If you need motorcycle pants, it makes sense to shop now. You’ll have the gear ready when it’s springtime, and you can get pretty decent deals online and in-person at the motorcycle show circuit. Those dealers who haven’t pushed all the motorcycle stuff off the floor in favour of snowmobiling paraphernalia might also have some good mid-winter markdowns, especially on discontinued products.
But what sort of pants should you be looking at? There are four common styles of riding pants: leather pants, leather chaps, textile pants, and reinforced riding jeans, as well as base layers. Here’s a breakdown of the various styles:
Your basic pants, but made from leather instead of cotton, which shreds easily if you’re sliding down the pavement. You can buy a wide variety of leather pants aimed at motorcyclists, including basic leather trousers with no padding, armour or other trick features. At the other end of the spectrum, there are technical roadracing pants with knee sliders and other protective features to save your butt (literally) in a crash.
Leather pants are required equipment for most motorcycle tracks, and many drag strips as well. Even ice racers use them. Street riders who want max protection from road rash buy leather pants as well.
Well-constructed leathers offer the most protection against road rash, lasting much longer in a slide down the street than textile pants. Unlike textile pants, they won’t melt. Plus, some people think they look pretty cool: as adventure riding guru Austin Vince says, when you get off the bike wearing your leather pants, you’re suddenly the most stylish person at the disco. Of course, if you think disco is dead, this may not be so attractive.
But while leathers offer the most protection in a crash, it’s almost impossible to find waterproof leathers. They’re often fairly expensive, and many leather pants do not vent air particularly well, although you can buy top-shelf stuff that is pretty good at airflow. And some leather pants may leave you looking like The Gimp.
Good leather pants, particularly roadracing leathers, are going to cost you probably $400 and up, although deals can be had if you shop around.
Motorcycle chaps are similar to the chaps cowboys wear — basically, a pair of leather pants with the crotch and the seat missing. Chaps are strictly for cruiser riders; nobody wears chaps on a sportbike, unless they’re an extra in a dumb movie about a lame SoCal street racing gang. [Hey – that movie looks great! -Ed.]
The people who buy chaps are the same people who listen to Bon Jovi sing “I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride” on the PA system of their dental office while they fill patients’ teeth. Want to inject a little adrenaline into your life as a dentist/doctor or white collar drone? Weekend cowboy cosplay has been doing the trick for V-twin riders for years, even if they’re ponying up to the local Tim Hortons instead of the OK Corral.
Chaps are better than wearing denim jeans, but otherwise, they’re a bad choice. They’re intended for protection from wind and dirt, not the pavement. What if you fall off your motorcycle and land on your backside? You’ll end up looking like a baboon, maybe for life, if you grind off all the skin on your butt while the rest of your legs are protected from road rash.
For a pair of chaps, you’ll likely pay at least $100, and several times that for a well-constructed set.
Textile pants are constructed from road rash-resistant fabric instead of leather — they’re usually man-made, but waxed cotton is also used. They’re a pretty universal choice for motorcyclists, since everyone except racers will have textile gear available to them. The advantages of textile gear make it attractive to adventure riders, commuters, touring riders, among many others.
The main reason for textile’s broad appeal is its cost. Serviceable textile gear is often less expensive than good leathers. Textile gear is also more versatile than leather — it’s easy to find rain-resistant textile gear, either with built-in waterproofing or a removable waterproof liner. And if textile gear does get wet, it dries more quickly and easily than leather. It’s also often lighter than leather.
Textile riding pants are usually more baggy than leather pants, and often have built-in padding at the knees and hips. You might not look cool, but you’ll be safe. Well, you’ll look more cool than someone wearing chaps, at least (unless you’re into Village People tribute bands, and that’s the look you want). Textile pants often have adjustable waists that can be forgiving if you put on a few pounds (which makes them even more attractive to middle-aged adventure bike buyers). All those high-calorie Starbucks drinks have a way of catching up to you.
As for pricing, you should make an effort to buy quality. You’ll probably spend $250-ish to get good textile riding pants, although there are some companies who offer excellent gear at lower prices.
Ah, riding jeans: the final refuge of the motorcyclist who doesn’t have the chutzpah to wear leather pants in public, but doesn’t want to look like a Charlie-and-Ewan wannabe in a pair of textile trousers.
You can buy riding jeans that are nothing more than extra heavy-duty denim jeans, but these still don’t offer a lot of protection. If you’ve decided you want to wear jeans on the motorcycle, you should look for a pair that has aramid fibres woven into the fabric, or at least patches of Kevlar-type material sewn into impact areas such as the seat and knees. These pants, if well-constructed, will offer much better protection in a crash than your old Dickies work pants, your Wind River cargos, your Levis, or whatever else you previously wore on days when you didn’t feel like gearing up properly.
You can find riding jeans with pockets for knee pads; some designs even have outside pockets for the pads, allowing you to ride to your destination in semi-safety, then remove the pads when you arrive and mingle with your friends wearing a hip leather jacket and super-cool skinny jeans. Or at least, that’s what the marketing implies.
Like textile pants, good riding jeans will probably cost around $250, but there are always deals to be found.
It’s worth noting there are companies making liners that offer similar protection to riding jeans. Draggin Jeans and others offer what are basically Kevlar long johns: pull your usual street pants over them, and you’ve got full-leg protection (and extra insulation, in cold weather). Other companies, like Bohn, offer similar base layers intended to hold knee armour in place.
The disadvantage of these liners is that, when you arrive at a destination, they’re hot to walk around in, and it’s not like most riders want to drop their pants in the parking lot to remove their sweaty Kevlar long johns. And if you’re not planning to ride somewhere and mingle, why would you wear these liners in the first place? Real riding pants offer more protection, if you’re not planning to get off the bike and walk around.
Expect to pay around $200 for protective liners.
Obviously, you want pants that fit you. If you plan on touring or commuting, you probably want waterproof pants, unless you want to use a rainsuit or just stay home when it’s wet outside. It’s also best to have some sort of venting system, and cargo pockets on the thighs might not look cool, but they’re much easier for carrying your wallet. You may have a different opinion, but these are observations from years on the road.
Overall, it’s best to look around and see what makes sense for you.
Want to look like you just rode in from Deadwood? Buy chaps. Want to ride the Trans-Lab Highway, or at least pretend that you did? Textiles might make sense, and save you money. Want to ride out for a night on the town with your friends? Riding jeans might make you look a little less dorky. Maybe. Want to look like Marc Marquez? Buy a set of leathers, and take a belt sander to your sliders and the tires’ chicken strips while you’re at it.