The single biggest piece of armour you’ll wear in your day-to-day life as a motorcyclist will be your helmet.
The second is likely to be your back protector, which could, in the event of an accident, be the difference between getting up and walking away, and a life-changing injury.
It’s something you may be used to riding without, but after spending a few weeks with one, it feels totally alien to not have it on you – which is the state you should be aiming for.
Whether you’re riding on the track or on the street, it’s well worth considering a bespoke back protector.
Types of motorcycle back protector
Largely, motorcycle back protectors come in two types – inserts that you can drop into an existing jacket (most motorcycling jackets will have an inline pocket for this), or a harness with straps that you can put on below any other clothing.
Inserts are usually the cheapest way to get back protection, but of course this means you’ll need a compatible jacket to fit them into.
A decently-rated back protector insert can cost anywhere between £20 and £60, but will vary in terms of their protection rating, weight, flexibility, and cover.
Harness-style back protectors, often worn for racing or track days, generally cost more – in the £80-£150 range – but usually offer a greater level of cover, as well as the flexibility to go under your normal clothing.
Some of them will cover almost your entire back area, while others may just cover the upper back and spine.
Since 1994, motorcycle gear in the UK has had to be ‘CE approved’ – which stands for Conformité Européene, meaning it conforms to EU standards of safety.
Although, legislation is regularly being introduced to make changes to the standards, and what it takes to qualify as CE-approved. It’s hugely complex, and there’s a full breakdown here.
But for broad purposes, any motorcycle armour you buy should be CE approved – if you don’t see that label, don’t buy it.
CE ratings are easily broken down into two categories:
- CE-1 – this is the lowest bar armour has to clear in order to make CE approval, and is often cheaper than CE-2.
- CE-2 – offers a higher level of protection, and we reckon it’s the best choice, especially for back armour that looks after your spine, although it may cost a little more.
EN1621-1 versus EN1621-2
Back protectors are there primarily to protect your spine, which is one of the more fragile parts of the human nervous system and obviously worth looking after.
A study of 1,121 motorcyclists involved in road traffic accidents found isolated injuries to the spine affected nearly a quarter of them, and almost one in 10 required surgery.
Although this study was conducted in 2002, the human spine hasn’t changed since then – but armour and attitudes towards protection certainly has.
As you check clothing labels, you’ll usually find one of the two European standards for motorcycle armour:
This rating covers protection of any body part except back/spine – specifically:
- Elbows and forearms
- Knee and lower-leg areas.
This is an important distinction, obviously if we are buying back armour we want it to meet the more stringent levels required for back armour!
The armour is tested to the equivalent of 1kg of mass falling over five metres, with sensors measuring how much force is transmitted through the armour, monitoring its peak force in kilo-Newtons (kN).
EN1621-1 Level 1 – Average transmitted force, over nine tests, is 35kN.
EN1621-1 Level 2 – Average transmitted force of 20kN.
This is the level of protection we want to see when buying back armour.
This rating covers CE-protection specifically for back/spine protection, and is subjected to more strict testing with different shaped weights, with no more than 18kN of force transmitted to attain approval.
EN1621-2 – Level 1 – Average transmitted force over the nine tests is 18kN.
EN1621-2 – Level 2 – Average transmitted force of 9kN.
Put simply, the fewer kNs reaching what lies beneath the armour, the better. We only recommend products that reach the EN1621-2 standard. All armour reviewed here meets or exceeds that level.
Differences in materials
Old bikers will tell you that the very first back protectors were made of little more than a handful of old helmet visors, gaffer-taped into shape and stuffed down the back of a shirt.
Nowadays, as technology and ergonomics have changed, you’ll find armour is made out of one or more of the following:
- Foam – The density may change from soft-ish to the harder stuff usually found inside a helmet. Soft foam is most comfortable but offers least protection in a crash. There’s even a strand of memory foam that some manufacturers use.
- Silicone – A gel impact material that’s great for absorbing shock, and also moulding to the rider’s particular dimensions.
- Hard plastic – Usually this will be best for resisting asphalt abrasion or even punctures, and is often blended with foam for an all-round effect. Most mid-range armour will use hard plastic somewhere.
- Viscoelastic – The most high-tech substance, it’s pliable and body-forming until impact when it becomes rigid, allowing it to be very strong for minimum bulk. D-3O armour contains this, which many companies use for high-level CE-2 protection.
Fit and sizing, breathability
Much biking equipment will come with built-in, removable armour that you can upgrade at your leisure.
For a jacket with armour inserts, you can expect to find it in the elbows, shoulders and a large panel on the back. Harness-style back protectors will sometimes also offer rib protection, in the form of extra panels at the front of the rig.
Unfortunately, by its nature most armour is going to lay on you without much breathability – this is a price you have to pay for the added safety! However, the lighter the armour, the lesser the impact.
How should it fit?
Fit is critically important. If it’s big and unwieldy, it may put you off wearing it except for on ‘special occasions’ when you know you’re going for a longer ride – this is dangerous.
You want something that is comfortable to wear at all times, and doesn’t feel like it’s squirming or moving when you ride.
The stresses of an impact can mean your armour, if it’s not fitted correctly, has moved away from the area it’s meant to be covering at the moment of impact.
Feel free to bring your jacket into a store, where you can make sure whatever you’re going to buy fits correctly – and if you’re buying a harness-style back protector, make sure you try wearing it with all the rest of your gear before purchasing.
Many inserts come in men’s and women’s sizes, so you can get the size that matches you best.
Top Motorcycle back protectors Reviewed
These are our top six to suit every rider.
CE-2 level rated protection, made of a blend of Nitrille and Polynorbornene rubber, arranged in layers that shift on impact for great impact absorption.
A great price
Unusual layer-style construction
Perforated for ventilation
Is designed for Rev’It jackets so may not be a perfect fit in others
Material has a flimsy feel
Despite that, can feel stiff
Forcefield Pro Sub 4
Flexible and breathable level 2 CE certified strap-on back protector with high impact resistance, for both back and ribs.
Harness gives cover on both front and back
The highest possible level of protection
Outer cover is removable and washable
Harness means it can be worn under anything
Not cheap – but still worth the outlay
Again, sizing is not consistent with other brands
Looks bulky or unwieldy – even though it’s not
Dainese Manis D1 G Back Protector Insert
CE-2 rated back armour with lots of bells and whistles, for a very competitive price – with a five-star user review average.
Perforated plates for air flow
Special longitudinal and latitudinal stretch and bending
Light and robust, with that Dainese mark of quality
Comes in both men’s and women’s sizes
Not as cheap as some other options
Sizing seems to follow its own logic so double-check
Can feel a little loose in jacket insert slots
CE level 2 low profile harness protector – includes kidney protection.
High level of armour quality for the price
Air venting system increases air flow
Flexible fit – should suit most riders
Sizing can be confusing, double check sizing chart for best fit
Ventilation isn’t great, making it hot on warm days
Velcro strip to add to Oxford jackets often in the wrong place
CE-rated protection, made of a lightweight material and vented for extra insulation. It’s nice and chunky, and wide too.
Really good coverage of the whole back area
Although it’s big, it fits jackets almost invisibly
Perforated for ventilation
Is designed for ARMR jackets so may not be a perfect fit in others
Recommended Reading: Motorcycle Gear Hub