Camping · Ride Back Roads

Motorcycle Camping: Tools, Equipment and Gear every biker needs to have

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Harley Davidson motorcycles sit in front of a sunny tent camping site in the woods

Have you ever taken an overnight trip on your motorcycle?  In particular, have you ever gone motorcycle camping?  If you ride a motorcycle – and especially are interested in taking long and cheap trips on your bike – it’s definitely time to expand your experience into the world of motorcycle camping.  It’s a fantastic combination of two of my favorite outdoor passions, so I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned over the years.

The idea for putting together a guide came to me while corresponding with a reader to plan his motorcycle road trip.  He’s about to graduate from high school, and he and one of his friends are going to be taking a fairly significant road trip on their bikes – about 1,000 miles each way!  As you can imagine, he’s still pretty new to riding.  In addition to the back road route planning, I’ve been giving him a significant amount of advice and gear suggestions to consider when they’re out on the road.

The next step was obvious – edit and consolidate the gear suggestions and other advice into a post!  I hope that you’ll find my guide useful, and if you still have questions after reading through, please feel free to email me!

Disclaimer:  This guide is NOT intended to replace the courses offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.  If you’ve never ridden before, I strongly recommend you take their introductory riding course.

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  This means that I receive a commission – at no cost to you – if you purchase one of the products I’ve linked below.

What Tools Should I Always Have on My Motorcycle?

Just like with your car, it’s a good idea to always have a small set of tools on your bike at all times.  The vast majority of these tools will fit in any normal sized fork bag, so it won’t take up any space or weight in your saddlebags, and won’t throw the balance of your bike off.  You can also opt for a swingarm bag, which might fit your personal aesthetics better.  They also will affect the load balance of your bike, so bear that in mind at all times.  These tools will help you to overcome the vast majority of mechanical issues that might come up, even on a short ride.

Three Harley Davidson motorcycles loaded with tent camping road trip gear sit on the side of the road, overlooking distant hazy mountains

  • Long Nose Vise Grips – This tool will replace several tools in your kit. It will work well as a pliers, a crescent wrench, and socket wrenches.  Plus, because it’s the long nose version of the tool, it can reach down into places that the regular Vise Grips can’t.  It might not be a bad idea to look at your bike to see if there are any hard to reach nuts and bolts to know what size bits you’ll need, and only carry those. For everything else, just use the vise grip.
  • Multi-tool – I know that this looks like a duplication of efforts because it’s also a pliers, but a multi-tool is critical to have on hand for a couple reasons: it functions as a needle-nose pliers, it has a wire cutter (see next), and it has a ton of other small tools – screwdrivers, files, knife, cutting tools, etc – that will replace a bunch of stuff in your regular tool kit.
  • Metal wire – steel wire is a life-saver on the road. If a bracket or mount breaks while you’re riding, this stuff will get you back on your way in no time. It’s super cheap and weighs next to nothing, and for the number of things you might need it for, it’s definitely worth carrying.
  • Multi-bit driver –  Essentially an interchangeable screw-driver, a multi-bit driver will allow you to use a number of different bits to remove and replace screws and bolts: Philips and flat-head screwdrivers, Torx and Allen bolts, and more!
  • Bit set – What set you get will depend on what type of bits your bolts on the bike require – is it a Torx bit or an Allen bit?  Examine your bike carefully, taking note of the different types of bits you will need to have with you.  Here are two options for Torx bit sets – one (which will fit a multi-bit driver like the one linked above) and two (which will work with a socket driver like the one linked below) – and an Allen bit set.  Note that none of these are complete sets.  They are all intentionally chosen to be small and light, and should be able to unscrew most, if not all, of your non-screwdriver bolts.
  • Socket driver & set – If you are uncomfortable with not having a socket set with you, this is an excellent set to buy, as it not only is compact, but will also eliminate the need for the multi-bit driver!
  • Headlamp – A bright headlamp will come in handy far more often than you might expect.  It is much more convenient to use than a flashlight in most situations as it keeps both hands free.  If you want to also have a flashlight on your bike, get a compact CREE light.  They can come with rechargeable batteries, or disposable ones.  There are pros and cons to each option, depending on your personal circumstances.
  • Bungee cords – These are completely indispensable for any rider who wants to carry anything that won’t fit in their saddlebags (if you have saddlebags!).

That little list of tools will get you out of 90% of potential problems you might face on a motorcycle camping trip, all without taking up too much space or adding too much weight (except the hatchet listed below, which is still only 2lbs).

Camping Gear for a Motorcycle Road Trip

A white Harley Davidson Motorcycle sits in front of the Buffalo Trace distillery sign, overloaded with camping gear, a tent, and a suitcase
Back before I got proper camping gear for my motorcycle….

What are the dimensions of your tent when it’s packed away? How about your sleeping bag?

You might have a bunch of gear already, but I can tell you from years of experience with doing motorcycle camping rides, a regular tent and sleeping bag are a real challenge to pack onto your bike. I have a pretty big bike – a Heritage Softail – and I can tell you that loading a normal size tent and sleeping bag is no easy trick on my bike.

A couple years ago I got this tent – and I love it. It’s compact enough when folded down that it fits inside my saddlebag.  It’s also a LOT lighter than a traditional tent, and easy to set up and break down.

You’ll want the same idea with a sleeping bag – you want something that’s going to be warm enough that cool/cold nights won’t bother you, but also compact enough that you’re not riding around with it strapped to your back because it’s too big.  On the plus side, you won’t need a heavily insulated bag unless you plan on riding into really cold weather.

