How to do a Long, Happy Ride.

Most of us riders muse with fond wistfulness about the prospect of a long, exploratory ride, be it across the state, the country, or the world.  In this article I will lay down some thoughts on what it takes to have the best long rides.

For most of us, a long ride is a vacation- a regenerative period treasured for its lack of similarity to daily life.  So in order to figure out how to have a long, happy ride, we should start with what it would take to banish as many of the stress factors of daily life from the ride as possible.

What is daily life like?  For most of us, it involves the need to be in a precise location at a precise time, to perform careful, tedious, repetitive action promptly, to put up with and smile at unpleasant, demanding people, to engage in politics.  It involves being judged, critiqued and queried.  It may involve being disrespected.  It involves not having enough time to do the things on our plate.  It may involve not getting enough sleep.

So, generally speaking, the ideal long ride should involve a minimum of scheduling with easy-to-meet dates, company you really like or no company, and built-in opportunity to stop and smell the sweet dairy air, or ride a great road twice, or whatever.  It should also fill your day with activities that are refreshing and make up for what you normally do.   What does it take?

Our famed (and much appreciated) market economy has generated a fabulous smorgasbord of options to buy and set up a motorcycle the way you like.  As any motorcyclist realizes soon enough, a single setup is not ideal for all riding purposes.  Unfortunately, many practical considerations, if only that bikes, just sitting there, need attention to stay healthy, prevent us from having the dozen bikes we would ideally want to suit our mood.  So putting up with non-ideal equipment is a near-universal condition.

Unfortunately, a requirement of survival in the market economy is that a merchant must make a successful case that consumers need their products.  This results in the air being dominated by talk of stuff we need, propagated for survival reasons by everybody, or their marketing representatives.  A person growing up in this climate will naturally learn to approach life through a paradigm that emphasizes what they need, and how to get it.  An old art is lost as this new paradigm takes over, and I believe it needs to be resurrected.  It is the art of having a good time.

You can't purchase a good time.  You can purchase novelty, and distraction, and ambience, and stuff, and even certain sorts of care and nurturing, in an odd professional context, but not a good time.  Here, I would like to share my musings of what makes for a good time, and how to have one on a motorcycle trip, with your own motorcycle.  The one you have now.

What makes for a good time on a motorcycle?  Here are some ideas.  I don't want to worry.  I want to be able to divide my thoughts between things I just need to chew on for hours, and the road and the land.  While I'm riding, I want communion with the machine and the road.  I want to strive for a deep understanding and connection with the machine and the road that allows me to move with grace.  While I am standing still, I want to see new things, talk to new people, hear new points of view, and learn stuff.  I want to feel at home everywhere, with everybody.  I want to stop where I want to stop, and where I plan to stop, not where my bike breaks down.

Notice that, if you get down to it, there are only three factors:  Reliable equipment, a good frame of mind, and a method that, mixed with your equipment, meets your needs.

How about that equipment?  Let's start with that requirement that we shouldn't have to worry more than absolutely necessary.  Tops on the worry list is personal comfort.  You need to go out without fear of the weather, which means good clothing.  After much experience, it is my opinion that you get more peace of mind from wardrobe than from an appropriate bike.  I have an Aerostich Roadcrafter, and I just don't care about rain anymore, and I have as little to fear from a crash as anyone.  Compared to jeans and a leather jacket, it increases your endurance in the saddle by about 30%, by reducing evaporation, padding your seat, eliminating fatigue from windburn and sunburn, remains as comfortable while underway as anything from 65 to 115 degrees.  If you throw in some smartwool and polar fleece and a heated vest and mittens and scarf, and install a good windscreen, you are good for all-day trips down to 30 degrees.  Once you have wardrobe on your side, your freedom and sense of safety goes through the roof, even on a tiny bike.  Recently I went to Crazy Horse monument and back between 3PM Sunday and 7PM Tuesday, a total distance of about 1600 miles, on a 400cc bike with a 100 mile tank, and a 62MPH cruising speed.  It was a great trip.  Before I got my Aerostich, 400 miles was a long day on that bike.

How about the bike?  In principle, a good time can be had on a trip of any duration, on any bike made since 1930.  It is a matter of achieving an understanding of your equipment, and preparing mentally for the kind of trip that will result.  I know a guy who rode a Honda TwinStar 125 two-up to Alaska in the 1970's.  I have a 74 year-old friend who is currently (2009) on his way to Churchill, Manitoba from Minneapolis on another TwinStar 125.  Lois Pryce favors 250's on her transcontinental voyages.  I have gone on a 4300-mile road trip in two weeks, on a Yamaha XS400.

