There is nothing worse than the dreaded click when pressing the electric starter button on your motorcycle. It this happens out on a ride, far from home, even worse! So how do you start a motorcycle with a dead battery?
The most reliable way to start a motorcycle with a dead battery is by jump starting it from another battery or a portable battery starter pack. You can bump start your motorcycle if it has a carburetor, but a fuel injected bike may be difficult to push start due to the electronic fuel pump requiring power.
There are several ways you can get your motorcycle going again if the battery doesn’t have enough charge to crank the starter motor. Some methods are more reliable than others, and it is important to plan for this kind of situation.
I did some research and here is what I’ve found.
Starting a bike with a dead battery
The battery in your motorcycle can run out of juice for various reasons. It may be old and ready for retirement. Motorcycle batteries can generally last 3 to 5 years with proper maintenance. If you don’t ride often and never charge it, it may reach its end much sooner. Another cause of a dead battery could be that some electrical component is drawing current. You may have forgotten the lights on, or an aftermarket accessory is not wired correctly.
Whatever the reason, if your battery does not have enough charge to start the engine with the starter button, you need to have it tested. Any of the techniques to get the bike going again we discuss in this article is just a temporary fix to get you back to civilization.
Some of the techniques to start your motorcycle with a dead battery are more reliable than others, especially on heavy, modern bikes with electronic ignition, fuel injection and electric fuel pumps.
The 5 most popular techniques are discussed in the order of reliability.
- Jump start from another motorcycle or car
- Jump start using a battery starter pack
- Bump start your bike
- Wheel to wheel
- Rotate wheel with your hands
Before you try starting your bike using any of these methods, you need to check a few things to make sure it is indeed a flat battery that is the culprit, and not something else. If you fail to do this, some of these techniques will drain your own battery until your drop down next to your bike.
Check this before you try to start your bike with a dead battery
Before you try any of the methods, make sure your battery is the culprit. Many riders have pushed their bikes until they pass out next to it, only to find the kill-switch is flipped or the gas tank is empty! I’ve had a clutch cut-out switch leave my bike dead, and my wife’s BMW played dead on her in the desert with a faulty side-stand safety switch. Trying to jump or bump start a bike in this condition is futile.
Once you are sure there’s gas in the tank, the key is in the on position and the kill-switch is on you may want to try the headlights and see whether there’s any sign of life. If the beam is bright and the engine makes some sounds when you press the starter, you might get lucky with a bump start. If the lights are dim, you may need a jump start from a fresh battery.
If there is no sign of life at all, check the fuses to see if none blew out. Ideally, you’d want to test the battery voltage with a voltmeter. A reading of between 12.4 and 13.8 V between the positive and negative terminals should be enough to start the engine with the electric start button. Below 12.4V the battery is serviceable, but won’t crank the starter. Sub-12 V and your out of luck and need a new battery.
Okay, so you’ve established the problem is a flat battery and your bike is parked in a safe spot, out of the road. What next?
#1. Jump start from another motorcycle or car
The most reliable way to start a dead motorcycle battery is by connecting it to a good battery from another bike or a car. Any 12 V battery that is in good condition will do. If you are starting the bike by connecting to a big car battery, the car’s engine does not have to be running. The battery will have enough juice to fire up your bike. If you are starting from another bike, you might want to have the donor bike’s motor running to make sure the charge is high enough.
If your motorcycle’s battery is very flat (the headlights are very dim, for instance), then it is best to leave the two batteries connected for a while before attempting to start your bike. Modern motorcycles have fuel injectors that needs power and an electronic fuel pump that needs to prime the fuel system. No fuel, no start.
Make sure your bike is securely on its stand and in neutral, and follow the steps below in the correct order:
Step 1: Connect the positive (red / +) terminals of each battery with the red cable of the jumper leads.
Step 2: Next, connect the one side of the black cable to the negative terminal of the good battery first.
Step 3: Lastly, connect the remaining side of the black cable to an unpainted part of your dead bike’s frame. The reason why you don’t connect this one to the battery terminal is because it might spark. You don’t want to cause a spark next to the battery, as the hydrogen gas emitted by it may ignite.
Once the electric fuel pump (of a more modern bike) is primed you can hit the starter button and hope that the battery is not damaged too much to hold a charge. Disconnect the two batteries in reverse order (black cable first, then red) and leave your bike running to charge up the battery. Now don’t stall your bike after your savior has waived you goodbye.
#2. Jump start using starter pack
If you ride alone or travel long-distance, you cannot always bargain on running into a friendly stranger that can help you jump start your bike. This is only really a concern if you venture far off the beaten track on your own. People are generally very helpful anywhere you go in the world.
