Textiles Or Leathers For Motorcycle Touring: Which Are Best?

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I dread to think how many people rolled their eyes when they saw the title of this post. Because the answer is obvious, isn’t it?

For those of you screaming “TEXTILES” at your phone as you read this, hold on a second!

And for those of you screaming “LEATHERS”, hold your horses.

Because if you’re a newbie, it might not be quite the clear-cut answer.

See, when I first started my riding lessons, I was bungled into ill-fitting textiles and sent out onto the pad to learn how to ride around traffic cones.

And that seemed odd to me. Because in the movies, at least, bikers wore leathers and looked cool.

I wanted that.

I wanted cool. Because who doesn’t love the look of the leathers and big boots?!

And I wanted a beard down to my belly button. With shades. And a roll-up hanging out of my mouth.

But then I passed my test and was ushered out into the real world. And it was here that I realised I would end up in one camp or the other.

Because that’s when I discovered touring.

traditional biker with leathers and cigarette
The look of the traditional biker wearing leathers

Textiles Or Leathers: Making The Decision

For the first few years, I dabbled in textiles and leathers.

I got my first bike on a freezing cold Christmas Eve. I went down to my local bike shop and decided on a big textile jacket for the cold, northern winter.

Which worked well!

Until summer came along. And then I found myself forever hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable.

Having made some new biker friends, I acquired a second-hand leather jacket and bought some leather pants to match.

So you can imagine my confusement (yes, that is a word – I checked!) when I found I was just as hot under the surprising weight of the leathers as I was in textiles.

triumph rider in leathers - textiles vs leathers
Leathers aren’t as light or as cool as they look (image Ioac Roman/Unsplash)

And so it began; a tumultuous game of leathers vs textiles roulette until I finally found what worked for me.

But it only became really important when I started to tour. Because now it mattered. Choosing gear for a two-week tour isn’t the same as choosing gear for your Sunday morning ride-out.

These decisions have the power to make or break your tour.

For newbies out there who find themselves in the situation above, this is what I found.

Leathers: The Positives

Leathers are typically made from cowhide. You can get others (such as kangaroo or goat) but they tend to be expensive.

Cowhide gives excellent abrasive qualities for the price it costs to source. So you generally get more bang for your buck.

Buying leathers can be a bit of a palava. You can’t simply buy one off the internet. It needs to fit you in such a way that it becomes a piece of you. It should be like a second skin.

The fitting of leathers has become such an art that you can now buy tailored leathers in the same way you can buy tailored suits on Savile Row. Check out BSK Leathers for examples.

bmw rider in leathers
Leathers come bespoke – just like a tailored suit (image via Vander Films)

Designed For The Human Form

And whilst you can buy them off-the-peg, you still need to go down to the store and try them on in person.

As with a pair of good hiking boots, leathers need to be broken in. They come pre-contoured to fit the human form. But as with hiking boots, they mold to the shape of your body over time.

They become unique to you. And that makes them incredibly comfortable.

It’s true, that you might have a bit of a palpitation when you glimpse at the price tag. But if you look after them, leathers can last for years.

If you’re into that nostalgic look and feel (and value bespoke comfort), leathers can be a great option.

Leathers: The Negatives

Put that credit card away, because leathers also come with their drawbacks!

First and foremost, they don’t fair well in a range of weather conditions. Hell, they don’t fair well in most weather conditions.

You will be hot in the summer, and freezing in the winter. They’re heavy. And whilst comfortable on the bike, they can be restrictive and uncomfortable when off the bike.

Nor will you have anywhere to store anything.

Except maybe a credit card.

And if you’re wearing them for touring, be aware that when (not if) you encounter the rain, your leathers will do an awful job of keeping you dry.

Furthermore, if they get a proper drenching, it takes them days to dry. So you’ll be trying to shimmy yourself into cold, wet leathers for the next few days.

Related: Motorcycle Riding In The Rain: Part 1

track rider wearing leathers - textiles vs leathers
Leathers don’t do well in the rain!

Leathers Aren’t Waterproof

With this in mind, what do you do about the rain, then? Well, you go out and buy a set of waterproofs. So that’s more money you have to spend on top of the small fortune you’ve just shelled out for the leathers.

And for touring, I’d recommend getting yourself a decent set of waterproofs to be doubly sure that the rain doesn’t get them wet.

So if they’re hot in the summer and cold in the winter, when are you supposed to wear them?

Well, when the weather is just right! You can of course add layers when it’s a touch cold. But when the weather is warm (but not hot), leathers really come into their own.

And for sheer riding freedom, they’re unbeatable.

As they are fitted, there is no loose fabric flapping about. The perforations around the chest, back, and arms allow cool air in and hot air out.

And when you’re in the tuck position blitzing over Furka pass in perfect 30-degree heat, you’ll be glad you chose to bring leathers.

Related: Motorcycle Touring Rain Gear: Get One Up On The Weather

husqvarna rider wearing leather jacket
Wearing leathers means carrying waterproofs (image via Husqvarna)

Textiles: The Positives

There are many positives to textiles; the first of which is versatility.

It doesn’t matter if you’re riding in the heat, in the cold, in the dry or in the wet. There are textiles available for all conditions. There are even four-season textiles that can be worn in all weather conditions thanks to removable inner liners.

