Sportbike Riding Gear: What To Wear & When

Find out what sportbike riding gear you should wear for any weather condition.

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We've all had it happen, and it's usually quite unpleasant. It's that point during your travels when the realization hits that you are completely unprepared for the intemperate weather Mother Nature is force-feeding you. Whether it's extreme heat, cold or precipitation, most meteorological annoyances tend to send the unprepared, gung-ho motorcycle traveler hightailing it to the nearest shelter-usually in the form of a nice temperature-controlled motel room.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Some riders are unsure about the sportbike riding gear needed for even moderate weather, let alone for the extremes. The questions vary: What gear do I need? How outfitted can I get on a limited budget? Do I have to buy different gear for every season? Thankfully, it doesn't take a truckload of cash to get set up with a decent riding outfit. The fancier you get, the more it costs, but even a basic riding ensemble can be augmented by some very inexpensive methods to help outfox the nasty weather in which most of us find ourselves more often than not.

First, however, you need the basics.

The Basics
Regardless of weather conditions, there are a few items no rider should be without: A helmet, gloves, jacket and boots. Laura Douglas, a paramedic with the Enloe Hospital Flight Care in Northern California, sees the evidence every day. "Of the accidents we go to there are a lot of leg, facial and jaw injuries," says Douglas. "And most of the facial trauma is a result of not wearing a full-face helmet. And of course road rash, which can be very painful. Road rash is basically a skin burn, and when you have a large amount of fluid loss and exposure, you're susceptible to the same infections that a burn victim would be at risk for. The difference we see between riders who wear protective gear and those who don't is drastic." We won't go into the myriad products available on the market, but here are a few points to take into consideration when purchasing gear.

Most DOT- or Snell-approved helmets offer good protection, but like the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. That's not to say a $150 helmet won't do its job, but it most likely won't offer the same level of comfort, fit and protection a top-shelf model will.

Look for an adequately vented helmet that fits snugly (remember, it will break in) and is void of any pressure points, especially in the forehead and temple region.

Jacket and Pants
Whether you choose leather or fabric riding apparel really depends on your needs and preferences. Leather is considered unrivaled in abrasion resistance, but is not as versatile as the Cordura and composite fabric materials that many of today's popular riding suits are made of. These suits accommodate clothing underneath and are generally easy to slip on and off. Several suits advertise 100 percent waterproof fabric, a plus if you'd rather not don a rainsuit when the skies open. Look for impact-absorbent padding or armor in the shoulders, elbows and back.

Helmut Kluckner, owner of Helimot European Accessories, gives this advice for buying a jacket. "One important thing is to make sure the sleeves are not too long," says Kluckner. "If the sleeves are the wrong length, the armor will be in the wrong spot and won't be as useful in a crash. The leather will also bunch up near the wrists and be uncomfortable. Also, beware of hard armor directly underneath the first layer of leather. There should be a layer of foam padding between the armor and leather, otherwise the armor can cause the leather covering it to fail."

When it comes to protecting legs, many riders wear jeans on a daily basis. While better than wearing shorts, jeans offer virtually no abrasion resistance. When purchasing a jacket, it's a good idea to find a model that zips to protective pants, complete with padding in the hips, knees and preferably the tailbone.

Whatever you do, wear some sort of hand protection. Even if it's a set of gardening gloves, it's better than going without protection all together. Riding gloves are best, and your choice of gloves should reflect their intended use. If you plan on using them for short trips and commuting, gloves can fit more snugly than if you plan to travel at length. Gloves used for long-distance traveling should be a little roomier, but still fairly snug so as not to come off in an accident. Make sure the gloves have long gauntlets and wrist straps, both of which help keep them in place in the event of a crash.

Boots are often overlooked as a key protective garment. Many riders simply wear rugged hiking or work boots for both local and long-distance travel, and if the boot extends over the top of the ankle, these can afford a reasonable degree of protection. Riding boots are a better choice, as they contain plastic armor and/or soft foam padding in the shin, heel, ankle and toe areas. When boot shopping, look for ample padding in these areas, good traction from the sole and a comfortable fit.

