Category Archives: Motorcycle Touring

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #9 (Preventative Care aka Motorcycle Maintenance)


#9: Preventative care:

Previous articles have discussed the importance of having the ability to call for help in any situation and having the right tools packed to make roadside repairs. However, both situations can often be avoided by keeping your motorcycle properly maintained. This is especially true for long-distance riding, where riders are usually far from their home garage. It is much, much better to make repairs or perform maintenance in the comfort of one’s own garage than on an interstate shoulder. Moreover, there are many repairs that cannot be performed roadside, like fluid changes.

Each motorcycle’s specific maintenance needs are different. For a general listing of common motorcycle maintenance information, see this PDF: Motorcycle Maintenance Chart

The complexity and costliness of performing the above maintenance will vary from bike to bike. For example, most motorcycle batteries can be found underneath the rider’s seat. My old FJR1300 had the battery located within the right side of the front fairing. Instead of simply removing a seat and disconnecting battery cables, I had to remove several pieces of bodywork to get the battery out.

One of the most important components to performing preventative maintenance is having a good manual for your bike. An official shop manual from your motorcycle’s manufacturer is often the most detailed and accurate manual available. However, those manuals can be expensive and often lack illustrations. Personally, I have had good success with both Clymer and Haynes motorcycle manuals for almost all of my bikes. They offer pictures to illustrate parts and procedures, and can often be purchased for less than $40.

In the long run, performing your own maintenance can save touring riders thousands of dollars in as little as one year. For example, a set of chain replacement tools usually sells for around $100. A shop will often charge an hour and a half for labor for a change replacement, at $100/hour. I have used my $100 chain tools several times, which has saved me $300-$400 over the last 10 years. The same holds true for replacing cables and fluids that are easily accessible. In short, making the upfront investment in tools can pay large dividends for decades to come.

Personally, I try to perform as much of my touring motorcycle’s maintenance in the off-season as possible. This is advantageous for several reasons. First, it keeps me from rushing to finish maintenance work in order to not miss riding time. When I bought my FJR1300, I did not do the valve clearance check over the winter like I should have. I ended up doing it the night before I was supposed to leave for a multi-day trip to Americade, and it was the first time I had had the FJR’s gas tank off. I stayed up far too late, got little sleep before I left, and did not reinstall a coolant pipe correctly. Fortunately, the pipe was located on top of the engine in a small gulley and did not cause a problem during the trip. However, I ended up spending extra money to replace gaskets and lost riding time later in the summer because I had to re-do my work. It is best to perform maintenance in a relaxed atmosphere so that problems or mistakes can be more easily spotted and corrected.

Second, it allows the motorcycle to remain torn down for an extended period of time. Instead of having to button the bike back up right away to get back to riding, the bike can be left in a state of un-dress for months on end. This allows a rider to perform maintenance at their own pace and saves a lot of time. This is especially true with sportbikes, sport touring bikes, and touring bikes like a Honda Gold Wing. The bodywork on those machines can be a real pain to take on and off. Personally, I used to remove almost all of the side bodywork from my FJR1300 for the entire winter. After performing all of the needed maintenance and rechecking everything a couple times, I would then re-install the bodywork when riding season was at hand.

Third, if there is work that needs to be done by a shop, motorcycle shops are usually very slow during the winter months. Some shops also offer discounts on labor in order to bring in at least some business. Some shops will even pick up your motorcycle and bring it back to you if you live close enough. The winter is a great time to get tires changed or have more complex work done.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long-Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #8 (Motorcycle Shoe [Tire] Shopping)


#8Motorcycle shoe shopping (aka tires): 

Just like carrying the right tools can be a tour saver, so can having the right tires on your motorcycle. Certain types of motorcycle tires last longer and therefore perform better for long-distance riding than others. Having to lose a day or two during a long-distance trip to having new tires installed can ruin a tour.

Tire life if chiefly determined by a tire’s rubber compound. Tires with a softer rubber mix, like sportbike tires, provide excellent grip at the expense of longevity. Cruiser tires tend to feature harder rubber compounds that provide excellent tire life at the expense of cornering grip and performance.

Sport touring riders used to have to make a choice between tires that would provide enough mileage for touring but lack grip for sportier riding, or have to change tires much more often. Over the last 10 years or so, tire manufacturers have begun producing dual-compound tires. Those tires feature a harder rubber compound along the center of the tire, and a softer compound along the sides of the tread. This innovation has allowed sport touring riders to have access to tires that will allow them to ride to the Tail of the Dragon and back, as well as have plenty of edge grip for carving up the Dragon. Most manufacturers use the dual compound construction on the rear tire only, while Michelin uses it for both its front and rear tires. Many of the dual-compound sport touring tires are also available in a “GT” spec with extra belting for heavier touring motorcycles (Yamaha FJR1300/Kawasaki Concours 14/etc.).

A strategy some riders use is buying inexpensive tires that do not have features like dual compound and change them more often. I used such a strategy for a while with my FJR1300. I was living in Columbus at the time, which is blessed to have the Iron Pony motorsports store. They were selling Continental Motion tires for $142.99 a set and $92.99 for a rear tire. Even though it costs $30-$50 to have tires installed (more on that below), it was still cheaper to do that than buy fully-featured sport touring tires.

