Motorcycle Camping 101: Hints & Tips for Camping in the Great Outdoors

Motorcycle Camping 101:  Hints & Tips for Camping in the Great Outdoors

If motorcycles are the archetypal freedom machines, then motorcycle camping must surely be the ultimate road trip. If you’re contemplating your first two-wheeled adventure, then motorcycle camping 101: Hints & Tips for Camping in the Great Outdoors, is for you!

In the post-war years, swinging sixties and laid-back seventies, it was possible to lash a bedroll to the back of your bike and hit the highway.

Today though, county boundaries, State Park regulations, land management bureaus and managed wilderness areas, all have rules and regulations relating to camping.

Also, and probably of more importance, go camping anywhere in the Western USA during the summer months, and there's a high risk of wildfires. These circumstances don't necessarily mean camping is dangerous, just that authorities are very strict on where you can pitch a tent and whether you can light a fire.

Don’t be put off though; the USA is as vast as it is beautiful. By using some fundamental common sense and also checking out the area you're heading for, you can avoid any potential hassle.

Now having said all this let's get down to the fun stuff.

This article is going to look at some basic hints and tips that will make a good trip, great. To put things in a logical order, we’re going to split things up into the following categories:

  • Before you Go – packing, and pondering
  • The Big Pitch – what to take, and why
  • Hints and Tips – Time, and possibly life-saving ideas

Before you Go

The packing element we'll deal with shortly, but first the pondering. If you know where you're going, you'll know what to expect and what facilities are likely to be available on arrival.

If, on the other hand, you've only got a rough idea of the area you’re heading for, you still need to do some research. First, find out who owns, or manages the land in the surrounding area as this will dictate if camping permits are required and if so, where to get one.

You should also look at the weather too. I know some people say a road trip is defined by what happens on the journey, but it never hurts to know if your waterproofs are likely to get an outing.

Also, don’t forget you’ll be spending a few days outdoors, so knowing what the weather is doing will help you choose what clothes to take.

Ok, that’s enough pondering; let’s get into the packing. Time to state the obvious, there’s not a lot of room on your bike, so everything has to pack down small and be stowed safely.

You won't find a manual anywhere entitled, ‘’the strict rules of packing your motorcycle,’’ so common sense needs to prevail. If you don’t have any type of luggage supports on your bike, then you need to fasten your gear to parts of the bike that won’t move with the suspension. These include passenger grab rails, footrest hangers, and sub frames. Even some sports bikes have luggage hooks hidden away that fold out, so have a good hunt around.

Luggage for Sports Bikes

Talking of sports bikes, they’ve probably got the smallest luggage footprint of all bikes, this side of a single saddle chop.

However, you can get soft panniers for your specific sport bike that will lie across the passenger seat. Once secured, the panniers will act as a platform to mount other bags on top. Just don’t go too high, or too wide and make sure they’re on tightly.

If you've got a rack on your bike, even better, as long as it’s firmly bolted on, you can load them right up.  Don’t go crazy; spread the weight of your kit as much as possible, with the heavy stuff at the bottom.

Obviously, panniers are a big plus, whether bolt-on hard cases or soft throw-overs, these will help with the bikes handling, by keeping the center of gravity low.  As mentioned before, the panniers will also act as a platform for the rest of your load, unless of course, you have a pillion.

Securing your kit is an essential part of packing; get it wrong, and you're opening the door to all kinds of mayhem. At best your luggage will move around the first bump you hit. At worse, something could slip down and get trapped in a wheel.

Sounds extreme I know, but I can tell you from personal experience that sleeping bags and drive chains to not play well together. Bungee cords have always been my loading strap of choice, but depending on your bike, the metal hooks can dig in and scratch.

Fortunately, there’s a whole new generation of straps available now, that are far superior, versatile and more secure.

Luggage Advice

Before we move on, let’s cover a few points about luggage. I’ve mentioned panniers as being an ideal option, but it’s not the end of the world if you haven’t got them. Dry bags are the next best thing, they’re inexpensive, and of course, they'll keep your kit bone dry.

