“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 thing and often acquired at the price of mistakes, sometimes painful ones too!
Below is a list of the 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, lots of profanity, wasted cash and a fall or two from my bike as well.
Seasoned riders my find the list familiar but perhaps won’t agree entirely with my reasoning on every point. That’s fine, 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’s a few pointers in it that should encourage some critical thinking.
- Don’t over plan your itinerary
Trying to fill in a detailed program and route for a long motorcycle tour is generally futile. So many things can happen once you’re on the road that any pre-made arrangements will inevitably end up getting trashed no matter how careful crafted. There could be several scenarios responsible for this. For instance, the desire to tag along with newly found travel friends met on route, problems with visa applications, unexpected health issues or poor weather conditions that cause floods (monsoon season), land slides (Himalayas) or hazardous mud (think Siberia) are just some examples. Obviously more can be added to the list that plans created from the comfort of an arm chair at home rarely feasible on a real world trip.
It’s best to have a “general idea” of which direction you intend to move in and which major sights, locations, cities you expect to visit eventually, at some point. However, be prepared to accept that you may never make it to all the these for the reasons mentioned above.
It’s also best NOT to make commitments to family and friends (or organisations of any kind) to meet up on a specific date at a specific location of your intended itinerary. Engagements such as these generally turn out to be difficult to honour if not impossible especially on longer journeys. Promises to “meet up” become nagging burdens you will resent primarily because they urge you (the traveller) to rush, race, speed through countries on a quest to honour your rendezvous. This is the exact opposite of what overland motorbike travel should be. The freedom of having your own versatile transport should be an opportunity to explore towns, cities and parts of countries with finer detail and off the beaten track at your own pace. A better idea is 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 join you, regardless of whether you might be a couple of countries behind or even ahead of your schedule.
2. Know the weak points of your motorbike and don’t fret about breaking down
So called “ terminal” or “catastrophic failures” to engines do occur (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 road conditions 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 able to patch up a bike 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/weak points of your of your motorcycle of choice are. All bikes have faults and weak spots no matter what make or model. The internet is a powerful tool for this that can reveal unsuspected truths from owners of the same machine around the globe. Poor original factory components, can include weak suspension, bad lighting, flimsy rear frames. There are even “how to” YouTube tutorials to guide the less mechanically savvy through the required adjustments to fix the issues with many of the more popular bikes. 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 model of bike and act or plan accordingly. Either deal with them before you leave on a big trip or know how to fix the issues on the road if and when required.
- 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) is hauling. 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 stuff with you, not more than say a long distance push bike cyclist or a backpacker would carry: some clothes, a camera, a first aid kit, some medication, toiletries, a minimum of tools and consumables for the bike, an iPad (maybe), some maps (optional), a 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 in 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 the limb. My personal preference: keep the the back rack free for strapping light items only and the tank area in free for manoeuvrability.
Some might argue that travelling with a light, small capacity bike is also important. I tend to agree but, I feel, that this is also down to personal choice and there are many on line motorcycle travel forums full of reviews and suggestions as to which bike does what best and is most suited for a particular purpose.
- Camping gear, is it worth it?
Camping gear is bulky and can be heavy. Sure, camping, wild camping and cooking your own meals is attractive especially when confronted with the steep prices of eateries and guest houses in the west (think Scandinavia!). The truth however, is that especially if travelling solo, resorting to not much more than a bunsen burner to heat a meagre meal of beans every day is time consuming, messy, seldom satisfying and ultimately … unsustainable for most. Once away from the high price zones of the world it’s a lot easier to sit at any road side caffe and enjoy properly cooked local food for the price of a few dollars without worrying about scrubbing the 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 during the height of the summer, with temperatures soaring way above 30ºC, the option of an air conditioned dormitory or room in a hostel, away from the heat of the day is a sensible one. 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 can still be done but it’ll be a rough experience for sure. The more accessible prices for accommodation available away from the often justify ditching the idea of sleeping in the open altogether.
- Keep a diary/journal
Keep a record of the places you visited, the addresses you lodged at, the contact details of the people you met. Write it all down along with an account of your days on the road: what you did, who you met, what you felt, what you saw, ate and thought. Even if you never read or make use of your notes again it’s comforting to know that you can go back to your diary and recapture moments from your trip once they inevitably start to fade.
- 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 an overland adventure but it often t becomes one as you make your way through foreign lands. Several (not all) overland riders I have met wished they had taken better pictures or used more than just a smart phone to cover the highlights of their tours. Some argue “all the images are in my head” and perhaps they are (for a while) but capturing good frames to share is undoubtedly more useful and rewarding. For some, photography is an art form 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 (a blog, a website, magazine article, stock, who knows…). More on travel cameras here.
- Always wear riding gear and look after yourself
Falls, spills, accidents catch every biker by surprise and exert both an emotional and physical toll. A helmet is compulsory in most countries these days and it goes without saying that it pays to always don padded motorcycle clothing and sturdy boots when on a bike to minimise trauma, should an “off” ever 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 like a subtle stalker that challenges our well being on the road constantly. Its rays may be welcome for warmth in colder countries but in hotter ones they are not our friend. Sun stroke, sun burn, sun rash, cramps and dehydration (see below) all have painful consequences and are best steered away from. Wear sun protection on exposed skin (face and bridge of the nose), always wear gloves. Use goggles or tinted safety specs to protect eyes not only from the sun but from the dust and fumes of other traffic as well.
Consider moulded 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 persistent sound of air flowing around our ears under a helmet surpasses the decibel threshold of permanent damage to our hearing even at relatively low speeds. Personal moulded ear plugs, although initially costly, are comfortable and reduce the level of exposure to air noise. Beware however, that some countries make the use of ear plugs illegal while at the commands of a motor vehicle.
Drink a lot of water. 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) when wild camping. The bites of some of these are unpleasant to say the least and occasionally have consequences you do not want to be looking up on Google. Cover up, check the area around you before retiring and use strong insect repellent.