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European Touring

(February 22, 2009)
If any of us are lucky enough to get to Europe this year, you might find this useful:
 

Step 1. What to take?

This is always the tricky bit, are you camping? Using hotels or renting a place to base your operations? It’s your choice; just choose what you need from these ramblings.  Warning there is never enough room on the bike to take everything you think you need. This can lead to heated arguments with “she that must be obeyed” if you are both sharing the same bike. Fortunately I don’t encounter this problem I’m allowed 1 pannier for my things and we shareher things between both our bikes. Like I said there is never enough room.

Essentials

Health insurance is extremely important, you need a form from the Post office known as an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) this will cover you for emergency treatment in other EU countries free of charge. It now comes in a handy credit card type format you can slip into your wallet much better than the old paper document. Travel insurance including private heath cover is a must for piece of mind; you can get this through any number of people including your bank, RAC, AA, and your motor insurance as an add on, but ring round and get the best deal.   

Motor insurance cover is normally supplied free for 30 days by your insurer and is included in your policy when you purchase it, but please check this. You will have to notify the insurers before you travel and give them the dates and the countries names you intend to visit. If like us you don’t know, then just list all those that you might just nip into (i.e. Luxemburg is great to go to on the way home for duty frees, but it’s a bit out of the way if you’ve gone to Norway.)That way you’re covered if the worst was to happen. This tactic also allows you to bugger off anywhere at the drop of a hat and won’t cost you a penny.

Breakdown cover again is offered free by your insurer in some cases, but be very careful here. A friend of mine was stranded on an Autobahn because his cover didn’t include recovery off the motorway and only a covered a recovery of 12 miles to a repair centre, once you managed to get off, after that you pay for the rest. The company that supplied this “free service “was a well known name so beware. If unsure you can take out extra cover with the RAC or AA.

Bike and insurance documents must be carried with you at all times and they need to be the originals not photocopies. I tend to put all my important documents together, the V5 the insurance, mot and my passport. I then place them in one of those re-sealable plastic bags and keep them with me at all times.

A spare bulb kit is a legal requirement in many European countries; its best to make this up yourself, that way you know the bulbs will fit your bike, I also include spare fuses. Go to your local Triumph dealer if you are unsure what bulbs you need and get them to supply you. Every bike needs to carry one of these, so you can’t get away with one between two.

First aid kits are usually mandatory over most of Europe. You don’t need something the size of Holby city A&E and there are lots of readily available biker size kits on the market, not just from your local bike supermarket. None of them allow you to perform open heart surgery anyway, its mainly just sticking plasters and antiseptic wipes. I usually put in some more painkillers for the morning after, as an emergency supply when my box of 48 is running low. Also some antihistamine and insect bite spray.

If you’re going to Italy (and I’ve heard France now) you need to carry (not wear) a high viz vest in case of breakdown, it’s not a bad idea to get one anyway because the traffic on motorways tends to travel faster than in the UK. Believe me standing on a fast moving intersection of Autobahn you need to be as visible as possible.

I also take a few extra goodies tucked away on the bike. A spare clutch and brake lever are invaluable when your bike sinks in the tarmac at the top of a mountain range (the nearest bike shop is none existent, and if it was it’ll take 2-3 days to get you the part) You can wait hours to get recovered, and by then your mates patience is wearing thin. Remember on modern bikes like Triumphs you can’t start it unless you can pull in the clutch. Check your basic tool kit and add a couple of extra bits to get you on your way again quickly. A tube of super glue can be a god send but make sure you are supervised by a responsible adult when using it.

Puncture repair kits are a good idea and if you get rid of excess packaging can be hidden on the bike if ever needed. I also have my tyres filled will a leading brand of puncture preventative when they are new. This maybe hard to believe but we’ve all found that tyre life has increased by about 25% at least, so it’s well worth it. Don’t be fooled into going away with tyres that may only just make it home, some of the thunder storms in Europe are extremely heavy and you will need all the tread to disperse water effectively. A popular myth with BMW riders is that you can’t get tyres in Europe, so you need to strap a pair on your bike before leaving Blighty. As you are no doubt aware this is just silly, but finding the tyre you need on a drive in, drive out, basis in the middle of nowhere can be rather taxing, especially at the right price.

On a bike with a chain you will need to keep the chain lubricated so don’t forget the small can of chain lube or fit a scotoiler or such like. If the weather is particularly inclement then you’ll need to use both, even if you’ve got a chain oiler fitted. Scotoil make a touring kit which fits behind the number plate and is excellent value for money, adjusted correctly it can keep the chain lubed for over 4000 miles between fill-ups. It also reduces wear on the chain. I personally know of an 850cc bike which has covered over 47000 miles on the original chain and sprockets, it had a scotoiler fitted from new and is still going strong.

