Should I Wear Motorcycle Pants? Make an Informed Decision

If you are new to motorcycle riding, you may wonder whether motorcycle pants are really worth the extra expense. I mean, can’t you just wear jeans? While motorcycle pants will certainly add extra protection in a crash, there’s more to it than that.

Motorcycle pants with padded inserts will protect your knees and hips against impact injuries. Bike pants without reinforcing material are only marginally better than regular jeans to prevent abrasion injuries. A helmet and jacket is more important than pants since legs injuries are less likely to be life threating.

We all know that riding a motorcycle is a dangerous activity. No one plans of crashing their bike, but in the event that it does happen, you are most likely going to get hurt. Some injuries are worse than others. Head, neck and back injuries can kill you or paralyze you for life. That’s why wearing a helmet should be your number one priority in terms of safety gear. Most motorcycle jackets have spine protection which will reduce the risk of spinal cord injury, in addition to protection for your arms and upper body. Hands and feet stick out, so boots and gloves are important. But what about the legs?

Let’s take a closer look at what protection wearing motorcycle pants will offer, and what the risks are if you don’t, in the event of you dismounting involuntarily mid-ride.

How Much Protection Does Motorcycle Pants Offer in a Crash?

When you crash your motorcycle there are two types of injuries to your legs that you need to worry about.

The first is the actual impact that the fall will have on parts of your body. Your hip and knee areas will be most vulnerable and prone to hard impact with Mother Earth or the asphalt. This could result in serious brushing or bone fractures. By wearing protective motorcycle pants with extra armored padding around the hip and knee areas you will reduce the impact from a fall on your joints. This could mean the difference between very sore muscles the next day or a shattered patella or fractured hip.

The second type of injury that should should make you sit up and listen up is abrasion as you slide down the road. This is common when low-siding the bike when losing grip in a corner or on a wet road. If you come off your bike while it is moving, you are going to slide. While skidding across the road, protective motorcycle pants made from specialized anti-abrasive material will protect your skin from road rash – not a fun injury to clean. It may also prevent cuts and tears.

Mark Marquez sliding down the track – a common type of crash (Source: screenshot form MotoGP YouTube channel)

It is worth noting that sliding down the tarmac on the highway at 60 mph will be infinitely more severe than sliding in the loose dirt at 30. The amount of abrasion is proportional to the time spent sliding and the amount of friction between your and the road.

What does the research say?

Dr Liz de Rome, an Australian public health researcher with a focus on motorcycle safety and protective gear and clothing, indicates the types of injuries sustained by riders in crashes.

A large percentage of riders (81%) sustain leg injuries during an accident. Of these, the most by far (94%) was soft tissue injuries, with only 40% of fractures recorded. In terms of the knee area, half of crashed riders (50%) had knee injuries. The majority (96%) sustained soft tissue injuries and only 6% had fractures.

Injury pattern of motorcycle crashes (Source: Dr Liz de Rome on ResearchGate)

The study further showed that the hip, knee and shin areas have a high level of risk of injury in case of an accident. These areas need an impact protector and need to be made of highly abrasion-resistant material.

Motorcycle crash injury risk zones (Source: Dr Liz de Rome on ResearchGate)

In short, you are more likely to sustain brushes, cuts and lost skin, instead of breaking something. It is worth noting that, while your legs are very likely to get hurt in a crash, the injuries are unlikely to be life-threatening. Therefore, if you don’t have enough money to buy all the gear at once, get a helmet and jacket first and save up for those pants.

Are Motorcycle Pants Better Protection Than Normal Jeans?

It seems then, that protection against abrasion is more important (in terms of likelihood) than impact protection. I always thought that wearing jeans is just as effective as motorcycle pants to prevent abrasion when sliding down the road. Apparently not.

Ryan F9 from the FortNine YouTube channel ran a couple of ‘lab tests’ to see how regular jeans performs against proper motorcycle pants. He compares puncture strength, abrasion resistance, seam strength, impact protection and fire resistance or regular jeans and proper bike pants. Protective motorcycle pants are made with special textiles that will offer varying degrees of abrasion resistance like leather or other synthetic textiles like Cordura (a name brand for a highly abrasion resistant type of nylon fabric), Kevlar or Dyneema.

Using a belt sander with 40 grit sand paper and a 90 kph spinning speed to simulate abrasion while sliding on tarmac, Ryan showed that riding pants with Aramid fiber backing took 3.5 seconds longer to tear through than regular jeans. But in the areas of the pants without Aramid fiber backing, it tore through 1.5 seconds faster than the jeans. Mmm. It is worth noting that the areas with impact resistant padding will obviously provide much better abrasion resistance.

Jeans vs motorcycle pants (Source: FortNine)

These results seems to be supported by Dr Liz de Rome who found that non-armored motorcycle-specific gloves, pants and jackets do not give significantly more protection than clothing that is not specifically designed for motorcycle use. Interestingly, the European safety standards require 4 seconds abrasion resistance and the De Rome study claims jeans offer only 0.6 seconds (much less than FortNine’s test results).

Either way, the verdict seems to be that the added body armor (like reinforced knee and hip pads in side the pants) makes all the difference.

Safety Standards that Regulate Motorcycle Pants

Information on motorcycle pants safety regulations are not easy to come by online, but as far as I understand, in the U.S. there is no one standard that motorcycle pants need to adhere to. All European companies have to test and certify under certain safety standards for various types of motorcycle clothing and armor (for example EN 13595 CE since 2002 and more recently EN 17092 CE) before they are allowed to sell it as protective gear. Some companies in the U.S. have adopted these safety standards, and therefore, pants without a CE certification are not necessarily poor protection.

