Common Tread

Adventure vs. off-road motorcycle gear: How to choose

Jan 08, 2018

“What are you wearing underneath that jersey?”

I recently spent the weekend at the International Motorcycle Show in New York fielding a variety of questions from riders interested in getting into adventure motorcycling. As a lot of questions centered around gear, I figured it might be useful to gather this information together in one place to better help new-to-adventure-riding riders choose the right gear for getting started.

How to choose an adventure helmet or a dirt bike helmet
Adventure helmets and dirt bike helmets both have certain trade-offs in comfort and functionality. It all comes down to what you're looking for. RevZilla photo.

Adventure helmets vs. dirt bike helmets

When I bought my Triumph Tiger, I grabbed a Nexx XD-1 helmet (now called the X-Wild Enduro). I fell prey to the marketing. I wanted a fancy adventure-style helmet because that was the look I felt I should be going for. However, as I began to ride more off-road, the Nexx performed too much like a street helmet and not enough like a dirt helmet for my personal liking.

The reason you don’t see a lot of street helmets being used in the dirt is that they’re typically heavier and have less ventilation than their dirt-oriented counterparts and the eye ports aren’t large enough to house goggles. So why do those things matter so much off-road?

Amelia Kamrad How to Choose an Adventure Helmet vs a Dirt Helmet
Amelia Kamrad with her Leatt GPX 5.5, which is one of the best ventilated dirt bike helmets on the market. Its smaller shell size gives it a more compact look and lighter weight, while Leatt's turbine technology helps to reduce the force of rotational impacts transmitted to your brain. Photo by Steve Kamrad.

Dirt bike helmets 

Typically, when you are riding off-road you are traveling at much slower speeds than on the street and you are more physically engaged with the motorcycle. A lighter helmet, with better ventilation, will lessen fatigue and help to keep you cool. Goggles allow you to breathe heavily with minimal fogging and the foam lining helps to absorb sweat before it can drip into your eyes. Goggles also do a much better job of keeping dust and sand out of your peepers in dry conditions.

A dirt bike helmet is specifically designed to address all of those factors. As a typical dirt lid won’t have a built-in face shield or the ratcheting mechanism to operate it, they are usually lighter than a street helmet. Most feature large vents and air channels cut into the EPS layer to help to promote airflow while cutting additional weight. The large eye port allows goggles to fit perfectly into the helmet and the addition of a peak visor helps to shield the sun.

The downsides to a dirt helmet are less protection from the elements such as rain or cold temperatures, they are typically very loud as there is nothing to buffer road noise, and the peaks tend to catch air and pull at the rider’s head during high speeds. Because of this, some folks opt for an adventure helmet, like the aforementioned Nexx.

Will Scharvogel How to Choose an Adventure Helmet vs a Dirt Helmet
Our friend Will Scharvogel demonstrates how to use one's goggle strap as a sweat band with his Shoei Hornet Adventure Helmet. Photo by Steve Kamrad.

Adventure helmets

The adventure helmet is a relatively new creation that blends the comfort of a street lid with the off-road elements of a dirt helmet. They normally have a reinforced peak to reduce wind buffeting, a larger face shield that can be used with or without goggles, and most vent better than a typical street helmet. The trade off is that they’re not as good on the asphalt as a street helmet and not as good off-road as a dirt helmet.

In an ideal world, you’d have multiple helmets with you at all times and you would just pick which one you need at that exact moment. But we live in the real world where helmets are expensive investments and it’s not always feasible to pack multiple options. Therefore, I would recommend focusing on the features that matter most to you.

For example, if 90 percent of your riding is done on the pavement, save for a short fire road from time to time, you might be best sticking with your regular street helmet. If you’re planning on taking a longer trip where you’ll be splitting your time on- and off-road, then an adventure helmet could serve you well. If you’re looking for the best option to tackle the off-road portion of your ride than you’ll probably want to consider a dirt bike helmet.

How to choose an adventure helmet or a dirt bike helmet
The Scorpion AT-950 is a unique adventure helmet with modular functionality. RevZilla photo.

Helmet options

The Klim Krios is currently my personal favorite premium adventure helmet. While it doesn’t have the best ventilation, it weighs nearly a pound less than most of its competition and allows for goggles to be used without removal of the faceshield. If you’re adventuring on a budget, consider the Scorpion EXO-AT950, where adventure meets modularity in a really unique option. I used one on the Versys-X 300 launch and found it to perform really well in a variety of on- and off-road conditions.

As I primarily ride my adventure bike off-road (and I sweat terribly), I value maximum ventilation; hence I am most comfortable with a dirt helmet. My current lid is a Shoei VFX-W helmet (recently replaced by the new VFX-EVO) that wears the scars of nearly three years of abuse. But the dirt helmet that impressed me the most this past year has been the Bell MX-9 MIPS lid that I used for the KTM 1090 Adventure R review. For the money, you’d be hard pressed to find a dirt helmet with better combinations of safety and comfort.

