Why Motorcycle Base Layers Are ESSENTIAL For Touring

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Base layers are most often linked to those who are into fitness. Hikers, runners, cyclists, climbers, adventurers etc.

But I’ve got news for you. As a touring biker, you too can include yourself in this category. With ever-changing weather conditions and climates, you could be touring in the cold and wet, the hot and humid, or a combination of all four.

And I think the main reason many bikers forego motorcycle base layers is due to the common misconception that they exist solely for warmth and insulation – a problem easily solved by adding an extra t-shirt, right?

Wrong! And actually, it’s wrong on almost every level.

Here’s why.

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motorcycle base layers under leathers
Image: Marcel Karg

The Concept Of Layering

When we talk about layers, we don’t mean layers of just anything.

Layering up multiple cotton t-shirts isn’t the same as layering up base layers. Done properly, what you’re actually layering up are technical materials that have specific jobs.

You can add or remove each of the layers depending on the conditions. And it’s this addition or removal of layers that work to keep you warm, keep you cool, keep you comfortable, and most importantly, keep you dry.

And because they’re light and packable, you can mix and match to create just the right environment for your body to function optimally – and thus keep you feeling optimal in the process.

the north face winter jacket
Image: Andrea Rondon

Benefits Of A Layering System For Motorcyclists

  • Wick away moisture – keeping you dry
  • Low friction – keeping you comfortable
  • Ventilated – keeping you cool
  • Temperature control – keeping you warm

I wear base layers for running, cycling, and hiking for their intended purposes.

But wearing them for touring has transformed my riding enjoyment. Winter layers keep me warm, whilst summer layers keep me cool.

Both of them wick away moisture – keeping me comfortable and dry. But they also provide a barrier between me and my riding kit.

In warmer climates especially, I find the combination of bike gear rubbing on hot, sweaty skin to be somewhat uncomfortable.

Motorcycle base layers allow me to regulate temperature, dryness, and comfort all in one go.

Related: Why HIKING Gear Is Better Than BIKING Gear

motorcycle base layers for off-roading
Image: Andrea Piacqadio

How Motorcycle Base Layers Should Fit

Base layers should be seen as a second skin. In other words, the very first thing you put on when you get dressed is base layers. They form a second skin that occupies the space between your actual skin and your clothing.

As a result, they should be fitted, not loose. If they’re restricting your movement or are making you uncomfortable, you probably need a larger size than the ones you’re trying to squeeze yourself into.

But they shouldn’t be loose-fitting or baggy, either.

rider on ducati off-road
Image: Krishan Kanojia

What The Hell Is “Wicking”?

When you begin delving into the world of base layers, “wicking” comes up a lot. So what is it? And why does it matter?

Well, wicking is the bread and butter of base layers. Most people think base layers are to keep you warm. And they do keep you warm, but their primary function is to wick away moisture from the skin.

I’m pretty sure that most people in their lives have been caught in hot weather and ended up getting hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable – whether that’s through being on holiday in a hot climate, exercising, or even having to run for a bus in your work clothes. We’ve all been there!

As you sweat, your clothes become wet. And when they’re wet, they stick to you – they become uncomfortable and restrictive. And eventually, they start to chafe and rub on your skin.

They’re also the reason why you’re boiling hot when you run – but then instantly feel cold the moment you stop. The moisture in your clothing gets cold and wet and sits on the surface of your skin – making you go very cold, very quickly.

This is where wicking comes in. Wicking fabric removes the moisture (sweat) from your skin and moves it to the surface of the material where it evaporates.

In other words, it “wicks away” moisture – keeping you warm (or cool), dry, and comfortable.

motorcycle base layers - rider in front of snowcapped mountain in desert
Image: Beepin

Merino vs Synthetic Motorcycle Base Layers

Base layers come in a range of materials. And some of them perform better in certain conditions than others.

Synthetic Base Layers

If you tour in hot countries during the summer months, synthetic base layers are great. Not only are they relatively cheap, but they’re also super light and unrestrictive.

Furthermore, they’re quick-drying – which means you can wash them in the shower when you finish your ride, and they will be dry in the morning before you jump on the bike again.

The negative to synthetic base layers is that they don’t naturally contain antibacterial properties. In other words, they get a bit stinky after a day of sweating in the saddle!

Of course, you could wear synthetic base layers for multiple days if you really had to. But they really ought to be washed after each use.

