If you are the sort of tourer who spends eight or ten hours a day in the saddle, every day, descending only to eat, sleep, refuel and answer calls of nature, the kind of clothes you will need will be very different from the ones that will suit those who like to mix their touring with wandering about on foot in historic towns and villages, climbing hills for the view, and generally spending as much time off the motorcycle as on it.
The former can be perfectly happy in racing leathers, which offer wonderful protection and demand minimal maintenance. The latter should remember that what works best on a motorcycle can often prove hot, heavy and uncomfortable when you get off and walk.
Perhaps the most important item of clothing is a good pair of boots. There is a hard surface whizzing by, just below your toes; your feet are the part of you that contacts the road most often; you can burn yourself on hot exhausts; cold, wet feet are a misery; kickstarts bite; and unprotected (or inadequately protected) feet are easily squashed, crushed and nipped by errant motorcycles.
Of course you can ride in bare feet. Many riders try it at least once, just to see what it is like. You can also ride in flip-flops (thongs, zorii) or even Scholl sandals. But at the very least, it is a good idea to wear a reasonably solid pair of leather boots or leather shoes. Most trainers are just too flexible and flimsy.
If you can get them, boots with 'breathable' linings are the most comfortable. These are the linings that exclude liquid water, but allow water vapour to escape. Surprisingly few purpose-made motorcycle boots are so equipped, but a good boot store or outdoor store may be able to help.
For years, until they wore out irreparably, I wore a pair of Gore-Tex lined Wellington-style leather boots that I bought in California. Today I wear Gore-Tex lined walking books: big and awkward, but warm, dry, and as comfortable for walking as for riding.
Frances has a considerable problem finding good boots because her feet are so small (size 4 British, 5-1/2 American, 37 European). They are also wide, which makes life still more difficult. Again, outdoor stores are a better bet than motorcycle shops.
Unexpectedly, heavy boots are nothing like as unpleasant as you might expect in a hot climate -- though it may well be worth carrying a pair of sandals as well as your riding boots, to give your feet a rest (or at least a change) and for coolness in the evening.
Two pairs of socks can add warmth and make it easier if you need to walk long distances, but quite honestly, with boots that fit properly, one pair of socks should be enough.
Working upwards from the boots, although leathers are ideal for protection and warmth (and look good, if you like that sort of thing) they are expensive and not everyone finds them comfortable. Heavy jeans are probably the most practical compromise.
We all have a weakness for proper, button-fly, shrink-to-fit, non-pre-washed Levis 501s, but these are getting ever harder to find and the quality does not seem to be what it was. In our younger days we have all worn grooves in 501s when falling off, without the fabric going through or ripping. 'Cargo' trousers, with extra pockets on the legs, can snag on things even when you don't fall off.
Another possibility, rather expensive but very comfortable and offering surprisingly good protection, is 'moleskin', a thick, heavy, soft brushed cotton that is more popular in Germany and Switzerland than the UK despite being the traditional material for countrymen's trousers. Go to county fairs and the like in the UK to find moleskins.
We have yet to find a better approach to waterproof overtrousers than regarding them as consumables. The more you pay, the longer they last, and (if they are of heavy enough nylon) the more protection they give if you fall off. But if you keep them long enough, you have to re-proof them eventually, and regardless of whether you do or not, they seem to leak more and more as they get older.
Thinner, lighter overtrousers are at least as waterproof when new, and are much easier to carry when you are not wearing them: which will, God willing, be most of the time. They are also cheap enough to replace them every season (or more often, or less often, depending on how much riding you do).
At the most basic, a cotton T-shirt shields passers-by from the alarming sight of your naked torso. We have always found pure cotton to be infinitely superior to polyester-cotton mixes: warmer in winter, as an undergarment, and cooler in summer.
On top of this, cotton or silk is again superior to the vast majority of synthetics. Tibetan shirts are amazingly good: the best ones I ever had were a cotton-silk mix. You can find them in Tibetan settlements in India; in Tibetan shops in a number of countries; and sometimes in 'head shops' catering to ageing and wannabee hippies.
In really hot weather, a loose, long-sleeved shirt can actually seem cooler than a T-shirt -- the sleeves flap around your arms, rather than the sun beating directly on them -- and it protects you from sunburn as well. Wear it with or without the T-shirt underneath, as you feel inclined.
