These stolen motorcycles were recovered by the Boston Police. Photo courtesy of Boston Police Department.

Practical Motorcycle Security for Touring Rides

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It’s 11pm, do you know where your motorcycle is?  Most would say “sure, right where I left it”.  Unfortunately for some, an unpleasant surprise awaits.  Motorcycle theft is a real problem across the country and in Canada and Mexico too.  The more you know about the problem and how to protect against theft the better chance of finding your motorcycle right where you left it.

Every stolen motorcycle affects someone’s pocketbook and inevitably creates misery at the most inopportune time.  Motorcycles can disappear on a ride as easily as they do from home.  Whether at home or on the road, taking steps to keep from falling victim to theft is time well spent. 

Two motorcycles locked to a rusty storm drain by a tangled assortment of chains
If a thief can’t cut the chain, the next option is to remove the wheel; chaining the rear makes that much harder. Photo by Matt Green.

Keeping a motorcycle safe at home is easier than while touring.  Motorcycle security at home can leverage options that are simply not practical on a tour.  For example, a garage to park in.  Or in the absence of a garage, a post or immovable object to chain the bike to.  Cameras are often available to keep an eye on things at all hours.   But these options are not available or practical on a tour.  Who wants to haul 5 feet of chain weighing anywhere from 15 to 20 pounds on a ride?  And cameras?  No way.

Touring riders by necessity are forced to strike a balance between adequate anti-theft measures and touring quality and convenience.  This article will help make informed security choices using practical methods to give your motorcycle a fighting chance against the bad guys.     

Motorcycles Are Stolen as Often as Other Vehicles

It may be reassuring to know that as a group motorcycles are no more at risk of theft than any other motor vehicle.  The total number of registered motorcycles in the United States is a low 3 percent of total vehicle registrations, yet both motorcycles and all other motor vehicles are stolen at virtually the same 1% per year rate. 

Motorcycle registration data table for California Florida and Texas from 2019
NICB 2019 data for states with the highest number of motorcycle registrations show motorcycles are stolen at virtually the same rate as all motor vehicles.

Thieves supply a thriving market in stolen motorcycles and motorcycle parts.  Crime data reveal that thieves don’t target one motorcycle make over another.  The number of stolen Honda’s for example is in proportion to the number of Hondas registered, likewise with other makes.  Police acknowledge that motorcycle thieves are opportunistic, taking the easiest, least secure, targets first rather than seeking out specific makes and models.     

But the story is not all bad.  Since 2016 the number of stolen motorcycles has steadily declined.  In 2019, 41,000 motorcycles were stolen which may seem like a big number, but that’s 3% below 2018 and a pretty significant 12% decrease from 2016.  


How to Steal a Motorcycle

The most common method to nab a motorcycle is to simply pick it up, put it in a van or truck, and drive off.  No need to know how to ride and no time wasted fiddling with the ignition.  Advances like passive keyless entry systems make a ride-off virtually impossible.  Without a matching key fob, the engine control computer remains disabled, and no amount of hot-wiring ingenuity will get past that.          

Two men in an und3rground parking garage lifting a motorcycle into the back of a pickup
Video surveillance caught these two trying to haul a motorcycle away in a pick-up. Photo courtesy of Seattle Stolen Motorcycle Registry.

Chains aren’t a sure thing either.   Most of the time a thief can cut through even the best locking chain in less than 5 minutes.   A chain will slow them down, and it may discourage them, but it won’t stop them if the bike is left in an out of the way location.

Once stolen, most bikes are disassembled and sold off for parts.  In today’s data-everywhere world with highly accurate and timely registration and VIN numbers readily available, it has become much harder to sell a hot bike.  The tendency to part out rather than sell a stolen bike may help explain why only 44% are recovered (per NICB data for 2018) compared with 59% of stolen cars. 

A Practical Approach to Lower Risk

Touring riders can take practical steps to keep their motorcycle out of the hands of a thief.  Since the same strong security tactics used at home are either limited by the constraints or off the table all together on a ride, we recommend two measures to significantly reduce the risk of theft. 

The first is to consistently use the locks that come standard on every motorcycle.  No exceptions.  And the second is to strengthen those with a few extra steps that are easy to take on a tour.  Using this two-part approach gives riders flexibility to apply appropriate tactics in any situation.