Each rider needs to first determine which tires are the correct construction (radial or bias ply), size, load rating, and speed rating for their bike. Riders should then try several different brands of tire until they figure out which one is best for them and their bike. Some tires wear better or handle better than others for different rider/motorcycle pairings.

Touring riders can also save money when changing tires by removing the wheels from their motorcycle themselves. Many motorcycles can be lifted using motorcycle lifts with one or both wheels off the ground. Some motorcycles also come equipped with a centerstand that allows the removal of one wheel at a time. A rider can then take the wheels into the shop with their new tires, and only have to pay for the mounting and balancing of the tires. This can save a rider $100-$200 a year or more.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #7 (Bring the Right Tools for the Job)


#7: Bring the right tool(s) for the job:

In the words of fellow long-distance riding enthusiast Paul Pelland (http://www.longhaulpaul.com/), “If your idea of a bike tool kit is a cell phone and a credit card, you’re in trouble already.” While carrying cash and alternative means of calling for help was covered in the last article (Point #6), the need to call for help can often be avoided by carrying the right tools on your bike. Unless you are not straying far from home and have someone who can bring you tools or a trailer on short notice, it is imperative that you have the ability to make simple roadside repairs yourself.

The goal here is not to carry an entire tool chest when you tour. You will not be doing a complete engine tear down and rebuild on an interstate shoulder. What a rider does need to carry is enough tools to perform the following:

  1. Remove front and rear wheels
  2. Tighten loose nuts and bolts
  3. Test electrical wires/switches/fuses/etc. for voltage
  4. Check battery voltage
  5. Remove/retighten clamps
  6. Remove/reinstall bodywork
  7. Change lightbulbs (headlight/taillight/turn signals/meters)
  8. Adjust/replace cables (clutch/throttle)
  9. Check tire pressure
  10. Add air to tires
  11. Cut and crimp electrical wires
  12. Replace brake pads
  13. Change spark plugs

Each bike will need different tools to accomplish those tasks. It is therefore best to check your bike’s stock tool set to see what size wrenches it includes. It is also important to include any special tools that accessories may need. For example, when I put a Givi luggage rack on my old Suzuki Bandit 1200, it used two 13mm nuts to secure the brackets to the motorcycle’s frame. The Bandit’s stock tool kit did not include a 13mm wrench, so I needed to add that to my bike tool set. Another example is my old FJR1300’s front wheel. The front axle needed a 19mm allen key socket to remove it.

In general, the tools needed to perform the above procedures will include the following:

For carrying the tools listed above, I use two small tool bags for the tools I store in my saddle bags (https://www.harborfreight.com/tool-storage/tool-bags-belts/11-in-tool-bag-61835.html), and a plastic bag or drawstring bag for tools stored underneath the seat.

The list of tools above may seem excessive. Why would a rider need to carry a wrench and a socket in the same size? The reality is different tools are needed for different parts of the bike. My old FJR1300 had two 10mm bolts that held the fuel tank down. The bolts were located in a small space between the tank and the steering stem. If I only carried the wrench the FJR’s tool kit came with, I would not be able to raise the fuel tank to make repairs. A rider also needs to be able to make repairs as quickly as possible when stuck on the side of a road. A road shoulder is a dangerous place, especially with the modern problem of distracted driving.

Additionally, carrying so many tools has proven invaluable to me on more than one occasion. The best example was a Memorial Day ride in 2016. I pulled over to check weather on my phone. When I tried to start the bike again, there was no power when I turned the key. Because I was carrying my tools with me, I was able to use a ratchet with an extension and a 10mm socket to unfasten the tank and a multimeter to find the electrical problem. I then used a wire key ring to bypass the failed wire between the main fuse and the key cylinder, and got the bike running again. Had I not had my tools with me, I would have been stuck calling a friend and leaving the bike on the side of the road. In that story, I was only about 100 miles from home. Imagine if I had been 1,000 miles away. Carrying the right tools can deescalate a nightmare situation into a mere inconvenience.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #6 (Packing Tips)


#6: Packing tips and tricks:
How low can you go?: When packing for a motorcycle tour, it is always best to keep weight as low and close to the center of the motorcycle as possible. In other words, try packing the heaviest items toward the bottom and front of the saddlebags. This allows for optimal motorcycle handling in spite of the additional weight.

While the advice above sounds great in theory, it can be difficult to accomplish in practice. Soft saddlebags often do not take well to being loaded with heavy items like tools. Moreover, some of the heavier touring items, like a laptop, can be more squarely shaped or too wide for many saddlebags or side cases. The more spacious dimensions of a tail bag or top case would be a more logical fit.

When I tour, I pack my saddlebags or side cases with the heavy items that both fit in them and that I will not need while on the road. Items like my Chromebook, atlas, and handheld CB radio will go in my tail bag or top case. Dimension-friendly items, like hand tools, toiletries bag, and a portable air pump find their way into my saddlebags or side cases. I try to keep the heavier items toward the bottom of the bags, and as close to the motorcycle as possible.

