Adventure Bike Field Mechanics

This guide explains what you need to know about adventure bike field mechanics and repairs so you can prepare your tools, fix your motorcycle and get back to civilisation in an emergency. 

Broken down in Siberia

Contents

Picture of By Howard

By Howard

Owner of rallyadventurebike.com

Adventure Bike Field Mechanics

Things go wrong on the road and motorcycles break down. It happens and is just a part of adventure bike riding. But it’s how you deal with it that matters. 

You may need to know how to repair your bike so you can get back to civilisation or a local garage and, dependent on where you are in the world, that can be quite serious. On a local ride it could just be a case of waiting for a pickup, but if you’re in outer Mongolia or Mauritania, you may only have yourself and your tools to rely on. 

Learning field mechanics is not the same as learning full-on mechanics, we’re talking about learning the skills to get you out of a bind. Wherever you ride, whether it’s on a round the world epic or a weekend trail ride with your mates, it’s always worth knowing at least basic field mechanics so you can get yourself out of trouble.

And this article’s job is to help you with that. We’ll go through some of the most common mechanical problems you may face when adventure bike travelling, how to fix them, what to know and how to prepare.

Tools and Spares

Compromise is a word we often find ourselves having to use. When it comes to carrying tools for your adventure bike, we want to carry all the tools we might need, but also the minimum in terms of size, weight and cost – it’s a hard compromise to make.

The best starting point is to think of the jobs you may want to carry out while motorcycle travelling, and then make sure that you are prepared for them.

This will be influenced by where you are riding, what bike you have, and your ability level. So, let’s look at these three points in more detail first.

Where you’re riding

This could range from riding gentle local lanes with a group of mates, in dry weather and never more than a few miles from tarmac (and potentially the AA or a friend’s van).

Or, you could be abroad, a long way from assistance, without mobile coverage and help, on your own, at altitude and in extreme heat or cold temperatures.

You could be anywhere between the above two poles, so clearly the consequence of an issue and whether it can be repaired efficiently on the road are going to be very different in each situation dependent on where you’re riding.

Of course, the further afield and more remote you are going, the more self-sufficient you need to be and the more equipment you may need to carry.

Adventure motorcyling with a pillion in the snow

What bike you’re riding

Some bikes re inherently ‘stronger’ than others. Some have known weak areas and some are easier to work on than others. Research your motorcycle and find its strong and weak points.

If a certain part is known to fail, consider carrying it. If you’ve scoured the net and spoken to other owners who have never had a problem with a certain part, then don’t unnecessarily take tools to change it.

Your ability level

There isn’t much point carrying tools that you have no idea how to use. However, depending on the points above, this may be an argument for finding out how to use them rather than not carrying them!

Don’t be put off mechanics if you’ve not worked on bikes before. Start with the basics and teach yourself at home, or take a class in mechanics or try a motorcycle field mechanics class or workshop. Spend time and build your confidence before you go.

Adventure Motorcycle Travel Canada

Putting it together

It’s important to bring these three points together to decide what repair jobs you may want to be prepared to tackle while on the road or travelling with your motorcycle.

For example, if you are riding locally, on known trails that are never far away from tarmac, on a large multi-cylinder adventure bike, and in a group you probably do not need to be prepared for dealing with an engine flooded with water.

You probably don’t want to even take such a bike through deep water in the first place. You know the trails so can avoid any crossings, the effort required to strip such a bike down to clear the water is likely to be fairly substantial, and you are close to help anyway. So, it may be more relevant to know how to tow your bike the short distance to tarmac than it is to strip it down. In which case all you need to carry is a tow rope (and know how to use it).

Taking our other scenario of being in a remote unknown area, on your own, with no mobile signal, and in extreme heat or cold. It wouldn’t be sensible to be in that position without the tools and expertise to deal with issues such as an engine flooded with water.

Of course, the further afield and more remote you are going, the more self-sufficient you need to be and the more equipment you may need to carry.

So, always try to think of the chance of a given problem occurring and the consequence if it does. If it is likely to happen and has a significant consequence, you really should be able to deal with it efficiently. If it is very unlikely to happen and has little consequence then far less so. 

Adventure motorcycle travel in Kyrgyzstan
A beautiful spot, but not somewhere you want to get stuck...

How to pack a motorcycle tool kit

Having used the above to decide what jobs you’re prepared to carry out on your motorcycle travels, next you need to ensure that you have the tools to be able to do so.

There are some very nice tool kits available. Some can be quite expensive and the drawback with many is that they are generic and include all sorts of elements that may or may not be appropriate for your bike. If the bike manufacturer provides a tool kit with the bike, then this is likely to be much more focused, however sometimes the quality is not particularly brilliant.

Practice doing the jobs you wish to do on the road whilst at home, and to use just the toolkit you carry on the bike to do them. This will quickly reveal the tools you need and those you don’t. Add any you find you need that are missing from your existing bike tool kit and remove any that you do not use.

