Gimme 10: Essential Kit for Off-Road Riding
Whether you are a newbie to motorcycling or a seasoned veteran, the kit you wear on your bike matters. Aside from a taxi in Alepo, you’ve picked the most dangerous form of transport on the planet, so it pays to spend a bit of time thinking about what you put on before slinging a leg over the saddle.
But the kit you need when you go off-roading isn’t quite the same as your regular motorcycling clothing – there’s all kinds of padding and protection to consider and what exactly you might need is rarely covered in bike magazines.
So in an effort to assist, we’ve compiled our top ten list of the kit essentials that you need when you take your mo’cycle off the blacktop and onto the dirt.
So first up, it’s got to be the helmet. Even in countries that helmets are not mandatory, a basic risk assessment of riding motorcycles will lead you to the conclusion that a helmet makes sense. Injuries to the rest of our bodies may well heal, but head injuries rarely do, so it makes sense to put more thought into this purchase than anything else. It matters.
In terms of price, there’s a massive range but do you really want to trust your mental health to something that cost less than a tank of petrol. Yes there may be a CE sticker or equivalent on the thing, but if you’ve never heard of the brand and it’s ridiculously cheap then you really have to question your priorities if you are still reaching for the wallet.
Our advice would be to properly research the subject before you buy – don’t assume that your normal road helmet will work in an off-road setting because it won’t. Aim for the best you can afford and try to keep to mainstream established brands rather than unknowns from somewhere in the far east. In terms of testing, the UK government run SHARP scheme gives a rating to most road based models, but falls short on the off-road side of things so you may need to head for magazine and website reviews.
You really need to try them on before purchase as the padding inside each model and brand will vary, so if your head is not a compatible shape, don’t buy and hope the helmet will change – it will not.
In terms of shell type, full-face models will always offer more protection but flip fronts with the ‘P’ rating should be almost as strong. For pure off road / enduro, an off-road helmet is going to be the best as it will allow good airflow and ventilation, a good peak to keep out sun and mud, and a wide aperture to allow goggles to sit well.
For light trail use and adventure motorcycling, the dual purpose helmets with a smaller peak and a visor will suffice, but be aware as soon as the going gets tough, that visor will mist up stupidly quickly. Again we’d favour full-face or flip front rather than open face. Trial style helmets might seem great and really good on weight and visibility, but this lasts only until you faceplant into a rock step …
Oh and remember – a helmet is not for life! The cheaper you buy. the more often you will need to change, so only around two to three years on a cheap helmet. Mid price versions should last double that and top end versions more, but it will depend on how much riding you do.
Whatever the helmet, if you fall of and hit your head hard, it’s time to retire it. It’s done its job, so buy another and be happy.
OK so what you wear to protect your eyes will very much depend on the helmet you have chosen – goggles for off-road and visors for adventure / dual sport helmets. As with helmets. protecting your eyes is real important as they don’t respond well to damage. Get a loose stone flip up into your iris and you might well lose the sight in your eye, so protecting them should be a priority.
For goggles, there are myriads of options our there and undoutedly the top end brands are very nice bits of kit, but as to whether they are really worth the money – that’s more debatable, especially when they are north of $100…
But as a baseline, they need to be comfortable, have nice wide foam padding to absorb sweat and sit well on your face, and they need to fit the aperture of your helmet, so take it along when you are buying or trying.
In terms of the lenses, there are lots of options from clear to dark, tinted to mirrored, sand to enduro – there are even ‘Happy Lenses’ as above that claim to influence your mood! . It pays to have options in terms of the lenses or ideally a few different pairs to cope with different conditions. We favour tinted as it reduces glare and certain tints increase definition so they work well for line selection.
For visors, the options are more limited and often disproportionately expensive – we’re talking £75 for a different visor on a £200 helmet – go figure! Many helmets now have the internal dark visor which is a great addition and avoids having to carry a tinted one in your back pack.
Goggles or visors tend to be shatterproof, sunglasses however are not necessarily the same so be wary of riding with anything in front of your eyes that may shatter into a million pieces on impact.
Some off-road riders swear by safety glasses as they allow good air flow and have the shatterproof qualities you want in any eyewear.
As the part of your body closest to the ground, your feet are particularly vulnerable. Speak to an Accident and Emergency doctor and they’ll probably tell you that foot and head injuries are the most common for road motorcycles, yet many riders overlook basic protection to their feet.
Any boots you wear on a bike whether on or off-road should be bike boots, designed for that purpose only. Steel toe-cap work boots, rigger boots, ex-army boots, wellies – these are all a no-no – believe us. A proper bike boot will have a strong sole – particularly for off-road use – decent ankle protection that comes up the shin to prevent the ankle rolling over in a crash. They should have buckles, straps of zips but not laces that can catch in chains and round gear changes, brakes and kickstarts.
Modern off-road boots are more akin to ski boots, with massive protection to cushion out impacts and hold your feet secure. They ain’t cheap though at around £300 – 400 for the top end brands, but when you put them on you exactly know why you’ve made that investment. Some people don’t like this rigid feel for trail riding, so may head for the more flexible adventure boot which usually have more leather and less plastic but still similar levels of support and protection.
Pick the boot that works for your style of riding.
SUIT OF ARMOUR
The decision as to whether to invest in body armour should not be a difficult one. If you are road riding or adventure riding, then the padding in conventional bike jackets tend to be the extent most riders will go. And while that’s of if it’s tarmac only, once you start spending significant time off-road, then you might wish to upgrade from the simple elbows and shoulder pads that came with your jacket.
