Layering Basics: For Motorcyclists

It’s cold in the PNW, and for those who want to squeeze in every day of riding they can, we need to talk about a word that seems to be a taboo to newer motorcyclists and adventure riders. Layering. Particularly layering Synthetics, Merino Wool, and NO COTTON.

Ya, I know, that’s something you’d expect a long-distance hiker to say. However, a lot of principles of hiking apply to motorcycling. I’m sure you’ve seen some pricey “base” layers on some of the popular adventure motorcycling shops. But do you know in what order those layers are supposed to go in? Or why you should be avoiding cotton like the plague in the winter? 

Why do we hate Cotton?

It absorbs moisture fast, and doesn’t want to get rid of it. 

Moisture is the real enemy in the colder seasons. If moisture is trapped against your skin and you’re riding down the road with cold wind finding its way to that moisture, the moisture will start evaporating very very slowly. The evaporation process that normally keeps you cool in the Summer, is going to drop your body temperature way below comfortable in the Fall, Winter and Spring. Not to mention that moisture is going to take a whole lot longer to evaporate, keeping you cold and wet.  

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s start with the order. Everyone has their opinion about how this goes, but I’m going to tell you what has worked best for me. As a result of getting multiple opinions from different sports goods stores, then trying and changing things up on the road, this is my list:

Underwear (yes all the way down to your underwear!) 

 Exofficio is a name that’s very popular in the traveling world right now, and I now have first hand experience as to why! But any underwear that’s quick drying, breathable, antimicrobial, and made of materials like Nylon, Modal, Spandex, or Merino Wool works. These kinds of underwear are expensive, and are air dry only (which won’t matter if you’re doing a multi-day/month trip and you’ll be doing most of your laundry in a sink.) The benefits of this kind of underwear however, means you won’t have moisture trapped next to your skin, causing you discomfort, and in cold weather, means it doesn’t matter how many layers you have on you’ll be cold. 

I’m also going to sneak in a quick note about hands and feet. It’s a good idea to wear a sock liner AND a nice thick pair of wool socks over them. This keeps you from getting blisters when you’re not sitting on your butt on the bike, and also is going to help you keep those toes from becoming ice cubes. Ski socks in general are good options for this, and my favorite sock brand right now is Darn Tough. Same goes for gloves, glove liners are your friends and I recommend grabbing yourself a pair of Gore-Tex snowmobile gloves to go over them. Cheaper than “waterproof” motorcycle gloves, and more effective at keeping the moisture out, and the heat in. 

Next-to-Skin Layer

Now here is where my opinion and your local recreational equipment store will differ a little. 

I use a synthetic layer next to my skin, that is easy to wash in a sink, and will dry in 3-4 hours. This way I can avoid washing my nice expensive merino wool layer for as long as possible. 

It’s the same concept my Grandpa has: buy 1 or 2 really nice shirts, and a bag full of cheap undershirts, so the nice shirts don’t get sweat stains and only have to be washed every so often, then you can replace the cheap undershirts more easily than the nice ones. 

This layer is easier to find since polyesters, polypropylene, capilene, spandex, and nylons are easier fabric to find in shirts and long sleeves and leggings, but be cautious and make sure it has no cotton in it. 

Check stores that carry hiking gear, like our friends Next Adventure (who also have a bargain basement you can use to find gear that won’t break the bank. Their house brand ‘Wilderness Technology’ has some great affordable options for Synthetic and Merino Wool Base Layers. Often times you can find something a little cheaper than the overpriced synthetic base layers that are the same product but are marked up because it says ‘for motorcyclists’ on the tag. This theory counts for almost everything in this list except for your Armor Layer. 

Base Layer

This is where I put my nice soft moisture wicking merino wool layer. Merino wool is like the god fabric. It’s thinner and less itchy than traditional wool, but it’s expensive, and your brain will probably say, “what the fudge? Do you know how many tanks of gas I could buy with that money?” I know, because that’s what my brain said, but take it from me, it really makes a difference and you really don’t need more than two pairs of long sleeves and leggings. Wool is one of those magic fabrics that insulates even if it gets wet. 

Your cold body will thank you. 

Mid Layer

Fleece! Fleece, Fleece, Fleece! Alright you could also use a thick wool layer. This layer is about keeping your body heat next to your body through trapped air. If you can find yourself a nice Fleece with a full zip or a zip neck to regulate your body temperature, that is a huge plus.  

Insulation Layer

Puffies! That’s not some weird animal it’s a down or Synthetic insulated puffy jacket. The difference between Down and Synthetic Insulation is partially one of personal preference. Similarly to sleeping bags, a Down Jacket will pack down smaller when you’re not wearing it and can be warmer, but a Synthetic Insulated Jacket will continue to insulate even when wet. There are all kinds of different thickness of these kinds of jackets and depending on your Armour Layer and how much room you’ll have under there will determine what kind of puffy you can fit under there. 

A note before we transition to the Armor Layer. I personally take out the “insulation” layer that comes in most Motorcycle jackets because they leaves a little bit to be desired. There’s normally a big gap around the zipper and around the wrist area, where a lot of wind enters the jacket. 

Shell/Armor Layer

This is the layer that it pays to pay up for quality motorcycle gear. This is going to be your impact layer, the bit that needs to be the most specialized, and where layering for motorcycling differs largely from layering for hiking, climbing or mountaineering. This is your skid and impact protection. 

I recommend gear that is either gore-tex or a house brand’s version of gore-tex, with D30 Armour. Gore-Tex is going to keep your gear breathable and waterproof, and the D30 is going to be lightweight and flexible. It’s not easy moving around in all those layers when it’s cold, it’s important to try to make sure you have the most amount insulation in the least amount of weight and bulky-ness. 

If you’re going to be purchasing gear just especially for winter/fall I recommend finding a place to try on the gear with your puffy and fleece underneath. It will be quite warm, but you’ll be thankful when there’s enough room for all your layers under your jacket! 

Outer Shell Layer

This layer is a bonus wind and water protection layer. Having another windbreak layer can make a big difference when you’re riding down a highway.

This layer doesn’t need to be expensive, it’s just there to keep the wind out, and the rain if it’s pouring extra hard. There isn’t a whole lot else to this section. Oh! Also something to be aware of, if you have pipes that could rub your pant legs, try to find rain pants that have a heat resistance material that won’t melt on your pipes when the wind grabs them and rubs them against your pipes. Speaking from experience here.

You could even just have this extra layer to have at camp, it doesn’t necessarily need to be an over-the-motorcycle-gear rain layer.

If you’ve made it all the way to the end, I applaud you.

I will also take this moment to make some informal comments about Heated Gear, Heated Grips, Hot Hands and Rechargeable Hand warmers.

Heated Accessories and Heated Gear can get really expensive, and can have different results, and can also be a real draw on your battery so you need to be aware of how many things you have plugged into your bike and if and when that is going to drain the life of your battery.

I have installed Heated grips before and really enjoyed them, those in combination with Hippo Hands can create this lovely oven for your cold cold hands. Experience Tip: Turn on the heated grips BEFORE your hands get cold. It’s a lot harder to get warm after you’re already cold.

My experience with Heated Gear, wired or battery powered, is that most models out there rely on heating a wire that runs through the gear, that can create hot spots that start to hurt under your gear. Other gear relies on ‘patches’ of heat that leaves you wishing those patches were in other places not just in the manufacturer’s “designated” spots.

A little extra help from some heated gear or accessories to stay warm is always welcome and will definitely extend your riding time, but it doesn’t replace knowing how to layer up properly.

Last but not least Hot Hands and Rechargeable Hand Warmers. Hot hands are a great in a pinch but not always totally satisfying. They take a while to warm up and the part of your body that is touching it is warm, but the rest of you is still cold. They also produce a lot of waste, which isn’t always a concern for a lot of people but it’s just another thing to remember. I’ve also done the classic 'stuff it in the your glove’ technique before I had heated grips, and then they get too hot and you feel like your hand is burning. They are however my favorite way to warm up my sleeping bag before I get in!

I’ve only recently found a rechargeable hand warmers that actually work, and I’m a huge fan of these. The warm up much faster than classic Hot Hands, and you can control how hot you want it to be. These are the ones I was gifted by a friend, and in my opinion, one of the best gifts I’ve received that can be given to someone you don’t even know and they will appreciate. They still have the normal downfall of hand warmers, where the part that’s touching it is warm but the rest of you isn’t, however I like the fact that I’m not constantly buying something and then throwing it away -no matter how cheap it is- particularly while I’m travelling. The less trash I’m carrying around the better.

I hope this helped a few people, and if you have some other tips about staying warm on the bike that works for you leave them in the comments!