Adventure riders are a different breed. We know this, for many reasons, but chiefly we can be identified as such because there is a need for things to work in different situations. We want practical, functional, dual-purpose and we’re definitely fussy. We want all of this and we want it in everything from freezing mountains to boiling deserts – especially our riding kit.
Luckily life has changed in the last decade or so and just as it has with our motorcycles so clothing technology has improved dramatically. Many motorcycle clothing manufacturers produce very capable and functional, well designed Adventure bike kit capable of full-filling all our needs. But with so many options what is it we should be looking for from our kit? Without naming specific clothing brands we’re looking at what you need and why you need it. Our aim with this feature is to arm you with information so you can see where you’re at currently with your riding kit and where you might think about improving things.
Good riding clothing needs to perform across a wide range of conditions and as such this doesn’t make us special, these needs are spread across many outdoor activities, not just Adventure riding. You need to account as much for sitting still in wet, windy and cold conditions (when you’re road riding) as much as you need to prepare yourself for getting hot and active off-road.
The principles of layering are well documented in other outdoor activities but we also need to factor in CE armour and protection for our needs.
What else do you need? Pockets, handily placed and in useful sizes, we want waterproof, breathable and protective. We need gloves and boots with feel and warmth, safe helmets which aren’t too hot (and look good). Not much to ask is it?
We’ll begin at the beginning by saying the fit of your kit is crucial if it’s to work or fail. Sleeves and leg length needs to be comfortable when you’re walking around but absolutely needs to be long enough to still fit when you’re sitting or riding. It needs to be loose enough to allow free movement and extra layering but not so loose it flaps about and catches. Err on the side of a bit too long off the bike for it to work on the bike. This rule applies to all layers so pay particular attention if you’re looking at mountaineering products for your base layers as they may be short in the arm for instance.
The importance of layers inside your kit cannot be over estimated. The lessons of seasoned travellers, walkers, hikers and mountaineers’ are just as valid as they are for motorcyclists.
The type of material we use to ride a bike is varied and has developed over the years. As Adventure bike riders we are in double trouble as we mix traditions in on and off road riding kit and tend to mix expectations from our clothing.
We have many more options than riders did 20 years ago in terms of clothing technology so for best performance, good practice is to follow a simple rule: wear different layers to perform different roles.
The important part is your body needs to remain a consistent temperature no matter what the weather or riding conditions. Layers allow you to add or take away depending on the weather and riding conditions.
Basic layering philosophy consists of a base, mid and outer layers. Base layers, often stretchy, are worn closest to the skin and can come in different thicknesses. They really should be worn according to your needs: thin through medium to thicker depending on your climate or time of year. The best base layers have good ‘wicking’ capabilities, which take away the moisture from the body. Many bike clothing brands have base layers but also look at outdoor clothing shops for a wide range of garments. Stretchy ones are good because they allow for movement off road but will remain the correct length when you’re plonked in the saddle for three hours of road riding.
Mid layers traditionally have the function of keeping us warm. Many riding jackets have removable quilted layers to perform this function but aftermarket manufacturers also make great kit for this job too. Typically you’re looking for a fleece-type or lightweight quilted jacket layer but clothing designed to stop wind penetration is also highly effective. If you can make this layer double up as your day to day jacket then that’s even better.
Outer layers have the hardest function in life for us: they must be water and wind proof, have useful pockets and certainly need some abrasion resistance and armour. Those mid layers designed to trap the body heat are no good at all if you’re travelling at 65mph (100kmh) and the wind is whistling right through you. The heat needs trapping in while the wind and rain need keeping out.
Textile riding kit is favoured by most these days because it is functional, lighter and allows you other layering options. Some have waterproof linings or layers, all should have CE armour inserted in knees, elbows, shoulders and back.
The textile jacket and trousers, complete with armour and all the pockets you can eat, is favourite because it is practical and it allows you to carry a fully waterproof outer layer.
