Packing a Bike

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

The books went first, in Paris…But not until Athens was on the horizon did the evening clothes, the dancing slippers and even the immaculately white mess jacket go overboard. In London, it had seemed impossible to travel without proper evening clothes. One could see an invitation arriving for an embassy ball or something…But on the other side of Europe…embassy balls held less significance. - Robert Edison Fulton Jr., One Man Caravan, 1937

The most useful advice I ever got about travel in general was "Take half as many clothes and twice the money!"

And while credit cards have rendered that advice partly obsolete, the first item still applies. The best way to pack those "just in case" items is to leave them at home, just as Robert Edison Fulton discovered. Or you can plan to lighten the load as you go. Veteran columnist Peter Egan famously packs his oldest underwear so he can abandon it rather than taking it home. Saves on laundry, too.

The general principle here, of course, is pack only what you need. If you think you won't need it, don't take it. This doesn't apply to rain gear, essential tools or safety equipment, of course.

Second, apply the rule that Eric Buell uses in his motorcycle designs: mass centralization. While you want to keep your load as light as possible, you can reduce the negative impacts of surplus weight on your bike by keeping it as close as possible to the center of gravity. That means putting heavier items in side bags (panniers) rather than in a top box, tail pack or tank bag. Top boxes and tail packs, as well as being well above the bike's center of gravity, are typically behind the rear axle.

This has two negative effects on your bike's handling: first, the extra inertia above the center of gravity will make the bike slower to lean and therefore slower to turn at speed. More importantly, it will be slower to straighten up, too! Second, the weight behind the rear axle will lighten the front end, further upsetting the bike's balance. I remember doing a seriously unintentional wheelie on California's Highway 1 just west of Leggett as a result of too much weight in my top box. Keep heavy stuff down low. Or don't take it.

A couple of other considerations about top boxes. The extra weight high up will also make your bike more inclined to tip over at low speed. And, unless it was designed as an integral part of the bike (on a Gold Wing for example), a top box may upset your bike's aerodynamics. I used to own a Triumph Sprint that became quite unmanageable in cross winds with a 50-liter top box fitted. As a result, I only use a top box if I really have to.

Tank bags seem to have become unfashionable - perhaps because of the cruiser trend to tank top instruments - and that's unfortunate. Not only is a tank bag a great place to keep things you want easy access to, almost all have a map pocket so you can track your route as you go. No GPS screen yet comes close to the utility derived from the 8" x 11"map panel on my tank bag! Before you buy a tank bag, though, find out what your gas tank (or dummy tank airbox cover) is made of. Magnetic bags are best, but they only work on steel.

Hard luggage is generally preferable to soft throw-over bags, but the latter are more flexible - literally! They transfer easily from bike to bike and can accommodate irregularly shaped objects. Just remember to protect any contacting bodywork with masking tape.

From here, the general principles of packing are mostly common sense:

  1. Take plastic bags. Use them to store laundry, food, maps or anything that might leak or contaminate other items. I always take heavy grade Ziplock® freezer bags.
  2. Don't overload your bike. Follow the manufacturer's guidelines for weight. And remember - if it won't fit in your luggage, you've probably packed too much stuff!
  3. Allow for expansion. I always seem to acquire things as I go, like T-shirts, maps and books. Leave some room.
  4. Remember also you may need room for stuff you're wearing if the temperature rises and you need to dress down. Overpants, vests and jacket liners, for example.
  5. Take bungee cords and an elastic cargo net for unexpected extra purchases - and plastic bags to stuff them in.
  6. Pack the stuff you'll need in a hurry (first aid kit, raingear etc) on top, or in your tank bag.
  7. Develop a packing checklist. Add items you discovered you needed but didn't have, and vice versa. But always carry drinking water, sunscreen, mobile phone or CB radio, credit card and a puncture kit.
  8. Finally, remember to adjust your tire pressures and maybe suspension settings to allow for the extra loading. And when setting out, take it easy for the first few miles until you get used to the extra weight.
Learn from every trip. If you return with clothes you didn't wear, don't take them next time!