beginner's guide to protective gear & not hurting yourself
ATGATT: A motorcycling acronym used in basic theory and practical motorcycling lessons to remind motorcyclists to wear All The Gear All The Time (ATGATT), referring to jacket, helmet, pants and gloves. - Urban Dictionary
We don't take any responsibility for this information, it's just a general guide. You should thoroughly research all your protective gear options before hitting the dirt and you must read and agree to this disclaimer before using any info on this page.
Don't let this page scare you off from dirt riding! If you ride within your limits, and wear suitable protection gear, then your chances of injury are greatly reduced. It's all balance between comfort, cost, flexibility and safety.
Trials rider often just have boots, gloves and open face helmet as their total safety gear. If dirt riders are just going to potter around slowly with some cross training riding they may have have helmet, gloves, boots and knee guards. Whereas dirt riders out for a hard fast ride will look like the guy on the right in all their armour!
how much should i spend on protective gear?
If you like to splurge you can easily spend $3000 on getting all the gear below. Or you can buy new gear for under $700 if you focus on cheaper gear (but not budget boots!), especially if buying some of it via Ebay from overseas and opt out of neck and knee braces. Do heaps of research, go through the forums, ask other riders for their opinions.
Standard eye protection is a pair of goggles. At the absolute minimum you want sunglasses as you never know when a branch, flying bug or dirt from the rider in front will be aiming for your eye. But the problem with sunglasses is a branch at the wrong angle can get behind your sunglasses and do some serious damage. Goggles start from as low as $20 and work up to $150 for classy ones that won't fog up in rain. Take your helmet along and make sure they fit.
Again, a huge range in prices, but if it's a full face helmet that complies with Australian standards with a nice snug fit then you are on the right track. Good news is any helmet meeting the standards will do a reasonable job regardless of price. Want to do the research to maximise your safety? Read our helmet safety article here or if you want the version with footnotes and all the research reports cited then click here.
Dirt bike helmets typically have a long peak, no visor, and plenty of room at the front so you can get access to the drinking tube of your water supply. But the problem is wind noise - if you will be doing a fair bit of 80+km/h riding (e.g. adventure riding) then these helmets get very noisy. Options? Wear ear plugs. You could use a road bike helmet but without a peak you'll want to watch out for sunburn so get some blockout on your nose and cheeks. There are hybrid helmets that can be a good option - these have a peak, a visor and are usually quieter than dirt bike helmets. Search the forums to see what riders have to say on various helmets.
A lot of long-term riders wind up with hearing problems like tinnitus years down the track. You may notice your ears ringing after an all-day ride, this is actually temporary damage to your ears, it accumulates over the years and easily ends in permanent damage. Levels of 90+ decibels are common and you should only be exposed to these for a maximum of several minutes, so no wonder an all day ride causes damage. A decent helmet will keep the wind noise down. In some cases a wind sock fitted around the base of the helmet makes a big difference at speed. Ear plugs are a very cheap way to maximise ear protection, but they won't be enough riding at 60mph with a noisy helmet though!
boots & footwear
Anyone who has broken a foot or leg will say never buy cheap boots! Apart from the cost, a lot of riders don't like the lack of flexibility with a sturdy pair of boots, but experienced riders will usually say you adapt and find gear changes and braking are fine with a bit of practice, and the boots do loosen up with time. If you will be doing a fair bit of dirt riding then aim to spend at least $400 on your boots for decent protection. You should always match these with a pair of knee guards (see below) that slip into the front of your boots a decent distance for good lower leg protection. Cheap boots often look the same as good boots, but trust me there are differences, such as the metal shank in the base that stops the boo crumpling and mashing your foot!
knee guards & knee braces
Knee guards should be an absolute minimum for dirt riding. Why? Your footpegs can easily take gouges out of your shins, your knee caps can easily be damaged in small crashes, and it's surprising how often your front wheel will throw up branches against your legs. These start from only $30 and go up to around $200 - even the $30 ones can save you from lots of damage so it is highly recommended you get these.
Many riders say the ideal is to wear knee braces. More expensive, and not always that comfortable, but can save you from nasty knee surgery. Forget the cheap ones, you need to spend at least $500 to $900 for knee braces that will actually protect your knees. Many riders don't go this far, due to the cost, lack of comfort and time it takes to fit them. Recent research indicated quality knee braces halve your risk of knee injuries when dirt riding. Some of the best knee braces can also be latched to your boots, this reduces the chance of your lower leg being wrenched around and twisting your knee (but of course increases the chance of snapping the neck of your femur!). Do your own research, there are always big debates on braces on the forums.
body, back & neck protection
There are various options here, it mostly comes down to price and rider comfort. At a minimum, we'd suggest a mesh jacket like the Dririder. These come with pockets that allow you have padded armour for your back, shoulders and elbows and the mesh means air can flow through as long as you are moving and stay cool in Queensland summers. There is usually an inner waterproof liner for wet and/or cold weather. Around $150 to $200.
The next option would be basic body armour and elbow guards. Basic body armour is really only designed to protect you from rocks flung up on a motocross track, but it does provide some basic protection for your back, shoulders and ribs. Around $80 to $150, plus $30 or so for elbow guards.
