As you'll see elsewhere (here, in fact) I, and a bunch of other folks, went to Morocco off-roading recently.
Now as I hope was obvious, I am far from an expert off-roader. I also strongly suspected that I wasn't going to be making a habit of trips like that, mainly because of the time commitment needed. And as everyone who knew the company we were going with were experienced types with their own kit I had no idea what might be available to hire when I got there. I was never going to use a rented helmet anyway, so it seemed sensible to simply get my own kit.
Having said that, there were a few things that were important. It wasn't going to be worth spending a huge amount of money for stuff that most likely would get used once or twice only. But I was pretty sure I was going to crash a fair amount, so it needed to be proper kit rather than Mickey Mouse stuff. I have to be able to earn a living, and getting hurt interferes with that. One thing that really didn't matter was the look - it seems that motocross gear is more acceptable the less stylish it is. Which works well for me, as one of the least stylish people I know.
So with all that in mind (and with plenty of time) I went shopping. Apart from the helmet, everything was bought online. But for want of a better end, let's begin at the top and work down. There's actually some logic to this, as you'll see. Bear with me.
Oh, one other thing. I mention names of places where I got the kit, and in several places I have borrowed pictures from their website. MotorbikesToday has no affiliation with these establishments, they simply gave a good service and seem worth mentioning. Sadly we do not get commission.
Helmet choice was surprisingly easy. For me, anyway. About a million years ago I used to wear Bell helmets pretty much exclusively because at the time they were the best. They're still pretty good, it's just that there are other brands of road helmet that fit me better. But their off-road helmets are something else. Helmet City are not only nice people, they also have a store just down the road from me. A visit there showed me a dazzling array of motocross and adventure helmets (what's the difference? Basically an adventure helmet has a full face visor while a motocross helmet uses goggles) ranging in price from "Ouch" down to "That can't be right" and everything in between. They've got lots of sizes, lots of colours and - and here's the clincher - people who know what they're talking about and actually want to help rather than sell. Anyway, using my criteria of decent protection but not too much money my approach was something along the lines of this. Find the cheaper helmets and start working my way through until I found a brand I'd heard of. Astoundingly, one of the first helmets I found was a Bell MX-9 in a snazzy red and blue. Was it a current colour scheme? Who cares - i like it. Tried it on, perfect fit. Light as a feather, too. Bell have this system called MIPS - basically it's an inner helmet that moves a bit and absorbs a lot of the rotational energy in an off. Which is most definitely a Good Thing. People who know far more than me about off road helmets said "MIPS is brilliant" and also assured me that most motocross helmets are polycarbonate and I shouldn't worry about that, just appreciate the light weight.
They were right. I have no idea how many times I fell off, but while I am only aware of having hit my head once that was on sand and the rotational impact was probably quite considerable. No damage to me or the lid. Plus it was well ventilated, comfortable all day in heat and dust and didn't try to pull my head off on fast sections. The peak is adjustable and didn't suffer too badly from being bashed around, goggles fitted perfectly and it didn't give me any issues with earplugs. Bloody brilliant and at £119.99 when I bought it ridiculously cheap for a quality lid.
You can get it anywhere, but try Helmet City for a start.
I knew my upper body was going to take a battering because that's what I was going to fall on most of the time, so some proper Body armour seemed like a good idea. There's a lot out there, and all I could really do was again go for a brand that I'd at least heard of and try to find something for a sensible price. Acerbis is a pretty well known brand, and a lot of their stuff was coming up at the sensible end of the budget. Then I stumbled across a company called Mad4Motocross who were selling the Acerbis Koerta 2.0 body armour for under £85.00. With free postage. I paid by credit card because it was too good to be true and I wanted the protection, and the kit arrived two days later.
My cynicism was completely unfounded. It's genuine kit, new, properly wrapped and exactly as described. Not only that, but when I ham-fistedly managed to break a fastener attaching the collarbone protection a phone call had me speaking to a real person who posted me a pair of replacements the same day. For free. Which was astonishing. Actually, while we're talking about those fasteners...they are the weak spot. When they're done up they are fine - no issues at all. But it seems the threads were cut and then they were plated, because they tend to jam hard. And the screw is made of shiny cheese which breaks when you give it some welly. The solution is to run an M8 (or M6, I forget) tap through the backplate to clean the thread, then it's just lovely.
The armour consists of a stretchy mesh cardigan, basically, with bits of armour bonded to it. There's a substantial spine protector which reaches down to the top if your bum and to which the collarbone protectors attach. On the front, either side of the full length zip are a pair of chest protectors which extend around the sides below your armpits to almost reach the back protector. Then there are separate shoulder and upper arm protectors and elbow/forearm protectors. Everything is adjustable for fit. You do look like an American footballer when it's on, it's true. It took about a minute to adjust it all and make the armour all-day comfortable. It was about an hour into the first day when one of the group, who has the same kit, tested it properly and found it to be well up for the job. Another half an hour or so and I gave mine the first test of the day - it got at least half a dozen more tests on that day alone - and neither it nor I were any the worse for the experience. Astoundingly good, both in terms of protection and value for money, and absolutely brilliant old-school service from the retailer.