Of course, no anti-theft strategy guarantees total protection, but these steps are sure to make your motorcycle a less attractive target.  Real-world experience shows thieves pass over bikes with good security in favor of those with little or none.  Put these steps to work every time you park.

Built-in Security for Daytime Stops

The first step to secure your motorcycle is obvious and hopefully routine – lock the ignition.  Perhaps less routine, but still helpful, is locking the steering head.  Steering head locks may have a reputation for being easy to defeat, but they still act as a deterrent and are worth the minimal extra effort to use. 

Once locked, remember to remove the key or key fob.  Don’t leave extra keys on the bike, particularly in an obvious location such as a tank bag or tail bag.  These simple steps form the foundation for a solid security strategy.  

Hand turning the key to lock a motorcycle ignition
Always lock the ignition and the steering head, and take the keys.

There are a few more simple things to consider every time you park.  Even before locking the motorcycle take a look at the surrounding area.  Be sure you are comfortable that the bike is in a safe spot. Try to park where you can keep an eye on it from wherever you are going, or at least park in a place that can be seen by local shop owners, hotel keepers, and as many pedestrians as possible.  If you park in a hotel garage, look for a spot with security cameras.  The more visible the better.  And of course park in a legal space – you don’t want to lose your bike to a tow truck. 

Two more important things every rider should do before leaving home.  First, store an image of your title and registration on your phone or on internet accessible cloud storage such as Microsoft OneDrive.  Don’t keep either document on the motorcycle.  The police can work from an image of the registration should you need it for a traffic stop.  Same thing applies to insurance cards, keep an image on your phone or in the cloud.  And don’t forget to keep pictures of your bike available just in case.

These basic steps are all you reasonably need for most stops on a touring day, whether at lunch or perhaps to get a closer look at a national monument.  Together with passing pedestrians and the light of day, the odds are good that your bike will be right where you left it.


Add Locks & Alarms for Overnight Security

When the riding day ends, and the time comes to park the bike for the night, good security is more important than ever.  Motorcycles are stolen at all hours, but most thefts occur at night under cover of darkness.

Start by using all the security that comes with your bike, just as you would if you were parking for lunch.  But be extra careful about choosing your spot.  Look for good overnight lighting.  If parking at a hotel, an ideal location is one that can be seen from the front desk.  If that’s not possible then find a busy location such as near a side door where people may pass by at any time.  Set the locks – ignition and steering head.  Remove the keys.

Unlike short stops during the day, additional security beyond ignition locks are recommended for overnight parking.  Thieves don’t expect riders to return to their motorcycles until morning. That gives them plenty of time to break locks, lift bikes into trucks, and even simply roll them away.  It’s essential to make all of that as hard as possible.  Here are three recommendations which when added to built-in locks and a well-chosen parking spot, will go a long way to frustrate a thief.

Don’t Let it Roll

You can easily prevent rollaway theft by using a disc lock. These locks are small, easy to bring along on a tour, and highly effective.  The lock clamps to a front rotor (or less commonly the rear) using a pin through a disc vent or cut-away. 

motorcycle brake rotor with Xena disc lock attached
Disc-locks are easy to use and an effective theft deterrent. Xena product image.

Once on, the wheel won’t turn past the brake caliper preventing a thief from simply rolling the bike away.  The best disc locks are made from high-strength steel, use 14mm locking pins, and have freeze-proof mechanisms.  Some disc locks also come with a built-in motion-activated alarm.  Because a disc lock weighs less than 2 pounds and measures approximately 8x7x2 inches they’re easy to pack in a tail bag.  A good disc lock is likely to cost about $125. 

Make Some Noise

Fundamentally, motorcycle alarms come in two designs; either integrated with a disc lock or built into the motorcycle itself.  The choice largely comes down to cost and convenience.  Both can be effective. 

Good alarms detect motion, allow the user to set motion sensitivity, and emit a siren of at least 110db when tripped.  Unlike the alarm on a disc lock, a built-in alarm comes with a remote control to activate and deactivate the alarm.  Some may automatically deactivate when the owner approaches.

