“People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” Paulo Cohelo
I think most people would agree that experience is personal and often acquired at the price of mistakes, sometimes painful ones, too.
Below is a list of things I’ve learned about motorcycle travel over the course of almost two decades on the seat of a bike, riding to destinations near and far. It’s no exaggeration to say that on whole, acknowledging the truths below came to me via exhaustion, frustration, profanity, wasted cash and a fall or two as well.
Seasoned riders my find the list familiar but perhaps won’t agree entirely with my reasoning on every point. That’s ok, we all have our own take on what adventure riding should be and is. Regardless, I hope those in search of advice or guidelines will find the list useful. It’s not exhaustive but there are a few pointers in it that should at least encourage some critical thinking.
1. Don’t over plan your itinerary
Trying to fill in a detailed route for a long motorcycle tour is generally futile and almost always as a waste of time. So many things can happen once you’re on the road that arrangements will get trashed no matter how carefully crafted. There could be dozens of reasons for this. Some of the most common are unpredictables such as the desire to group up with newly made road buddies, problems with embassies and visa applications, unexpected health issues, poor weather conditions that can lead to floods, land slides or hazardous road conditions. Political turmoil is not uncommon either and new “no go” zones with violent clashes between opposing factions can appear suddenly anywhere in the world. More, very real scenarios can be added to the list and unfortunately crime and unexpected financial challenges should be mentioned as well.
It’s best to have a “general idea” of which direction you intend to move in and which major sites, locations, cities you expect to visit eventually, and at some point. However, be prepared to accept that you may never make it to all of your chosen travel spots for a variety of valid reasons.
It’s also best NOT to make commitments to family and friends (or organisations of any kind) to meet on specific dates at specific locations. Engagements such as these generally turn out to be difficult if not impossible to honor especially on longer trips. Promises and appointments become nagging burdens you will resent primarily because they urge you (the traveler) to rush, race, speed through countries on a quest to honor those same commitments. Clearly, this is the opposite of what overland travel should be. The freedom of having your own transport should be an opportunity to explore towns, cities and parts of a country at a leisurely pace, preferably off the more beaten tourist routes. It’s best to turn unavoidable obligations around and arrange for family and loved ones to join you close to wherever you might be at the time they intend to travel, regardless of whether that means a couple of countries behind or even ahead of your intended schedule.
2. Know the weak points of your motorbike and don’t fret about breaking down
So called “terminal” or “catastrophic failures” do occur to engines (some brands are more prone to this than others) but they are very, very RARE. Modern enduro-dual sport motorcycles if well maintained are designed to weather out the abuse that comes from rough roads and low quality fuel. Furthermore, dealerships of many major motorcycle brands are expanding their presence globally which ensures that spare parts are generally at hand closer than one might suspect. Of course there are many areas on the planet that are off the radar for Japanese and European brands but regardless, clever mechanics and skilled welders can be found in every community, anywhere in the world.
With the above said it pays to do some research and find out what the known faults and weak points of your motorcycle of choice are. All bikes have them no matter what make or model. The internet is a powerful tool for this kind of research and all it takes is a few clicks to reveal hidden truths from owners all over the globe. Low quality factory parts can include weak suspension, poor lighting, flimsy rear frames. There are even “how to” YouTube tutorials to guide the less mechanically savvy through the required adjustments to fix issues with many of the more popular machines. In my case I discovered that the F800GS notoriously eats up steering head bearings, has a poor stock fuel pump, and a front wheel rim described by some as being “made of chocolate”.
Be aware of the shortcomings of your motorbike and act or plan accordingly. Either deal with the issues before you leave on a big trip or know how to fix the problems on the road if and when required.
3. Travel light and avoid top boxes and tank bags
It’s a fact (a harsh one for some perhaps) that you can tell how experienced a bike tourer is by the amount of luggage he (or she) packs. More gear means more weight and weight is your enemy especially when road conditions get rough and momentum (speed) is low.
You really don’t need a lot of gear with you when travelling on a bike. Not more than perhaps a long distance push biker or a backpacker would carry. Some clothes, a camera, a first aid kit with medication, toiletries, a minimum of tools and consumables for the bike, an iPad (maybe), some maps (optional), a light weight sleeping bag and Thermarest, passport and bike documents. Anything else can be bought on the road if needed.
All of the above should comfortably fit into a couple of panniers (hard or soft) on the side of the bike. Top boxes can be useful and tank bags even more so particularly when travelling with a pillion. However, they both offer extra storage space (that will be filled), high from the ground that compounds handling issues at low speed especially for those shorter in limb. My personal preference: keep the the back rack free for strapping light items only and the tank area also free so that nothing interferes with the handlebars and manoeuvrability.