It will also confirm if the quality of the tools is suitable. A good example of this is the spanners provided by some manufacturers that are not strong enough to undo axle nuts trailside that have been done up using socket sets with lots of leverage at home. You may want to upgrade some of your tools to typically make them stronger and lighter, normally these two things equal expensive. Motion Pro and Rolling Mavericks, for example, do gorgeous combination tyre levers with axle spanners which are incredibly light, strong and effective. But at price!

READ MORE: The Ultimate Adventure Bike Tool Kit

The ultimate adventure motorcycle tool kit

Storing your tool kit

Having got your tool kit together, look after it – if you leave it on the bike, repeatedly cover it in mud, then blast it with a jet wash the tools are unlikely to be in very good shape come the day you need them.

Where possible try to keep the weight of your tool kit low and central on the bike to minimise any effect it may have on the handling of the bike, and definitely try to avoid carrying it on your person in a rucksack etc – the weight can be at best fatiguing, and at worst the consequences of landing on it can be severe. Finally make sure it is held securely to the bike and cannot be shaken off (my favourite tool kit is somewhere in Morocco firmly attached to half a rear rack that parted company from my bike).

If you don’t have space in your luggage for tools, you could also consider making your own tool luggage.

READ MORE: DIY Motorcycle Tool Luggage

Adventure motorcycle tyres

Punctures

Whether you’re running tubed or tubeless tyres, the principle is the same. It really is a basic and required skill to be able to deal with a puncture. The best thing to do is to practice at home. If you use tubes, then new tyres present an excellent opportunity to perfect your skills (and save fitting costs).

If you can’t do it in a clean garage at home, you probably can’t do it in the mud and rain on the trailside. Use only the tools you carry on the bike. There are lots of ‘how to’ videos on the internet, find one you like and practice.

Our favourite bit of advice from one of these is ‘you need to be smarter than the tyre’ – if it is fighting you, with lots of effort needed, and you can hear the bead snapping – be smarter than the tyre and change what you are doing rather than just applying more force.

For tubeless tyres there are some very good kits available. Again, the suggestion is to practice – for example before replacing a worn out tyre try deliberately puncturing it to practice your repair skills.

Motorcycle tyre punctures are inevitable. Learn how to fix a puncture before you set off on your travels and be confident with it. Don’t forget, if your bike doesn’t have a centre stand, you will need to be able to lift the wheel off the ground while you are on the road, so consider carrying an enduro trail stand with you. Make sure you have all the tools for the job when you’re on the road. 

READ MORE: Rolling Mavericks Enduro Trail Stand Review

SW Motech Centre Stand

Rim lock

The purpose of a rim lock is to prevent the tyre slipping around the wheel when low pressures are used and consequently the bead of the tyre is not being pushed hard in to the rim of the wheel preventing movement.

If the tyre slips around the rim when using an inner tube, it will tear the valve out of the tube causing instant deflation. Tubeless tyres will not have the same instant problem the first time the tyre slips, but movement of the tyre around the rim creates heat, strange responses from the bike, and ultimately if the tyre comes away from the rim will suffer rapid deflation.

In hard enduro very low pressures are used, maybe 8psi in a tube, so the tyre moving around the rim would be common place. Rim locks prevent this, with sometimes two or even three being fitted to the rear wheel in extreme conditions to allow even lower pressures.

For travel, higher pressures are used to provide benefits that are valued in that environment which are not prioritised during hard enduro. Generally, the higher the pressure the less chance there is of the tyre slipping on the rim, and hence the less need for a rim lock. Similarly, the higher the pressure the less chance there is of compression punctures (the tyre impacting a square edged obstacle folding the tyre inwards towards the rim and pinching / tearing the inner tube), and of damaging the wheel rim.

Other factors to consider are the weight of the bike (including rider, pillion and luggage), the speed / aggression with which it is being ridden, and the type of terrain being ridden over – in slippery conditions for example the tyre will spin harmlessly against that surface, as opposed to gripping and transferring the force to where the tyre meets the rim.

Generally, the heavier the bike, the faster and more aggressively it is being ridden, and the grippier / rockier the terrain, the higher the pressure required to prevent the tyre spinning on the rim without assistance from a rim lock. Conveniently these higher pressures will also protect against compression punctures and damage to rims in the same conditions.

Depending on all these factors between 25 – 30psi is likely to be enough to avoid needing rim locks on midsize – large adventure bikes whilst travelling.

Motorcycle puncture in Turkey

Tyre sealant

A lot of marketing would like us to believe that tyre sealant will solve all problems. It works best with tubeless tyres with high pressures (eg. road bikes). It most definitely does not work with tubes for penetration punctures at low pressures or compression punctures. This tends to mean that it is of no use with lighter off-road bikes using tubed tyres and low pressures (low in this scenario meaning compared to road bikes).