They’re also not usually as warm as merino layers. And this is why I tend to use synthetic layers in the summer and merino layers in the winter.

rider on coastal road with beach and sea
Image: Luu Thai Quang Khai

Merino Wool Base Layers

Merino wool undoubtedly makes for the best motorcycle base layers if you’re touring in winter. Coming from merino sheep, it’s sauced from a living, breathing organism – so it naturally does a great job of regulating body temperature and keeping you warm without letting you overheat.

Unlike synthetic layers, however, merino layers have tiny air pockets that wick away moisture from the skin. And by retaining heat within the fibres, they also do a better job of keeping you warm. 

Merino layers help your body to self regulate – and this means they work with your skin to keep you cool or keep you warm. And due to their natural antibacterial properties, they don’t get whiffy after a day in the saddle, which means you can get away with wearing them for a few days.

But merino wool isn’t without its drawbacks.

For a start, it’s a natural product – and that makes it quite a bit more expensive than a comparable synthetic product.

And whilst it does wick away moisture, it doesn’t do it quite as well as synthetic materials (in my opinion.) That said, merino layers are certainly better at keeping you warm in colder conditions than synthetic ones.

motorcycle base layers for winter riding - rider on snow
Image: Simom Caban

Other Materials

Recently, we’ve seen developments in alternative materials being used as base layers. Many brands now also produce hybrid layers – layers made up of various materials to get the best of both worlds.

You can now even get base layers made from bamboo!

The Layers In Layering

The beauty of layering is that it’s completely customisable depending on the individual and the circumstances.

In other words, a layering system is interchangeable, and usually includes:

  • A base layer – this is your “second skin”
  • A warmer mid-layer – usually a full zip or half zip technical fleece
  • An outer layer – in our case, a motorcycle jacket
  • And a waterproof layer – if you opt for one
man zipping up winter coat
Image: Daniel Battersby

The Base Layer

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to focus on motorcycle base layers for winter riding – so merino or thermal base layers. If you’re interested in a layering system for warmer weather, check out our dedicated post on summer motorcycle base layers.

As mentioned above, the base layer is your second skin and is the garment that goes on before anything else. It sits directly between your skin and your clothes.

For winter riding, merino wool is my choice of choices. And I also tend to buy long sleeve motorcycle base layers for both winter and summer riding. I personally find them much more comfortable than their short-sleeved counterparts, and they prevent chaffing between me and the material of my riding gear or boots.

Merino base layers also look pretty good on their own – so you can wear one for dinner and not look out of place. This saves you from carrying additional clothes for in the evenings.

edz merino motorcycle base layers

The Mid-Layer

For early or late winter (where it’s cold but not freezing) I usually opt for a full zip fleece. Why a full zip and not a half zip? Because I can slip it on and off without removing my helmet.

As with base layers, mid-layers also can be used as evening wear – saving you from carrying any extra clothes.

If it’s really cold, I tend to swap out the fleece for a microfibre down jacket. These are ridiculously thin yet provide an insane amount of warmth and insulation.

When you’re not wearing it, you can scrunch it up into a tiny ball and stuff it in a pocket or in your top box.

rukka aldrich mid top

The Outer Layer

As touring motorcyclists, this would be our motorcycle jacket. The outer layer is our first line of defence again rain, hail, sleet, snow, and wind.

Whilst your outer layer provides warmth and insulation, you can actually worry less about that because your base and mid-layers are already taking care of it.

So now your outer layer becomes about protection – from accidents and the elements.

motorcycle base layers - oxford mondial riding jacket

The Waterproof Layer

Most bikers dispense with this layer as their riding jacket is usually waterproof. But I always carry a waterproof layer in my top box!

I’ve gone through various “waterproof” motorcycle jackets in my time. But most of them fail at some point in torrential downpours.

And if your jacket fails, it’ll be a very cold and wet ride to your destination.

A lightweight waterproof jacket is cheap, compact, and can be worn over or under your main riding jacket.

oxford rainseal jacket

Motorcycle Base Layer Pants

People tend to go for base layer tops but ignore the pants – and I couldn’t disagree more. Personally, I find boots rubbing on bare skin intolerable – especially if it’s raining or hot.

Base layer pants add a hugely welcome barrier between my leg and my boots.

Not only that but just look at how much of your body and skin is taken up by your legs! Keeping them warm/cool and dry makes a massive difference to your overall comfort.

ixs motorcycle base layers

Conclusion

You have to be ruthless with what you pack and what you leave at home when touring. Motorcycle base layers are a game-changer.

Don’t ignore them!


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