Travel by motorcycle or motorcycle touring can be an amazing adventure. A long-distance motorcycle trip through scenic landscapes is something many dream of.
Like when cruising on small craft, getting around by motorcycle enables you to experience the world and the elements in a much different way than if you're sitting inside a vehicle. Generally speaking, there is no unsuitable motorcycle, no unsuitable time of year and no unsuitable level of experience but instead a matter of motivation and will. However, good planning is essential for a successful and safe journey.
The amount of preparation of course depends on many variables; not everything listed below is needed for every trip.
Planning your trip
The first thing to do is to create a rough itinerary for your trip. Are you going to a destination? Or is your destination a route? Are you maybe going around the world?
When you have the route figured out, see what visas, insurances and other documents you're going to need and start planning your travel budget. Where will you eat and sleep, what other expenses will you have and maybe most importantly — what will your fuel expenses be?
Have a look at the situation and climate in the areas you will travel through. You may not want to ride through tropical countries during the monsoon, for instance, and should you travel through Muslim countries you may want to have a look at Travel during Ramadan.
Compared to travel by plane, there are a slew of other documents you have to bring. While you don't necessarily need a ticket (unless for ferries or trains), for international travel you will still need a passport and possibly a visa or yellow fever vaccination card. Though you will also need at least driver's license, often also an international driver's licence, and in addition to your bike's ownership and insurance papers, a local traffic insurance, a Carnet de Passage and need to declare your vehicle to the customs. Also, do get a Travel insurance which also covers medical evacuation.
Take two copies of important documents you will bring with you. Bring with you one copy of the document; for instance it'll help a lot to have a copy if your passport if you have to get a new one on the trip. The other copy you should leave at home. In the age of the internet it is advisable to upload scans of your important documents to an appropriate online storage service. Therfore you might always have access to your most important documents when needed.
Motorcycle travel requires you to plan your packing well, in particular if there will be two of you riding the motorcycle. For everything you pack, you should consider "will I really need it?". Before the trip, pack the bike and make a trial drive to see how it feels drive with that load. If your luggage makes the bike difficult to handle or otherwise uncomfortable, you still have the chance to adjust your packing and offload stuff. Most likely loading your two-wheeler with something like a third of its own weight will affect its behavior and you should find it out before hitting the road.
When packing, it's important to place the heavy stuff as low as possible. This stuff usually includes tools and spare parts. Lighter items that you want to access easily like tents and sleeping bags can be placed on the rear. Sensitive things like your camera should be put in the compartment next to the fuel tank, where they are protected in the case of an accident. If you want to bring a laptop, you'll need to take it in your backpack or wrap a sleeping bag around it. Also, the load shouldn't be too wide and it should be well fastened!
These are the main alternatives where to put your stuff on a motorcycle, partially these can be combined:
- Fuel tank compartment: Fastened on the fuel tank using belts or magnets, it often offers a pocket for maps. As its center of mass is high up, don't use this for heavy items. On the other hand, if you've put a heavy load at the rear of the bike, you should put something heavier in the fuel tank compartment to balance it out.
- Boxes: There are several kinds of bags on the market, made from plastic or thick aluminium. They usually have separate inner pockets to help you arrange your stuff. Transport boxes can usually be locked, are weatherproof, robust and stable. When they are mounted on the side of the bike, they may make it uncomfortably wide, though, and they often require an installation of permanent fittings which make the bike look silly when the boxes are not mounted.
- Saddle bags: Also here you have several choices from traditional leather bags to modern waterproof ones. They are smaller than boxes and often easier to mount and remove. But because of this, they are more easy to steal.
- Roll-bags: to be placed at the rear of the motorcycle, often waterproof and easy to load.
Safety and breakdowns
What kind of spare parts you need to take much depends on where in the world you're planning to ride. In most of Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand you will usually be able to find a mechanic for your modern motorcycle along the route, should you need it. Elsewhere in the world your chances are probably better with older motorcycles with a more traditional engine and brakes. Needless to say, the more you are able to repair yourself on your bike, the better.
The tools you bring should be of high quality. Tools you will probably need are different screwdrivers and wrenches, a pair of pliers and a multitool. Also bring equipment for fixing your tires and spare lamps, fuses, cable ties and other small things you may need. If you have space to pack it, also consider taking spare parts like a chain, brake pads, etc. It's also important to research beforehand what kind and quality of fuel is available in the countries you will travel through.
