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Motorcycle Touring with a Trailer

A trailer is more than just a wagon with wheels. Hitched behind a motorcycle it becomes a living creature with thoughts and needs of its own. Motorcycle touring with a trailer gives a ride a whole new versatility … provided you know what you’re doing

My wife and I tour as much as 20,000 kilometres each year, but over the past few seasons we’ve found the increasing cost of motels has moved camping from a “fun-to-do” to a “must-do” thing. In spite of having the best lightweight gear and generally packing lighter than most, at times our bike looked more like a pack mule than a motorcycle. We had considered a trailer and did some serious research, but opted to keep the status quo … until we had a blowout at 120 klicks. Our tires spent most of their lives carrying a fully loaded bike and as a result the tube failed catastrophically. We had to get the weight off the bike and a trailer seemed the only answer.

Since that time we haven’t regretted our purchase. We still pack the same amount of clothing but enjoy creature comforts—such as real pillows and a bigger tent—that we could never have carried before. We are now far more comfortable, yet have eliminated the “touring weight” from the bike. Because we have increased both our level of comfort and safety, I thought the practical knowledge we have gained would be worthwhile sharing with anyone considering a trailer.

WHEN TOWING WITH A BIKE, THERE ARE THINGS TO CONSIDER that are exactly the same as towing with a four-wheel vehicle. Braking, acceleration, trailer off-track and lane position are all affected, so one must ride accordingly. That being said, one allows for longer stopping distances, longer passing distances and wider turns at intersections. On the highway, off-track is minimal in all but the tightest curves. Lane position? You will need to alter your lane position by half a foot. I learned that after running over one at a service station when I pulled ahead without warning someone … ‘Nuff said. 

None of these issues are beyond a capable rider’s ability to adjust. Depending on loading, terrain and driving habits, mileage can be reduced by as little as zero to as much as 10 per cent. Being startled occasionally by someone following too damn close goes away soon enough. 

One particular issue regarding towing made us hesitate in the beginning. A rider told us he was forced down when it was wet, feeling that when he braked in the corner, the trailer took him out. I was concerned about that, but then it hit me: why was he braking in the corner? Going in too hot causes problems, trailer or not. When riding, one plays the game a few moves ahead and braking before a corner is one example. Remember that good riding technique is important at all times, especially when towing.

“Does it affect handling?” is easily the most common question asked of us. At higher speeds the trailer provides little or no input to the bike and as a result your cornering technique remains the same. 

“Higher speeds” begin at about the point where one begins counter steering, so that’s perfect. At low speeds, the inertia of the trailer has not been overcome and it tends to “tug” at the bike. As a result tight turns in potholed gravel lots can be, um … a drag. I find this less disconcerting however, than being unreasonably top heavy—which you usually are without a trailer.

While discussing handling, the most valuable recommendation I can offer is to include a coupler swivel in your purchase. A regular ball hitch won’t fully compensate for the lean angle of a bike, consequently limiting turning radius. We were moved to add a swivel a few days after we bought our trailer in Sturgis, when we found to our scary surprise that the bike and trailer were at odds in hairpins while transiting the Granite Pass in Wyoming. A quick phone call had one delivered to us on the road. After measuring the coupler itself at home, I found there were 25 degrees of rotation per side, yet our bike leans up to 33 degrees. A swivel coupler rotates 360 degrees.

The Aesthetics of Motorcycle Touring With a Trailer

The overall appearance of your rig may or may not be important to you. It was to us so we chose a model that mirrored the lines of the saddlebags on our bike. We have received many “thumbs up” from people—including other riders. On the other end, it’s possible to build a safe, serviceable yet inexpensive unit. We talked to one couple that bought a small trailer kit from Canadian Tire then added an automotive roof carrier for a box. Voilá: one motorcycle trailer. And for a few hundred bucks it didn’t look all that bad.

How many times have you wished you didn’t have to wear your leathers when you went for a walk so that they wouldn’t “walk” on their own? A trailer becomes a secure home base and allows the freedom to leave bulky valuables behind when simply going for a walk, stopping for lunch or leaving camp for the day.

Recently we moved up to a small tent trailer. We could see that we were missing opportunities, using motels in “iffy” weather because we were on the ground, not wanting to risk waking up to a downpour. This trailer allows us to be off the ground, set up camp and take it down from inside the tent, then anything that is wet stows outside the storage compartment. Major bonus. Minus our old tent and mattress, we had a net gain of about 20 kg. so we ordered it with electric brakes—just in case. Properly adjusted, they are “invisible” and I feel more at ease.

In our four-wheel life we started out with a pup tent and an MGB, finally ending up with a big honkin’ fifth wheel trailer; the only thing left was a B-train. With the bike, we already have our ideal set-up. We love touring, and having a trailer allows us to take extended trips that we simply could not afford otherwise. In addition to that, we are safer and much more comfortable, making our decision to get a trailer a great move.

Motorcycle touring with a trailer – Smart loading is a key consideration

When you’re towing a trailer with a motorcycle, keeping the tongue weight at about 10 per cent of trailer weight is imperative, remembering the objective is to keep the extra weight on the trailer wheels rather than the bike. 

Too little tongue weight can cause the trailer to sway; but not to worry, typically you find yourself trying to reduce tongue weight. Most ads for bike trailers show a separate cooler on the tongue—probably the worst place. We only load ours just before stopping at the end of the day with dinner, happy hour supplies and maybe breakfast. Normally such heavy loads are reserved for the back of the trailer. So: pillows (ahhh, pillows) up front, sleeping bags next, duds over the axle then chairs, tent, air mattress (ahhh, nice soft air mattress), tools and such at the back. Weigh the trailer and its contents before heading out, since there is less room for error in such a small set-up. This is easily done by placing a bathroom scale under each wheel and the tongue stand, then adding the three weights. We keep a small fish scale with us to check the tongue weight if we change the loading (read: go shopping). Remember that the objective in towing a trailer is to take weight off the bike, so resist the urge to put anything more than rain gear, sunscreen and your camera in the saddlebags and tour pack. 

by Ed Pretty Canadian Biker #237



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