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How to Pack for Motorcycle Travel

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Question:
It seems that you are a master of packing a lot into little places on a motorcycle for a long distance ride, what is your strategy for carrying gear?

Bob’s Answer:

I am glad you did not say I am the master of packing light, for packing light is not something I am good at. At least not on a motorcycle trip. I tend to fill every available space and then strap things to the sides. I am pretty good at packing a lot in a small place though.

Strategy? I really can’t say I have a strategy. More of a Modus Operandi. I suspect it is no different than what others do for other kinds of travel. I do have a packing list, but this is more of a global list that encompasses all kinds of travel to all kinds of places and is added to as time goes on, never trimmed down. It is more to prevent me from forgetting something than to make sure I pack light and includes things to do. Before printing the list, I edit out all the items that have nothing to do with the trip I am taking. I then further study the printed list and cross out things I am pretty sure I will not take. At that point, the list is still HUGE. Since, if possible, this is done well in advance of a trip, I will make a note of anything on the list that needs to be acquired or done.

When packing, I will cross more items off the list. Once everything is gathered and I realize I will need a tractor trailer to carry everything, I start pulling things out of the piles, until I am satisfied that I have trimmed everything I can. Then I do it again and again, eventually I get to where I need to be.

On a more general level, the gear is categorized, such as Clothing (includes health, bath, whatever), Riding Gear, Motorcycle Specific (tools, parts), hobby gear (SCUBA, Snorkel). The real difficulty is balancing self-sufficiency with minimalism. You do not want to have to rely on some unknown mechanic to work on your bike, but you don’t want to carry your entire garage. There is no one right answer here. One could argue that if you are running slow, taking a multi-month tour, you can usually afford to carry less because if something happens on the road you have plenty of time to find a good mechanic or order parts. At the same time it could be argued that by bringing more tools/parts repairs will be cheaper and therefore you can stay out longer. No one right answer.

As for my strategy, I try to keep a good balance between having everything and having only what I need. I use some high tech clothing such as Under Armour – www.UnderArmour.com and hi-tech travel clothing along with some cheap throwaway cotton clothing. My clothing space allowance tends to be small. For tools and parts, I try to have everything I need, while keeping the space and weight required low. This is best done by having as many of your tools be multi-use as possible. Spare parts can be a problem. Most bikes have known issues, maybe a water pump that does not last long, or a voltage regulator that is unreliable. These known issues are pretty good at preparing for. Other than those, it is a crap shoot. You cannot bring every spare you could ever need. Even if you had a way to carry it, you could not afford it. Certain parts may be pretty reliable, but are worth carrying. For example, maybe there is an electronic control that seldom goes, but it is cheap, light, small and easy to replace but almost impossible to find on the road. Might be worth it.

For other parts, well, anything you want can be gotten on the road eventually. On a short and fast trip, as I often take, you may not be able to get ANY part for your bike in the time allowed. That’s a gamble. For most bikes, especially with the proliferation of the internet, all parts are available eventually. What I like to tell riders is this: “Get the name and number of someone who really knows how to get parts for your bike and ship them internationally. This could be a friend, a shop or a parts company. Take this number and put it in your wallet. Then NEVER look at it again.” The number is only there to calm you down when you get into a tight situation so that you can think straight. There is almost always a better way to do things than to have someone ship something from home. A good example of this was when we were up in Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada with a couple of Harleys. My friends bike broke a rather specialized bolt on his shocks. Our first thought was to call a shop that we know and have the part shipped. Of course, this would have taken days, if the part was even available. We would have to wait for the shop to open before calling. Partly because we had this number, we were able to stop and think. We found a shop that worked on large excavators and road equipment. They had a bolt we could make work. Then we found a shop that works on ATVs, where we were allowed to use the shop to work on the bike. Of course we had many other options as well.

As for how to carry all this gear? Yes. What else is there to say, there is no one right option. Some people buy or make metal side bags (panniers). Some just throw some cloth panniers over the seat. Some use large trunks behind the passenger seat, some just strap a duffel bag to the back seat. I know of one man that just throws a duffel bag on his fuel tank and lets it sit on the handlebars. I can’t imagine it handles well though. Personally, I like waterproof hard luggage, such as aluminum panniers or original equipment plastic panniers. These can be locked to reduce casual theft and in some cases can help protect the bike in a minor fall. Whatever you use, you want to consider the distribution of weight and the load carrying capacity of the bike. If you put too much weight too far back, you could lessen the weight on the front wheel such that it could wobble severely in some conditions (VERY Dangerous). If the weight is too far forward it could make handling on dirt roads more difficult. Either way, overloading a bike is dangerous, can wear/break parts quicker, and wears out your tires. Worse still, it can overheat your tires and cause a blowout (again, VERY dangerous).

To summarize, pack as little as possible, just as long as you pack enough.

How to pack for motorcycle travel

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Filed under: Motorcycle Travel

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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