When travelling overland by motorcycle the range of terrain that can be potentially encountered is wide. From roads to sandy desert pistes to rocky mountain tracks, each requires a different approach to avoid a much-unwanted spill. Below is a rough guide on how to ride commonly encountered terrain.
Once you have left the relative safety of Europe and America road conditions deteriorate very rapidly and so too does any consideration you may have expected from fellow road users. Road signs become less frequent and pothole common, sometimes alarmingly so, and it is not uncommon to have the road disappear completely for sections. Be aware that it is quite possible for the sharp lip of potholes to puncture tyres and dent or even buckle wheels if hit at speed, so back off and choose your path carefully. Speed bumps, particularly around towns and villages, are a real danger. If possible, get your braking out of the way before you hit the bump, this way your front forks are not under load and the chance of "bottoming out" and any resulting damage is reduced. They are usually badly marked or often not at all and can be of quite spectacular proportions.
When riding through villages you should expect children and animals to run out in the road because they will. Keep your hands over the controls, your eyes open and your finger on the horn. Other natural hazards include landslides or rock falls in the mountains (make sure you are not under one!), water across the road in lowlands (if in doubt check the depth before crossing), sand encroaching upon the road in the desert (slow down [hit it at speed and you will be eating it], drop a couple of gears, stand up and once into the sand, blast your way through). "Rules of the road" go out the window by both driver and pedestrian and it becomes a case of every individual for himself. Almost constant use of the horn is necessary and is the accepted method of alerting other drivers and pedestrians to your presence. Make sure you replace you crappy original horn with a loud air horn. You will be glad you did.
Expect just about anything to happen and you will not be disappointed, animals and people wandering in the road, vehicles, particularly pedal cycles, driving on the wrong side of the road or at night with no lights or both! Cars and trucks overtaking so late they force you off the road and on the list goes. The basic rule when riding on roads abroad is to ride slowly and assertively but with the greatest care. Do not ride at night unless you absolutely must and then do so with even greater care. Be ready to react to anything and do not assume anything, least of all that vehicles and people around you will do what you expect because they most certainly won't.
This describes anything that falls between metalled roads and natural, untouched terrain and can vary considerably from a straight and flat dirt road to a deeply rutted, muddy quagmire.
In general if the going gets tough, stand up. This transfers your weight down from the seat to the footrests and thus lowers your centre of gravity. This simple technique will instantly improve your bike's stability and handling. Make sure that if you plan to spend any time off road you fit suitable tyres to your bike (fit ones to cope with the worst type of terrain you think you will encounter). Use the correct air pressure in your tyres. About 15psi is a good all-round pressure to use when off road. You can then adjust this as necessary. Try to limit your speed to 50mph/80kph, and then only when the track ahead is clear and straight. When riding deeply rutted tracks try to keep to just one rut but if you must change ruts, do so in one quick and confident manoeuvre. Make use of berms when cornering. These are sloping ridges that form on the out side of corners and, when ridden properly (a bit like a wall of death), can help to get you round a corner faster and more smoothly. Another frequently encounter problem, particularly in deserts, is corrugations. These are a series of small ridges at right angles to the direction of the track. They make it feel as if you are riding on sheets of corrugated steel. The best way to avoid the tiring effect of riding such tracks is to stick to the edges or, if possible, leave the track completely and ride parallel to it. If the track is fairly straight, pick up the speed a bit and try to skim over the ridges. Be warned that you will lose traction doing this and cornering will become more difficult. When riding through villages and towns that have no tarmac roads you will usually find a mass of tracks criss-crossing the area and in situations like this it is easy to become lost or disoriented. Stick to the biggest and most corrugated track as this will most likely be the main road through or around the settlement.
