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Common Tread

Motorcycle camping: The basics you need to get out there

May 18, 2016

Motorcycling and camping, to quote Forrest Gump, “Go together like peas and carrots.”

As motorcyclists, we are always looking for those remote stretches of road, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, where we can just roll on the throttle and enjoy the ride. Coincidentally, these same roads often lead to great places to camp, so you might as well bring a tent and enjoy a few days of riding.

camp fire
There's nothing quite like parking in front of a fire after a day in the saddle. Photo by Panhead Jim.

For the first-timer, choosing the right motorcycle camping gear can be a little daunting, since the amount of equipment made for motorcycling and camping seems almost limitless. This is a look at the basic gear you'll need and some suggestions for those “extra” items that can make the whole experience much more enjoyable. Plus, we'll look at how to pack it all on your motorcycle.

motorcycle luggage options
Does this bag make my ass look big? Photo by Panhead Jim.


For more on luggage options, see Saddlebags and Luggage 101.

The first thing you’ll want is a good set of luggage. Yes, you can stuff everything in a trash bag and strap it to the back of your bike, but I can tell you from experience that the sound of that Hefty bag flapping in the wind will drive you crazy by the end of the day… To keep things simple, let’s divide motorcycle luggage into three main categories:  hard luggage, leather luggage and textile luggage. Generally speaking, all three can hold your gear on your motorcycle and keep it dry, but there are pros and cons to each.

hard luggage
Direct from Milwaukee, this factory set of hard luggage mounts securely to the bike via steel brackets. Note there is also additional side rails to protect the bags in the event of a fall. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Hard luggage: Whether fiberglass, plastic or aluminum, factory-designed or aftermarket, hard luggage uses mounting systems that hold it securely in place. Most modern sets are quickly detachable for when you want to shed some extra pounds from your machine. Personally, I find that the main advantage of hard luggage is that it is lockable. Sure, you can devise some type of locking system for your leather saddlebags, but nothing beats the ease of just turning the key in a built-in lock. On the downside, hard luggage can be expensive. I don’t just mean the original purchase price, but also consider what happens if you drop your bike in the parking lot. It doesn’t take a hard fall to crush an expensive sidecase.

leather saddlebags
A good set of leather bags is the perfect complement to a vintage motorcycle. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Leather luggage: Obviously the most enduring style of motorcycle luggage, leather bags have been used on motorcycles for nearly 100 years. If you are riding a cruiser or a vintage machine, chances are you are going to look to leather to outfit your bike. Originally derived from horse tack, the first leather bags could just be slung over the rear fender and strapped to the frame. Newer designs use mounting systems similar to those found on hard luggage, which do a better job holding them in place. Probably the biggest plus to leather luggage is the visual appeal. Nothing says classic like a well-worn set of leather bags. Of course to keep them looking good and waterproof, you are going to have to spend some time cleaning them with saddle soap and treating the leather with a good preservative.

textile luggage
A Seal Line duffle bag and a set of Ortlieb saddlebags ensure your gear will arrive at the campsite nice and dry. The bag is held on with bungee netting and the saddlebags strap to the frame. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Textile luggage: Textile luggage is a popular choice because it is durable, can be waterproof, is affordable and easy to mount (usually with a combination of Velcro and adjustable straps) and remove. It's unlikely to be damaged in a tipover like hard luggage and doesn't need anywhere near as much maintenance as leather. My only complaint with textile luggage is sometimes their “universalness” doesn’t always result in an ideal mounting scenario.


