Do I Need a Large Motorcycle for Long Distance Touring?

Do you really need a full-sized motorcycle to enjoy serious long-distance touring? The quick answer is a no, not at all.  There are many capable and proven mid-sized bikes available. And a mid-sized motorcycle may just fit you better and be more suitable for your style of touring.

Popular Mid-Sized Touring Choices

  • Yamaha V Star 950cc Touring Edition
  • Honda VT750 Shadow
  • Suzuki Boulevard C50T Special Edition, 800cc
  • Kawasaki Vulcan 800cc & 900cc  – with touring options
  • Honda CTX700TA Touring, 700cc
  • Suzuki V-Strom, 650cc & 1000cc
  • Kawasaki Versys, 650cc

While you can get a decently outfitted mid-sized bike from the factory, the option to build on a base model is an attractive alternative. For just about any popular motorcycle will find a wide range of aftermarket suppliers, with a lot of options to upgrade and outfit your mount. To be honest, a factory “touring edition”, is usually a base model with added carrying capacity and a windshield. 

So, you can definitely build a comfortable and capable touring ride, without the full-sized bulk of a Honda Gold Wing or fully equipped FL Harley Davidson, or similar large bikes. By starting with a base motorcycle you always have the ability to add and remove touring items, like the windshield and saddlebags, freeing your bike up for other uses. The Suzuki V-Strom, for example, is a true chameleon, it can be set up for long-distance touring, sport-touring, and even for some adventure touring.  

What exactly is a Middleweight?

Only a few years ago a 1000 cc displacement was considered a big motorcycle, but today’s top touring motorcycles are approaching 2,000cc and can weigh in at over 1,000 lbs. ready to roll. There is no denying it, they are physically large and intimidating pieces of equipment.

So what is a middleweight? For this post, I consider mid-sized to have a displacement between 650 to 1000 cc and weighs in well under 700 lbs. I also arbitrarily limited this segment to 2 cylinders, although there are other engine options available.  

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There really are no mid-sized Gold Wing’s or Harley FLH’s clones, where you get a dedicated, purpose-built touring machine in a smaller package. Manufacturers have built on existing street models to make them more touring friendly. Along with being more compact, you will usually find lower seat height, but less “roominess” for the rider, passenger and gear carrying capacity. 

The underlying message is that you can build your own mid-sized tourer pretty easily, just like the OEM did.  Another result of building on existing models is that you mold your ride to your vision – a straight-up touring bike, a sport-tourer, adventure bike or more conventional street machine.

Mid-Sized Attraction 

This segment has a lot of advantages.

  • These bikes are more compact and lighter so far more nimble than the touring behemoths.
  • The majority in this class are also powered by less complex and less costly to build and maintain 2-cylinder engines.
  • As expected initial purchase price is relatively less and lower used pricing also. Spending less on the motorcycle and its care is a win-win for your budget for sure, but it also frees up cash for upgrades, or just to splurge more on the tour itself. 
  • Replacement and theft insurance will be relatively lower, and you will be in a lower “risk” bracket based on engine displacement.
  • Less mechanical complexity translates to lower operating costs, both in gas consumption and routine maintenance. Amazingly these mid-range tourers can deliver up to 50% better fuel usage, than a typical heavyweight. This can add up significantly over a long tour, as well as the time you own the bike. 
  • Lower seat height will be appreciated by many riders. Putting both your feet flat and firmly on the ground is comfortable when coming to a stop. It’s a good safety feature that gives smaller and short-legged people added control and confidence.
  • Another subtle benefit to this class of motorcycle is they don’t have to be used as just a touring machine. This means you can take off the touring add-ons and use your bike for other purposes. So, If you decide to never go touring again, you could quite easily change the base bike to something very different, and maybe a new pursuit

The Suzuki V-Strom and Kawasaki Versys, are good examples of this mid-sized design flexibility. These models can be reworked fairly easily with bolt-on options for long-distance touring, sport-touring, and can even dabble in semi-off road adventure touring.  

Insurance Breaks

Mid-range machines have less displacement and will fall into a lower risk category by default. As mentioned, with lower overall purchase cost there is less to ensure for complete replacement through theft or accident. Of course, your driving record, experience and where you ride are factors that are considered too. If you’ve had fewer years on the road, or are a young rider, then staying in the 650cc bracket, for example, maybe a wise move and could save you a lot.

Well before buying, shop around for insurance. I have found that rates vary widely between insurers. Also when you have got a shortlist together (use the online quotes for this), then call and speak to agents. The best deal requires speaking to an agent. I have been constantly surprised by how much better a quote I get by speaking to an agent, using the “same” information. Insurance agents seem to have much more flexibility entering your data, I have even found that calling again and getting another agent to start over can produce very different quotes.

Mid-Sized Drawbacks 

On the flip side, there are some negatives, mostly due to the reduced dimensions,

  • Smaller dimensions mean this class of motorcycle can be less roomy. You may also find they have fewer compartments, racks, and places to strap on and store gear.  This will constrain your ability to take along a passenger AND a full load of gear. 
  • A mid-size bike may mean less gross weight carrying capacity, but if you’re planning to ride solo, then the difference in carrying capacity (GVWR) won’t make that much difference. On large bikes, a passengers weight will equalize the amount leftover. Read more about finding the carrying capacity of your motorcycle, How Much Weight Can My Motorcycle Carry?
  • Vibration may be more of a problem on a mid-weight. This can be quite fatiguing over the miles, and this vibration may cause more stress on the engine.
  • Smaller powerplants may be more stressed and have a lower lifespan
  • Having less mass means being more susceptible to gusty winds, uneven road surfaces, which could feel less stable.
  • Windshields are usually a smaller profile, providing less protection for the rider.

