The Bike: Choosing and Outfitting it

What to Ride

You've decided - you're going to do it, you're really going - somewhere! You know where you're going, or at least I hope you do, so you just need to decide what you're going to ride.

What "style" of rider are you? Do you want to stick to the pavement as much as possible, take it easy and enjoy the scenery, or does the idea of testing yourself to the limit on what passes for roads in the remotest parts of Africa turn you on?

To travel long distances many people think you need the latest and greatest GS style bike, with all the gadgets, GPS, monster fuel tanks, heavy duty this and super strong that to travel anywhere away from home. But you don't. Whatever you have now, whatever "style" it is, will probably do fine. It will go around the world. Maybe a little slower, maybe a little more repair work, and you may have to pick your route carefully - but it will make it.

People have ridden across continents and around the world on everything you can think of, from Honda 50's, Vespa and Honda scooters, Velocettes, Hendersons, Harley-Davidsons, Honda Fireblade/CB900RR, Yamaha R1, Honda Gold Wings, to highly modified BMW's and KTM's.

One rider told me that his idea was to ride the cheapest thing he could find as far as it would go, sell it for whatever he could get and buy another one - cheap. His idea of expensive was US$250.

Ryan Wagner and Dan Koengeter rode from the USA to South America on two old 1980's Honda CB550 street bikes, and ended up selling them in Bolivia at the end of their trip, totally trashed - for US$200 more than they paid for them!

Some popular bikes for solo travel are the Yamaha Tenere / XT500/600 etc series, BMW F650, R80/100GS, R11xxGS, Suzuki 650 singles, KTM Adventure, Honda XL600 series, Honda Transalp and Africa Twins, Kawasaki KLR650, and of course many more less popular but still successful bikes.

Two around the world

When a couple decide to go travelling together, one big question that often arises is; "One bike or two?" There have been many discussions on the Bulletin Board on this, with some people absolutely convinced that two bikes is the best, while others think one bike is best.

The real decision usually comes down to the skill levels of both. If both are experienced riders then two bikes will probably be best. If one is not very experienced, then unless they can get a lot of riding practice in, I think it's best to go two-up. An inexperienced rider on a heavily loaded bike in Cairo or Delhi traffic is very much at risk, much more so than someone with plenty of experience. How much experience is enough is a decision you need to make between you.

If you're going to take two bikes, the biggest and strongest piece of advice we can give is to have both bikes the same! I've seen many couples travelling together, he's on a big fast bike, and she's on a little bike. It's difficult to ride at the same pace, she's always struggling to keep up and getting frustrated, he's annoyed she's so slow, and when they hit the tough stuff she wonders what's taking him!

Finally they have to carry two sets of spares, adding to the total load. Note that I don't mean that both should have big bikes! Light, easy to ride and simple is good. Cheaper too. In most of the world a big bike is a total waste - you can't begin to use it's assets of power and speed, and it's liability - weight and size - become huge. Erin and Chris Ratay started their round the world trip with two bikes, an R100GS for him and an F650 for her. Halfway through they got rid of the R100GS and got another F650 for Chris, and many months later he says it was the smartest thing they could have done.

Pierre Saslawski wrote on the HUBB - " We heard of at least two other couples who said that not taking the same bike was the biggest mistake they had made (one is the couple from who completed a 4-years RTW trip, the other we met were crossing Africa)." Ed. comment: Ultimate is the Ratays, noted above.

Sometimes she just isn't interested in doing the driving herself, and would rather sit back and relax and watch the view go by! Also, two bikes doubles the costs of almost everything, from initial purchase and preparation, to fuel, tires and repairs, and the really big cost, shipping from continent to continent.

If you do decide to go two-up, as we have done, there is a lot to think about.

First off, you need to be much more careful choosing what to take. Your luggage capacity will be considerably less than with two bikes. (This is often an excuse for her to take her own bike ;-)

With a passenger, you need a bigger bike than you would solo. All things considered, I still think that for two-up long distance travel the BMW twins are the best. They have enough room to fit a passenger comfortably, and your passenger MUST be comfortable, even more comfortable than you, or you will have a miserable trip. Trust me.

Whether you choose the old R80/100 series or the new R11xx series is up to you, they will both do the job.

The Kawasaki KLR, Honda Transalp, and KTM 640/690 are generally out, (doable if you're not both big people, or only travel short distances, say 2-300 km in a day) and the Aprilia and Guzzi dual sport bikes don't make it for two-up, while the Honda Africa Twin isn't bad. The Triumph Tiger is becoming a popular choice for two-up travellers. However, it's tall and heavy, and reliability is questionable. The KTM 950/990 series are good but are focused more on off-road ability than on-road comfort. If you plan a lot of off-road, they are a good choice.

Many street bikes will do well if you choose your route with care, and don't ride too fast. Stephan and 'Chenda Solon recently rode from Mombasa, Kenya to Cape Town on a Honda NTV650, a pure street bike, and were very pleased at how well it did. From there they headed for South America on it, and it did well there too.

Remember - ANY bike can do it. It's all up to you.

Criteria for purchase

  • Carrying capacity
  • Comfort
  • Reliability
  • Availability of spares
  • Solo or two-up?

Our bike story, including modifications and pictures.

Backroading in BC

Bike choice 'Lessons Learned' after London to Capetown

See the following HU Bulletin Board (the HUBB) forums for information and opinions on various models.

Buying overseas / in country

Buying an Enfield in India and riding it home - By Wim Langebeen

Topics to come

Preparation, including water-proofing
Tools and spare parts
Packing tips



Panniers page - rough start on home-made panniers

MUCH more text to come... do YOU have anything to contribute?


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