Part of the thrill of riding a motorcycle is the freedom of movement and the interaction with your environment. Feeling the wind buffeting you at speed, with your feet inches away from the asphalt, and enjoying the wide-open view of your surroundings turns your daily commute into an exhilarating adventure.
Another part of the thrill is the risk involved, and the expertise required to successfully manage it. When you first take a motorcycle out on the freeway, it’s hard not to notice how exposed you are to the elements. In an automobile, you are surrounded by a ton of metal and plastic designed to keep you safe. In a crash, the car is built to bear the brunt of an accident, with seat belts and airbags to keep you and the road separate.
On a motorcycle, you’re on your own. There’s nothing between you and the asphalt, something that is painfully apparent the first time you see the road whipping by you at 70 mph. The only protection that you have is the helmet on your head and the clothes on your back.
Luckily, there is an entire industry build around beefing up your apparel to provide as much protection as possible when you ride. Motorcycle armor comes in a variety of designs, from thicker or multi-layered fabrics to hard plastic pieces of armor embedded in your clothing. We’re going to take a look at what exactly motorcycle body armor is, what different types there are, and why you should wear it when you ride.
What is Motorcycle Armor?
Aside from your helmet, motorcycle armor is the most essential piece of protective motorcycle gear you can wear. It comes in many forms from full armored suits to individual pieces of gear like gloves, jackets, or pants with armored reinforcement at crucial impact points.
The most common reinforcement points are the spine, elbows, shoulders, knees, and knuckles. Basically, any point where your body might impact the ground. This reinforcement often comes in the form of high-density foam, hard plastic, and carbon fiber, often used in tandem with abrasion-resistant materials like Kevlar.
There are two main categories of body armor. Replacement armor is any armored pad that is designed to fit inside armor pockets in motorcycle apparel. As the name suggests, these pads can be replaced. Often people upgrade the stock armor that comes with the apparel in favor of more protective aftermarket padding.
Strap-on armor consists of armored pads that are strapped directly to your body. These usually come in the form of knee or elbow pads that you’d strap on over your clothing.
In the event of a crash, motorcycle body armor serves two main purposes: it protects you from impact with the road and abrasion as you roll or slide along the asphalt. The armor itself is intended to protect your bones from impact by absorbing energy that would otherwise be transferred to you.
Tougher fabrics like Kevlar are designed to protect your skin from abrasion as you slide to a stop and are made to help bolster the protective effect of body armor. If you’re questioning whether abrasion resistance is important, feel free to do a Google search of “road rash.” Just make sure to do it on an empty stomach.
Motorcycle Armor Fabrics Explained
Those old-school leather or denim jackets may provide some protection from sliding out at slower speeds, but they are barely better than nothing if you get into a crash. Since the Easy Rider days, manufacturers have developed materials that provide much better protection against abrasion without sacrificing mobility.
One of the more common materials, Cordura is made using a high-denier nylon thread in a tight, dense weave to provide excellent tear resistance. First introduced in World War II to help protect aircraft personnel from shrapnel and other ballistic impacts, it is now often blended with materials like lycra for extra mobility and layered with waterproof materials like GORE-TEX to add weather resistance.
You might recognize this material from its use as in bulletproof vests, which should give you an indication of how tough it is. Developed in 1965, the material was first used in the ’70s as a replacement for steel in racing tires. Regarding its strength-to-weight ratio, Kevlar is five times stronger than steel. And thanks to its malleable nature and ability to be woven with other materials, it is often used in motorcycle protective gear. It is often combined with denim to create more durable, abrasion-resistant motorcycle jeans. These are useful for riders who want more protection while keeping a low profile.
This is a newer material, and it consists of a fabric, like nylon or polyester, that is overlaid with minuscule hard plastic guard plates. These plates add cut and abrasion resistance, but the tiny amount of space between plates allows for a degree of breathability and flexibility. That flexibility results in garments that are highly protective, yet comfortable to wear.
Types of Shell Armor Materials
To absorb impact forces, armor has to be much more impact-resistant than abrasion-resistant fabrics. Therefore, armor is denser and cannot be blended with or woven into a fabric. These pieces are generally inserted or sewn into specific pockets in motorcycle apparel or strapped directly to the body, similar to knee or elbow pads.
Short for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, ABS is a thermoplastic polymer used for injection molding. Put simply, ABS is hard, impact-resistant plastic. It often makes up the first layer of protection in many helmets and hard-shell pieces of armor. In armor, it is often backed with dense foam. Not only does this foam add more cushion when impacted, but it also is much more comfortable against the body than hard plastic.