Adventure jackets vs. dirt bike jerseys

When I first got into adventure riding, I just assumed that everyone wore the best adventure gear they could afford for all situations. Like most folks, I spent my time ogling the ads where guys are staged on the mountaintop wearing the fanciest new options, all while counting my pennies. What I learned is that there are plenty of options to get you started without breaking the piggy bank, and the most expensive options aren’t always the best.

How to choose your adventure jacket Steve Kamrad
Steve often prefers to wear full adventure gear when we ride. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Adventure jackets

ADV jackets typically come in two flavors: All-in-one or bring-your-own-layers.

All-in-one adventure options usually include some form of a thermal liner as well as a waterproof layer included with the jacket. Depending on their intended use, most of these options are designed to handle more than one season. The idea being you can modulate one jacket and ride through multiple months of the year.

With the bring-your-own-layers option, you are getting an armored shell. In most cases, there will be waterproof protection worked into the shell itself, which will feature direct vents for warm-weather riding but no additional layers for attacking the cold. The idea here is that you will invest in separate base and mid-layers to wear, depending on the climate in which you are riding.

Both of these options are usually suitable for street riding as well as off-roading. The shells are usually made from an abrasion-resistant material designed to hold up in a crash on asphalt and impact armor is normally included as a standard offering.

How to choose an adventure jacket or a dirt bike jersey Mike Lafferty
Dirt-style gear offers maximum breathability and range of motion when you're riding tight, aggressive terrain in the heat of the summer. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Dirt bike jerseys

By comparison, motorcycle jerseys are relatively low-tech. They are nothing more than a lightweight polyester material available with differing levels of perforation. They are typically worn over stand-alone armor that provides impact protection at the elbows, shoulders, chest, and back.

The advantage of using a jersey/armor combo is that it’s usually lighter than an ADV jacket and offers better airflow to keep you cool. This will help to lessen fatigue while battling gnarly stretches of off-road riding. Because the armor is literally strapped into place on your body, there is less of a chance it will shift upon impact. The downside to this setup is that there is little to no abrasion resistance in the event of a crash on asphalt.

How to choose Adventure Jackets vs Dirt bike jerseys
My buddy Mike Klaser prefers using the Leatt 5.5 Body protector as a standalone option, sans jersey. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Options

I prefer a jersey setup if I know I am going to be riding off-road. I feel less restricted and more comfortable in this configuration. I recently upgraded to the Leatt 5.5 Body Protector as an early Christmas present to myself prior to heading out to tackle the L.A. to Barstow to Vegas dual-sport ride. I wear it underneath whatever Troy Lee Designs jersey has the most obnoxious color scheme. The Thor Sentry XP Body Protector is another solid option that offers CE-level protection, but it doesn’t have the adjustability that the Leatt offers.

While I prefer riding off-road in dirt-inspired gear (with a Klim shell worn overtop when I’m on the street), my buddy Steve Kamrad, who is a beast in the ADV community, regularly wears a full Rev’It! Cayenne Pro suit off-road. Scorpion's Yosemite jacket is another option to check out if you're looking for a something with a lower cost of entry. It really comes down to your individual preferences. 

How to choose adventure gear
Ryan Wheatley mixing it up with his Rev'It! Sand 3 jacket with a pair of motocross pants. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Adventure pants vs. dirt bike pants

A lot of what we discussed in jackets applies to pants, as well. You can go the ADV route, which will feature varying levels of waterproof and thermal layers with impact armor built into an abrasion-resistant shell. Or you can get a pair of off-road pants and opt for separate knee and hip armor.

The one thing I’ll stress with pants is that in my experience individual knee and hip armor often stays in place and offers better protection than the armor built into the pants themselves. I prefer knee guards with some type of hinged system. I am currently using the Leatt Dual Axis Knee guards with the Forcefield action shorts, which hold the hip armor in place against my body.

Pants options

You shouldn’t be afraid to mix and match jackets, jerseys, and pants to find a combination that works for you and your budget, as well as the conditions in which you are riding. For the longest time, I used a jersey setup with Klim Latitude pants because that’s what I had. Eventually, the lack of ventilation and the Gore-Tex shell became too much to bear in the heat of the summer and I picked up a pair of the Klim Mojave In The Boot pants for better airflow. I found they handled more abuse without ripping or tearing than some of the more expensive options that I’ve tried. 

How to choose Adventure Gear vs Dirt Bike gear
Off-road boots come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Adventure boots vs. dirt bike boots

Boots are probably the most important piece of gear for riding off-road. The first time you smash your foot into a rock or get your ankle trapped underneath a 500-pound machine, you’ll be thankful for the protection. Even with full-on dirt boots, I have managed to break toes and bruise ankles.

If your adventures don’t take you off-road, you can get away with street-oriented boots. What they sacrifice in protection, they make up for in comfort during long days in the saddle. As long as you are not dabbing over rocks, dodging tree branches, and breaking your toes on trail gates, they should serve you just fine.

The biggest complaint I hear from riders making the shift to true off-road boots is that they are heavy and uncomfortable. Dirt boots feature extremely rigid soles for standing on the pegs as well as large amounts of armored TPU to guard against regular crashes and blows. The trade off for that level of protection is a boot that can be quite stiff, heavy, and uncomfortable.

