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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21 Responses to Turning an H-D Sportster into a Touring Bike

  1. DrWhy says:

    I’m glad to see someone who realizes that often the best motorcycle for the job is the one they already own. It looks like fun. The best part would seem to be that when you reach your destination and unpack, you can hit the twisties in a way the Big FreightGlides never can. I also wonder how it does on dirt roads.

    • Bucko says:

      yeah, absolutely. so much more rewarding to when you use what you’ve already got!

      I actually found out recently that the original sportsters were designed to be Harley’s “dirt bike.” Obviously it’s strayed quite a bit from that, but the original designs for the frame that the current ones are still somewhat based on, had that in mind. That said, the sporty still being an approx. 500 lb bike, I wouldn’t push it too much on the dirt roads. It certainly was nice to be able to unpack and really rip around traffic and twisty roads alike!

    • Anonymous says:

      i drive my sportster down a 2 miles gravel road just to get to pavment everytime i leave my house work @ 30 to 50 mph driving on the path always looking for thick patches witch will lay the bick down

  2. Pingback: Riding Retro Style from the WSJ « Rubber on the Road

  3. Angel N says:

    I really appreciated your article about the Sportster. I was worried about how it would do on a really ‘long haul” especially a bike being smaller than the rest of the HD family. Now I really made up my mind about getting the Sporty. Thanks!

    • Bucko says:

      Hey Angel,
      Glad to hear you liked the article! Hope it helps. We’d love to hear about your sporty when you get it, especially any touring mods you make to it and any good long trips you try it out on!

  4. Strolr says:

    My idea of a “touring bike” is ‘what you got’ when you gotta go. Over 80K on current 05 XL1200C.
    _First ‘tourer’ was ’65 CB77 Superhawk(305cc)- fm CA to Corpus Christi, TX. Upgraded for next big trip to ’67 CB450 fm CA to Ft Carson, CO. I’ve run a Virago 750 fm VA to Maine, and FL, and Louisiana (got 137K b4 it died).
    _But old butt is lusting after a 103ci “Road Glide Custom” now, so I can go on some REAL long rides – like Central America, or do “the Alaska thing”

    • Bucko says:

      Hey Strolr,
      I totally agree. Basically you can make anything work if you need to. Maybe need to adjust your riding style a little bit to accommodate, but you’ll still get there and can still enjoy the ride! I was surprised to find for example when I was able to do 700 miles at a stretch on my Wide Glide on my 8600 mile trip around the US (even did a couple iron butts). I actually heard a story of a guy who bought some 250cc bike in Alaska and rode it to New York. Didn’t actually make it all the way, but not for lack of trying as it broke down before he made it.

      I’m actually living in China right now and a lot of our recent posts have been about the Jincheng 250cc that I just got. Looking forward to finding some free time and seeing how far I can take that into the Chinese countryside.

  5. Pat Urban says:

    I will be 66 in June 2011. I’ve been riding for almost 50 years and just downsized a heavier bike to a 1200C Sportster. I plan on riding it across the USA and back this summer with my husband on his bike! The Sportster is perfect for me and what I can ride: fairly light and nimble. I changed the seat for a better sitting one and raised the handle bars which allows me to reach the forward controls without problems as I am short of leg. We added a port for my Gerbing heated gear, engine guards, a passenger rest/luggage rack and with HD custom fit bags, she and I are ready to roll. Someone said to me, “You can’t ride that far on a Sporty.” Hmm…never gave that a second thought; never felt I couldn’t.

  6. Pat Urban says:

    I forgot to mention I did add a windshield to my Sporty.

    • Bucko says:

      Good for you Pat! Yeah, I remember someone telling me once that I couldn’t go far on a Sporty, no more than one or two hundred miles. At this point I was already in Myrtle Beach, SC having driven over 1,000 miles from NYC!

      What route are you planning on taking cross country? Would love to hear about your trip.

  7. gerald young says:

    Hi fellow Sportster addicts.
    My name is Gerald Young and we live in a small town callede Deneysville, in the Free State, South Africa.
    We have a 2001 HD Sportster Custom and will never think of getting anything else. Previously had a 1100 Goldwing with all the panniers, boxes and fairings and lights but sold it as it was way too heavy for me. My wife and I go 2 up on the Sportster and we both weigh 95 kg’s. we also have side bags and a back pack on the bike. The bike does not even feel the weight. Harley have excelled themselves with the 1200 of the Sportster. Our bike is our tourer and we have travelled all over South Africa on her. She’s a beaut with enough chrome to get everyones attention. I have fitted custom pipes and let me tell you, I have not come accross a ‘big’ Harley that can match the sound from our sporty. I suffer from Carpal Tunnel Sydrome and have fitted low straight handle bars (which allows your wrist to be more in a natural position) and have also fitted a home made lever on the end of the throttle to eable me to ‘throttle’ with my palm while I can flex my fingers. The lever folds away for town and city use. I don’t like a windscreen as I like the natural feel of the wind and the bike. But I must add, we seldom go faster than 70 miles per hour, as our motto is to ‘enjoy the ride’. We have a 2 way communication system in our full face helments and carry our ‘pisspot’ helmets in the sidebags for local driving. I plan my trips in advance so that we can stop for coffee and to strech our legs every 40 – 50 miles and of course as our Sporty has the standard tank, we have to fill up every 125 miles. consumption is about 19 kilometers per litre. about 150 miles to a tank full.
    In April the Africa Bike Rally takes place in Margate close to Durban about 500 miles from home, and you can be sure, we will be there. This is the biggest HD rally in South Africa, and last year more than 10 000 harleys were there, they expect more this year. We have no interest in joining a club as we do not want to be bound by club rules. We go where we want, when we want. On the back of our leather waistcoats is our legend ‘Forever Young’ this says it all. If anyone would like to correspond to swap ideas or to see photos of our Sporty, my e mail address is youngg@dwaf.gov.za drop a line, anytime. May all reading this have many. many happy miles on their Sporties. God bless, Gerald and Maryna Young.

