Essential Guide to Finding a Great Touring Motorcycle

You’re looking for a “touring motorcycle”, but with so many models, features, and available accessories, new or used – where do you even start?  I found myself going from one “perfect choice” to the next, jumping all over and even looping back to where I started! So, I decided to go through my selection process and put it in this post.

The first question has to be – what do I want to do with this motorcycle? And the follow up to it – what type of touring will I be doing? Also, will it be dedicated to touring use or will I need the bike to do other things too?

We all no doubt want to spend our money wisely and get the most enjoyment from it possible. Since motorcycles are very personal and draw on our emotions and imagination I needed a logical approach to hopefully avoid making bad choices.

What is Motorcycle Touring?

According to Wikipedia motorcycle touring is a rework of the words motorcycle tourism. To rephrase that definition to make it more useful – a great touring motorcycle is capable of transporting you and perhaps a passenger reliably over long distances in relative comfort, and allows you to carry what you need with you.  Of course, you will need to figure out what is your definition of comfort, reliability, long-distance, how much stuff is coming along too, and if a passenger will be included. You also need to account for any non-touring uses, like quick trips in town.

There are many other considerations and factors, but one reality that can’t be ignored is your budget. Include the initial cost of purchase, through in all the incidentals like the tax man’s bite, miscellaneous preparation costs as well as on-going maintenance. Put in the cost of a new set of tires too, if not used you will have other repair items or you can use it to upgrade something you never thought about upfront.

Needs & Wants

Motorcycles are an emotional experience. I think it is pretty safe to say very few are purchased based on a no-nonsense hard facts checklist, with the final decision based on the ultimate utility it will provide. It’s a discretionary purchase to be used for fun. As your insurance company would describe it, a pleasure vehicle.

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Just be aware that wants can overpower needs especially when there’s a shiny motorcycle in front of you. Stick to a predetermined level of practicality that must be met first, otherwise, you will surely regret it. My personal and ridiculous example was fuelled by images of the freedom portrayed in the movie Easy Rider. I was revved up, and seriously committed (in my mind) to traveling across the country on a 70’s style chopper! And as soon as I got my motorcycle license I was off!  Goes without saying this youthful fantasy never got off the ground, although I did eventually buy a Harley!

The bottom line is dream big, but check in with reality occasionally. Particularly if you are new to long-distance motorcycle travel. If you are new to touring and want some tips on how to start I suggest you read my post on planning your first tour, follow this link.

Bonding

What I have learned about motorcycles, as opposed to cars and other “getting from A-to-B” type transportation, is that that there is a bond you will have, and certainly develope. Probably coming from the physical closeness and interactions you have with your motorcycle. So flatly, if you don’t love it, or really like it a lot, your enjoyment factor will be much lower. It’s just part of the human experience. You can tally up a fact sheet and go with the highest score, but in the end, it has to excite you to see it. you need to be excited, anticipating the ride – otherwise why not just take the car?

Brand loyalty and image are significant factors in the overall experience too – do not discount it. In fact, a recent Consumers Reports study of motorcycle reliability found that there was a distinct inverse relationship between owner satisfaction and reliability. It showed that while Japanese models ranked highest for reliability they came in opposite in ranking for owner satisfaction. Specifically – Harley, Triumph and, BMW were much lower in reliability but tops in owner satisfaction. This pretty much confirms my view, that there is a lot of emotions involved in the motorcycling experience.

I have my own set of likes and bias. Since I started riding in the 70’s so I am a fan of the classic motorcycle look, I really like seeing the mechanical parts right out in the open. I am a Harley fan, but I am OK with some of the copy-cats, and the 1970/80’s UJM’s look (aka naked bike) trigger nostalgic memories. So the current designs with encased mechanicals and swoopy colorful plastic bits do not excite my soul. I am also certain there are a few colors I can’t live with. It’s purely psychological and I know it, but it’s a reality. Be aware of it, and be honest with yourself before going in with cash in hand.

