Preparing For Long Distance Motorcycle Touring
Choose The Right Bike
It may seem obvious but choosing the right bike for you is important for comfortable motorcycle trips. You want one that will go the distance and carry (or tow) the gear you want to take along. You also want one that will take you where you want to go. If you want to go off-road, a dual sport or adventure bike is the way to go. In preparation for the longer trip, make shorter day long or weekend long trips to see if the bike you ride is going to be appropriate for taking that week or multi-week trip. Those little things that bother you on a day long ride will become intolerable in a few days and after a week or two, will have you parking the bike and taking an airplane or bus home. Some have gone so far as to make statements like I’m too tired or have asked seasoned riders embarrassing questions like “Can we go home early?”
Be Comfortable With The Bike
You should be comfortable working on the bike. Not tearing the engine down of course, but little things like standard maintenance stuff. Adding fluid such as oil, radiator, and brake/clutch fluid. You should be able to clean, apply lube, and adjust the chain if you have one. You need to know where fuses are and how to get to it. You need to know how to change all the bulbs on the bike - especially the headlight bulb. The first time I changed the low beam bulb on my Goldwing, I just about tore down the entire front end. I’d never changed it before and couldn’t figure out the release mechanism. Once I’d seen it and played with it, I understood how to change it and it now takes me just a few minutes and I only have to remove some of the dashboard.
Preparing Your Bike
After taking a few day or weekend rides on your bike, you’ll figure out what’s missing. A better seat with a backrest for instance. Harley Softail’s can have an atrocious seat that you couldn’t ride for more than 45 minutes without feeling very uncomfortable. I have almost always replaced my seat with an upgraded two up seat and a pair of backrests which made all the difference. My first long distance ride on it was up to British Columbia, Canada and back to Oregon. What a diference!
Check all the fluids on your bike before departing on a trip. The brake fluid should be clear and not yellow. The clutch fluid (if you have it) may actually be gray instead of clear due to chain grease getting into the fluid from the lower piston. Open both reservoirs to make sure the rubber cap hasn’t popped and your fluid is lower than you thought. Clean, lube, and adjust your chain if you have one. Same goes for shaft or belt drive. Check the air in your tires. Do you know what the correct pressure is for your bike? And remember, the maximum pressure indicated on the tire isn’t necessarily the recommended pressure. You should have a sticker on the side of your swingarm that tells you the maximum tire pressure for one up and two up riding.
For additional capability, I’ve added a few farkles to my bike. First off, a Blue Sea fuse box under the seat so I can properly manage the other farkles. It’s set up so I don’t have a bunch of wires hanging off the battery. I just have the two wires going to the fuse box and then I can add more stuff without disconnecting the battery plus add fuses to protect the electronics on the bike, especially for items that may not have their own in-line fuse.
I added a waterproof accessories plug so I can plug in various car adapters to charge up my iPhone or iPad. I’ve also added heated grips and the plugs for heated gear (gloves and jacket). Some add a small multi-item display primarily for the temperature gauge and a voltmeter to keep an eye on the draw that other farkles are pulling from the system.
You might also consider adding, upgrading or replacing your windscreen. I pretty much ignored replacing my windscreen for the longest time because you never know if the new screen will be appropriate or even make it worse.
Another thing would be some sort of cruise control. Luxury touring bikes ussualy come equipped but if not I recommend Kako or you can go with a Crampbuster. The Vista Cruise throttle lock is a nice one although it does shorten the grip you have on your throttle. I prefer the Throttlemeister’s on cruisers.
How Much Gear To Bring
There are different schools of thought on this subject. On one side, you have the minimalist who thinks a couple of credit cards is all you need to take a trip. On the other side you have the riders who don’t want to stop to hunt down a fresh pair of socks or toothpaste or even a replacement light bulb. I’ve honed my list down pretty well however if you’re new to this, you might try getting all your gear together and then trying to cut it in half. Take fewer clothes. Do you really need 14 pair of socks?
Think about the trip you’re making and what sort of trip it’ll be. For some folks, they want to see the sights. Stop in at old towns and experience the ambiance of small town living. Eat at mom and pop diners. For others, they want to just ride and see the sights from the seat of a motorcycle. You have to think about this as you make your shorter rides.
You also want to be aware of the weather where you’re going and either pack appropriately or be prepared to exchange gear. The weather can have extreme changes. Having rain gear is important, again for comfort. And put it on early, before you get into the rain. It’s no fun to put on rain gear while wet. It’s generally rubber or coated plastic which sticks to everything when wet and hold moisture in as well as keeping it out. I highly recommend Carhart for those on a budget who also want excellent performance.
I would like to add: the making of a disposable list for your types of rides.
A 3-day weekend ride requires a completely different list from a 2 week ride and a couple of what I call “flush out single night rides”.
