Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How to pack for a short motorbike tour...

I am writing this blog post from La Ferte Bernard, near Le Mans, and was lucky enough to enjoy the MotoGP action at the Circuit Bugatti this weekend past. It blew me away. That is all I'll say on the subject for now because the whole experience is still just sinking in but a blog post on this will follow at some point soon. However, on my way over here from Cork, Ireland, I left my packing until the day I left. I'm not normally so complacent but I had done this trip, and blogged about it here, once before, so I felt confident I could bring it all together an get it all on the VFR in time for me to meet my ferry. I did, just. For those of you looking at a short motorbike trip ahead, perhaps a few days in another country, or another state for those reading this in the US, this is my blog post of advice. Do with it whatever you will!

The Basics
There are plenty of websites out there that contain a lot of this information already but I wasn't happy with any of them and that is why I am writing this. This is not intended to show you how to pack ultra-light, it does not require you to buy anything particularly special, and does not expect you to take stuff half-way around the world. This is just some basic advice on what to bring, and how to pack it on your bike, for a few days away. A basic tour!

Where do you begin?
You begin, I think, with writing a list of questions. Decide where you want to go. How far away is it? How long will the trip take? What sort of weather should you expect? What sort of riding will you be doing? Where are you staying? How much do you want to pack? How much do you HAVE to pack? Do you think you'll bring home anything (you'll need room)? These questions will then feed into other sub-questions which will start to make things clear in your head.

These questions bring on further questions such as "should I wear leathers or fabrics?", both of these types of gear having advantages/disadvantages in various weather conditions. If you expect rain, fabric is a good option but I often find fabric gear keeps me warmer than I'd like. Leather, in this regard is good, but not waterproof and forces you to bring waterproof overcovers which take up packing space. Bear this in mind and plan accordingly. Also, you'll need to be comfortable, wear what you are used to wearing for hours in the saddle. Being uncomfortable can be a real hindrence and even a danger. The last thing you want is a sore arm from a pinching sleeve or zip while you scramble to read a roadsign to get you out of the mess you've made in getting lost! Similar advice applies to boots and gloves, make sure they are comfortable and try and waterproof them before you leave, Nikwax make some great products which will help you with this. I only mention them because I use their stuff a lot and find it excellent (also Vaseline smeared on zips makes them work a lot better). Bodywarmers are handy for keeping you warm and are easily washable in a sink (I washed mine in the sink in my ferry cabin last time to refresh them but they didn't dry on time...I didn't need them in France anyway). I think you can get ones that also keep you cool. Think back to what weather you expect and whether your gear tends to keep you warm enough with just a tshirt underneath or a sweater/jumper etc...

What did I do?
On my April ride from Ireland to France I wore my Richa Sky fabric gear with liners in (I never take them out really), bodywarmer on upper and on legs, tshirt and a windstopper top from Aldi or Lidl (they really work). This was fine in Ireland but not in France and I sweated madly on the car deck of the ferry. You might be riding through various different climates so plan for this. Work in layers, light layers are easy to wear, easy to carry, and easy to put on more if need be. This time around I wore leathers, they kept me a lot cooler but I had to make space for waterproofs in my Givi topbox. They're a tight fit, as they should be, so there's no space for bulky sweaters underneath. In this case a bodywarmer with long sleeves and a tshirt worked a treat under the jacket. Being on a faired bike my legs are well protected from cold air so the leathers alone are fine here.

Packing clothes and stuff
Hopefully you'll have an idea of what to bring with you already. It all depends on where you are going and for how long really but I think the best thing to do is start with underwear and socks. I've always done this because it's easy (I hate packing so I have to start somewhere easy). Bring as many as you think you'll need but bear in mind that, if going on a ferry and it's an overnighter, pack a set for the end of the first leg of your ride. If the ride down to the ferry has been sweaty, it's nice to take a shower and change into fresh stuff asap so you can enjoy the crossing. There's more on the ferry bit later...

Get your clothes and lay them out on a bed or on a table and sort through them. Do you really need them all? Shirts tend to get smelly quicker than trousers so bring more tshirts than trousers. Tshirts are also lighter and easier to pack in. Bring a belt, even if you don't use one normally, it can be handy for a ton of things such as wrapping a bunch of clothes tightly or keeping a bag closed etc. It might be useful to bring stuff which you don't mind losing or throwing out if you need space to bring any gifts home. A friend of mine told me he used to go around Europe years and years ago and simply pop into a supermarket and buy cheap white tshirts and wear those before then getting rid of them. It sounds wasteful but it could save you a lot of room and if you can find a charity bin for old clothes to dump them in you can even help people!