Fit – Ergonomics

Your motorcycle literally has to fit you, and possibly a passenger. So having a lower seat could be the deciding factor for many considering a middleweight motorcycle. This can still vary widely in height depending on the style of touring bike you like.  The “cruiser” style, based or a classic old school Harley-look, have a relaxed riding position and the least seat heights. Sport Touring or Adventure-based motorcycles may still have an unacceptably high seat height for you. 

For a quick reference, here is a great resource to see how you and a passenger would fit on most motorcycles available  Cycle-Ergo.com.  You just enter your height, you can then see how well your feet touch the ground. You can also experiment with riding positions, and changes to handlebars, etc. This is a great first step before test riding in person. Below is an example of the very different ergonomics between a classic cruiser and a more traditional style motorcycle.

images courtesy of cycle-ergo.com

For touring, you don’t want to be confined, or “tucked in”, racing style. You need some room to move around, change positions and stretch out. A more relaxed and natural sitting position is something you will appreciate after hours in the saddle.

Key Dimensions

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Model Engine Size Curb Weight Seat
Yamaha V Star Touring Edition 950cc 657 lbs. 26.6″
Kawasaki Vulcan 900cc 619 lbs. 26.8″
Honda VT750 Shadow 750cc 553 lbs. 27.6″
Suzuki Boulevard C50T 800cc 610 lbs 27.6″
Honda CTX700TA Touring 700cc 516 lbs 28.3″
Suzuki V-Strom, DL650 650cc 490 lbs. 32.9″
Suzuki V-Strom, DL1000 1000cc 520 lbs. 33.1″
Kawasaki Versys LT 650cc 496 lbs. 33.1″

Selection Process – Touring Ready or DIY

The best feature of this class is that you can buy a ready to tour special edition, or start with a base model and upgrade with the accessories that are best for you. This will let you create a truly personalized touring motorcycle. A windshield is top of the list for touring needs. Clear windshields are available for practically every bike out there. And there are extensions or taller replacements available for models that have an integrated fairing to give the rider more protection.

Increased cargo carrying is another must have. There’s a multitude of cargo bags, racks, and even hard saddlebags to choose from. Also, many riders upgrade to floorboards or add highway pegs, for added comfort and to be able to stretch out and relax.

Before settling on make & model research what accessories are available first, and check the cost. Some less popular or exotic models have less choice and just cost more. At the extreme end are machines that only have accessories from the manufacturer (very expensive as a rule). If you stick with mainstream and popular models you will have a wide selection of aftermarket options, to create your perfect touring machine.

Cruiser Based Tourer 

There are many choices of laid back mid-range V-twin cruisers.  These bikes all start with a relaxed riding position and low-stress, torquey power delivery. The rider can plant their feet firmly on the ground, adding to a sense of control. Starting with a cruiser is a good way to maximize comfort, a key factor in taking on long distances. Some drawbacks of the cruiser are based on its design, they are low to the ground so floorboards can drag easily, Factory standard leather saddlebags look good but are not waterproof, and some do not lock. Passenger seating is designed for style, not comfort. Also, tank-mounted speedometers are hard to read with a full-face helmet on.

Street Bike Based Touring

These bikes are more conventionally designed, with an upright rider position, and motivated by water-cooled v-twin and parallel-twin engines. This category can be molded into different touring pursuits, from sports touring, or mild adventure touring setups and long-distance highway touring. 

This class has less in common from the start. The Honda CTX700, for example, is available with an automatic transmission, and also optional hard saddlebags and forward-mounted floorboards. The Suzuki V-Strom 650 & 1000cc are both water-cooled V-twins are more oriented toward sports riding. The Kawasaki Versys 650 water-cooled V-twin is a vastly different design than its larger 1000cc version that comes with an inline 4 cylinder engine.

Adventure Touring

Adventure touring includes getting off the normal paved roads and exploring the backroads and even some true off-roading. These machines typically have a lot more suspension travel, for off-road jaunts, this means much higher seat heights and raised center of gravity.  Tires are a compromise between off-road “knobbies” and street tires, resulting in compromises in both areas. As expected they are not well suited to extended highway travel. It’s understood that highway use is just a way to get to the dirt backroads for the adventure rider. This type of riding is more physically demanding and trips are not as long-range.   

There are a growing number of models being offered, these are the classics and the most popular models.

  • Kawasaki KLR 650, single-cylinder
  • Suzuki DR 650, single-cylinder

Cost of Ownership

The mid-range segment all generally have less complicated engines, so there will be lower overall maintenance costs. The home mechanic can tackle a lot more jobs on these bikes too, saving on the cost of shop labor. Since purchase costs will be lower than the heavyweights, the corresponding depreciation will also be less.

Another place you will save is on fuel, and this can be significant. I have found that mileage can be as much as 40 – 50% better compared with the heavyweights. Being smaller these machines will typically use less oil and fluids too.

As expected more “exotic” machines will be more expensive to own, work on and buy parts for. A Ducati, BMW, KTM, for example, will cost more to buy and operate. It’s a good idea to research the local shop’s labor cost, for these exotic brands. For whatever reasons these brands tend to require more “dealer trained and equipped” work than the others.

Wrapping Up

So yes, you can definitely do some serious touring on a motorcycle that is “mid-sized”, and in comfort. The most important considerations are how the bike fits you and how you will want to use it. Fortunately, there are many capable middle-weights to chose from, and a huge selection of aftermarket goodies to make it your ideal touring ride. I suspect there are very few hardcore touring types that started out with a full-sized machine like a Gold Wing, or Harley FLH. So it makes complete sense to start in this segment and move up, or not.