Motorcycles and summer go together like ice cream and apple pie. Vacation time, the long hours of daylight, the warm evenings, the inviting weather—even non-riders pester you to take them out as passengers. And who can blame them?
You don’t need special tires or a different bike to ride during the summer, but paying some special attention to what you wear can make a big difference in how much you’re going to enjoy every rider’s favorite season.
And simply wearing that gear is the most important point. In summer, folks are tempted to jump on their bikes in shorts and a T-shirt. That’s a big mistake. Summer riding gear has the same three requirements as the riding gear you wear in any other season: It needs to offer protection in case of a crash; offer protection from the elements; and make your riding experience more comfortable. And of course it can only do that if you’re wearing it in the first place.
Here’s the good news: In the last 20 years some really excellent summer-riding gear has become available, and it’s easier to find than ever. It looks good and offers great comfort and substantial protection. Riders used to spend hours with a leather punch and a hammer perforating their jackets or racing suits to let more air in. With the advent of better textile riding garments using structural armor in key locations, you no longer have to choose between riding cool and riding protected.
Let’s start at the top: your helmet. There’s no reason why your summer helmet and winter helmet can’t be one in the same, especially if you’ve chosen a good full-face design with adequate venting. That last point is key: better helmets feature venting that really works, channeling air from the front through the helmet to exhaust out the rear, taking heat and sweat with it. The vents close off in winter or on a cool evening with a flick of the finger. They’re small, quiet, and unobtrusive. Many full-face helmets also have a faceshield feature that lets you ride with the shield slightly “cracked” open, increasing ventilation and airflow while still offering necessary eye protection.
Open-face helmets are also options, but ironically few of these offer the sophisticated venting of the full-face designs. Still, around town where stop-and-go traffic means there’s little air flowing through a vent, many riders pick an open-face design. A good alternative is a modular design—one that allows you to flip-up the mandible section with the face shield when you’re stopped in traffic for maximum airflow.
Next, your jacket. The iconic, tight-fitting padded black-leather jacket will have you basting in your own juices like a supermarket rotisserie chicken. Textile jackets with zippered vents in the chest, arms and back area are a much better choice. Another option is a jacket made out of heavy nylon mesh, or a combination of mesh, fabric, and leather. To really offer the protection of a good conventional jacket, these vented mesh jackets need armor in at least the elbows and shoulders, so look for that if you are considering a mesh design. A design with a zip-out liner adds insulation in the evenings or if the weather turns cold, and some even offer zip-in rain liners.
It may be tempting to ride without gloves, but that’s another mistake. Abandoning any piece of safety equipment is an unnecessary risk, especially when there are plenty of good options available. Leather gloves with vented backs are an old standby. Hybrid gloves with fabric backs and leather or synthetic leather palms are another choice. And of course, many of the better gloves approach the solution the same way as the jackets do: by using lightweight or mesh construction in non-critical areas and adding hard armor in the knuckles or heel of the palm.
Textile riding pants or jeans with Kevlar-reinforced knees and backside are a popular summer option. Even leather pants have come a long way with the addition of spandex panels behind the knees, inside the thighs, and on the back of the calves, all adding ventilation without compromising protection.
With footwear, you still need a solid sole with good traction, ankle support, and abrasion protection. Leather is still the best choice, although summer riders often chooser shorter six- or eight-inch-high boots. A number of manufacturers make vented boots that offer all the protection of non-perforated boots but much better ventilation. Fabric-and-leather low-cut hiking boots from an outdoor store may not look like they were designed for motorcycle riders, but they offer a high degree of function; many models also have linings that wick away sweat.
Off-road riders have some special needs but, if anything, they have it better in terms of gear selection. First, almost all modern off-road clothing is synthetic and relatively light. Combining a jacket with zip-off sleeves along with a long-sleeved jersey and a chest protector gives you good protection and great airflow.
Some other thoughts: When we talk about protection, motorcyclists are generally talking about abrasion and impact protection. But our clothing needs to provide more. Riding through Death Valley in August or September is like having someone aim a thousand blow driers at you, all set on high. Your clothing needs to protect from sunburn and windburn as well—another reason why the shorts-and-T-shirt ensemble is a bad choice. Old desert rats know that you need to cover up—exposed skin burns, heats you up, and leads to dehydration though excessive evaporation.
While you’re at it, there are a few active cooling strategies you can employ. That bandanna? Wet it down with water at gas- or bathroom stops. Some riders in really brutal conditions will even take convenience-store ice and pack it into a couple of jacket pockets—it can keep you cold, and as it melts the water evaporates and carries off even more heat.
A wide-mouth hydration bladder can do the same thing if you fill it with ice and water and wear it next to your spine. And there’s the added benefit of being able to stay hydrated without having to stop and take off your helmet to grab a drink. A number of companies also make liquid-cooled undershirts that can be effective in keeping your core temperature from escalating.
Some final thoughts: Sunscreen for your face is needed even behind a faceshield, and especially if you’re wearing an open-face helmet. A hat for stops where you remove your helmet also helps camouflage summer helmet hair. When you stop, park in the shade and get out of the sun. And do stop, drink, and scarf down that occasional ice-cream cone. Both extreme heat and cold stress the body, slow reaction time, and make for poor decisions. A hot, tired, stressed rider is a crash waiting to happen. A cool, hydrated, happy rider who’s dressed for the weather? That’s someone who knows what summertime motorcycling is all about.