Dry kit is essential especially when camping, you may get a soaking on the ride, but once you've made camp, dry clothes to change into are highly recommended. Even if you have panniers, inner dry bags are advisable. Obviously, they'll keep your luggage dry, but being able to lift all your gear out of a pannier in one go makes life easier.

If you’re looking at a long ride to your campsite, make a backrest out of your gear. Just remember to keep all the lumpy stuff in your pack away from your back.

Last but not least, have you seen those old biker movies where they strap a bedroll to the handlebars? Looks so cool huh, in the real world though, it sucks.

Not only can you trap your cables, but you'll also probably be obstructing your clocks, and if you're riding through wind, the added bulk will have you wrestling with the bars.

The Big Pitch 

In this section, we're going to look at tents, sleeping bags, mattresses and cooking gear, or more specifically, what to look out for when choosing one.

Considering that a ridiculously thin piece of nylon is going to be your only protection from the elements for a while, it makes sense to get a decent tent. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but what constitutes a good motorcycle friendly tent?

The first consideration has to be weight. You may very well like the idea of something with a sun terrace and sewn-in wine cellar, but your carrying capacity is directly related to the size of your bike.

Most decent two-man tents weigh anything from around 3.5- 8lbs, any more than that and it’s probably a WWII canvas model. When you start checking out specs, look for an all-up weight.

Some manufacturers will give you the weight of the tent only, rather than mentioning the poles, rain sheet, pegs and carry bag. Look at the actual shipping weight as this will provide you with a much closer idea of the true weight.

Your choice of tent will also depend on how mobile you want to be. If you're planning on multiple stops, then you need to pay close attention to how it assembles. You may even want to consider a one-man tent in this case, yes they’re small, but they go up and down very quickly.

Tent Terminology

While looking through endless spec lists, you will also come across terms like denier, hydrostatic head, 3/4S, rainfly, SIGS, and venting. Denier refers to the thickness of nylon/polyester in the tent/rainfly construction. The thicker, the better, but a suitable denier is around 70.

Hydrostatic head very basically refers to the amount of water (measured in millimeters) that the tent material can withstand before letting in water. A good waterproof polyester tent will generally have an ‘hh’ of around 5000mm.

The next term, 3/4S relates to three or four seasons. Three season, is good for the type of conditions and weather generally associated with spring, summer and fall. As you may have guessed, 4S will be hardy enough to survive camping in winter too.

Most decent tents will come with a rainfly this is more commonly known as a flysheet and goes over the inner tent to keep the rain out. SIG or sewn in groundsheet is the base of the tent, and it should be entirely waterproof, and extend up around the sides of the tent to a height of around six inches.

Finally, venting: mesh-covered vents are part of the inner tent and allow for airflow, which is vital in summer.

From personal experience, I’ve always gone for a tent with a porch. This addition may sound a bit grandiose, but it's just an extension of the flysheet, which gives you a little bit of protected space before you enter the tent.

An enclosed porch area is excellent for leaving wet/muddy boots in, or for stowing bags to give you more room inside the tent.

Sleeping Bags

The categories to look out for here are temperature range, filling, and shape. Like the tent, temp range is related to the time of year you’re camping. Most of the time this isn't critical, it’s only in very cold conditions that it becomes a serious concern.

To be safe, find out the average temperature for your camping area and buy a bag accordingly. Sleeping bags are filled with either a down or synthetic filling.

Both have good and bad points which boil down to this; synth bags are cheaper, bulky to pack but easier to look after. Down filled bags are more expensive, warmer and pack smaller, but are useless if they get wet.

As for shape, this is down to personal preference, but they generally fall into three categories, rectangle, tapered rectangle, and mummy. The rectangle is self-explanatory, a long straight bag with parallel sides. The tapered rectangle reduces in size towards the bottom of the bag, and the mummy is shoulder width at the top tapering considerably at the bottom.

Sleeping bag

Having tried all three, the mummy had me feeling like a kidnap victim in the trunk of a car, even the tapered rectangle had me kicking at the sides. The good old rectangle though, gave me the room I wanted and also meant I could sleep on top of it.

Choosing a Mattress

Being in the heart of the great outdoors is tiring and a good night’s sleep is essential to get the most out of your stay. If you're on tour and faced with a long ride every day, a decent sleep is even more important.