Under the sea(t): An underutilized area of a motorcycle can be the area beneath the seat(s). For riders who carry a full tool set for their bike, the space formerly occupied by the stock tool kit can hold many of the heavier tools (wrenches, sockets, ratchets, plyers, etc.). The low height but sometimes long dimensions can also be ideal for items like a tire plug kit.

Riders should test fit items below their seat before heading out on a tour. I tried stuffing the same number of tools underneath my Ninja 500’s seat that I had on my FJR1300. The result was a half-hour of trying to engineer a way to get the Ninja’s seat latch to release the seat after I reinstalled it. The tool bag was preventing the latch from moving back enough to disengage its hold on the seat. I am glad I tried getting the seat off at home, because it would not have been ideal doing the same thing on the shoulder of an interstate.

Rockin’ ROK Straps: For securing larger items or large bags holding camping gear, motorcyclists have been blessed with the advent of ROK Straps. ROK straps are part rubber strap and part polyester strap. This allows them to enjoy the elasticity and tight fit of rubber along with the adjustability and consistency of polyester. They are incredibly good at holding items in place even during cornering, and are available in several different sizes (https://www.amazon.com/ROK-Straps-ROK-10358-Black-Reflective/dp/B00JVAJJNO/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1509464117&sr=8-2&keywords=rok+straps&dpID=61eyLz1m9EL&preST=_SX300_QL70_&dpSrc=srch).

Don’t leave home without these: In addition to the tools and riding gear that will be discussed in future articles, there are several of items that new touring riders should include in their touring gear. I picked items that many new riders or new touring riders may not think to bring along on their first tour. These items can be lifesavers, literally, or tour savers when needed. Some of the items may seem excessive. However, in the words of a philosopher/racing fan who I met at Mid-Ohio a few years back, “Well, when on the road, better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it.”

CB radio: No, I am not recommending you turn your first motorcycle tour into something from Smokey and the Bandit. You have a cell phone, right? Why wouldn’t that just do the job? In most parts of the U.S., there is ample cell service. However, in many of the more mountainous or remote areas of the country, there is still limited or non-existent cell service. What if your motorcycle stops running in the middle of the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania? My experience riding in that part of the country tells me there is little cell coverage in the region. So, if you are stuck on the side of I-80 or I-380, or worse a lonesome country road, how can you call for help?

A CB radio will still be able to get your call for help out to authorities. If I were ever stuck having to use my CB radio, I would only use the emergency channel to call for law enforcement or a similar agency. If one uses a non-emergency channel and notifies an unknown party that they are broke down, who knows who may show up to “help”. I use a simple handheld unit that I bought on eBay for $20 and I change out the batteries every riding season. Relatively inexpensive ones can be found on Amazon as well (https://www.amazon.com/Midland-75-785-40-Channel-CB-Radio/dp/B00005Q4ZV/ref=sr_1_3?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1509375237&sr=1-3&keywords=handheld+cb+radio&dpID=41TVtC%252B6qZL&preST=_SY300_QL70_&dpSrc=srch).

Weather radio: The same argument for packing a CB radio also applies to a weather radio. In many places your cell phone can provide detailed weather forecasts and warnings. However, what happens when a rider is somewhere without mobile data service? Those clouds on the horizon may not be as harmless as they first look.

A small handheld weather radio can provide invaluable in those situations. Modern weather radios pick up a nationwide network of stations set up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The stations provide weather forecasts, hazards/warnings, and regional weather conditions. A portable weather radio can be found for less than $20 on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Midland-HH50-Pocket-Weather-Radio/dp/B000P708NM/ref=sr_1_3?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1509377080&sr=1-3&keywords=handheld+weather+radio).

I started carrying a weather radio when I started touring in 2009. I did not have a smartphone at that time, and needed something that could keep me updated on weather conditions and hazardous weather ahead of me. On my trip back from Utah in 2010, I saw a very dark line of clouds on the horizon. I pulled over and got my weather radio it. A tornado warning was in effect for the towns ahead of me. I was able to get to my hotel, which was just outside of the warning area and take shelter there. Without the weather radio, I would not have known whether to keep going, stay put, or turn around and ride away from the storm.

Atlas: Another feature on many phones that can fail without ample data service is a maps app. On my old Windows Phone, I could download street maps by state. I am still testing several apps on my Android phone to see which maps app I like the best. However, what happens when your phone is dead or not working? Carrying a nationwide atlas can be invaluable in those situations. Yes, the maps in an atlas go out of date quickly and they can be bulky. However, getting back on track on a 8+ hour day on the road can be extremely important. I usually buy a national atlas that is spiral bound and medium size (https://www.amazon.com/2018-McNally-EasyFinder%C2%AE-Midsize-Atlas/dp/0528017411/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1509378122&sr=8-2&keywords=atlas&dpID=61l%252B6kRHmUL&preST=_SX218_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch) and buy a new one about every 5-10 years. A national atlas may not show the obscure scenic route you are lost on. What is can do is help you find that state or national highway you crossed a little ways back and help get you back on roads the atlas does show.