Mountain tracks are well suited to motorcycles. Being generally light, responsive and fairly nimble, riding a motorcycle along a boulder strewn track can be great fun. One thing to be aware of is the increased possibility of damage to your rims. Should you hit an unexpected boulder at speed there is a high possibility that you will dent or worse still buckle either or both wheels. Do not drop air pressure in your tyres as this will only increase the likelihood of damage to the rims. Always ride conservatively and within the limit of you visibility. Remember, you are trying to get from A to B safely and in one piece not win the Dakar Rally! Don't guess what will be around the next corner! Keep your hands over the levers and your foot over the brake, so that you are ready for the unexpected. Should the ground become very rocky try to lighten up the front end of your bike to avoid slamming your front wheel into obstacles. There is always a tendency to tense up and grip the handlebars with unnecessary force when riding bumpy tracks. Consciously ride loose and relaxed but with a high degree of concentration. Lightly grip the tank between your legs, but should it want allow it to buck and twist. If riding steep ascents select the right gear, get your weight as far forward as you can without loosing traction at the rear wheel and get the power on. If you feel the revs dropping too quickly, anticipate, and drop a gear sooner rather than later. If riding a steep descent get yourself lined up straight and your weight as far back as you can. Select a low gear, probably first, and leave your front brake and clutch levers well alone. If you need to slow your descent dab your back brake and, if necessary in an emergency, lock it up. Finally, rocks are very unforgiving so try not to make too many mistakes for your sake and your bike's!
The key to riding in sand is a combination of keeping the bike moving and low air pressure in your tyres. Momentum is very important, especially in very soft sand, and you should try to keep your speed up and the power on in these conditions. You will find that the rear of your bike will slither and slip around, but you will become used to this in time. Try not to fight it but rather stay relaxed and loose, and concentrate on keeping the front wheel heading straight ahead. Dropping the air out of your tyres is also important, as this widens and lengthens the tyre to ground contact area, which will dramatically improve your grip. Reduce air pressure enough to bring your bike under control, as little as 5psi if need. Be warned that in this under inflated state your tyres will get quite hot and be much more prone to punctures and creeping. The faster you go the hotter they get so try to go only as fast as you need to keep moving. Make sure that whatever device (a good method to stop tyre creep is to drill 4 holes through the side of each rim. Two on one side and two on the other, each hole 90o from the next. Then insert a self tapping screw into each hole just enough to pinch into the bead of the tyre. This will stop the tyre slipping in the rim and does not affect the balance of the wheel) you are using to stop tyre creep is doing its job properly.
If things start to get tricky or you are beginning to lose control stand up and blast the throttle a bit until you get back in control. Try not to attempt any sharp cornering when in soft sand but instead, if necessary, carry out long, shallow turns. Again in soft sand keep away from the brakes, particularly the front, if you need to come to a stop then slow down using your gears. If your bike starts slowing and the wheels start spinning, prepared to do anything to keep it moving, including paddling with your feet or even jumping off and running beside it until you get your momentum back. If you do become stuck in soft sand usually your wheels will sink down into it and start spinning as you grind to a halt. Turn the engine off and lay the bike down on its side. Fill in the holes and pick the bike up again. Start the engine and get the bike moving a bit before you jump on board. Try to keep the sand flat and level in front of your bike and if necessary turn you bike around to face down hill before moving off.
Mud and bikes, especially those set up for overlanding, really don't mix. A big, heavily loaded bike, complete with rider, will be a pig to control on waterlogged, deeply rutted, muddy tracks, regardless of how good your tyre tread is. There are no fixed rules for coping with such adverse conditions but as with sand, low air pressure in your tyres will certainly help, along with as deep a tyre tread pattern as possible. Unless you are a skilled rider and used to such conditions it is best not to try to power through wet mud, chances are that you will fall off, and probably quite spectacularly. It is therefore better to go slowly and resort to paddling through with your feet. If you do intend to ride at speed then choose a mid range gear, 3rd is best, and stay at about mid revs. This allows for a quick extra squirt of power should you need to get out of trouble. Stand up and lean well back. This will not only give you more drive at the rear wheel, but will also lighten up your front wheel. This stops the possibility of it digging into the mud and throwing you off your bike. When the ruts become water filled, unless you are sure they are shallow, don't ride into them blindly and at speed. It is better to ride through slowly or get off your bike and check the depth first. It is sometimes known, particularly in Central and West Africa, for waterlogged ruts to be deep enough to entirely cover a bike and rider! If you get cross-rutted in mud (front wheel in one rut back wheel in another) stop and lift your bike into one or the other rut. Don't try to blast back into one rut as you will probably end up side on and bogged down.
