Dr. Frazier: Extreme Adventure Rider Secrets

October 14, 2011
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Snow and cold are not unusual from June through October where I often hunt solitude from Alaska to Mexico.
After traveling thousands of miles on different continents our adventure tourist talks about what it really takes to travel the world on two wheels.

“Nothin’ out that way. You’d best be careful,” offered the Wyoming rancher I’d asked for directions.

“Yep, that’s how it looks on the map, remote and risky. But I think I’ve got what I need so I should be okay.”

“I’d give you my cell phone number,” the rancher offered, “but there’s no reception, so you’re on your own.”

“That’s what I’m looking for, places where peace can be found.”

The rancher looked at my tightly packed luggage, nodded and then said, “With all you got loaded on your motorbike it looks like you’re fit to find it.”

I had been exploring some of the desolate areas along the Continental Divide in Wyoming, places that were shown on the map as dirt roads or trails. I had to drive 200 miles to start off the pavement, and then the next few days were spent free wandering in and out of the wilderness areas. With no cell phone, no emergency satellite locator, no computer and no GPS, the only thing electronic I carried were my two small digital cameras and a flashlight.

As I had grown older my expeditions using a motorcycle had shifted to a lighter motorcycle with more of an emphasis on comfort while sleeping on the ground. Instead of feeling the need for speed on pavement, I leaned toward less horsepower and weight and more on simplicity. For instance, 70 mph kept me happily purring along interstate highways, and I had abandoned most electronic items like

Pictured is the payoff for an extreme adventure: pristine solitude as the day came to an end.
Pictured above is the payoff for an extreme adventure: pristine solitude as the day comes to an end.

flashlights with wires connected to the motorcycle battery or electronic gizmos for entertainment when camping.

Over the last months my adventures ranged from three-to-five day loops out of a base, to as long as 14 days. Some had been serious expeditions that found me sleeping in remote areas where my neighbors at night were coyotes or bear, with an occasional magpie known as a ‘camp robber’ for stealing what food or trinket I left unattended.

The secrets I learned were not really my secrets. Many I had gathered from other travelers met while roaming the globe for nearly 50 years. If there was a personal secret at the top of my list, it’s what worked for me did not mean it pleased, or worked, for another adventurist.

The following are more ‘tips and tricks’ than well-guarded secrets, some little things that had found me comfortable 90-100 miles from the nearest town or person, or managing to push my personal adventure-seeking envelope a bit further than other adventurists.

1) Pack light: Weight is an enemy. The more extreme my adventures became the more I realized weight was a potential danger. The propane cooker needing a propane bottle was jettisoned long ago, replaced by a small one-burner cooker that burned gasoline, easily drained from the motorcycle. Also, somewhere along the roads the comfortable camp chair was left behind.

The luggage spread out on a picnic table looked big but compressed down small.
The luggage spread out on a picnic table looked big but compressed down small.

2) Pack weight low: Tools, spare parts and liquids were needed, but not the fight with gravity when off-road or on slippery surfaces. Heavy items were stashed as low as they could go, like in the bottom of carrying cases.

3) Pack tight: While I liked the self-inflating mattress I sometimes used during my earlier travels, they took up more space than one which required my own lungs to fill. The latter were less expensive, and while inflating it gave me an opportunity to look around my campsite and enjoy its location. My big bags I tightly strapped to the motorcycle frame and luggage plate with some Shockles, weaving them through the handles on the bag. This was to insure that if a bag worked its way loose it would not disappear into the dust behind me, but rather drag with me hopefully hearing it.

4) Know your motorcycle: My tool kit and spare parts were assembled around my specific make and model motorcycle. I had yet to find a ‘one-size-fits-all’ or generic tool kit that could be moved from one motorcycle to another. The tools have all been tried and tested doing routine maintenance before being included in the kit or bag of spare parts. While

Wolfman tank bag was designed specifically for the Kawasaki KLR650 gas tank for a snug fit and carried gloves  maps  eyeglasses and lightweight gear.
The Wolfman tank bag was designed specifically for the Kawasaki KLR650 gas tank for a snug fit and carried gloves, maps, eyeglasses and lightweight gear.

most of the tools were stored deep in the Happy Trails panniers, I kept a multi-purpose tool in the handlebar bag for quick fixes like a loosening nut or screw. Research had also taught me what broke or died on similar motorcycles, so those parts I carried with me, knowing there would be no immediate ‘roadside assistance’ where I was going.

5) Test the gear: My youthful learning curve was nearly straight up with regards to luggage carrying systems, especially when it came to water. Most of my baggage now comes from Aerostich. The bags have proven to be tough stuff and, when packed right, waterproof unless submerged. The Wolfman tank bag was designed specifically for the uniquely shaped gas tank of the Kawasaki KLR650, so slipping and sliding were minimized as long as I kept out heavy items like liter bottles of water.

