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Common Tread

Pack light, pack tight

Sep 29, 2014

Packing light and tight for a dual-sport trip requires good gear and the right attitude. Having room for “stuff” is no license to take it. On the contrary, I suggest analyzing each piece of gear and trying to remember the last time you really needed it. Not the last time you took it with you, but when you really couldn’t have done without that battery-operated, two-D-cell tent light or the Coleman sleeping bag with plaid flannel lining your grandma gave you.

I used to have a machete I thought was essential for any camping trip. It must have weighed five pounds and was at least two feet long. I still have a hand axe that brings back fond memories from my Scouting days of raw shoulders and aching feet. In those days, anything we could hoist onto our backs was fair game, at least for the first few hundred yards. We left more stuff on the trail than a wagon train full of city slickers crossing the Rocky Mountains during the Gold Rush. It has taken me years to let go of some of my favorite equipment and replace it with smaller, lighter gear or, insofar as possible, nothing at all! In these days of ultra-light fabrics, carbon fiber and titanium, it makes no sense to burden ourselves with bulk and weight.

So what do we really need for a few days of riding the range, out of reach of cell phone coverage and McDonald’s? Honestly, probably much less than you might think. Here’s how I pack when I venture into the milder wilds of the lower 48 on a motorcycle, starting with the bare essentials.


The further you stray, the more you need to think about preparations. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Tent, sleeping bag, ground pad, pillow, and moccasins for nocturnal nature breaks all fit into one compression sack that’s 8 inches by 14 inches. Weight: 6.8 pounds. That takes care of shelter.


Camping food is subjective and ranges from pre–packaged backpacker meals to store-bought ramen noodles and occasionally something smushed together to heat on the manifold. The specifics are beyond the scope of this article and Lord knows I am no cook, but the point is, I try to keep it small and save the gourmet gorging for celebrating my return to civilization. I prefer my Jetboil stove because it can usually boil a cup of water in less than a minute. It takes very little gas and I can use it for morning oatmeal, dinner, coffee or tea.

Personally, a “spork” and my trusty CRKT pocket knife are all I carry for dining. I use a Sea to Summit collapsible cup and bowl that nest to save space, but many dehydrated meals can be eaten from the bag and the bag stuffed into a plastic grocery sack until a trash can is available for disposal. I do pack the kitchen sink with me. It’s a Sea to Summit collapsible five-liter sink that doubles as a basin for shaving or a bucket for dousing the campfire.


This is easy. Social occasions seldom require much of a wardrobe when adventure traveling. I usually just toss in a pair of fast-drying hiking pants with zip-off legs. Sometimes I carry a pair of lightweight shorts, as well. They don’t take up much room and can also be used in the occasional hot springs or swimming pool. Cotton T-shirts are hard to resist, but I keep them to a minimum… maybe one with a cool logo like “Adventure Man” or “The older I get, the faster I was.” Lightweight, quick-drying fabrics are readily available and two spares are plenty. ExOfficio has a great underwear ad: “17 countries, six weeks. One pair of underwear. Okay, maybe two.” It’s a fair philosophy and not far from the truth.

Dual-sport riders learn to be ready for any kind of weather. I have ridden in 100-plus degree temps and soon afterwards been thrashed by cold rain and sleet. Using the same minimalist methodology, one can carry layers of wind and rain protection to stay comfortable. Klim, Dainese and Answer are among the leaders in light, packable base layers. Their quick-drying, odor-resistant products exemplify the kinds of gear needed for any adventure. For the really cold days, electric gear trumps bulk ten to one. You have an electrical system readily available. Use it. One heated vest beneath a riding suit allows freedom of movement and comfort far beyond stacks of thick clothing.

Tools and parts

BMW R1200GS Adventure
Those aluminum panniers will hold a lot. That does not mean it is a good idea to fill them to the brim. BMW photo.
Tools are another area where a fine line lies between over-packing and under-prepared. Although I enjoy using the fine, full-size shop tools I have collected over the years, using my onboard toolkit to perform routine maintenance at home helps me ensure I’m equipped for trailside emergencies. The secret is to be critical of unused tools. Take only the tools that fit your bike and you can shrink your kit without compromising your ability to perform trailside repairs.

Take along a few emergency repair items like glue, stainless steel safety wire, repair tape and, of course, patches, and plugs if you have tubeless tires. I feel naked without tire repair essentials. Tire pumps and tire irons come in all shapes and sizes to fit in your kit.

Spare parts can be a topic of controversy. What you carry will vary depending on your mechanical ability and how many episodes of MacGyver you watched as a kid. On most rides, I don’t carry many spares, with the exception of an inner tube and a few nuts and bolts, because I can never predict which part I’ll break. Inevitably, if I carry a spare clutch lever, I will break a shifter. By the way, an 18-inch inner tube can be stuffed into a 17-inch tire, or stretched over a 19-inch rim, for long enough to get you to civilization. Why carry both, unless you are in the Amazon? The trick is to know your bike, focus on near essentials, and err towards carrying less.

The bottom line: Pare down as much as you can and don’t be afraid to roll, stuff and otherwise compress your belongings. A few years back, I rode some 600 miles on Oregon’s “Back Country Discovery Route,” a roughly 800-mile series of backroads, rivers and trails laced with deadfalls and ruts, on my BMW R1200GS Adventure, with aluminum panniers full and more gear strapped on top. I learned a lot on that trip, particularly that just because you can take it, that doesn’t mean you should.

Your journey will be enhanced by lightening your burden when packing, unpacking and wrestling your motorcycle through obstacles.