Prepared Off-Road Motorcycle Riding, by Jeff Hower

Riding an off-road or crossover motorcycle into parts unknown can be an exhilarating experience. But these off-the-beaten-track areas can also lead to catastrophe if one is not prepared to deal with failures of body or equipment. Preparing yourself and your equipment prior to an expedition for any of many possible malfunctions is only common sense. Most of common sense is having experienced or seen it happen before, and learning from it.

Zip Code riders–that is, people who never ride out of their zip code, will probably not need much of the information presented here. But if you are one of the many riders that are out to explore, then hopefully some of this will be good information for you.

The area you ride will dictate to some extent what you need. Assuming your that  bike runs well, it needs fuel. Riding in the US and east of the Mississippi River you will probably never be more than 100 miles from a gas station. However out west, Canada, Mexico and most of the rest of the yet to be developed world will put you in a situation where refueling can be an issue. Get a big fuel tank if your bike doesn’t already have one. Carry a siphon hose and never pass a gas station if your tank is half-full. Carry some cash in small denominations. While on the Trans Labrador Highway in Canada there was one stretch where there is no fuel for 250 miles and even on I-70 west of Green River, Utah there is no fuel for 100 miles.

Probably the next most probable failure is tires. I know a lot of you carry an air pump and tire plug/patch kit which is great and most of the time will get you out of trouble. But a gash or cut will require a replacement tube or a spare tire. This type of repair will require tools in the form of wrenches and tire irons. Seating the bead on a tubeless rim can be an issue as I found out while changing a front tire in a campground. I had once previously used some WD-40 and lit it up and the resulting ‘woof’ seated the bead with a snap. But this time it didn’t work so I got out some rope wrapped it around the tire’s perimeter and used a tire iron to twist the rope tightening it and forcing the bead to seat. But then my little battery-powered pump didn’t work either. Luckily, I borrowed my buddy’s bike and went into town where a shop had a big compressor and a nice ratchet strap and with some severe beating of the tire we were able to get it to seat. So I now carry a ratchet strap. (Remember that common sense thing.)

What is In Your Tool Kit?

A few of us were once discussing what was the one most important tool to have in your tool kit? My suggestion was Vise-Grip Pliers. Since we were near a major wine grape region, one made the comment, why not a wine bottle opener? My reply was that with Vise-Grips I can make a wine bottle opener. Vise-Grip Pliers can double as a wrench, clamp/vise, wire cutter, and pot holder. It can become a temporary foot peg, gear shift or brake/clutch lever. Add a set of those little screw driver bits and it becomes a screwdriver. Next in line is a good multi-tool. A good folding knife and a LED flashlight aren’t mentioned because they are a given. If you don’t have these in your pocket as you are reading this, then you should stick to your zip code.

Vise-Grip pliers of course are complimented by two other musts that everyone should already be aware of, duct tape and baling wire. I don’t think I need to elaborate much on these two fine items except that duct tape comes in a variety of grades. Don’t get the cheap one. The same can be said of baling wire. Get some safety wire. It is more expensive but won’t break as easily when you twist it. There are a couple of small lightweight tools that allow you to use safety wire to make various repairs, just Google “safety wire clamping tool”. [JWR Adds: I recommend the very versatile Stronghold Haywire Klamper. These are made in Montana. You should keep one in each vehicle tool kit.] To compliment these, a couple of hose clamps and zip ties seem to have multiple uses in mending broken frame parts and other repairs. Another item is Silicon Rescue Tape. It can be used to mend a radiator hose, make an O-ring, insulate electrical connections and even use it as a bandage.

This item has come in quite handy on my trips: Kneadable epoxy putty.  It can be used to repair a host of broken parts. I’ve used it to repair an oil cooler, a broken mirror mount, a brake lever mount and a broken turn signal. I’ve seen where others have repaired cracked cases with it. Make sure you degrease the repair area. Get the 5 minute version unless you have hours of time to waste waiting for it to cure. I’ve used this in conjunction with safety wire, wrapping the damaged area loosely with the wire then adding the epoxy to form sort of a fiberglass/carbon fiber type of repair that is amazingly strong.   Also be aware that there are the twin tube versions that are great for some things but they are runny and can’t be used for some repairs.