Benefits of Riding With Motorcycle Pants Other Than Safety

In addition to protecting you from impact and abrasion injuries during a crash, motorcycle pants can also protect you from the elements. Due to the abrasion and heat-resistant fabrics used in most motorcycle pants, they will protect you against burns from a scorching hot exhaust pipe when you drop the bike on your leg, for instance. My wife’s riding pants has a patch of melted material from touching the pipe and she didn’t feel a thing.

Most motorcycle pants are water proof, which means that it will keep your legs and other parts dry and warm in wet and cold weather. There’s nothing worse than wet undies on a long ride in the rain. Not all pants offer the same resistance, however. That’s why I always carry an extra rain coat on a long trip.

On a motorcycle, you are also exposed to flying objects like bugs (beetles can be quite hard!) and stones kicked up by oncoming trucks. Pants with impact protection will greatly reduce the impact of projectiles that hit your legs. I know, because I’ve been hit by a flying rock the size of a large marble that was thrown up by a truck. It hit me in the chest and my motorcycle jacket (made from the same material as bike pants) definitely made a difference.

Motorcycle pants are also designed to assist with ventilation to keep you more comfortable during warmer weather. Most pants have air vents that can be opened and closed as the temperate changes. Good gear will keep you comfortable in a wide range of situations. A comfortable rider is a safer rider.

The Effect of Rider Risk Aversion on Whether to Wear Motorcycle Pants or Not

So if all the evidence suggest that wearing motorcycle pants is a good idea, why do so many riders still not wear them? And why are there so many different opinions on bike forums and Facebook groups about this? My wife will not get onto a bike without one, while I’ve got friends that have ridden for over forty years that ride in shorts. It has to do with our attitude toward risk.

This is tricky to explain, but it comes down to a type of mental maths that happens when we make decisions. You might feel you have enough experience to not fall or you are only quickly going to the corner shop in light traffic. You may argue that a head or back injury is far more serious, so you’ll buy a helmet and jacket first if you are on a tight budget. The more risk averse you are, the more likely it is that your answer will be in favor of the pants.

Interestingly, my risk calculation had me buy a neck brace instead of pants. I am very risk averse, but also very stingy. And the reasoning was that I’d rather lose all the skin off my legs than break my neck and not be able to walk again. If you want to find out more about the benefits of riding with a neck brace, check out my detailed post here.

What about ATGATT (All the Gear, All the Time)

If you search anything related to protective gear, you’ll stumble across the acronym ATGATT. And at first it may sound like perfect advice. Riders throw it around on social media in a tone that suggest anything less is due to a low IQ. But what does ATGATT really mean?

All the gear, all the time (ATGATT) – (Just add helmet – ed)

Do you need to always wear a neck brace? What about an airbag vest? Or are we just talking about traditional safety gear. If so, then should it have Kevlar (or similar) padding at then shoulders, elbows, hips and knees? I live 800 meters from my brother and sometimes ride over with the bike to pick up something. Does ATGATT mean I need to gear up like I do for a fast ride over the mountains? Even if it is 105 degrees out? You get the point.

Then there are all those bloggers and YouTubers out there with their gear reviews and affiliate marketing, pushing as many products as possible to up their commission earnings. They are hardly unbiased and are unlikely to suggest that you should take the cheap pants. Instead the more expensive gear are pushed and sold for the higher commissions. It is understandable that riders are now getting weary of falling into these traps.

So many of us – asking whether we really need motorcycle pants – are skeptical that we are being manipulated by a thriving motorcycle gear industry. If you are worried about your legs, get something cheap off Amazon that has CE rated padding, like these.

Dress for the Slide, not the Ride

That said, I’d feel bad leaving this bit out.

No-one plans to fall or crash. It often happens unexpectedly, even to the most experienced and alert riders. I’ve seen how much skin even a low speed slide on asphalt will remove. Just last week I fell in the loose dirt at walking pace (wheelie fail!) with my mountain bike and my elbow lost several layers of skin. You may never crash your bike, but it you do you will 100% NOT regret wearing proper protective motorcycle pants with all the CE rates padding. Dress for the slide, not the ride!

Here we rode with shorts and knee pads through deep water – Slowly

Conclusion: Well Should I Wear Motorcycle Pants or Not?

Here’s how I see it:

Budget: If you can afford it, get the pants. If you are on a tight budget, start with the best helmet you can afford, followed by a jacket with spine protection. Then gloves and boots that cover your ankles. Next up, get the pants.

Tarmac or dirt: If you ride on the asphalt often, get the pants. Hard, abrasive material will remove way more skin than soft, loose stuff like dirt or gravel. Just remember, gravel may have large rocks where impact protective pads on the knees are critical.

Speed: The faster you ride, the more urgently you need to order those pants. More speed equals further slide, which means bigger hole in your leg.

What do I do? I often ride with normal jeans, but then I don’t ride on the freeway much. I mostly commute in town or play in the dirt at low speeds, so I am unlikely to slide down the asphalt for very long.

It’s your legs… you decide!

Ride safe!

Francois Steyn

I've been riding motorcycles since I was in school and have traveled thousands of miles on various bikes through more than 10 countries. For more info, check out my about page:

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