My first road trip on a motorcycle happened on the same weekend that I bought my Ninja 250.
Having just gotten my M-license, I rode pillion on the back of a friend’s bike to Indianapolis to pick up my Ninja 250. The next morning I rode that machine 200 miles home to Chicago, all via slow Indiana back roads. I remember feeling incredibly accomplished when that first adventure was over, but as time has gone by my idea of adventure has changed. This summer I put 10,000 miles on that motorcycle, taking trips to North Carolina, riding around Lake Superior and Lake Huron, and even doing an Iron Butt (meaning I rode 1,000 miles in 24 hours). You can do extended touring do if you have the right mindset. Here’s a list of how you can work up to a 1,500 mile road trip.
Wait, Don't I Need a Touring Bike?
The touring bike is in the eye of the beholder. You can tour anything. Anything. I know a guy who's touring an old Honda C90 from Alaska into California right now.
READ MORE: The 5 Best Touring Motorcycles
I've chosen to tour a 2007 Kawasaki Ninja 250 for the past three years. I really think that bike embodies the minimum standards of what a touring bike should have, plus some extra perks. Here's a break down of how my bike does for touring:
My bike can comfortably go 80mph down the highway. If I'm not paying attention, I'll notice that I'm doing 90mph - not bad for a little bike! I'm a bit of a safety nut when it comes to street riding, so I don't see the need to go triple digit speeds on public roads.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the Ninja 250 is that it sits too aggressively for touring. In reality, the Ninja is actually set up in a sport touring position (as is the Ninja 300), which leaves many comfortable seating options! I can sit comfortably up right, but if I'm getting stuck in a heavy wind that I can easily tuck in for protection. Once I got physically used to riding a motorcycle, I found the bike very easy to ride. The only actual comfort mod that I've made is adding a seat pad (which I'll talk about later).
My Ninja 250 is awesome when I end up wanting to hit up twisties! At 330 pounds wet, it's easy to throw around. Yet it's heavy enough to be able to take on plenty of luggage. If you ever spend time on the Ninja 250 Owner's Wiki, you'll see plenty of insane touring mods that people have made to their little bikes so that they can handle anything.
Because the bike's engine is so small, it gets killer gas mileage. The bike will get anywhere from 40 - 70 miles per gallon, depending on how I'm riding it. The lower I can keep the RPMs, the better the gas mileage.
So as you can see, a bike of the Ninja 250's stature is all you really need to tour. Anything bigger or with more mods is a bonus! Touring is in the eyes of the rider, so stop listening to other people who say you don't own a touring bike and get out there!
Know Your Limits
When I first got into riding, I often wondered what was a reasonable amount of distance to cover in one day. To help me work up the amount of distance that I could cover, I would repeat the question that my moto-mentor had asked me: Can you ride 50 miles? Okay, great, now can you ride 50 more?
No one covers 1,500 miles in one sitting (unless you’re one of those nutty endurance riders with a streamlined motorcycle). Any trip is composed of the times that you spend sitting on your motorcycle and the times that you spend taking breaks. If you can ride 50 miles in one sitting, then you’re already on your way to becoming a long distance rider. Ride for 50 miles, take a 20 minute break. Repeat this until you aren’t comfortable riding anymore for the day. Perhaps at the end of the day, you have now covered 200 miles. Or 300 miles. Or maybe 400 miles. As time goes on, you can wait longer to take a break on your motorcycle. If I am just trying to cover a ton of mileage for a particular day, then I will stay on my motorcycle for 130 mile stints, at which point I need gas.
READ MORE: My First Ride on A Touring Bike
The amount of miles that you can sit on your motorcycle and the amount of breaks that you need to take will impact the amount of time you have to do other things on your trip. Most of us only have so many days to take a big trip, so be sure that you feel confident about covering the mileage and making up for lost time if you do end up having a problem on the road.
Plan Your Trip
When I’m planning a big trip, the first thing I do is decide which roads or attractions that I don’t want to miss. Maybe I want to spend an entire day carving out twisties and exploring, or maybe there’s an awesome park that I want to hike. I make choices as to which things I want to do the most, and then I plan my trip around that. I’ll usually write up lists of things to see and do before I leave, print the lists out and leave them in my tank bag for easy reference (and just in case I end up someplace so epic that it doesn’t have cellphone reception).
Once I have made my lists of what I want to do, I like to ballpark final destination points for each day. Unless I’m touring someplace close to home and I have tons of time to explore, I’ll generally make a concession by letting the first and last days of my trip be high mileage days to get to the area I want to tour. I’ll cover up over 600 miles in a day if I have to just to make sure I have plenty of time to do the things I’m most excited about. If you aren’t confident about covering 600 miles in one day, be sure to give yourself some extra time to get to your destination.
Finally, while it might be the biggest pain, I think the best thing to do before you hit the road is book the hotels (or motels, AirBnB, whatever) in advance. I will usually book the hotels that allow me to cancel with minimal notice, just in case something goes wrong on the road. The reason I like doing this is that it ultimately saves me time and money on my trip. Sure, riding a motorcycle is awesome, but it suddenly becomes much less awesome if it’s raining out and you have ridden around 4 different towns that are each 20 miles apart and none of them have a hotel room, so finally you just concede to spending $150 on the last room in a dingy hotel because everything-sucks-and-I-just-want-to-stop-riding-in-the-rain-this-trip-was-the-worst-idea-ever. Knowing that you have a room to go to at the end of a long and awesome day is often times a major relief.