All of the above is not to say that you should only wear three layers of clothing. Far from it. Be wary of piling on too many layers but membranes and/or ‘shells’ either within the clothing or bought separately can be game changers when it comes to regulating your temperature.
With a myriad of clothing options out there you have little excuse (other than indecision) for not getting your kit nailed. There are many different price levels so best practice is to opt for what you can afford – though highest price does not always mean best kit.
A good coat can turn into a brilliantly effective piece of riding kit if it has the few, simple additions. An adjustable collar, cuffs which comfortably adjust over or under different gloves. Don’t just look out for these extras on coats either, helmets, trousers, gloves, boots and under garments can all have ‘extra’ functions too.
You can introduce heated clothing to the equation as well. Heated clothing, often woven inside any of the base, mid or outer layers, can be plug in or battery operated. We’ve tested all different options and generally found heated base or mid-layers are best because that layer can be removed if you’re hot. Heated jackets, although they can obviously be turned off, don’t always give you an option to be cooler.
Venting in jackets and trousers speaks for itself and really comes into its own if you’re riding in hotter conditions. Their purpose simply is to allow you to maintain the protection provided by your armoured jacket and/or trousers but let the air flow in to cool you off. The best are designed to allow air to flow freely around inside the garment and will also have rubber-coated zips which seal when done up. The best vent of all is the front zip on your jacket of course.
Waterproofing is a point of controversy and split opinions. Really the options fall into two catagories, built in and external. The built in option normally come in the form of completely waterproof jackets, the material is waterproof and it’s an option that works really well. It’s simple, effective and low effort. The downside happens at the waist and around all the cuffs. Water and wind can creep in and be the difference between being warm and dry or being slightly miserable.
A lot of jackets also feature an optional waterproof liner. For us, this is out least favourite option. They suffer the same issues as above, but also leave your outer jacket soaked and a fair bit heavier.
The final option is a really good set of waterproof overs. Outdoor clothing, like craghopppers, Arcteryx, Berghaus or any of those other brands al make great quality, decent priced kit that will keep you really dry, pack away and provides a lot of freedom. The downside is that some outdoor kit isn’t always cut perfectly for motorcycle riding and so you need to get trying some one. However, some kit manufacturers make incredible, motorcycle specific waterproof overs and they really do a great job of solving the wind problems, keeping you bone dry and cutting out the wind. A great example of this is BMW’s Klima Komfort 2 suit. There a few out there and they are the ultimate solution.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to gloves; some people prefer the short glove, others the waterproof-lined gauntlet, some opt for the hard-wearing leather while others just don’t give a damn. There are compromises with each, and there are as many different opinions as there are types of glove. We think it’s a smart idea to carry two sets. Either that or you’ll have to make compromises. Those compromises are the same as with much of our riding kit: what works on the road at speed and in potentially bad weather won’t be so good at slow speed, off-road in hot weather.
Frivolous though it seems to carry a spare set of gloves, when plenty will tell you not to carry too much, they take up little room and having the right glove at the right time can make a big difference.
The right glove when the riding in a slower, more technical environment will provide better feel on the bars, causing less mistakes and generally being helpful. If it’s raining a pair of leather-palmed gloves are your worst nightmare, with the palms becoming slipperier than oil on glass. They also don’t want to be too hot, loose or restrict finger or wrist movement.
Short gloves don’t have to lack protection and there are some on the market with slightly longer cuffs, venting, double-stitching and armour. Shorter gloves are less effective when you’re blatting up the motorway though however. So the simple answer is to carry a longer, warmer pair and cut out the compromise.
Helmets are an issue some will debate over several pints down the pub, a debate which usually boils down to how safe you want to be versus how cool you want to look. Cool campers usually opt for the off-road lid and goggles while the safety campaigners usually opt for a road helmet.
There are several problems with each, not least that most off-road lids aren’t designed as much to deal with a high-speed road crash. That’s not to say all aren’t but certainly be very wary and smart when looking at off-road helmets.