These one night rides are designed for 2 things. 1st. is the flush out of things either needed or taken with, and second is seat time. Both accomplish the same thing, streamlining what you take along with building up “seat” endurance.
For newer riders this is critical. Unfamiliar things can shake your concentration and confidence during a ride. Shake it down with short, close to home rides to work out all the bugs.
In general, you’re going to have to be comfortable with the gear you want to take along. Here is a short list of the gear I like to take along.
Containers – This is what holds your gear when on your ride.
• Tank Bag – I like having a tank bag. I put a sweatshirt in the bottom compartment, a map in the top and all my important little things such as my cell phone, iPad, and camera. I also put my pens and paper here along with a note pad. When you stop for gas or food, take a few notes on the last couple of hours. A tank bag is also perfect for leaning on when riding. You can rest your body on it and your elbows on your knees and be good to go.
• Saddle Bags – I had a pair of four point saddle bags. The front and back of both have a snap that holds it to the bike so it doesn’t flap around. I also pack my heavier gear in here to help with maintaining a lower center of gravity. If you have heavy gear up high, it makes the bike top heavy and difficult to control. I’ll also have my chain wax and plexus sitting right at the top of the right had bag as it’s higher when parked.
• Tail Bag – A tail bag sits higher on the back of the bike so lighter gear should go here. I generally pack my clothes, toiletries, and other non-riding gear here. Use a plastic trash bag and pack your clothes in it. Not only does it keep the clothes dry, it keeps them from getting dusty and dirty.
• Locking Trunk – It’s nice to have a lockable trunk to hold gear. If you keep it empty, you have space for souvenirs, you have space to put your tank bag so you can go on a short hike without worrying that your iPhone will disappear.
• Smaller Bags – I use a modular system for packing. I have three small soft CD bags to hold various things; 1 for cables and connectors, 1 for toiletries, and 1 for small miscellaneous bits that might get lost in the mix such as chapstick or eyewash.
• Mini-Backpack –To hold liners and zip out shells. It also works great for holding a CamelBak for hydration. Sure you can grab a drink of water when at a rest stop but there’s nothing like a shot of cold water to help keep you alert.
• Toolkit – This doesn’t have to be a super extensive kit. There are several mini kits available in their own carrying case. I have equipped mine specifically for my bike and I leave the bike’s kit home.
• Center Stand – To get my rear tire off the ground, I also have a Center Stand. This lets me quickly and easily clean and lube the chain. I find them important for maintenance tasks in the garage and on the road.
• First Aid Kit – You can pick up a nice little kit at any Wal*Mart or hit up the Aerostich site for an assortment of motorcycle specific first aid kits. I picked up the Aerostich Touring Kit but honestly, in the 7 years I’ve been carrying it about with me, I’ve only opened it once for a band-aid. It’s nice to know I have it in case of emergencies though.
Tire Patching Kit – Get a tire patching kit for your bike. I picked up one from the Aerostich catalog along with an air pump that plugs into my accessories socket. I prefer the strings over the plugs in part because of a flat I got in Alaska that was the size of my little finger. A plug kit wouldn’t have helped but having a string kit along with some extra strings (I bought two packs of extra large strings just in case) will fill pretty much any hole. With strings, even if you have a big puncture, you can continue to add strings until the hole is sealed; or sealed enough to get you back to civilization.
Camping Gear – This consists of gear such as your tent, tent poles, tent pegs, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, camp pillow, tent stool, camp stove. I even pack a chair when camping. As to the tent, you really don’t need a gigantic one, especially if you’re riding by yourself. I do find a pad of some sort a requirement. It’s almost impossible to find a totally flat campsite and sometimes I’m setting up camp in the dark. Recently we picked up a pair at REI. Mine was the extra wide, extra long version. I still need to test it in my tent just to make sure it fits. Otherwise I’ll use the one I’ve been using. I also picked up a camp pillow. This thing compressed down to almost nothing and as a pillow works excellently. I also have a bag of nuts for snacks when traveling. I can dip in and grab a handful or two and be pretty good.
Electronics – This is your choice of gear for keeping in touch, keeping amused and entertained, getting pictures, and not getting too lost. I bring my iPhone and check in daily when I can. I bring a Macbook Pro both for entertainment and as a backup device for the camera. I also bring a camera. Finally a GPS is a nice to have. It can be fun to get a little lost but you need to be able to get back to where you were before the rangers are out looking for you. Don’t forget your various cables; both the adapters to plug into the bike and the cables to plug into the wall outlets either in motels or in the camp bathrooms if you’re camping. And especially don’t forget the data cable between the camera and the iPad and the Mac adapter.
Maps – Bring a selection of maps for the trip you’re taking. Even if you’re taking a GPS. You don’t want to depend too heavily on a GPS and have it fail for one reason or another and not have backup maps available. I find that maps also give me a broader view at a glance of the surrounding area.