Power banks/charging attachments: The goal of the items above is to provide the rider with tools that will work when a phone has no data service. What happens when a rider is in an area with plenty of data and phone service, but a dying phone battery? Although a touring rider may be carrying the items discussed above, the easiest thing to do is simply recharge his or her phone. How can that be done on a motorcycle?

While there are more complicated methods of hard-wiring charging ports to a motorcycle, the easiest method is to use a Battery Tender harness (https://www.amazon.com/Battery-Tender-081-0069-6-Terminal-Disconnect/dp/B000NCOKZQ/ref=sr_1_7?s=automotive&ie=UTF8&qid=1509383804&sr=1-7&keywords=battery+tender&dpID=41yzSPdqqqL&preST=_SX395_QL70_&dpSrc=srch). The harness connects to the motorcycle’s battery at one end, and provides a “SAE” (which stands for Society of Automotive Engineers) connector on the other end. The primary purpose of the harness is to allow a rider to charge his battery by simply plugging in the SAE connector on a Battery Tender to the harness. The harness is run from the battery to outside of a motorcycle’s bodywork.

However, the harness can also be attached to a range of accessories. For purposes of this section, those accessories include a cigarette power socket adapter (https://www.amazon.com/Battery-Tender-081-0069-8-Cigarette-Disconnect/dp/B0041CDPQO/ref=sr_1_42?s=automotive&ie=UTF8&qid=1509383941&sr=1-42&keywords=battery+tender) and a USB adapter (https://www.amazon.com/Battery-Tender-081-0158-Disconnect-Smartphone/dp/B00DJ5KEF4/ref=sr_1_21?s=automotive&ie=UTF8&qid=1509383804&sr=1-21&keywords=battery+tender). Those adapters can be important for re-charging electronics like a cell phone or powering an air pump (more on that in the next article).

Another option for recharging phones or other electronics are power banks. These portable “batteries” typically feature USB and micro-USB or Apple Lightening connectors. They are charged by being connected to a power source (like a USB port on a computer or a USB/wall outlet adapter) and are able to hold energy for recharging modern smartphones and tablets. They have come down in price in recent years and can be found on Amazon in many shapes and capacities.

Personally, I use a combination of the above methods for recharging my phone while on a tour. I do not like having the phone directly connected to my motorcycle battery just in case a power surge should occur. Additionally, I like to keep my phone in a jacket or pants pocket in case of a crash. Running a 4-foot charging cable up the inside of my jacket to my phone can be awkward. Instead, I own three small, 3,200 mAh power banks that stay with my tank bag (https://www.amazon.com/Anker-PowerCore-Lipstick-Sized-Generation-Batteries/dp/B005X1Y7I2/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1509379095&sr=8-7&keywords=power+bank).

When my phone gets low on charge, I use a short USB cable to connect the phone to the power bank when I am stopped. The power bank will usually recharge the phone by the time I need to get off the bike again. After the phone is done charging, I put the power bank back in my tank bag and connect it to the bike’s Battery Tender harness via a USB adapter. By the time the riding day is done, the power bank is recharged and ready to be used again. If I need to use more than one power bank during the day, I simply recharge them overnight off of my laptop or a wall plug USB adapter.

Aspirin: Even after making all of the comfort changes described in Point #2, a rider’s rear end can still get sore during an 8+ hour day on the road. While several over the counter painkillers can remedy some of that discomfort, I like to use aspirin. I choose aspirin because it has mild blood-thinning properties. While I am not a doctor, and nor is this writing intended to constitute medical advice, my understanding is that much of the pain from sitting on a motorcycle seat is caused by a lack of blood flow. Aspirin both thins the blood mildly to promote blood flow, as well as acts as a pain reliever. In my personal experience, I have found aspirin to be the most effective of the over the counter pain relievers for long-distance motorcycle riding. However, each rider should consult their doctor and find which remedy works best for them.

Kickstand pads: These plastic pucks can be a bike saver. When showing up to an event, or having to park on the side of the road, the ground may be less than ideal for a kickstand or centerstand. The pucks widen the footprint of a kickstand, helping spread out the weight of the motorcycle over a larger area (http://www.ironpony.com/ipd/pi.asp/ImageName/IP-KICKSTAND-PAD.jpg/Brand/Iron-Pony/c2/General-Bike-Accessories/c3/Kickstand-Pads/c1/Street-Products/KitKey2/Kickstand-Pad). This helps prevent a kickstand from pushing through weak asphalt, sand, or dirt/grass and the bike consequently tipping over. I have had to use kickstand pads several times when parking on the grass at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A kickstand pad can actually work better than a centerstand on soft, wet ground.

Cash: Despite how widely accepted credit and debit cards have become, there are still businesses that are cash only. Many such businesses are located in remote areas where a touring rider may not have many alternatives. A rider does not want to find himself or herself out of fuel or broke down with no cash for offer for gas, parts, or labor.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #5 (Luggage)


#5: A few words about luggage:  Before we can begin discussing what a long-distance motorcycle rider should bring with them on a tour, we first need to talk about how a rider can carry those items on their motorcycle. Motorcycle luggage is available in many forms and constructions, each with its own pros and cons.