Must Haves – The Basics

This is the fundamental core of the selection process, the facts, and figures that will set out your requirements. For sure there are many motorcycles that will be capable of the job required but you are looking for a really good fit. So, you need to define what your needs are, and more details the better. Even though there are motorcycles purpose-built for touring, and may even have word touring right in their name, they may not fit your needs at all.

The goal now is to narrow down the field of choices, remove the noise, so you can focus on getting your dream bike in your hot little hands.

This list of questions and prompts, I believe these covers the basics.

  • What type of touring do you expect to do
    • “classic” touring, on paved roads, long distances
    • sport touring, curvey routes preferred
    • adventure touring, a mix of on and off-roading
  • What distances are you likely to travel, aka time in the saddle
    • your personal time available to take trips is a factor
    • weekenders & vacation time
    • longest continuous legs and total daily mileage
    • fuel range required
  • Expected combination of uses, riding conditions,
    • flat highways, secondary roads, gravel, trails & fire roads
    • urban, rural, mix
    • commuting
    • non-touring use – running errands
    • single or with passenger
    • expected weather
    • seasonal changes
  • Comfort
    • ergonomics – how does the bike fit you
    • what are the possible adjustments & upgrades available
    • how long do will you spend in the saddle at once, daily
    • vibration levels
  • Must have features & accessories,
    • windshield and or fairing
      • factory installed, integrated with accessories & storage
      • are there recommend aftermarket options available
      • quickly detachable option
      • height adjustable
    • cargo carrying
      • how much stuff are you taking? required v. optional
      • hard bags (liner bags available)
      • trunk (top box)
      • compartments
      • racks
      • soft saddle bags & other styles
    • drive – shaft, belt or chain
      • Maintenance – on the road
  • Brand loyalty, style, and image, favorite or no-go colors
    • Very personal – but don’t kid yourself
  • Model Popularity
    • initial purchase – what is available both new and used
    • parts and service, a commodity or an orphan
    • aftermarket parts & accessories – selection and cost
    • are there user groups that share information
  •  Budget
    • Initial purchase price (include all the incidental costs, tax, prep, inspections, etc.)
    • Scheduled maintenance, tires, fluids, belts – who will do the work? DIY or shop.
    • Upgrades – is it a must-have? you will add if not on the bike you buy
    • Upgrades – a possible future switch out (consider model popularity)

Other Factors to Consider

  • Drivability
    • Power characteristics,
      • how much throttle and shifting work is required
      • high torque is generally better for touring applications
    • Size and weight
      • super heavy-weights require different skills
      • too small for you will mean less comfort and roominess
    • Handling
      • range from sporty to barge-like
  • Reliability & Durability
    • everyone would  like 100% reliability and infinite durability
    • reliability – how important is this to you?
    • Japanese brands are best, single to low teens % of failures
    • HD, Triumph, and BMW – double digits, multiples of Japanese rivals
    • European, harder to get stats on, likely in the same range as non-Japanese
    • Durability comes into play if you will own for a very long time or purchasing used
      • automotive design features add to the durability
      • liquid cooling, mild tune, high mid-range torque, shaft drive
  • Dealer and local shops that work on your brand
    • goes along with the model’s popularity
    • at some point, you will need parts and service
    • check out the dealer listings here (bottom of post)
    • very unique/rare there is a risk of an extended wait for parts and hard to find service
  • DIY options for the bike
    • DIY – what can you realistically service
    • are special tools required?
    • can you get parts – locally and online?
  • Design features you consider negative
    • not everyone wants a stereo, cup holders, or laser beams, etc.
  • Nice to have features & accessories (can easily be included as must haves)
    • Outlet(s) for chargers and heated accessories
    • Cruise control
    • Heated grips
    • Floorboards, highway pegs
    • Backrests
    • Engine & roll bars
    • On board air pump
    • and the list goes on…

Most of these are simple yes/no decisions, or they can be measured in some way. However, comfort is probably the hardest to determine without having actually spent some hours in the saddle. To get a good idea I recommend reading over user groups forums, where actual owners post comments, tips, and their opinions. The professional and even semi-pro reviews are usually based on a relatively brief amount of time with the bike to give an adequate review of comfort.