    • Bucko says:

      Hi Gerald and Maryna! Thanks so much for that reply. It’s great to hear about other Sportster enthusiasts experiences. I completely agree, the sportster can be more than enough and can certainly be very impressive, with the right pipes, the right gear, there’s nothing you can’t do.

      The Africa Bike Rally sounds like a fantastic experience. We’d love to hear more about it, and maybe put a post up on the site with some pictures for our readers to see! I’ll try and drop you a line but just in case, you can send them to buck@rubberonroad.com and I’d be happy to share with everyone.

      It’s always fun to hear about the motorcycle culture in other countries, which I think has been particularly exciting about my motorcycle travels now that I’ve moved to China. Also we have a few stories of long trips that the Sportster mentioned in the article has done, most notably a cross-country (US) and a trip to the Tail of the Dragon.

      Thanks again for sharing!

  8. Dean says:

    Hi Bucko

    My name is Dean and I live in the UK in a little town called Melksham this is a great write up on HD Sporters 1200, I am currently in the the process of buying a 2001 Sporter. I was wondering if the Sporter would be ok to go touring with.

    Well you sold it to me with this article, my question is did you chnage the fuel tank for longer breaks between fill ups or did you keep the stock tank? if you kept the stock tank how far did it take you between fill ups?

    Dean

    • Bucko says:

      Hey Dean, glad I was able to help out with the article. I actually did keep my stock gas tank but because it was an ’06 model, the tank is a little bigger, 4.5 gallon. I think it was for the ’04 models that they enlarged the stock tank from 4 to 4.5 gallons. With that size, as Gerald mentioned in a comment above, I would go for about 125 miles in between fill-ups, with my longest stretch being about 150-160 actually. Really though, in general I wouldn’t want to go much longer than that without breaks, which worked out quite nicely then.

      • Dean says:

        Thanks for the reply Bucko that mileage will do me fine, keep up the great work and yes keeps us all informed on your trips i would love to tour USA but first UK and then Europe.

        USA in a couple of years….what a trip that would be…now where to go

      • Bucko says:

        Glad you’re enjoying the blog. We’ll definitely be keeping our readers posted on trips, on here and our facebook page. Brent (the other owner of the blog) will be keeping writing about North America still while I’ll be doing my riding in China now!

        I definitely would like to make it to the UK for some riding at some point. As for places in the US, too many to name. You can read through the blog for some of the trips I’ve done, but off the top of my head the must-sees are: Tail of the Dragon in NC, Pacific Coast Highway in Cali, Montana in general, The Adirondacks in NY, and the Skyline Drive in Virginia.

        Happy riding Dean and enjoy that Sportster!

  9. Nicholas Chason says:

    Hey Great Article. I know I am a bit late but this is the internet and articles are timeless. I just wanted to say I got my sporty (2009) and was riding for only a few weeks before I broke my foot. As soon as it healed I was just a few weeks from heading off to Louisiana (LSU) from the beaches of north east florida. So far I have riding the 600+ (one way) trip 8 times and am about to do it again. The sporty is great but DEFINITELY could use some serious accessories. Next on my list: Engine gaurd/ highway pegs, passing aux lights, Upgraded horn, Windshield bag, and better saddlebags/ actually getting the side racks. Great bike. 25000 miles and going strong. I might really consider that MUSTANG SEAT.

    • Bucko says:

      Absolutely, never too late to get in on the discussion. Take care of that foot and enjoy the sporty! Good luck with those accessories too. I highly suggest that mustang seat it at least doubled the distance I was able to ride per day. When I did my trip from Toronto to San Diego on the Sportster, I’d say that seat was definitely the difference maker, particularly since I was somewhat strapped for time.

      Happy riding!

  10. I love those comments that you can’t tour on a Sportster. I’ve been going on trips since 2004 on mine, including a 600+ mile day from home to Deal’s Gap two years ago. That Mustang seat makes all the difference. I couldn’t believe how comfortable it was. The great thing is that the Sporty doesn’t care what’s piled on. I get 45+ MPG with nothing on the bike, or loaded down with a tour trunk, saddlebags, tent and sleeping bag. This years trip? About 1400 miles to Sturgis.
    Mike

    • Bucko says:

      Would love to get my opportunity to go to Sturgis, for the rally that is (I made a trip there last year, but the town was pretty empty in October)

      Nice to find another fan of the Mustang seat! Probably one of my favorite accessories. I think I remember one time stopping at a Biker Bar in Myrtle Beach I think it was and listening to someone say you couldn’t go much more than 200 miles on a Sportster, meanwhile I was in the middle of a 300 mile day as part of a 4,000 mile trip!

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