No matter what part of you...
No matter what part of you gets cold, buy an electric vest first because warming your torso will make those stinging-cold fingers warm too.
Heated apparel for motorcycling isn't a new concept. In 1971, Norton of England offered electric vests as an incentive with their new models. That same year Pat Widder, of Widder Enterprises, sold his first electric vests to the American public. The Widders are still in business (his son took over in 1985), and although they only have three competitors there's a lot of diversity in the electric apparel market.
Vests are the traditional electric garments of choice because heating the torso changes your entire body temperature. When your essential organs are cozy, your body allows a greater amount of warming blood to reach the extremities. Your hands and feet suffer most when you're riding in the cold, but not simply because they're so exposed to the wind. Your body's set up to starve them of heat in order to maintain the necessary temperature for vital organs to function. Another advantage of an electric vest is that it's less bulky than layers of clothing and requires less luggage space when not being worn.
The market has expanded beyond the vest, though. A lot of people are switching to jacket liners with heating elements in the sleeves. Once you feel how much nicer it is to have your whole upper body heated, you're apt to shun the sleeveless vest.
The most common concern about heated clothing seems to be a misconception about electrocution, particularly when it rains. Don't worry. It's virtually impossible to be electrocuted. Since all the systems run on 12-volt current, you could ride into a lake and the worst that could happen is you'd feel a mild zing. All the fittings are waterproof or water-resistant and they connect underneath clothing or the seat. Not one of these companies has had an electrocution complaint.
Another concern people have is the garments will draw too much amperage. Many newer machines have huge alternator outputs (new BMWs run 700-watt alternators and 500 watts is common). You could run three suits from these. If you are concerned -- say, you and your passenger are wearing a full complement of electrical apparel and running additional electrical accessories (lights, audio, etc.) -- get an inexpensive voltmeter to monitor your alternator's condition.
Rheostat controls, like this...
Rheostat controls, like this one from Widder, allow you to simply dial up the temperature that's most comfortable. If you have just a switch, you may end up turning it on and off to bracket a comfy temperature.
Photography by Dean Groover
Some people turn up their noses at electrically heated clothing because they feel it's wimpish. Get over it. You can still be a tough-guy biker, just a warm tough-guy biker. The only concern in the bravado debate is that if you ride long enough with the goodies you will become dependent. Then, if you get stuck in the cold without them you may succumb to unmanly whining.
Aside from the simple fact that an electric vest makes a cold ride more enjoyable, it also keeps you safer. When a body is overly cold, reflexes are slowed and physical responses are jerky. It's hard to use the controls properly if your hands and feet are numb.
Hypothermia is the number one killer of outdoor enthusiasts during winter, and you are rarely aware of it when it's happening. Your energy reserves become exhausted and your core body temperature drops below normal. When the chill reaches vital organs such as the brain (this follows aggregated shivering) your judgment is skewed. You may first be aware something is wrong when you lose control of your hands. When your core temperature reaches 90 degrees you lose consciousness.
Many things affect how cold we get on a bike. Windshields, body fat content and what we've eaten before the ride all play a role, but nothing has a bigger effect than what we're wearing. Even with a heating source, the apparel is important.
To get the most out of electric apparel, it should be worn as close to the skin as possible without contacting it. A long-sleeve cotton shirt is the best choice under a vest or jacket liner. A thicker additional layer worn over the heated garment and under your jacket will assist in retaining the heat. Ideally, it should be a sweatshirt or a soft zip-up jacket (like fleece or cotton) that will be gathered enough at the wrists, neck and hips to impede heat from leaking out and cold air from sneaking in. On the outside you need your normal weather- and asphalt-resistant layer (your conventional riding jacket) for protection. If you're still chilled, a windproof rainsuit over the works will lock in the heat.
All the electric apparel we used in this test offered a comparable level of heat. They all hook up to the battery terminal posts. The choice you make really comes down to comfort, style and affordability. All the gear here can be mixed and matched with a little electrical handiwork, and some of the companies even offer adapters for pieces from other manufacturers.
We waited a long time to see how the designers at Aerostich RiderWearHouse would reinvent the electric vest. Being a native of Minnesota and a year-round rider, Aerostich honcho Andy Goldfine is a reluctant expert on freezing. (One winter he rode across a frozen Lake Superior on a lark.)
The prematurely printed catalog photo of his prototype electric vest teased us for almost a year before the product met Aerostich's shipping standards. So when the vest finally did become available it was given the name Unobtainium. It was well worth the wait.