6) Comfort and assurance: My adventure motorcycles have been modified with comfort in mind. Often I found I would have to pilot the motorcycle for hours, or days, at high speed on pavement, a butt-numbing experience in some instances. The fix was a sheepskin butt-pad or inflatable seat cushion. Each were backed with a non-slip material and affixed with cords or straps so they wouldn’t slide around. Oftentimes I left the softener attached even when off-pavement and bouncing in ruts or over rocks. To deflect wind I added a windscreen, although when the going got tough

A peek inside the left side Happy Trails pannier shows heavy items down low.
A peek inside the left side Happy Trails pannier shows heavy items down low.

I sometimes removed it and stored it with a securing strap on the back. This allowed me to better see directly in front of me and prevent possible nose/face/head contact when bouncing. With these added comfort items I also tested them to insure they did not detract from handling and self-assurance when away from paved surfaces. One addition that failed was handlebar risers which worked fine when I was standing on the foot pegs, but made the long distance pavement riding a neck muscle-knotter. They were ditched and I went back to the standard bars after reminding myself less than 5% of my routes would be standing on the pegs.

7) Function over form: Ergonomics were more important to me than looks. If my seating position felt good but looked awkward I chose the ugly look. Living on the motorcycle for days or weeks at a time while fighting wind, rain, mud, ruts and weight taught me to toss ‘the look’ to the wind. A butt-ugly seat pad won out over the stock seat.

8) Learn from mistakes: My learning curve included some bumps in the road when I agreed to hook-up with incompatible traveling partners. Their pace and travel style caused stress and anguish. Once it was a traveler who had a smaller gas tank and often stopped to smoke a cigarette. Rather than splitting up, I chose to stay the wingman for a frustrating three days. We should have parted ways and gone solo, him finding someone else to travel with, and me

A Kawasaki accessory was a small handlebar carrying bag.
One Kawasaki accessory was a small handlebar carrying bag (above) and inside were multi-purpose tools for quick access and a tire pressure gauge.
Inside the handlebar bag were multi-purpose tools for quick access and a tire pressure gauge.

happy being alone. Another time I was run into from the rear by my travel mate as I slowed to turn into a campground. Both motorcycles went down to the entertainment of campers looking in our direction upon hearing the crash and scraping – then my swearing. It was my brother who had been dozing when I slowed to make the turn. My learning curve flattened that time, me not joining with him ever again.

9) Know the physical limitations: I did not start out with a long day, but rather worked up to the longer and harder days. After spending weeks away from serious off-road workouts, going through my sedate life involving computer screens and sleeping on a bed with a soft mattress, I did not move immediately onto 100-200 mile dirt days with cold nights sleeping on the ground. I had learned that fatigue, like weight, was not my friend. Age and condition also played a factor. What I did in a day with my 1945 Indian Chief in the 1960s on and off pavement, which included some falling down, now were off my list or took longer.

10) Learn to laugh at myself: Managing my ego and brain when tired or in trouble had saved me from some unhappy adventures. After 20 miles of slow and rutted gravel road I came to a washed out section that was six to ten feet deep and 20-30 feet across. I was halted with no way to go ahead. It was late in the day and my camping spot was less than five miles ahead. I was tired and worn out, and the idea of turning around and making another loop of 80-100 miles started to make me angry, almost to the point of unloading and disassembling the motorcycle to drag it. Then I laughed at myself, thinking, “Well now, you’ve got yourself into a fix this time. Cool down and laugh some more. Things could be worse, it could be raining.” After a few minutes of walking around and exploring the creek banks I saw ATV tracks through the grass on the other side. Searching on my side I found where the ATV had gone off the road, through the sagebrush and eventually to a shallow section of the creek and up the other side. I off-loaded my luggage and walked it through the water to the other side, then walked the motorcycle through in first gear. Instead of two more tiring, gravel-riding hours, 15 minutes later I was making camp before the sun went down – all while laughing at myself.

I will add that Secret #10 should have incorporated not taking myself too seriously. I had dug my own hole that afternoon when another rancher told me I might not get through on the road that halted me. He got me to rise to the adventure bait

A remote waterfall in Utah was tough to get to  well off a paved road  but ideal for serene camping.
A remote waterfall in Utah was tough to get to and well off a paved road, but ideal for serene camping.

by saying: “The road out there might be washed out, my son couldn’t get through with his pick-up truck a week or so ago, but you might make it on that motorcycle.”

My successes earlier in the week over similar ground got me to say, “I’ll give it a try, pretty much what I need I carry with me.”

The rancher looked my gear over, toed some dust with his cowboy boot and then said, “I’d give you my cell phone number but there’s no tower out that way, so you can’t call for help if you get stuck.”

I replied: “I’ve been in that situation before but managed. This motorcycle, as I have it set-up, is pretty fit.”

My motorcycle ego had over ridden common sense. If a pick-up truck could not get through where I was going, how could my heavily laden motorcycle hope succeed? If it had not been for me laughing at myself I might have taken my predicament too seriously.

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