On occasion it will be necessary to cross water, whether that be a river, a flooded road or some other aquatic obstacle. The most important thing to do first is to stop! Sounds obvious, but it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that because the track leads you to the river that it is automatically alright to cross. It most definitely isn't. The height of the water can vary from season to season. The strength of the current and the condition of the riverbed can also change depending on whether the river is in flood or not. Hidden obstacles like boulders, logs or deep pools may exist, which cause little difficulty to four wheeled vehicles but can drown of knock over a motorcyclist. These unknown factors are the reason that it is so vital to stop and at least look at the crossing you are about to undertake. Try to look for the shallowest crossing point, usually where the water is running fastest, near rapids. If you are in any doubt whether you can make the crossing safely, then cross on foot first. Getting a little wet is a better option than drowning your bike and/or you as well. Make a mental note of the depth, the condition of the bed and strength of the current. Make sure you know where your exit point is before entering the water. If the water level is not higher than your air intake and you can safely walk across the river then you can be fairly sure that it is alright to cross it on your bike.
Before crossing it is worth taking a couple of precautions. Firstly spray all your electrical connections with an oil like WD40 or GT85, unless you have greased or sealed these connections already. Secondly check that your carburettor and fuel pump's (if your bike has one) breather pipes are above the level of the water, as some bikes will cut out if these pipes are blocked. Ride slowly when crossing although try to keep your momentum going and, if you have walked it first, try to follow the route that you walked as closely as you can.
Should you decide that the crossing is too difficult to ride at all, then you can push your bike across instead. Always stand on the upstream side of your bike to avoid the current forcing the bike over on top of you and trapping you underneath it. It is also probably a good idea to lighten your bike as much as possible by removing unnecessary weight like baggage.
Should you decide that the crossing is too deep to ride or push without the chance of water getting into your engine then, once you are sure that there is no other option, you will need to prepare your bike for a submerged crossing. This type of crossing should not be attempted solo, at least get one other person to help or preferably two if you can. Start by spraying all your electrical connectors with a water dispersing oil like WD40 or GT85 and removing all unnecessary weight like baggage. Turn your engine over to TDC (top dead centre) on the compression stroke (closes the valves) and disconnect and remove your battery. Remove your air filter, cover it with a plastic bag, and replace it, then block up and seal your exhaust and any drain holes it has with whatever comes to hand. Finally block off all engine, carburettor, fuel pump and oil tank breather pipes by folding and taping their ends. You are now ready for the crossing. If you have rope available, tie one end to the bike and the other to the far bank. Slowly push your bike across, positioning one person at the handlebars again up stream of the bike and one at the rear. If there are three of you then the third can pull on the rope or, if you have no rope, can pull the front of the bike.
In the unlikely event of a drowned bike, don't panic. It's not the end of the world! If you follow the instructions outlined below you can salvage a bike that has even been fully submerged underwater.
- Take the tank off and drain completely. Refill with fresh petrol.
- Remove the sparkplug.
- Raise the bike to drain the water from the exhaust and cylinder.
- Kick the bike over a couple of times to clear all remaining water from the cylinder.
- Remove float bowl on the carburettor and drain.
- Remove the air filter and drain air box. Dry air filter.
- Allow the electric's to dry then spray with a water dispersing oil.
- Check engine oil, if a white-grey milky colour then replace with fresh engine oil.
- Replace the tank then check for a spark before replacing the sparkplug.
- Fire up the bike.
Although very rare it is possible to experience what is know as 'hydraulic lock' when water is drawn into your engine. You know that this has happen because of the loud bang and sudden engine failure you experience. What has happened is that the water your engine has sucked in, being non compressible, acts like having a lump of metal jammed into your cylinder. This usually destroys the piston and/or cylinder. Generally a terminal problem this is one very good reason for you to be very careful when crossing water.
Unless you are accompanied by an adequate backup vehicle is definitely not advisable to venture away from well-worn tracks and into the unknown. The chance of becoming lost increases dramatically and if you do have an accident you are much less likely to find help away from the main tracks. Generally speaking you should be trying to get from A to B in the safest way possible. This means sticking to the tracks, keeping your concentration high, riding confidently but not aggressively and above all not taking any unnecessary risks.