How to choose adventure gear
I customized my TCX Comp Evos by cutting off the top lip on the inner side of the boots. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Boot options

The TCX X-Desert boots served as my first pair of off-road boots. However, they were still much more focused toward the street than I would have liked, so I ended up moving to the TCX X-Helium Michelin boots. They served as a happy medium between the conflicting goals of protection and comfort. The Alpinestars Tech line of boots is another popular option, as they have a variety of offerings to fit all budgets.

Keep in mind that it’s always important to spend time getting familiar with your gear and how it works with the bike prior to tackling a big ride. For example, I recently bought a pair of TCX Comp EVO 2 Michelin Boots to replace my old X-Heliums. The top piece of TPU kept catching under the seat of the KTM 1090 Adventure R. I’d go to dab, my foot would get stuck to the bike and, more often than not, I’d fall over. I used a Dremel and cut about a half an inch of plastic off the top of the inside of the boot. That one little change made all the difference in the world. 

How to choose adventure gloves vs dirt bike gloves
Adventure-style gloves like the Rev'It! Sand 3s on the left are usually beefier to offer protection on the street, unlike the Alpinestars Megawatt gloves, which are really just a motocross glove with armored knuckles. RevZilla photo.

Adventure gloves vs. dirt bike gloves

On the highway, you might ride many miles without touching the clutch or brake levers. When riding off-road, you are constantly using your motorcycle’s controls, especially the clutch. Gloves that are super beefy can cause fatigue while gloves that are too light can leave you susceptible to injury on branches or rocks.

Street gloves can utilize multiple layers of armor, insulation, and waterproofing to keep your paws safe and comfortable, regardless of the climate. Unfortunately, all of that bulk means your hands have to work even harder to perform their regular actions. While this is normally not a problem for average street riding, bulky gloves can become a distraction once the pavement ends.

This is why motocross riders use extremely lightweight options with no insulation or waterproof liners and little to no armored protection. The result is a pair of gloves that allows the rider to constantly interact with the controls with minimal resistance. Motocrossers don’t have to worry about hitting trees or rocks on a race track, however.  Unfortunately, avoiding those obstacles in the woods is damn near impossible and when your hands do hit the ground, a bit of padding and armor can save you from a painful and disabling injury.

Glove options

If you plan to tackle street and dirt in the same trip, I’d recommend looking for a glove with some knuckle protection and light padding on the palm while shying away from insulation or waterproof liners. I prefer a bit of mesh for airflow and touchscreen fingertips come in handy when interacting with a GPS or smart phone. My old Rev’It! Dirt 2 gloves finally gave out on me and I replaced them with a pair of the new Rev’It! Sand 3 gloves

Those are about as beefy as I would want to go when off-road riding is involved. If I know I am only going to be off-road, I’ll use something even lighter. I have a pair of the Klim Mojave Pro Gloves that I really like. The Alpinestars Megawatt gloves are an excellent option if you have smaller hands with slender fingers.

How to choose adventure gear
Regardless of how much gear you wear, at some point, you're going to get wet. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Waterproofing: Summer vs. winter

For riding off-road in the warmer months of the year, I find waterproof gear to be pointless. Once you start moving, you’re going to be sweating no matter what and that waterproof membrane intended to keep you dry will just work to trap all of that sweat inside your gear, soaking you from the inside out. If it does start raining, you’re going to be so busy splashing through puddles and mud that it’ll be next to impossible to stay dry.

In the colder months of the year, waterproof membranes and liners can actually work in your favor, helping to block the wind and keep you warm as well as dry. This goes for those of you not venturing too far off the beaten path, as well. If you are using your ADV bike as a long-haul touring machine, there is nothing worse than spending 500 miles sitting in soggy drawers. The right waterproof gear can mean the difference between a miserable ride in the rain and an enjoyable adventure.

Options

Gore-Tex options are great but keep in mind that if the Gore-Tex is built into the shell it can cause you to overheat when riding off-road in the warmer months of the year. If you’re pulling double duty with your gear, I’d recommend considering options with removable liners when riding off-road in the summer.

Or, you can just invest in a cheap rain suit. This is usually the route that I take if I think ahead enough to even plan for rain. A rain suit is a much more affordable alternative to expensive Gore-Tex suits. I like the Fly Rain Suit for its beefy construction and low cost of entry. 

How to choose adventure gear vs dirt bike gear
Even in my little ragtag group of friends, everyone takes a different approach to their off-road gear. There isn't a right or a wrong answer. It's more about finding the combinations that work for you. Photo by Jen Indovina.

Conclusion

There are no right or wrong answers, just different alternatives to choose from. Getting into a new sport or type of riding can be intimidating because often times you’re not even sure where to start or even what questions to ask. That's why we spend a lot of time reading your questions in the comments section and listening to your questions should we meet you in public. Our goal is to lower the barriers to entry via education for anyone looking to dive into riding motorcycles, regardless of the style.

As with so many things in life, choosing the right adventure gear boils down to your individual needs and preferences. Take an honest look at the kind of riding you do and use this guide to make informed decisions and choose the gear that best serves your needs.