How to: Go touring

This article was originally published last May, but it holds as true today as it did then. Planning a trip? Here’s what you need to know.

The road trip. It’s almost a rite of passage for a motorcyclist. Throw some stuff on the back of the bike, swing your leg over, thumb the starter and take off for the freedom of the open road.

Sounds great and it helps to sell a lot of motorcycles, but the best road trips take a little preparation beforehand. We’ll assume you already have the motorcycle, but whether you’re on a Honda Gold Wing or a BMW 1250GS, or a Ninja 300 or Triumph Street Triple, the principles are the same. Here’s our advice for getting the most from your adventure.

Somewhere in Montana, Mark figures out where to go next with his overloaded DR600.

Unless you’re setting out to somehow prove yourself with an Ironbutt or Saddlesore long-distance ride, then don’t be too ambitious. The farther you travel in a day, the less time you have for exploring, or taking side trips, or just drinking coffee and chatting to people. As well, you don’t really want to be riding into the night unless you’re only trying to get to the destination.

Generally, a good day’s ride is probably 500 kilometres. That’s about the distance from Toronto to Montreal. There’s nothing wrong with 300 km for a day trip, which will build in plenty of stops and have you home in time for tea. If you’re happy to spend more time on the main highway, 800 km is about as far as you’ll want to ride in daylight, which is about the distance from Regina to Calgary.

It’s possible to cross the country from ocean to ocean in three days but that’s kinda dumb and best left to truckers. It’s about 6,500 km from Halifax to Vancouver if you ride through Canada (500 km less, and quicker, through the States), so if you want to do the whole country, just do the math: it’s a minimum two weeks, and really at least a month to actually enjoy yourself.

Do plan ahead of time to decide what you want to see. Google is your friend.

Don’t plan too much into one day, or you’ll miss out on the spontaneous surprises that make travel worthwhile.

Most of the weight is down low in the saddlebags of Mark’s Harley Low Rider, with clothing in a pack on the pillion seat. The small bag on the rear rack is quite light. And that red cushion is comfortable to lean against on the long haul.

The more you carry, the heavier your bike and the less space you have for purchases along the way. That said, it’s a good idea to carry clean clothes for each day of the ride if you’re gone for only a weekend or so, and a fresh set of clothes for kicking back at the end of the day will always be welcome. For longer trips, you should plan to pause for doing laundry. Try to make sure that wherever you stay on the fourth or fifth night has laundry facilities. If not, a laundromat will do the trick.

Aside from clothing and your daily riding gear, you should carry waterproof clothing (unless your daily gear is already good for it) and a spare pair of warmer- or colder-weather gloves. You’ll also want a pair of light shoes or sandals for relief in the evenings from your boots.

You’ll need some basic tools for basic maintenance: screwdrivers, pliers, wire cutters, maybe some wrenches and chain lube if you’ll need to adjust your chain along the way. Here’s how to put together a basic tool kit.

As well, consider joining the CAA or a similar rescue service. At the least, they’ll give you a free tow to a bike shop if you need to make repairs.

And most important, remember your paperwork, including driver’s licence, ownership and insurance. Carry a spare key, and a spare credit card that’s hidden somewhere on the bike, maybe duct-taped under the seat, in case you lose your wallet. And take photos with your phone of all the cards in your wallet and hide the pictures in a secret storage app on your phone – you know, the same place you hide your porn.

Do take along a paper map of the area you’re visiting. You can figure out your general route whenever you stop, and look for interesting roads and places ahead. Welcome Centres at provincial and state borders will usually supply maps for free.

Don’t pack 10 shirts and five sweaters. If you really need a clean shirt, buy one along the way and think of it as a souvenir, just as you should buy a hat.

This is hardly a touring bike, but you get the idea: if that back pack behind the sissy bar is too heavy, or another heavy pack is placed above it, it will lighten the front wheel and totally throw the bike’s balance.

