A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing the Right Motorcycle Gear

Tips for buying gear that’s right for you.

beginner gear guide
When it comes to protective gear, there are always tradeoffs. Racing leathers excel in providing the highest level of protection, but are good for little else. Enjoying a good read is difficult while one is cooking sous vide in a set of leathers.Photo: Seth Richards

Right now is a great time to get into the world of motorcycling, considering the abundance of bikes and gear from which to choose. However, when it comes to protective gear especially, the number of options can be overwhelming. Shopping for a solid pair of gloves online can be like searching for new music on Spotify: before you know it, your trail which started out with Robert Johnson has inexplicably lead to Enya and a weird mix of Ambient Chillwave. This simple guide is intended to help you navigate the gear world by getting you to ask the right questions before shelling out for a product that doesn't fit your needs. As for Spotify, you're on your own.

Beginner Gear Guide
GP Pro gloves from Alpinestars have a race-inspired aesthetic with protective features derived from lessons learned at the racetrack. In spite of their bulky appearance, they offer plenty of lever feel and flexibility on the bike. Not everyone is willing to wear gloves this technical, so there are options spanning the aesthetic and functional spectrum. The four-wheeled crowd can keep their fingerless driving gloves.Photo: Seth Richards

It has to be said right off the bat that protective gear is important. The old adage, “wear what you want to crash in, not what what you want to ride in,” holds true. Up to a point. These days there are plenty of options that are protective, functional, and stylish. The excuse of “it’s too hot to wear a jacket,” doesn’t hold up since there is a ton of protective hot weather riding gear out there. If you’re willing to drop some serious coin on a really cool jacket but still ride in plain old blue jeans and sneakers, you may want to rethink your strategy. Okay, we’ll get off our soapbox.

Determining Your Highest Priority

When we evaluate gear, we take into account factors such as value, levels of protection, style, and functionality. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a piece of gear that gets a perfect score in every category. Even if you decide you want to get all decked out, you’re going to have to decide what qualities you value most. If convenience and style are your priority, you may need to sacrifice a level of protection or functionality. For example, a stylish pair of riding denim—which are way more protective than normal jeans, by the way—are not ideal for long-distance tours where you might want waterproof material and higher levels of protection. Which brings us to the next point.

Get the Gear for Your Ride

Identifying the type of riding you’re going to do will go a long way towards helping you narrow down your choices. Do you need gear you can wear on and off the bike? What kind of weather will you be riding in? Answering these questions will help you determine what type of gear you should look for.

Beginner Gear Guide
A lot of gear made for touring uses an inner shell or membrane for water resistance. While that keeps you from getting wet, it also prevents airflow. The Expedition jacket from Aether forgoes an inner liner, using a 3-layer Japanese nylon that’s water resistant all on its own. Check out all those vents to keep things cool.Photo: Aether

Motorcycle Gear for a Material World

Abrasion resistance is the name of the game when it comes to choosing what your gear is made from. We could go on and on comparing different textiles and leathers, but let’s keep it simple. Leather is still probably the most abrasion resistant of any material, but it has its drawbacks. If you plan on commuting on a daily basis or going on long trips where you might encounter rain, leather is not a great choice. Not only will you get soaked, but the leather can transfer its dye to your skin, giving you a blue-ish Smurf tint (if your gear is black), and it can take a long time to dry. Also, even perforated leather can be a bit stifling in hot weather.

When it comes to textile, there are a lot of options. Check out this Motorcyclist article explaining the differences between common materials.

Beginner Gear Guide
The Robinson jacket, built by Vanson Leathers exclusively for Union Garage is undoubtedly stylish with its flannel lining and waxed cotton shell. Waxed cotton is pretty waterproof but it does not have the high abrasion resistance of a material like Cordura. Cleverly, the designers incorporated leather in the shoulders and elbows, common areas of impact, for added protection.Photo: Union Garage

As equally important as abrasion resistance in a piece of gear is impact protection. It’s important to look for gear that is CE-rated, which indicates how much force a given product can absorb. CE level 1 is less protective than CE level 2.

Beginner Gear Guide
This Forcefield back protector is about the size of your childhood sled (Rosebud!...), but it offers a high level of protection. Most jackets feature a pocket for a back protector that is thinner and less full-coverage than this stand-alone type.Photo: Seth Richards

You Get What You Pay For

We all want to save money where we can, but it’s important to buy gear from a reputable brand that specifically designs gear for motorcycling. Sure, a leather jacket from Joe Rocket or Dainese is likely more expensive than one you’d pick up from a mall department store, but you’re paying more for hard-earned expertise. In addition to armor, reinforced stitching, and comfort features like stretch panels and ventilation, a properly fitting bike jacket fits in a particular way that prevents material from folding or catching in a way that wears quickly or shifts armor away from the proper position in the event of a get-off.

Beginner Gear Guide
In spite of what curmudgeons at your local dive bar may say, full face helmets hardly inhibit your field of vision. Besides, a comfortable, quiet helmet that protects your face from Biblical plague-levels of bugs is a good thing—unless you’re looking for a free exfoliation treatment. When it comes to protecting your noggin, nothing beats a full-face helmet. Make sure to buy a helmet that passes safety standards such as SNELL, ECE, or DOT (indicated by a sticker on the back of the helmet).Photo: Seth Richards