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wear. your. gear.
ATGATT - if you've never heard this term, it means: All The Gear All The Time.
I am one of those people that will chastise you if I see you out wearing cheap, junky gear - or no gear at all. Well, actually, I'll really only do this if I care about you. If I don't know you, well, I assume you're an idiot because you're wearing that little plastic beanie to satisfy the letter of the law because you clearly don't care about whether or not your brains stay on the inside of your skull.
If I know you and care about your life (as in you continuing to live it) and you wear gear like that, I don't assume you're an idiot, but I do assume you don't care as much about your life as I do about mine. You should know better, but if you don't, that's your problem and I'll mourn you greatly at your funeral.
Now that the self-righteousness is out of the way, let me tell you why I have this opinion: If I had been wearing one of those little plastic beanies on 11 May 1999, I'd be dead. An old lady ran right into me as I was riding and my head bounced right off the hood of her car. Anything but a high-quality, full-face helmet & there's a solid chance this website wouldn't exist.
There's an old adage that if you have a $100 head, buy a $100 helmet. Well, I'll tell you this - I put a $100 helmet on my kid and her head's worth a lot more than that to me. It's about quality, not cost.
The job of a helmet is twofold. First, its outer shell - the hard part - is meant to protect you from any kind of contact injury, like sliding headfirst into a telephone pole or signpost. These outer shells are made of a wide variety of materials from plastic to kevlar to carbon fiber. I'm sure there's tests that show which one is better than the other, but the fact of the matter is, it only matters if you're wearing it. The chin bar protects your jaw and lower face; the face shield protects your eyes and nose.
Second, the inside of the helmet - not the hopefully plush lining that contacts your cheeks and head, but the layer between that and the outer shell - is usually (nowadays) made out of extruded polystyrene, or EPS. It's rigid, but not hard like the outer shell. It's by no means soft, but it's engineered to be soft enough to deform under pressure. Its job is to slow your head down when you're in a crash. By slowing your head down, it reduces the amount of pressure encountered when your brain slams into the inside of your skull. Yes, your brain is bathed in fluid, but in a crash, that fluid isn't enough to protect you from a serious concussion (i.e. imact injury to your brain). The EPS deforms as your head moves through it, slowing everything down and hopefully minimizing any brain damage that occurs.
My advice is to always buy the best helmet you can reasonably afford and never ride without it. Now that Chinese and Korean manufacturers have gotten into the helmet business, you can find good, cheap helmets if you like. As long as they pass DOT certification, they should be safe to use on the roads here in the US. There's some controversy over the Snell certification, and I'm not going to get into that here, but you should always consider a DOT certification to be the bare minimum. Myself, I prefer the European standard referred to as ECE, and I want a helmet that's passed the Europeans' tests.
The biggest differences between a cheap helmet and an expensive one are going to be weight and comfort. Cheap helmets tend to be heavier (they use less high-tech materials) and less comfortable (they user cheaper internal components).
Flip-front, or "modular" helmets, are getting more popular. I personally don't like them, but that's not because I don't find them effective. Their chin bars tend to be closer to the face and that makes me uncomfortable.
I currently have three helmets, two full-face and a flip-front.
Much of what I wear is made by First Gear and is high-quality textile gear - usually waterproof, too. I have a pair of Harley-Davidson-branded chaps that I really like and tend to gravitate towards BMW-branded gloves.
When it comes to boots, I'm at a bit of a disadvantage. Because of my damaged left leg, I can't wear traditional motorcycle sport-touring or dual-sporting boots - they come up too high on the calf and the left one never fastens around my permanently swollen leg. For a long time, I wore Magnum boots, like many first responders use, but after a string of bad experiences with them - including broken boots, poor waterproofing and bad customer service - I've switched to Danner boots. They take a long time to break in, but once they've creased up, they're quite comfortable. Two of the attractions of the Danners are that they're made in the US (the ones I bought are, anyway) and that they're fully repairable/rebuildable.