How to pack your motorcycle for the trip

Packing your motorcycle right is essential for many reasons: Safety, maneuverability, gas mileage, access to gear and your comfort.  So how do you get to here:

when you started here?

where to start?Here it is step by step, lessons learned from my touring going all the way back to 1971.

Tip: Lay out everything you are going to carry with you around your bike so you can add them methodically.

Tip: Lay out an assortment of bungee cords arranged by length.

1. The bike:  It must be suitable for the load you’re about to put on it. That means will it accommodate 100 to 150 extra pounds you are about to load?  Some motorcycles, such as my Road King will work better if you top out the air suspension to handle the extra load.  Most important though is a “sissy bar” and or luggage rack.

On the left is the way I usually ride, no back rest, no luggage rack. On the right, I attach the luggage rack first.

Touring bikes, sometimes called “baggers” have those all important saddle bags.  You need them, but you need to be smart about packing them for the road.  These are items you will need handy, but not necessarily immediately. (We’ll get to the “immediate: needs a bit later.)

2. Saddle Bags: They can be “throw-overs” or hard mounted.  I’ve used both and have no preference.  (However, I’ve also done a 6 week tour in 1971 with no saddle bags.  Not good.)  I recommend carrying a full set of tools for road adjustments and repairs. Tools should be in the right saddle bag where you can access them while on the side of the road without having your butt hanging over in traffic. Ouch!  The heaviest tools go on the bottom. I like to wrap my wrenches and 3/8 drive socket set in red rags. I use red rags in my garage as oil rags.  Oil rags are handy on the road.  So, the bottom of your saddle bag with tools will look like this: Keeping the heaviest items such as tools on the bottom of the saddle bag is important and I’ll tell you why in a moment.  Of course like packing groceries, if you were to put them on top, they’d crush the items below.

Tip: 4-foot long siphon hose, long enough to reach from one bike to next is cheap insurance

On top of the tools, I put a siphon hose (yes, motorcycles run out of gas. My siphon hose is long enough to reach from one bike to the other), cleaning equipment for keeping your bike shiny, and a first aid kit.  Generally, other items will still fit, such as gloves, or some outerwear.  These are all the things I will access if needed from the non-traffic side of the bike.

The other saddlebag I put my camera gear and other items I may need on the road, but will access at a stop for gas or food.  Gloves, sweatshirt, maps, atlas, extra goggles go in the left saddlebag.

3. The core.  This is the really important part of loading a bike, the core.  Remember I said safety and maneuverability are important?   Remember I said to keep the weight down low? Most of what I write here are suggestions. This is not a suggestion, this is a rule. Heavy items must be kept as low as possible.  If they are too high, your bike will be top heavy and that is asking for a crash.

Think of a triangle that peaks at the rider’s shoulders with its base at the point of contact where the front and rear tires meet the road.  As much weight as possible must be inside that triangle for safety and stability as well as maneuverability. Heavy tools in the bottom of the saddle bag. Heavy items in your core on the bottom. Heavy larger items as low and forward as possible on the luggage rack

Tip: Keep the weight low and inside of rider triangle from rider shoulder to contact point of road and tires.

The stability of the entire pack will be built on the core.  I use a T-bag. There are many similar makes and models. Kuryakyn makes a good line also.  In the base of the t-bag I put my extra boots, or anything heavy.  I roll my clothes to fit more compactly and stack them  tightly in the t-bag.  Once packed, the t-bag or “core” goes on the bike AHEAD of the passenger seat back.  It is a bad bad bad idea to put it on the luggage rack for many reasons behind the triangle of weight. You want it inside the triangle of weight.  You can see here how Kat has hers on the passenger seat. The other bags you see are waiting for placement.

On top of her core is her full-face helmet under a cargo net.

3.b. The back rest. Notice the white plastic bag that is in front of Kat’s core?  That starts her back rest that can be adjusted to meet the curvature of her back as needed.  You will need a back rest for those long miles.  Use the core for that.

4. The luggage rack.  You’ve done the best you can to keep the heavy items inside the triangle.  Sometimes that may mean strapping to the top of the saddle bags any heavy items that didn’t fit the saddle bag or core.  Next time, plan better and you won’t have to put them on top of your saddle bags.  Use a luggage rack. Ideally it will sit directly above the rear wheel.  The heaviest items go on the bottom toward the front of the luggage rack

Here’s where an assortment of bungee cords are handy.  Hook one end on the right (either front of the load or behind it) bring it up over the load and hook on the left side. Do the same in reverse, using the same length bungee cord, hooking to the identical places on the opposite side of the bike.   Symmetry equalizes the load.  Build your pack upward and inward, crossing bungee cords at critical points on your pack.  They must be tight and equal to stabilize the load.

On the left is the back of my bike, bungee cords crisscrossed.   When I took this pic, I ran my eyes straight up the center of the fender through the center of the bike to see that it was balanced. Not a good camera angle, but try it, run your eyes up from the center of the fender, the tail light through the crossed bungee cords.

(The flags normally are posted on either side of my rear fender, but I had to move them to accommodate the load, yet still make them visible. I never leave home without them! Salute!)

It’s the arrangement I ended up with, after starting with the lwhich wasn’t low enough for safety and maneuverability.  It was symmetrical, but it wasn’t low enough for me. I had to move the tent lower and forward on our first stop.  When touring, gas stops are important for bike check (tires, oil, lights, etc) and for the load check. Truckers do it. Bikers should, too.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to remove and replace or to adjust your pack when you stop for fuel.  Be more afraid of a load coming undone on the highway, or for the load to cause you to crash.

