When you’re faced with buying helmets, gloves, jackets, and all the rest, you’ll come across a whole host of different words for all the materials they use to make all this stuff these days. It can be pretty confusing, so I’ve decided to list and briefly describe some of the stuff you’re likely to see on labels and product descriptions here.

Cow or Cotton?

If you want to start a fight on a motorcycling forum just ask people whether they think that cowhide leather is better than modern, man-made materials. There are vocal supporters of both leather and synthetic stuff out there.

The truth is that different materials work for different purposes. Leather remains an excellent material to protect you against abrasion, but it has many downsides. It’s heavy, it can take a long time to become comfortable, and it doesn’t really breathe.

Of course, leather itself has been improved a lot since bikers began using it in the early days of motorcycling. It gets treated, cut, and woven in ways that make it better at its job. Few people can honestly argue that leather isn’t still an excellent remedy against road rash. I mean, it’s not as if any professional race riders are using synthetic suits. It’s race leathers all the way.

Textile-phile

Most of us are not, however, racing around at 200 miles per hour inches from an accident all the time. So other things that leather doesn’t do as well come into play. After all, racers only spend 90 minutes on the track and even then they have water humps built in.

If you plan on riding cross-country or have daily commutes in traffic, comfort becomes a very important factor. At some point you’ll probably be caught in the rain as well, and I for one would prefer not to be wearing racing leathers when that happens.

Modern textiles have come a long way towards providing great abrasion resistance to us regular joes and janes, while also being more comfortable, providing easier movement, and keeping us dry. There are, however, many different textiles you’ll encounter when shopping for protective gear. There are different materials, different weaves and, confusingly, lots of different trademark names for them all. You’ll see names like Cordura, GoreTex and Kevlar. All of these have different purposes and different properties. So be sure to research them rather than just assuming something is properly protected.

Oh, remember when I mentioned that bikers don’t get airbags? Well, that’s not strictly true. In the last few years there have been a couple of jackets with airbags in them; these get deployed when an impact happens and you get thrown off your bike. They aren’t really mainstream and maybe they never will be, but it is sort of cool and does seem to provide even more protection than conventional protective gear.

Armor

Road rash isn’t the only thing that you have to worry about and that’s one of the main reasons a pure leather or textile solution isn’t enough by itself. If you take a fall the wrong way your body may experience a hard impact that can rupture organs and break bones.

This is obviously not a desirable situation so, in the absence of crumple zones and airbags, protective gear makes use of armor. Now, it’s not economical or practical to armor the entire thing, so armor is placed on parts of the body that we know are most likely to take a hit during a crash or fall. Usually this includes the hips, knees, back, shoulders, and elbows. Obviously, other parts are taken care of by the boots, gloves, and helmet.

Armor can be made from a variety of materials, but its purpose is always to absorb and spread the impact away from its concentration point to prevent or reduce injury. These armor panels are often made from special polymers, high density foam, carbon fiber, and even titanium. Obviously, as a general rule, the more you pay the more protection you get.

Dressing the Part

There is no such thing as a perfect material and certainly no such thing as a garment that will make you impervious to harm. Companies continue to improve on their designs and as materials science improves I bet we’ll still see some incredible advancements in this field – reducing the bulk of gear while maintaining or improving the protection factor.

The most important thing for you to do is research the gear that you are looking at first, before putting your life in its care. Find out what tests were done on the garment, what certification it has, and what the special properties of the different materials are. Please just don’t go out wearing nothing but a regular leather jacket and some jeans like some guy from Easy Rider. That’s just asking for trouble.