The principal difference between a trip made on a modern, well-adapted touring machine, and a dated, smaller, less well-adapted machine is pacing.  Below 35hp, you are likely to be constrained to below interstate norms in your cruising speed, though even 20hp is enough to meet the speed limit on a two lane, and even less is required on gravel to keep up with traffic. 

A small oil sump will require more frequent changes and checks.  A smaller or older engine may require more frequent tuning.  A small tank will require more fuel stops.  But if you know your bike and get organized, you can schedule maintenance so as many maintenance items are taken care of at once as possible, to minimize the occasions when you have to work on the bike.  Plan your maintenance so the bike starts the trip fresh, and if a scheduled maintenance is necessary before you make it home, you know when and where and how in advance, so no worries.   I have found that it gives me major peace of mind to plan out on the web which cities I will fill up in, with my 100-mile tank.  I do not plan to fill up in a city unless it has two gas stations visible from the web, or which is indicated as larger than the smallest towns on the map.  This relieves me of the worry as to whether I will make it to the next town, a worry that happens every 70 miles if you have a 100-mile tank.  An old, disused bike will require a period of frequent and aggressive maintenance and use to settle it into a reliable state, before you go.   This may take a year.  But once maintenance becomes routine and predictable, your odds of a fun trip are good.

People whose geographical ambitions are great, but whose time is short, might actually need a Sport Tourer.  I have a 1997 Kawasaki Concours for that application.  It does the job admirably.  The key ingredients for going really far in a short time, in descending order of importance:  Ergonomics and seat optimized for the particular rider, a long fuel range, capability of going 70MPH with little or no maintenance during the trip, and convenient storage of the cargo.

Strangely, carrying capacity on smaller bikes is generally acceptable, if you have some nice soft luggage and the hardware on board to make it stick.  On any bike, there is an important constraint on the bulk one carries, which engenders a fine art, of choosing what to bring.  But that is all part of the fun.  More stuff is more stuff to worry about anyway, so less can definitely be more.  But that is not a special property of old or small bikes.  It happens on all bikes.

Here is a factor that actually makes older equipment more attractive to use than new equipment:  The risk of leaving your bike unguarded.  My XS400 I bought for $300, 19 years back.  The stuff I will be leaving on my bike is worth $500, my suit and helmet $1300 altogether.  That's not nothing, but the suit could only be sold to someone just like me, the other stuff is camping gear and clothes, and the bike has about no street value.  In other words, none of it is a high theft risk, none of it is pretty, none of it is easy to turn into cash, and its total value is less than a bare naked 5-year old bike of almost any sort.  So we acquire yet another kind of freedom and peace of mind- a lower risk profile for theft.

About equipment:

What you bring is dramatically affected by how you mean to travel. 

As regards shelter, if you mean to hotel, you don't have to carry tent, sleeping bag, bedroll, or think about how to roll a pillow out of your clothes.  If you mean to stealth camp, you don't need to worry about a tent, just leave the bivy sac on the sleeping bag, and roll it up with the bedroll.

As regards food, if you are going to eat out exclusively, you only need money.  If you are willing to settle for food that does not need to be cooked, a plate, utensils and a can opener, and space for a small supply of food, will be enough.  If you want to cook yourself nice, hot meals, you will need a stove and fuel and maybe some more pans and implements.  If you mean to do it in undeveloped places, you will need 2 liters of water per meal, to cook and clean and drink.

As regards clothing, if you will never need to look good, you can stick to t-shirts, polar fleece and smartwool, or whatever you like.  I would mention that many world travelers bring one outfit that is suitable for parties, because they might get invited into someone's life for an evening.  If you will be out up to five days, you might bring enough clothes to last the whole way.  If you will be out longer, you just bring 3-5 days worth, and do laundry somewhere. 

Just to let you know how lightly you can pack and remain content, Lois Pryce, hardcore as she is, brings only one set of clothes for riding, one for parties, for a nine month trip.  She also foregoes any cooking equipment or tent, staying with friends in the developed countries, and paying whoever is there for food and shelter in the developing world.  It helps if all the clothing is such that you can wash and dry it together.  Polar Fleece, Merino wool and microfiber are your friends.  Try to avoid all other kinds of clothes, on the road.  They are warm and cool, reasonably comfortable when wet, good for layering, and don't store much water, even in the rain, so they dry fast.  Cotton is OK in really nice weather and short trips, but it is bad if you sweat, and bad if you stay in the cold.  It is also more abrasive to sit on, and sticks to your skin.  That is bad after eight hours in the saddle.

As regards tools and supplies, there is a strange situation.  The more you know about maintenance, the more tools you need to bring.  I know tons.  So if I'm going more than 200 miles one way on my small bike, I bring a full set of wrenches and screwdrivers, steel wire, electrical wire, electrical tape, spark plugs, bulbs, motor oil, coolant, chain oil, a tire patch kit, tire irons, and any other equipment necessary to do a tune up or electrical repair.