Thread Locking Compound

You need to prep your bike to handle hundreds of miles of washboard gravel that will shake every helix fastener loose. Most everyone is familiar with the standard “Blue” thread locker. You may not be aware that it is also available in the form of common lip balm sticks that won’t come open and leak in your tool kit. So you just got a new bike and you don’t want to undo every fastener to apply thread locker to it. Try Loctite Green 290 wicking thread locker which can be applied to assembled fasteners.

There is one key item I always carry: a kukri type knife. It is a very useful camping tool for chopping wood and other camp duties. It is also very useful for self defense. I’ve modified mine by milling a hex hole in it that fits the big nut on my axle thus reducing my tool kit by one big heavy wrench. Surprisingly this big knife doesn’t seem to invoke much curiosity at border crossings because it is seen as a common tool used by many locals in their everyday lives.

I also carry 50 feet of 3/8” rope as well as one of every prepper’s most desired and often used item, paracord. These items can be used with another item that comes in real handy, a tarp. This doesn’t take up much space in the bottom of a pannier and can be used as a tent, sleeping bag, sun shield, ground cloth, rain catcher, bike cover, … In my wallet I always keep a few feet of Kevlar thread and in my kit I keep several yards of 60lb test, high end, braided fishing line as well as a couple of hooks. These weigh essentially nothing and are nice to know they are there. The line is super strong and can be used to repair torn items as well as many other uses. While mentioning the wallet: I recommend that you also build a fake wallet with expired credit cards, a few dollars and other fake identification. And you thought all that junk mail was worthless.

Other Gear

Another tool to consider might be a Stanley 15-333 folding pocket saw. This is basically a big folding knife that uses standard reciprocating saw blades. It will store a couple extra in the handle. I carry wood, metal and carbide blades. To cut down on weight you can of course use your Vise-Grips for a handle. Jumper cables, welding rods and two or three twelve volt batteries will make you an emergency welder. A military surplus tri-fold shovel might seem a little overkill but they have many uses.

Sturdy riding gear that is warm and waterproof with the necessary crash pads can save you from most weather. There are great motorcycle specific boots out there but get some that you can walk miles in after your bike is no longer available.

And First Aid

A good First Aid kit is a must. It needs to be more than just a couple of Band-Aids and some disinfecting cream. The Red Cross and FEMA both have links to suggested items to have in your kit. A good prepper will have gone to their doctor and gotten prescriptions for some antibiotics, pain medicine and other items as recommended by their doctor. A special note is that pills need to be packed in fluffy cotton to prevent miles of vibration from grinding them into a powder. Some drugs if taken in a powder form can absorb too quickly. Wound closing items such a super glue, sutures, and butterfly sutures are in my kit. I also carry a QuikClot pack.

Water will be an important item to have. I have found that most cheap bottled water bottles will have holes rubbed through them in just one day. I use heavier bottles designed for carbonated beverages. They last longer but will still wear through. Disinfecting tablets are a needed item as well. You will probably be hunting for food and water. A LifeStraw is something that may save your life.

There are many good small camping stoves out there that will burn for as long as you can find fuel for them. I have an EmberLit stove that folds flat. I generally use it with an alcohol burner. But it will also burn a variety of commonly found items including sticks.

As for security when camping, some fishing line and string poppers can set you up with a cheap perimeter alarm.

Lastly, I also recommend carrying the the designed for NASA, the Fisher Space Pen. These will write upside down, in zero gravity, -30° to 250°F, under water and through grease.

If you carry the right gear, then you will be much more likely to get home safe and have happy travels–even when you are way, way out in the boonies.




10 Comments

  1. I know the Army Special Forces used Kawasaki 650 trail bikes, but haven’t actually seen one up close and personal like.

    Does anybody know what type of muffler they use to quiet the engine sound. Most off bikes sound like a high pitched chain saw cutting a log. Not likely to be stealthy.

    1. OldP, The KLR650 has been long used in reconnaissance efforts for the US military. They also used the Honda XR250/400s. Bone stock, with good silencer packing, these are very quiet bikes.

      Don’t mistake these bikes for the louder modern motocross style bikes. They are/were noncompetitive racing, but superb for hunting in the back country. The street legal versions of the Hondas (XL250/400) were quieter, but that comes from a highly restrictive exhaust system that chokes horse power.

