peripheral vision capabilities maxing out at about 90°.
Though a lot of motorcycle gear can be purchased used, a helmet should never be one of them. A used helmet might look ok on the surface, but there is no true way to know that the shell hasn’t sustained damage already. A good helmet that meets all of the requirements above can be easily purchased new for anywhere from $200 USD to $400+ USD. The AGV K1 Helmet is a great starting point ($199)
Choosing the right Jackets, Pants, and Suits
Working our way from the head down, the next piece/pieces of gear that all motorcyclists should have is a jacket and riding pants combination. Studies have shown that most accidents happen close to home, so even if you only ride around town or your commute is short, this gear combination is worth buying (and wearing!).
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options out there. From textile suits to leather jackets and riding jeans, there are multiple “right” choices depending on your riding style.
- Leather Suits/Jackets: Leather is the classic motorcycle look, and there’s a reason this iconic look is still favored by motorcycle riders and racers today. Quality leather jackets from companies like Dainese, Vanson, or Alpinestar will feature thick layers and heavy stitching, and if cared for properly, they can last a lifetime. One downside of this material though can be the density and lack of waterproofing options. Select a jacket, suit, or two-piece riding set with vents if you plan on doing anything other than cold-weather riding.
Like this Alpinestars Crazy Eight Leather Jacket ($399)
- Textiles: Textile jackets work along the same lines as leather, with different grades and brands affording better levels of protection and durability. For example, jackets with a 500D Cordura rating may last through 1 to 2 crashes, while 1,000D could last several more. Textiles are often waterproof, reflective, ventilated, and lightweight.
Like this REV’IT! GT-R Air 2 Jacket
- Armor: Gear armor will typically come with a “Conformité Européene” (CE) rating of Tested, Certified, or Approved, with Certified and Approved being the most secure. There are also two additional levels of CE protection rating: CE level 1, and CE level 2 — with CE2 being thicker and more protective. CE armor should cover all major joints and strike points for a rider, this includes elbows, shoulders, back, and hips.
- Motorcycle Jeans: Unfortunately, standard denim jeans tend to either disintegrate or burn when they meet the road. Fortunately, durable motorcycle jeans are now a common feature on the market. These jeans usually contain Kevlar reinforcement panels with optional CE pieces on hip and knee areas. They’re stylish, comfortable, and most importantly, effective as a basic level of protection.
For example this Street & Steel Sunset Selvedge Jeans ($149)
Overall gear should fit well, and be comfortable. After the initial break-in period, no piece of gear should be cumbersome or difficult to wear. Some quality gear can be bought used, and most stores will encourage customers to try on multiple options to find the best fit.
Choosing the right gloves
Motorcycling gloves are one of the most overlooked and important pieces of gear you can buy, for the singular reason that your hands are attached to your arms.
Image: Racer glove with wrist slider
Just like when we trip or stumble, when we crash we almost always extend our arms in an evolution-based effort to catch ourselves. On a bike the force of that hand-on-pavement impact can not only wreck the delicate construction of our hands themselves, but also easily shatter wrists, elbows, and more as the impact’s energy is transferred up the arm – even at extremely slow speeds.
Good gloves should have palm sliders and some kind of retainment strap around the wrist to keep them in place. Sliders help to shear off the force of an impact by creating a slide zone on the palm, protecting your arms, elbows, and hands. Quality material and construction, especially stitching, can also help to minimize damage in this delicate area.
Alpinestars SP Air Gloves ($129) is a great example for a protected summer glove.
Choosing the right Boots
Each of your feet has 26 bones, 30 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments — and the pavement wants to destroy them all.
Statistically speaking, when you experience a crash your feet are almost guaranteed to come into contact with the ground. The good news is that there are attractive, safe, and affordable motorcycle boots on the market to fit virtually every rider’s style. Good boots should have:
- Over-the-Ankle Protection: You never realize how vulnerable your ankle bone is until it’s sliding across the ground under a 450lb motorcycle. Some riding boots will actually provide reinforcement or padding over the ankle bone for this exact reason.
- Good Grip: Anything that can easily grip your motorcycle’s footpeg will work, combat and work boots both fall into this category.
- Reinforcement: Many riding and even work boots will feature added reinforcements like additional padding, sliders, or steel shanks along the soles of the shoe to protect against crushing injuries.
Choosing riding boots is less about buying a particular “type” than it is about finding something that meets the requirements for being both safe, and comfortable. A good boot should have grip, ankle protection, and a strong protective structure.
The TCX Street Ace Air Shoes ($119) are a great start.
A category for the gear without a category! These specialty items and add-on pieces aren’t part of the essentials, but can enhance your riding experience, and safety.
- Hot + Cold Gear: Sometimes gear is less about protecting you during a fall and more about preventing one. Warm and cold weather gear is available in both textile and leather forms, and they go a long way in preventing weather-related physical fatigue. Temperature-specific suits are available for everything from ADV and road riding to track racing.
- Coccyx Protection: Not a popular topic to discuss, but if you wind up landing on your posterior during a crash your tailbone will thank you for buying coccyx protection in advance. Many companies offer hip/coccyx CE compression shorts that slip easily under your favorite kevlar jeans or riding suit.
- Air Vests/Suits: Air-suit and air-vest technology may be pricey, but they are absolutely lifesaving advancements in motorcycling technology. Riders can invest in either versatile vest formats, or full racing suits.
Unfortunately collisions are often unforgiving, and unpredictable. The best plan as a rider is to be prepared ahead of time by practicing good skills training, buying quality gear, and investing in collision avoidance technology.
Most quality motorcycle gear will last years to decades, so choose pieces you like, that are comfortable, and that will help you stay safe while having fun.