What did I do?
For a week in France, and bear in mind I was staying with my girlfriend so did not have to pack a towel etc (if you need a towel try and camping store for the ultra-light ones). I brought about six tshirts, underwear for every day and two spares which I could use on the ferry (I was glad of this when the ferry broke down on the return leg). Two trousers and two sweaters. This was more than enough really, and many will say this was waaaaay too much. They are probably right but it's what I did anyway. I used specific shirts for riding in, these tshirts were slightly bigger than my normal size to allow me more room on the bike. I kept these separate to my normal clothes.

Distributing stuff on your bike
The most important thing in this regard is to get weight towards the bike's centre of gravity but also to make sure that frequently-required stuff is close to hand. Ferry tickets, toll money, maps, camera etc are all going to be needed frequently so there isn't much point in putting those under your seat. Try and balance the need for weight to go low with the need to have some stuff very close to hand.

Panniers (for clothes)
This is pretty important. As I rushed, and I mean rushed, to the ferry for this trip to France, I noticed a flapping shadow cast across the road as I turned through a bend on the road to Rosslare ferryport. Looking in my mirror I could see one of fabric panniers flapping about madly having been caught in the wind at certain speeds. I never bungee my panniers from underneath but I might start to now in order to aid stability. Instead I use the velcro straps on the panniers and make sure at least one of those goes under the seat.
In this case it stopped the pair from completely falling off the bike. Without a bungee this time I just popped more stuff into the pannier and this extra weight stopped it flapping. A rubber mat stops the panniers from scratching your paintwork and are available in many poundshops, car shops, or bike shops, as anti-slip dashboard mats. It also stops them sliding. Put your clothes into helmet bags or plastic bags and "weigh" them with your hand. Try and spread that weight evenly and pop one bag each into each pannier. Keep the heavy stuff as close to the ground as you can.

Topbox (for light stuff)
Light stuff can then go into your topbox if you have one. My shoes wouldn't go into the panniers and are light anyway so I dropped these in the topbox. I was also able to pop other small things into my shoes. One was a phone charger and the other an electrical outlet adapter so I could use my Irish plug in a French wall socket (and because the shoes came to the ferry with me, so did these items). Because I was doing some PhD work while in France I also had a couple of books and folders in here. I also put my hard-drive in here as I was afraid that the magnets in the tankbag would ruin it. I'm not sure how true this is but... Waterpoof overcovers can also go in here so they are easily accessible at the roadside should you need them.

Tankbag (for frequently needed stuff)
Tankbags are great for maps or GPS or whatever you use but if you have a plastic tank get ready to strap the bag on. I have a steel tank so the traditional magnetic tankbags work for me. Some, like my Lidl "Ultimate Speed" one, convert into rucksacks for walking with. Put any reading material and documentation you need into the tankbag along with a washbag so you can easily freshen up (toothbrush, deodorant, the usual...).
Chocolate, water, book, map, passport, camera in camera-bag, pens, ferry tickets. Also out of sight there's a plastic bag in a sidepocket in case of really bad rain. Chain lube went in a side pocket too along with tissues and spare ear plugs.
If you bring a camera keep it here so you can easily stop to take shots without having to get off the bike. Keep a bottle of water or some food here as well if you'd like to stop and eat. Make sure it is not too light, you don't want it to fly off! If in doubt bungee it to something.

Keeping things dry
Get yourself some plastic bags and waterproofing spray for this! My fabric panniers and tankbag have been sprayed with a waterproofing spray a few times and have survived a few downpours without letting any water in which is handy as the waterproof covers on them are a pain to put on. I'd advise you to do likewise with any fabric tankbag or pannier you have. It is also a good idea to keep a large plastic bag in each one. Then if the rain is really pouring you can just pop your stuff into the plastic bag, back into the tankbag or pannier and the bag will keep things dry. If combined with a waterproof spray on the tankbag or pannier itself you're almost guaranteed that your stuff will stay dry (my clothes were dry after heavy rain overnight when the VFR stayed on the dock while they repaired the ferry). The topbox, if you have one, is the ultimate storage space for keeping items dry but keeps the weight of your luggage up higher than desired. I've kept waterproof overcovers in here for quick access in a downpour. Sensitive electronic stuff can be kept properly dry here too (for those with expensive cameras...you probably won't be taking pics in the rain anyway so the advantage of quick access through keeping it in the tankbag is negated).

