You’ve just booked or finalized your plans for your first motorcycle trip in America! It’s hard to contain the excitement, we can almost feel it all the way from Los Angeles. You’re about to take a journey of a lifetime and while we prepare your ride for your pickup, here are our 10 tips for your first-time riding in America.
1. Acclimating to a new motorcycle
Even the most experienced riders need time to get used to the characteristics of a motorcycle different from the one they normally ride. Power delivery, braking, and handling dynamics can vary greatly between models, even of the same brand and motorcycle category. Some people have the misperception that Harleys all ride the same, and while the Milwaukee-eight engine bikes do share a common feel, they have varying weights, center of gravity and ground clearance between models. These characteristics are often amplified when the bike is heavily laden with a passenger and luggage for two.
So, getting to know the bike you’ll be riding a bit before you head out on a big journey can be a wise investment of your time. Visit a local dealership with your pillion and sit on the models you’re considering for your tour - there will be varying degrees of luggage capacity and passenger comfort with each bike. You may find some that models have a seat height which enables a more stable connection when you put your feet down.
Or, consider coming in a day or two before your tour starts and hiring the same model of bike for local riding around your arrival city to see how you get on - some bikes have windscreens which can be detached or swapped out for different heights. Some pillions may prefer a bike with floorboard footrests instead of pegs - it’s little things like this that can make all the difference in your enjoyment of a big tour. For further reading, consider our post on HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT BIKE FOR YOUR TRIP.
2. Riding on the other side of the road and roundabouts (for our British and Australian friends)
Riders without a lot of experience riding on the right side of the road often express anxiety about how long it will take them to get the hang of it. In our experience, most riders adapt well in just a few hours of riding, and ride perfectly within a couple of days. A rider who feels less than confident can always talk to their tour guide and ask to follow them for a bit to get the hang of it. You’ll find very few roundabouts in America, and when you come across one it will usually be in a very low speed environment, like the center of a town.
3. Stop signs and Red Lights
One of the biggest differences you’ll find riding in America is the generally diminished warning zones you get before a stop sign, relative to the UK, Europe, and other places in the world. Often there will be no lines painted on the road, or blinking lights to alert you that a stop sign is coming. This is the same for traffic lights, with the added concern that the stoplights hang in the middle of an intersection, so you’re required to stop BEFORE the light. Stop at the actual traffic light and quite often you’ll be in the middle of oncoming traffic!
So, it’s up to the rider to have a heightened sense of awareness of these differences. We’ve seen highly skilled riders run stop signs and red lights and then proclaim they’d never done that back home - so please be mindful.
4. Cars not looking for bikes
Despite a history of motorcycles that stretches back as far as any country in the world, the majority of American drivers remain generally oblivious to bike riders. It’s not always that they don’t see you; some do and yet feel no need to grant riders any extra room or consideration to be safe. So again, it is up to you to ride extra defensively, to heighten your instincts and anticipate threats.
When riding in a tour group, the sheer size and presence of the pack will make many drivers defer to your right of way, but it’s not a guarantee. Rest assured that your tour guides are highly trained at safely leading large groups of riders for many days across thousands of miles. But at the end of the day, it’s you behind the handlebars, and that’s what makes the difference.
5. Don’t be distracted by gadgets
Full dress touring bikes host a staggering set of features - cruise control, music and communication systems, adjustable suspension, traction and stability control, navigation - conveniences that can heighten the enjoyment of a ride. But they can also be a recipe for distraction, which is the last thing you need on a motorcycle. At just 60 mph, you’re traveling 88 feet per second.
Think of the danger you put yourself and the riders around you in when you start flicking through a menu for a few seconds. We’ve all done it, all been tempted to tweak the GPS, or look at our phones while riding. But please think of the consequences to yourself and others if you allow yourself to be distracted by technology on the bike. If need be, signal that you need to pull over, and make adjustments/take a look while you’re stopped.
Fueling can be tricky in America, as most of the pumps require a US zip code for credit card use. You will often have to go into the fuel station and get a pre-authorization for a specific dollar amount on your card, and then fuel to that limit. For the first few days, this might be tricky as you won’t yet be familiar with how much gas you’ll need, so you’ll authorize more than you use (which is no worry as you’ll only be billed for what you pump).
The good news is that on A GUIDED TOUR, you won’t have this concern as fuel is included, but if you’re doing a self-drive or A MOTORCYCLE RENTAL, this will be a minor thing that you’ll get used to after a few tries. Also: Diesel pumps are green and petrol black, the opposite of European pumps.
7. Climate variations
Everyone who rides in America says the same thing: “wow, this country is BIG.” And when you’re riding big miles, through terrain and altitude changes, the climate will vary considerably. On some days you’ll start the morning wearing a fleece and strip down to a t-shirt in the afternoon. It’s important to pack your bags accordingly - when booking a tour, ask about the variations in temperature you’ll encounter and be sure to bring gear that covers those conditions. We cover PACKING ESSENTIALS IN ANOTHER BLOG POST.
Bring comfortable rain gear and be sure to pack it for easy access every day on the road, you don’t want to be digging for it in the middle of a surprise thundershower. Challenging weather conditions can be a nuisance, but can also heighten the sense of adventure. We always seem to remember the hardest days on the bike, never the sunny ones!
Keeping yourself properly hydrated when you’re riding is crucial for the safety of you and your pillion. In summer months and desert climates especially, you need to stay ahead of your thirst - if you start feeling thirsty on the bike, you may already be dangerously dehydrated. Drink plenty of water before mounting up in the morning and pack a liter bottle of water for both you and your pillion.
Refill at lunch or supplement with coconut water, which is more expensive than water but replenishes lost electrolytes. And be sure to keep your skin covered - your body will sweat to cool you down, and the sweat will evaporate immediately on exposed skin, which makes you sweat more. A “cool vest” can be a luxury in higher temperatures, so it might be smart to acquire one when you know you’ll riding in extreme heat conditions. If you’re part of a guided tour, there will be water provided for you.
9. Filing a “Flight Plan” & Communication Best Practices
If you’re part of a guided tour, your guides will have emergency contact information handy in case your loved ones need to be contacted for any reason. They are also trained in first aid and know how to respond to emergencies. If you’re riding a self-drive tour or a rental, be sure to file a “flight plan” with loved ones letting them know where you’ll be riding each day.
Mobile service can be very spotty in the areas outside major population centers, and it always good to have someone back home following your progress. Motels almost always have Wi-Fi available, and if not, you can ask where in town there might be a restaurant or cafe with Wi-Fi. Checking in every day with loved ones gives them peace of mind that you’re safe and allows them to enjoy the ride vicariously.
Learn more about planning, packing, and during-the-ride tips from our 30 ESSENTIAL MOTORCYCLE TOURING TIPS.
10. Leave Room In Your Suitcases
Lastly, you’re likely going to be bringing back home all sorts of mementos from your tour - be sure to leave room in your luggage for this stuff! One of the tricks we’ve learned over the years is to bring old, disposable clothing along that we discard along the way. Wear an old ripped up shirt for a day or two, then toss it….by the time you arrive at your final destination, your luggage will be empty! You’ll have plenty of room for hats, shirts, bike gear, and duty free!