Money is always handy to take with you as well as the credit cards, never leave it all in one place spread it around your person there is less chance of losing it all. ( I give mine to she who must be obeyed, not even the tax man can get it off her so there’s no chance of losing it) basically don’t pull your wallet out bristling with Euros at the bar and forget to put it back in your pocket again. Money belts are available for the really paranoid. On some European motorways and trunk roads the toilets are manned by an attendant who collects a small contribution for the use of the facilities; always have a few cents at hand so you can quickly access these areas, this goes for toll roads as well.

Last but certainly not least is a good supply of English tea (bags are most convenient) unfortunately as the world gets smaller, so have the colonies, and good quality tea bags cannot easily be found in foreign climes. Your favourite drink of the day sacrificed on the heathen alters of expensive coffee swilling boutiques. The only guarantee you have is to take your own, to save space you can post them to yourself if staying in one location, or send a box to a friend you maybe visiting so you can restock. If taking your own supply make sure they are kept in a water tight container in case of torrential rain. NB Tea is just as important as chocolate and no compromise should be considered with “she that must be obeyed” on the subject of taking up too much space

Packing

This is an art in itself, put everything you think you may want to take on the living room floor a few weeks before you go, and try to get it into your available space. Gosh it won’t fit in, now there’s a surprise!! Lets look at it in a logical manner, seven days away, means seven tee-shirts at the absolute most, and your wearing one so that’s six. It’s the same with pants and socks. To be honest you can get away with four tee-shirts. Two sweat shirts, one pair of jeans, one pair of shorts; and a hat. If you’ve got the room a thin pair of trousers that the legs zip off to turn them into shorts. Now try that, hey presto it now easily goes in the pannier. If you are going for longer than two weeks then take some of those washing powder tablets and use them when you’ve got a large enough load. (Put it in the washer before you have shower and it’ll be half done by the time you’re dried and dressed). Most of the time you’ll be on your bike and wearing bike kit, (more about this latter) so you only need the jeans and trainers at night when you go out for a meal or to the bar. Start to add the trainers and space soon disappears. I normally take some of my old clothes and bin them on the trip as I go along including an old pair of trainers that I jettison on the last day, to make way for duty free stuff. Any extra room will soon be taken with water proofs and spare gloves (for when it rains)  Now you’ve minimised all your gear the other half can fill every available cubic centimetre with her essentials like the extra shoes and the hair dryer etc, etc, etc. Put the things you might need quickly in a handy place not in the bottom of the panniers. Oh yeh, don’t forget the sun cream. Quick tip: If you are leaving the” beaten track” or resent paying motorway prices, leave room in the tank bag for a small amount of food when you are travelling i.e. a couple of rolls, chocolate bar (for the wife)and a drink.

Not camping? Then skip the next bit, or you can just read it for fun

Camping

If you’re camping it’s a different matter, everything needs to be as light and small as possible.

First the tent, you need one that islight and easily pitched, and it has to be able to stand up to rough weather if you encounter it. The fly sheet should be as close to the ground as possible with plenty of pegging points. Check out the various dealers and look at Vango, Eurohike, Coleman, Etc. If your not sure ask, and tell the shop what you intend to use the tent for, and be prepared to pay in the region of £200. Sounds a lot of money but you need a good quality bit of kit.  I always choose one with a largish porch and separate sleeping area, that way you can leave any wet gear outside the sleeping area and get you’re riding gear on in the dry as well. Also look for a tent that you can put up the inner tent after the outer is pitched so it keeps it dry. A large porch also allows you to make a cuppa if it’s raining. An insect screen on the door / doors, and vents for air flow also should be a consideration in which tent to purchase, especially if you plan to visit at the height of summer. Always purchase an extra ground sheet to go under the sleeping area, as this will stop anything puncturing the sewn in ground sheet.

Sleeping bags are the next bulky bit of kit that you need to minimise. Again the rule of thumb is be prepared to spend on good kit, get a warm bag that packs up really small in it’s stuff  bag. If you’re going to a hot country you can always leave the bag open at night, but trying to sleep when you’re cold is not fun. Campsites in the mountains or near a river can get very cold at night, even if they were roasting in the day time, 2-3 season bags should be ok unless you’re really nesh.

Air beds tend to be bulky, but there is a product available that is perfect for your Euro camper on a bike. The brand leader is known as” Thermarest” but many camping equipment companies now copy it and make their own. A good sized Thermarest will cost in the region of £60, but will pack up real small (6 x12 inches) they are almost self inflating you only need a few breaths of air once the valve has been left open a minuet or two. They insulate you from the ground, and for old folks like me are a god send.