For off-road riding or serious adventure riding, then looking towards the padded shirt or body suit options makes sense. Yes OK it might get you a bit hot and those US Supercross riders don’t wear any, but none of that matters. You will fall off at some point and it will hurt substantially less if you protect yourself – simple.
Aim for something that has shoulder and spine protection, and particularly look for good elbow protection. Most of the nerves to your hands pass through the ulnar nerve which is exposed at your elbow, so get a big hit here and it’s entirely possible that you will lose sensation and control in your hand. Enough to convince you to wear elbow pads? It should be.
For off-road or trail riding, we favour the body suit under a race shirt and a plastic roost and back protector. In cold conditions a jacket without padding over the top. In warm conditions, you can ditch the race shirt. Simple.
As important as protecting your elbows, preventing damage and injury to your knees comes pretty high up in our book, As the pointy bits of our body closest to the dirt, them knees are very vulnerable. Road riders often overlook this and ride without any protection but this is not smart, and for off-road or adventure riders then it’s plain madness.
Although some riding trousers do have integral padding over the knees, this is rarely enough to protect a vital joint in your body. At the very least you need good quality knee pads, and at the upper end you can go for all-encompassing knee braces. Which you go for is dependant on your assessment of risk, but few trail riders head down the brace route. That said, people often start wearing braces after they’ve snapped their ACL ligament …
So this is a tricky one. Do you need to wear a neck brace?
It kind of depends on your style of riding and inevitably your attitude to risk. If you are going to be riding with the throttle against the stop through Moroccan piste or in the Australian Outback them we’d be inclined to say yes straight away. But for a gentle road ride with small elements of fire roads and dirt tracks, then reaching for the Leatt would seem a disproportionate response.
But away from these extremes, there’s a vast grey area where most of the time a neck brace would seems unnecessary, that is until you have a nasty off. They might be mandatory if you are going to ride the Dakar, but you need to make the call as to whether you need a brace for your chosen riding. If you do decide that you want to invest in a neck brace it’s a sensible option, try a few different versions, making sure they work with the kit you will also be wearing, so take it along when you are looking to buy. Leatt, Alpinestars, EVS and others make braces and the designs vary a fair amount. You can even get body armour with integral brace, so that might kill two birds.
We wear a Leatt when we race enduro or any extreme riding where speeds may be high, otherwise we go without.
For more information, check out our blog on neck braces here
As a motorcyclist, you’ve probably a motley selection of gloves from the last twenty years stashed somewhere in the garage. But as new gloves can be found from around £25 then relying on ageing kit isn’t really necessary.
Modern off-road and motocross gloves have headed down a route of offering fantastic feel, but little or no protection from abrasion – see image below. While this might be fine in the mud, it’s not so goo when the going gets gravelly and stony. Summer weight road gloves however do make good off-road gloves in these circumstances, and as they tend to be leather, offer a bit more protection from the cold. For adventure riders, then many of the brands like Touratech make specific gloves, as below.
For winter riding, always wear inner gloves they prevent the lining inverting when you remove your gloves, they stop the gloves becoming smelly as you can wash the inners far easier than the outers, and again offer a bit of extra warmth.
With the list of kit we’ve just gone through, it might seem strange that we are suggesting you need even more layers. Surely you are going to burn up as soon as the going gets even remotely hard.
And although that might be true if you are looking to dig out an ancient pair of long-johns that your dad used to wear, it certainly is not the case for technical base layers. Materials technology has certainly moved on from the days of wearing a grubby ‘wife-beater’ vest under your riding kit, so modern base layers are now made to be effective at keeping you warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather. Worn next to your skin they will also prevent any body armour of knee pads / braces from rubbing the skin off as you ride. If that weren’t enough, they also give you quite a sleek profile – bonus!
It seems strange picking out one set on internal organs for special protection, but anyone who’s had kidney problems will tell you just how much those little swines can hurt. Kidney belts have faded from the kit list over the years, probably because suspension has got better and hence your kidneys don’t get quite so shaken around. Yet on long journeys and particularly on rough terrain, bracing in your midriff still makes a lot of sense, as it offers stability for your kidneys and support for the lumbar region of your spine.
As with the neck braces, you can get body armour that includes a kidney belt at the base, or you can go for separate versions as above. We favour this type and usually wear it quite low as more of a lower back protector than kidney belt. If you haven’t ever worn one – give it a try. We reckon you’ll never ride without one again!
The last piece to our kit jigsaw isn’t technically an item of clothing, but nonetheless is pretty damn important. Proper hydration while you ride is essential for all riders, and if you are the kind of rider that thinks nothing of taking on an eight hour stint in the saddle, then taking on regular fluids should be foremost in your mind.
And it’s no good thinking that you’ll stop to drink when you are thirsty, because by that time you are already dehydrated. From professional riders like Husqvarna’s Graham Jarvis to the weekend warriors out on the lanes, riding with a drinks reservoir or camel-back allows you to drink regularly and maintain proper fluid balance in your body.
What you put in it can vary from isotonic drinks that maintain your electrolytes and sugar levels to simple water or squash. The water is the most important bit, the rest is down to the extremity of the event or personal taste. For the Brits out there, tea doesn’t work particularly well after the first hour …
OK so that’s our kit list done. If you buy well and avoid the no-name bargains then all of it should last well and provide you with the protection you need without feeling too restrictive when you are riding.
Protection is definitely something that it is better to have and not need, than need and not have.