How to pack for a long-distance motorcycle trip

Heading off on an epic motorbike trip? Author and adventurer Zoe Cano shares her tips for cramming all the essentials in...

5 mins

For most people the thought of travel means packing a large case until bursting with new clothes, beachwear and gadgets. But long distance endurance biking, which probably means being on the road for more than a week, and staying in different locations most nights is something totally different. 

My solo, unescorted journey across ‘the roads less travelled’ of the American Continent covered almost 9,000km over almost 2 months, across a multitude of terrains while experiencing the most eclectic weather conditions from storm fronts with freezing temperatures to extreme record breaking heat.

Everything you have will need to be with you at all times, tied securely on the bike. The secret to any sort of indie journey is preparing well in advance to pack LIGHT. You’ll then need to try and reduce it even more. Lay everything on the floor – you’ll soon see you’ve got too much. In reality, if done properly, you’ll have more than enough room on the bike for everything you really need.

Firstly, 5 main considerations before packing:

1) Are you travelling solo or with someone else on another bike, or even travelling with a support vehicle? A solo traveller will have to consider for every eventuality and be self contained whereas sharing the trip with someone else means you can divide up what you take. Even better if there’s a support vehicle which can take big cases. In reality, bikers I’ve found like to be self sufficient and self-contained.
2) What terrain or part of the world are you covering and what are the expected weather conditions?
3) Are you intending to camp and/or use basic sleeping facilities or check into hotels/guest houses?
4) Type of bike? A big touring with loads of potential luggage capacity or a smaller bike with limited packing space.
5) Is there a pillion passenger with you? And on this last point, just imagine that.  You can then already easily half the space allocated for your own stuff!

The 5-Step packing guide

1) How much luggage/storage space do you have? 

For my trip across America, I took my own magnetized Triumph tank bag which doubled up as a ruck sack, 2 side leather pannier bags strapped underneath the seat and a 70kg waterproof lockable zip bag which was strapped down onto the seat behind me (good back rest!). 

Depending on the type of bike, side panniers can range in all sizes from 1 day trip capacity soft fabric bags to mammoth almost suitcase looking metallic boxes for the large touring bikes. With my Triumph Bonneville T100 860cc, it was too small to take large side bags, therefore the reason for bringing the 70kg bag. It worked out great as I could just untie and take it off each night I got to a new place.

I also took a lockable metal mesh bike helmet bag which I could lock onto the bike and never worry it would get stolen.  If at any time you’re away from the bike with no one to keep an eye on it, you need to make sure your belongings will be safe.  Make sure to take or buy sets of locks for the side bags and luggage bag.  Extra storage for valuable stuff can also be stored locked under the seat. I kept emergency cash under the seat.

2) Identify the essentials

Multiple test packing on deciding what you really need and can do without will take a long time.  Make a list for yourself and a list for the bike which you also feel will be difficult to source where you’re going such as bike repair kit for tyres, chain spanners, allen keys, US petrol gauge, spare petrol bottle (essential for smaller bikes on the long remote roads).       
If nothing else, the top 10 things I’d definitely take with the same bike would simply be an iPhone complete with a waterproof crash resistant casing (the American LifeProof cases are great), the best helmet you can afford designed with air filters and an integrated sun visor such as Shark helmets, waterproof durable lockable 70kg bag, basic tools including tyre pressure gauge, my Triumph maintenance book, a pair of light waterproof trousers, light fingerless gloves, good road maps (no sat-nav for me) and OK definately some high protection suntan lotion.

Everything else you should be able to get along the way.  I was less reliant on maintaining the bike myself but made sure I knew the basics like tightening the chain, adding oil, pumping tyres and definitely made sure I had a list of the Triumph dealers across the US in case I needed help or parts.

3) Find room for everything else

2 pairs of jeans – one for travelling and the other for leisure time is enough.

A great tip is to compartmentalise your storage areas on the bike. The tank bag I used for things I needed immediate access to (the day’s maps, phone, extra layer, water bottles). The side bags were for the tool kit and GoPro Hero 3 film equipment, waterproofs and food/snacks.  The main bag, I divided my clothes into different coloured waterproof storage bags so when digging stuff out I immediately knew where things were.

The main objective is packing light enough so you can carry the main bag without breaking your back.  You may need to walk distances from the bike to where you’re staying.  If it’s too heavy, you’ve probably got too many pairs of shoes or souvenirs!

Bike boots, flip-flops and trainers are probably all you’ll need – and bare feet after a long day are probably the best option!

4) Think outside the box

Unless it’s a Harley you’re riding, do a bit of extra research in finding out where your bike dealers are along key parts of your route in case you need the bike checked and take that list and contact details.  I found a few Triumph dealers across the US who were more than happy to help out (at no cost!) which greatly pacified my mind on the bike’s road worthiness after the first couple of thousand miles I’d clocked up.
I didn’t realize that with the intense heat, a light pair of fingerless gloves (to avoid the backs of hands getting burned) would be essential.  I ended up buying a pair of light ski gloves and cutting the fingers off.

If you wear contact lenses make sure they’re dailies or you replace them regularly. My eye injury which almost stopped the trip was caused by the constant road dirt and not changing the lenses more regularly.

5) Be ruthless

I have to admit I didn’t really take much advice from anyone in what to take. All my clothes were light, un-creasable, easy to hand wash or to drop into a hotel washing machine and being quick to dry. You tend to end up wearing the same clothes so variety isn’t essential.                                   

Before the trip, I was advised to take a first aid kit which stupidly I didn’t take but thankfully didn’t need.  My main regret, which some other long distance biker advised at the beginning of the trip in Boston, was to take a portable bike fuel bottle in case I wouldn’t reach a gas station in time. This I later experienced going through the Nevada Great Basin desert.

Read all about Zoe's motorbike expedition across the USA in her new book, Bonneville Go Or Bust - available now, and reviewed in the July/August 2014 issue of Wanderlust.

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