Toiletries – Bring what you want to use when traveling. I generally carry a few disposable razors, toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, q-tips, liquid soap, shampoo, and deodorant. If you’re hitting motels, you can snag their soap and shampoo on the way out the door.
Straps and Bungie Cords – I find straps and bungie cords are the best way. Bungie cords have give to them so things might fall off the bike. I’ll strap down the front half of my sleeping bag, tent pole, tent combination so they don’t get moved in the wind and bungie down the rear of these items so they have some freedom of movement. I also always use a bungie net over the tailbag. It’s great for tying a wet t-shirt or bandana to so it can dry on the road and serves as an anchor for things like the tent pole bag or tent bag which have drawstrings. I hate having things flap about so I tie them to the net. It keeps it from flapping and in case a bungie cord fails, it keeps the tent poles from disappearing in the distance.
Miscellaneous – There are always lots of little bits of this or that which are good to have but you don’t necessarily remember to snag it.
Ear plugs are important for preserving your hearing but also for keeping the trip comfortable.
Flashlights plus a headband flashlight (REI for instance although I have a Maglite headband which works fine).
Pocket knife. I bring my Leatherman with me and have a second in a bag stowed in the tail bag.
Writing implements; pens, pencils, highlighters, etc.
Reading material and reading glasses if you need them (take a couple for spares).
Passport. If you’re leaving the country (going to Canada), you’ll need your Passport in order to get back to the US.
Bandanas. These are great for quick wipes such as wiping the rain off your seat before you get back on. You can tie it to your bike so it’ll dry quickly.
Vitamins. And other little meds such as aspirin or Advil.
Batteries. If your gear takes batteries, grab a packet or two and drop it in your tank bag.
Tips And Techniques
When traveling out of country (Canada for instance), remember that you’re not in the US any more and international phone charges kick in which can be quite expensive. Either change your plan before leaving the US or simply turn off the phone when out of country. The iPhone and iPad have Airport modes. That way you can leave the phone on to take quick pictures without incurring phone charges.
Take a black sharpie and mark the current location on your rear axle nut (mark the nut down to the spacer). This gives you a good rule of thumb when tightening down your rear axle nut after adjusting the chain. This way you don’t have to bring a torque wrench with you on the trip.
Use your gear in the garage before leaving. Perform maintenance with your proposed tool kit. This way you can make sure you have all the tools needed to perform on the road, work if necessary. Same with the spare tire kit. If you ever get a slow leak (like from a brad or small nail) or if your tire needs to be replaced, take advantage of the opportunity and use your kit to repair it. And don’t skip any steps in the process.
Bike balance is essential for a comfortable ride. When on the road, in a safe area (long stretch of no traffic), take a moment to let the bike balance itself. Shift your butt to the left or right and hold on to the bars without pushing on either one. You should be able to find the balance of the bike doing this. If you find it’s heavier on one side or the other, take a break at the next overpass or break area and shift some of the gear around. You’ll find you’re going to be a lot more comfortable if you’re not constantly pressing on the right handlebar in order to keep the bike going in a straight line.
Gear access is important. If you have to rummage around to get your chain lube or Windshield cleaner, you’ll be less likely to do the essential maintenance job when you’re stopped for a break. Put the gear you need at night towards the bottom of your packing and the gear you need on the road at the top.
Call your credit card/debit card companies before leaving to make sure they’re aware you’ll be away. It sucks to have your card blocked and have to find a spot to make a call to get it straightened out.
You know your bike’s limitations. Make sure your tires are able to take the miles. Sport-touring tires really do hold up well for traveling, I’ve put 14,000 miles on a rear Metezler Z6 tire. Chains can last 20,000 miles depending on how you treat them. My oil’s lasted through a 10,000 mile trip without a lick of trouble. Keep an eye on the level and keep topping it off when needed.
It can be boring and it can be a little crazywhen going long distances or when you need to cover some ground. When in an area with higher winds, pay attention to the bigger vehicles and especially the big rigs and buses. If they’re blocking, as you get into their shadow you’ll lose that wind push and move towards the truck. Same when you pass it. And the trucks have different profiles so the wind dynamic will be different when going by.
Check out the various helmet based radio or music options. I use an Sena but you also have the Chatterbox and others. Those who have smaller ear holes and more sensitive ears wearing ear buds or in the ear headphones like the Etymotic may experience pain after about 30 minutes.
While eating on the road is an enjoyable experience, be careful. Eating too much or eating the wrong foods can make you sleepy on the road. You’d think you couldn’t fall asleep when riding a motorcycle but it’s darned easy. Keep it light and take a break immediately upon feeling sleepy. Toughing it out is dangerous.
Riding With Someone Else
And don’t forget your passenger if you’re taking one along. He or she will, depending on the bike, have an even more uncomfortable ride.