Also, comfort is a very personal measurement – no two people are identical. In the forums at least with real owners and their comments on forums you will hopefully get responses from a wider range of people. If the majority say your hands and butt goes numb after a day of riding, it’s probably going to happen to you too.

Size Matters

Motorcycles are basically built around the engine, so a typical 650cc twin has less room for rider and passenger than larger displacements. The heavy-weight tourers are as expected very roomy, and built for rider and a passenger. But it’s worth noting that a fully loaded Honda GL1800 close to 1300 lbs, and a Harley FLH goes past that to 1360 lbs a full capacity. This is a lot of mass and inertia to contend with.

While you could go touring just about anything, there are practical limits. You could tour on a 300cc twin, but pulling 9-10,000 rpm at highway speeds would likely not be too comfortable or contribute to engine durability. However, if you planned on adventure riding, that was 90-95% offroad with limited road travel a small bore may fit well when balanced with the offroad handling and lighter weight. It will be a tradeoff between all the features and accessories you want and the weight that inevitably comes with them. Look for a combination of engine size that will propel you fully loaded, and ergonomics that fit your frame and if needed a passenger.

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Since you are looking for a bike that physically fits you, there are two important dimensions to think about. Handlebar placement and seat height.

Usually, you can either adjust the handlebars or replace them with a different bend. Look for built-in handlebar adjustability for the model you are considering. The age-old method to determine the perfect handlebar placement is to sit in a comfortable riding position, close your eyes, hold your arms straight up (like you are surrendering), then let them fall into place – your hands should land exactly on the grips. This doesn’t apply to the more aggressive sport touring setups though but is a pretty good method for the rest.

Seat height may be harder to resolve if you have shorter legs. And if you have very long legs a smaller frame bike may not work out. The seat height should allow you to put both feet firmly (flat-footed is best), on the ground. Touring bikes are way too heavy to rely on tippy toes, sooner or later you and the bike are going to tip over. There are options to adjust the effective seat height,

  • a few bikes have seat height adjustments
  • install a lowering kit – you will, however, lose ground clearance and cornering capability
  • remove existing seat cushioning material, you could reduce comfort levels though
  • replace the seat with lower profile design, engineered for comfort
  • get riding boots with thick or double soles

One other element related to size is the amount of weight your potential motorcycle can carry. This is determined by the measure of GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating). This is the difference between the total weight the motorcycle can carry and it’s ready to ride weight (read more here).

Rentals

Several manufacturers, like Harley Davidson, and many private companies offer rentals. While they are not cheap, you can enjoy touring in far off lands on the model of your choice. More importantly, it offers an opportunity for you to try before you buy. The cost of renting is economical compared to buying an expensive rig only to find it doesn’t meet your expectations. Uber and others enable people to rent their motorcycles – this adds a lot of variety and choice.

New or Used?

Once your requirements are sorted out you may wonder if new or used is the better option. A new motorcycle will have the benefit of a factory warranty, also have the most current features, and design, but will almost certainly cost more. There is also an intangible element of pride of ownership to consider. But again this is a personal decision between you are your finances. Be aware that new is a fleeting experience, a few weeks, months or one season and you are riding a used motorcycle. Depreciation should be understood, expect about 20% per year on average. Also, insurance and required coverages will be more, especially if you finance the purchase.

I have purchased two motorcycles new, one I wasn’t happy with and the second I still own, some 36 years later. I actually traded in the first to buy the second, so I cannot recommend against buying a new motorcycle, it just has to make sense for you. It probably goes without saying I have been a used buyer ever since.

With the up and down economy, there are some tremendous bargains out there. You can even buy many new models that are several years old but are stuck on the dealer’s floor for a good discount. Of course, there is the end of season bargain to look out for. Another route is to look for a demonstrator machine, these are basically new, with a warranty and have a few thousand, if that, on them.