A better option is the pressure suit. This is body armour built into a kind of mesh shirt which usually provides better back, shoulder, rib and elbow protection. Some riders say these are far too hot in Queensland summers, others claim they are okay in hot weather. Around $150 to $250. You can also get pressure suits that come with a built-in neck brace, which automatically adds hundreds of dollars to the cost. You can also buy neck braces separately for around $400 to $600. A cheaper option at about $50 is the neck collar which attaches to your body armour or can be stitched to your jacket. There's plenty of debate about the best protection for your back and neck; do your own research and decide what you will, or won't, buy for protection.
What about waterproofing? Dririders and similar jackets have the removable waterproof liner. Some jackets have breathable waterproof material, but definitely get very hot in Queensland summers. You can get motorbike-specific plastic pants and coats for around $30 and $70 respectively. In Queensland summers a lot of riders don't bother as it just gets too hot riding in anything plastic.
Plenty of variety here. There are the typical motocross gloves which are very light weight and cool, but these can leave your wrists exposed to the sun and will wear through quickly with any crash on bitumen. Leather gloves are fine if the weather isn't hot, ideally some knuckle protection is a good idea too. Check out the variety available, other considerations are whether you want waterproof gloves or padded ones for colder weather.
If you just ride on dirt then there's a huge range of textile pants to suit. Be aware though, without kevlar or a very durable material on the wear points these can still leave you with nasty abrasions if you fall off at speed on dirt, and especially on bitumen. It helps if you can get hip padding built in, you never know if that might just save you snapping the neck of your femur in a faster crash. Get vented pants if your summer riding gets very hot, you'll sweat like a pig in textile gear if it's not made of mesh or vented. Malcolm Smith makes shorts with hard plastic armour for the hips that you can wear under your existing gear.
Kevlar jeans can be a good option if you are also riding on bitumen as the kevlar around the hips, bum and knees will usually prevent abrasions even with a fairly high speed slide on road.
Keeping hydrated is part of body protection! It's far better to take regular little sips of water, so lots of riders opt for the Camelbak, a waterpack strapped to your back and a water tube hooked to your jacket, so you don't have to take your helmet off each time you take a drink.
If you are new to dirt riding, it's easy to head out for your first dirt ride and come back with horrible sunburn. Places to watch out for are the back of your neck if your gear doesn't cover there, your nose and cheeks (especially if your helmet doesn't have a long peak), and your wrists if your jacket doesn't overlap with your gloves. Use the sunscreen here a few times during the day, and preferably zinc on your nose and cheeks.
adapting your riding style (& bike) for less injuries
Most riders agree that your risks of injury are much higher with high speed, faster trail riding in open trails. Trials and cross training rides tend to be low speed, more technical and on single track so will usually see you falling off a lot more often, but generally the chances and severity of injury are a lot lower. The overall principle is always match your speed to your skill level and the terrain - you should never feel pressured to ride faster than you feel comfortable with.
Plan for the worst. Always assume there is crazy young guy coming fast your way and out of control! So stay left as much as possible (in Australia), ride with your headlight on, and preferably on high beam (unless it's getting dark).
When you are learning how to dirt ride, it usually feels safest to stay seated and dangle your legs out frequently to aid in balance or dab your foot to prevent a fall. As soon as you can, it pays to learn how to control the bike from a standing position, and keeping your feet on the pegs as much as possible. While dangling a foot out feels very reassuring, you can catch it on all sorts of obstacles, and it is the cause of many knee and ankle injuries. While standing on the bike will feel very unstable at first, this will actually give you more control over the bike in most situations. See our cross training videos for more.
Whatever your type of riding, the biggest factor by far is riding within your limits. If you are an adrenalin junkie (and let's face it a lot of us rider are) then you just have to accept the risk of injury goes up exponentially the harder and faster your ride. Just make sure it doesn't endanger anyone else. On a Snail Trail ride you will quickly find someone giving you a friendly warning to slow down if you are endangering others. If your riding doesn't change, then you'll be asked to leave the group.
Look over your bike for things that can hurt you. For example, if you go over the bars are there bits and pieces that can poke into you? A nasty one to keep in mind is if the edge of a windscreen could crush and/or cut your neck. A lot of riders put a pad on the handlebar crossbrace to lessen the chance of cracked ribs.
Tyres can make a huge difference to your safety. Knobbies provide excellent grip offroad, but of course many adventure bikes will have dual purpose tyres that can provide very limited traction in wet muddy conditions. You need to do your research here on which tyres suit your style of riding, and monitor your speed to suit the tyres you have. Remember letting your tyres down to around 15 psi will greatly improve your traction offroad; again do your research on this important issue and read up about rimlocks.
what are the most common injuries for dirt, trail & adventure riders?
Hard to get good stats on this stuff, but it helps to prioritise what you buy, and how much you spend. A big USA study of youths dirt riding gave the following results:
Fracture 30%, Bruise/Abrasion 23%, Laceration 16.4%, Strain/Sprain 12%, Internal injury/Concussion 8%, Burn 2%. Another study said most common injuries for motocross riders are ACL injury, the shoulder and the wrist. A USA doctor who rides, and treats lots of dirt riders, says he mostly treats injured knees, broken collarbones, and some neck and back injuries. However most of that research will be based on motocross and enduro riding only.
Download this handy introductory guide to adventure riding here. It's called "How To Ride A Motorcycle Off Road: Riding Techniques for Large Dual-Purpose Bikes" By David Petersen ( aka Mr. BestRest) and has a pile of useful tips on protective gear, riding techniques in various terrains and heaps more.