Going the (First) Distance: An Introduction to Long Distance Motorcycle Riding, Point #6 (Packing Tips)


#6: Packing tips and tricks:
How low can you go?: When packing for a motorcycle tour, it is always best to keep weight as low and close to the center of the motorcycle as possible. In other words, try packing the heaviest items toward the bottom and front of the saddlebags. This allows for optimal motorcycle handling in spite of the additional weight.

While the advice above sounds great in theory, it can be difficult to accomplish in practice. Soft saddlebags often do not take well to being loaded with heavy items like tools. Moreover, some of the heavier touring items, like a laptop, can be more squarely shaped or too wide for many saddlebags or side cases. The more spacious dimensions of a tail bag or top case would be a more logical fit.

When I tour, I pack my saddlebags or side cases with the heavy items that both fit in them and that I will not need while on the road. Items like my Chromebook, atlas, and handheld CB radio will go in my tail bag or top case. Dimension-friendly items, like hand tools, toiletries bag, and a portable air pump find their way into my saddlebags or side cases. I try to keep the heavier items toward the bottom of the bags, and as close to the motorcycle as possible.

Under the sea(t): An underutilized area of a motorcycle can be the area beneath the seat(s). For riders who carry a full tool set for their bike, the space formerly occupied by the stock tool kit can hold many of the heavier tools (wrenches, sockets, ratchets, plyers, etc.). The low height but sometimes long dimensions can also be ideal for items like a tire plug kit.

Riders should test fit items below their seat before heading out on a tour. I tried stuffing the same number of tools underneath my Ninja 500’s seat that I had on my FJR1300. The result was a half-hour of trying to engineer a way to get the Ninja’s seat latch to release the seat after I reinstalled it. The tool bag was preventing the latch from moving back enough to disengage its hold on the seat. I am glad I tried getting the seat off at home, because it would not have been ideal doing the same thing on the shoulder of an interstate.

Rockin’ ROK Straps: For securing larger items or large bags holding camping gear, motorcyclists have been blessed with the advent of ROK Straps. ROK straps are part rubber strap and part polyester strap. This allows them to enjoy the elasticity and tight fit of rubber along with the adjustability and consistency of polyester. They are incredibly good at holding items in place even during cornering, and are available in several different sizes (https://www.amazon.com/ROK-Straps-ROK-10358-Black-Reflective/dp/B00JVAJJNO/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1509464117&sr=8-2&keywords=rok+straps&dpID=61eyLz1m9EL&preST=_SX300_QL70_&dpSrc=srch).

Don’t leave home without these: In addition to the tools and riding gear that will be discussed in future articles, there are several of items that new touring riders should include in their touring gear. I picked items that many new riders or new touring riders may not think to bring along on their first tour. These items can be lifesavers, literally, or tour savers when needed. Some of the items may seem excessive. However, in the words of a philosopher/racing fan who I met at Mid-Ohio a few years back, “Well, when on the road, better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it.”

CB radio: No, I am not recommending you turn your first motorcycle tour into something from Smokey and the Bandit. You have a cell phone, right? Why wouldn’t that just do the job? In most parts of the U.S., there is ample cell service. However, in many of the more mountainous or remote areas of the country, there is still limited or non-existent cell service. What if your motorcycle stops running in the middle of the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania? My experience riding in that part of the country tells me there is little cell coverage in the region. So, if you are stuck on the side of I-80 or I-380, or worse a lonesome country road, how can you call for help?

A CB radio will still be able to get your call for help out to authorities. If I were ever stuck having to use my CB radio, I would only use the emergency channel to call for law enforcement or a similar agency. If one uses a non-emergency channel and notifies an unknown party that they are broke down, who knows who may show up to “help”. I use a simple handheld unit that I bought on eBay for $20 and I change out the batteries every riding season. Relatively inexpensive ones can be found on Amazon as well (https://www.amazon.com/Midland-75-785-40-Channel-CB-Radio/dp/B00005Q4ZV/ref=sr_1_3?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1509375237&sr=1-3&keywords=handheld+cb+radio&dpID=41TVtC%252B6qZL&preST=_SY300_QL70_&dpSrc=srch).

Weather radio: The same argument for packing a CB radio also applies to a weather radio. In many places your cell phone can provide detailed weather forecasts and warnings. However, what happens when a rider is somewhere without mobile data service? Those clouds on the horizon may not be as harmless as they first look.

A small handheld weather radio can provide invaluable in those situations. Modern weather radios pick up a nationwide network of stations set up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The stations provide weather forecasts, hazards/warnings, and regional weather conditions. A portable weather radio can be found for less than $20 on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Midland-HH50-Pocket-Weather-Radio/dp/B000P708NM/ref=sr_1_3?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1509377080&sr=1-3&keywords=handheld+weather+radio).

I started carrying a weather radio when I started touring in 2009. I did not have a smartphone at that time, and needed something that could keep me updated on weather conditions and hazardous weather ahead of me. On my trip back from Utah in 2010, I saw a very dark line of clouds on the horizon. I pulled over and got my weather radio it. A tornado warning was in effect for the towns ahead of me. I was able to get to my hotel, which was just outside of the warning area and take shelter there. Without the weather radio, I would not have known whether to keep going, stay put, or turn around and ride away from the storm.