Aerostich offers two electric options: the Unobtainium vest and the Unobtainium jacket liner. The vest is different from others on the market in several ways. First, it is a reversible design -- one side of the shell is lightweight, Polartech fleece and the other side is nylon. We have worn the vest both ways in a variety of temperatures and we appreciate its versatility. In near-freezing weather we found that wearing the vest with the nylon side in, over a thin cotton shirt and then covered with a heavier insulating layer (like the Aerostich Fleece Jacket; $77) offered gratifying relief from the cold. When it's worn with the fleece side in, the vest is a comfy insulator against any mild chill seeping into a jacket. Some of us wear the Aerostich vest year-round and don't even plug it in until we're desperate.
The vest fetches a reasonable $137 and it's lighter and more compact than others. It also has a longer trunk length for an increased heating area and a thinner, shorter collar that fits better under jackets.
Standard connection equipment includes Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) approved trailer-type plugs. These plugs offer a solid connection but they are difficult to line up and require two hands and some effort to fasten. They're almost impossible to connect with heavy gloves on. For $10 more, however, you can get the same vest with the most user-friendly connection method we've tried. The Unobtainium's QuiConnect cord employs an audio-accessory-type adapter which easily connects while wearing gloves, without visual aid and with only one hand. If you walk away from the bike without disengaging, the cord will disconnect cleanly without damage. The drawback is this connector isn't as waterproof as an SAE-type and it takes slightly longer (about a minute) to reach maximum heat. Both systems use a large, glove-friendly push button for on/off and the SAE version will accept the optional thermostat ($57).
The new Unobtainium electric jacket liner ($197) is designed to zip into the Aerostich Darien jacket (shown below left), but it can be worn under any jacket. Like the vest, it features a shell of reversible fleece and nylon but incorporates heating elements into the full-length sleeves. However, the liner's looser fit doesn't offer as much warmth as the vest (even though it draws 75 watts, as opposed to the vest's 45, in an attempt to compensate). What you get is an inner jacket temperature increase of 5-15 degrees above outside temperature. When the ambient temperature was merely cool, this was very enjoyable. You don't get the sleepy sensation that comes with wearing a heated vest. You don't really feel anything specific, except that you're not cold.
For a more in-depth look at the now obtainable Unobtainium vest and jacket liner, browse the Aerostich RiderWearHouse Web site. Aerostich offers hundreds of absurdly useful items for bikers and is a resource that should not be overlooked.
[Editor's Note: At the time that this was posted -- Fall of 2003 -- Eclipse had moved its electric apparel products to the "Discontinued" section of its site and had only limited sizes (most very large) remaining, but at substantially reduced prices -- half price or less.]
Eclipse is primarily a manufacturer of premium soft luggage but also happens to have one of the best-selling electric vests on the market. The Yukon Classic, which retails for around $150, features a rugged oxford nylon shell, Thinsulate and a breathable nylon liner. The radiant heating elements are located between the Thinsulate and the thin liner to direct maximum heat toward the body while the thicker outer shell impedes it from dissipating.
It's a western-style cut with a medium-height heated corduroy collar and heated pockets. The piping, yoke and slanted pockets make it attractive enough to wear in place of a down vest for everyday use. An elasticized section keeps heat from escaping out of the bottom. Eclipse also offers a Nordic Sportrider electric vest for approximately $125. This style doesn't include the collar, so it will fit more readily under a tight jacket and not dig into the back of your neck if you're riding leaned forward.
Eclipse uses substantial SAE trailer-type connectors to transfer power from the battery. These connectors are difficult to couple and haven't loosened up much over the course of our use. In fact, if you dashed off the bike on the high side and forgot to disconnect you might pull the bike over. It certainly snaps you back on the low side if you walk away without unplugging. The advantage of this solid connection is that energy will flow through properly.
Either of the vests will work with Eclipse's Alpine Electric Chaps ($125) using the supplied Y-adapter. The waist-to-ankle chaps are made with Thinsulate sandwiched between a thick weather-resistant nylon outer, and a thin, breathable nylon inner layer. The chaps close using an adjustable quick-release waist belt and wide hook-and-loop fasteners down the back of the thigh and calf. This secures them nicely and gives a clean look. However, when your knees are bent in a riding position, heat escapes because the material around the knees bunches. Eclipse uses additional elements in this area, since it is one of the first body parts exposed to the wind.
Each Eclipse electric garment draws 45 watts and heats up oh-so-toasty. They all come in black and include a five-year graduated warranty. A coiled on/off switch cord is included in the suggested price of the vests and an optional thermostat is available for approximately $20 more. If you buy the chaps for independent use you must purchase either a switch cord or thermostat separately. The substantial feel and self-insulating factors of Eclipse electric apparel make it a popular choice among riders.