TOTW: Use your odometer as a fuel gauge

The riding tips on these pages are my personal opinion about matters related to motorcycle riding. They are not the official position of any organization, and are for your consideration only. They are not hard and fast rules, they should not necessarily be applied in all circumstances, and they should not be applied without thinking. Always use your judgement and take all current safety factors into account while riding. You are responsible for your riding, not anyone else (especially me). These tips were originally published by a motorcycle riding course, called “Tip of the Week” (the reason for the TOTW in the titles).

Most cars now have a resetable “trip odometer”. This used to be considered a high-end accessory — an option on most cars, and standard on expensive ones. Have you ever wondered why every motorcycle, even the least expensive, has one, and why they have been standard on motorcycles for many years? It’s not a luxury item, it’s a fuel gauge.

An accurate fuel gauge

Many motorcycles lack a standard fuel gauge and, even when present, they are notoriously inaccurate. (They tend to be nonlinear, meaning the second “half” of the marked capacity is much smaller than the first “half”.) However, bikes use fuel at a very consistent rate and odometers are quite accurate, so your trip odometer will tell you how much further you can ride on the fuel in your tank. This is especially handy when you are about to ride through a region you know has few gas stations — how far can you ride before you are out of gas?

Learning your range

To use your odometer this way, you have to get into the habit of completely filling the tank every time you add gas (i.e., Fill it to the same level, near the top — no half-tanks). At the same time, note the odometer reading and then reset it to zero. When around town, where there is no real danger of running out of gas, let your bike run out of main-tank gas and switch to reserve before gassing up. Note the odometer reading where you had to switch to reserve. (If you have a low-fuel warning light instead of a reserve tank, modify these instructions accordingly.) After a couple of times through this exercise, you will have a very accurate picture of how many kilometers you can ride before you hit your reserve.

It is also very useful to know how far you can ride on the reserve tank. On most bikes, it’s rather farther than you think. When you switch to reserve, reset your trip odometer and then note the reading when you get to a gas station. You now know you can go at least that far on reserve. Every time you over-stretch your range you will learn more about your reserve capacity.

Actually letting your reserve tank run dry is a useful exercise, the ultimate test of your real riding range. If you’re going to try this, however, remember to make arrangements to have extra fuel brought to you, or with a travelling companion, and do it in safe circumstances, not in freeway rush hour. (We know experienced riders who have forgotten the spare fuel part of this experiment.) Also, to avoid fuel line problems, start and refill with fresh gas, not the jerry can that sat in your garage all winter.

If you do run out of fuel, and have to switch to reserve, when far from a town, you will probably feel an urge to hurry, to find the next gas station quickly. You must fight this urge. Riding faster uses more fuel, and it is fuel, not time, that you are low on. When you switch to reserve, slow down.


  1. I used this method on my 1200 Standard Beetle (no gauge) back in the Sixties. It’s not that its odometer was accurate, necessarily. It’s that, having a gear drive, it can be relied upon to be consistent in its error (except perhaps, when you have almost-bald tires – but I used to make allowances for that. Owing to the slow-revving lack of torque on the VW, fuel consumption remained consistent – like a motorcycle!

  2. The only obstacle to this method is completely filling the tank every time we add gas. Otherwise its a fine solution. Something different and unique.

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