Odds are that you’re already familiar with foam in one way or another. Heavier, denser foams like memory foam are highly effective at soaking up impact forces. It is lightweight, pliable, and comfortable when you wear it. Unfortunately, it is also prone to breaking down after impact and over time. Due to its low abrasion resistance, it is often paired with a harder material for added durability, as we mentioned above.
Silicone is a gel-based material that is also excellent at absorbing impact, and its flexibility makes it comfortable when worn against the body. However, it is heavy, and its lack of abrasion resistance means it is usually paired with another type of armor like injection-molded plastic.
Many companies have been leaning towards viscoelastic materials for use in their armor. Unlike ABS, which is constantly firm and rigid, viscoelastic materials like D30 are softer and pliable when at rest, but get firm instantly when struck. That means it’s comfortable and soft against the skin when at rest, but it will become hard and rigid in a crash. It sounds unbelievable, but we’ve actually tested this by having one writer place a thin piece on his knee and whacking it with a hammer. Besides the requisite spike in blood pressure, our writer walked away unscathed.
EVA is another type of foam, but its impact absorption and durability make it highly regarded not only in motorcycle armor but also as a common element in running shoe insoles. Its ability to withstand hard impacts makes it an ideal armor material, but it requires a good amount of volume to be effective.
Types of Body Armor
Back armor generally comes in the form of a protective pad that covers the back of your torso. This padding can be integrated into a jacket or shirt or can be strapped on separately and worn under your outer layer.
Much of the back protector’s priority goes towards protecting the spine as well as the posterior rib cage. The ribs are especially susceptible to breaking during impact, so look for back armor that extends from the spine to cover as much of the rib cage as possible. These pieces of armor are easy to spot: they tend to look like a cobra with its hood flared.
Because it combines pliability and impact protection, viscoelastic materials are a great choice for back armor. The pliability of materials like D3O makes it comfortable and offers a wide range of motion, but its rigidity when impacted is highly effective in keeping you safe during a crash.
To keep your knees safe, knee armor is positioned with the upper section of the pad directly over the knee joint. It is cupped to wrap around your knee to offer additional protection on the sides. This is often a flatter section extending down over the top of your shins. It should fit over your knees like a second skin, adjusting and flexing as you move your leg.
The best materials for this type of armor then are a more mobile one like EVA foam or viscoelastic material. Foam-backed ABS will also work. Ideally, knee armor will be perforated to allow airflow.
Elbow armor cups around the elbow joint to protect the elbow from impact during a crash. The best elbow pads not only cover the outer elbow but also wrap around the joint and extend slightly past and below the elbow as well.
Your arms move around quite a bit (especially if you’re pinwheeling off of your bike), so good elbow armor will follow the movement of the arm without slipping up and down or to either side. The best elbow armor also will expand and flex with your arm as you move. This means a viscoelastic polymer or EVA foam works well, as would foam-backed plastic.
This usually features a deep cup to wrap around the shoulders to protect the joint. Generally, the deepest cupped area will be right over the shoulder joint, with the armor tapering toward the neck. Since shoulders come in many different shapes and sizes, the best shoulder armor will conform and adapt to fit your shoulders. So, look for a semi-rigid or pliable material like foam, silicone, or viscoelastic material. It doesn’t need to be as pliable as elbow and knee armor, but it should be able to adapt to different sizes. It should fit in such a way to still cover the shoulder even when your arms are raised.
Positioned against the front of your upper torso, chest armor can be found in either one piece or as two separate pieces. One-piece chest armor is exactly what it sounds like — one armored pad that covers your chest and protects it from impact. Two-piece chest armor comes in two separate pieces that cover the right and left sides of your chest.
Generally, two-piece chest armor is more comfortable, as it allows for more movement. However, one-piece chest armor is useful for off-road riders, and it is more effective at preventing puncture injuries from broken branches and other sharp objects.
When shopping for chest armor, look for armor that extends to protect the rib cage as well. Also, look for perforated armor, which will allow airflow and help prevent overheating.
Hip armor provides much-needed coverage in case of an accident. This type of armor usually comes in either rectangular or curved shapes. Though hip armor doesn’t require as much flexibility as other joint armor, it generally is made of viscoelastic material or foam for added comfort. When worn, it should cover your hip and be fairly thick to protect against impact. Hip impacts at any speed can be debilitating. Shoot for a thicker pad to help you walk away from an accident.
