How to Get Started Motorcycle Touring

You have decided to take a long-distance motorcycle road trip, so what’s next? In this post, I cover the practical and some “big picture” topics that will make your journey as smooth as possible.

Long distance on a motorcycle is a very different experience than by car since you can’t take a lot of stuff with you and you are exposed to the elements most of the time. But instead of overplanning and sweating every detail, I suggest you get your motorcycle in top road ready condition, plan a reasonable route and have a few backup options – then just get out there and experience some great motorcycle touring. 

And if it’s not for you, no worries…

Like with so many activities these days there is an overload of information and seemingly choices that “need” to be made.  No thanks, keep it simple, please. Start off with a few weekends of relatively short trips and gain experience, then decide what’s next. After all, why not “try before you buy”.

Along those lines, let’s be clear before continuing; there’s only one question to ask that makes any sense for this activity – that is, I am I having fun and enjoying this?

As Simple as Possible

Starting with your motorcycle, I assume you have a machine capable of reliably taking you the distance and back – at the legal speed limit, at a minimum.  Also, that is it is in reasonably good mechanical condition, and reliable enough so it will not leave you stranded out of the blue. For your the first few outings, your current motorcycle will do as is.

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Next – take it one step at a time, 2-day weekend adventure with one overnight stay – at a hotel.  A friend’s place also works too! Adding in camping at this point, even if you are a diehard camper, will make it overly complicated from the start. Complications tend to work against the goals of fun and enjoyable.

For now, make it a simple outing – as you progress the need for special gear and machine upgrades will be clearer.  Also, do not overextend yourself or your current equipment.

Up to Date Maintenance

Having the peace of mind, knowing you checked and did the maintenance will contribute to the fun factor. So, get out your bike’s manual and go through all routine maintenance checks. If you don’t have a manual – get one now, there is no reason on earth not to have this.

As time goes on we have the ability to adapt to many things – unfortunately degrading performance on our machines is one of those things. Take a close look, are you compensating for sub-par braking, or maybe doing a little extra to get the bike started, does your motorcycle really need a tune-up?

It pays to be methodical –  check it off as each item passes proper inspection (note: “eyeballing” it may not be acceptable).  The smallest of things can turn a happy day sour pretty quick. For example, a burnout signal, or brake light could lead to a safety issue or have you spending some time roadside with the local police ($$).

This is the time to get to any of those things you know you need to be done. Like tires, cables, brakes, etc. Attend to leaks now while they are still minor. Using your service manual and proper tools, adjust or replace components as needed. If anything is close to its limits – replace it now. Tip – if the component is still usable but near its end-of-life, keep it around, it might be a good emergency spare down the road. This is especially true for cables.

Touring Accessories

With the theme of keeping it simple – don’t bother right now. Unless of course, you have been planning on adding that windshield, or more comfy seat…or any upgrade that will be useful no matter what you end up doing.  But adding a load of “must have” touring accessories at this point in your adventure could be a huge waste of money. Get some touring miles under your belt and then decide.

Are You Prepared

Personal Gear – this includes your helmet, a suitable jacket, sturdy boots, and gloves. It’s a personal choice, but anything lacking in this area should be considered for an upgrade. Don’t pass over eye protection – it might be time for a new helmet or goggles…and sunglasses / clip-ons for the bespectacled of us. Of course, ear plugs can make the long trip much more enjoyable.

If you are considering a rain suit due to the weather forecast, I would say postpone the trip. Wait for a solid forecast of sunny clear weather – why complicate it from the start. As it goes you may still get rained on, but the first time can be a memorable, good for a story to tell…the second time not so much.

Pack a small bag – toiletries, a complete change of your street clothes (put this set in waterproof baggies).  If you are the sweaty or sloppy type – consider doubling up on socks, underwear and an extra T-shirt. I wouldn’t take more than one pair of jeans – the pair you rode out with, after all – we’re roughing it a bit right?

Mental Attitude

Be alert, stay alert. Awareness is the key to safety and enjoyment. Get lots of sleep the days before leaving. Put your work and personal issues in a bag and throw them in the river, metaphorically speaking. Turn off the cell phone and pack it away. Never leave angry or distracted…remember this is all about enjoying the experience.

Expect to enjoy every minute of it!

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Useful Tips

  • Write all important phone numbers on paper – your cell may get lost, battery go dead or get broken. Use the back of a business card and stuff in your wallet.
  • File a “Flight Plan” with relatives/friends – let them know a general route, and time to expect you back, be kind, and call or text if you expect to be extra late on returning.
  • Strongly consider getting roadside assistance plan for motorcycles – these are a great idea, no matter what you are up to. Having the confidence knowing you are covered, in a worst-case scenario is priceless.
  • Be physically prepared and be realistic – consider the distance, your fitness level, leave some room for rest & relaxation on your trip.
  • Follow speed limits in small towns religiously – Boss Hog speed traps are a real thing. In my little town the cops set up an unmarked Chevy in the local GM dealership – combined with an unrealistically low-speed limit, and it’s shooting fish in a barrel time – don’t be that fish!
  • Take a few extra bungee cords or tie-downs, these things tend to get lost, and you may want to go without a heavy jacket – just to walk on the wild side. They really take up extra no space hooked around your cargo bag/backpack.

Planning Your Trip

First, check the forecast – rain, and cold most everywhere you are going – postpone. This is for the experience remember, being frozen and wet is an experience – just not a great one.

Estimate a reasonable daily distance, focus on the best route – what’s your preference highway, backroads or a combo. Pick a destination point in that general radius and make a hotel reservation before you go. Have a quick check on Google Map, it will tell you if there is any construction in progress, plan around it.

Make sure you take note of anything of interest on the way – plan to stop and relax. While you do, give the bike a quick once over, check the oil, fluids, look for any loose nuts or bolts.

The Ride…

There’s not too much to say, this is the easy part…

Just remember this is touring – if you are passing every car in sight, without time to look at the scenery – you are going too fast. Slow down. Go with the flow, relax and enjoy.

If the opportunity presents itself – strike up a conversation with other touring riders. Say howdy, nice weather, complement their rigs, ask some questions and learn a lot.

Plan your breaks – this is a fun time, not a rally race. If you get to your destination early, check in to the hotel and have a Plan B ready – a mini tour around the local area, and get directions to a good local eatery. If you get there later than planned, so what!

Heading out in the morning – do a good inspection for anything loose or leaking. Take a different route or retrace the route you planned out. Be a little more aware of your fellow travelers on a Sunday afternoon, they may not be as aware and awake as they could be after their weekends away.

Summing It Up

This is a shakedown cruise, for the fun of it.  After and during the ride take mental notes. What are the most important things you would like to improve on? Maybe a windshield, different helmet, or a better seat?

The things that you never thought twice about will be magnified over the longer distances in the saddle. You may just catch the “bug”, and nothing short of a full touring rig will do!

In addition to the motorcycle – start planning your next trip during this present one. The choice of routes, distances, scenery…any places on the route that you missed seeing and would like to return to? The road is wide open.