Now anyone who has ever fallen off anything knows that your hips and backside get a proper hammering as well. And having fallen off quite a lot of things with wheels and legs in the past I knew that i was likely to be very sore indeed. One of the guys had managed to break a femur on a rock and consequently recommended some armoured shorts - specifically these Dainese Hard E1 armoured shorts. Which was some of the best advice I have ever taken. There are several around, all similarly priced. The surprise was just how expensive they are and also how, um, snugly they fit. Imagine a pair of long swimming shorts made out of mesh and half a size too small. That's the fit. Relax, I'm not about to model them for you. Take those heavy duty elasticated fishnets and attach a mixture of hard and soft armour in strategic places - hard over the coccyx and upper thigh, soft over the top of the pelvis and bum. Struggle into them, wonder how the Hell you're going to move on the bike and then realise that they actually make no difference whatsoever and in fact are so comfortable you forget you're wearing them. People of a certain age will remember an advert for an "18 hour girdle - so comfortable you'll forget you have it on" and this is the same deal.
It only becomes inconvenient when you need the loo.
It works really really well. At least once I landed on some properly nasty rocks and suffered no damage at all. Not cheap at around £75 but very effective. I got them from BikeStop who were the cheapest at the time, but there are many others. I'd suggest you go for a size bigger than you'd normally need, though you don't want them flopping around.
I wore sports shorts underneath, as much as anything to avoid the view being too horrific if I needed to remove my trousers for any reason.
It goes without saying that your knees and shins are going to have a hard time. A decent pair of protectors were definitely in order, and a bit of research led me to Leatt as probably the best place to go. I found these Leatt 3.0 EXT knee and shin guards from Dirtbike Express who were the cheapest by miles. They are a bit like the shin guards you may have had at school in that rather than being built into a sock like some they are open and secured by a couple of wide straps. They're also handed - don't put them on the wrong way round - are are really comfortable. And although the straps don't look much, they simply don't move. They're not cheap, though, at £65 but considering just how much of a battering they got it was a great investment. They ended up with a large gouge across the front of the right shin, right at the top. I have no idea how or when, but I do know that it would have been bloody painful and potentially put me out of action for a while. I didn't even feel the impact, so that's certainly money well spent.
Over the top of all this hard stuff was a set of Alpinestars MX jersey and trousers. Actually they weren't a set at all, as they weren't matched, but they did the job very nicely indeed courtesy of an excellent place called Last Year's Gear. No prizes for guessing why they come in at such a good price. The jersey is a standard lightweight thing that is sufficiently baggy to clear the armour and let me move while snug enough not to flap around like a sail. The trousers are actually quite substantial, with padding in sensible places and a leather protector to stop you from burning yourself on the exhaust (because it's in a funny place on a 'crosser and not always that well protected. Especially when you're lying on it). Both are brilliantly comfortable over a 8 hour or so day, manage to be fantastically well vented to stop you from overheating while at the same time quite warm should you find yourself getting chilly, in the evening. After the multitude of crashes I may have mentioned already the trousers were still as good as new and the jersey had a tiny tear on the wrist - again I have no idea how it got there. Best of all, you can chuck 'em in the washing machine when you get home without any problems. It's probably worth adding that, despite the very competitive price, they were brand new genuine articles and came in at under £60 for the pair. Plus the chap at the shop rang me to check on sizes and that I was OK with a different colour before shipping them instead of the usual online retailer trick of waiting ages and then cancelling the order and eventually refunding the money - again brilliant old school service and a really nice guy to chat with as well.
Gloves were also courtesy of Alpinestars, who seem to be pretty much the go-to for decent but not stupid money off road clothing. Their Full Bore gloves don't seem to have changed very much in the 10 years since I last had cause to wear a pair, and there's no reason why they should. Super-comfortable, with loads of feel and far more abrasion and impact resistance than you'd ever expect. They're not particularly exciting to look at but that's not really the point, is it. Mine are plain black but you can get all sorts of colours if you really want to. Black were the cheapest. Alpinestars gloves are a slightly funny size generally. so try them on if you can - you'll get a size that fits you perfectly it just may be bigger than you're expecting.
These gloves have reinforcement exactly where you need it, protection where you need it and ventilation everywhere else, essentially. Like most sportsbike riders, I suspect, I was deeply suspicious of the protective qualities of a glove made of cloth, but of course I was about as wrong as possible. Like many Alpinestars products there's a bit of sorcery going on in there and the result is spectacular. Unless you're superhumanly disciplined, your hands are going to be the first thing to hit the ground when you fall off. And as I may have alluded to, I fell off quite a lot. My hands remained unscathed.
Now there's one thing I haven't covered. Deliberately. I bought a pair of boots from EBay. The seller was pretty honest that they were used but they were in pretty decent condition. And for the price I honestly thought I'd got a bargain. In fact I had got a bargain, except for the fact that when I got there and mentioned my spectacular good fortune to our tour leader he suggested I should keep an eye on them as the plastic goes brittle and they can fall apart. Which they duly did. This is absolutely no criticism of the manufacturer, who advises me that they're actually from the 2005 product range and, astonishingly. offered to replace them under warranty (I declined as that's unreasonable in my eyes). It's also worth mentioning that. although they were very second hand indeed I still wore them for the whole trip and the battering they got didn't get transmitted to my feet at all. I'm not mentioning the brand as I don't want to give anyone the idea that their boots aren't good - they're brilliant - and would simply strongly suggest that you don't buy old boots on EBay if you're planning on using them for a while...