Without another vehicle with a good battery around, your next best bet is a portable power pack (or jumper box) like this one available on Amazon. It has enough peak current output to start a large truck up to 30 times on a full charge and hold its charge for up to 12 months if switched off. Simply hook it up to your motorcycle’s dead battery and start the bike normally.
This is your most convenient option, as you don’t have to stand next to the road, waiting for a motorist to stop. It is small enough to fit into your back-pack or tank bag and has a built-in USB charger and LED flash light. If also warns you with flashing lights and a buzzer if you incorrectly connect it. That is much more polite than an incorrectly connected battery that notifies you with sparks or by melting!
There are even smaller portable power pack options that will fit into your pocket, like this Micro-Start XP-1 form Touratech.
If you often ride alone and love taking the less-trodden trails, a jumper box will give you peace of mind.
#3. Bump start your bike
Bump starting a motorcycle with a dead battery is a popular technique used by dirt bike riders. It involves pushing the bike in second or third gear and dropping the clutch when you’ve built up enough speed. If the rear wheel has enough traction with the ground, it will crank the engine enough to fire it up.
How do you bump start a motorcycle?
The procedure to bump start a motorcycle is fairly simple. Ideally you want to start on a hill and push it down. This will create more speed and give you a better change of cranking over the engine. You will also need traction, so aim for a hard surface. Loose gravel will simply lock the rear wheel when you drop the clutch.
Here are the steps to bump start a motorcycle with a dead battery:
Step 1: Make sure the road is clear ahead and you have as much traction as possible
Step 2: Make sure the ignition is on and the kill switch is in the correct position
Step 3: Put the bike in second gear and pull in the clutch
Step 4: Push the bike down the hill or have someone else push you to gain speed
Step 5: Once you hit at least 5 mph (8 kph), dump the clutch and hit the starter button
Step 6: When the engine fires up, immediately pull in the clutch and keep the revs up to avoid stalling the engine
Look where you are going. The excitement from hearing the engine roar to life can easily make you forget to brake or avoid obstacles. But you planned ahead, right?
Is it possible to bump start a modern motorcycle?
On a 200 lbs dirt bike, it is not too difficult to build up speed, even if you are alone, and the engine will easily fire up. A 500 lbs adventure bike or a Harley Davidson is a different hippo altogether.
You will need a lot more man-power to push a heavy motorcycle fast enough, especially on a flat surface (you can forget about sand). And if you happen to be lucky enough to end up at the top of a hill, there are other things that will complicate this bump-starting process on an big bike.
Modern motorcycles are fuel injected and have electronic ignition systems. That means you need enough electricity to prime the fuel system with the electric fuel pump and you need power at the injectors before they’ll squirt. You will also need power at the computer that tells the ignition what to do when.
To get all of this right, you either need enough volts in the battery or you need a long enough hill to power up the charging system. On some modern bikes you also need to remember to hit the starter button when you dump the clutch in order to signal to the computer to fire up. If your lights are shining bright enough but there’s just not enough charge to crank the starter, you might get lucky.
What do riders say about bump starting their adventure motorcycles
If you have a flat battery in town, you’ll most likely find someone to assist with a jump start quite easily. But what if you are off on an adventure in the middle of nowhere. Can you bump start an adventure bike with fuel injection.
Interestingly, I couldn’t find any video on YouTube of riders trying to bump start their big adventure bikes. There are plenty on how to do so on dirt bikes and the odd small dual sport bike. So I had a look on various popular adventure riding forums. Here are a few examples of real life experiences with adventure bikes with dead batteries:
One Triumph Tiger owner said the crank on his 955 has to turn 2 or 3 complete revolutions with activated sensors before the ignition would turn on. You’ll need a long downhill for that to happen. Another rider of the same bike claims to have successfully bump started his Tiger (but the dash lights were lit and the fuel pump running).
One rider managed to bump start his Yamaha XT 1200 Z Super Ténéré in 3rd gear on a downhill, while the owner of a KTM 1190 had trouble start his bike on a long downhill. The dash lights came on and he could hear the fuel pump working, but the rear wheel kept rolling when he let go of the clutch. He suspects the slipper clutch to be the problem. At last, on the 4th try and with the bottom of the hill fast approaching it fired up. He also mentions having to push in neutral and slam into 2nd or 3rd, as the bike would not move in gear when cold.
A Honda Transalp rider probably summed it up best when he said he prefers carb-fed bikes. No electric pumps or power-draining gizmos that will leave you with a dead battery. And if it dies, it will fire up with a push.
Someone mentioned that the compression on the BMW R 1200 GS is too high for a successful bump start, yet more than one rider claim to have bump started a BMW R 1150 GS. The one guy pushed his buddy’s 1150 in the rain and it fired up in 4th gear. Another started his 1150 in 1st on a very steep downhill, and in 2nd on a slight downhill. He did add that his 285 lbs body on the seat stops any rear wheel from locking up.