The downside of road bike helmets is they don’t work too well off-road. They’re often too hot, can be heavier , often feel a little claustrophobic and are prone to suffering from visor misting. As ever, it depends on the type of riding you do the most.
The best solution is a dual-purpose helmet, which will usually have a sturdy foot in each camp. With more road-orientated safety design than an off-road lid, being designed predominantly from a road helmet perspective, but featuring better venting, a large main aperture to accommodates goggles, they suit the needs of an Adventure bike rider better. Most have options for either visor and/or goggles and a peak to keep the sun out your eyes.
The purpose of goggles in often missed one, but they do have a lot of plus points. They’re vastly cooler in hot wether than a visor and provide and much closer, less interfered with vision. The most complained about problem with goggles is excess circulation on the road, so your choice matters. There a lot of “desert” or “supermoto” goggles in existence for that exact purpose. They feature different foam that seriously restricts air flow at speed.
Boot options seem pretty clear to us. Gone are the days when you had to make do with MX boots which, though covered in protection, are both stiff and clunky for Adventure riding and certainly for walking. They are still the ultimate in protection, but they’re never waterproof and for road riders and new comers they can feel enormous and clunky. Coupled with a water proof sock they’re a safe option that has it’s downsides.
There are however some cracking cross-over options around however. Many boot manufacturers make “Adventur”e boots these days and like so many things in the Adv bike world they are usually dual purpose. An effective ‘adventure boot’ will have stiffness and strength in the ankle, the toe box and around the heel, whilst being comfortable. They also need stiffness to the sole. This will help to make riding stood up for a decent period of time comfortable and will help in an incident. On top of that we need a bit of grip in the sole, to hold the footpeg and double us as a boot that could be walked in if needed.
It’s more common than not for Gore-tex to be featured. Waterproofing is great but they are undoubtedly hotter so also consider waterproof socks so they can be layered and swapped out if required. These can come in the form of a designed, branded “Sealskinz” style sock or a pair of Gore-tex over socks from the army surplus store will suffice.
Armour is a very contentious subject. It’s levels of protection, effectiveness and the style of armour you opt for are all very personal things. Much of your choice comes down to personal preference. There are three main schools of thought with armour and it’s an area someone else cannot and should not provide fact on.
The “built in, all I can fit school” solution. Built in armour has it’s place. Many people are very happy with it makes for an easy, relatively clutter free solution. But for us, that’s where the upside end. It’s often bulky, it’s very rare to see armour that truly, really sits where it’s intended, it makes the jacket very heavy and definitely makes the jacket hot.
The “pressure suit” option. This is a great option. Pressure suits are full torso, mesh jackets that have armour sown in. Often they provide a much better, more accurate and comfortable fit than built in armour. A lot of the brands are modular too, so lower sleeves and upper sleeves are removable. They provide better flexibility and both prior and during the crash, flexibility is paramount to either avoiding or lower injury during an incident.
The “motocross” option. The motocross option is to either wear an mx style, chest/back protector or to run bareback. Now to many who come from the tarmac side of the pond, this seems like insanity but there is a definite school of thought. DirtBike folks aim at keeping cool and being free. Flexibility and not over heating massively prevent accidents through fatigue and by armouring up like a storm trooper you over heat and remove movement from your body. Both of these mean a) you’re more likely to crash and b) when you do your body lacks the flexibility to deal with the movement increasing the risk of injury. At least that’s the theory.
The same applies to knee protection. The built in options are low stress but have a habit of moving and the mx style, Velcro strap options seem basic but are highly effective.
Times and clothing technology has changed massively in recent years but you can’t beat a good bit of make-do and mend sometimes. Caught short with the wrong gear when the weather changes or caught out late when the temperature dips as it gets dark and you could do a lot worse than bag yourself up in a bin liner.