Motorcycle inner tubes

If using inner tubes, always carry a spare and the tools needed to change it. A front will work as a temporary repair in a rear, the reverse will not. 

We prefer Heavy Duty compared to standard or Ultra Heavy Duty as the best compromise for size, weight and puncture prevention but are happy to accept that there are many equally valid views on the subject depending on the scenario. We would suggest that it would be harder to argue for cheap tubes.

One of the small hotel bars of soap can make a useful addition to the toolkit – small and lightweight but can make replacing tyres a lot easier (there is always water from a puddle or drinks system etc).

Motorcycle tyre pumps

CO2 canisters can be a good method of inflation and are easy to transport. You will probably need more than you think – try it at home. A hand pump that is small enough to carry will require a lot of effort to pop the bead on a motorcycle tyre.

Electric pumps are very convenient, generally you get what you pay for and if it is cheap it will be noisy, slow, and ineffective – again try it at home before needing it on the trail.

READ MORE: Rocky Creek Tyre Pump Review

Motorcycle Fluids

Dodgy fuel

Dodgy fuel normally means fuel with water or dirt in it. These alien substances cause particular problems with fuel injected bikes and can stop them running completely, a droplet of water can wedge in a fuel injector for example and render it useless. Carburettors tend to be a lot less fussy, may cough and splutter a bit, but will then carry on.

Corrective action centres around knowing where the fuel filters are on the bike (fuel injected bikes often have several), carrying spares and knowing how to replace them. Next would be knowing how to remove the fuel injector(s) and how to reverse flush and / or replace them.

This is likely to all become quite involved, so prevention is better than cure. Be aware of where you are buying fuel – if it is from a man out of the back of a pickup in 5 litre plastic bottles, care may be required.

Have a look at the plastic bottles, can you see grit in the fuel, water is denser than petrol so any that it contains will be in a silvery ‘puddle’ at the bottom of the bottle – stop pouring before you reach the puddle. Use a filter when filling, consider fitting filters to your filler neck (won’t stop water) or inline before the injector (some will stop water), don’t run the tank on your bike low and suck up all the rubbish at its bottom, and don’t fill up in a sand storm!

READ MORE: Mr Funnel Fuel Filter Review

Motorcycle Travel Lo Manthang Mustang Nepal

Motorcycle oil

This is a bit of a hornet’s nest – the official recommendation can only be to adhere to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Any mix of different grades or different types generally reduces the effectiveness of all the oil in the engine and should be avoided.

It may become a case of the least bad option though if in a remote location – if you are just a little bit low, probably best to run the bike (sympathetically!) as it is. If you are very low then it may be better to top up with the closest that is available and then do a full oil / filter change at the earliest opportunity. 

Motorcycle coolant

Coolant not only protects the engine in low temperatures, but also prevents it against internal corrosion at all temperatures. Pure water can be added as a top up, it will reduce the temperature down to which the engine is protected from freezing and it will lower the corrosion protection, but would be better than running the bike with low coolant level. Replace the coolant with the correct grade at the earliest opportunity. 

What to do if…

How to deal with a submerged motorcycle

The most important thing is that if a bike is heading underwater to make sure that the engine has stopped before it does. If not, it can suck in water through the air filter and, unlike air, that water will not compress as the engine turns over. The sudden stop when this happens (known as a hydraulic lock) can cause catastrophic damage.

So, make sure there is a kill switch accessible and to mentally prepare for accessing it before entering water crossings.

In terms of recovering a submerged bike, if there is any suspicion at all that the bike has taken in water DO NOT TURN IT OVER (by kick start or electric) as you may cause a hydraulic lock and expensive damage.

The principles of how to deal with a submerged bike are:

  • Take out (all) the spark plug(s) then turn the engine over with the starter motor or kick start to expel any ingested water.
  • Dry the airbox and inspect / replace the air filter.
  • Lift the bike vertically so it is sitting on just its back wheel to allow any water in the exhaust to drain.
  • Replace the spark plug(s), ideally with new.
  • Start the engine (there may be a lot of steam coming out of the exhaust as any water left in there is burnt off).
  • Check the oil and if it is at all milky replace it and the oil filter at the very first opportunity (this may need repeating until the oil remains clear). 
  • The specifics of how to perform the above may vary from bike to bike, and it is highly recommended that this is researched (and necessary tools carried) before putting the bike at risk.
New Zealand Motorcycle Travel Tour

Fault finding

Fault finding is a big topic and there’s a lot to cover as anything can happen to your bike. We’ll break it down to the fundamentals of what to consider here though.

