Riding Right: Getting Loaded: Six Tips

The safe & smart way to pack gear on your motorcycle

By Kip Woodring

Unless youve learned the hard way (youll know if you did), most riders dont know how to pack gear on their motorcycle properly. Stability and steering, not to mention safety, are seriously compromised when you load a bike improperly.

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1)Be aware of proper load distribution.
The first thing you need to know about proper load distribution on two wheels is to keep it centered between them. Contrary to all the “Easy Rider” mythos, you should not be strapping heavy bedrolls on your handlebars. Screws up the steering badly by adding to the pendulum effect of turning the handlebars. Instead of a precise, delicate response to your input at the grips, you get a fork that wants to flop radically from side to side.

Think twice about slapping 150 pounds in a backrest bag that hangs over your luggage rack. The luggage rack probably has a little sticker on it that says “15 pounds maximum load” or words to that effect. It takes very little weight hanging over and behind the back axle to make your steering a little … ahem … light. It also compresses the rear shocks too much, thus largely negating any help from them in the event of a problem. Taken to extremes this “strap it on the ass end” logic can lead to a motorcycle doing a poor imitation of a wheelbarrow loaded with wet cement. Control all but disappears, wet roads become lethal (OK, more lethal), steering gets twitchy even in the dry because the front wheel is barely skimming the tarmac, and you may be asking for a flat rear tire if you exceed its load rating.

6 motorcycle packing tips cruiser
Can you identify whats wrong with this motorcycle packing arrangement? Bedroll up front messes with the steering; too much weight on the back end of the bike – small black bag is OK, but the cooler is pushing it; and too much is strapped to the sissy bar.

2) Think low center of gravity.
Keep the weight low on the chassis.Saddlebags make more sense to the steering geometry of your machine than backrest bags on sissy bars. The bags keep the weight positioned down low, below seat height. This makes for superior stability. Perhaps the next best thing is a tank bag. True, its higher up on the machine, but unless youre carrying bowling balls in the thing, its still more stable than the same mass slung on bars … be they handle or sissy. The bonus is, with a tank bag the load is once again contained within the wheelbase. Some larger tank bags have saddlebag attachments for the sides of the tank. This isnt a bad plan, if you need the extra capacity, and even further lowers your loads center of gravity.

3) Check luggage rack requirements.
Heed payload warnings on luggage racks and backrests and such. Mentioned before, this bears repeating, because aside from creating instability, some folks do overload a rack, sissy bar, or seat rail, beyond the break strength of the welds or the bolts that attach the thing to your machine. The best way to avoid this and still bring all the necessities along is not to put all your eggs in one basket or on one luggage rack if you prefer. Take the same amount of stuff you were carrying on the rack and move some of it to saddlebags, tank bags, windshield pouches, back packs, and so on. Dont use extra storage space as an excuse to bring more stuff. Its extra, not additional. Use it, if you must, to carry those souvenirs from the trip back home.

motorcycle trip packing tips harley
Hope this riders toothbrush is not at the bottom!

4) Pack light.
You ride a motorcycle not a RV. Think carefully about just how much you need for your trip. When you get home from a long road trip, pay attention to the things you brought and never used, then leave them at the house next time. If you forget something, you can stop and buy it, borrow it or, well, you can manage without it. If its provided at your destination or any stop along the way, omit it. Dont tote it especially heavy, bulky stuff.

5)Adjust shocks if needed.
Take the time to adjust the shocks stiffer and run more pressure in your tires, just like the owners manual instructs particularly important if you plan to travel burning up highways, instead of meandering down byways. Heavy loads and high speeds are not a natural mix, no matter what youve heard about “road-hugging” weight. The laws of physics say otherwise. The fact is an obscenely obese wobbler will have a terrifying tendency to leave the road well before a lightly loaded, properly suspended one even makes you nervous. Never mind that an overloaded machine lets you know painfully, where every bump in that road is. How uncomfortable do you want to be? Sometimes, less really is more.

6 motorcycle packing tips
Tank bags are a good thing to use, as are throw-over canvas saddlebags. Be sure not to overload a soft bag and secure straps so they dont get tangled in the tire. This bike may be pushing the weight a bit with a tent bungeed to the side bag and the sleeping bag on the back.

6)Dont forget about yourself to carry stuff.
Small temporary loads can, and likely should, be carried on your person, in a backpack or stuffed in your jacket or fanny pack. Two reasons: namely to get you out of the habit of thinking of your motorcycle as a U-haul, and to give you some sense of empathy with the difference weight and bulk make to things like center of gravity and maneuverability.