 

Soft Luggage

Construction: This is the cheapest and most common form of motorcycle luggage. It is usually made from canvas or polyester and is available in a range of shapes and sizes. For new touring riders, this is almost always the best place to start your luggage shopping.

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Advantages

Interchangeable (for the most part): The vast majority of soft luggage is designed to fit a very wide range of motorcycles. Unlike hard luggage that almost always requires a set of expensive steel brackets, soft luggage uses magnets, straps, or bungee cords to secure it to a nearly any motorcycle. For new riders or experienced riders who buy and sell motorcycles frequently, soft luggage can easily be transferred from bike to bike. The soft saddlebags I am using now on my 2009 Kawasaki Ninja 500 were originally purchased for my old 1998 Suzuki Bandit 1200S. I adjusted the length of the Velcro straps that lay across the passenger seat and the hook/loop straps that the bags use to attach to the passenger foot peg brackets. Within a couple minutes the saddlebags fit the Ninja perfectly.

Cost: Soft luggage is substantially less expensive than hard luggage. The smallest set of Givi hard saddlebags is in the low $200s (http://www.twistedthrottle.com/givi-e22n-cruiser-cases-matte-black-pair), while a simple set of soft saddlebags can be found for less than $100 with no mounting brackets to buy (https://www.jakewilson.com/p/4822/27257/Dowco-Rally-Pack-Value-Saddlebags?s=223757&utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Shopping%20Campaign&utm_term=1102300484396&utm_content=J). This is even more true for soft tail bags versus hard top cases. Even the least expensive Kappa Monokey top case retails in the middle $100s (http://www.twistedthrottle.com/kappa-47k48n-topcase-or-sidecase-48l-matte-black), whereas a Dowco Rally Pack tailbag can be found for around $50-$60 (https://www.bikebandit.com/dowco-rally-pack-sport-bike-value-series-tail-bag/p/6054?b=4188244&utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Shopping%20-%20RGAC_%20-%20Old&utm_term=1100203183203&utm_content=Boots). Moreover, the soft luggage does not require its owner to invest in brackets for their particular motorcycle. There are also some types of luggage, like tank bags and fork bags, that are generally only available as soft luggage.

Range of sizes/features: While hard bags are available in a range of sizes, the cheaper production costs and universal mounting of soft luggage allows manufacturers to produce a much wider range of products. A rider can find everything from a small tank bag to hold a few personal items to the biggest set of soft saddlebags money can buy that hold a week’s worth of cloths.

 

Disadvantages

Weather resistance: For long distance riding, which can take a rider through a wide range of weather conditions, soft luggage’s most glaring weakness is evident. While a few, expensive models of soft luggage may actually be waterproof, most soft luggage is not designed to keep out the rain without help. Most every piece of soft luggage comes with a rain cover. However, many of the rain covers are not tethered to the bag and can be ripped off by wind or rain. Even for luggage that is equipped with tethered rain covers, having to put on and remove the rain covers as weather conditions change can be time-consuming. Moreover, riders cannot always pull over to put rain covers on when rain begins, leaving electronics and cloths subject to mother nature until a suitable shoulder or exit ramp can be found.

Durability: The soft part of soft luggage can also apply to how long the luggage will last. An occasional touring rider will likely not tax soft luggage enough to significantly shorten its life. However, more than occasional use can quickly wear down soft luggage’s fit and finish. Long sunny days on the open road will start to fade the color of the luggage. Continual use of rain covers can cause them to develop holes or tear at the tethers. Continued mounting and removal of soft luggage can also wear down mounting straps and bungee cords. While hard luggage does not have many of the problems listed above, one can usually buy 3 pieces or more of soft luggage for the cost of one piece of hard luggage. A more serious touring rider simply needs to budget for replacing luggage more often than their hard luggage counterparts.

Security: The advantage of how easily soft luggage can be installed and removed can quickly become a disadvantage on the open road. Even the toughest touring riders have to stop several times per day for food, fuel, and restroom breaks. Many of these stops require leaving the bike unattended, which gives potential thieves an opportunity to quickly remove the luggage or rummage through it and steal valuables. Unfortunately, very little can be done to remedy this weakness. While locking carabiners or running the straps of saddlebags underneath the seat can keep a thief from removing luggage as one piece, mounting straps or the nylon, canvas, or leather body of luggage can easily be cut. When I have toured with soft luggage, I do what I can to keep the motorcycle in my sight. If I stop at a restaurant, especially a fast food or fast casual restaurant, I will try to find a parking spot near a window. I then walk inside and leave my jacket or helmet at the table closest to that window. That way I can watch the bike while I am eating/blogging/etc.

Capacity/weight: Soft luggage’s weaker construction can make it less than ideal for carrying heavy items. Light duty touring riders who simply keep their bike’s tool kit under their seat and do not tour too far from home may not find this to be a problem. All of the soft luggage I have owned will carry common touring items like cloths, spare gloves, snacks, and electronics just fine. It is when a more serious touring rider tries packing tools, batteries, or heavy souvenirs that soft bags can begin to find their limit. Overloading soft bags can cause them to lose their shape and droop. This is especially true of soft saddlebags, as there is nothing below the bags to help them bear weight. Most soft luggage is also smaller than most of its hard luggage counterparts. For the light packer or short tours, there is no real disadvantage in using soft luggage. For longer trips, or needing to pack for rider and passenger, soft luggage’s capacity may present a problem.

