When you buy motorcycle gear you’re paying for protection, and that protection comes in two main forms–abrasion-resistant fabrics and armor inserts that absorb impacts. Our focus here is the latter, impact protection, and in this Guide To Back Protectors and Replacement Armor we’ll give you an overview of what you can typically expect from a pair of motorcycle pants or a jacket right off the rack, and why some riders choose to make the additional purchase of a back protector or even replace the armor that came with their gear.
Understanding Safety Ratings
Nearly every piece of gear you wear on your body for motorcycling can be CE rated, like your jacket, gloves, or boots (helmets are not included; for information on helmet safety ratings, read our Helmet Buyer’s Guide). ‘CE’ stands for ‘Conformité Européene’, and to be CE rated an item must meet or exceed certain requirements for its category that measure how protective it’s going to be for you in a crash. A jacket, pair of pants, or one-piece suit can now be CE approved as a piece of protective clothing for motorcyclists (EN 13595-1), but including CE-approved armor within that clothing has been a fairly universal practice for much longer. So while your jacket as a whole may or may not be CE approved yet, its armor–elbows and shoulders for jackets, knees for pants–most certainly should be.
Back Protectors and Limb Protectors
The two main categories of motorcycle armor are back protectors and limb protectors. Limb includes elbow/forearm, shoulder, hip, and knee/shin. A CE-Level 1 or -Level 2 rating is determined by the amount of force transferred through the protector when impacted with a propelled weight. Within the back protector category there are two rating levels–CE-Level 1 and CE-Level 2 (EN 1621-2 Levels 1 and 2). Prior to 2014 there was one single rating for the limb category, but it now has two rating levels also (EN 1621-1 Levels 1 and 2). How these levels are determined will be discussed in the sections below.
Limb Protectors & Replacement Armor
For the limb category, the minimum CE-approved levels have not changed, and to be certified to Level 1 a protector may not transmit a force greater than 35 kilonewtons (kN), with a one-time allowance of a 50 kN spike in an area other than the center. To earn a Level 2 rating, tolerances are reduced to 25 kN with a 30 kN one-time maximum. The new rating system also tests in a variety of temperature conditions to account for performance fluctuations in the heat or cold. Very few protectors have actually been officially certified to Level 2 so far, but armor innovators like Forcefield and SAS-TEC are leading the way and listing some of the kN ratings of their products so the numbers speak for themselves.
Most motorcycle jackets include removable CE-Level 1-certified armor in the elbows and shoulders, and pants include CE-certified knee armor. Other protectors, such as hip and chest, are usually sold as optional upgrades. Chest protector pockets are not standard across all brands, but are usually a nice feature of Alpinestars and RS Taichi jackets (chest protectors fall under the separate category EN 1621-3).
With the rapid evolution of armor we’ve seen in the last few years, many riders take into account armor brands when shopping for new gear, or choose to replace the stock armor with protectors that are more lightweight, low profile, and flexible. SAS-TEC, Knox, Forcefield, Bio Armor, Seesoft, and D3o are common names in armor, and you can check out the differences between these at Road Rider and read a little bit about them at the bottom of this page.
A CE-Level 2 back protector transfers half as much force to the rider’s back as a CE-Level 1 back protector. Specifically, a Level 1 protector allows no more than 18 kilonewtons (kN) of force be transmitted through it to the rider’s body, while a Level 2 protector allows only 9 kN.
Armor materials have come a long way in a very short time, and it wasn’t long ago that choosing a Level 2 protector meant you had to live with one that was thick, heavy, and uncomfortable. Today, there are few reasons why you wouldn’t choose a Level 2 protector because companies are developing thinner and more flexible materials that get the job done. These new protectors are surprisingly effective, and they’re great for use in stylish urban riding gear as well as gear that requires a lot of flex, breathability, and mobility, like dual sport and adventure gear. These new and improved materials can also be used in conjunction with a hard plastic shell for an even higher level of protection.
