So you want to go across the country on your bike. It is never too early to start planning your trip and getting the gear ready. Planning a trip is one of life’s pleasures. Turning dreams into miles — what riding is all about!
If you ride a Gold Wing and tow a trailer, you probably don’t need any tips on compact packing — there is enough packing space to bring almost anything. But for the rest of us, the process of getting all of our stuff secured to the bike is more of a problem.
I used to envy those who traveled by bike and stayed in motels at night. I figured packing would be a piece of cake without the tent and sleeping bag routine. Little did I know that motelling-it involves just as much stuff, just slightly different priorities. My personal arrangement is based on long-distance touring, one-up with camping gear. Riding with a passenger would necessitate a whole new mindset and the subsequent sharing of available packing space. I have not tried it.
With the exception of the saddlebags and a tankbag, most of my gear has been adopted from the camping fraternity. The decision about how you choose to travel (motel, camping, eating in restaurants, cooking) will determine your packing needs. The duration of the trip does not make much difference to the amount of gear required — four days or four weeks, it doesn’t really matter. Common sense and a basic idea of how you wish to travel are the best guidelines.
Front to back, the foundations include a tankbag, panniers, a bedroll, and a small tail trunk. I dislike having stuff bungied haphazardly on the bike. There is probably nothing wrong with doing so as long as everything is secure, but I simply don’t like it. I have also found that commercial tail trunks are too big and too high for my liking, and I suffer from an irresistible temptation to overload same; so I have adapted a small, lockable Pelican case for this purpose and have been very happy with the results. If my worldly possessions don’t fit within the confines of this system, I jettison a few things and repack. My wardrobe does not include an evening gown, but I do always carry one presentable outfit.
In an ideal world, most of the load on a motorcycle should fall within the triangle defined by the rider’s head, the front axle and the rear axle. Weight carried higher, behind or in front of this triangle can affect steering and handling to a much greater degree than a well placed load. For example, a high packsack mounted on the back of the passenger backrest invites poor handling and necessitates extreme caution in gusty cross winds
Any make of tankbag will do just fine if it satisfies two criteria: it must be secure on the tank and at least some portion of it should be waterproof. Lately I have been using a magnetic bag with both a front tether and a strap around the tank — sort of belt and suspenders-type secure! The bag is wonderfully waterproof but the map window is not. This means a ziplock bag for the map. It has numerous exterior pockets and an expandable main compartment. It also comes with integral straps should I wish to turn it into a packsack for the day. Any items that I might want en-route go in here (camera, snacks, first aid kit, wipes, sunblock, ball cap, extra gloves…) All told, it has proven to be a good investment.
At the other end of the bike, my Pelican case (trunk) is extremely tough, lockable and 100% waterproof. It houses the second tier of accessible items — binoculars, reading material, swim suit and towel, runners, bathroom kit bag with toothbrush, etc. Ownership and insurance papers are taped to the inside of the lid in a ziplock baggie. If I am carrying a bike lock, it lives in here too. The case is extremely secure and aerodynamic and doesn’t look bad either!
Panniers (saddlebags) can be either hard or soft — I have used both. Hard bags are generally quite waterproof, but subject to injury if the bike falls over. They also often present a wider profile on the bike than soft luggage, and in some situations this can be a concern. For highway touring on this continent, hard bags are ideal. They can look pretty spiffy too — colour matched and shiny with chrome and extra lights if one so desires. Soft bags are much more forgiving to load, but not so waterproof . My soft bags tend to collect dust on the outside and they exude a general air of experience. I like them. They don’t get scratched or busted should the bike go down and are ideal for rough road or off-road touring. There is also no danger of metal fatigue in the mounting frame as there isn’t one.
Whichever you use, ensure that your load is balanced left and right and keep in mind the published weight limits for your saddlebags. These limits are generally conservative, but still… Put heavier items on the bottom near the front of the pannier if possible. If hard cases are easily removable from the bike, so much the better as they then become instant suitcases. When the panniers are fixtures on the bike, pre-shaped bag liners can be a real asset for portaging the entire contents into the tent or motel room.
My stock tool roll plus a few additional items lives in its own tray under the seat. This is a sensible location, but awkward to access without undressing the bike. I usually keep a few frequently used items in the tail trunk, including a bit of the indispensable duct tape, a multitool and a handful of plastic cable-ties.
My bedroll can vary in girth and density depending on the sleeping bag and pad used, but the routine is always the same. Sleeping bag, tent poles, tent, fly sheet and nylon groundsheet are formed into a compact roll. My sleeping mat is either wrapped around the whole works (if no gear bag is used) or rolled and placed alongside. The entire bundle is then either inserted into a waterproof gearbag or, more commonly, rolled into the motorcycle cover. The bundle is then self-secured with Velcro straps, and secured crosswise on the passenger seat with a bungee net. Properly positioned, it provides me with a very comfortable backrest. The entire bedroll weighs less than 20 lbs. I also carry a small velour sac into which I stuff various items of clothing to create a pillow each night. This leaves me with very wrinkled garments for the duration of the trip, but who is checking? The 6’square of waterproof nylon is used as either a groundsheet, or folded and used as a doormat depending on weather and ground conditions. Socks only in the tent please.
Pre-trip decisions about provisions and gear can occupy many happy evenings. Best advice: spread everything out on the floor and divide your stash into three piles of ‘must have’ ‘nice to have’ and ‘luxury.’ Divide the ‘must have’ pile in half and pack it on to the bike. Leave the remaining two and a half piles on the floor (with the possible exception of that special flask of after-dinner brandy).
Seriously, almost everyone packs far more clothing and accessories than necessary. Pare the clothing down to a minimum necessary for the climate and the occasion. I have even been obliged to mail excess stuff back to my own home address when it became apparent that I had packed with more enthusiasm than common sense.
Obviously, the current availability of bank machines and credit cards makes carrying a big wad of cash obsolete. But if you are at all off the beaten track, even in Canada and the US, don’t assume that plastic will always be accepted. Some cash is still a must.
Assuming that your bike is checked out and road-ready, all that remains is to pack those items that will travel on your person, gear up, and go. Pre-trip, I also always also tape a spare ignition key to the frame of the bike. My riding gear has many pockets so I try to acquire the habit of putting keys, wallet, glasses and ear plugs into designated pockets at every stop. The pocket-search, self-frisking routine is both time consuming and embarrassing.
Just before I strap on my helmet and fire up the bike in the morning, I do a final campsite or motel-room check. I try not to leave a trail of tent pegs, toothbrushes or things drying in trees … I’m sure you know the routine. Happy travels! — Alison Green