Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Could You Bug Out on a Harley?

I've posted recently about motorcycles as alternative bug-out vehicles, specifically dual-sport adventure type bikes like my KLR 650.  My new book, Bug Out Vehicles and Shelters: Build and Outfit Your Life-Saving Escape will feature a chapter on motorcycles and the key considerations you must take into account if you were to choose the two-wheeled option for bugging-out.  Needless to say, researching this book has been interesting.  One story I've been following for a few months is Doug Wothke's winter bike building project, in which he converted a stock Harley Davidson 1200 Custom Sportster to a capable dual-sport motorcycle he calls the "Dirtster," (and XL GS). 

Doug (rtwdoug) on the Adventure Rider (ADV) Motorcycle forums, is well-known for his outrageous long-distance adventures on unlikely motorcycles.  He's ridden an Indian Chief and two Harley Davidson choppers most of the way around the world, and has taken more conventional adventure bikes like the KLR all over places like Africa.  Doug, who lives over in neighboring Alabama, takes a big adventure trip every summer, and this customized Sportster was built to take him across Europe and Asia and the extreme eastern end of Siberia, to Magadan, hence the need for improved suspension, knobby tires and a bigger fuel tank.  Here is the route, outbound leg in brown, return in white:  

He chose the 1200 Sportster for it's near bullet-proof Evolution engine, which is simple, requires little maintenance other than oil changes, and produces loads of low-end torque like all Harley V-Twin engines.  The Sportster frame is better in this application than the bigger bikes since it is lighter and more agile and has the best power-to-weight ratio of any stock Harley.  Doug began with this 2003 100-year Anniversary Edition:

Modifications included converting the belt drive to a chain drive, to avoid the chance of breaking the belt due to small stones getting between it and the pulleys, which can happen on gravel roads. The front forks were exchanged for KTM forks, and rear suspension switched out for longer travel and a taller stance.  Forward controls were dispensed with for rear-set mid-controls with off-road style pegs.  The exhaust system was upgraded to the get pipes up where they would clear the water on river crossings, and tires were switched out for knobbies.  The stock 3.3 gallon fuel tank was replaced with a custom 4.2 gallon tank for more range.  Sportsters get up to about 50 mpg., so it's good for around 200 miles between fill-ups.  Other additions were things like the dual headlights with protective grill, the custom engine guard, racks for aluminum panniers and the Pelican-type waterproof top box:

Doug has begun his journey and is posting updates in this thread on the ADV forums:

Shortly after completing the build, he posted this YouTube video of a test run down a muddy, north Alabama road:

Examples like this show that sometimes the best vehicles for a particular purpose are not anything you can go out and buy off the showroom floor.  While Doug could certainly  do this trip on a KLR 650 or a BMW GS 1200, there's something to be said for the satisfaction of doing it your own way and highly modifying an existing machine.  I'm not the mechanic Doug is, but I know from my own experiences with boats, that the way to get exactly what I want is to build my own, which is what I'm doing in the case of my Tiki 26 catamaran.  I just thought I'd share this interesting journey for those who might be contemplating motorcycles as bug-out vehicles or back-up vehicles. 


  1. He fixed the two biggest complaints I have against that bike: suspension and fuel capacity. After an hour or so on the standard bike, you are happy for a fuel stop and a leg stretch. Noticed his seat looks pretty comfy too.

  2. Yeah, you're right about that. The 2-inch travel stock suspension will beat you to death. Seats make a huge difference too. I wish it had about a 5-gallon tank.

  3. In case you weren't aware, many years ago, HD tried to patent the sound of their V Twin Exhaust note.They lost the lawsuit but that should spell volumes and save me a lot of time arguing against a Harley, you can hear them coming for miles on a still day.
    Not that I don't like Harley's.

  4. Sure, they can be loud, but not too bad depending on the exhaust set-up. Stock pipes on the Sportster are not all that loud. Of course, this is a disadvantage of any motor vehicle to some extent.

  5. Being total motorcycle newbie, how does this Harley compare to the 883 Sportster? 2006 to be exact - my wife has one of those, and it seems like a pretty nice ride (but then again, I'm a newbie.) Quiet is good - her 750 Honda Ace is WAY louder.

  6. Engine displacement aside (1200 vs 883), this bike has had some mods to extend the range, comfort, and suspension tweaks to deal with rougher riding surfaces.