Is the bike turning over on its electric or kick start? If not then investigate why not. If it is electric start then has the bike disabled itself (many now have a safety device called a rollover switch that will require the ignition key to be cycled before it will allow a start), is the sidestand down, is it in neutral and / or the clutch in (as appropriate to the bike). Are there any issues with any of those systems (sidestand switches are the most notorious and failure to carry a spare can result in a completely dead bike).

Does the battery have charge and are the terminals tight (a visually acceptable but loose terminal could prevent the bike turning over), is the starter switch / relay working, are the earthing points / wiring / fuses ok.

If it is turning over but not firing it could be that roll over switch, cycle the ignition key and try again. If still not firing then more in-depth investigation is required. The good news is that engines want to run – if they have air, fuel, and a spark at the right time they can’t stop themselves. So if it will not run one of those things must be missing and it is a matter of logically working through which it is.

Make sure that the air intake and exhaust outlet are not blocked.

Does the bike smell of petrol – if it stinks of the stuff then there is no shortage and maybe it is flooded (this is less likely for fuel injected bikes, but if so know the way to cure it). If it doesn’t smell at all then maybe none is getting through – is there any in the tank, is the fuel tank breather clear (if it is blocked it can cause a vacuum preventing fuel leaving the tank), if there is a fuel tap is it on, can you hear the fuel pump priming when the ignition is turned on?

If you have air and fuel then maybe it is the spark that is missing. If you feel confident and know how to, remove a plug and hold it against the engine to see if you can see it sparking when the bike is being turned over.

The above suggests a very basic route for fault finding, and it will vary from bike to bike. The most important principle is to start with the easy and eliminate those first. Many a bike has been stripped down on the side of the trail searching for a fault for someone to then cycle the ignition key and bring it back to life.

A bit of knowledge and some well chosen tools will go a long way. Perhaps do some research or attend a course.

Electrics

The principle of what is the likelihood of a problem occurring and what would be the consequences if it does will determine what is appropriate in terms of knowledge to acquire and tools / parts to carry. However, some spare electrical connectors, a bit of cable, some tape and fuses are all small and light and can be incorporated into most tool kits easily. 

If you’re stuck with a dead battery and the local shop doesn’t have your size then consider this. All motorcycle batteries, to our knowledge at least, are 12 volts. A larger battery just has a greater reserve of them. So fitting a ‘larger’ battery just means a greater reserve, and a ‘smaller’ battery has less reserve. Neither will do the bike any harm, but the ‘smaller’ may run out of reserve if the bike is started repeatedly, used in the cold, etc.

The greater concern is likely to be whether the battery physically fits in the bike, and whether the terminals are in the correct position.

Towing

Much potential for hilarity and injury! Again, there are plenty of places online that will show different methods. Find one you like and then practice it before you need it, and of course carry a suitable ‘rope’. Towing efficiently is a skill, if the first time you are doing it you are tired, on a loaded bike on uneven ground, with consequences if it fails then it is unlikely to go well. We favour the method from footpeg to opposite footpeg.

Final thoughts

Generally, modern bikes and equipment are extremely reliable. This is good but does mean that as problems are less often faced, they are less often prepared for.

Prevention is always better than cure – think about the water crossing and its possible consequences before embarking on it, be conscious that fuel is not of the same quality around the world, and if the bike has lots of aftermarket electrical accessories consider if they have been installed as well as the original manufacturer’s wiring.

Modern bikes can be daunting if there is an issue, partly because they are so complex, and partly because we do not often need to work on them. But with a calm and logical approach, and some basic tools, many issues can be overcome surprisingly easily. Don’t make the appearance of a problem in the middle of nowhere be the first time you open your tool kit and try to understand your bike.

There is much valuable information online, or attend a course. Our ‘Adventure Ready’ course at rallyadventurebike.com based in the UK covers the issues raised in this article.

About the author

Adventure Rally Bike Honda CRF300L Howard

Howard runs rallyadventurebike.com. Rally Adventure Bike is based in the Southeast of England, they offer a range of products and services focused on the preparation and use of big bikes for rally and adventure bike travel. 

“Our adventure academy delivers big bike rider coaching at a number of fantastic sites in Kent and Sussex. From the very first tentative steps off-road to preparation for international rallies, our training is personal, relevant, and always fun!

We also provide full workshop facilities to prepare your bike from anything from a day’s local trail riding, to intercontinental adventure, to competition riding and Rallies.

We only supply parts which have proved themselves during our own competition and travel experiences. We will not recommend any parts that we have not tested ourselves.”

Check out Howard’s off-road training school and workshop here:

Read more on motorcycle maintenance and preparation

Thanks for checking out The Adventure Bike Field Mechanics Guide. We hope you enjoyed it! Here’s a few more articles on motorcycle maintenance, mechanics and adventure bikes that we recommend you read next. 

Try these next…

Do you have any questions about adventure bike field mechanics, tips or suggestions? Let us know in the comments below. 

Leave a comment