A Traveller’s Guide to Motorcycle Touring – Preparation

By Owen Sleigh

So you’re interested in motorbike touring? Great. Riding a bike is one of life’s big thrills – even more so when it’s in a new country with amazing scenery, food and people. I’ve written up two guides that might help you if you’re after advice. Click here to find out about being On the Road, or continue reading if you’re still in the preparation stage. Happy Riding!

1. Getting some experience

Ideally have a license and some riding experience already. If you don’t, you’re obviously at increased risk compared to a licensed and experienced rider. Hire a bike for a day or two and complete a smaller journey first, perhaps somewhere near to where you live. You could also watch some YouTube videos about rider safety and road hazards. Accidents do happen regardless, so any journey is undertaken entirely at your own risk.

2. Choosing a motorbike

What most motorcycle tourists want is a reliable, comfortable and fuel efficient bike with good handling. A great bike that ticked all these boxes in Indonesia for me was the Honda Verza 150 fuel injection. Either way, I recommend:

– A manual bike (not automatic). Not only is it more authentic, but you will need manual gear selection on uneven uphill roads and, if you’re doing a little off-road, sand or mud.

– A reliable Japanese brand: Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, or Kawasaki.

– A small capacity 100-150cc bike, as this will offer great fuel economy and have enough power for general touring.

– A standard or cruiser bike, rather than a sports-bike. An upright riding position is much more comfortable for long rides than a position leaning forwards.

– Fuel injection (as a bonus).

As we all know, you get what you pay for. Good things are not cheap, and cheap things are not good – and bikes are no exception. It is worth paying more for a quality machine that won’t let you down in the middle of nowhere. What would you do if your bike failed up some remote mountain road when it’s getting dark and there are no workshops in sight? I learned this lesson the hard way whilst riding through Vietnam and Laos on a bike that I had only paid USD200 for. It had many irksome minor problems, and in hindsight I really wish I’d spent more money on a better bike…

3. Buying a motorbike

Once on the ground, you should allow yourself a week or so to find and buy a motorbike. Locate some bike shops or private sellers selling your desired bike. For both options it’s helpful to befriend someone who speaks the local language as well as English so that they can translate for you.

When you’ve found a suitable bike for sale, research what is a good price for it. Don’t necessarily believe the price the seller tells you. They know you are a fresh foreigner who doesn’t know the local value of things, so inflation is to be expected. Look at similar models for sale online and take into account condition, service history and age.

In terms of the servicing and history of the bike, don’t rely on what the seller tells you unless they have the documents to prove it. And it’s essential that they have the registration documents of the bike as you’ll need to show these if stopped by the police, and especially if you cross any borders.

Finally, engage in a good old bit of haggling with help from your translator (or your own language ability) before you agree on a final price. Once you have a bike, congratulations! You will now also need to buy a quality full face helmet, some motorbike gloves, and a combination lock you can depend on. All of these items are relatively inexpensive in many cheap countries, although when you pay do be very vigilant when withdrawing large sums of cash from the ATM.

4. Getting insurance

Third party motorcycle insurance is definitely desirable. Buy it if you can find it, although it seems non-existent in some regions such as in Southeast Asia. In an accident in places such as these, it is common for the police and involved parties to simply decide who is guilty and how much they will have to pay in reparations.

As a foreigner (especially one with no license), it will surely be you found to blame, so make sure you have some money spare to prepare for if this happens. It’s a risk you must accept if you are going to undertake a motorcycle journey in a foreign country with no insurance, and with no motorcycle license either your travel insurance will not cover you for personal injury in a road accident. And those medical expenses can definitely rack up!

5. Servicing your motorbike

Once you’ve bought your bike, make sure everything is working properly. Ideally get it serviced at an official garage such as Honda/Yamaha if you can find one. The official manufacturer service shops should have higher standards of service than smaller independent garages, and they will do an honest job too. Still, whenever you have work done to your bike, try to observe it being applied. It’s always a good idea to come back later unexpectedly and check the staff are actually doing the work as agreed. 

A general service with no major work needed will be inexpensive. In Indonesia, for example, my Honda Verza had a new spark plug, oil change, air filter clean and brake tightening which cost about GBP12. Be sure to retain the service receipts as they prove you’ve taken care of the bike and will help you get a good price when you sell it at the end.

5. Preparing your luggage

You will need a good backpack or panniers, as you can’t fit a suitcase on a motorbike (as with the bike, pay extra for a quality backpack!). Pack light – only the essentials. My bag consisted of basic clothes, toiletries, laptop and a kindle. You will also need a smart phone for Google Maps or Maps Me. When your road map and road signs are inadequate (as they often will be) and you don’t know where you are, you can use the My Location function and you are instantly pinpointed. This saved me many times from going the wrong way, and it will probably save you too.

6. Planning your route

Plan your route the day before. The golden rule of bike touring is to avoid the main and busy straight roads and go for the twisty, scenic minor roads. Main roads, especially two lane highways, are often (but not always) busy and full of trucks. Trucks are the eternal bane of the biker. They are slow, belch out diesel fumes in your face, block the view of the road ahead, and are generally dangerous. 

7. Choosing your clothes

Wear jeans, a shirt and a long sleeved sweater, as well as a helmet and gloves, and you should be fine. These will protect you in an accident and will also keep the sun off. Don’t worry if it’s too hot initially – the wind will cool you down. You can get the worst sunburn of your life riding a bike, because with all that cooling wind you won’t feel yourself burning. So slap that sunblock onto any exposed skin such as your neck and upper chest, and don’t forget your forearms too if the wind blows back your sleeves.