A Buyer's Guide to Leather Jackets - More Than Skin Deep

Funny thing-after millions of evolutionary years, we're still protecting our skin with leather. Just as the first motorcyclists did, we wear leather jackets as our primary defense against the elements. Leather has proved to be flexible and tear-, abrasion- and wind-resistant. And, of course, it's a styling statement. But there are things you should know ahead of your shopping trip. >

Before you check out the 21 jackets assembled here, take a look at our primer on how to buy a leather jacket:

The Leather
We recommend cowhide, sheepskin and horsehide for their durability. Cowhide is so thick that it is possible to split the skin and have two or more leather hides. The outer skin is the stronger, top-grain portion of the hide. "Full grain" refers to a top grain that hasn't been altered to remove or hide any natural blemishes. Look for top-grain with a thickness between 1.1 and 1.5mm (it's not as durable when it's thinner). Sheepskin is usually soft, reasonably abrasion-resistant, thinner and lighter than cowhide. Horsehide, once quite popular, is thicker than most cowhide, has a smoother exterior surface and is highly abrasion-resistant. Horsehide is naturally quite stiff and takes awhile to break in. For any leather, look for "drum-dyed," a process that gets dye all the way through the hide and softens the skin without degrading strength. Sprayed-on surface coloring will eventually flake and make your jacket look like it's got eczema.

Fewer pieces of leather means fewer seams and a stronger jacket-single-panel backs are best. Nylon thread is preferable for strength and rot resistance. Avoid parallel stitched seams, which are more prone to failure in an impact.

Does the jacket feel good while you're wearing it in the store? That doesn't matter: Zip it up, sit down on your bike and grab the handlebars. In this position the jacket should be snug (but not tight) on your body and arms, the sleeves should amply cover your wrists and the collar shouldn't push up against your jaw.

Shoulder and elbow armor is fine, but chest and back protection is even better. (See the sidebar on page 75.)

We like a removable liner for the added versatility. Chilly? Just zip (or snap) it in and off you go. Too warm? Zip it out and toss it in your saddlebag. You'll be surprised how much warmth even a lightly insulated liner provides.

On hot days how can you be protected and not feel like a turkey in a deep fryer? The solution is zippered vents. Look for front intake and rear exhaust openings. One trick is to unzip the zippers at the ends of the sleeves for added airflow up the arms.

If you're getting a new jacket you might as well get one that has pockets where you want them. Many jackets now have inside pouches for cell phones.

Gusseting or expansion panels above the elbows or behind the shoulders make the reach to the bars more comfortable. Look for stretch panels, belts or adjustments at the waist to tailor fit-one size 40 jacket does not fit all size 40 bodies. Heavy-duty front zippers (with easily accessed pulls) are essential. We prefer collars with adjustable closures rather than snap-closed necks, which can push on your throat.