Towels are large and bulky, but you can get a XXL bath towel (looks good placed on a sun lounger) the size of a small writing pad. (A Lifeventure Trek towel) these amazing things absorb water like a chammy leather and dry very fast to.

Pack a pair of flip-flops; they double up as shower shoes (make sure you wear them, although the showers are normally very clean on continental campsites you can easily contract athletes foot)  and are essential foot wear when you need to answer the call of nature in the wee small hours. Trying to put on your trainers can be difficult, flip-flops are dead easy.

Cooking equipment should be the unbreakable type, not china; you will need the basics and a cooker.( the wife ) You can buy a cheap set of cooking pots but your best looking around and get stainless ones that all drop inside one another. Coleman make a cooker that is dual fuel (about £30) i.e. it runs on petrol as well as cooker fuel. Take a piece of hose with you and you will never run out of fuel, you can curl this up under the cooker reservoir and then siphon off petrol if you need it. I made sure the Coleman stove fitted into the cooking pots to save space. To be honest we only normally use the cooker to make a brew or an easy meal, although we’ve cooked full English once or twice. European campsites are generally much better than ours and fresh bread is delivered daily, the campsite shops are very well stocked, so it’s very easy to get your breakfast etc on site. Don’t forget to take a tin opener and I also pack a Swiss army knife-they’re great for cutting up French sticks, cheese, opening packets of smoked meats, slicing fingers, etc. I also take a very small pair of BBQ tongues packed with my knives and forks very useful if you decide to bar- bee.

Lighting, make sure that the torch/ light that you take, has readily available batteries, some have weird and wonderful ones that aren’t. You can also get those ones that wind up so you don’t need batteries and they are getting really small nowadays. I’ve always used a Mag light as they are very powerful for their size. A good tip is to leave it where it can be found when it’s dark,(a side pocket ) Scrambling around the tent waking your other half up in the pitch dark can leave you in the dog house.

Tables and chairs, no I’m not joking, we found a small aluminium fold up table 6x24 inches that is perfect for making that cuppa on, and preparing food. It’s the perfect height to sit around on your camping stool and look civilised while dining, remember we are British and there’s no excuse to let standards slip. I’ve found that it’s best to purchase a good quality camping stool, one that’s re-in forced where the legs go into the seat area. Speaking from experience, it’s better to spend that extra couple of quid, than find your self the centre of attention while entangled in the nether regions with a collapsed canvas and metal assassin.

Payment on the site is normally taken before you leave but the site may wish to retain your passport to make sure that you do. I found that if you offer to pay up front then most sites will let you retain your passport. This is a jolly good idea as it saves you going all the way back to get it when you remember that you forgot to collect it before you left.

Luggage

The bike needs to be balanced and ride ok even with luggage on. There are plenty of luggage systems out there so it’s up to you which one suits your needs. Try and spread the load and make things comfortable, if it’s uncomfortable after 50 miles it’ll be bloody agony after 400 or even less.

Tank bags come in various guises and systems. The magnetic. The locks on the filler cap system, to the tank harness type. Personally I prefer the tank harness type like the Baglux system. They are easy to use and there are no magnets to pick up tiny pieces of metal when you fill up, sitting there and scratching your tank until you notice at the next fill up. They are also easily removed so filling up, and taking them with you if you can’t see the bike is much quicker .Don’t bother to buy a two tier tank bag of anyone’s system as you’ll never use it with both tiers fully open, it gets in the way of seeing the clocks and makes the bike top heavy, Better to purchase an18ltr plus bag with a capability to expand if needed. As Michael Palin of Monty Python may have put it:”3 is right out”. Make sure the bag you buy has a map pocket on top and an integral water proof cover, not one of the shower cap ones that shread to bits at any speed over 80mph and steam up so you can’t see the map anyway.

Panniers are either “soft” or “hard” Many people mistakenly believe that hard panniers are theft proof, they aren’t  so never leave anything valuable in them. The hard and soft type will still leak eventually  in a downpour so put every thing in plastic bags, I know it’s a pain and it doesn’t look good but neither do soggy clothes when you go out at night. Most Touring bikes like the Sprint and Tiger now have hard panniers designed for the bike, with the option of a top box. If you are staying in hotels etc and not camping then with careful packing the space is adequate. The camper needs a little more flexibility and I would recommend the use of a rack to carry the tent and any other bulky items. (More about this later.) If you are using soft panniers, make sure they are a good size and have plenty of side pockets to put things in which you may need to access quickly.  I’ve got an old pair of Oxford sports panniers and there now very well worn but still going strong. Tip: Don’t go away with them already expanded, try and minimise until everything goes in easily, remember it’s a piece of cake to pack things in the living room when they are all clean and folded so make an allowance for when they are used. The same advice applies to waterproof covers on some soft panniers as on tank bags, the shower cap covers are completely useless leave them at home rather than in the bin on the services.

