When I was a teenager the only protective dirt biking gear I wore was a cheap helmet.
When I got back into riding as an adult, I started off the same way. But over the years I have gradually increased the amount of safety gear that my family wears.
We are recreational trail riders. We don’t race, we don’t ride super fast, and we don’t like super technical trails. But even while out enjoying an easy trail ride, mishaps sometimes happen. Usually nothing serious happens, but sometimes someone gets hurt.
I can’t tell you what safety gear to wear, but I share my story in hopes that someone will learn from our experiences. At least I hope it gives you something to think about…
My first dirt biking adventure as an adult occurred in 2001. A friend invited me and my oldest son to spend a few days riding trails in the San Rafael Swell. We picked up a couple of cheap helmets at a local shop. They weren’t the best helmets in the world, but they seemed to work okay at first.
It didn’t take long to learn that I needed a pair of goggles. The dust on that first ride was miserable. After buying some goggles, I found out that they would not fit inside the face opening in the cheap helmets – so I either needed a better helmet, or smaller goggles.
On that first ride I also learned that I needed a good pair of gloves. Even though I never crashed, I got some serious blisters on my hands.
I have gone through a lot of gloves since then, and I have found that having a good fit is critical for comfort and hand protection. I tried ordering some gloves on-line, but they never fit very well. It is worth going to a dealer and trying on several pair. Be sure to grip a handlebar and see if any of the seams rub.
It is also nice to have some warmer gloves when the weather is bad.
Another lesson I learned on that first ride is the value of durable boots. I was just wearing some tennis shoes when I clipped a rock with my toe. Did that hurt.
So, we picked up some $20 over-the-ankle work boots from Payless Shoes. This gave us better protection, but I learned they were not good enough when my son broke his leg on a freak fall.
I then invested in motorcycle boots for the entire family. I bought cheap ones at first, but soon learned you get what you pay for. The cheaper boots have very little lateral support. One of my other son’s rolled his ankle trying to keep his bike from tipping over. The boot did not offer as much support as I thought it would.
I recommend a quality pair of boots with hinged metal inserts in the sides. Not only do they give better lateral support, they are more comfortable and much easier to walk in.
I think quality boots are well worth the investment. I can’t believe how many times I have caught my toe on tree roots or rocks, and how often rocks have flipped up into my foot. Without good boots, you are very likely to get injured.
Pants & Jerseys
When we first started riding we wore blue jeans or camping pants. When my daughter split her knee open we realized that type of pant didn’t offer much protection. We also found out that they get really dirty, and if it rains, you get soaked.
So, we invested in a set of motorcycle pants and jerseys. I went with bright colors so that my kids would be highly visible to reduce the risk of someone running into them.
I now prefer over-the-boot pants. Not only does it help keep water out of your boots, they come with pockets.
When my son rolled his ankle, he also bruised his knee. So, I decided to invest in knee/shin guards for everyone. We just got some cheap $20 guards, and at first no one wanted to wear them, but it didn’t take long for everyone to get used to them.
I like the padding they provide for my knees. It is much more comfortable to squeeze the fuel tank with my legs while wearing the knee guards.
On a recent trip I fell in some rocks and my bike fell on top of my leg. If I didn’t have the shin guards and boots, I am sure it would have broken my leg. Even with the protective gear, I suffered a serious bruise and swelling. I have now invested in a better pair of knee guards which offer more protection for my shin and a lot more for my knee.
These knee guards offer a little bit of lateral protection, but not as much as a true knee brace. If you have knee problems, or if you like technical riding, you might consider a much better knee brace.
For trail riding I like the Leatt Dual-Axis knee guards, but for longer dual-sport rides I find them too uncomfortable. After about 60 miles the chaffing starts to bother me. So for dual sport rides I use the Leatt 3DF knee guards.
You may have noticed a pattern here… Someone in the family gets hurt, and then we buy better protective gear.
A broken leg or arm is an inconvenience, but a broken neck is a life altering event. Therefore I decided to get neck braces before anyone suffered a neck injury.
There are many types of neck braces to choose from. I went with a simple neck collar. It is easy to put on, and once you get riding you seldom even notice it. From what I have read, most motorcycle neck injuries are a result of hyper-extending the neck either forward or backward. The collar simply limits how far your helmet can tip. I am pretty sure these collars have prevented us from sustaining more serious injury.
The latest addition to our collection is upper body armor. Many people wear the plastic roost protectors, but they don’t offer the kind of protection I want. Since I don’t race, I am not getting roosted all of the time. But I do fall down on occasion. On a number of occasions I have bruised some ribs; either from hitting the handlebars, or from landing on my back.
Most of my crashes are low-speed ‘tip overs’. I loose my balance while going slowly through a rocky section of trail. So I want something that will protect me from those rocks that I fall on. My ‘moving’ crashes have usually been in deep sand. The landing might be soft – unless you happen to clip the handlebars with your ribs or something.
After doing a fair amount of research I decided on the Fox Titan Sport Jacket. It offers some protection for your arms, elbows, shoulders, chest, and back. I wanted something that was not too hot or too uncomfortable, or I would never wear it. I have only been wearing upper body armor for a few months, but I have already been very glad to have it.
The Fox Titan Sport Jacket worked pretty well for me, but I decided to try the Leatt Chest Protector 5.5 Pro HD because it gives a little better rib protection. I also picked up some Leatt 3DF elbow guards.
I think the Leatt outfit provides better protection and I will use it for trail riding. The Fox Titan is a little less restrictive, so I will probably still use that for dual-sport and adventure rides.
Staying hydrated is vital to safe dirt biking. At first I used a fanny pack with water bottles, but found it difficult to take a drink without removing my helmet. I later switched to a hydration backpack. It took a while to train my children to frequently take a sip of water in order to stay hydrated. This became easier when they made it a contest to see who could come the closest to emptying their pack by the end of the day.
Over the years I have added more and more safety and emergency gear to my pack. It was becoming uncomfortable to carry everything. So I have now switched to an Ogio Flight Vest. I can carry more weight without it interfering with riding because the weight is distributed. It is also nice having some pockets in front so I can easily access my car keys, phone, wallet, snacks, etc.
First Aid Kit
The most common dirt bike injuries include pain, burns (from the exhaust), cuts and scrapes, bruises, dehydration, and broken bones. It is important to carry some basic first aid supplies to treat these conditions.
In my opinion, one of the most valuable items in my first aid kit is a SAM Splint. In 2012 we made good use of this when my youngest son suffered a double compound fracture on his arm.
Another aspect of safety is your bike’s health. It is not uncommon for someone in the group to have a mechanical problem while out on the trail. I personally carry tire repair tools on my front fender and an assortment of other tools on the rear fender. Perhaps my most useful tool is my tow strap. It is very compact, but comes in very handy when someone is unable to get their bike started. I usually use it to tow someone else out, but once I had to get towed 10 miles back to the car. A very worthwhile investment.
And finally a word about helmet radios. While not a piece of protective gear, our helmet radios are an important part of our safety package. The radios allow us all to communicate while we ride, which is both enjoyable and safer. I frequently warn my family of an obstacle in the trail or which way to turn at a junction so they don’t get lost. Check out my blog writeup on the lessons we have learned over the years regarding helmet radio equipment.
Quality safety gear is expensive – but so is surgery or a visit to the hospital. Dirt biking has inherent risks associated with it. Good judgement and wisdom are by far the most critical aspects of riding safely, and in my opinion, wearing good protective is a sign of wisdom. Hopefully I have given you some things to think about, and perhaps will help your and family ride in greater safety.