Get Your Bike Ready
Now that you know your limits and you have a plan, you need to make sure that your bike can handle this trip. Look for the maintenance schedule and ensure that your bike is in its best shape for the miles you’ve already put on it. Check your tires for wear and tread – if you have had them on for a number of years, the rubber degrades and it would be in your best interest to get some new rubber before the trip. I usually like to take care of all the major maintenance in the offseason when it’s too cold to ride. Even if your bike is up to snuff with its maintenance, it’s always good to give it some extra love. Change the oil, lubricate the chain, check your chain tension, check the tire pressure and check the coolant. With these things out of the way, you can feel confident in your bike’s abilities to make the trip.
There are a few comfort mods to consider for touring, though none of them are required for you to actually take a trip. Comfort mods can extend your seat time and decrease rider fatigue, or they can just make the ride a little more convenient. If your bike lacks fairings, consider a windshield to remove all the wind dumping out on you. Zero Gravity has great reviews on their windshields. Seat pads or seat upgrades can also make seat time more comfortable. I bought an Alaskan Butt Pad for my Ninja 250 (I’m not kidding, that’s what it’s called). It was a fairly cheap upgrade that made my tush feel a little more comfortable as I started getting into serious distance riding. There are many other seat pads and upgrades to consider – Corbin, Sargent, and Air Hawk all have great reviews, it really just depends on how much money you have to spend. Heated grips are another luxury that many touring riders use – though I will slip HotHands into my gloves and boots as a poor man’s substitute. One other mod that is attaching a charging adapter to your motorcycle so that you can keep your electronics (and cell phone) charged during your trip. I like to make sure that my cellphone is always properly charged, just in case I need to use the GPS or find help on the road.
Time to Pack
What you want to pack and what you need to pack are two different things. On a motorcycle, you only have so much room. When I tour on my Ninja 250, I have my saddlebags and my tank bag so I often have to make concessions as to what I can bring. I have a tail bag that I could use if I needed it, but so far I've been able to everything I need into the aforementioned luggage. There is one thing that you should never leave home without: a roadside-repair-and-other-emergencies kit. While I’m sure I could start an argument about what should go into this kit, here’s a list of the things I like to keep with me:
- A tool roll filled with metric wrenches, sockets, screwdriver, pliers, cutters, zip ties, and safety wire so I can do repairs specific to my bike’s needs
- A tire plug kit if case I end up with a hole in my tire
- A mini air compressor in case I have to use the tire plug kit
- Jumper cables in case I leave my key in my motorcycle like I tend to do at photo stops
- A bungee net if case I have to unexpectedly carry something
- Two tie downs in case I have to strap something down unexpectedly
- An extra key for my motorcycle in case I lose or bend my first one
- Bandages and gauze in case I poke an eye out when trying to fix my bike with safety wire
These are things that will make my ride go much more smoothly should anything go wrong. I pack these things first. Next I usually pack any clothes that would make my ride more comfortable – this usually means layers, rain gear, and an extra set of riding underwear. I like to also pack extra gloves, just in case it rains. After all of this stuff is packed, then I’ll pack an extra set of “nice” clothes to wear after I’m done riding for the day, and as much camera gear as I can shove into what little room I have left.
Since a trip in the 1,500 mile range usually translates to a several day long trip, I usually plan to wash my clothes on the road. I fill a small container with laundry soap so I can wash my riding undergarments in the hotel sink on a rotating basis – this is particularly a nice luxury if I’m riding someplace hot and end my day as a sweaty mess. I’ll bungee the wet clothes to the back of the bike in the morning, and then I have a clean set of clothes for the following day.
What If Something Goes Wrong?
I think many people think about this question as the time to start a trip draws closer. I also think this question is one of the biggest reasons that people talk themselves out of touring. I am a young petite female, and I have ridden thousands of miles by myself. Many people tell me that I’m brave, because many people can’t get past the question, “But what will you do if something goes wrong?”
My answer to this question is pretty simple; if you’re riding in a modernized society, there are very few problems that can’t ultimately be solved with a cellphone and credit card. Also, be smart about riding and visiting new towns. If you are in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, then get out of that situation. If you find yourself riding in rain and you start to get nervous, then pull over until the storm clears. Get a hotel room if you have to. If you are having a blast exploring some beautiful paved roads and suddenly you end up on a rough gravel road that you don’t want to ride on, then turn around. There’s nothing wrong with backing up so that you don’t have to get out of your comfort zone. If you are talking with some people that you just met that are making you feel uncomfortable, stop talking to them. If you drop your motorcycle and you can’t fix it, use your cellphone to tow it to the nearest town and figure out what to do about it. You can either pay a mechanic to fix it or rent a truck to take it home – either situation isn’t the end of the world. There are very few problems that don’t have a solution, so long as you don’t bring your ego into the equation. The world is out there, get out and explore!
Time to Ride!
By the time your trip arrives, you’re hopefully more than prepared and can focus on just enjoying the ride. For daily navigating, I usually print out directions for how to get to my various hotels and destinations and shove them on top of my tank bag. If I get lost, I can pull out my iPhone and find the main road. Some people prefer using a GPS, which can either be shoved in the map pouch of a tank bag or linked up to one’s Bluetooth.
Beyond that, the biggest thing to remember to remember on your ride is to enjoy it to the fullest and ride within your limits. Take pictures, get stories, wander a little longer, find the local flavor of a town, and experience a joy that so few people ever know. Life on a motorcycle is so very beautiful, and it’s left me with permanent wanderlust.
What tips do you have for touring? Leave them in the comments!
Thanks to Bree Radloff for photo contributions