Motorcycle Touring – Staying Safe & Secure On the Road

Touring safely and securely begins with understanding the most common challenges and risks. Then planning, preparing and actively avoiding or reducing the chances of the most common problems occurring. And finally, having a response ready if something does happen. Since it is impossible to plan for every scenario, focusing on the most probable events and situations that are also potentially high impact is the most effective use of your time and money.

Traveling by motorcycle means you are always open and exposed, which of course, is some of the attraction. Motorcycle touring also places you far from home and your normal support network and routines. While touring you are for the most part living on the road, with what you have taken with you. Guarding against physical loss, by parking wisely and locking up your ride is the first level. There are many other steps and actions you should be taking to minimize the risks.

Safe and Secure?

Safety and security levels are reflected in measurable statistics, however, the feeling of being safe and secure is a result of preparing in advance. There is no common level or baseline of either since we have different tolerances for what is acceptable. Each approach is unique to you, as is your planning, preparation, and response to any events.

Where and how you will be traveling are probably the most significant inputs for proper planning. The more unfamiliar you are with where you are going means you should spend that much more time researching, planning and preparing. Always be informed and prepared as much as possible. It pays to also know the basics of local laws, hot spots, and culture.

And let’s be realistic – many touring riders never have significant problems, because statistically really bad events are rare. The message is to avoid outright paranoia and overdoing it, but be sensibly prepared for the most likely challenges. You are, for example far more likely to run out of gas or get a bad sunburn than have your motorcycle stolen.

And remember the vast majority of people will help or least do you no harm, it is the rare person who will take your possessions. And even more rare, the person who would injure you.

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Basic Physical Security

Basic physical security involves properly parking & locking your motorcycle, as well as being diligent & watchful with your belongings. Physical security requires having good quality locks AND using them consistently.

Choose a well lite parking spot, and not hidden away giving a would-be thief cover for them to work undisturbed. Parking in high traffic areas is preferred too. The best spots have the greatest visibility from all angles, under security cameras and have an unpredictable amount of walk-by traffic.

To protect against roll-away or drive-away thefts, use a high-quality disc lock. A disc brake lock immobilizes the motorcycle’s (rear) wheel. The next defensive layer is a heavy-duty hardened chain & lock. Loop the chain through your frame and secure it to a solid and immovable object or another motorcycle. Locking it to a solid object prevents the motorcycle from literally being picked up and taken away.

The next level of physical security is often missed. You make it “disappear”, by blending in the background. Cover it with a nondescript, non-branded (even dirty & old looking) full motorcycle cover.

Finally, take your important possessions with you when the motorcycle is parked, or at least put them out of sight.

Basic Personal Safety

Your personal safety is more complex since it has a lot more “moving parts”, and can be highly unique and situational. Personal safety requires identifying risks and actively avoiding them through preparation and realistic planning. A good basic approach to personal safety is to actively avoid sketchy and questionable people and places, and also to have a general response ready if things do go off track.

  • Approach and awareness of the world you are traveling in.
  • People are generally fine but do not be overly trustful of someone just because they are friendly and smiling.
  • Actively plan to avoid bad areas, with high crime and congestion.
  • Keep your motorcycle maintained and mechanically sound. If you are sidelined or trying to fix someone you are in a more vulnerable position, and the time and place are not of your own choosing.
  • Also, a motorcycle that is fully capable of taking you the distance and not causing fatigue to the point of being dangerous. Riding an underpowered machine that struggles to stay up with traffic flow is unsafe.
  • Have proper motorcycle riding gear, and use it.
  • Drive safely, defensively and to match road and traffic conditions

Your Opponent – The Thief

Thieves can show up as pros or semi-pros, and the casual thief who steals when the opportunity presents itself.

To beat a thief, you must think like a thief. The best starting point is understanding the criminal’s “business model”. The thief looks for the highest return for the least risk and effort like any legitimate business would. Their “acquisition costs” are very low, but risks are high. So the thief’s ideal target has sufficient value, has the least risk of getting caught during and after the theft- with their focus being on quick, clean and unseen. Your job is to make taking your things as risky, visible and time-consuming as possible, or to maximize the risks for a thief.

People very often overlook an important difference in a thief’s view of the world. A normal person has respect for other people and their property, the thief has none. So a normal person does not look at a situation and see what a thief does. A thief will easily destroy other items on their way to the bigger prize. Cutting your spokes or removing an entire wheel and tossing it aside, knocking down a fence, or even dragging your bike on its side into a waiting van are all OK. They ultimately get what they are after (remember cost is zero for them, what is left is all profit).