Atlas: Another feature on many phones that can fail without ample data service is a maps app. On my old Windows Phone, I could download street maps by state. I am still testing several apps on my Android phone to see which maps app I like the best. However, what happens when your phone is dead or not working? Carrying a nationwide atlas can be invaluable in those situations. Yes, the maps in an atlas go out of date quickly and they can be bulky. However, getting back on track on a 8+ hour day on the road can be extremely important. I usually buy a national atlas that is spiral bound and medium size (https://www.amazon.com/2018-McNally-EasyFinder%C2%AE-Midsize-Atlas/dp/0528017411/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1509378122&sr=8-2&keywords=atlas&dpID=61l%252B6kRHmUL&preST=_SX218_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch) and buy a new one about every 5-10 years. A national atlas may not show the obscure scenic route you are lost on. What is can do is help you find that state or national highway you crossed a little ways back and help get you back on roads the atlas does show.

Power banks/charging attachments: The goal of the items above is to provide the rider with tools that will work when a phone has no data service. What happens when a rider is in an area with plenty of data and phone service, but a dying phone battery? Although a touring rider may be carrying the items discussed above, the easiest thing to do is simply recharge his or her phone. How can that be done on a motorcycle?

While there are more complicated methods of hard-wiring charging ports to a motorcycle, the easiest method is to use a Battery Tender harness (https://www.amazon.com/Battery-Tender-081-0069-6-Terminal-Disconnect/dp/B000NCOKZQ/ref=sr_1_7?s=automotive&ie=UTF8&qid=1509383804&sr=1-7&keywords=battery+tender&dpID=41yzSPdqqqL&preST=_SX395_QL70_&dpSrc=srch). The harness connects to the motorcycle’s battery at one end, and provides a “SAE” (which stands for Society of Automotive Engineers) connector on the other end. The primary purpose of the harness is to allow a rider to charge his battery by simply plugging in the SAE connector on a Battery Tender to the harness. The harness is run from the battery to outside of a motorcycle’s bodywork.

However, the harness can also be attached to a range of accessories. For purposes of this section, those accessories include a cigarette power socket adapter (https://www.amazon.com/Battery-Tender-081-0069-8-Cigarette-Disconnect/dp/B0041CDPQO/ref=sr_1_42?s=automotive&ie=UTF8&qid=1509383941&sr=1-42&keywords=battery+tender) and a USB adapter (https://www.amazon.com/Battery-Tender-081-0158-Disconnect-Smartphone/dp/B00DJ5KEF4/ref=sr_1_21?s=automotive&ie=UTF8&qid=1509383804&sr=1-21&keywords=battery+tender). Those adapters can be important for re-charging electronics like a cell phone or powering an air pump (more on that in the next article).

Another option for recharging phones or other electronics are power banks. These portable “batteries” typically feature USB and micro-USB or Apple Lightening connectors. They are charged by being connected to a power source (like a USB port on a computer or a USB/wall outlet adapter) and are able to hold energy for recharging modern smartphones and tablets. They have come down in price in recent years and can be found on Amazon in many shapes and capacities.

Personally, I use a combination of the above methods for recharging my phone while on a tour. I do not like having the phone directly connected to my motorcycle battery just in case a power surge should occur. Additionally, I like to keep my phone in a jacket or pants pocket in case of a crash. Running a 4-foot charging cable up the inside of my jacket to my phone can be awkward. Instead, I own three small, 3,200 mAh power banks that stay with my tank bag (https://www.amazon.com/Anker-PowerCore-Lipstick-Sized-Generation-Batteries/dp/B005X1Y7I2/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1509379095&sr=8-7&keywords=power+bank).

When my phone gets low on charge, I use a short USB cable to connect the phone to the power bank when I am stopped. The power bank will usually recharge the phone by the time I need to get off the bike again. After the phone is done charging, I put the power bank back in my tank bag and connect it to the bike’s Battery Tender harness via a USB adapter. By the time the riding day is done, the power bank is recharged and ready to be used again. If I need to use more than one power bank during the day, I simply recharge them overnight off of my laptop or a wall plug USB adapter.

Aspirin: Even after making all of the comfort changes described in Point #2, a rider’s rear end can still get sore during an 8+ hour day on the road. While several over the counter painkillers can remedy some of that discomfort, I like to use aspirin. I choose aspirin because it has mild blood-thinning properties. While I am not a doctor, and nor is this writing intended to constitute medical advice, my understanding is that much of the pain from sitting on a motorcycle seat is caused by a lack of blood flow. Aspirin both thins the blood mildly to promote blood flow, as well as acts as a pain reliever. In my personal experience, I have found aspirin to be the most effective of the over the counter pain relievers for long-distance motorcycle riding. However, each rider should consult their doctor and find which remedy works best for them.

Kickstand pads: These plastic pucks can be a bike saver. When showing up to an event, or having to park on the side of the road, the ground may be less than ideal for a kickstand or centerstand. The pucks widen the footprint of a kickstand, helping spread out the weight of the motorcycle over a larger area (http://www.ironpony.com/ipd/pi.asp/ImageName/IP-KICKSTAND-PAD.jpg/Brand/Iron-Pony/c2/General-Bike-Accessories/c3/Kickstand-Pads/c1/Street-Products/KitKey2/Kickstand-Pad). This helps prevent a kickstand from pushing through weak asphalt, sand, or dirt/grass and the bike consequently tipping over. I have had to use kickstand pads several times when parking on the grass at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A kickstand pad can actually work better than a centerstand on soft, wet ground.

Cash: Despite how widely accepted credit and debit cards have become, there are still businesses that are cash only. Many such businesses are located in remote areas where a touring rider may not have many alternatives. A rider does not want to find himself or herself out of fuel or broke down with no cash for offer for gas, parts, or labor.

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