Cold Weather
If you're traveling in colder climes, there are already enough variables to worry about without having to fret over whether or not you'll be hypothermic by noon. Tires don't warm up as well, there may be ice on the road-why throw your riding apparel into the mix? By dressing properly in cold weather, you ensure that, regardless of outside conditions, your concentration and focus won't be impaired by your body's inability to deal with the cold.

Beyond the Basics: What Else to WearUndergarments: Adventure clothing companies such as Columbia, Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia and REI (to name a few) all offer quality first-layer long underwear that help insulate the body and wick moisture away from the skin.

Electric Vest: An electric vest offers the most bang for the buck when it comes to fighting off the cold. As your body cools, it begins conserving blood flow for your head, heart and other vital organs, and circulation to your extremities is reduced. An electric vest warms your torso, which helps maintain blood flow to your hands and feet (which are usually the first to get icy). There are a number of good electric vests on the market.

Polar Fleece: A good polar fleece vest and pants supplies a valuable extra layer of warmth and insulation. Many motorcycle apparel companies and the aforementioned mountain/active-wear companies manufacture quality fleece clothing.

Full Riding Suit: Jeans don't cut it in cold weather, so a full riding suit is a necessity. Leather is preferred by many, but we like the versatility, comfort and protection of a full one- or two-piece textile suit. They can usually accommodate more layers of clothing underneath, and help insulate your body better than leather.

Gloves: In a pinch, you can wear surgical gloves underneath your riding gloves or put rubber household cleaning gloves over the top to help protect them from wind shear, but the best investment is a quality set of insulated gloves. Most cold weather gloves are bulky to some degree, so make sure they do not interfere with finger dexterity and your ability to work the controls smoothly.

Tips and Tricks:
Close 'Em: Remember to close your helmet vents (and even tape some over) during cold weather. Most high-end helmets have systems designed to vent hot air out of the helmet. Tape up all jacket and boot vents also.

Electric Vest Placement: Electric vests are most efficient when placed fairly close to the skin-usually over the second or third layer of clothing. Collars are available on most models, but can sometimes add to bulkiness around the neck area. Fitment should be snug but not tight; make sure the vest does not restrict movement in the riding position, and leave enough room to add a sweatshirt or fleece underneath if desired.

Electrify: You can stack on other electric accessories, such as grips, gloves, seat cushions or chaps, but remember that your alternator may not be able to handle multiple electrical accessories at once. Install a voltmeter to monitor your system and make sure it's not overdrawn.

Balaclava or Bandana: Use a balaclava (available from most apparel manufacturers and any ski shop) or other cloth or fleece neck wrap for added insulation and to help seal air passages around the neck and head.

Glove Liners: Glove liners made of insulating material such as DuPont Thermostat are available from most outdoor outfitting stores. They are lightweight, fit underneath most properly fitting gloves and add an extra layer of insulating heat around the hands.

Warmers: Perhaps the best cheap tip, warmers offer a one-shot disposable air-activated heat source. They can be found at any outdoor supply shop (even Wal-Mart), cost less than a dollar each and are lightweight enough to be slipped in just about anywhere you'd like. Just don't place them against bare skin, as the heat output can be erratic.

Remember: Stop The Wind
If your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced, hypothermia will eventually set in. And not just in extreme temperatures. Hypothermia can occur above 40 F if a person becomes chilled from rain or sweat. At that point, your brain and body will be affected with symptoms that include shivering, exhaustion, slurred speech and slowed reaction times-none of which mix well with riding a motorcycle. The key to staying warm in cold conditions is to keep the wind from touching your skin and to keep your core body temperature up-which means protecting the head and torso. Cover all exposed skin and don't hesitate to put on a rainsuit even in cold, dry conditions, as it will help stop the wind. Layer your clothing, which effectively adds more air-and thus insulation -between you and the elements.

