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Common Tread

Long-distance motorcycle touring tips: Ride smarter, not harder

Aug 20, 2018

New Guy Greaser doesn’t tour on big-mileage, multi-day trips.

(He’s actually slated for a four-day tour at the end of August, though. Somebody’s gotta show this kid the ropes.) Every other Common Tread staffer gets affected by Seasonal Wanderlust, which requires massive mileage rolling under the wheels in order to recover. All of us have developed our own styles and methods for touring with flair, panache, and comfort, but there was plenty of crossover when we sat down and compared notes. If you’re looking for some guidance for your trips, this list might prove to be of assistance, whether you’re on your first trip or your hundredth.

motorcycle touring
An open road, maybe a couple of friends, time unscheduled: It's a great combination. Photo by Lance Oliver.

  • Adjust your suspension. Especially if you are traveling with a passenger and you’ve added a lot of weight with luggage, check the sag on the suspension. A good rule of thumb is that the loaded bike with you on top should use about a third of available travel.
  • Bring a full-face helmet. Even if you don’t normally wear one, many states require a lid of some form or fashion. Specifically, full-face lids offer a few benefits to a touring rider. They’re great at keeping you warm; a helmet is built just like a thermos. They’re also better at keeping a rider dry than any other style. And finally, they excel at keeping noise at bay. Many riders aren’t aware that noise really saps your energy.

"Water is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty." Photo by Lemmy.

  • Keep water handy, even in cool weather. Some people throw a bottle in their tank bag. I usually lash one to the top of my gear so it’s the first thing I can grab when I pull over.
  • Plan stops ahead of time to make sure any amenities you might need, like food or a hotel, are near the place you plan to hang up your spurs for the evening.

Knocking down miles on this rig is a bit more comfortable than a less-touring-oriented steed. Don't forget to account for that when you're planning — and when you're on the road. Photo by Lemmy.

  • Consider your machine. A thousand miles in a day on an Electra Glide can be child’s play. A thousand miles in a day on a DR-Z400 might be bordering on masochism.

Taking a little break
There's always time to enjoy yourself. If there isn't, maybe you need more time. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

  • Take time to stop and enjoy what you're doing. Most of us have a laundry list of "to-dos." Don't let your ride be just another thing to get done.
  • It really is a marathon, not a sprint. High speeds don’t help you too much unless you’re able to sustain them, and if you do, your gas mileage and range will suffer. Remember, you’re not a local anyway. You’re likely to fly right into the speed trap that all the townies know about.
  • Similarly, don’t plan to make freeway time on two-laners. It never works.

A little nap can be all you need to recharge your batteries. Riding tired is dangerous. Take note of PJ's excellent napping form. Photo by Lemmy.

  • Catnaps count. If you’re trying to ride big mileage in little time, a couple of short half-hour naps will often get you right mentally without blowing out the time budget
  • Treat yo’self. The more miles you’re doing, the less you’ll want to set up camp, cook, etc. Unless you’re Iron Butting, the harder you ride, the less hard you should be working on the other stuff (with some exceptions). In that vein, if you’re camping each night, plan on getting off the bike a bit earlier in the evening and losing a few hours to camp prep.
  • Avoid the rush. Work your route so you’re not in urban areas during peak commute times. All those suckers have to go to work… don’t join them if you don’t have to!
  • Plan your gas stops. Even riders with big tanks can be nervous out west. Alternatively, have a second fuel container on board.
  • Check your bike out. A lot. Every morning is a good starting point. One road trip might be as many miles as 20 of your commutes. You wouldn’t go that many miles at home without checking on your machine’s vitals, so why do it here? Chain lubing, fastener checking, and tire examination all can keep you safe. A planned ride to a shop for service is a lot more convenient when you move under your own power, not on a wrecker.
  • Flat tires happen. A small repair kit and an inflation tool (pump or CO2 cartridges) take up little space for a common malady. If you have tubed tires, remember spoons and some way to raise the bike.
  • Speaking of tires, if you’re doing a really big run and you’re likely to need tires, set that up with a shop beforehand. Same with oil changes and such. It’s best to handle maintenance before you go, but if you can’t, schedule it in to minimize down time.

Spurg's bags.
Spurg's aptly selected aftermarket bits make his non-traditional touring mount pretty capable of tackling the runs that really keep the odometer spinning. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

  • Consider aftermarket parts. I don’t often espouse buying your way out of a problem, but an aftermarket seat can be real comfy compared to stock. Lots of OEM saddles are poorly built. You may find this move creates a more amorous pillion, too. Windscreens are another item that can really make a ride easier. And do I even need to mention luggage?

You gotta stop if you want dinosaur pictures. RevZilla photo.

  • Stop and take a break. Take a whiz, go see the World’s Largest Ball of String, whatever. Just get off the bike and stretch and give your ass a rest every now and again.
  • Test pack. Unless you’re taking exactly the same things on exactly the same bike as your last trip (and that one went well), pack everything on your motorcycle before departure to make sure it fits and attaches securely. (The night before you leave is a great way to get some extra snooze time.)

I prefer a dedicated GPS if my motorcycle can support it, and direx written on the back of my glove if it can't. A backup plan is kind of a necessity unless you know the way. Photo by Lemmy.

  • Map up. If you’re traveling off the beaten path and you plan to use your smartphone for navigation assistance, download maps in advance for remote areas where you may not have cell service. Your phone’s GPS will still locate you, but without a cell tower in range, your phone won’t be able to download a map to show your position.
  • Remember: you are a stranger. Away from home, vigilance must stay high to balance your lack of local knowledge, including road conditions and potentially hazardous traffic areas. Relax and enjoy the sights, but maintain your usual level of alertness (or better).
  • Revise your gear choices. As you unpack, note any items you could have done without. Diligence here will lend you a little more pack space for the next.

Of course, this list isn’t comprehensive, nor is it meant to be. Perhaps you have a few touring tips of your own that we should know about, eh? Share 'em.