      If this is something you are considering, conduct appropriate research. Older KLRs are not significantly cheaper than newer KLRs. Once they hit their price bottom, they don’t drop in price, and always made me wonder why anyone would buy an older one when a newer one was a grand more, with thousands fewer miles on the motor.

  2. As a chopping tool, lanyard your cutting tools.

    As you slip your wrist into the lanyard, you gain a massive increase in centrifugal force as you hold the hilt in your fingertips.

  3. Interesting. I can see an application for adults wanting a versatile, resource-stingy method to get to a pre-provisioned BOL. Perhaps compliment the plan with a little gas cached along a couple routes.

  4. even on I-70 west of Green River, Utah there is no fuel for 100 miles.
    From Salina, UT east to Green River, UT – no gas – yup – NOT EVEN A CROSSROAD.
    From Salina you wind down from the hills to the flat high plains and just drive.
    Leaving Salina, there are signs warning you absolutely NO GAS for the next 100 miles.

    Does anybody know what type of muffler they use to quiet the engine sound.
    The stock KLR-650 muffler is approved to drive in National Forrest. It is spark proof and is surprisingly quiet. I don’t know what muffler were used during the diesel engined KLR-650 trial

  5. There are endless lists of what to carry on almost anything but I was disappointed to not see a discussion of motorcycles themselves. As OldParatrooper above mentions only the Kawasaki, I’d recommend Scott William’s blog Bug Out Survival where you can find a few articles on motorcycles especially the above. On the right hand column under topics click “motorcycles.” An especially pertinent article is “Bug-Out Vehicle Test: KLR 650. There’s also an article about modifying a Harley to a hybrid. Imagine that!

    Scott concentrates on writing his novels these past few years but a perusal of his site shows some interesting articles.

    Oh, I think it was over 50 years ago that I rode a Honda 350 twin and it was the most fun I’ve ever had. But it was strictly a street bike. Hybrids don’t do any one thing well but presumably a lot adequately. I’m not sure about that – hence the need for an article about the bikes themselves.

    Don’t really know if there are any hybrids out there today. Between taking a street bike and modifying it somewhat for dirt, I’d be inclined to go for the dirt bike which is street legal and work with that. Won’t be carrying a lot though. But speed and stealth might be the life deciding factor in any particular instance.

  6. I am a little disappointed that the article skimmed over bike maintenance in favor of collecting more tools.

    Bike maintenance is critical for the long-term viability of the bike. Straight off the showroom floor, these bikes are terribly unprepared for adventure, even the “Race ready” ones.

    Every bearing must be properly lubricated prior to usage. That means the head stem, swing arm pivot, shock mounts, wheel hubs, etc with good waterproof grease.

    The ability to check and adjust valves on a multi-day event should be considered. In some cases, the cam chain tensioners are questionable from the factory. Replacing it with a higher quality tensioner could be money in the bank.

    If you are really worried about flats, consider investing in mousse style foam inserts for the tires. They take a little while to get used to, but can run even without air if push comes to shove.

    Some body armor for your adventure-style bike is a smart investment. Bark busters and skid/bash plate will go along way to preventing crushed pipes, broken cases, and busted fingers.

    Using the aforementioned lacing wire to wire your critical parts to the bike, clutch/brake lever, shifter, rear brake pedal, etc like the Baha 500 racers do could be the difference between walking a long, long way, and limping your bike into a service station/town for repairs.

  7. Over a 3 year period I had two motorcycles, same manufacturer, same size engine but different carbs and gas tanks. One got 66 MPG and had a 5.5 gal tank. The other got 44mpg with a two gal tank. What a pain it was to keep the smaller tank gassed up.

    I regularly drive from Central Oregon to Winnemucca, about 350 miles. With a motor home or a trailer I must divert to Lakeview to get gas before going back to the cutoff. But in a vehicle that gets good gas mileage 350 miles in nothing.

  8. Old Paratrooper, the Kawasaki 650 used by special forces has been converted to run on diesel. Since Diesel engines run at a much lower RPM than gas engines, this would account for the lower tone.

    I’ve often thought of picking one up as surplus but they are quite pricey.

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