Hot Weather
We're all more tempted to ride unprotected when the mercury hits the triple digits, especially for short hops around town, when donning a smothering helmet, boots, gloves and jacket takes nearly as long as the trip itself. But whether you're making a quick local trip or heading out for your summer sport tour, dressing for the ride in hot weather is not only important, but more comfortable as well.

Beyond the Basics: What Else to WearVented Helmet: Make sure the helmet you purchase has plenty of vents-when you perspire inside a helmet, proper venting allows air in to cool your noggin and hot air trapped inside to escape. Avoid dark-colored helmets in hot weather and wear a tinted visor.

Jacket: Most apparel manufacturers offer a multitude of vented leather or textile jackets. We're not entirely sold on the new fabric mesh jackets on the market, but we agree that wearing one is better than riding in a T-shirt. If possible, buy a more versatile jacket with zippered vents. If you have the budget for a warm-weather-only jacket, we recommend a light-colored, vented leather model.

Pants: Wear jeans before you wear shorts. Jeans are by no means considered fully protective, but most riders wear them more often than not. You can augment the protection of jeans by using pads underneath, but your best bet is to wear leather or textile protective riding pants, even though it's not always convenient.

Gloves: While it's possible to find very lightweight, vented gloves on the market, we believe the trade-off in protection is not worth the minimal comfort advantage. Wear light-colored, standard riding gloves (light colors won't stain your hands and are cooler) with a long gauntlet and wrist strap.

Tips And Tricks:
Cover Up: Believe it or not, during long trips in the heat it is better to cover up than be exposed. Control airflow so the skin remains moist but does not dry out. If skin becomes dry, you absorb heat from the air. Cover any exposed skin; sun and windburn only make you more uncomfortable.

Soak Everything: When traveling in hot weather, use evaporative cooling. Soak your T-shirt, helmet liner, head-everything. Use these methods and you'll find yourself shivering on a 100-degree day.

Ice: Place ice in your jacket's interior pockets for effective evaporative cooling. For a somewhat slower cooling effect, use blue gel ice packs or ice in perforated plastic baggies. The more holes in the bags, the faster the ice water leaks out (and the faster it melts).

Wet Bandana: A wet bandana around the neck will do wonders for lowering your body temperature. Anything cold touching the carotid artery in the neck has a supercooling effect, as it directly chills the blood going to the brain. A bandana will dry out fairly quickly, however, so consider using one of the gel/crystal tube ties available at many outdoor sport shops.

Water Mister: Pressurized water misters are cheap and easy to carry. Throw one in your tank bag and use it at stops for quick, easy cooling on the face and neck.

Sunscreen: Apply sunscreen to any exposed skin. You wouldn't go to the beach for eight hours without sun protection-why try it on your ride?

Wear Shorts: Under your gear, that is. Wear shorts underneath your full riding gear for a quick cool-down at stops. This is best used in conjunction with nonleather zip-off suits that can be quickly removed during short rests.

Stay hydrated: Long hauls in hot weather can easily lead to dehydration, which will in time inhibit your ability to properly ride a motorcycle. Carry a water bottle with you at all times, or wear a backpack drinking system for on-road resupply. These systems have been worn by racers and street riders alike with tremendous success. If you prefer not to wear a drinking system, fasten one to the front of your tankbag for easy access.

Remember: Drink, drink, drink (but not alcohol). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the past two decades more people have died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes and earthquakes combined. Heat exhaustion can set in very quickly and is the result of excessive heat and dehydration. Its symptoms range from dizziness, headaches and weakness to nausea and fainting. Sweat is your body's main method of dissipating heat; as you become dehydrated you won't sweat as much and your body will not be able to cool itself. To help reduce the risk of dehydration in hot conditions, make sure to drink at least 16 to 32 ounces of cool fluids per hour. Stay hydrated, stay healthy.

Wet Weather
Traveling in the rain can be one of the most enjoyable experiences on two wheels. There's no better feeling than flicking along a country road during a summer thunderstorm as the water beads on your face shield...unless it slides off the chin bar and drips down your neck. In order to stay warm and comfortable you have to stay dry, all easily accomplished with a little thought and preparation.