Then there’s the opportunistic thief. Those who will steal on impulse, if the opportunity comes up. To protect against these criminals, simply deny them the opportunity. Stay aware of your surroundings, and keep your possessions under your control or watch. While this type of thief would unlikely take your motorcycle they would gladly take a helmet or electronic device in a moment.

Your Security & Safety Mindset

The best approach to safety and security starts with a proper mindset. IN the first place – no physical object is worth your life. And in my opinion, no object is worth risking personal physical harm. In fact, the best legal advice is to not confront others. Even if you fill you are, in control and can handle it the tables can turn quickly and put you in a bad position. In an odd way being mentally prepared to lose it all is the first step to freedom from worry and does make you safer.

Many experienced riders recommend only taking what you can afford to lose. To me this is a bit too much, I would prefer to have good equipment and plan on NOT losing it. I think a better attitude is not to obsess about having anything stolen. If you follow the basics and stay alert these events will be rare. Make your equipment a little harder to take, and not leave things available for the opportunistic, snatch-and-grab type thief, or the pro.

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If you choose to confront a thief – what level of interaction are you comfortable with? What is your plan if you confronted a thief in the act, how about two thieves in the act? What will you do? This is not a time for bravado, this is real life. Personally, I am not interested in confronting anyone in that business. I would phone in an alarm but I’m not interested in making a citizens arrest, thanks. So if you install a silent GPS/alarm system, what is the plan if it goes off? Be realistic, daily life is not a movie, and none of us are super-heroes.

Run through potential what-if scenarios. For example, what-if my motorcycle is stolen. You will need to have some means to purchase food, rent a room, travel, etc. This means you have some cash or credit cards on you all the time, not all stored on the motorcycle. And for many situations a good roadside assistance plan is invaluable (read more…here). This thought experiment points to having your important papers and cards off the bike, always with you.

Lift & Haul-Away

This is a popular method to simply take the target with brute force. Several henchmen just lift the target motorcycle and heave-ho it into a van. More rarely the stolen bike is ridden to a hideout location. In either case, the motorcycles are usually reduced to pieces within shortly after being stolen. Both of these pilfering methods can be stopped, however, with a chain & lock through the frame to s a solid object, such as a light pole.

Theft recovery rate is low, the maximum figure I’ve found is at a maximum of 35%. And a theft “recovery” can be next to worthless and written off. So, it’s unlikely your original motorcycle will be returned after being stolen. So locking against rolling and lifting is well justified.

Touring Protection – the plus side of riding a heavyweight touring rig is that it would require a bigger crew to lift the sheer bulk of one of these into a van. Thieves could certainly use a tow truck and more likely in urban areas due to the investment required.

Security Devices – Locks

High-Quality Chain & Lock – Used to secure your motorcycle to a solid object, through the frame. When using, do not let any links rest on the ground (would make it easier to use bolt cutters or other tools).

Kryptonite, NYC line is well designed and highly rated, Kryptonite NYC “fughetaboutit” chain/lock, 14mm link thickness. The 5-foot version is 15 lbs. Heavy but a thief will very likely not take the time to cut thru if parked in a secure area.

Another good choice it the ABUS 92/80 KD Solid Brass Monoblock Lock & ABUS 10KS 6′ Maximum Security Square Chain. This combo has a 6-foot chain, 13 mm hardened links, and is covered to prevent scratching. This lock looks impressive too.

Disc Lock – Put this on the rear wheel disc, versus the front, this makes it harder defeat by removing the wheel. Put it in the hardest place for a thief to access with a portable grinder (about the only tool that might work!)

Kryptonite – makes highly rated disc brake locks. This is an added deterrent, used with a chain & lock. By itself, it will not prevent lift-to-into-van type theft. Many come with a brightly colored reminder tether. So, unless you are conditioned (trained) to always take off the lock – run the tether to the handlebars for a visual reminder that a wheel lock is in place.

Security – Cover It

By covering your motorcycle with a simple, nondescript and full cover you are effectively hiding in plain sight. Covering your ride not only stops “advertising” your machine, it effectively blends it into the background, becoming stealthy! Another benefit is that no one knows exactly what’s under the cover. You leave very few clues as to what kind of machine it is, old or new, is there a helmet under there, anything lashed on?

By making your ride visually anonymous a potential thief can’t see what security devices they are up against and will have to defeat. This may be enough to have them move on to an easier target. That’s if they even notice it in the first place.