Will not work with some exhaust systems: Some motorcycles have under seat exhaust systems may not jive so well with soft luggage. Some examples of motorcycles with high-set exhaust systems are the Suzuki V-Stroms, Yamaha FZ6 and Triumph Tiger 1050. The heat radiating off of those motorcycles’ exhaust pipes and mufflers can easily melt or burn some soft luggage or mounting straps. Cruiser riders usually do not have this problem. They can usually find saddlebag supports that keep saddlebags from getting into the rear wheel, as well as help them from sliding down onto the exhaust system. Similar systems may be available for sport, sport-touring, or adventure motorcycles to keep soft luggage a safe distance from exhaust heat. Those systems may not be inexpensive though, making hard luggage a more viable option in those cases.

 

Common types of soft luggage

Saddlebags: These sets of two bags hang off the sides of the passenger seat. Usually they are secured to the motorcycle through a combination of the straps that connect the two bags and mounting straps that usually attach to the passenger foot peg brackets and below the tail of the bike. Saddlebags come in various sizes and shapes to fit nearly every motorcycle. Some saddlebags also have additional pockets on the outside of the bag, which are great for storing small or thin items. When I tour with soft saddle bags, I try to pack them with heavier items (more on that in the next article) and items I usually do not need while on the road. Typically this includes cloths, toiletries bag, air pump, tool bags, zip ties, and sandals.

Tail bag: These bags sit atop a bike’s passenger seat or an a luggage rack/sissy bar set-up. They are usually the best bag for carrying larger items like laptops and cameras due to their size and more squared-off shape. They are usually secured to a motorcycle by either mounting straps or bungee cords. Some tail bags are also able to mount directly to soft saddlebags, making for easier and more secure mounting. When I tour with soft luggage, I usually pack my tail bag with larger items and items that I will need while parked. This usually includes my 11-inch Chromebook and charger/mouse, CB radio, weather radio, charging cables, jeans or larger-sized clothing, event tickets, camera bag, snacks, and hats.

Tank bag: These bags mount on top of a motorcycles gas tank. They come in a wide range of sizes, and mount via either magnets, straps, or a ring locking system. Some riders do not like tank bags that use magnets because they can scratch the tank, slide under high wind conditions, or can demagnetize credit cards. Some riders do not like strap-mounting because of the how difficult it can be to mount the straps on some modern motorcycles. Additionally, some riders simply do not like tank bags because to the need to move them out of the way at fuel stops. However, tank bags can be a valuable part of a luggage solution. They are usually the only bag a rider can access while sitting on their motorcycle. This can be important at toll booths or when having to pull over briefly. I usually pack my tank bag with extra visors, a large carabiner for locking my helmet to the bike, a couple Five Hour Energy shots, charging attachments for the Battery Tender lead, small USB power banks, and spare change for tolls.

 

Hard Luggage

Construction: Hard luggage is usually constructed of plastic or metal and attaches to a motorcycle via a set of mounting brackets. Some touring, sport touring, and adventure motorcycles offer hard luggage as standard or optional equipment with integrated mounting solutions.

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Advantages

Security: Hard luggage is almost always mounted to a set of mounting brackets or is integrated into a bike’s design. The luggage also almost always has lockable lids. The locking action that secures the luggage shut and to a bike makes it much more difficult for a thief to gain access to the luggage or remove it from a bike. Often the designers of hard luggage systems will place the mounting screws for the hard luggage brackets such that a potential thief would have a difficult time accessing them when the luggage is attached. With enough time, anyone can get anything off of a bike. However, if a person is trying to remove luggage from a motorcycle by taking a hack saw to mounting brackets, someone is much more likely to call the police than a person who casually walks by and undoes a couple soft luggage mounting straps.

Weatherproof: One of the real beauties of hard luggage is that when the rain starts, there is no reason to stop riding. Most hard luggage systems are 99% waterproof or better, which allows electronics to be more securely stowed away. For serious touring riders, not needing to stop when the wet weather starts can be a godsend when on the road for 9+ hours per day.

Mounting stability and ease: Soft luggage can have a tendency to slide or swing on a bike. While properly adjusting the mounting straps can eliminate most of this, saddlebags can still sway a little and tank bags and tail bags can slide side to side during aggressive cornering or on interchange ramps. Moreover, it can be a pain on a multi-day tour having to install and remove the mounting straps for multiple pieces of soft luggage day after day. Hard luggage is attached via a built-in mounting system or a set of metal mounting brackets that hold the luggage firmly in place. Most hard luggage also slides into its mounting bracket in seconds, making mounting and dismounting a breeze.