  7. Anonymous: The 833 and 1200 Sportsters are essentially the same bikes, as far as the frame and other components. You can get a kit to convert the 833 to a 1200. There are many subtle differences in the various models over the years, but a big difference between your wife's 2006 and Doug's 2003 is that after 2003, the Sportsters had rubber-mounted engines and are heavier. Doug was specifically looking for one in the 1995-2003 range with the rigid mount engine because of the lighter weight and no need to worry about the mounts. But be assured, all modern Harleys are extremely reliable machines, simple to work on, great parts availability, etc. You can can't go wrong with the Sportster in any flavor.

    Dustin is right that this one has been modified quite a bit. Converting one to a Dirtster like Doug did is not all that expensive or difficult if you can do your own work, welding, etc.

  8. Scott that is a sweet ride. I could defiantly bug out on that bad boy. He has that thing tricked out for any terrain. I think that a motorcycle give you more maneuverability but it offers a bit less protection. But I will take speed over protection any day.

  9. BadVooDooDaddy, yeah, I sure wouldn't mind having it. Motorcycles do present a lot of advantages and disadvantages. I am going into the advantages and disadvantages of each type of bug-out vehicle extensively in the new book. Like every other piece of gear, every vehicle is a compromise in one way or the other and you have to decide which compromises you can live with and which advantages make a particular choice better for your own situation.

  10. Thanks for the comments Scott about the 883. Fwiw, the Ace developed a head gasket leak and is getting replaced at the moment. The mechanic opinion (just his opinion so please don't kill the messenger :^) ), was that the Honda would likely last longer in the long run. It pained him to say that, as he is a big Harley fan, but that was his opinion.

    Thanks again.

  11. Scott, I'm sure you'll address this in the book, but I'm sure the BOV can sculpt or influence your plan and style of survival as much as vehicle type reflects lifestyle in a non-emergency world.

    If a person has little experience with motorcycles, it may be a poor choice to suddenly jump in and build a full-blown hard-use one for a BOV - conversely, people who have no experience with 4x4s should be careful to not go and buy/outfit something rapidly otherwise find that they have invested a lot of money in preps and mods that may or may not be suitable to their needs/skills/budget.

  12. Anonymous, For a long time, I was not a Harley fan, but the more I learn about them through reading the anecdotal evidence and from owning one myself, I have concluded that they require less maintenance and cost less to keep running over the long haul than most other bikes. As far as the Honda outlasting the 883, you have to look back far enough and see how many old Hondas vs. old Harleys you see still on the road. The old Harleys just seem to keep going forever. They don't get junked, as they can easily be rebuilt when needed and everything on them is metal. Parts are everywhere, even in small towns.

  13. Dustin, Certainly good points, and yes, I do address that in the book. Motorcycles are certainly not for everyone, just as other alternative transportation covered in the book is not. It's probably best not to chose a type of BOV that requires learning a whole new skill set unless you are willing to invest in it over the long term and do what it takes to get the most out of it. The same applies to other BOV options in the book: powerboats,sailboats, RVs, ATVs, bicycles, canoes, kayaks, etc.

  14. That's an awful heavy bike for buggin' out and a lot of work to bring it up to par. I'd recommend a lighter, dual purpose bike that already has a big aftermarket following for bug out tweaks such as the DR650 Suzuki or , if you want a lesser bike, opt for the KLR. Lol, just kidding Scott

  15. Nothing else has the accumulated aftermarket parts support Sportsters do, and as the video of the gent motocrossing a street legal Sporty demonstrates they are still true to their ancient scrambler roots. None of the other candidates have the decades of sales volume, and a bug out bike isn't a racer. It need only be a classic scrambler because you aren't racing which breaks equipment. Maintaining a reasonable pace on the air cooled (one pinhole and a water-cooled engine requires repair) and you are stuck.
    You could get the job done just fine for moderate speed use with a tire, handlebar and fuel tank swap. If you think I'm kidding consider military motorcycles of the WWII era which except for the superb BMW sidehack rigs with a full rear differential are quite modestly sprung and run much hotter than an Evo Sportster.

    If you aren't a mechanic you should probably stick with common four-wheeled bug out vehicles anyway, but if you are paranoid enough to prep you'd damn well better learn to spin a wrench or you WILL be helpless in many ways if the excrement ever does hit the Emerson.
    In that respect HD manuals and parts books are the best in the industry. I'm a multibrand owner and mechanic. If I had to bug out I'd take my FXR, but I'll be building a Dirtster for fun.



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