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In a Perfect World

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  • In a Perfect World

    "In a Perfect World" by Todd W. Cox

    In a perfect world, we’d all have the built-in insulation to be the right temperature no matter where we were standing. While we’re at it, we’d all get to enjoy the rivers of chocolate that wound across the perfect land.
    Sadly our imperfect chocolate-river-free world likes to throw extremes of hot and cold at us. That’s where wearing the right clothing comes in, and wearing the right clothing means layering.
    It wasn’t too many years ago that layering meant throwing on as many layers of thick flannel and wool and puffy down as possible until you looked like the Michelin man and couldn’t do much other than wiggle your arms a little. This approach relied pretty much entirely upon holding in heat. With today’s modern technical fabrics, gear is thin and supple to let you move around freely, and relies on a much more sophisticated concept of warmth. Outdoor enthusiasts have been reaping the rewards of modern layering techniques for years, and it doesn’t get much more outdoor than a motorcycle, so riders would do well to learn from the mountaineers and

    Key Concepts

    Keeping these concepts in mind when choosing your clothing will keep you more comfortable longer.
    Moisture: It comes from a variety of sources like rain, sweat, condensing fog, and kids with hoses to name a few. Water against your skin conducts heat extremely efficiently. This sounds ok until you realize that your body is the heater, and the open air is what wet skin is trying to heat.
    Insulation: Because you’re relying on you body to generate heat, you want to hold as much of it in as possible. Insulation is the property of certain materials to reflect heat rather than conducting it.
    Breathability: That is, water vapor (sweat) is able to pass through the fabric rather than collect and condense in it. Breathability is seldom the #1 most important aspect of a layer, but in general the more breathable something is, the more comfortable.
    Resistance to the elements: Water and wind will make you colder. Wind does it by blowing across your body causing convective heat loss. Water is moisture. See #1.
    Armed with these concepts, let’s get layering.

    Base/Transport Layer

    First, and arguably most important is the base layer. Ideally, base layers should provide some insulation but first and foremost should be breathable and as efficient as possible at wicking moisture away from your skin (hence the other name, Transport layer.) The most common base layer fabrics are polypropelene (good), Merino wool (good), and cotton (bad.)
    Polypro is a synthetic fabric that mimics the technical properties of wool, Merino is wool. Polypro has a slight edge in terms of moisture wicking, and wool tends to be a bit warmer. Polypro holds in BO like nobody’s business, while wool tends to give you a faint “damp sheep” odor in extreme conditions. Both tend to come in a variety of thicknesses (referred to as weights.) As long as you have Merino or Polypro, you’ll be fine so pick the one that feels best to you.
    Cotton as a base layer is basically worthless. Cotton doesn’t wick moisture, but rather absorbs the water and holds it close to your skin. Wet cotton feels foul, and even on a warm fall day it will conduct the heat from your body at a dangerous pace. Remember, a 98.6 degree body is warmer than the 65 degree air. If your body loses heat to the air through that T-shirt faster than it can compensate for, you have hypothermia on a pleasant spring day. Say it with me: cotton bad!
    Remember, the most important aspect of a base layer is Moisture Wicking. A good base layer will establish a minimum level of comfort.

    Insulation/Middle Layer

    The insulation or middle layer is arguably the most important layer. Insulation layer garments should be warm (ie: efficient insulators) and that’s about it. Like the rest of your gear, anything that absorbs water is undesirable, and if it wicks away moisture, so much the better. Synthetic fleece, that wonderfully low-maintenance all purpose fuzzy fabric, is about as good as it gets for an insulation layer, since it’s light, warm, breathable and doesn’t absorb moisture.
    An important side note to insulation layers. Invariably insulation layers work by trapping air within the insulation. If they’re compressed or soaked through with water and can’t trap air, they won’t be doing much insulating. The most expensive and efficient insulation, squashed flat under a too-tight coat, won’t do a darned thing. Make sure you keep layering in mind when choosing gear.
    Remember, the most important aspect of an insulation layer is Insulation.

    Shell Layer

    On top of it all is arguably the most important layer, the shell layer. The name shell should clue you in, but fundamentally the shell is there to provide a protective shell. The most important properties of your shell layer are water and wind proofing. A shell also likes to be breathable for comfort purposes.
    Shells come in a ton of varieties. Gore-Tex and other stretched Teflon laminates are waterproof, windproof and breathable, and therefore these tend to be some of the most desirable. They also tend to be expensive.
    If money is a factor alongside comfort, a wide variety of nylon shells treated with DWR compounds (Durable Water Repellant) are available at a more manageable price point. DWRs break down over time though, so you’ll have more maintenance to do on them. If you’ve ever seen an old technical jacket that looks like it has dandruff, that’s the DWR breaking down and flaking off.
    Remember, the most important aspect of a shell layer is Weather Protection.

    Armor Layer

    Special for motorcyclists is the armor layer. No matter what you’re wearing, you need to make sure you’ve got abrasion and impact protection worked into your system someplace. The advantage of the armor layer is it doesn’t really matter where in the system it is, although abrasion resistance should be outermost to protect you and your gear. ATGATT brothers and sisters.

    Putting It All Together

    So what makes layers so neat? You can buy a jacket that’s already waterproof and has insulation and moisture wicking mesh on the inside.
    In return let me pose this question: Which is more desirable, a heater that pumps out heat non-stop at a preset level, or a thermostat?
    Modularity is the watch-word with layers. Separating your moisture management (base), insulation (insulation), and weather protection (shell) allows you to adapt to any weather condition by combining 2 or three of the layers. Also, if you’re trucking along with a lighter insulation layer and things get really cold, you can swap in better insulation without messing with your shell or base layer.
    For math nerds, if you’re carrying 2 pieces for each layer (say a light and heavy variety of each) that means you have 2x2x2 = 8 sets of clothing, each tailored to a different set of conditions.

    The Real World

    Meanwhile, back on planet earth real motorcyclists are on the move. There’s a pretty good chance most of them are already layering, and don’t really think about it.
    Most bikers aren’t doing anything aerobic on their bike in cold weather, so sweat isn’t as big a concern. Nevertheless, a good moisture wicking base layer won’t march merrily up and embed itself in your rear when a sudden rain hits and soaks you.
    Realistically, trying to think about all the layering possibilities is a bit more work than really necessary. If you wear a good base layer (and base layers don’t have to be long, they can be short sleeved and short legged) you’ll be more comfortable for longer, and if you think about insulation separate from wind and water protection, your gear will be more versatile.
    Above all, consider what a piece of clothing does for you and combine it with others that compliment it. Keep dry, keep warm, and above all keep safe.
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