How To Make The Most of Your Motorcycle Tour

All the right stuff

Exactly what does it take to go the distance? It’s not a question of what bike you ride, that’s for sure. Motivated people have toured the globe on mopeds and scooters, so what’s stopping you? As long as your bike is mechanically sound and prepped with decent rubber, it’ll do the trick.

Collecting the right equipment is perhaps the key element in successful touring. And note I said the right—not the best— equipment. When gear does its job and doesn’t disintegrate immediately, it’s worth its weight in gold on a tour. Out­fitting your bike and body for comfortable long-distance riding is never a cheap proposition, but it can be balanced by smart decisions. It’s important to know when to save and when to splurge.

Making the most of a motorcycle tour
Is your bike ready to go the distance? Take a look at the tips below to find out.Cruiser

The Bare Necessities
Start with the basics. A good windshield—one that doesn't create annoying turbulence or obstruct your view—will make or break a long ride. Trust me, I've ridden across this country with the good, the bad and the ugly, and no windshield at all. Don't skimp here. Classically styled cruisers create a posture that goes against every principle of aerodynamics. The simple act of holding on against a strong wind drains energy from the physical reserve you might need a few days down the road.

Next you’ll need to devise some kind of luggage system. This doesn’t need to be elaborate or expensive to start with and it will take experimentation to come up with a trouble-free packing system. In the meantime, a duffel bag and a few good bungees might do the job. I still reach for a giant black duffel I bought at Target a few years back for $15, even though there’s luggage aplenty in my closet. People say my duffel bag looks like a body bag, and in truth, it’s just about that attractive. It holds a ton of gear though, and I’m usually in my hotel room long before the others finish fiddling with their equipment. (You can buy waterproof “stuff sacks” at camping supply stores.)

The beauty of a big, soft duffel bag is also how it supports your lower back when packed thoughtfully and positioned on the pillion. Some tailbags and reversed sissybar bags will do the same favor, but they usually have buckles, hard edges or zippers to contend with. The only thing better than my trusty duffel is an adjustable driver backrest.

You may want to add a small, portable bag to the equation to hold those items you don’t feel comfortable leaving on the bike. This may be a backpack, courier bag, easily removable tank bag (some high-end magnetic jobs actually stay put) or fanny pack. But think twice about anything you put in a bag that’s attached to your body. Cameras, binoculars and hand-held com­puters aren’t going to be very cushy in a crash.

Making the most of your motorcycle tour
Are you prepared for anything that can happen on your tour? What if it rains? Bring the proper rainsuit.Cruiser

Putting It Together
So you have your bike ready for the road. The windshield's in place, your butt's at peace with your seat and your luggage is secure. Now you need to define the commodities of touring. It could very well be impossible to embark on a motorcycle journey without wanting something you don't have. There just isn't room in the saddlebags for your favorite pillow and fuzzy slippers (that's why you need the gigantic duffel). More often though, you'll have stuff along you don't need and wish you'd brought something else in its place. The truth is you need to bring a lot of stuff you'll never use. It's a difficult science, but over the years, we've compiled a formula that is almost foolproof.

First, find a place to warehouse your collection of touring assets. Keeping it in your soft luggage or bag liners works best, but a designated corner of the closet will also do. In this space you’ll stow the essentials necessary to battle the full spectrum of elements. Sunscreen will share space with woolen socks and bathing suits will bond with balaclavas. When everything is in one place, it’s much easier to make thorough choices about what to bring.

Some of the Cordura jacket-and-pant combos on the market today are just as watertight as a good rainsuit, and you can simplify your life and reclaim packing space by purchasing one. Although I often wear synthetic riding gear for its comfort and versatility, I prefer not to let it do the grunt work in the rain. The fabric and insulation outside the membranes that make these garments watertight get saturated and heavy. The trapped water also tends to conduct cold, bringing in a chill even though you remain dry. I take the time to slip into a high-quality skin of PVC nylon, which not only blocks the rain, but also keeps the wind out. The best rainsuits have heat-sealed seams, hook-and-loop gussets and a slippery liner.

A Real Rainsuit
My rainsuit always remains in my luggage, keeping company with all the other items I, at one time or another, thought best to leave at home. A rainy forecast still saddens me, but it doesn't have to change my plans. It merely determines whether my rainsuit should be on top of the bag or left cushioning my electronic whatnots. If you don't have waterproof boots, you may want a pair of overboots or Gore-Tex socks. We pack a small roll of medium-sized plastic trash bags to line our luggage (and occasionally boots) on rainy or dusty rides. Large Ziplocks are used to protect electronics, batteries and the like.

When your hands are unhappy, they seem to detune your entire body; so at any given moment, in my duffel you can find at least four sets of gloves—one light, one medium and two insulated pairs. The extras get used on every trip, whether it’s simply to compensate for temperature variation during the day or to provide backups in the rain. Since we have yet to find a pair of truly waterproof gloves, the only option is to carry reinforcements and rotate them. Only one pair of gloves in my bag is expensive—the middleweight, highly protective pair I wear the most. The others cost between $20 to $60. What would you be willing to pay for warm, dry hands in a freezing downpour?

Cotton bandannas are great for everything from warming your neck to cleaning your faceshield. You can also wet them to cool yourself in the summer. I also keep an inexpensive poly-blend head gator handy, which blocks wind more thoroughly on chilly rides. There are special socks in my bag, socks I don’t wear for anything but riding motorcycles.

