Motorcycle Touring With A Pillion: A How-To Guide!

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Touring with a pillion can be a daunting experience for all concerned.

I remember the first time my other half said she wanted to come touring with me. I was devastated!

But as it happens, it can actually be a really nice experience for both of you providing you each master the basics.

And as the rider, it’s certainly worth doing. Because now it means you no longer have to faff about at toll booths trying to find the passports and money!

Touring With A Pillion: The Brief

Do you remember the first time you got on a motorcycle? That strange concoction of feelings from nervousness, apprehension, and excitement?

Your pillion will feel the same, so take the time to go through a verbal brief to calm those nerves.

rider and passenger on bmw xr - touring with a pillion
Touring with a pillion should always start with a brief (image via BMW)

Relax

If your pillion is scared, they’re likely to tense up. And if they tense up, it will directly affect your control of the bike.

Intuitively, they will want to remain stiff in the centre of the bike (just like you did when you starting riding.)

Or, worse yet, they may want to lean against you in the bends in an attempt to counterbalance the bike and therefore keep it upright.

Be sure to explain that they need to stay relaxed and neutral. When they feel more comfortable, they can lean into the bends with you and participate a little more.

Slowing Down & Speeding Up

Don’t forget to discuss how acceleration and deceleration affect the bike. Let your pillion know that as you accelerate, they will tip backwards slightly.

And similarly, they will tip forwards a little when you apply the brakes.

As they get used to it, they will begin to read the road and anticipate speed changes.

Finally, establish a safety signal. It’s important to remember that you (as a rider) are used to the movement and power of a motorcycle. Your passenger isn’t!

Having a signal (such as a squeeze of the hips or a tap on the leg) gives them more control. It allows them to communicate with you that they’re not okay.

rider and passenger on kawasaki versys
Machine (and passenger) sympathy enhance the ride when touring with a pillion (image via Kawasaki)

Prep Your Bike For Touring With A Pillion

Tyre Pressures

You shouldn’t really need to do all that much to a modern bike with regards to preparing it for two-up riding. Many of them these days have electronic aids that change settings at the push of a button.

That said, it’s always worth checking the recommended tyre pressures for two-up riding in your owners manual. Adjust them accordingly to deal with the additional weight.

Suspension

Secondly, add some pre-load to the rear shock and ease off the rebound by upping the compression by 25%

Touring With A Pillion: Get Them The Right Kit!

If you as a rider are wearing full kit, your passenger should be wearing full kit as well.

It’s no good wearing all the protective gear when your pillion is wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and an ill-fitting helmet.

Not only is it bad form, but legally you are responsible for the safety of your passenger.

At the very least, your pillion will need the following:

  • A protective jacket and pants
  • A pair of supportive boots
  • Some protective gloves
  • A full-face helmet that is in good condition and is the right size
red honda vfr 1200 - touring with a pillion
Touring with a pillion means making sure they are protected (image via Honda)

Crank Up The Sensitivity With Bluetooth

If possible, install a Bluetooth intercom (such as Sena) into your helmets. The first time I took my partner out on my bike, the intercom proved invaluable in terms of reassurance.

Not only could I confirm she was okay, but she could ask questions on the fly. She could speak to me at every given moment which in turn helped her relax.

Touring With A Pillion: Mounting & Dismounting

The simplest way of doing it is by you (the rider) getting on the bike first.

Lift the bike off the stand then kick it up into its stowed position. With two feet on the ground, centre the bars and apply the front brake.

Get your pillion to put their left hand on your left shoulder (and if possible, their right hand on your right shoulder.)

Then ask them to place their left foot on the left pillion peg.

In one smooth, continuous motion, they should swing their right leg over the bike and sit gently onto their seat.

From here, their right foot should be on the right passenger foot peg and they can let go of you.