A disc lock alarm is the easiest solution.  But disc lock alarms are tricky to operate and frequently activate while locking or unlocking from the bike.  Setting the right motion sensitivity level can be challenging.  In spite of all this, a disc lock alarm is certainly better than nothing at all.    

Built-in motorcycle alarm systems on the other hand offer more sophisticated options.  The motion sensitivity can be adjusted, a remote control enables arming and disarming from a distance, and because the alarm is built-in it is convenient to use during the riding day.  Some of the more advanced alarm systems will send an alert to the rider’s mobile device if motion is detected.  A good quality built-in alarm can cost between $200 and $300 dollars.    

Gorilla motorcycle alarm components set in front of packaging
This alarm from Gorilla includes advanced features such as two-way paging. Gorilla product image.

By now you may be asking “what about LoJack?”  LoJack systems are designed to send a notification to the police and to a monitoring service in the event the motorcycle is moved.  The system uses GPS tracking and has effectively helped police with recovery. However, its important to recognize that LoJack systems are not designed to prevent theft in the first place.  Several years ago LoJack stopped selling products for motorcycles and effective June 18th 2021 will do the same for cars.  Similar GPS-based tracking products are available; all require purchase of a tracking device and an on-going subscription fee for the service itself.         

Cover it Up

Locks and alarms can help keep your motorcycle safe overnight, but for an extra measure of assurance we recommend using a bike cover.   Hiding the bike simply prevents a thief from making a drive-by assessment.  He or she is likely to roll right past your bike in favor of the next plainly visible target.  Covers also keep curious hands away and protect the bike from the weather. 

Even with a cover, it’s a good idea to remove lose items like GPS systems, tank bags, and tail bags.  Lock them in the side cases. 

Tote bag and motorcycle under a black and gray Nelson Rigg cover
A good quality motorcycle cover will help deter thieves. Nelson-Rigg product image.

A good quality motorcycle cover is completely waterproof, covers the entire bike, is made from strong material, has gromets to lock it down, and is still light enough to stuff into a compression bag.  Covers from Nelson-Rigg are a good example of a quality cover at a fair price. To learn more about motorcycle covers read How to Pick the Right Motorcycle Cover.


What To Expect Should Anti-theft Defenses Fail

Consistently applying good security practices will help assure your motorcycle stays safe on a touring ride.  But defenses are never foolproof.  Sometimes the bad guys win.  When that happens the emotional toll is hard to quantify.  Having a reaction plan in mind will help take some of the stress out of the situation.

Even while coming to grips with the reality of the situation immediate steps must be taken.  The sooner one acts the better chances of a recovery.

Confirm your bike really was stolen – Look around the area.  Perhaps someone had a reason to move it.  Or maybe the bike was towed because it was in a no parking zone?  Check with the hotel front desk or security. 

Call the Police – Once you confirm the bike was stolen, it’s time to call the police.  Be ready to describe the motorcycle, and provide pictures if you can, along with important details like license plate number and registration information including the VIN.  The responding officer will give you a copy of the police report containing the Police Report Number.  Your insurance company will want a copy of the police report.

Scout the area – Double-up with a riding buddy or call an Uber to drive you around the neighborhood.  A joy rider may have left the bike a few blocks away.  Definitely a longshot but going the extra mile will keep you from second guessing yourself later.

Call your insurance company – Similar to the police, be ready to describe the circumstances and provide the police report.  Depending on your policy the insurance company may cover a rental car.  Beyond that, there’s not much they can do to help while you are on the road. 

Be vigilant – While stolen motorcycles often go straight to the chop shop, sometimes they wind up on Craigslist for a quick sale.  It doesn’t hurt to check online listings for a few weeks. 

Take Smart and Practical Security Precautions

Sport Touring rider looking through a corner at modest speed
Ride more, worry less about theft. Photo by Michael B.

There’s no getting around the emotional toll and inconvenience of having your motorcycle stolen.  It’s bad enough to lose a bike near home, but orders of magnitude worse when it happens on a ride. 

The recommendations in this article can’t guarantee your bike won’t be stolen, but they will tilt the odds in your favor.   Keeping your motorcycle safe in any situation comes down to awareness and consistently following good security practices.

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National Insurance Crime Bureau motorcycle theft data
Insurance Information Institute; Facts & Statistics