Full coverage designs with the ability to secure the bottom with either supplied closure straps. Velcro or bungee cords introduces a psychological barrier. A stranger (thief or not), would need to deliberately unstrap and remove the cover. Being covered and not on display goes a long way yot stopping the impulse thief. Deliberately taking off the cover is a significant step. Being fully covered increases uncertainty and risk for any thief. It might be just enough for them to move on to a more obvious target that they can evaluate the effort & risk from a safe distance.

When selecting a cover – get one that completely covers the entire motorcycle. The cover needs to hide the wheels and kickstand (a telltale sign for Harley’s). Get a cover that has reflective sections – so it can be seen by other drivers parking at night. Look for designs that pack flat, using a compression pouch technology for the smallest storage size.

Practice and get comfortable putting your cover on, taking it off and storing it. Develop a routine, especially at the end of your day. It’s recommended to take all luggage and items off the bike before the cover goes on, so you do not have to uncover and expose your bike repeatedly.

Dealing with hot exhausts & motor – I get a cover with built-in heat shield sections but do not trust them 100%. When it’s time to park and cover my bike I check exhaust has cooled down well enough not to burn the cover. By the time you have removed your luggage, set the lock your pipes should be cooled down. If not I leave the pipes exposed for a few more minutes then complete the cover install.

Security Devices – Not Recommended

Integrated lock & alarm – many locks can be had with a built-in audio alarm feature. The value of the alarm is debatable, false alarms are frequently reported in use. A few false alarms at the worst time (middle of the night) and you will probably stop using it anyway. Also, alarms so common they are generally ignored by the public. Thieves can defeat them quickly and pretty easily too. If you want an alarm I suggest getting a separate system that is more sophisticated and reliable.

Braided cables (with lock) – there is no cable system that I have found that can resist bolt cutters like a chain. The weight savings is not worth it.

GPS trackers – these may be useful in a close urban area, where you know the police can use this information AND react on it quickly. But out on the road traveling in new terretory they have little value to offer. Thieves all know how to defeat these by removing or disabling at the scene or very soon afterward.

Lever Control Locks – these go over the handle grip and compress the front brake lever. They are so easily defeated they are a total waste of money. A thief will hacksaw through your brake lever, or just cut the hydraulic lines. Remember thieves will destroy anything in the way to the bigger prize, with no concern at all.

Planning Tips

  • Plan ahead for secure parking – camping park back from the road, hotels ask if they have a garage or other secure areas, some for Airbnb
  • Parking secure – the number one preferred place for a thief is an underground or covered apartment parking lots, lots of traffic, no one is watching, even if they have cameras, and alarms are ignored. The thieves usually wear hoddies and complete the job quickly or just leave. So don’t park there if at all possible.
  • Any security device must provide enough protection versus space and weight it takes up. It also has to be convenient enough to use consistently – otherwise, you may be tempted to “skip it just this one time“.
  • Lookup the 1-800 numbers for your brand and put them in your smartphone before leaving.
  • Avoid fatigue, plan multiple breaks, even take a day off from long distance touring. Do some site seeing or relax – do not plan on high mileage every day.
  • Stay flexible, no need to plan every mile and every day down to the hour, leave room for the unknown. You may not feel like strictly following “The Plan” one day, so mix it up.
  • Shift your schedule – earlier is better, leave and arrive early than most, avoid crowds and get the best picks of restaurant seating/parking accommodations, campsites, etc.
  • Watch the weather & nature – check online weather maps for the direction you are heading. Especially if traveling in early, or late season. You could be riding directly into a freak storm. Same for fires and floods.

Cash, Cards and Spares

  • Leave behind any unnecessary cards & membership that will not be required on the trip.
  • Carry at minimum two different credit cards, and or debit/ATM cards, one always with you, other set stashed on the motorcycle.
  • Have a reasonable amount of cash, enough for hotel and food for a few days. Split it up, some on you, some on the bike.
  • Photocopy all important documents, and leave them with the motorcycle.
  • Spares – have one spare key for each lock. Always have a complete set with you, put the other set in your carry away luggage.
  • If traveling far or abroad good idea to advise your credit, debit/ATM card institutions to avoid getting flagged on a potential fraud alert.
  • Extra security – have a “sacrificial wallet” – containing minimum cash, old expired credit cards – hand it over if robbed in person.