Just like luggage, the number and variety of tents on the market is staggering. Again, I’m going to simplify them into three broad categories: family tents, expedition tents and backpacking tents. The main concern with picking a tent is finding one that fits your needs when it is set up and fits your motorcycle when it is packed.

family tent
A 1964 Harley-Davidson Duo-Glide alongside a Sierra Designs "family tent," Plenty of space for you, your gear and maybe a few friends. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Family tents: If you did any camping as a child, chances are you used a family tent. These are your typical dome tents which usually hold anywhere from two to six adults. You can find them at just about any retail store that has camping supplies and the cost can range from practically nothing to 10 bills if you really want all the bells and whistles. On a whole, these are designed for car campers, so things like weight and pack size are not always taken into account. If you are running a larger motorcycle, this may not be an issue, but if you are taking your Honda Rebel 250 out for the weekend, you probably don’t want to give up 20 pounds of payload to your tent.

expedition tent
A 1933 Harley-Davidson VL parked inside a Redverz Gear "expedition tent." The only tent that keeps you and your motorcycle dry. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Expedition tents: Expedition tents are relatively new to the market and are designed for the motorcycle adventurer.  Think riding across Africa on your BMW GS or crossing the country on your 1933 Harley, in my case. These tents are divided into two sections: a sleeping section for one or two adults and a vestibule for your gear and motorcycle. Large doors on the vestibule allow you to ride your bike right inside to protect it from the weather or just from prying eyes. One clear advantage is it provides you with a dry place to service your motorcycle in the event of a storm. Pack size is smaller than a family tent, but still on the large end of the scale.

backpacking tent
A 1972 BMW R75/5 parked beside a Eureka "backpacking tent." It packs small, but don't plan to keep anything inside but yourself. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Backpacker tents: This category encompasses the smallest, bare-bones tents. They are designed for backpackers, so they are lightweight and pack very small. They also set up very small, so don’t expect to have room for anything inside the tent besides you and your sleeping bag. The cramped quarters can make simple tasks like getting dressed a bit of a challenge. Clearly, their advantage lies in the limited space needed to pack them on your bike, which sometimes makes getting dressed on your back worth it.

What else to pack

what to pack
A few extras can mean the difference between a great camping trip and a tolerable one. Photo by Panhead Jim.
After years of camping I’ve slowly developed a list of items that make the entire experience better. First and foremost, make sure you pack for the season. Assume that at least one day it will be unseasonably warm and one day it will be unseasonably cold. Also, in hot weather, pack a swimsuit. Nothing is more refreshing than a cool dip after a hot day of riding.

I also recommend packing a pair of camp shoes. Wearing riding boots all the time gets old and depending on your standards, having shoes you can wear in the shower may be a necessity. Along those same lines, a fast drying camp towel and soap can go a long way to keeping your friends around, even if you have to rinse off with a garden hose.

I also recently started packing a portable solar charger. These are great, because they charge your phone all day, so you don’t have to leave it plugged into the charger in some shifty camp bathroom all night. Since you're probably riding a motorcycle with a better charging system than some of the vintage iron I own, another option is attaching a charger to your bike, so you can recharge devices while you're riding.

Cooking at your camp site is an issue for another whole story. If you insist on eating in style, there are some fancy but compact camp stoves that you can pack along. Or, you can always try a few of Lemmy's recipes for greater simplicity.

Finally, consider a basic first aid kit. Don’t get distracted by those zombie apocalypse kits available online. Instead, focus on items that can maintain life until help arrives.

loading your motorcycle
Be careful not to overload your bike. If your gear weighs more than a passenger, you might want to leave some things behind. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Now you just have to pack everything on the bike. Information on your motorcycle’s payload should be listed in your owner’s manual. You definitely don’t want to overload the back of your bike, which can affect everything from braking to tire life in a negative manner. The key is to keep everything low, balanced and secure. Don’t load one saddlebag completely with heavy tools and then just put a pair of socks in the other one. Also think ahead and pack your rain gear last, so it is easy to get to in the event of a storm. Most importantly, don’t scrimp on the straps you use for securing your gear. Having a bag fall off on the highway can definitely ruin an entire trip.

It usually takes a trip or two to figure out a good packing routine for your own particular motorcycle and which essentials you need to be “comfortable” in the outdoors, but this should get you started in the right direction. With just a tent and some basic supplies, you can extend your motorcycle adventures to those remote locations that all of us dream of riding to.