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What does waterproof mean in motorcycle gear?

Question: When does waterproof not mean waterproof?

Obviously, we’re being a little glib here, but there’s more than a gem of truth in what we’ve said.

The fact is that the subject of waterproofing is probably the single most contentious and complex issue in the world of motorcycle apparel.

We get more questions, queries, comments and complaints about water ingress than we do about any other aspect of rider wear.

There is, or has been, we fear, a mismanagement of expectations when it comes to the ability of biking jackets, trousers, gloves or boots to keep a rider dry.

We may even unwittingly have played a part in this but, without doubt, the manufacturers, in order to create what might be termed a competitive advantage, have made claims that are, to say the least, misleading.

In this short article, we’re going to try and set the record straight. We won’t be able to answer everybody’s questions, but we can throw at least a little light on the matter.

The first point we would make is that if you want to travel from point A to point B and always stay completely dry, you should buy a car.

If you ride a bike in the pouring rain for long enough, or hard enough, you will eventually get wet.

Water runs off your helmet and down your neck. It will be thrown up from the road and up your jacket. It will hit your gloves and enter the sleeve. Or rise up your boot to your leg.

It will find its way through zips and pockets.

If the pressure of water is strong enough, and the duration of the ride is long enough, there is no garment out there that can guarantee to keep you totally dry.

Any manufacturer who claims differently is lying. But the manufacturers don’t tend to lie (okay, some of them do!). Most use clever wording that, when unpicked, normally promises something less than the average motorcyclist has understood.

The most common claim is that a material is backed by a membrane, like Gore-Tex, that is supposed to be 100% waterproof. From this, the manufacturers will then sometimes imply or suggest that their jackets or trousers are completely waterproof.

The reality is that they are not, for all the reasons already outlined.

And anyway, the standard test that is most commonly applied to certify a fabric or membrane as waterproof is exceeded by a factor of 20 when rain hits a motorcycle garment at a speed of 100kph!

But even the best waterproof membrane is meaningless if the seams of a jacket are not taped with waterproof tape, or if the pockets are not also waterproof. And then there are the zips, the air vents, the collar, the sleeves and so on.

So where do we end up?

Well, as we’ve suggested, there’s no such thing as a jacket, a pant, a glove or a boot that can keep you 100% dry.

But your chances of staying dryer for longer are almost certainly improved if you buy your clothing from one of the more technical brands out there.

As a consumer, we admit that it’s not always easy to work out which brands are the real deal and which are not. And that’s because the cheaper, lookalike brands are often very good at copying the design and style of the more respected names.

It’s not our position to say who you can trust and who you can cannot in this respect. You need to do your research. Visit the manufacturers’ websites. Visit some of the forums. Talk to dealers.

But the highest priced gear isn’t always the best. People like Halvarssons, for example, produce gear that is far more technical than its pricing suggests.

But beware, we would say, of anything that is too cheap. If the brand in question can always be found discounted, or being touted about by the George Whites of this world, or the other pile-it-high sellers, you can be pretty sure that you’re not going to be getting the most technical and reliable gear.

It’s a cliché, we know, but if the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch!

Which brings us to another point. Waterproofing is not everything.

As in so many things in life, motorcycle clothing is a compromise. The most waterproof clothing would not have a breathable membrane. It would keep water out with an impenetrable lining, but you would sweat horribly. In fact, perspiring on the bike can be much more uncomfortable than rain, especially when it cools down.

The other issue is that most of us want a jacket and trousers that we can wear all year round; an outfit that works on a miserable, cold and wet morning, but also on a glorious blast down through France, Spain or Italy in the middle of summer.

For such riding, you need unzippable vents.

To keep air moving across the body, you open the vents. It’s vital if you want to stay calm, collected and cool. But in the winter, these vents are an inevitable weak point for water ingress.

So, when you buy motorcycle clothing, think about how you might use it. Staying dry is something we all want, but the most fun is to be had when the sun’s out and, for those days, you need ventilation.

There’s not a lot else we have to say.

If staying dry is the most important consideration, you should of course avoid leather.

A leather jacket can be a very cool thing to wear. I must own about half a dozen different leather jackets, all of which I love, but they’re for wearing on nice days when I’m not venturing too far from home. A leather jacket or a leather pant is about as much use in a rain storm as a tax return is to your average Member of Parliament.

I’m going to close with a few words on boots and gloves.

The basic tale is the same, but even more so. On a pair of boots, water will run down your legs. It will find its way through the zip or laces. And eventually, in heavy rain, the leather or Lorica will become so sodden that it will work its way through to your foot. After all, down there, near the road, is probably the wettest place of all.

Gloves also take a hammering, although this depends on the bike and whether there’s a fairing, for example. Leather gloves will let water in most easily; whatever they’re lined with, so go for textile if staying dry is important. But don’t let us mislead you. Whatever you put on your hands, your fingers will eventually get wet.

Which leads me to another fact about gloves that you may not have realised. Certainly, I didn’t until recently.

If you turn on your heated grips when it’s raining, the warm air will suck water into your gloves, making them less waterproof. Think about it; it makes sense. Personally, there are times when I’d prefer to have hands that were wet and warm than dry and cold, but that’s a personal preference. Anyway, I thought you should know.

I hope we haven’t confused you and made the subject even more opaque than it already is. But getting wet is really a rite of passage for motorcyclists. Some of the trips I remember most and still boast about are those where I get totally drenched and arrived at my destination cold, wet and miserable. Frankly, it makes the hot meal and beer at the end of the day even more welcome.

If there was never any pain or discomfort, it wouldn’t be motorcycling. And there’s no way I would have swapped my mode of transport on any of those cold, wet and miserable journeys. However warm and dry I might have remained.

I’m not sure that you should always expect to get wet on a motorcycle. And I’m not making excuses for sub-standard gear that doesn’t work. But when you’re on a bike, you are exposed to the elements in a way that you are not when you’re in the car. Be it hot, cold, wet or humid, on a bike you’re going to experience it to the max. That, after all, is why we love biking in the first place.