What to Pack For a Backroads Motorcycle Trip

Guess what day it is!

There’s something about throwing a set of saddlebags over my supermoto that makes my heart beat faster.  Somehow, cinching down bungee straps calls out, “Adventure!”  I love packing for a motorcycle trip.

If I could live on the road 90% of the time, I would.  Let me put it this way:  In the 9 months that I had my first motorcycle (2009 Kawasaki Ninja 250R), I put over 12,000 miles on it.  Then, I put over 30,000 miles on my next bike, a KLX250sf, in 2 years.  I don’t ride the KLX as often anymore, but I have put over 27,000 miles on my ER-6n in the last year and a half.

Clearly, I have a hard time remembering where I put the garage.

Loading up the bike really puts me in the mood for adventure, but I’m usually too excited at that point to be as methodical as I should be.  This has led to some interesting improvisation on the roads, like going commando, or eating cold beans in the darkness, because I only remembered to bring matches after the tent was set up for the night.

I was once caught out after dark, but had expected to already be at my destination for the evening.  When I pulled over and opened my luggage to swap my dark smoke visor for my clear one…  That’s when I realized I had grabbed the wrong visor, one that fit one of my other helmets.  I was forced to ride slowly, carefully, and half-blindly to the nearest hotel for the night, since I could not see with my dark smoke visor and it was far too cold (December in Illinois) to ride without it.

If I don’t make myself plan out what I’m going to bring and how I’m going to bring it before I ever head out to the garage, I’m going to have an entirely avoidable story to tell when I get home.

Drop off the luggage, set up camp, and go lumbering around...

Drop off the luggage, set up camp, and go lumbering around…

I ask myself four crucial questions:

  1. How far am I going/how long will I be gone?
  2. What will the weather be like (or could be like)?
  3. What could go wrong?
  4. What do I want out of this trip?

#1:  How far am I going/how long will I be gone?
This should quickly narrow down your packing list decisions for the essentials.  If you are only going for a weekend trip, you won’t need to bring 4 pairs of pants or 3 sets of riding gear.  If you are going for a week, 2 pairs of underwear may not be enough.  Will travel-sized toiletries be enough?  If you are staying in motels along the way, remember you can often use the soap and shampoo provided by the motel.  If you are going more than a few hundred miles, bring a small can of chain lube (if your bike is chain driven).  If you are going more than 1500 miles and you are on a smaller displacement bike, it may be worth it to bring oil and a filter for an oil change.  Do you have a way to charge your electronics, or do you have enough batteries?  Are your tires in decent shape, or should you plan to replace them before you leave, or along the way?  (I have a very expensive cautionary tale about that last one…)

#2:  What will/could the weather be like?
This question can invoke Murphy’s Law.  Inevitably, forgetting to bring rain gear tends to lead to a freak rainstorm, while preparing for everything means 85F and sunny all week.  Remember that a good rain suit can compress down to save space and can be used to double as an insulation layer in cooler weather.  If you get caught in unexpected falling temperatures, throwing your rain suit on over your gear can help keep you significantly warmer.


#3:  What could go wrong?
This is meant to ensure you don’t get stranded.  There is no guarantee and it is impossible to plan for every possible scenario, but it can greatly reduce your chances of having your trip derailed by a minor mishap.  Budget enough money for gas based on the above question #1.  Also, budget for emergency repairs.  Speaking of, give your bike a good once-over, or pay a trusted mechanic to have your motorcycle inspected before your trip.  Be sure your bike’s tool kit is complete and you are familiar with basic repairs and troubleshooting.  A tire repair kit (for tubeless tires) or a spare tube can be a lifesaver.  But, it’s not just about your bike:  be sure you are in good health and have any necessary prescription or non-prescription medications.  Leave contact information with a copy of your intended route and timeline for a friend.  Carry a card in your wallet that lists your emergency contact person, with any medication or pertinent medical information.

It’s a simple thing, but don’t forget to factor in for spending extra time, not just extra money.  You may find yourself burning an afternoon on a roadside repair, or in traffic, wanting to spend more time exploring or enjoying a particular part of your route, or being delayed for any number of reasons.  The delay may be a few hours, or a few days.


Improvised clothesline!

#4:  What do I want out of this trip?
This is crucial and the most overlooked.  For example, if you want to clear your head and disconnect from hectic daily life, you may want to skip on the electrics and bring a journal (and maybe a favorite book).  If you want to document your trip thoroughly, then you have to allow space and weight in your luggage for camera and recording equipment (and a way to keep the equipment protected from the elements).  If you want to “rough it” and travel cheaply, then you’ll need to have camping equipment.  You may even decide to bring your own food and cooking utensils.  Outdoor sporting good stores are an excellent resource for finding lightweight, compact tents, cooking gear, etc.  Backpackers, like motorcyclists, are all about saving space and weight.

Even if you don’t want to “rough it,” you don’t have to bring the kitchen sink.  A little creativity can allow multiple uses out of one item or piece of gear, like doubling your rain suit as your cold weather insulation.  The more you bring, the more you will have to drag around and keep tabs on.  This can unnecessarily complicate your journey and become a burden– literally and figuratively.

And, if you discover or decide along the way that you brought too much, the Postal Service is your best friend.  I have often made a detour to a local USPS location to mail home unused and unnecessary gear.  I’ve even mailed home my dirty laundry on the last leg of a trip, in order to conserve weight and space on the way home.


My first ever motorcycle road trip.

There’s a reason I have not given a direct checklist.  Part of the joy of a motorcycle trip is the adventure of discovering for yourself.  The questions above should give good guidelines for writing your own packing list.  And, if you forget something or pack too much, you may just have a great story to tell when you get home.


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