When shopping today, you will more than likely be comparing a number of different CE-Level 2 back protectors in one of two main categories: inserts and harness-style protectors.
Back Armor Inserts
Though the trend is changing, most motorcycle jackets still do not include a CE-certified back protector. So when you’re buying a new jacket, it’s a great idea to try it on with a CE-certified back protector at the same time. Even though protectors are getting thinner and more flexible, it will still impact the fit of your jacket.
Most riders simply choose the protector that is designed to go with their particular jacket model, and that’s generally a good idea, especially as we’ve seen the improvements in armor technology extend to these readily-available options. If you have an older jacket rest assured there are options for you, too. You can test out the fit and feel of a variety of different brands and shapes of CE-certified back inserts in your own jacket at Road Rider.
Back Protector Harness
Harness-style back protectors are designed to provide a greater degree of protection, in many cases greatly exceeding CE-Level 2 requirements, and cover a greater area of the spine often including portions of the tail bone and neck. They will feature either shoulder straps or snaps that attach to the snap-tab of a jacket or leather suit; and a waist belt provides lumbar and kidney support.
Armor Brand Overview
Alpinestars Bio Armor/Nucleon: Alpinestars uses their proprietary Bio Armor protectors in all their jackets and pants. Until recently, Bio Armor back protectors, hip pads, and chest pads were the optional upgrades for A*star gear, but Alpinestars has since replaced these with Nucleon upgrades. Similar to SAS-TEC and Knox, Bio Armor is made of a dense but flexible polyurethane foam; Nucleon is thinner and more flexible. All Nucleon back protectors are certified to meet or exceed CE-Level 2.
D3O: D3O is thin and extremely flexible, and identified easily by its bright orange color. Dubbed ‘molecular armor’, D3O hardens upon impact as the molecules respond to force by pulling closer together. Standard D3O T5 limb protectors meet Level 1 requirements and are included with many jackets made by Firstgear, Icon, and Klim; back protectors are available in Level 1 or Level 2 versions.
Forcefield: Forcefield is made of a honeycomb-structured PVC material that is soft and flexible. A leading innovator in protective armor for sports, they focus on finding new ways to provide maximum protection while maintaining flexibility and comfort for action sports. They have a wide range of protectors and armored clothing like back protector inserts, harnesses, and a variety of different styles of limb protection, including their CE-Level 2 certified Net protectors. For more information visit ForcefieldBodyArmour.com.
Knox: Knox makes a variety of different kinds of armor and armored clothing, and their protectors are commonly used in Rev’It! gear. The Knox TP2 Advance X back protector fits many RS Taichi and older model Rev’It! jackets, and is made of a light, soft foam.
SAS-TEC: SAS-TEC has always set a high standard for armor, and in addition to coming stock in many jackets and pants, SAS-TEC protectors are sold as optional knee and hip protection for various brands of riding jeans, including Draggin’ Jeans and Drayko Jeans. One of the earliest companies to address the new Level 2 classification for limb protection, SAS-TEC says all their standard protectors already fall within Level 2 limits.*
Seesoft: If you’re looking for light and airy, Rev’It!’s proprietary Seesoft armor is where it’s at. Made of multiple layers of memory foam, it’s flexible, feather-weight, and has an excellent protection to weight/thickness ratio. Read our post about Seesoft Back Protectors to learn more about it.
*The new two-tiered setup of CE directive EN 1621-1 hasn’t taken hold yet in the same way the two back protector levels have. As it stands now, the Forcefield Net protectors are the only ones we know of that have been CE-certified to Level 2 standards by an independent testing agency. SAS-TEC’s entire standard line of armor (and D3O’s Xergo line) has been tested to meet Level 2 standards in their own lab tests, but have yet to formally earn the EN 1621-1 Level 2 stamp of approval.
**Chest protectors fall under a separate, single-level category: EN 1621-3.