How To Pack Your Motorcycle For A Road Trip

how to pack a motorcycle
The days of the lone-wolf biker with just a toothbrush and a bedroll are long gone. These days we all take more stuff on tour, and packing it right takes some planning. Photos by Greg Drevenstedt.

What kind of luggage do I need?

Before you decide what to take on a multi-day trip, you need to figure out how you’re going to carry it. If you have a touring bike with built-in bags, no worries there. But for bikes that require add-on luggage, there are two options. Hard cases give you more security than soft luggage, and unmatched weather protection for the contents, but at the expense of weight, size and, well, expense. Expandable soft luggage is lighter and cheaper but a lot easier to zip—or cut—open to get at the contents. On the plus side, soft luggage makes unpacking for the night a breeze. Just take it all off the bike in one unit and unpack it in the room. (You can do this with some hard cases, too, but not all.)

A tank bag is handy for small things you want easily accessible—sunglasses, sunscreen, your phone, maps. Backpacks don’t work out that well for two-up riding except for the passenger. Neither pilot nor pillion should have anything hard and/or pointy in a backpack in case of a get-off. Stow your camping steak knives somewhere else.

how to pack a motorcycle
A tank bag is the place for things you need often, or in a hurry. Its weight is centrally located on the bike, but high up, so put the heavy stuff at the bottom.

Stay balanced.

Position the heavy stuff low and as far forward as you can. Try to balance the load left and right, too. My own habit is to put my heated vest and gloves, and a jacket liner, in the top box where their light weight won’t affect handling much and where I can get at them in a hurry if the weather changes. I keep my camera and tablet there, too, for security and weather protection. Heavier stuff goes in the saddlebags.

Packing for two.

Packing for two requires some compromises. The rule of thumb for couples (and also for solo riders) is to take half the clothes and twice the money you think you’ll need. Leave the hair dryer and the beard trimmer at home, too. If you walk into a restaurant in your sweaty riding gear with your hair all messy and people are staring at you, you can be pretty sure it’s with envy. Touring’s not a beauty contest, and anyway, you’re out riding a motorcycle instead of sitting behind a desk, so you’ve already won whatever contest is going on.

If you’re staying at motels you can get away with two changes of clothes, one to ride in and another for off-bike activities. When the riding clothes become unbearable swap them for the other set and hit the motel laundry room.

how to pack a motorcycle
Nylon luggage and high-mounted mufflers don’t mix. Make sure soft bags are far enough from hot parts to prevent melting.

Learn to prioritize.

Before you take off on your ride, set aside the bare minimum of riding gear you’d wear at any time, for example when it’s hot. Now pack all your foul-weather gear—heated stuff, rainsuit, waterproof boot covers, thermals, whatever—onto the bike. This way you’ll always have room for it. I learned this the hard way by packing my bike just prior to leaving on a ride on a cold, wet morning and discovering several hours later that I had nowhere to stow my cold-weather gear once the weather turned balmy.

Do a load check a few hours into the ride.

If it’s your first multi-day ride with luggage, do yourself a big favor: Pack your bike with everything you intend to take and go for a ride, several hours at least. Stop at some point and check the straps on your luggage to make sure they stayed tight, that the load didn’t shift and that nothing drooped enough to put nylon in contact with a hot muffler. Make sure you haven’t packed so much stuff you can’t get on or off the bike easily.

Do some braking drills—the extra weight and its placement will likely increase braking distances—and get used to the handling of a loaded bike. Be sure to crank up the preload to account for the weight of the cargo, and a passenger if you’re taking one.

how to pack a motorcycle
Check straps and bungee cords for tightness after a few hours on the road, and re-route them if necessary.

WalMarts are everywhere.

Finally, don’t get carried away playing the “what if” game. You can’t plan for every emergency, but you should carry a toolkit, a tire repair kit and a small first-aid kit. Anything else you desperately need can probably be bought, borrowed or rented somewhere along the way. Anyway, some people will tell you the adventure doesn’t begin until the plan goes off the rails. If you bring nothing else, pack your sense of humor. It’ll get you out of a jam when nothing else will.


  1. A bottle (aluminium of course) of laundry detergent takes a lot less room than multiple pairs of underwear, socks, t-shirts… When washing clothes in a hotel, wring them as much as you can, the roll them inside a towel, step on the roll, leave it in a few minutes, repeat and after 10-15 minutes they come out almost dry, especially if they are synthetic fabrics.


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