Some synthetic fabrics are allegedly very good at 'wicking' moisture away from your skin, but they seem to overload easily: push the bike for a few yards, or just stop for a break on a hot day, and they go very clammy, very quickly, before they dry out again. If you believe in these fabrics, you will often do better to wear cotton underneath, to get the benefit of both materials.
If you can stand wool next to your skin, this is excellent both in hot weather (the air blows through relatively loose knits) and in cold weather (when protected by a windproof outer layer, wool traps warm air next to your skin, even when wet).
A light suede jacket-style shirt affords excellent protection and is a reasonable compromise between a shirt and a jacket in weather that is neither too hot nor too cold. Frances is particularly fond of heavy cotton shirt-jackets.
Purpose-made motorcycle jackets have always struck us as absurdly expensive and not necessarily particularly well-suited to their purpose. For serious waterproofing, we have always found yachting jackets (available anywhere there are sailing stores) to be at least as effective, and because they are are of very heavy nylon, they afford pretty good falling-off protection as well. In the days when I used to wear a suit to work, I found I could put an Henri Lloyd jacket over the suit, ride 100 miles (160 km) in pouring rain, and still arrive with no more than one lapel of the suit slightly damp. I've had three Henri Lloyd jackets in the 25 years since: they're tough. You can see why Henri Lloyd is one of the best-known names in yachting clothing. [Possible link to Henri Lloyd site?]
For maximum protection when you fall off, it's hard to beat purpose-made motorcycle jackets with armour, but we find these too hot and heavy for touring.
In good weather, we normally wear good-quality jackets from outdoors stores or (once again) yachting stores. A showerproof jacket, preferably lined with Goretex or a similar 'breathable' membrane, can be warm enough in most dry weather and light enough that you can take it off and carry it behind the pillion when it gets hot. If it does get wet, it will dry very quickly, either while you are wearing it (in warm weather) or hung up in your hotel room that night.
In fair weather, I habitually wear a light, windproof, showerproof 'breathable' jacket (Gill) with a very light fully waterproof overjacket that I put on only when it rains. Frances prefers a 'system' jacket with a nylon 'breathable' outer and a 'fleece' (synthetic) inner. She can then wear both together, or either, depending on the weather.
Especially on a rainy day, a scarf makes a very comforting seal around the neck of a jacket. A towelling scarf, available from any yachting store, is ideal. They take a very long time to soak through, and unexpectedly, even when they are wet, they are still warm. You can wipe your face with them, too. Traditionalists may prefer to use a large, new, well-washed baby's nappy (diaper). In the summer, a cotton bandanna may be old-fashioned, but it is very useful.
In cold weather, top-quality Gore-Tex lined leather gloves (or very high quality synthetics) keep your hands warm and dry, which is a boon. In warm weather, light gloves protect you against road-rash if you fall off, though this is a matter of personal choice. Purpose-made motorcycle gloves are less likely to have awkward seams than non-motorcycling gloves. For pillions, sheepskin mittens -- all the fingers together, plus a thumb -- are warmer than gloves.
People with small hands (Frances again) may have to search far and wide in order to find gloves that are small enough. Look in 'bargain bins' whenever you can: occasionally, there are incredible bargains in very small sizes: $45 gloves for $5, that sort of thing.
If your motorcycle's alternator delivers enough power, you can buy complete suits of electrically heated clothes: gloves, vests, jackets, socks, even trousers. Because we normally tour two-up, we restrict ourselves to electric jackets. Each one consumes about 80 Watts (memorably described by a physicist friend as 'about the same as a cuddle') and together with the other electrical demands of the machine this is about as much as a 300 Watt alternator can be expected to provide.
For years we resisted these: what, after all, would happen if they stopped working? Then we realized: we are extremely unlikely to be so far from civilization that we run a serious risk of freezing to death, so why worry? Since then, we have become utterly and totally converted.
It is worth remembering that electrically heated clothing should be worn as close to the skin as possible, and that it should be as tight as it can comfortably be. The best sequence is a T-shirt, a thin cotton shirt, electric jacket, insulating layer (fleece, light jacket, whatever), and a waterproof layer.
Cotton is more comfortable than synthetics, in hot weather and cold, and unless you are wedded to massive underpants (boxer shorts are worst of all) you will do best to wear the briefest briefs you are comfortable with: extra, clean pairs (and dirty pairs awaiting laundering) take up less room that way.
'Sports' bras may be more comfortable than the regular variety, especially if you are touring on rough roads. Often, too, they are lighter and roll up smaller.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
Go to the Home Page
or support the site with a small donation.
last updated: 24/11/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks