The perfect kit for motorcycle touring...
And it's not what you'd expect!
A reader of the blog got in touch the other day with a question. Lee had been to Spain and Portugal in 2019 on his first overseas tour... and melted inside his kit in the 25-30°C heat. What could I suggest as a more appropriate suit?
That's a great question. I've spent years trying to find the perfect touring suit – quite literally, when I was on RiDE and organising comparative tests of textile kit. One year we got a selection of (mostly high-end) gear for the spring, but didn't publishing the results until December after every suit had endured tens of thousands of miles in all conditions. I know we came up with a winner, but even that probably wasn't the perfect kit for touring.
You see, I've slowly come to the conclusion that the traditional touring outift – probably black, ideally Gore-Tex Pro – is your second-best option for touring. Don't get me wrong: for 90% of riding situations, that high-end suit is the canine's cojones... But the sunniest 10% can, as Lee found out, turn that kind of kit into a wearable sauna.
I'd found that out on my first big trip to Portugal for RiDE, wearing one of the candidates in that big test of touring suits. I rolled off the ferry in Santander to be greeted with a grey and relentless drizzle, overjoyed to be in a new Rukka suit: just the right kit for the job, I thought to myself. I wasn't so sure next morning when it was already 18°C as I was pushing the bike out of the hotel's covered parking. By lunchtime it was 26°C... and four days later, as I tried to hustle a fully laden GS Adventure along a dusty Portuguese trail for gently off-road photos, the dash said the temperature was over 40°C and frankly I felt like I was dying.
The big strength of these high-end suits is their waterproofing. I'm a true believer in the power of the Gore-Tex Pro laminate membrane. The catch is that the more holes are made in it – for things like vents – the more chance there is of someone's much-vaunted reputation for dryness being undone by a dodgy zip that lets rain leak in (and it doesn't even matter if it's because a customer didn't do up a zip properly: wet is wet and everyone's unhappy).
A lot of these suits now have clever zips, the way they're placed is increasingly scientific to let air in but keep moisture out and some have whole panels that can be removed to let the wind blow through. Most Pro suits can be pretty thin and light with their liners removed so when you get a good breeze going through chest, arm and shoulder vents, with hot air extracted from vents on the back, the jackets can be pretty impressive even in really hot conditions.
The trousers, though... A disappointing number of the suits I've tested didn't have any venting, many more didn't have much or what there was didn't do a great deal. So you could end up with frozen nipples and melting knees on the same ride.
Even so, I do accept that the best compromise – for year-round riding in the UK plus the occasional hot-weather tour – is a top-end Gore-Tex Pro suit. Which one? The best-vented one I've used is my adventure-bike style Held Atacama, which also has the big plus of being mostly pale material rather than heat-absorbing black. For more neutral, goes-with-any-bike style, I'd have been looking at a Dane Nimbus jacket with Lyngby Air trousers - but they're not imported to the UK at present... so get 'em while you can find 'em. The catch, of course, is that these are both serious top-end outfits with serious top-end price tags.
And even the best suits can struggle in the extremes of heat. I'd hate to be wearing Gore-Tex riding into the stifling heat of the red centre of Australia or through Death Valley.
The ideal all-round set-up
I'd thought long and hard about the ideal all-round set-up before setting off on my Big Stupid Trip of a Lifetime in 2019. Though long and hard about it... then backed away from it because I decided I needed to be wearing my favourite leather jacket. At least until the high humidity and oppressive heat of Georgia broke me down, when I packed it away and switched to what should have been Plan A from the start.
For me, the secret is layering. For one thing, wearing lightweight motorcycling base layers makes a big difference. They help regulate your temperature (warm when it's cold, cool when it's hot, etc) and especially they wick sweat away from your skin. Quality ones are quick to dry so can be rinsed out at the end of each riding day so they're fresh for the next morning. My favourites are from Forcefield (current version here) but there are plenty of less-expensive versions you could try – just get a set of tight/compression-fit all-season or summer layer (not thermals!)
Over the top I'd wear some kind of armoured motorcycle jeans. These have come so far in recent years – they're not the baggy, shapeless, sweaty horrors of ten years ago. I have an excellent set of Draggin Rebel jeans (apparently discounted here) but now I'd be tempted to go for one of the new breed of single-layer jeans like the Oxford Original Approved ones (here) or I would if they did a 36in inside leg.
The jacket is obviously key. Or rather, it's a part of the key. Because for me the heart of the ideal touring set-up is a mesh jacket – which is effectively a super-tough teabag so the air streams through. Ideal for hot places. But there are limitations – which is why it's only part of the key. I have an old RevIt one (current version here) but there are alternatives both more and less expensive. It's what I was wearing when I rode through Death Valley where the temperature – as recorded by the Z1000SX dash – peaked at 48°C.
The thing is, even the airflow of a mesh jacket isn't enough when you're in somewhere that hot. In fact, when the air is that hot and dry, it can start to bake your skin if it's not protected... ouch! So I used a BMW Cooldown Vest (see your local BMW retailer for one). You soak it with water – which its nappy-like construction keeps in the vest, rather than soaking into your pockets – and the flow of hot air through the mesh jacket evaporates it and this keeps you cool. I got through nearly a litre of water, topping it up in Death Valley and it works a treat. Anywhere that the temperature is likely to top 30°C, this is a lifesaver. It does need the airflow, though: it'd be no use sealed up inside a Gore-Tex coat...
I know what you're thinking: mesh jackets and cooling vests are all well and good on the hot and exotic trips and maybe handy for southern Spain... but they're not going to be much good when the weather in the Picos turns cool or wet on the way back to the port. And that's true: a mesh jacket will literally freeze your tits off at anything below 20°C.
But it's about the layers, remember... So when the mercury isn't over 20, add a windproof layer beneath the mesh. I have an excellent windproof jacket from Knox (current version here) which is not only ideal under the mesh but also works better than the armoured bike jacket for nipping out to a bar or restaurant in the evening.
If you think it might get really cold, and if you want to really commit to the system and spend big money, a heated waistcoat under the windproof layer keeps you perfectly toasty (I'm a big believer in the Gerbing system – here). The ultimate in luxury is the full heated jacket – which you could wear as your windproof layer and only plug in when it got cold. But I'd suggest that for most summer touring, the heated layer might be a step too far.
What is critical is the final layer: the waterproof one. This is great just as an extra windproof layer as temperatures drop but clearly it's main job is to keep you dry. Though it's critical that you stop and get the waterproofs on before you're soaked – especially with a mesh jacket (water-stopping potential of a teabag, remember).
I'm a big fan of two-piece waterproofs, rather than the one-piece oversuit. I think they're easier to put on and it's easier to get a snug, non-flappy fit. I have a super-trick set of Held Gore-Tex waterproofs (here) that can be clipped into Held kit or worn over anything and might just be the best ever, but there's no doubt that you can spend an awful lot less on waterproofs that will keep you equally dry (like these ones also from Held).
The drawback with this flexible system is April. Or any time when you have a persistent mix of sunshine and showers: stopping to play waterproofs-on, waterproofs-off is a pain. Which is where we start to circle back towards a high-quality touring suit that's wateproof anyway. However, on balance I still prefer the flexible approach because if you're stopping to close vents in your Gore-Tex to keep the rain out, you might as well be stopping to put waterproofs on – in which case, why not benefit from the lightweight kit that works better in the higher temperatures?
What I'll actually wear when spring comes around and I head off for the next sunny trip is anyone's guess. It might be whatever still fits after lockdown – but that's another story...