Wear as little as you like, but there's a non-safety reason
ATGATT is the best way to go on a long distance tour.
If you've ridden a while, you have met adherents of the two extremist gear philosophies: ATGATT (All the gear, all the time) and the opposite. Your personal style will likely somewhere in the middle. I keep it close to ATGATT, with occasional short rides to the grocery store or the dentist in, say, a helmet, riding jacket & gloves, regular jeans and motorcycle boots.
Other riders would rather feel the wind in their armpits and take their chances. I have no problem with this. I have ridden with zero gear, and yeah, it's a visceral, mechanical, exciting experience. For a few minutes, anyone can be Steve McQueen at the end of The Great Escape. I'm just not interested in making that kind of risk part of my everyday life.
Yes, everyone knows the risk, and if you're comfortable with it, that's your business. I'm not happy with the cost to society when you can't pay your medical bills, but in that respect no-gear riders are no different from smokers or heavy drinkers, who cost us a lot more than injured bikers.
Time and Logistics, Not Safety
Nevertheless, even if I didn’t usually wear gear, I definitely would on a long trip. Why? Because Time is Precious. You've probably been planning your trip for a year or so, and thinking about it for a lot longer than that. Do you want it to end on the first day because some jackass pulled out in front of you on a wet street? A minor spill with no gear can mean a side trip to Skin Graft City, while the same accident with gear can mean a day or two of bike repairs, and then continuing on the trip of a lifetime. Your choice.
This gentleman obviously knows the importance of eye protection. Your philosophy on protective gear will probably fall somewhere between his and the one below.
When Is a Bargain Not a Bargain?
Just like learning about accident avoidance from other riders' mistakes, you can learn a lot about gear by doing a little online research. Better to spend a little extra for better quality than replace that "special offer" jacket after one season of normal wear.
Jackets: The Great Debate
Yes, leather is the best protection you can get. It can survive more than one encounter with asphalt, while fabric jackets, tough as they are, will be a one-and-done affair. But when it gets hot, you're more likely to keep your jacket on (and hence be safer) if you wear a fabric jacket. Just open all the vents and you're good to go.
And you'll want to keep your jacket on anyway. Believe it or not, you can stay cooler and more hydrated in a properly ventilated jacket than you can wearing a tank top. A vented jacket keeps you cool the same way a beach umbrella does. Direct sunlight and wind on your skin will heat you up and dry you out like a potato chip. Dehydration and heat can affect your judgement. So while you might think you're cooler with just a tank top, you're not. Even a mesh jacket is better than nothing.
I have some padded fabric touring pants that I wore for most of my trip. They offered far more protection than jeans and had plenty of ventilation. Not to be gross, but if you go this route try to schedule your bodily functions for early morning. Why? Because if you’re wearing mid-calf boots with padded touring pants, you’re going to have to get naked from the waist down to take a crap, that's why. Not something you want to do in a typical gas station restroom.
Wearing pads under Kevlar jeans is another option. I have a set of these pads and they're fantastically comfortable, if a little bulky to wear walking around after you get off your bike.
Does It Fit? Here's How to Know
OK, you look great in the mirror. Big deal. Unless you're standing on the seat of your bike all the way across the country, it doesn't matter. Go out to your garage in full regalia and sit on your bike. Are you still comfortable and covered in all the right places? If not, send it back and get the right size.
Do you want to get naked in a place like this? I didn't think so. Take my advice on riding pants and personal scheduling and you won't have to.
Did I mention skin grafts earlier? Sliding across pavement on your hands can ruin your day. I wear Sliders Kevlar gloves on nice days.
You will also want heated gloves. Yes, heated grips are nice. No, they will not keep your hands warm enough when it’s really cold. If you go through the mountains, which you should, it will get cold enough for heated gloves. Mine are Gerbings, and they work really well. You'll probably need some electrical stuff to make sure they work correctly.
Get some boots, preferably some purpose-made motorcycle boots. Do not be an idiot. Do not ride in sneakers, penny loafers, flip-flops or anything but boots.
You can go the cheap route and get some Red Wing steel toes, but whatever boot you buy, make sure the heel and ankle area, not just the toes, are reinforced. Some companies claim a composite toe is safer because it won’t clamp your foot if it gets compressed. I don’t know if this is true or merely advertising. Just make sure you have solid ankle, toe and heel protection.
I know, I know, Easy Rider, blah blah blah. Nothing I say will convince anyone not wearing a helmet to wear one. It’s your choice. I wear a full-face Arai because most of the time I enjoy the way my brain functions, and I like my jaw where it is.
Get some decent rain gear. It doesn’t take up much space, and it can mean the difference between getting a little wet and being cold, wet and hypothermic. Even a cheap set will keep you drier than none. Buy some with reflective strips, and make sure it fits before you leave. You want it pretty damn big, so it will go on easily over your protective gear. Wrestling and squirming yourself into a rainsuit during a thunderstorm is not fun.
Going without gloves can turn a minor lay-down into a vacation-ending and life-changing injury.
There's a limit to how much rain gear can help. Even so, it will keep you comfortable and help you avoid hypothermia on a long day's ride.
I can hear you saying “Oh, those are so nerdy.” Get over it and buy one. Sooner or later you will be riding at night in the rain or fog, surrounded by sleep-deprived truckers going 80 mph. Or you might just be in a city at night where you don’t know the roads. Or you might get pulled over for speeding by some cop who shows mercy because you look safety-oriented. Whatever the case, if you think wearing a reflective safety vest at night or in bad weather is going to look uncool and keep you from getting laid, you probably weren’t going to get laid anyway.
See? They don't
have to look nerdy.
Just get one.
Remember when I said whatever your philosophy was on safety gear, I was OK with it? I was wrong.