Packing Light


Jeff Hughes


After fueling, I replace my tank bag, then wheel the BMW around the corner to the McDonalds next door.  John’s R1100RT and Forrest’s VFR are already there.  Seeing the bikes sparks that wash of excitement that I always get at the beginning of these multi-day motorcycle trips of ours.

Inside, I nod greetings to my riding pals as I head to the counter.  The pretty girl takes my order and smiles back at my obvious happiness.

Carrying my tray back to the table, I join my friends.  “Heard from Neil?” I inquire as I sit down.  John shakes his head with a small smile.  Neil is legendary for his lateness.  His crazy hours at the Pentagon mean he’s usually up wrenching and packing until two in the morning, just hours before we depart, on these trips of ours.

We wait an extra fifteen minutes, but when he still doesn’t show we head outside.  We know he’ll catch up later.

As we get to the bikes we hear the familiar sound of an approaching V4 and another red VFR - a twin to Forrest’s - pulls into the lot.  I’m struck by the sight.  It takes me a moment to realize it’s Neil.

He’s wearing his usual red Honda leathers and, Candace, his girlfriend, is attired in a conventional synthetic riding suit.  That part’s all normal.

What has us staring in amazement are the twin, vertical pillars that pass for their luggage.  Neil has fashioned what looks like a three-foot-high pack on the rear of his back rest.  And in front, he has mounted what has to be the tallest tank bag I have ever seen.  It cants a bit to one side, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  He can just barely see over the top.

I break out laughing.  Neil is an exceptional rider – he’ll shortly become an MSF instructor for the Air Force – but his bike is the most unwieldy combination of weight and mass I have ever seen.

I walk back to my bike, shaking my head, glad that Neil will be with us for the ride down but wondering how in the world he’ll manage that ungainly setup.

The things we do to go three out of three.



Having enjoyed many dozens of multi-day motorcycle trips over the years, I sometimes forget that the “what to bring” question – something I sorted out long ago – remains a challenge that so many riders new to these long distance trips still wrestle with.  So often we’ll have a newbie along and he’ll bring everything but the kitchen sink.  He thinks of all the things he might need, however remote the circumstance, tosses each of those into the pile, and then wonders why his formerly lithe motorcycle looks and handles like a porcine mess.

My first piece of advice, then, is to embrace the old Boy Scout motto of “be prepared” when it comes to mind, body, and spirit – but to be wary of it when it comes to stuff

The key is to carry the things you’ll need to be dry and reasonably comfortable – but no more.  If it helps, here’s my basic kit:

For outerwear, I’ll usually have a long-sleeved cotton shirt; a reversible, fleece-on-one-side, nylon-on-the-other electric jacket liner; an electric vest; several pairs of gloves; and, sometimes, if the trip includes camping or some other venue where I can’t relax barefooted at the end of the day - a pair of sneakers or sandals.  If there’s any chance of seriously cool weather, a pair of fleece pants gets added.

For innerwear, I’ll usually have two pair of boxers, two pair of t-shirts, and two pair of socks – in addition to those I’m wearing.  Having three sets of those means you’re square for a 3-day trip.  For longer rides your options will be do some quick laundry during the trip – not as hard as it might at first sound, carry more, or begin to smell rather the worse for wear as the days unwind.  Take your pick.

I also carry a pair of lightweight khaki outdoor trousers – the kind where the legs can be individually zipped off to convert into shorts – and a synthetic long-sleeve camp shirt.  These together serve both as my “dress” clothes and as backups to my normally-worn jeans, should those get wet.  Very versatile, and they pack down small.

A small kit of toiletries and a cotton laundry bag round out the innerwear stuff.  Toss in the book or two I almost always carry, a couple of bike magazines, and - sometimes - a small laptop, and that’s it for all the stuff on the back of the bike.  It all goes in the saddlebags if I’m on one of my sport-tourers; or in a large seat pack if I’m on the Gixxer.

Some people don’t like tank bags.  I love them.  They provide simple, quick access to all those things we readily need to get to.  And most of them have lots of pockets for all those many small miscellaneous things we tend to bring along – everything from spare batteries to hi-lighters for marking up maps to extra ear plugs to face shield cleaner.   Speaking of maps – don’t forget those. 

In the main compartment I’ll always have a high-quality digital camera and several lenses, sunglasses, and, depending upon the trip – sometimes a gun.

I won’t belabor the question of whether or not to take a firearm, other than to point out that it’s a serious question that deserves a lot of serious thought.  If you do decide to take one, think it through very carefully.  Don’t make the mistake I once made years ago and inadvertently end up in Mexico with a suddenly-very-illegal Glock 9mm.

Also don’t forget that you need to carry all this in addition to the normal tools and maintenance gear that you always carry.  You do have a tire repair kit and a way to inflate it afterwards, right?



I’ve carried this basic kit, with remarkably little variation, for years now.  I arrived at it, after much thought and experimentation, mostly because of a few basic considerations:

Being cold sucks.  Being wet sucks.  Being cold and wet really, really sucks.  So you need to have enough clothing to be able to layer properly under any conditions you’re reasonably likely to encounter.  The electrics are a considerable help with the warmth part, largely obviating the need for even-more bulky clothing.

The Aerostich riding suit I usually wear is sufficiently weather resistant that I don’t feel the need to carry separate rain gear.  Having that weather protection always there, in your primary riding garment, is a convenience that’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it.  No more hurriedly struggling into a rain suit on the side of the road while rain pelts down upon you.  No more sweating so much under your rain suit that you wonder why you bothered in the first place.  With the ‘stich on, riding into inclement weather means only having to put the rain cover over the tank bag and swap gloves for the waterproof pair you’ve brought along.  Having done that – something easy enough to do if the skies even begin to look threatening – you simply ride in and out of the weather as it presents itself.  You’re once again focused on the road, and riding, instead of the sky.

The Aerostich, as good as it is, is not waterproof.  Riding through an extended, heavy rain, you will get a little wet.  And hanging around later at the motel or condo or campground with a wet crotch is, well, kind of miserable.  Ergo, you’ve got to have that extra pair of trousers. 

Next to electrics, fleece jackets and pants are the hot tip for staying warm and comfortable once it gets cool.  Unfortunately, they’re really bulky.

There is a subtle - but nonetheless certain – satisfaction that comes from packing light.  I don’t know why that is, beyond that retrieving and putting away stuff in a loosely-packed pack is a lot easier than one which is stuffed to the gills.  But whatever it is, it tends to color not just those moments when packing or unpacking, but the entire ride.  Conversely, there is some kind of negative-energy frustration which always seems to accompany heavy and tightly-packed loads.

So pack as lightly as you can.  On one of my recent 3-day trips I was planning to bail due to a family medical situation.  I was just going to meet up with my pals and ride with them for a half-day, then return home.  It was Ginny who urged me to “take your stuff, just in case.”  I took just a hint of her advice, tossing a spare pair of skivvies and a toothbrush into my otherwise empty saddlebags.

Turns out she was right.  I wasn’t needed at home after all and ended up staying for the entire trip.

It was the freest I have ever felt.


© 2010 Jeff Hughes