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
The fastest human in the world is Ussain Bolt. During the 100 meter sprint, he peaks at 27.78 mph. If he falls going that speed, he’ll 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-an-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 over 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 50 degree (F) ambient temperature, windchill at 55 mph is going to make it feel like it’s 25 degrees out. So from the kind of temperature in which you 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 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, the elements and makes riding an easier, more comfortable experience.
According to a study published by Dietmar Otte, 45% of all impacts to motorcycle helmets occur around the face, in an area not covered by open-face or ¾-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.
Helmets typically have a five year life. After that, the glue and whatnot used to bond layers of the EPS impact absorption material (precisely tailored densities of Styrofoam) begin to degrade, impacting safety.
Like the crumple zone in a car, helmets are also designed to destroy themselves in a crash, thereby dissipating the energy that would otherwise be transferred to your head. Sometimes, a helmet can experience a crash without external signs of damage, but still sustain unseen effects. To ensure that your helmet is fully capable of protecting you, always buy a new helmet from a reputable retailer and then treat it like a baby, never allowing it to fall to the ground or otherwise be damaged.
Street helmets look like this.
Dirt helmets look like this. You wear them with goggles. Yes, they do protect your face, but that pronounced chin may exaggerate torsional forces in a crash. They’ll also be noisy and unstable at highway speeds. Choose the right helmet for the kind of riding you plan to do.
To be legally worn on the road in America, any motorcycle helmet must be marked with a DOT-approved sticker. You’ll see those affixed prominently on the back.
That’s just a minimal legal standard though. Two other certifications compete for your dollar by promising greater safety, both legally voluntary in the United States. “ECE 22.05” is the European Union’s legal standard, while there’s also something called “Snell” which is popular with a couple large helmet manufacturers here in the States. Avoid Snell-rated helmets if you have an abnormally small (as in a child or smaller woman) or large head; until recently, Snell didn’t acknowledge that different size heads have different weights, so the impact absorption material may not be properly spec’d to reduce impact forces.
If you want the best possible safety, simply opt for an ECE 22.05-rated helmet. Every single racer in MotoGP (the top level of motorcycle sport) chooses to wear an ECE-rated helmet and they tend to be lighter and more able to prevent concussions than their Snell equivalent.
And you don’t need to spend a ton of cash to get the safest possible helmet. We love the Icon Airmada, which has some of the best ventilation you can find in any helmet, is built to the ECE 22.05 standard and starts at just $180 for plain colors.
Like other affordable helmets, the Airmada uses a plastic shell. More expensive ones use more expensive materials for shell construction like a fiberglass/Kevlar/carbon fiber weave. This can make them lighter, but does not make them any safer. Spending up to a very expensive helmet nets you things like paint quality, fancy graphics and fancier ventilation, not added safety. Most of what you’re paying for is brand.
The shape and size of every person’s head is unique. You need to find a helmet that fits you perfectly, sizes and shapes vary heavily between manufacturers and models. To determine your shape and size, visit a large brick-and-mortar retailer and try on every helmet you can. You’ll know one fits when it evenly holds your head all the way around, with no pressure points. Put it on, grasp the chin and try to rotate the helmet while resisting the movement with your head. The helmet shouldn’t be able to rotate independently of your scalp. It should fit snugly, but not be too tight.
Other considerations to bear in mind are weight, noise and aerodynamics. You’ll find those addressed in motorcycle helmet reviews.
Continue Reading: A Beginners Guide To Motorcycle Gear >>