If you do not know much, do not bring anything that you do not know how to make use of, because if you have a problem, someone else is going to solve it.  You might bring a supply of parts special to your bike, in case the mechanic needs them.  Make sure you have a strategy for how to contact them.  Most of us are somewhere in between.

From a self-fix perspective, I bring anything I expect to need based on the maintenance schedule, plus anything that my recent dealings with the bike show might be needed, plus a supply of parts which cannot wait once they bust, and which give no warning, like core electrical failures, countershaft seals, oil, spark plugs.

On your person you should carry a water bag (1.5L or more) and hose you can drink from while under way, and a terrycloth towel to clean the bugs off your visor.  You wet the towel with the water.  You also drink the water.  This increases your endurance in hot weather, and reduces the need to stop.

If you ever feel lousy after hours in the heat, especially if you feel achy, crampy and beat up and you are thinking wrong, it is about water and electrolytes.  Drink a V8.  The tomato juice.  It is at any gas station, and has more Sodium and Potassium than anything that isn't toxic.  That and a lot of water will straighten you out within an hour.

As regards personal stuff: 

If you need to do work from the road, you need to be able to carry and protect your home office.  You might need a vessel that locks, like a top box.  This is very helpful to have a hedge against theft, even if you are willing to risk the rest of your kit on occasion.

Otherwise, it is very individual.  Do not forget prescription drugs, ways to address known health problems, sunscreen, emergency contacts.  If you mean to stand still outside in the Midwest in the summer months, bring bug repellent.  A person can forget.



Develop a method, a set of things you just throw in a bag and go.  I can pack for a weekend trip and leave in three hours.  This lowers the bar on a good time.

Ideally, you should put a lot of time into your bike two weeks before the trip, doing routine maintenance, riding and nitpicking it while you are in a familiar place.  You can do it better, easier and faster, using time that is less precious, if you take care of it before you leave town, and ride it a bit to check your work.

I have a little Velcro bag for the parts specific to each bike I have, plus a bigger Velcro bag full of general items like feeler gauges, tape, wire, zip ties.  I have all the tools I normally use on a bike right on a pegboard, which I unload into a tool apron just before leaving.

Home office, tools and grooming stuff that gets wet is not packed till last minute, so it will start dry.  I strategize around not letting things stay wet for long. 

Clothes and layers should be packed the night before.  I never bring more than 5 days' clothes, and I bring clothing for walking in the rain if I expect to stay in one place for awhile.  I am also prepared to ride all day at 40 degrees in the rain, any time I will spend the night away from home.


The time when you load your bike is always a little fraught.  You will find yourself running all over the place, remembering thing after thing.  Just get through it.

When you put that sidestand up, pull away gently and slowly.  Among your scarce resources are your muscle tone, and your alertness.  Conserve them.  You will be on this bike for hours.   Go at a speed that makes it easy for you to do things elegantly.  Cash in on those clever engineers' hard work- let the bike drive itself, only add the minimum of force.  Relax your shoulders and neck.  What is the minimum effort you can put in?  Save all your energy for identifying and navigating hazards, and keeping track of what the bike is telling you.   Take care of yourself.  Drink water and fruit juice and Gatorade.  Minimize refined sugar, fat, fried things.  Do not eat much at once, especially for lunch.  These things can compromise your alertness.  Stretch, move on the bike.  Don't put up with pain and discomfort.  Do something about it.  This is for the long haul.  Get off the bike and move your body.  There is supposed to be joyful, even if it is often uncomfortable.  If this is not a happy time, figure out how to reclaim the fun.  How long did you work for this trip?  Do what it takes.  By the way, the answer is probably not to hole up in a hotel with a six pack.  Hotels are all the same.  Six packs, too.  Get out there, see the new stuff!  Breathe the strange air!

As regards speed, you go fastest, over many tanks, if you keep it under 75.  Somewhere around there, bikes start sucking the gas down.  In the Long-Distance riding community, the people who think that 1000 miles a day is just a start, they have found out that the more frequent gas stops, during which you go 0MPH, make speeds over 75 a bad deal- slower than 70, in addition to increasing risk of arrest, fatiguing you more, burning out your tires, assuming that the high speed was appropriate for the conditions.

Of course, you want to have fun in the twisties.  That is a whole different headspace.  Go crazy, do what you do, just factor in that you are far from home, help, parts.  It is best to push your limits closer to home. 

But for the traveling, this is how you save your energy and go farther, safer.

I hope these musings help light the way to a great relationship between you, your body, your bike, and the road.  Happy trails.

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