Folks who ride motorcycles frequently have a high level of independence. So, when it comes to touring by bike, many choose to go their own way instead of signing up with a company organized tour. While this is particularly common when the ride begins from your home turf, you can also do it when you decide to rent a bike in some remote exotic locale.
While the best adventures often begin when the plans go awry, even a rugged individualist might need some tips to point them in the right direction on their first extended motorcycle tour. You’ll see some familiar themes here: proper riding gear, knowledge of what you’ll be doing, things to make life easier, and tools to help when things need fixing. Kinda sounds like the skills required to ride a motorcycle, no?
Travel by motorcycle requires anticipating what you need and then paring it down to the essentials that can be carried in the available space on a bike. When traveling in a group, the load of supplies and tools can be shared, but traveling alone makes for a more challenging experience when preparing for the road.
Each of the sections below could be an entire article unto itself. So, take this as a starting point – a place to look at touring before you jump into the actual planning.
While you can start preparing for a tour without any destination in mind, not everyone has the luxury of saying, “I think I’ll just turn left at the end of the block and see what happens.” Since we have jobs and other things to come back to, most of us have some kind of schedule forced on us. So, most tours will have destinations in mind.
Riders have been writing about touring on motorcycles for almost as long as motorcycles have been reliable enough for long-distance travel. A quick perusal of any motorsports-friendly book seller will reveal quite a few motorcycle-related Baedekers. Motojournalist Fred Rau’s Motorcycle Touring Bible offers tips and tales from the road for touring riders of all levels of experience. In Motorcycle Journeys Through North America, author Dale Coyner breaks the American continent down into 17 sections which should be enough to entice the newbie into a local trip or remind the well seasoned rider of places not yet visited. If you’re planning a trip to a specific region, say Alaska or Switzerland, odds are that you’ll find a book specifically designed for you.
While books are great for planning, you’ll probably want something that travels a bit more compactly. Maps have long been the tool of choice, but the accuracy of GPS technology and the ubiquitous nature of smartphones has led to the demotion of paper maps – much to the detriment of the traveler. By all means, use your GPS. However, planning a trip on a four inch screen can be an exercise in missing the forest for the trees. Good old analog maps, particularly ones that cater to the needs of motorcyclists, are the best tools available.
You could just stop at the first gas station after you cross a state line to pick up a map for that state, but you’d be missing out on tons of motorcycle-specific information. The two major players in the motorcycle map market are Butler Motorcycle Maps and Mad Maps. Both publishers highlight the best roads for motorcyclists. However, they don’t go by word of mouth; they ride them. We’ve used both and found that they have similarities and differences that make the cost of buying both maps worth the expense.
In addition to maps of the folding variety, Mad Maps also has Android and iOS apps available in prices ranging from free to $10. These apps feature multiple rides preprogrammed in with turn-by-turn directions and points of interest for routes/loops ranging in length from 100 to 300 miles.
Don’t forget to take the time meet the locals when traveling. You never know what hidden treasure you could be introduced to over a cup of coffee or at the gas pump.
Unless you own a touring bike and are planning on wearing the same clothes for days, you’ll need a way to haul your touring gear. While buying hard bags is certainly the most secure and weatherproof way – particularly if you’re planning on making motorcycle touring a frequent activity – many riders opt for soft bags. Soft luggage is easy to mount and remove from your motorcycle and does not require special mounting hardware that can interfere with the unladen looks of your motorcycle. Of course, the challenge with soft bags is making them both waterproof and durable. Consequently, many bags utilize waterproof covers to hold out the elements.
Saddlebags are the go-to items when it comes to motorcycle touring, and German manufacturer Ortlieb offers a full line of tough touring gear, ranging from tank bags to saddlebags to dry bags with prices ranging from $70-$240. All have a reputation for durability if not beauty.
Tourmaster, if you can’t guess from the name, offers touring gear for both the rider and motorcycle. The company sells 24 cruiser-styled luggage choices and 9 standard-styled bags. Most are constructed of nylon with waterproof rain covers. The sizes of the bags range from small enough to carry just your essentials on the tank or pillion to ginormous (that’s a technical term) sissy bar packs.
You don’t want to forget your creature comforts when touring. Take a look at the Top 10 Ways To Make Your Bike Fit Better. The major things to consider are: How much (more or less) wind protection will you need on your tour? Is your saddle (or your backside) up to the many hours in the saddle?
AIRHAWK produces seat overlays that use air-filled, waffle shaped bladders to ease the stress of pressure points on your butt during long rides. The waffle shape allows for air to flow between the rider and the seat for improved cooling and dryness. AIRHAWK seat pads are available in multiple sizes for between $90-$200.
If your travels are in the same general climate as the one in which you do most of your riding, you won’t need to consider additional gear – unless you don’t own a rain suit. However, if you’re traveling to either hotter or cooler areas, you need to ascertain what types of forecasts you can expect during your travels. The best riding gear for touring will accommodate all the weather you are likely to encounter. If you look, many touring suits are both vented for comfort and waterproof for protection. Others will also have thermal liners for when the temperature drops.
Special environments – like north of the Arctic Circle or south into the desert – will require gear designed for those temperatures. Take a look at our gear buyer’s guides for winter and summer gear to learn more:
In a perfect world, you’d never get a flat tire or need to adjust your chain. In the real world, all kinds of maintenance issues can arise out on the road. You will need to be able to handle situations at least enough to enable you to get to the nearest motorcycle shop. A well-considered tool kit goes a long way towards solving many problems. Too few tools can leave you stranded, while too many can become a packing problem of their own. I used to tour extensively with a rider who had a tool kit he called his Magic Bag. Over the years, I never saw it fail to get us going again when it was needed. However, it grew to be about 30 lb. of gear in an overstuffed tail bag, making it almost an additional passenger to consider when packing.
If you’re looking for a turn-key kit for your next tour, you’d be hard pressed to find one that covers all the basics like one of CruzTools’ offerings. Although the company name implies cruisers, it sells 14 kits (plus special tools), covering all classes of motorcycles in both metric and standard sizes. The kits retail for between $40 and $130.
If you’d prefer to create your own kit from your existing collection of tools, thus avoiding duplication with those in your garage, Kriega offers a $35 tool roll constructed of Cordura nylon and measuring 21.7 in. x 8.9 in. when unfolded.
Aside from tools, you’ll also want to carry a flat fix kit, a Leatherman-type tool, and flashlight.
Touring on a motorcycle is less like car camping than it is like backpacking. So, if you’re planning on pitching your tent and cooking your own meals on your travels, look to backcountry-focused retailers, or you can turn to Aerostich for a wide selection of motorcycle-tour-tested gear. Even if you’re planning on staying in motels and eating all of your food in restaurants, you should carry at least one meal and water container with you in case you get stranded somewhere overnight. (Or if you have any friends in the military, get a couple MREs from them, and you won’t have to boil water to eat hot food.)
At the very least, you’ll need a tent (though you don’t need to pony up for the Atacam Expedition Tent) and a sleeping bag. If you want to eat hot food, a compact stove is handy. You’ll also need a canteen, a pot to heat food (you can also eat out of it), and utensils.
Depending on how self-sufficient you want to be, there’s a lot to process when you consider touring on a motorcycle. You’ve just read 1800 words and haven’t even scratched the surface. So, listen to the voice of experience: The planning of a tour is only a little bit less fun than the tour itself. Get yourself your favorite beverage and start planning. Either involve friends or go solo. You won’t regret it.