Used Touring Motorcycles

With the average age of a street touring rider rising there is an equal rise in the number of good quality used machines coming onto the market. This is less true for sport and adventure touring – due to their demographics. For example, there seems to be a substantial number of relatively lightly used Honda Gold Wings from the 80’s and 90’s appearing online markets. It would appear they had been stored away while the owner did not ride, and then ultimately it is being sold off. I noticed a lot more adverts that state – “selling for a family member”, or “can’t ride due to health reasons” also.

Too Many Miles?

This question comes up a lot, how many miles are too many for a motorcycle? The answer depends on how well the machine was serviced and maintained.  A relatively high mileage bike that has been well maintained and is currently in good to excellent condition will very likely continue to operate given the same care. Equipment that uses proven automotive design details like water cooling, mildly tuned multi-cylinder engine, electronic ignition with final shaft drive can be expected to have high durability and long, automotive-like useful lifespans.

Of course, harsh and aggressive driving will wear equipment quicker – but with appropriate service and replacement of key components, a motorcycle’s service life is practically indefinite. A notable exception is a worn out transmission. If the gearbox rebuild is needed a near complete disassembly of the engine is required just to get to the transmission (Harleys & some BMW’s excepted). Often a complete swap out of the engine & transmission as a unit, from a suitable donor machine is more cost-effective.

I would personally consider a “high mileage” motorcycle only if it passed visual confirmation of being well looked after, had all/most service records available and passed all mechanical checks (compression and leak down tests, oil analysis, etc.) For sure, with higher mileage comes a greater risk of failure and possibly a catastrophic one, but this is the inherent risk in buying used. So, the price would have to be low enough to compensate for these potential risks.

How Old to too Old?

At some point, any motorcycle will be considered vintage, but if you can still get parts and it fixed for a reasonable price, and it does the job needed – so what.

So then lifespan is practically infinite if parts, service & repair expertise is available. Motorcycles usually meet their end through neglect, theft (chopped and parted out) or from being in a serious accident. Therefore a motorcycle is “too old” for practical touring when you can’t reasonably find parts or service, both locally or on the road.

For any used bike, regardless of age, it is wise to check for parts availability. Look for common maintenance items and parts, like filters, brake lines, pads, discs, frame & suspension bushings, and bearings, clutch components, control cables, and seals. There are several online stores that can be browsed to validate availability. To get a good perspective on which parts you will likely need get a service manual (online versions) and review the Service Maintenance Schedule, often separated by actions of  Inspect, Clean, Replace, Adjust and Lubricate.

Another strategy to keep an older ride street worthy is to purchase a completely separate parts bike. This, of course, takes another level of commitment because it requires space, time and more advanced DIY abilities. Having a parts bike doesn’t satisfy the need for a spare part while on the road. this could be a real issue.

You may also come across the “10-year rule”, where shops will refuse to work on bikes older than 10 years, apparently for liability reasons. I find this a bit hard to believe and a touch mythical, plus I have never come across it personally or heard it from anyone directly. If a shop does proper work I don’t see how there is a liability problem. There a literally millions of antique and vintage machines of all kinds on the road, so who is working on them? Just be aware ask around if you are considering an older used machine, a skilled mechanic may be harder to find even if this is just an urban myth.

Wrapping it Up

For serious touring, you will need a comparatively high level of comfort and reliability as well as the ability to haul a fair amount of cargo. There are many excellent choices available, to find what is going to be a great fit for you I suggest following a step-by-step process. Start by fully defining your specific needs and wants. Make sure you know your must-haves versus the nice to have’s are. Narrow down the field to at least a few models & years. Do the research – know your stuff. Read rider forums specific to the make and model you are considering. Take a test a drive if possible, even consider renting the same or similar model to make sure it fits you.  In the end, harmonize your dreams with your budget. Then find the motorcycle in either the used market of new from a dealership.

There is a perfect touring motorcycle out there for everyone who takes the time to find it. Wishing you many happy miles of riding.