If you’re going to do even one motorcycle camping trip a year, those two investments will definitely be worth it. You’ll get sick of the process of trying to strap a normal tent to your bike VERY quickly.

Comparing the size of two camping tents - a regular four person tent, and a two person motorcycle tent
As you can see, the tent I got for motorcycle camping – which fits inside my saddlebag – is nearly a foot shorter and several inches narrower than my regular tent.

Compact air mattress – Spare me the “OK, old man” eye rolls, please…  this mattress is super comfortable and surprisingly compact.  Best of all, you’ll be glad to not sleep on the ground several nights in a row after long days of riding!

Hatchet with hammer – this is the biggest and heaviest tool you’ll carry, but you’ll need one for a couple reasons – driving tent stakes, splitting firewood, and potentially for banging loose stuck bolts.

Utility shovel – This will come in handy for wild camping adventures, and if you end up taking longer camping trips.  It’s SHOCKING how compact and light this tool is.  In fact, it’s so small and light, I ended up buying one for each of my other vehicles as well.

Swingarm bag and/or Fork bag:  These two ideas could easily be kept on your bike at all times, but will be especially useful for traveling.

Saddlebags – If your bike doesn’t have saddlebags already, you will definitely want to buy some before you travel.  The storage space is invaluable, and if you get a quality set, they will also protect your gear from bad weather.

The dad in me says you should also have a medical kit with you.  I always have one when I’m camping.

The best part?  You can get all of these items, including the bag(s) for under $200 – and like I said, you’ll want to have those on your bike at all times, not just on this trip.

Don’t forget those bungee cords!

Three Harley Davidson motorcycles loaded with camping gear sit in front of the Jumonville Cross near Uniontown

In my post about wild camping gear,  I addressed many of the pertinent questions about clothing you should pack.  As you do not want to overload your bike with clothing – especially if you expect to be bringing home souvenirs – you should be very sparing and utilitarian about what you pack with you.  Don’t forget the old adage about packing socks or underwear – two pairs and a spare.   I’d also recommend taking a pair of flip flops so you have something other than just your boots.  I wouldn’t pack sneakers or other shoes – they take up way too much space.

Don’t ever take jerry cans (for gasoline) on your bike. That’s about as bad an idea as I can imagine.  Just follow the old biker rule of thumb: never pass gas when you’re on a trip.  You never know when you’re going to see another gas station.  Once you’re at half a tank, if you see a gas station, just stop and fill up.  Better safe than sorry, especially if you’re in an isolated area.

A white Harley Davidson softail classic sits in tall grass with a long dirt road in the background

Riding a motorcycle on unpaved (dirt or gravel) roads

If you want to go camping on your motorcycle, it’s crucial that you know how to ride on unpaved roads.  You might encounter unpaved roads from time to time, especially when navigating your way to campsites. You might also encounter unpaved roads occasionally while out and about on rides – there are more of them out there than you might expect. It’s definitely a critical skill to gain… though aside from the few pointers I’ll give you below, most of it requires learning through experience.

  • Take everything slowly. The biggest mistake you can make on an unpaved road is to get impatient.
  • Use low RPM / minimal amounts of throttle at all times.
  • You might need to use one gear higher than you normally would at your given pace (3rd instead of 2nd, for example).
    • The key points here are that the higher RPMs and higher torque you are putting to the back tire, the more likely it is to lose traction and slide out from underneath you.
  • As much as is humanly possible, do not make ANY sudden adjustments or movements. Become an expert at anticipating things – turns, problems, potential emergencies, etc. Take turns slower and wider than you normally would, give yourself more stopping room than normal, and don’t expect to accelerate nearly as quickly. All of these tips will help you drastically with maintaining traction at all times.
    • The old adage about driving on snow – pretend you have a pot of soup in your back seat that you don’t want slopping all over the place – applies in unpaved situations as well.
  • If you do start to lose traction, the most important thing is to remain calm and do not overcompensate to correct yourself. As above, make your adjustments lightly and loosely – don’t ever jerk the handlebars, stomp the brakes, or twist the throttle hard. In most unpaved falls, the worst thing that can happen is you go down at a low speed and need to pick your bike up – and maybe fix a broken turn signal and bandage up a few scrapes. In the vast majority of cases, minimal damage is done if you drop the bike on an unpaved road (unless, of course, there are massive rocks in the path). Do your best not to panic.
  • Make absolutely sure that your load (your gear, clothing, etc) is evenly balanced on each side. Balance is critical on an unpaved road, especially if you happen to lose traction. If your load isn’t balanced, it can drastically reduce your chances of regaining traction.
  • “Listen” closely to what your hips and body are telling you. You need to be acutely aware of what all the various movements and sensations of your bike are telling you. Learn how to tell the difference between a small slip and a serious loss of traction. The better you know your bike, and how it responds in given situations, the better off you’ll be. This, unfortunately, only comes with time and riding experience.
  • Make sure your tires are properly inflated. This should be something you check every day before you leave, to be honest, as your tires are probably your most crucial piece of equipment on your bikes. Never, ever buy cheap tires for a motorcycle, and you don’t want to be riding around on over- or under-inflated tires.

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ADDITIONAL USEFUL LINKS:

 

Fuel system & carb tuning manual

Basic maintenance manual

Wild camping basics

Road Trip Ideas

My Favorite Road Trips

 

 

 

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