Some might argue that travelling with a light, small capacity bike is also important. I tend to agree but there are travel forums full of reviews and suggestions as to which bike does what best. Ultimately, there seems to be no clear consensus on any specific brand or model.
4. Camping gear, is it worth it?
Camping gear is bulky and can be heavy. Sure, camping and wild camping can be fun and cooking your own meals sounds attractive especially when confronted with the steep prices of eateries and guest houses in the west (think Scandinavia). However, especially when travelling solo, resorting to a bunsen burner to heat up a meagre meal of beans every day is time consuming, messy, seldom satisfying and unsustainable. Once away from the high price zones of the world it’s easier to sit at any road side cafe and enjoy some warm local food for the price of a few dollars without concerning yourself with scrubbing dirty dishes afterwards.
Making use of a tent or even a bivouac bag is also debatable. It can be a cheap option while in Europe but when travelling through countries like Turkey at the height of summer, with temperatures soaring way above 30ºC, the option of an air conditioned dorm or room with the use of a shower makes perfect sense. Even more so in places like Iran where the thermometer is consistently well above 40º and there is little to no shade available once you leave the Caspian. Wild camping is still possible in the hotter parts of the world but it’ll be rough, very rough for sure.
5. Keep a diary/journal
Keep a record of the places you visit, the addresses you lodge at, the contact details of the people you meet. Write it all down along with an account of your days on the road: what you did, who you befriended, what you felt, saw, ate and thought. Even if you never read or make use of your notes it’s comforting to know that you can go back to your diary and recapture moments from your trip once memories inevitably start to fade.
6. Get a good travel camera and learn how to use it
“I don’t trust words, I trust pictures”, Gilles Perres, photographer.
Documenting your trip with pictures or movies might not seem like a priority before you set off on a big trip but it becomes one as you make your way further through foreign lands. Several (not all) overland riders I met wished they had taken better pictures or used more than just a smart phone to cover the highlights of their tour. Some argue “all the images are in my head” and perhaps they are (for a while) but good pictures to share are undoubtedly more useful. For some, photography is an art nourished by an individual’s creativity. For others it’s a means of telling a story. Regardless, taking pictures can add value and a sense of purpose to your trip for a variety of the reasons that might not be apparent until you’re back home. These could include a website blog, magazine articles, stock photos to sell and more. More on travel cameras here.
7. Always wear protective riding gear and look after yourself
Falls, spills, accidents catch every biker by surprise and lead to emotional and a physical pain. A helmet is compulsory in most countries these days. It makes sense to also wear a padded motorcycle jacket, riding trousers and sturdy boots to reduce the trauma of a so called “off” should this occur. Broken collar bones, dislocated kneecaps and road rash take months to recover from and put an end to a road trip instantly.
Biker gear is ALSO essential to keep a rider protected from the elements and the SUN most of all. The sun is a subtle stalker that challenges our well being on the road constantly. Sunshine may be welcome for warmth in colder countries but in hotter ones it is not a motorcyclist’s friend. Sun stroke, sun burn, sun rash, cramps and dehydration (see below) all have painful consequences and are best steered away from. Always wear sun protection on exposed skin (face and bridge of the nose). Always wear gloves to protect the back of your hands. Use goggles or tinted safety specs to protect eyes not only from the sun but from the dust and fumes of other road traffic as well.
Consider molded ear plugs to reduce the persistent and damaging sound of air gushing in and around your helmet. There are several articles published and available on line that confirm that the hiss of air flowing around our ears under a helmet is enough to cause permanent damage to our hearing even at low speeds. Molded ear plugs, although initially costly, are comfortable and efficiently reduce the level of exposure to air noise. Beware however, that some countries make the use of ear plugs illegal while driving motor vehicle.
Drink water, a lot of it! You need to drink water regularly to keep dehydration in check while travelling in hotter climates. Regular, frequent stops for gulps of water are a must! The price for not drinking enough water is drowsiness, fatigue, head ache …it’s no fun!
Watch out for bugs and insects such as leaches, ticks, mosquitoes, ants and spiders (scorpions) especially when wild camping. The bites of some of these bugs are unpleasant to say the least and occasionally carry consequences you do not want to look up about on the internet. Cover up, check the area around you before settling in for a night and use strong insect repellent.
Finally, enjoy your ride and keep a friendly attitude. Smile and be well mannered with those you meet on your trip, always. Whether you like it or not you are an ambassador for the part of world you come from.
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