Bottom line, a road trip should be an exhilarating, carefree example of the motorcycle experience at its best. Literally, traveling lightly, in all senses of the word. In an ideal world, travel by motorcycle should involve nothing more bulky than a credit card. In this world, theres more to it than that, in some cases, much more, in still others too much… period. Learning to balance your needs and your luggage means your time on the road will be a better trip. And isn’t that what it’s about?  

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24 thoughts on Riding Right: Getting Loaded: Six Tips

  1. Great article which covers one of the basic principles of motorcycle touring very well. Pack light, pack right, balance your load and leave maybes behind.Thanks for sharing.

  2. Kip, great article, however one of the most critical points seems to have been left out—tire air pressure is critical. We find approximately 70% of riders are running underinflated, overloaded or a combination of both. A single tire that is underinflated by as little as 4 PSI can loose up to 80 pounds of load carrying capacity.Today’s tires are highly engineered product and very complex. By running a tire overloaded and or under inflated can cause an accident.

  3. I tend to roll my small tent, sleeping bag, and mat together with the outer layer being a tarp. I then use Andy Strapz to pull it all together. This package rides behind me on the passenger seat. I use saddlebags and generally take only a minimum of clothing and personal care products. With a hiking gas stove/pot kit weighting in at .5 pounds. I’m all set for camping and travelling. Here’s a picture of my current ride and tent setup on my last solo trip away (186 mile round trip).

  4. I learned to be careful how one ties down her load. I was having trouble finding a good place to attach my tie downs and inadvertently compressed the rear shocks when I attached by bags. The bike developed a wobble at high speed that resolved when I changed the location of the straps. A huge DUH moment, I know but maybe I can help prevent another from making the same error.

  5. This is great topic. I'm a fairly new rider (3 1/2 years – 40K miles) and love riding long distance. I'm not a petite woman. I have to carry my C-PAP machine with me so that takes up space. I can't roll it up. My first long trip to Indiana, I was trying to figure out how to pack and afraid of overpacking (which I did!). Friends told me 2-3 undies, Ts, shorts, jeans and another pair of shoes. My bike felt top heavy the whole way. When I got to my destination, I shipped a lot back home. Lighten up the bike.

    Now,I wear mesh jacket/riding pants, pack a pair of light convertible pants for off the bike, a couple of wicking undies/socks and wash them out nightly. I put a lot of my smaller items in my tankbag. I always take my First Aid kit, tire repair kit, and mini-compressor, and a credit card! I'll ship ahead to my destination. This season, I rode solo to/from AMA's Women's Conference in Col. Outside of a bulge in the fuel line, it was awesome, the weight was evenly distrbuted. Great site, great tips! Thanks.

  6. To Corky in Des Moines regarding magnetic tank bags: I love mine and use it daily! It's compact & easy, expands to fit my work clothes & lunch, has a mesh pocket on the inside where I keep my tool kit, a clear pocket on the outside for maps, and a side pocket where I keep the carry strap and rainproof cover. Mine also has a cell phone/ID holder, but I prefer to keep those in a jacket pocket–they won't do me any good in the tankbag if I go one way and the bike the other.

    The only caution I would give about magnetic tank bags is to not put credit cards/debit cards, etc. near the magnets–they can render the magnetic stripe on any card useless (another reason to keep those in the jacket). You can find tank bags that aren't magnetic, too. I wouldn't trade mine for anything!

  7. Thanks for the great article. I asked about it and you responded. What a great informative site. Some of the responses have also given me more ideas that will be helpful for our trip. Sturgis here we come.

  8. I am also re-thinking how I pack.
    I am hoping someone can answer this question: Can you a magnetic tank bag go on any tank? I have a '96 FXDL and want to get a tank bag for my trips this year, but not sure about the magnetic part affecting anything to do with the fuel or anything else for that matter.

    1. As long as the bag is not blocking any gauges, a magnetic tank bag can go on any tank with metal that accepts it. I have never heard of the magnet affecting the fuel in any way.

      Harleys have a console down the middle connecting the two sides of the fuel tank. You'll need to find a tank bag that's big enough to spread over that console and adequately fit on the tank, again, without blocking the gauges above.

  9. I take a two-man dome tent with small weight and size. A light sleeping bag, a small air mattress with battery inflation (definitely required) and as little in the way of clothes and extras as possible. Surprising how little that is. Wash and wear for everything. Face cream goes into an empty prescription pill bottle. I take soap, towel, swim suit, torch. Cooking gear bought from a Pedal Power outlet is light, small, strong. My bike is lighter each time I go. Only extra I have not yet managed to omit is my bike's cover. That's a tough one but I'm working on it.