To get off the bike, the same process is followed in reverse.

honda goldwing with rider and passenger
The first part of touring with a pillion is going through how to get on and off the bike (image Honda)

Touring With A Pillion: Holding On

Once on the bike for the first time, most pillions don’t know what to do with their hands.

If it’s your partner, it’s a little easier because it doesn’t really matter where they put their hands. But if it’s a mate, things can get a little icky!

Utilising The Grab Rail

Ideally, they will hold on to the grab rails. But most people usually need to work up to this position so I often just tell them to wrap both arms around my waist.

Once they get a bit more used to it, ask them to try one arm around your waist and the other arm behind them holding on to the grab rail.

If that’s okay, then they can let go of you completely and just use the grab rails.

Bonus tip: Use a top box if you have one. Having something physical to lean back on gives an inexperienced pillion confidence that they aren’t going to fly off the back.

honda vfr 1200 with rider and passenger in mountains - touring with a pillion
Go through the various options of holding on before touring with a pillion (image via Honda)

Mind That Wrist

Once you’re both good to go, you can make things a lot more comfortable by being careful with the throttle.

As with everything on a bike, it’s a balancing act. With the additional weight, you’ll need to be assertive with the throttle to get the bike off the line smoothly.

But too much throttle, and you could catch your unsuspecting passenger off-guard.

Your pillion won’t be anticipating any sudden acceleration. And don’t forget, they don’t have the bars to hold on to like you do.

Shift Smoothly

When changing from first to second, you’ll need to shift as usual whilst trying to keep it as smooth as possible.

For the rest of the upshifts, most bikes allow for clutchless shifting. When done correctly, this keeps things nice and smooth. Just be sure to ease off the throttle for a split second as you shift.

Coming down the gears, you’ll need to use your clutch. Try slipping the clutch at the end of the lever travel to minimise the effects of deceleration.

bmw xr with rider and passenger
Use machine sympathy when touring with a pillion to keep movements on the bike smooth and predictable (image via BMW)

Gentle On the Brakes

As mentioned above, excessive braking will cause your pillion to shunt forwards. Slamming on the brakes leads to accidental head butting, plus you’ll end up with a 23-litre fuel tank in your crotch

Use your rear brake more in order to keep the bike as level as possible.

Give Yourself Some Distance

With a pillion (especially one who’s never ridden before) everything you do needs to be a touch slower and a touch smoother than if by yourself.

With this in mind, leave yourself a slightly larger gap between yourself and the vehicle in front. Your ride will be smoother if you can ease off the throttle and allow a little more engine braking.

Dink, Dink, Dink

That’s the sound of your pillion’s helmet banging into yours.

It’s funny at first, and we can all have a laugh about it. But after a while, it can be incredibly frustrating for both of you.

Known offenders that cause the dreaded “dink” are:

  • Decelerating sharply (instantly coming off the throttle instead of rolling off gently)
  • Too harsh on the front brake
  • Too harsh on the throttle
  • Sudden deceleration from a downwards gear change
  • Letting your clutch out too quickly after gear changes
rider and passenger on touring bmw - touring with a pillion
The dreaded helmet dink is inevitable when touring with a pillion. Put a plan in place to prevent it! (Image via BMW)

Don’t Be A D*ck

Lastly, do you remember when you passed your driving test? You were 18 years old and in no doubt convinced that your handbrake turns would get you all the girls. Remember that?

Never worked, did it?!

And it won’t work now, either.

You can start to increase everything gradually as your pillion becomes more confident. But until then, keep things calm, slow, and predictable.

Showing off could put them off for life. And if they panic, it could result in both of you skidding across the tarmac.

Touring With A Pillion: Conclusion

To summarise, motorcycle touring with a pillion can be an incredible experience, especially if it’s with someone you love.

Allowing them a glimpse into your riding life serves to bring you closer as you forge yet more memories together.

If you play your cards right, you might even inspire them to get a bike of their own. And that means you get to have your bike all to yourself again!

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Top image via Total Motorcycle

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