Plastic bags might seem tramp-like in their qualities but there’s a time and a place when a simple layer of plastic transforms your ride by trapping wind and rain out and keeping body heat in. Usually you’ll find that’s when you’re in cold and wet weather and you have no other waterproof option. A bag on each foot inside your boots, a bin liner with head and arm holes cut out over your torso are sound and well-used ways of keeping wind and rain out. So too are surgical or even the diesel gloves from a filing station can help. Although not plastic bags as such, a surgical glove inside your riding glove again is a quick and cheap way of keeping water out.
- Try clothing on – sounds simple but put it on and if possible sit on a bike wearing it, failing that adopt the riding position because…
- …fit is important.
- Try and go for several thinner layers rather than one duvet-sized thick one.
- Expensive price tags don’t always mean effective clothes.
- Make sure you get the three layers sorted: base to fit well and ideally wick moisture away, mid to keep warm and outer to resist wind, rain and abrasion.
- Make sure your layers are removable.
- Shop around and especially in outdoor clothing specialists.
- Look after your kit and keep it clean. Crusty, old demons of dirt might look cool through Instagram but cool quickly turns to cold and miserable when it rains and you Gore-tex membrane is letting water in.
- Don’t assume pockets are waterproof.
- Don’t over-dress.
“Most of my clothing choices have developed from the need to combine effective kit that can easily double up as a secondary piece of clothing. When I’m travelling with work or on an adventure I often can’t take much kit with me so everything is centred around that.
Starting with my footwear, I wear a Salomon high ankle walking boot. It’s surprisingly rigid and gives me good protection around the ankle, heel and toe areas. For me it’s perfect because when I jump off the bike I’m in a comfy, walking shoe that looks decent and that’s perfect. I wore them on Long Way Down and have kept wearing them ever since. If I was doing more challenging and risky riding I’d put a proper mx boot on but for most of the adventure riding I do, I don’t need more.
My jeans are a pair of Rev It ones. Again, they’re really casual but are Kevlar so they offer good protection if I do have an incident. I wear the built-in knee protection and they look good so I can double them up with casual clothing. I think that’s really important, it keeps my bag small and lets me be ready for any eventuality that might occur.
My jacket is made by Belstaff and is the same one Ewan and I designed for Long Way Down. It’s a great jacket, still looks casual and I really like wearing it. As with the other kit it’s a great multi-purpose jacket and I’d be happy to get off the bike and wear it to dinner if the that was needed. I use the built-in armour with the jacket and underneath I mostly just wear a tee-shirt. If it’s a bit colder I’ll start to layer up with a soft-shell or something.
When the weather gets nasty I use Arcteryx waterproofs to go over the top of the clothes. I’m not a fan of the jackets that have waterproof liners. I can’t stand when the jacket get really heavy and drenched, it’s not smart. My waterproofs are wind-proof too and do a fantastic job. They’re small, light and take seconds to put on so for me it’s the best solution.
On my hands I try to always wear a set of deer skin gloves. It sounds silly but they’re a great compromise between a thin, textile summer glove and more winter glove. I wear them everywhere. They’re thin so I’ve still got feeling on the bars but I feel like in the event of a crash they’re going to offer more protection than a textile glove. They’re not too hot because they’re thin but at the same time they keep enough wind out.
I think the helmet you choose is really important. I don’t get people who buy expensive everything and then put a cheap £100 helmet on their heads. A good helmet is worth paying for and for that reason I always use an Arai. I’m using the Tour-X4 at the moment, with a medium visor tint so I can manage in the daytime and still get away with riding at night. If it becomes too bright I then put on some sunglasses too. I think good quality sunglasses are important too, the quality of the lens makes a big difference to your vision, so I always wear Persol.
My last bit of kit is my Buff. It’s such a versatile, useful bit of kit. I’ve used it for sun protection, to keep warm, to protect my face in a sand storm and now I always carry one with me wherever I go. It’s a must have item.”