Let’s just forget right now about towing a trailer. People do it, but no bike manufacturer recommends attaching a trailer to the back of a motorcycle because it throws out the dynamics of the ride. And besides, the only advice on packing if you have a trailer is “stuff it with whatever you want.”

Generally on a bike, you want to keep your luggage low and central. If you’re riding a touring bike like a Honda Gold Wing, or a bagger like a BMW K1600 B, then just pay attention to the weight limits of the fixed luggage and pack them how you want them. It’s best to keep things on the top that you’ll need quickly, like rain gear or a kickstand puck.

The ideal set up for a motorcycle is a pair of panniers and a tankbag, which keeps the weight where it should be. Don’t put heavy stuff in the tankbag, but use it for handy daily items like camera equipment, battery chargers, a sweater, some maps. Most tank bags have map flaps on the top to read as you go, but these are less important as riders switch to GPS units.

You can strap luggage to the back seat if you’re travelling alone on the bike, but whatever you do, don’t put your stuff too high or too far back. It will put too much weight on the rear wheel and off the front (wheelie!), and also throw out your balance when the bike is tipped into a corner.

Even the best motorcycle luggage can sometimes leak in heavy rain, and most soft luggage just isn’t waterproof, so carry some plastic bags to keep everything dry. A few grocery bags and some garbage bags are usually all you need.

Do invest in a pair of throw-over soft bags if you have a sport bike and just want to take weekend trips.

Don’t forget a couple of spare bungee cords or luggage straps, just in case you need them down the road.

This European rider is in it for the duration. Note the custom leather bags way down low and central. Here’s hoping there’s nothing in them that’s affected by the engine’s heat.

Roadside repairs may be character-building and all part of the adventure, but they’re rarely much fun and they take up time. Make sure your bike is as ready for the road as it can be before you leave.

If the oil and filter will need changing, change them now. If the chain needs adjusting, do it now. Give the bike a thorough inspection to be sure there are no strange cracks or loose bolts, and check that all the electrics work as they should. If you have spoked wheels, give those spokes a tap to be sure they’re tight – losing a spoke on the other side of the Continental Divide will wreck the entire trip.

If your tires are low on tread, replace them before you leave. If you have a 5,000-km journey planned and they’ve still got a couple of thousand kilometres of rubber left, then at least plan to replace them at a motorcycle shop along the way – find the best shop online, call ahead and buy the tires and book the service. This is much easier to do with a couple of weeks’ notice than at the last minute.

You should also check over your gear. Replace your visor if it’s scratched and be prepared to invest in a new helmet or boots, but if you do, wear them for a few outtings beforehand to make sure they fit comfortably. If your key has a security fob attached, make sure the battery is good, or carry a spare. If you wear glasses, carry a spare pair in your luggage.

Do clean your bike before you leave. This will help you inspect it, and will also just make you feel good about it.

Don’t prepare your bike the day before you leave. If you mess something up, you want to know before you set out. Everything should be ready at least a day before the big day, so your final day at home is fairly relaxed for other challenges.

If you leave your helmet unlocked on your bike, it might be stolen, though this helmet is almost certain to be left alone.

You need to be extra vigilant when you’re a long way from home. The world is smaller than it’s ever been, but it’s still big enough to be a monumental hassle. If you’re a Canadian travelling in the US, or anywhere outside your own country, then that often creates an extra hurdle to overcome if something goes awry.

We’ve warned about never telling strangers that you’re travelling alone, but you should also always tell somebody where you’re going. You can have all the freedom of the open road you want, but if you go missing for whatever reason, you want somebody, somewhere, to realize you’re missing. There are some phone apps that call for help if they sense you’ve crashed, but it’s also a good idea to let somebody trace you through your phone’s locator app, just in case.