On The Road

  • Stay alert, avoid continuing after becoming fatigued, stop and rest.
  • Fatigue can be hard to notice if you find yourself drifting off mentally and not focusing or even daydreaming on the road, it’s time to take a break.
  • Arrive at your destination early in the day, have enough time and daylight to secure everything properly.
  • When traveling in a group, agree on rendezvous points if you get separated.
  • Action Plans – have a base response and plan for likely events.
  • Use a walkaway bag, possibly a fanny pack, or just a small carry bag that can be hung on you. Have a complete set of important items in this bag, but keep your cash and cards in your pockets.
  • Police interactions – common sense says be friendly, polite and serious – no need to be funny or confrontational. Answer questions directly without adding details.
  • Have an idea of local laws and regulations – research them before you travel.
  • Watch out for speed limits in small towns – these are simply money collection systems, do not fall for it.

Breakdowns

One risk we all face is a mechanical breakdown, and they seem to happen at the worst times and places. So, obviously, keeping your ride well maintained and having more than just basic mechanical knowledge is a good defense. But go deeper, is there something I have got used to – like hard starting and just live with it now? Do you even have tools that you take to deal with these “little issues” now? If so would pay to get the bottom and fix these little problems now, before they get bigger out on the road.

If you do have a breakdown, your absolute first priority is to get off the roadway to a safe(r) position. Evaluate the situation. Can this be fixed roadside, can I make it to a service station or dealership, or do you need a tow?

In this case, I highly recommend having a roadside assistance plan for motorcycles. The benefits are huge compared with the few dollars you may “save” without one. A good plan has an organization behind it ready to help you, 24/7. For more information on what to look for in a roadside assistance plan read my post, here.

Protective Gear

Using the proper riding gear will greatly improve your personal safety. If you ride, for example with no helmet, in a tee-shirt and shorts (because it’s so hot), and haven’t checked your tire pressure or tread wear in a long time, you have decreased your personal safety by orders of magnitude. And you would likely get nominated for a Darwin Award.

Everyone has a different risk tolerance, and by simply riding a motorcycle you are already out above the norm. But why not turn the odds more in your favor by being aware and following the basics. To me, after decades of riding – the minimum for me is a helmet, leather jacket, gloves and solid boots (I already wear glasses, so eye protection is essential to this list also).

Tire Problems

Tire punctures occur randomly, you never know when you will run over a nail or sharp object. It can happen on a brand new bike with fresh tires or as easily as in any other. Some carry a “tire-in-can” inflation system, maybe I never had any luck with these, because the flats I seem to get are caused by slashes, large punctures and once a tire spun and ripped off the inner tube nipple.

A safety note – if you have never experienced a fast deflation it’s scary and immediate, and dangerous. Reaction time is key – if you suddenly feel the motorcycle handling very oddly almost like it is turning to rubber or “hinged” in the middle – slow down as quickly as possible, stay straight and vertical, and ease off the road. You may have had a blowout.

If you do have a flat, and the tools to try for a fix you may be successful. But this will only allow you to drive somewhere to get it inspected and properly fixed. For myself, none of this is worth the time and risk. A flat means calling for a tow to a dealership for repairs. I am an advocate of motorcycle roadside assistance plans, they offer so much for a reasonable cost, for more read my post, Is Motorcycle Roadside Assistance  Plan Worth It?

Related Questions

How to handle border crossings on a motorcycle?

  • The biggest challenge is avoiding excessive delays and far worse being denied entry.
  • Research – know what paperwork is required and what the fees are.
  • For example – US entry now requires surrendering your smartphone and having the contents downloaded and inspected, you can be denied entry for “suspicious” items found, like any reference to marijuana or visits to related websites.
  • In response to “What is the purpose of your visit”, the best answer is short and simple, I am on vacation and driving through to (name a city). Have an approximate return date and route ready if asked.
  • Do not mention any relatives or friends that you may be stopping at, this only complicates the interaction. For border crossing you are a tourist, staying at hotels, eating at restaurants spending money along the way.
  • Do not offer extra information beyond simply answering the questions asked.

When can going slow be unsafe?

Yes, and it is far worse during bad weather, with poor visibility. If you find yourself going slower than surrounding traffic this is dangerous. This is evident if cars are lining up behind you to pass. In this situation the longer the backup the more potentially frustrated any one driver will become, and they may try for a dangerous pass. If you always find cars queuing behind you to pass, maybe you need a bigger bike, windshield or build your confidence so you are not in this position.

Sometimes the weather can beat you back too. Seriously consider pulling over and letting the line go past, or taking a slower route.

Which type of motorcycle is most popular with thieves?

The most popular motorcycle for thieves is a newer model sportbike. These motorcycles are typically ridden harder, and subsequently crashed more often creating a market for spare parts. To make it more lucrative sportbike parts a are typically hi-tech designs and expensive parts).