You should always bring a first-aid kit (for instance in Austria it's actually mandatory to carry one if you're on a motorbike). Also bring a fluorescent vest and a warning triangle.
Clothing plays a crucial role for long-distance motorcycle rides. As you likely will ride for several hours a day, you should take care that you don't get wet, sweat or freeze — not at least because this will impair your concentration and elevate the risk for accidents.
Check that your safety equipment is in order, and that your clothing is waterproof. If you're driving in mountainous regions, you may have to pack both summer and winter clothing as temperatures and weather will vary a lot along your route. Dressing in layers is advisable.
As when otherwise going on a longer trip, make sure someone is looking after your home during the time you're away.
On the road
When riding a motorcycle you will lose more fluid than you notice, and dehydration is a real risk. Moreover, as you have to concentrate on your driving you might not notice that you've become thirsty. Drink enough.
As you will have to cope with the surrounding climate and your brain is constantly working, you are consuming considerably more energy than when driving a car. An experiment by the German Autobahn police showed that the motorcycle-riding officers were consuming almost as much calories in a day as competitors in the Tour de France. It's good to bring some chocolate or cookies, as a very low blood sugar will make you tired.
As with any type of self-guided road tours, a map and possibly a navigator are indispensable. You may want to bring a planning map for rough planning and a more detailed one for areas you want to explore in detail. If you're going off-roading, a terrain map is useful. Much of the motorcycle is made of iron, which renders a traditional compass useless. It's better to use a GPS device or in a pinch the sun and a wristwatch.
It's useful to write down a few waypoints and directions on a small piece of paper and tape it somewhere visible — don't even think of attempting to read a map when riding!
In first-world countries, high-quality unleaded gasoline is usually available at all gas stations. Elsewhere the situation is getting better but there's still a chance that you may get something that's bad for your engine.
If you want to start your trip somewhere away from home, you may need to get your motorcycle transported there. Alternatives include train, air freight and sea freight. This can get fairly expensive, though, so it's usually best to start inquiries well before you plan to travel and compare prices. In addition to the freight itself, there will likely be some handling and storage fees which means a few hundred euros extra. There are some companies specializing in transportation of vehicles overseas that can take care of everything — google them.
Transport by air enables you to get your bike to another continent within a matter of hours, but if you have more time, consider transporting it by boat which is more affordable. If you choose air transport, your bike may not need a separate box; it just suffices that the fuel and battery are removed. With sea transport a transportation box may be required, and also useful, because there's a higher risk of theft as harbours aren't surveilled in the same way as airports.
For transportation within the same country or continent, train is often a feasible alternative.
Renting a motorcycle at the destination can also be an alternative, especially if you'll stay at the destination for a short period only. At many destinations this is possible. If you decide to rent a motorcycle, inspect the vehicle thoroughly and make a trial run before hitting the road.
- Camping: the traditional form of accommodation when you're riding a motorcycle. Formerly official campgrounds used to ban motorcycles, but nowadays some of them even market themselves as motorcycle-friendly.
- Motorcycle-friendly accommodations: Fairly common in the Alpine countries. These sometimes have a drying room for your clothes and a garage with tools for the guests. The staff is happy to share tips about great motorcycle routes in the region. The German motorcycle magazine Tourenfahrer maintains a list of such hotels, hostels, motels and guesthouses in Central and Southern Europe. The service is in German only, but fairly intuitive to use. The European Motorcycle Union, FIM, maintains a similar but more limited list in English. In Japan, riders' houses are a popular and affordable type of accommodation geared towards motorcycle travelers. An alternative is to map them in OpenStreetMap.
Motorcycle trips with kids
There are some things you have to take into consideration if you plan to travel with kids. For example in Austria, kids under 13 years old have to ride in a sidecar.
Overall, children need to have an appropriate safety clothing which is not available for very small children. Before making a long motorcycle journey, they should preferably be used to riding with you on a motorcycle — for instance they should be used to wearing a helmet for several hours at a time. Also remember that children might find long journey legs boring, and obviously there aren't the same possibilities for giving them something to do as there would be in a car.
As children have a smaller body mass, they will also be more affected by the surrounding climate than adults, wherefore it's even more important to have suitable clothing available for them. Also, children may fall asleep during a boring, monotonous motorcycle ride. You need to have more frequent breaks if you travel with a child.