The importance of a full-faced helmet was something Steve Kurtiak learned the hard way. Fortunately, he says, he also learned it early in his riding career.
“I remember it well because it hurt. It was back in 1979, before I joined the Army. I was still a snot-nosed kid riding in the motocross circuit,” the now-retired helicopter mechanic says.
Back then, he was still wearing a three-quarter-style helmet, the kind that comes down around your ears but doesn’t guard your face and chin.
Too bad for his front teeth. When he hit a bump at an awkward angle, the front of his bike came up and his face went down, knocking out one tooth and cracking another.
He’s been wearing a full-faced helmet ever since.
It’s just one lesson from more than 40 years of near-daily riding that has culminated in his current job as the chief of the Army’s Motorcycle Safety Program at Fort Rucker, Ala. He says smart riding is not just about your skills on a motorcycle, but wearing the right gear.
“My rule is all the gear, all the time,” he says. “Dress for the slide, not for the ride.”
That means not only investing in a good helmet, but a full suit of head-to-toe protection as well. In fact, military regulations require all motorcycle-riding troops — whether on duty or off — to wear not only a helmet, but also eye protection, “abrasion-resistant” jacket and pants, gloves and sturdy over-the-ankle boots when on a bike.
Here’s what Kurtiak and other riding experts recommend:
Types: Full face, three-quarter, half.
Military regs do not require a full-faced helmet, but Kurtiak highly recommends one.
“A half helmet only protects half your head,” he says.
Whatever you get, look for Transportation Department “DOT” certification to ensure it meets the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218 required for military riders. Wearing a DOT-certified helmet reduces the chance of dying in a crash by 37 percent, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Consider getting a helmet that’s European “EC” certified if you think you’ll be stationed overseas. It’ll save you from having to buy a new helmet when you go.
When picking one out, Kurtiak recommends brighter-colored options to help you stand out in traffic. “That’s the highest point people will see you.”
A good fit is critical. It should be snug, but not uncomfortable. When you find one you like, wear it around the store for about 15 minutes. “If you start to experience hot spots, it’s probably too tight.”
Another fitting trick: If you can grab the back of the helmet and pull it off — or almost pull it off — it’s too loose.
Venting systems are a big plus for hot-weather riders.
Kurtiak is a fan of the Scorpion series of helmets because of their light weight and fit, but says there many good manufacturers. Just steer clear of novelty helmets. Most are junk, and many will do more harm than good in a crash.
And don’t skimp on price. You can spend hundreds, but don’t spend less than about $90.
Types: Leather or textile.
Sure, technically, you can ride without a jacket, but why would you? It’s like riding without a seat belt. Imagine getting hit by a bug or swarm of bugs at 60 mph while wearing just a shirt. It hurts.
Leather, Kevlar or Cordura-type fabrics are “strongly suggested, but not required.” Leather has been protecting humanity for centuries and won’t get shredded in minor spills. Leather can get hot in warmer months, which makes the lighter and cooler textile jackets an attractive choice for many.
Regardless of the material, look for up-armored jackets with added padding in the elbows, shoulders and spine for the best protection.
You’ll also want to be sure it seals out the wind and weather, so look for good closures at the neck, wrists and waist. Venting zippers will help keep you cool.
For colder climes, models like the Harley-Davidson FXRG jacket, which comes in both leather and textile versions, have built-in heating elements that you can either plug into your bike or wear with a battery pack.
Types: Chaps, overpants — leather or textile.
Kurtiak has riding pants and chaps. What he wears depends on the season, opting for his leather chaps during cooler weather and his riding overpants, with vented panels, during the warmer months. No matter what, he’s wearing something every time he gets on a bike.
Whichever type you go for, make sure it’s a good, durable material. And, no — jeans don’t qualify. “Jeans protect you for maybe a split second,” Kurtiak says.
Types: Fingerless, regular, gauntlet.
Fingerless types are popular in warm weather but are against regs for military riders.
“Think about what it would feel like falling down on the sidewalk with fingerless gloves,” Kurtiak says. Not fun.
He likes the longer gauntlet style for winter riding for the added protection against wind drafts. Regardless of the style you choose, the key is finding ones designed specifically for motorcycle riders because “they’re curved so you don’t have to fight it.”
Look for boots with flat soles and a low heel.
“Standard leather combat boots are OK, but I prefer boots that are designed for riding. The feel of the controls just didn’t feel right to me” with other boots, Kurtiak says.
Boots designed specifically for riding typically provide extra shin protection against road debris. For hot-weather riding, look for zippered vents to help cool those piggies down.
Types: Glasses, goggles.
Eye protection is a must for anyone with a half- or three-quarter-style helmet. The face shield on full-size helmets provides the needed protection, but many still opt to wear glasses as well.
Eye protection should be designed for motorcycle riding with the same American National Standards Institute Z-87.1 designation for ballistic eye protection that you’d wear downrange. Specs designed for riding will have some padding along the top to keep debris out.
Of course, goggles will do an even better job of that.
“All it takes is a little piece of dirt to get you tearing, and that’s not good,” Kurtiak says.
Whether it’s built into your jacket or a vest you throw on top, reflective gear is a nice-to-have but not required for military riders. Some local commanders make it required for on-base driving, others don’t.
“We don’t have any documentation that points to a single accident that would have been prevented with reflective gear,” says Walt Deckman, program manager for the driving directorate at the Army Safety Center.
Still, anything that helps you stand out on the road can’t hurt. Look for neon greens and yellows for the best visibility.
Icon and Harley-Davidson both offer reflective vests — designed specifically with the military in mind — that come with easy-off Velcro ID holders for no fumbling at the gate.