The other main positive with textiles is that they range from “water-resistant” to full-on “waterproof.”

And whilst they aren’t without their drawbacks (such as ventilation), there’s something to be said about completing your ride and making it back to your hotel as dry as when you left.

There’s also something quite satisfying about not having to stop to put on waterproofs when the rain starts to fall. You can carry on riding in the knowledge that you’ll stay dry.

The removable liners can be quickly taken out if you get warm. And they can be put back in when the temperature drops.

Furthermore, as they have a looser fit than leathers, you can comfortably add layers (or a heated jacket) underneath when it really gets cold.

ktm with pillion riding off-road
Loose fit textiles allow room from layers underneath (image via KTM)

An Abundance Of Pockets

In terms of storage, where leathers have barely enough space to store a credit card, your textiles will come with an abundance of weather-sealed pockets.

You’ll likely have two side pockets in your jacket, as well as one or two chest pockets, and one or two inner pockets.

Pants also have two pockets on the sides as well as a back pocket. Some even have secret pockets on the inside to store your cash or passport.

Finally, textiles lend themselves well to year-round riding. I live in Manchester which means we get very cold, wet winters.

But we’ve also been getting 35-38 degree summers.

In the spring and autumn months, we can have a whole range of conditions!

From this perspective, a decent set of textiles means I can go and ride, whatever the weather.

Textiles: The Negatives

The negatives of textiles are actually few and far between.

There’s no doubt that textiles don’t look as cool as leathers. And if I was cruising down Blue Ridge Parkway on a Harley-Davidson, I’d be wearing a leather jacket and jeans.

Whilst laminated textiles are 100% waterproof, they do have a tendency to lack ventilation. Which means you can find yourself on the warmer side during a summer storm.

Most textiles also come with a variety of velcro and buckle fastenings to stop excess material from flapping about.

But no about of velcro will make your textiles fit as perfectly as leathers.

bmw off-road - textiles vs leathers
While functional, textiles will never look as cool as leathers (image via BMW)

Textiles Or Leathers: The Cost

So how much does it all cost?

Well, as mentioned above, leathers are expensive. You can buy cheap ones, expensive ones, and anywhere in between.

If you’ve got the money, you can even buy fitted ones.

And as mentioned above, you’ll still need to buy waterproofs to go over the top if it rains.

Textiles are (in general) way cheaper than leathers. But it isn’t quite as simple as looking at the price tags and buying textiles.

Because whilst four-season textiles will keep you warm in winter, they won’t be as good as dedicated winter textiles.

And whilst you can remove the liners in summer, they won’t keep you as cool as dedicated mesh textiles which are (in my opinion) essential in the warmer months.

So you’ll usually find that more experienced riders have at least two sets of textiles. They have one for the cooler months, and one for the warmer months.

When you look at these side by side, buying two sets of decent textiles will cost approximately the same as one good set of leathers.

biker on honda wearing jeans
Different textiles for different weather conditions (image via Pixabay)

Textiles Or Leathers: Best Protection

Back in the day, leathers always won this argument. Because if you had to be in an accident, you’d chose to have it in leathers over textiles any day of the week.

But these days, it isn’t quite as clear-cut.

If you plan on tracking your bike when you tour, then you will absolutely need leathers. You simply aren’t allowed on racing circuits without leathers.

But outside of that, technology is improving all the time. And textiles are now as protective as leathers in ‘normal’ riding conditions.

For example, textiles now combine various materials of different weights at contact points. And this enhances protection whilst keeping the weight of the jacket down.

rider on retro honda
Leathers and textiles use the same armour

Matched In Protection

Moreover, leathers and textiles tend to use the same armour these days, too. And both tend to have shoulder sliders which induce sliding after a crash rather than tumbling.

From a personal experience, I’ve never had a crash wearing leathers. But I have had one serious incident wearing textiles. I’m pleased to say they protected me just fine. And despite the usual bumps and bruises the following day, I was otherwise unhurt and the textiles held up well.

Speaking of armour, be sure to check the safety of the armour in your garment of choice. Almost all leathers and textiles come with CE level 1 protection. But some come with a better standard of protection than others.

But don’t worry if the garment you want doesn’t come with the armour rating you want. You can usually buy the armour separately to replace the ones already in the garment.

Also, not all leathers and textiles come with back protection. In fact, most of them don’t come with back protection. But they do usually have designated slots in the liner to put back armour in if you wish to buy it separately.

Leathers Or Textiles: Conclusion

traditional biker on retro bike
Buy what makes you comfortable (image via Sinitta Leunen)

Ultimately, which one you choose will come down to personal preference.

Where one is comfortable and unique to your body shape, the other is versatile and waterproof.

But both offer oodles of protection.

If money is a driving factor and you want to get year-round use out of your clothing, then textiles offer up the most competitive option.

But if you prefer the look and feel of leathers or intend to ride Almeria circuit on your trip to Southern Spain, then you have your answer!

Whatever you choose, don’t listen to folk who ram the virtues of leathers or textiles down your throat just because you chose the other.

At the end of the day, you’ll be the one wearing them. So choose wisely, and choose the ones that work best for you, your riding style, and your environment.

Top image via Vander Films

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