Beyond the Basics: What Else to WearUndergarments: For traveling in cold, wet conditions, avoid wearing cotton undergarments. Cotton offers no insulation once wet and does not wick moisture away from the skin-it gets soggy and cold. Here again, opt for quality. Moisture-wicking long underwear can be found at a variety of active-wear retailers and is a much better alternative to cotton.

Jacket and Pants: Don't forget that all the basic protective gear is needed underneath a plastic or vinyl rainsuit, which will offer no protection in the event of a crash.

Rainsuit: While some off-the-shelf riding suits are waterproof, we like the versatility and weather protection offered by a purpose-built rainsuit. They are relatively inexpensive and there are a myriad of one and two-piece designs available starting from $29 all the way to $150. We have found that two-piece rainsuits offer the best compromise, as they're easier to get into than one-piece outfits and offer the option of wearing only the jacket for light rain showers.

Rubber booties: If you're on a budget, it's cheaper and just as effective to travel in your standard riding boots covered with rubber booties than to purchase a separate set of waterproof riding boots. Some motorcycle accessory manufacturers offer rubber boot-covers that are easier to put on than conventional booties. All can make life much more enjoyable and be had for under $20.

Gloves: There are many waterproof gloves on the market that fend off the elements. Most of the major apparel manufacturers carry a wet-weather glove in their lineup, so take a look at your local motorcycle dealer or browse through the Internet. When buying wet-weather gloves, avoid anything too bulky that restricts hand movement and dexterity.

Tips And Tricks:
Seal your helmet: Most helmets aren't successful in keeping all water out during prolonged wet weather riding. Usually you'll feel a few drips in the front vent or see rain dribbling down the inside of the visor. We like using small strips of duct tape to seal any vents that don't aid in defogging the shield. If fogging is not a problem, we even seal the gap between the top of the shield and the helmet.

Seal your gear: Many textile riding suits are capable of fending off moisture for a short amount of time. This can be lengthened by using a sealant such as 3M's Scotchgard on the material, applied twice on the seams. Mink oil can be used for leather products, but beware, these techniques also reduce the material's ability to breathe come warmer weather.

Defog: A fogged-up helmet shield is one of the most annoying problems during wet-weather riding, and it can be dangerous as well. Try the Fog City Fog Shield, which is a plastic laminate that adheres to the inside of your shield and eliminates fogging, or go to any ski or sporting goods shop and ask for an antifog cloth. Both work remarkably well and cost less than $5.

Rubber Gloves: If you don't have a good set of waterproof riding gloves, large rubber household cleaning gloves or other industrial rubber mitts will fit over your standard gloves and are surprisingly effective at keeping out the rain. Thin surgical gloves can also be worn to help keep moisture off the skin.

Boot Spray: Use a small amount of Pam vegetable nonstick cooking spray on the inside of your rubber booties for lubrication, which makes sliding them on and off a much less aggravating affair. It wipes off easily once the bootie is removed.

Glove Gauntlets: When riding a sportbike in the rain, try pulling the sleeve of your rainsuit over the top of your glove. This helps keep water from leaking through the gauntlet top and into the glove.

Emergency Rain Gear: If you're stuck in an unexpected rainstorm, look no further than your local supermarket. Large plastic garbage bags (with slits cut out for your head and arms) can be used to repel water from your upper torso, and smaller bags can be wrapped around the feet and hands to help fend off the moisture. Fashion points do not apply.

Neoprene: Fairly inexpensive slip-on neoprene braces for your knees, ankles and wrists can easily be modified to help seal off openings in your riding gear. When slipped over seams in your gear (between the glove and sleeve, for instance), they help catch water before it reaches your skin.

Remember: Stop the Rain. Even in warmer climates, it's important to keep moisture away from your clothes and skin. Wet clothes offer no insulating properties, and draw heat from your body much quicker than dry clothes. This is especially so when riding in wet, cold conditions, where the risk of hypothermia is highest.