While this fits more in the glove category, hand armor is worth a mention. Many gloves feature reinforcement in the form of ABS or Kevlar on top of the knuckles and fingers to protect your hands from any road debris that may fly up and provide extra padding to keep your skin intact in case of a fall.
Forms of Armor
The lightest form of armor is reinforced clothing. Kevlar-infused jeans, Cordura jackets, and the like will help prevent abrasion during a slide. But the lack of integrated armor and padding means that they’ll do little to protect you from any major impact. Reinforced clothing is favored among people who want to keep a casual aesthetic while they ride. If you prefer to hide your armor, consider sizing up on your apparel which would allow you to wear low-profile armor underneath.
Strap-on armor is another option if you don’t want to buy armor-specific clothing. Strap-on armor, like knee and elbow pads, can be strapped directly to your body, either over or under your clothes to help protect you during a crash.
Another option for people who don’t want to wear their armor on the outside is underlayer armor. These pieces resemble base layers with pockets that hold body armor. Alternatively, they can also come with the armor permanently attached. These can come in the form of tops, which can hold elbow, shoulder, back, and chest armor, and bottoms that hold knee and hip armor. You can also get a full-body suit, which is basically a onesie that combines the top and bottom. These layers will ideally provide a snug fit and are effective at keeping the body armor in the right spot.
Many companies also offer armored clothing that looks like everyday wear, only with more durable materials and pockets designed to hold armor. These clothes often come with removable armor, so that you can insert the padding when you ride and take it out when you just want to casually wear the clothes.
Removable pads are also useful if you want to upgrade your padding to stronger or more comfortable aftermarket armor. You can find shirts and jackets with pockets for back, chest, shoulder, and elbow padding, as well as pants with spaces for hip and knee armor.
One big caveat with armored clothing is that the armor may not always be top quality, so you may want to take the option mentioned above and upgrade your armor. Also, looser-fitting apparel like jackets may not keep the armor in exactly the right location. This can be a big issue with elbow pads, as sleeves tend to run a bit on the looser side.
Motorcycle Armor Ratings Explained
The current standard for motorcycle armor is the EN (European Norm) or CE (Conformite Europeene, or European Conformity) rating system. These ratings are used for European motorcycle safety standards. The U.S. has unofficially adopted these standards, but as of now, they’re only required in track racing.
This indicates that the manufacturer tested the garment in their own facilities. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it was tested in a CE-certified testing facility to meet standards.
This states that a sample of the garment was tested in a certified testing facility. It doesn’t mean that every aspect of the garment was tested.
The most reputable of the three, it means that several parts of the garment were tested in a certified facility and passed the required standards.
CE Level 1 vs. CE Level 2
Of the two levels of protection, CE Level 1 means the armor has passed the impact protection test, allowing less than 18 kN of force to transmit. CE Level 2 means that the armor has allowed less than 9 kN of force to transfer during testing.
In previous eras, CE Level 1 was favored for street riding, while CE Level 2 was used in racing where crashes were more likely. This was due to the inherent bulkiness and weight in the more protective garments.
Current technology has allowed protective materials to drop in weight and size, however, and present-day CE Level 2 armor is as practical and comfortable to wear as CE Level 1. So unless your focus is on the lightest armor possible at the expense of added protection, opt for CE Level 2 armor.
Type A and Type B Armor
Type A and B refer to the size of the armor, and how much area it covers. Type A is smaller, and Type B is bigger. The difference can be negligible, but when given the choice, it makes sense to go with more coverage rather than less.
T+ and T-
These ratings refer to extreme temperature conditions. Armor that has passed tests in heat up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit is certified as T+. Armor that has passed tests at 14 degrees Fahrenheit are rated T-. Though this rating is a plus, it isn’t an issue worth considering unless you frequently ride in such extreme conditions.
Is Motorcycle Body Armor Really Necessary?
Motorcycle body armor is a highly effective way to reduce the risk of injury during a motorcycle accident. In the event of a crash, riders who wear protective gear are 40% less likely to suffer permanent physical disabilities. Of course, the hope is that you’ll never need it, but if you ever crash, protective gear above and beyond your helmet will greatly increase the likelihood of walking away from a crash.
While it may seem uncomfortable or inconvenient to wear additional protection, it’s far less convenient to suffer severe injury or worse. And with technological improvements creating lighter, more pliable, and more breathable armor, there’s no reason to forgo taking the extra precaution.