Rucksacks are very uncomfortable over a long distance so I personally wouldn’t recommend them. That said they can be useful if you need to carry supplies from the local shops to base. Luckily there are fold up rucksacks on the market made by Oxford, Cameron, etc, that all retail around £10, when packed up are the size of a CD case, and are invaluable when touring, They can carry eight cans of Stella, a bottle of wine, and some food if you need to eat. I normally leave mine in the tank bag for easy access.

Tail packs are ok if you are travelling light but you can fit very little of the bulky items you may wish to take in them.

Waterproof bags. Again there are several on the market and your local outdoor/camping shop will be able to advise on size and use. Pick one that is big enough to put your tent and the camping stools in (this helps to pack things nice and easy) The one that I have found to be the best is the Ortlieb brand, it has a fastening system that makes it almost impossible for water to ingress and is very rugged, it doesn’t need a waterproof cover and so is ideal for the bike. If you don’t need one for your tent but need that extra little bit of packing capability then the smaller bags are still a must. You can also turn them inside out and when filled with water make a great wine and booze cooler. Tip, don’t forget to turn it back and empty it before you re use it.

Bungees you can never have to many Bungee straps, I always take a couple of extra ones by doubling up when “strapping down” This way they take no more room up and also add extra security to your luggage. Make sure they are tight when you strap down and the luggage can’t move around. It’s best to choose good quality ones, not buy a bargain pack from the local market. Remember that if the dam things “let go” they can cause serious personal injury, I friend of mine had one catch him in the nether regions while packing up at the TT, the only way he got home was to purchase a child’s inflatable rubber swimming ring and position his newly acquired cricket ball in it. The safer way is to use Rock straps the only draw back being the cost, if you only need a couple then it’s not two expensive.

Intercoms, no don’t just skip this bit, they can be very useful tools in their own right. Again there is a lot of choice out there in intercoms, not all of it good, the cheaper systems to put it bluntly are crap, they don’t work over 50mph and the ear piece feels like its cut your ear off after ten miles. Choose wisely and ask around, you need one that is comfortable and well constructed. Rider to pillion systems are very useful as two pairs of eyes are better than one, especially when looking for road signs in a strange city. If you are going to travel as a group then bike to bike systems or ones that can be added to, to enable the bike to bike facility, should be on your A list, i.e. Autocom. It works at any speed, and most importantly you can fit the unit to the bike and power it on the bikes electrical system, but it isn’t cheap. Starcom is reportedly very good but I don’t personally know anyone who is using it. Both need to be used in conjunction with good radio systems. The new generation of wireless blue tooth helmets are also reportedly now working better than the first attempts; again I haven’t any experience of these so you will have to ask those that have. I normally travel in a group of bikes and find that communication with the last bike invaluable when in a congested town or city, also it  comes in handy if one of us needs to stop for the call of nature a little bit sooner than the rest.

Sat navs,”She that must be obeyed “loves this amazing piece of technology, it allows her to leave home and find her way to any destination without my help, and they offer the ultimate freedom for those with the directional sense of a lemming. You also can find the nearest petrol station, hotel, etc etc etc, Make sure that unit you purchase can be powered off the bike, and is going to be out of the way but still visible when your are on the bike loaded up.

Maps, I still take a map with me even though technology has moved on. To be honest there is no better way of looking where to go than getting a map, spreading it out and having a good look. You can also pick out the really twisty roads, and avoid the boring auto routes. The best ones to take are the larger scale touring fold up maps, don’t bother with those little pocket size waterproof ones Not enough detail and apart from the main roads no numbers to look for, so you’ll be lost in minuets anyway.

Preparing the bike, this should not be left to the last minuet,  I’ve come across people who come in for an mot the day before they sail only to have the bike fail, bl**dy crazy. The one incident I’ll never forget was the chap who wanted a pair of panniers fitting to his bike at 4 o’clock on a Friday night as he was going to France the next morning. You may laugh but these are true stories. Order your tyres and get them fitted with at least a week to spare if you think that they wont last the journey, you should try a dry run if you are new to this, making sure the bike is easily loaded, and handles correctly, if not, adjust your suspension. Not sure how to go about this? Then take advice or consult your bikes handbook. Have the bike serviced and pay special attention to the brakes and cooling system. If you are going to use throw over panniers it may be worth considering a little trick I learnt, place gaffer tape around the area of the bike that the panniers would rub against, but before you stick the tape down stick it on your sweatshirt or tee-shirt. This takes some of the adhesive off the tape

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