5. Extra items. An additional packing tip is how to secure and place extras. This includes more layers of clothing if it turns cool, or conversely, where to stash extra layers as you peel them off in the day.  Cargo nets strapped over the whole load, attached symmetrically to the bike or the core, or both can be a quickly accessed point for extra gloves, shirts, sweatshirts, rain gear, head rags, etc.

When you are finished, the entire pack should be shoulder level or below.  It should be symmetrical.  If packed low and behind the rider, it will not suck your gas mileage too badly.  Switch off with your riding partner, taking turns leading and following when you first start. That way you can eyeball each others’ packs for stability.  Keep an eye on each others’ packs when on the road to be alert to a shifting load.

Each day of your trip you will reload your bike if your moving on down the road.  That’s when you improve the previous day’s pack.  Yes, it takes time. It’s easier to toss your stuff in the trunk of your car, or the box of your pickup.  But if it’s ease you want, you’re reading the wrong blog. This is about a lifestyle called “motorcycling.” Enjoy!

7 Responses to “How to pack your motorcycle for the trip”

  1. I am so glad I found this, which I actually stumbled onto it Me and my hubby are first time riders, and just gotten our bikes, have not ridden them yet this year, but as we are trying to figure out what all we need, Yes we both have ridden but that was over 25 years ago, and it was not street legal back then. It was a country road bike. lol

    So this has helped me tremendously, Thank you for posting this. I hope to find many more sites that will help me in all my questions to get ready for the road next spring.


    • Rach, you’re on the right track…strategic preparation begins in research. If I can answer any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. Don’t scrimp on the T-bag or similar pack bag. Mine cost $139 and it has given me 7 years of use. There are much better bags on the market today than when I got mine. More expensive, too.

      Thanks for the reply. I appreciate hearing from you.


  2. I am getting ready to make a cross county ride in April/May with a buddy. I ride a HD FLHX and will be camping for part of the trip. Found your Blog while looking for tips on how to load and secure my gear to the bike. Looks like good advice. I’ve been test packing and test setting up and taking down camp as well. I plan on loading the bike with the stuff a couple of times and making test rides before heading out. I am using a back pack to load all the camping gear into from REI and am going to secure it to the rack and to the backrest bag on the seat. Since we are riding for three weeks we are sure to hit rain and wondered about suggestions for coving both bags with what to keep the stuff as dry as I can, especially the sleeping bag and clothing. Any ideas or suggestions would be appreciated. See my blog if you’re interested. Thanks

    • Ah-ha! You’re one of those anticipate and alleviate kind of planners! You’re doing the right thing.
      A tarp and garbage bags — that’s what you’ll want. Let me explain a trick and tip:

      First of all, relax. Things are not as exposed as you might think. The very nature of having all the items packed around the central pack will keep the central pack fairly well protected from rain. Plus the back pack you speak of will be water resistant if not outright water proof.
      However for extra protection, trash bags for individual items that are on the exterior of the load are disposable and quickly replaced if needed. I build my pack much further forward than is comfortable at the start of the day because as I go down the road, it all squishes to the rear as I lean on it. My back actually leans on a small couch pillow wrapped in a trash bag under the cargo net. (I love cargo nets, they’re handy for quick access of gloves, shirts, caps, headrags, etc that you may need quickly — or may want to store when the day warms up.) Garbage bags tend to get ripped up in the wind, so strap them tightly. In two of the photos, you can see the white plastic bag on the front of my pack. That’s the pillow wrapped in a motel’s garbage bag. So, the bundle itself protects the inner items from moisture, the back pack also provides some protection, garbage bags are handy.

      Near the end of the blog, notice the photo of the rear of the two bikes. The blue square about the size of the pack is a tarp. It’s the same tarp we put under the tent at night. We fold it up neatly and keep it accessible so if needed in a hurry to cover bikes or anything else, it’s quickly accessed. !!NOTE: THAT TARP HAS SAVED OUR BIKES FROM HAIL STORMS. Ran in to hail outside of Minneapolis, pulled to the shoulder, whipped out the tarp, threw it over the bike huddled underneath and we were protected from golf-ball to tennis ball size hail. I’ve done that several times and can pull over, park, dismount, grab the tarp and cover the me and bike in less than 30 seconds.

      Now I’m off to read your blog.

      Ride smart, John

  3. Hi; I’m planning a long trip across the country. I’m currently shopping for a tent and gear. I’m just not sure about stuff. Placement of gear. Do you advise stuff being-in front of the windshield?
    I read everything here, but still not sure. Wonder why!
    Where does a folding chair go? I’ve got a Road King myself and I’ve taken a three State tour so far and it was good, but I stayed in hotels.
    I’m putting a list together, but have not camped in over forty years.
    I’m just not sure what I’m gonna need.
    Well, thanks for your time.
    Any advice would be great.

    • Imagine a pyramid from the top of your head to the wheel contact with the road. Most of your load needs to go within that triangle. Consider folding your chair and placing it parallel to the bike on top of the saddlebags. As for what goes in front of the windshield, keep it low so it does not block your vision. In fact, for decades before I got a bike with a windshield, I used my sleeping bag pad, bed roll or other tightly-rolled bundle as a windbreak across my handlebars above my headlight.

      Just a couple of ideas. Thanks for asking.

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