If your luggage doesn’t lock, then always keep an eye on it when you’re parked, or at least make sure it’s parked where it can be clearly seen. Be wary of just leaving your helmet on the mirror when you walk away – it’s all too easy to steal, especially in the US in a helmet-free state, where another rider who doesn’t own a helmet might need one to continue a road trip. Lock your helmet to a chain or the bike through the D-Clasp, or with a chain through the visor opening if it’s a full-face.

Some bikes have security features so they can start without the key – if yours does, make sure you know the procedure beforehand. Take a photo with your phone of the relevant page in the manual, or screen grab from the web site, so you can refer to the procedure if you need to.

Do carry a strong chain to secure your bike to a post if you park somewhere in a questionable area, and also to help protect your luggage from being easily removed.

Don’t put anything valuable at the top of your bags if they don’t lock. The best thing for the top of the bags is your dirty underwear.

Just because your bike has a flat rear tire doesn’t mean your road trip is over. Be prepared and make the most of it.

Just enjoy yourself! Be prepared to completely change your schedule, and be willing to forget visiting somewhere if something more interesting comes along. It always does.

If it rains and you’re having no fun, take a different route, or park and explore where you’ve found yourself. If it’s too hot, either park and cool down, or wear a mesh jacket, but don’t be tempted to strip off – the road rash will never be worth it, not to mention the sunburn.

Do talk to people, though they’ll probably talk to you first. You find out so much when you open yourself to new things and new ways of thinking.

Don’t ever – ever – think your road trip is a waste of time because it’s not going the way you’d planned. Just roll with the punches and look around, and you’ll have experiences for a lifetime.

And do leave a comment below if you have some helpful advice of your own for touring. We’ll appreciate it!

Get it all right and a motorcycle tour can be a wonderful thing.


  1. If you are in the U.S. and gassing up your bike, you might be asked to enter your zip code if you want to pay at pump. The five-digit U.S. zip code has to match the one on the mailing address for your card. So your Canadian postal code won’t work, nor will any U.S. zip code. But you don’t have to go inside to pay. The code for non-U.S. cards is 01000. (I remember it as “zero-one-thousand” so that I’m not trying to remember where the “1” goes.) Type it in when prompted for your zip code, and you can pay at the pump.

    • Hmmm, I’ve always been told it’s the 3 numbers in your postal code followed by 00. Works for everyone I’ve ever been to the US with.

      The numbers in my postal code are 010, so I can definitely say that 01000 works for me. 😉

      • Interesting. I got the “01000” trick off a local motorcycle chat group a few years. I tried it, and it worked. But … the three numerals in my postal code are “010” as well. So what you say makes sense. Perhaps the person who posted it on the site where I found it also had a postal code with the digits “010.”

  2. Duct tape and a zip tie saved my ass at dusk in the mountains when my shifter mechanism lost a nut. I snugged the zip-tie around as best I could to realign the bits and criss-crossed the heim joint with thin strips of duct tape… and road safely home. My point? NEVER forget duct tape and zip ties!

  3. I check-in with my location on Facebook every time I stop, so my family and friends can see where I am. It might help the search party if I go missing.

  4. I never leave home with out my Spot device on track, many places in BC and NW United States are devoid of people and cell coverage, and have someone you trust check your progress now and again. I always bring my heated gear, socks, gloves, jacket. I have driven through 5 deg and driving rain on the Coquihalla collector in the middle of summer, my cousin got so cold that he almost passed out. Also the same conditions in the Crowsnest pass except add 80 km/hr west wind and some snow, again in the middle of summer. You get the idea, it can and does snow in AB and BC year round. It can also be 40 deg and I have experienced both on the same day. Cranbrook 35, Crownest Pass snowing. If you come west please be prepared, especially the Icefields parkway. I have Lenz heated socks, Power in Motion gloves and a Milwaukee jacket, all amazing. All my bikes have heated grips as well, I have Raynauds. Cam

  5. I always carry a 4’ long, clear 1/4” tube to use as a siphon in case I run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. For long trips into the middle of nowhere, I carry a 1 litre gas container. Both have saved my arse in the past.

Join the conversation!