Capacity: Most hard luggage is larger than its soft luggage counterparts. While there are exceptions, the sturdier construction of hard luggage also inherently adds a little extra capacity. If a rider attempts to cram a couple extra items into a soft tail bag or saddlebags, it can stretch the bag’s material and shorten its service life. With hard luggage, as long as the case will close and lock, there is little additional wear and tear. Additionally, hard luggage’s more sturdy mounting allows it to come in a range of shapes and sizes. Unlike a tail bag, a top case is not limited by the size of a passenger seat and can be wider and/or taller than a tail bag. This can be especially important on a trip where a rider will be picking up souvenirs or gifts along the way. It is always great having the flexibility to be able to carry more back than you left with.

Stickers: This is a small personal note, but I have always enjoyed putting stickers on my hard luggage from all of the places I have visited with the bike. For touring riders, they become like badges of honor. Soft luggage can have patches sown on, but it can negatively impact its service life.

 

Disadvantages

Cost: The biggest drawback to hard luggage is its sheer cost. While many aftermarket top cases and side cases can be used on many different motorcycles (more on that next), the upfront cost of purchasing hard luggage can run several hundred dollars. A basic Givi or Kappa top case usually starts at around $170 (http://www.twistedthrottle.com/shop-by-product/luggage-racks/givi_kappa_monokey-_top-cases) and the smallest Givi side cases start at around $225 and escalate quickly from there (http://www.twistedthrottle.com/shop-by-product/luggage-racks/givi_kappa_side-cases).

Bracket fitment: Even if a rider can afford a hard luggage solution, there is no guarantee they will be able to use it on their future motorcycles. SW-MOTECH and Givi make top case and side case brackets for a wide range of newer motorcycles. However, as time marches on, both companies begin discontinuing the more difficult to manufacture brackets for older models. For example, when I bought my 2009 Kawasaki Ninja 500 in 2017, Givi had already discontinued making the top case rack for it. For serious touring riders, it can be a pain when bike shopping. There may be a bike that would work great, except there is no mounting brackets for it. Now a rider has to choose between the bike they want and the luggage they have already invested in.

Appearance: One of the other downsides of hard luggage brackets is how they look when the luggage is off. Top case racks, especially those that simply mount to a stock luggage rack, do not tend to detract from a bike’s look too much. However, some side case racks can look hideous. For riders who tour a lot or keep hard saddlebags on, this may not be a concern. However, for riders who care about how their bike looks and do not keep the saddlebags on, it may be a deal breaker. Some motorcycles can look a bit awkward even with the bags on. One good example is a Suzuki V-Strom. Due to the exhaust location, the Givi mounting racks keep the bags a few inches from the exhaust. The result is something that can look even wider on the back end of the bike than the front end.

 

Common types of hard luggage

Top case: These cases are usually mounted to a bike’s tail section behind the passenger seat. With the exception of Harley-Davidson cases that open to the left, most top cases open from front to back. Top cases come in a wide range of sizes, with many top cases being 40 liters or larger in capacity. I tend to use a top case for storing items I may need while on the road. I usually keep my laptop, charging cables, event tickets, extra layers for cold weather riding, CB radio, weather radio, camera, batteries, and the like in my top case. On long trips where a rider is spending 8+ hours on the road, a top case can have a wide range of other uses as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have used top cases on the old Suzuki Bandit 1200 and FJR1300 as a lunch/dinner table, laptop table, and more.

Side cases: These cases are sold as sets of two. They can either open from the top (most cruiser hard bags and Givi E22), or from the side (similar to a top case mounted sideways). They are usually smaller than top cases, though I have seen some riders use some pretty big cases on Givi side case racks. I usually try to pack side cases with items that I would not normally need when on the road. These include tools (hopefully they are not needed on the road), cloths, sandals, toiletries bag, and the like.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #4 (Touring on the Cheap)


#4: DO NOT spend a lot of money (at first, anyway): The mere idea of riding a motorcycle long distance can be daunting. As discussed in Point #3 and in the points that follow, there is a LOT to consider and put in order before hitting the open road. For some rookie touring riders, there is a tendency to spend inordinate amounts of money on touring accessories. The discussion in Point #3 may scare a few readers into buying $300 heated grips or a $1,500 seat. After all, a new touring rider would not want to risk being uncomfortable.

In short, the one irreplaceable part of touring preparation is actually getting out on the road. The only way you can fully know your needs is to do a test ride, then go on a few short tours. In reality, fully and properly outfitting the rider and the motorcycle for long distance riding is not an event, but an evolutionary process. It is better to not front-load all of your available resources toward your initial touring gear and accessories. Rather, as you ride and use different touring products, you will gradually better understand not only your needs, but what products will fully meet your needs.

While equipping a motorcycle and a rider for long-distance motorcycle riding may be a little complex, it need not be expensive. It more important to get more of the right equipment, gear, and accessories, rather than get top-of-the-line everything. Buying top-shelf accessories can become a serious financial burden. A rider could use some of that money to actually go touring, rather than just prepare for it.

Moreover, buying expensive gear and accessories is not a guarantee of either comfort or reliability. When starting out in touring, look for less expensive accessories that will still meet your comfort needs without breaking your budget. It is also better to start with shorter tours so that if gear or accessories do not work out, you are not too far from home. Some examples of lower-cost touring accessories for seating, wind protection, warmth, hand and foot controls, and navigation can be found in Point #2. Choosing luggage and riding gear will be discussed in Point #5 and Point #10, respectively.