In conclusion, not all modern adventure bikes have the same start up sequence, which is why some will push start and others will not. Some might start with a weak battery, while some won’t. I would not bargain on it though.
Bump starting a bike by towing it
The most difficult part of trying to bump start a heavy motorcycle bike on a flat surface is building up enough speed. Even with two or three strong fellas you may not be able to gain enough momentum. If there is another bike (or car) with you, you can have the other rider pull your bike up to the desired speed before you dump the clutch.
Of course, you can simply jump start using the other vehicle’s good battery, but let assume you don’t have jumper leads, but you do have a tow strap.
By pulling the bike you have a better chance of reaching the desired speed and you can maintain that speed long enough to power up the ignition, injectors and electric fuel pump. You will have to think ahead trying this trick, as it is very easy to rear-end your good Samaritan.
The best is to fasten one end of the tow strap to the pulling vehicle and simply wrap the other end around your bike’s left foot peg once. You can secure it by stepping on it, and quickly release it by simply lifting your foot once your bike fires up. This way the pulling bike can simply keep riding to get out of your way.
Jump starting a still a better idea, so if you are riding in a group, take at least one pair of jumper cables and avoid these shenanigans.
Plan ahead before you bump start your bike
Remember, what goes down, must come back up again. If bump starting by pushing down a hill does not work, you will be stuck at the bottom of the hill a very heavy dead bike. Whether coasting down a hill or being pushed by your mates, rehearse what you will do when the engine does fire up.
There is nothing worse than killing a bump started engine by forgetting to pull in the clutch or giving it some gas. And consider the direction you are headed in case you do forget to pull the clutch and the bike shoots off.
#4. Wheel to wheel
In those limited instances where you happen to have a dead battery, two bikes with knobbly rear tires and no jumper leads, there’s another trick you can try.
Stop the bikes against each other facing in opposite directions. They both need to be on their center stands. Next, lock the blocks of the aggressive off-road tread pattern of the rear tires together and pull in the clutch of the bike with the dead battery (in 2nd gear). Start the donor bike and run it in first gear so that its rear wheel drives the rear wheel of your dead bike. Once enough speed has built up, drop the clutch and the engine should fire up.
This technique uses the same principle as a bump start, but you don’t have to push the heavy bike. It can be especially useful in thick sand where even a few strong men won’t be able to get a big adventure bike moving at any decent speed.
Whether this will work on your adventure bike is hard to say, but I’ve see it done on dirt bikes and KTM 950’s like the ones in the video below. It is worth noting that the 950 still runs on carbs, not fuel injection.
#5. Rotate the wheel by hand
This is probably not going to work on a big modern motorcycle, but I’ve seen it work on an old Series Land Rover and small capacity road bikes. Put the bike on the center stand and in second gear. With the ignition on, grab the rear wheel and rotate it by hand.
You can also wrap a cargo strap around the rear wheel a couple of times and try to pull-start it like an outboard motor or a gas lawnmower. While this seems unlikely, one BMW R 1600 GTL owner claims he is able to start his big touring bike by rotating the rear wheel by hand.
Will riding charge my motorcycle’s dead battery?
Idling the bike is not enough to charge the battery, so don’t kill the engine too soon. You need to be cruising at least around 3 000 rpm for a fair amount of time to get enough charge back into the battery, if your battery is still serviceable, that is.
The best is to put the battery on a smart charger over night. I’ve got a CTEK MXS 5.0 like this one which has a reconditioning function which can revive most dead batteries by breaking down the sulfur that builds up on the plates inside.
Sort out the problem before your bike leaves you stranded again
If you did not drain the battery by leaving your bike’s ignition on, then your motorcycle it trying to tell you something. Either the battery wants to retire or there is another electrical component draining it. Your bike’s charging system might also be the culprit.
When you get home, have your motorcycle’s battery tested by a professional. It will have to be fully charged before it can be tested, so plan on leaving it there if you don’t have a battery charger. If the battery is fine, you need to find the cause of the dead battery.
In order to extend the life of your motorcycle’s battery, get a trickle charger for the cold winter months when you don’t ride as often. A charger like the CTEK MX 5.0 can be left connected to the battery while it maintains a full charge by intermittently pulsing current through it. You don’t even have to disconnect the battery terminals from your bike.
One of the reasons I prefer older, more simpler bikes is that you can easily fix many problems yourself while out on the road. Bump starting a bike with a dead battery is one of those simple fixes that are easier on a motorcycle with a carburetor than on a modern bike with lots of electronics.
The really old dual sport thumpers are even better with their kick-starters. But the lack in comfort is a big price to pay for the added peace of mind.
Just keep your battery well maintained and you should not have to worry about it. And take a portable power pack with you if you are riding solo!