Turning an H-D Sportster into a Touring Bike

Touring on a 1200XL Sportster

Touring on my Sportster through the desert

Commonly, the Harley Davidson Sportster is seen as more of a city bike, used mostly for commuting or short weekend rides, especially when compared to the larger Harley models designed for the more long distance, 400+ mile rides. I really enjoy my Sportster 1200XL because the smaller frame combined with the powerful Harley engine gives the bike a really nice kick. I’m also someone who really enjoys a really long ride when I can find the time, anywhere from 300 miles in a day to the 3,000 miles in 5-6 days that I did in 2008 to San Diego. So over the almost 3 years that I’ve had the bike now I’ve gradually incorporated customizations that make it perfectly suitable for touring.

Some really important things that I had when I first bought the bike were a windshield and engine guard highway pegs. The windshield is great for cutting through the wind, which can help with fatigue when you’re on the road for a while, as you don’t have to do as much work to stabilize yourself (important for when you’re riding through the wide open terrain like the Plains of central US). The highway pegs are great for changing the position of your legs when they start to feel stiff. It’s nice to have the bigger touring feel with your feet forward like that. Another touring tip to avoid your legs getting too stiff is to also use the passenger pegs (if they’re free). It just helps to have another position to change to, and also with your legs back, it takes some weight off of your tailbone, giving you at least another 20-50 miles that you can go without a break.

Mustang Seat, picture from the website

In ’07 when I did a trip from New York to Florida with my dad, one of the major problems I had was the 10″ seat that comes stock on the Sportster. It got to a point where I just physically couldn’t ride anymore. We ended up pulling over and getting a pad to put on the seat. I ended up upgrading my seat to a Mustang Seat, and, even though I kept the stock seat, I don’t think I’ll ever go back. 14.5″ driver and 10″ for passenger. The driver seat is a bucket seat as well which gives some lower back support. This completely solved the discomfort, and since getting this seat I have yet to again get to the point of being unable to ride.

Aside from comfort, another issue for touring is storage and luggage. So I added to my bike a rear fender luggage rack from J&P Cycles where I can mount a bag that fits over the sissy bar. It’s nice too because it lets me put a bag on the passenger seat and on the back on the luggage rack. I also got the dealership to put on some Harley saddlebag brackets to attach some over-the-fender bags (the brackets are necessary on the Sportster to keep the bag off the lights and shocks). A last nice little addition is a windshield bag. This is just a small bag that you attach to the inside of the windshield. It’s nice to keep the things that you need easy access to: wallet, keys, cellphone, id, change for tolls, etc..

A couple other things that I haven’t done yet but am definitely considering is an EZ pass and EZ pass holder for the tolls on the highway as well as a grip for the throttle where you can hold it with the heel of your hand.

If anyone else has any other stories or tips of ways you’ve customized your bike for touring, we’d love to hear! Also check out the full story of my 3 week, 6,000 mile trip that I did on my Sportster from Toronto to San Diego to see how well these touring customizations performed. You can also see the maps of my route here (TO-SD) and  here (SD-TO).

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What tools do you carry on your motorcycle?

When I recently bought my used Kawasaki Vulcan through a private sale, I was amazed to find out the previous owner wasn’t aware of the tool kit located on the bike. These tools can save you from a tight spot, from ruining a day, and quite possibly from an expensive towing bill. Many bikes come with a set of tools but they are often incomplete and need to be supplemented.

For mine, the essentials include a multi-head/swivel screwdriver, a compact set of wrenches, a crescent wrench, a spark plug remover, wheel removal tool, and a flashlight. Depending on the ride, I might take more with me, including a tire plug kit (remember to exercise extreme caution while riding with a patched tire – stay under 40km/h), an assortment of nuts and bolts, motorcycle jumper cables, and some extra fuel line.

Different drivers and different bikes require different tools.

What tools find themselves in your service kit?

How do you respond to non-riders who say “motorcycles are dangerous”?

It’s difficult to explain the mental clarity and focus that comes with responsible riding to those that haven’t tried it. After some close calls, you begin berating yourself for lapses in attention or judgment. Then you start to realize that driving a car is also very serious business. Or at least it should be.

Paradoxically, the inherent increased risks of riding a motorcycle vs. driving a car seem to make me safer on my motorcycle than a car. Between ABS, traction control, airbags, etc., it’s pretty hard to get seriously injured in most car accidents. Even relatively serious accidents have people walking away from them with just bruises most of the time. This means people often take risks in a car that they wouldn’t on a bike. In a car you will gun it through the yellow light, or try to zip around another car with less than optimal clearance. On a bike, I don’t take those chances because the downside is far greater than a dinged fender.

Nothing compares to the feeling of cruising down the road on a motorcycle. It’s a visceral thrill that a non-rider wouldn’t understand – and it outweighs any increased risk. For me, riding my bike is 10x the fun, so even if it’s twice as risky as driving, it’s worth it.

When someone says to me that motorcycles are dangerous, I try to tell them that I understand and accept the risks. I’ve taken steps to mitigate those risks, including wearing safe riding gear and attending safe riding courses.

And at the end of the day I feel any remaining risk is worth the experience.

How do you respond to someone who says motorcycles are dangerous?