In large part, not spending a lot of money on touring accessories prevents new touring riders from putting all of their “eggs” (read: money) into one basket. You may have a friend who is into touring and just loves Corbin seats. So you follow their lead and buy a Corbin. Maybe it works out for you, but it may not. It is better to buy one or two much cheaper seating accessories to see if something softer (like Alaskan sheepskin) or harder (like the wood beads) works better for you. It is just as important to understand what you want in a more expensive accessory as it is to understand that you have a need in one of those areas.

Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #3, Part III (Comfort con’t)


Navigation: While getting lost and exploring are often cited as some of the more fun things motorcycle touring riders do, you do not want to get too lost. There are several options available, some more technically complex than others. However, no matter which navigation solution you choose, I highly recommend purchasing a good atlas every five years or so. Phone and GPS systems have batteries that die, and some phones may not have true GPS recievers built into them. Those phones use the surveyed location of cell phone towers to triangulate location. This becomes a problem when there are two or fewer cell towers within your phone’s range. An atlas, on the other hand, needs no batteries or cell towers. It just a set of hands and eyeballs, and a landmark of some sort to function.

For some riders (like the author), GPS navigation on a motorcycle takes something away from the touring experience. GPS solutions, which l discuss below, can become pricey as well as easily vulnerable to the elements. When I first started touring, electronic navigation solutions were extremely expensive, and smartphones were in their infancy. Since I used Interstate highways for most of my trips, I would memorize the exit numbers that I needed to get off at for stops. I obtain the exit numbers by using Google Maps during my trip planning (which will be discussed in Point #10). If a trip takes me off of Interstate highways I look for landmarks along the way, like businesses or prominent intersections, to keep myself on route. I also attempt to stick to numbered highways (e.g. US 15, OH 7) as much as I can. The signage for numbered routes is usually very good, so it is easy to keep track of both where you are and where you need to turn or stop.

For riders who prefer an electronic navigation solution, several options are available. The first option is using a smartphone. Some of the advantages of using your existing smartphone are cost and updated maps. If you have already purchased a smartphone it most likely comes with a mapping application pre-installed. Additionally, other mapping applications are available for free or for a fee in either the Apple App Store or Google Play store. Additionally, smartphone mapping applications usually download mapping data on an as-needed basis. While mapping apps can eat up a fair bit of mobile data, they also ensure that riders have up-to-date map data. Another advantage can be your smartphone’s Bluetooth connectivity. If you own a Sena or other Bluetooth hands-free device for your helmet, those devices can be used to listen to a smartphone’s spoken directions.

However, relying on a smartphone mapping application can have several downsides. First, if your mapping application relies on downloading data as needed, it is useless if a rider is in a remote or mountainous area that does not have data coverage. Some smartphone mapping apps do allow users to pre-download map data. However, those data files can be very large and take up a large portion of your phone’s available storage. Second, having your phone mounted to your motorcycle (more on that below) can be a problem in the event of a crash. A smartphone is more likely to be damaged or destroyed when it is mounted to the motorcycle rather than kept inside a pocket in your jacket or pants. There is also the risk that the rider could be physically separated from their motorcycle (and hence their phone) during a crash, and be too physically injured to move closer to their motorcycle to call for help. Smartphones mounted to the motorcycle are also inherently exposed to the elements. Weatherproof and weather-resistant cases are available for many smartphone models. However, those cases can be expensive and bulky.

Another electronic navigation option is using an inexpensive car GPS unit. These units feature pre-downloaded maps and allow riders to keep their phone on their person. Some of the more fully-featured car GPS units have Bluetooth connectivity to link with a motorcycle hands-free device. While most car GPS units are not weatherproof, cases are available for some GPS models that keep the units relatively well-protected from the elements. One of the downsides of using one of these units is their construction. The units were originally designed for use in a climate controlled automotive environment and are more susceptible to damage from vibration, moisture, and the like. Car GPS units also will not auto-update and need to be manually connected to the internet in order to receive map updates.

The highest quality but most expensive electronic navigation solution is a motorcycle-specific GPS. These units are designed to be hard-wired into your motorcycle’s electrical system, are weatherproof, and often include motorcycle-specific features. These units are usually very expensive however. At the time of this writing, the least expensive motorcycle-only GPS units on Amazon.com are $359.95 (TomTom RIDER model) and $399.99 (Garmin Zumo 395LM). If you become a serious touring rider, units like those may be worth the money. However, if you are just starting out in touring, it is probably not worth dropping that kind of money on a GPS unit. You could do a couple long weekends in familiar settings for the price of one of those units. These units also share the same downside as their automotive counterparts, in that they do not auto-update their maps.

Whatever type of electronic navigation device you may choose, there is still the issue of mounting the unit to the motorcycle. There is a plethora of mounting options available for both smartphones and GPS units. Many mounting solutions attach to either the electrical pods, steering stem nut, or handlebars. Many mounting methods utilize RAM-style mounts. These ball-in-socket mounts allow the navigation unit to be rotated to many different angles. Consult resources like Twisted Throttle (http://www.twistedthrottle.com) to find which solutions are available for your motorcycle.