What if I take the ferry?
If you are taking the ferry and it's an overnighter (or just a long sailing) pack a separate bag which you can fit in the topbox or tankbag (anywhere easily accessible for you). In this bag put a tshirt,sweater,trousers,jocks and socks, and a pair of shoes (or tie a pair together and make them easy to carry that way separately). It's a good idea to take your tankbag with you too, especially if it converts to a rucksack, as it might be able to swallow this overnight bag for you. If not, put the shoes in there where it will join your wash bag, your reading material (gives you something to do when bored on the sailing), your map or GPS (for planning when on the ferry), and your documentation (best to keep them close). This is what I did on my ferry crossing and it made a lot of sense. However, I was lucky enough to have a cabin to throw this stuff. If you do not have one for an overnight crossing, it might be a good idea to forget the change of clothes and instead bring in a sleeping bag or a camping mat and little pillow so you can find a quiet corner and get some sleep. Your head will thank you more for sleep than for cleanliness when riding on strange roads the next day. Do try and go for a cabin though...the extra few bob is worth it.

The little things
The little things are the things that fit, mainly, under your seat (or at least under mine) and which won't be used often. They are often legally required or just for emergencies. I did not pack one but small first-aid kits are easily available for under the seat too.

Hi-Viz Vest
I do not normally wear a hi-viz vest but I always try and keep one on the bike for foggy conditions or bad rain. When abroad this can be especially important not to mention that if you're at the side of the road doing a running repair it might help make you more visible.
Chain lube
If you have a chain-drive (most bikes) bring chain lube with you. You can easily buy small tins of this stuff for touring which can fit in a tankbag pocket. Just because you're off for a few days doesn't mean you can neglect your chain. You'll likely be doing a lot more miles than you would usually so keep an eye on the chain and oil it during your touring. A small piece of cardboard can stop it being sprayed on the wheel as you apply it (you could cut up a cereal box and lay the bits flat in your topbox for this or look around for free leaflets which can do it too). 

Do you do your own work on the bike? It goes without saying that you should check it over before you leave. Prior prep prevents failure! Still, unforeseen events do happen so bring your bike's toolkit. If your bike hasn't one, find out what was in it when it was brand new, and make one yourself. We all have socks which are missing their other half so use that old sock as a tool roll. Put the tools in the sock and wrap up tightly with a bungee. Pop under seat or in topbox or wherever. I put it under the seat as I had space and because the stuff under the seat is intended for infrequent use. Stuff up high is to be used frequently (thus your documents in the tankbag, not under the seat!).

Electrical tape/gaffer tape and cable ties and bulbs
Yes these are important. They can be used for anything from fixing some fairing after a small spill, to joining wires together for the GPS to work. It costs nothing and takes up no space so get some tape and pop it under the seat. Cable ties can also be very useful so bring a few and squeeze them in between the bungee and sock which serves as the tool roll. Spare bulbs are useful, and a requirement in some countries. You can buy ready-made packs from bike shops. I popped mine into a sock. Check the picture below...
It's not the best picture ever but this is what was under my seat. Spare documents in a plastic pocket, a spare bungee, disc lock, electrical tape and a sock tied with a bungee with tools inside it and cable ties fitted between sock and bungee. Spare bulbs are in the white sock at the very top. It's a VFR so a multimeter is here too (I've yet to fit my LED voltmeter to the dash).

What stays on you
Make sure to keep your phone on your person so put that in your pocket. It's useful for all types of emergencies. If you fall the last thing you want to do is have to walk back to the bike for your phone to call help. Not only may it not have survived the fall (it will probably survive on you as the pockets are away from typical impact points) but you might not be able to make it that far. I'm not trying to scare anyone but it is worth bearing in mind.
Keep this on you if you can. At least if you lose everything else you've your phone and wallet still on you! Almost everywhere takes cards these days, at least in the EU, so just bring that and go. 
Keep your licence on you, you'll be using the same jacket for the trip, keeping it in that jacket makes sure you always have it with you.
Tyre pressure guage
One of the short needle style gauges are cheap and accurate. Keep one in your pocket.
Always useful.
If you haven't tried using them give it a go, you'll be much less tired after a motorway ride.

Be flexible
One of the main points is that you must be flexible with your use of stuff. A bungee can act as a toolroll compressor, a trouser belt can wrap tightly around an overnight bag of clothes to make it easy to carry, tying shoes together and throwing small things in them saves space. Maybe even "de-pair" your socks, they take up a lot of space when paired together I find! I've been able to lend electrical tape to another biker to help him out on his travels to mend a GPS cable/headphone cable that wasn't connecting right. It can also be used as a makeshift plaster for cuts. Chain oil doesn't just work for chains but it can also lube up a seized lock or anything else (I've helped a biker on Cherbourg port this way, his lock was seized so I sprayed it with chain lube, let it work its way in and then he was able to use it again). A packed hi-viz vest can also be used as a makeshift picnic mat to sit on or to kneel on if doing repairs or as a "carpet" in the topbox to stop things rattling.

Make your own list
Now you can go ahead and make your own list and enjoy your trip!

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