Outdoor specialty stores offer numerous cold weather goodies that can be adapted to motorcycle touring. They offer the best in silk, fleece and poly-blend long underwear, but you’ll pay a price. A heated jacket liner or vest is another staple one should carry when riding in winter or the hallways leading to and from summer. I leave the cords and thermostat in a pocket so I don’t have to hunt for them.

There’s a jumble of smaller touring essentials we keep in one bag—usually a tailpack. These are the tricks and tidbits that can deliver you from the most ill fated tour. The checklist in this section comes straight from the school of hard knocks, allowing you to gather at home what has taken us thousands of miles to accumulate.

Making the most of your motorcycle tour
Make sure all maintenance on your bike is up to snuff to ensure a safe ride.Cruiser

Clothing To Go
What gear you wear on your person when you're touring isn't going to be about style. Cotton T-shirts, both long- and short-sleeved are the most comfortable under riding jackets because they're thin, pliant and breathable. We usually pack one favorite sweatshirt or sweater no matter how warm the season, and a bathing suit in case we stumble onto a hot-tubbing opportunity. Jeans are fundamental road fare that can be easily washed along the way, and provide decent, breathable insulation under overpants or chaps. You want jeans that aren't so tight they bind your baubles, yet tight enough so that they don't flap around your legs. You also want a generous inseam to keep wind from sneaking in at the boot line. Denim is not, however, the ideal material to crash in (take it from someone who's been under the tweezers more than once). Consider buying jeans with Kevlar reinforcements.

Dress for Travel
Your jacket is perhaps the most important comfort choice you make—don't pinch pennies here. We realize cruiser riding is image-intensive, but what works on the boulevard doesn't usually cut it on the road. You need to cash in on function and leave more flimsy leather fashions at home. The same goes for your bottom half. Good leather or Cordura overpants have it all over chaps (especially where it counts). You can easily get style and function in the same package, although it may cost a little more. Just think of it as buying billet instead of chrome.

You know that if you wear one of those silly salad-bowl-style helmets you’re just asking to become a vegetable, right? Unless your windshield is so enormous it’s suffocating, a half helmet won’t offer the comfort provided by a full-face design. Full coverage helmets are safer, quieter and keep your face free of frostbite, freckles, goo-filled insects and scars from impacts with the scenery. If you’re accustomed to wearing an open-face, a full-face just takes a short acclimation period. Even the die-hards are capable of conversion (and after, they’re even harder to kill). Once you’ve gotten the basics to sheath your body and strap to your bike, there’s nothing left to do but hit the high road. The lessons will come with every leg, and the essentials will make themselves obvious.

Pass the Motrin Please…
The first day out can bring a mixture of anxiety, relief and excitement (not to mention aches and pains). Your head is still caught in the world you're leaving behind as you ponder what you might have forgotten. There may be worries about things not accomplished or being absent from your job or family. The first day is a day to let go. The stress will still be there when you get back. The mental gymnastics we do as we ride off into the sunset are partially responsible for making the first day or two so tiring. You haven't clicked into full concentration and the release it brings. The other reason a tour gets worse before it gets better is purely physical. Your body isn't conditioned for the long hours in the saddle and it takes awhile for it to join the party. Riding more and longer stints before your departure definitely helps ease this part of the fatigue.

Head Trips
Culling your thoughts is another matter. Before you can become one with your bike, you have no choice but to process all the concerns and distractions you brought with you. When your brain finally slows down, the whole world will open up. These are good reasons to set low expectations for the beginning of your trip. Three- to four-hundred-mile days are plenty for the first part of the trip. And keep in mind that it takes longer to amass mileage on a motorcycle than in a car or other capsule due to the more frequent and complicated pit stops. Allow even more time if you're traveling with a group.

There’s so much to focus on when you’re riding long distances that you might not realize how tired you are until you stop and assess yourself. We always try and take a few extra moments when filling the bikes to check our own mental and physical reserves.

By the third or fourth day, you get into a rhythm. By now, you know what to expect from your mind, body and motorcycle and you can pace yourself accordingly. We've learned that by breaking every 100 miles or so, even though our bikes and ambition might be capable of greater range, we can ward off stiffness and avoid pre­mature exhaustion. (Check out "Tips to Fighting Fatigue") We also strive to eat light during the morning and afternoon, but drink a little more fluid than our bodies require.

Some veterans say that after the first three days you’ll peak and be left with dwindling energy for the remainder of your trip. We disagree. If you learn to pace yourself from the start, the party doesn’t have to end until you return to your driveway. It just takes a little discipline. But if you do start pushing the envelope early, you will indeed dip into mental and physical reserves that are nearly impossible to replenish without an extended stopover.

With patience, your trot will soon become a smooth canter that allows you to cover more ground with less effort. Somewhere down the road you’ll reach a point where there’s a shift in clarity and you realize you feel more normal on your bike than off. Concentration on the road becomes effortless, while everything feels a little weird when you’re standing still. You feel like you could ride to the moon.

While motorcycle touring isn’t exactly an extreme sport, it does require an investment in living. And while it doesn’t always have a high endurance quotient, it does require commitment and discipline. Anyone can simply ride off into the sunset, just ask Peter Fonda. It’s doing it successfully that’s difficult.