  10. Great tips/reminders for all of us. I love this Web site and appreciate your efforts in bringing us so much good information and new product recommendations.

  11. What a great article. Wiith riding season slowly approaching it's time to think about what we are doing this summer. I tell my husband if we can put it on a bike and go, we're gone! We went to our local Ace and found a grill that looks like a laptop flat and fits anywhere. Tent is in a small bag and I carry the pillows and bedding on my bike. I look like the bungie queen.

    We have a backback just for clothes and essentials. We try to go to any campground along the way. Essentials are: toothbrushes and paste, bar of soap in a baggie, two panties and socks(depending how long trip is). We found that rolling our shirts, undies and socks together and rubber banding them, you can cram them anywhere; shorts and T-shirt (something to wear when stopping at a laundromat).

    We find if going to a campsite people are very helpful in hauling firewood for you. Please do not try bungeeing firewood to you bike. We learned from experience!

    I looked at myself in the mirror at a stop and I looked like I had been rode hard and put away wet! It's not a fashion show, it's time to let yourself cut loose and do all those things your mother would blush about.

  12. Great article. Past it along to my MC club and other women riders.

  13. Great topic. We are planning a two-week 1500-mile ride this summer. Packing is going to take some thought and effort. At least we have two bikes to pack. I would love to see a basic list of necessities.

  14. Is “camping” suppose to be the ultimate in the motorcycle experience? I'm new and plan on a 4- to 5-day trip this summer, but I think I'm gonna book a nice room instead.

  15. It is OK to ship ahead to final destination, hotel, campground. Wearing light tank or thin shirt under riding gear so to wash out let dry and ready to wear the next day. Wash your panties, too. I like wearing leather pants for long haul –winter or summer. I will wear cotton leggings underneath. Leather pants with liners are the best. I will wear them the whole trip. Jeans for destination packed.

    Pack a sundress, flip-flops to have when your stopping for the night. Easy to throw on dress, leggings already on for going out to dinner and hanging around motel or camp. Pack in linen vinyl covers, the ones you get when buying new sheets. These are zippered and will keep clothes dry. Gallon Ziploc work well.
    If you need more than that stay home.

  16. Great article! I just have one thing to add to #6 – think twice about what you put in jacket/pants pockets. Don't put anything next to your body that you wouldn't want to land on in a worst case scenario.

    Also, a great source for compact, lightweight camping gear is your local outdoor store, especially one that specializes in hiking gear. If it's small enough to pack on your back down the Appalachian Trail, it'll probably fit well on a bike, too!

  17. I've learned the hard way. I now have a list that I follow faithfully. USPS is a great way to lighten your load. Believe me, I've done it a number of times.

  18. Thanks for the great tips! I have a Sportster, and was a Girl Scout back in the day, so packing is easy for me. Just take the minimals with you, and leave all the girly-girl crap at home. When you ride, you are not in a fashion show, you're in the wind!

  19. If you need to buy something on your trip why don't you ship it home and it will be waiting for you when get back. The bike in this picture scares me. I would not dream of trying to ride that one.

  20. I couldn't agree more. I can go for a long weekend with an expandable bag on my luggage rack. Or add a small set of saddle bags and go for more than a week. When I unload, I can carry everything in one trip to the hotel room. (That's how I camp, now.)

    Favorite packing story: Years ago, my husband and I did an overnight trip to NH on bikes. I was being lectured about not bringing too much stuff and over-packing, it's just one night, etc. etc. I had a leather pocketbook that looked like a little back pack and carried it out to the bikes. My husband asked me where all my stuff is and I showed him my bag. He wanted to know what was in that, and I replied, “Clean panties for tomorrow!”

    I have “travel sized” everything! I even bought samples of my Avon moisturizer. You get ten foil packets in a box. They travel a lot better than the heavy glass jar.

  21. This article could not have come at a better time, especially after just spending the past hour trying to figure out a way to get everything into the bag we are putting on our bike for a trip to Daytona. I packed it tight, then weighed it. Decided to repack and am still working out some kinks. With two people on one bike it really limits what we can and cannot take. Very good advice here and I plan to go eliminate some more out of our bag just to make sure we don't go down the road doing an unintended wheelie.

  22. Definitely an important topic. Clothes can be washed; a small propane stove and cooking pot is all it takes for cooking with plasticware for weight. A tent and bag can be compressed down very tightly. Makes for a great ride to ride light.

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