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.
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 Hayabusa, I had to tear 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 the right side 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. The Harley Softail Standard I once owned had an atrocious seat. I couldn’t ride for more than 45 minutes without feeling very uncomfortable. I replaced the seat with a Corbin two up seat and a pair of backrests which made all the difference. My first long distance ride on it was from Virginia to Idaho, up to Canada and back to Virginia through Buffalo NY.
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. 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 my Gerbing heated gear (gloves and jacket). I added a small multi-item display primarily for the temperature gauge and a voltmeter to keep an eye on the draw my other farkles are pulling from the system.
You might also consider adding 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. Adding a double bubble screen to my wife’s 650 Ninja made the ride better for her but it put my head right in the turbulence causing it to be bounced around making riding her bike for any length of time pretty uncomfortable. I did finally replace mine with a Double Bubble and it didn’t make it worse and I can see more of my dash board.
Another thing would be some sort of cruise control. If your grips have a small gap between the bar ends and the throttle, you might be able to use a thick 7/8″ O ring. Slip it over the bar end and roll it into the gap for a friction stop of the throttle. Just roll it out when you need to return to normal throttle control. Be careful though as I had one slip between the throttle and bar. It’s friction so I had to twist in both directions until I could stop and remove the O ring. You can also get a couple of thumb locks. You can go with a Crampbuster but be careful on the higher performance bikes. I tried using my wife’s and the really fine throttle adjustment on the Hayabusa made it difficult to use. I likely would have gotten used to it after a while. 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. I picked up a pair and replaced my bar ends with these. They work real well even if they’re a tad pricy.
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. When I rode from Colorado to Labrador, it was quite hot and humid in Kentucky. I was literally dripping with sweat in my tent. But as I headed north, the weather got colder. Fortunately I was visiting family and friends on the trip. I called my wife and had her FedEx my cold weather gear to my last friend stop in Connecticut. This was good because as I traveled through Newfoundland, it was chilly and foggy and after getting off the ferry in Quebec, it was downright cold. It would have been mighty uncomfortable without my heated gear. On the way back, I ran into the tail end of a hurricane and rode the bike briefly through torrential rains in Maine. Having my rain gear was 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.
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 have 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 – My Joe Rocket Alter Ego jacket came with a little backpack meant to hold the liner and zip out shell but 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 an old CruzTools kit which looks to have been upgraded. My kit looks similar to the EconoKIT M1 although I don’t see the wire mine has. In addition to this kit, I add in my rear axle wrench and extension from the bike’s kit and leave the bike’s kit home.
Quick Stand – To get my rear tire off the ground, I also have a Quick Stand. This lets me quickly and easily clean and lube the chain. It does require swingarm spools installed on the bike but I find them important for maintenance tasks in the garage anyway.
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 don’t take a stool any more but I did on the three week trip to Labrador (visiting friends, Sport-Touring.Net national meet, and the actual trip). It seemed unnecessary so it’s been sitting home since then. 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 (sun glass case size) and as a pillow works excellently. As to the camp stove, I generally just grab something to eat before hitting the campsite for the night so never need a camp stove. 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. I generally lose 5 or 10 lbs when touring 🙂
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 an iPad 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 iPad 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. Just because you have an air compressor in the garage doesn’t mean you should use it. I had a tire kit for my Harley which had a short bit of hose. You pull a spark plug, screw in the hose and fill your tire. I was riding my Hayabusa in Alaska when I got a flat. Unfortunately the kit for the Harley doesn’t work on the Hayabusa as the access holes are much smaller. Fortunately I was able to get a ride to town but it was an expensive lesson.
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 quickstand, 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, otherwise they’ll last between 5,000 and 6,000 miles. 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. I find I burn about half a quart to a full quart on a trip.
I wear an Aerostich suit when riding. Under it I wear a pair of bicycle pants and a compression shirt. It’s very very comfortable and it makes a big difference on trips. Just make sure to bring a pair of pants and regular clothes for restaurants. I also have a pair of waterproof gloves as backup to my main riding gloves.
I don’t mind riding on the slab to get from one place to another. It can be boring and it can be a little crazy. 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 Autocomm but you also have the Chatterbox and others. I have smaller ear holes and more sensitive ears so wearing ear buds or in the ear headphones like the Etymotic is very painful 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.