To guarantee this, not only do you need to choose the right sleeping bag, but you also need to be up off the floor. Creating a gap between you and the ground keeps you insulated from the cold and offers a degree of much-needed comfort.

Forget those things that look like yoga mats, besides offering little insulation, they're too thin, and you'll feel every rock and lump. An air mattress provides the best bang for buck in terms of pack-ability, cost and ease of use.

Air mattresses come in a number of sizes, but you need a minimum of around six inches in thickness. Depending on how much you want to spend, you can get everything from single cell to multiple cells with built-in pump.

Air Mattress

It’s not advisable to blow up your mattress by mouth, apart from making yourself dizzy, you’re blowing in bacteria. After a few uses, you’ll also be breathing in bacteria too. Either buy a foot pump, or if your bike has a good battery, get a small 12v inflator.

Things to look for when deciding on a mattress are height when inflated, weight and folded dimensions. You may also want to check if it’s got a built-in pillow, if not, take one as sleeping with your head on a rolled up coat is strictly for B- movie cowboys! 

Camping Stoves

Food is very close to the top of the list in terms of importance and is yet another of those things that need pre-planning. What you take to eat and how you prepare it will once again be, dependent on your location. 

Out in the wilderness, you need to pack all the food you need to cover your trip. Camp within a short ride to civilization, you can always get fresh supplies or eat out. Either way, let's look at camping stoves.

Priorities need to include, weight, fuel type, durability, and size. Cost is obviously important, but you do get what you pay for and if you're solely reliant on your stove then it makes sense to invest in a good one. 

When you’re choosing, make a short list of stoves you like the look of, check out their features, and then balance them against a list of your requirements. By doing this, the stove should choose itself.

If this is your first time with a camping stove and you don't know propane from a window pane, research and reviews are the answer. Whichever stove you like the look of, someone somewhere will have given it a test ride.

Don't forget, you will also need a folding pan set, utensils and a cup, oh yes, and some food. The easiest route to go down is pre-packed meals; these come in pouches and generally just require boiling water added to them.

With that in mind, look at stoves that have a quick boiling time and are economical on fuel. You will also need a container to keep water in, and it's a good idea to take some cereal bars for in-between meal snacks. 

Hints and Tips

These hints and tips are all based on personal experience or things that occurred to me when writing this article.

Don’t be a Stranger 

It doesn't matter if you're going for a long weekend or a couple of weeks, leave details of your journey with someone. Even if you’re just heading into the wilderness and don't know where you'll end up, you'll have a start date, a potential return date, and a general area and direction you intend to travel.

Obviously, the more detail you can supply the better, so also include the make, model and registration of your bike. It may sound a little morbid but include your date of birth, a recent photograph, and details of others travelling in your group. The emergency services always ask for this type of information, and people seldom have it to hand.

When the Show Goes Dark

It's really easy to underestimate just how dark it can get in the wilderness, so you’re going to need at least two sources of light. The first should be an LED headlight as these are great for finding your way around while keeping both hands free.

Camping Lantern

Next, you'll need a small LED light that can clip on to the roof of the tent. Most tents have small loops sewn into the inside of the inner tent for just this type of thing. Remember where it is and how it works, if you get woken in the night, you need to be able to put your hand on it without groping around. 

Talking of the dark, it's a really good idea to arrange your ride so that you arrive at your chosen campsite while it's still light. Finding some decent ground, unloading your bike and erecting your tent, is a total and utter pain in the ass in the pitch black.

Also, if it’s a campsite with other campers, see how overjoyed your new neighbors are when you turn up at 2 am on your drag-piped Shovelhead. Telling them it’s to scare off the bears, may not work.

The Bear Facts!

If you are camping in bear territory, don't leave food in your tent. Put your food in a basket, secure it to a rope and hang it high over a tree branch away from your tent.

Don’t leave dirty pots, pans or dishes out, cook near your tent or go to sleep in the clothes you wore while cooking. Get yourself a bear spray and keep it in your tent along with your light.

Remember the three color rules of bear encounters, ‘'if it’s brown lay down, if it’s black, fight back and if it’s white, say goodnight.’’

Odds and Sods

As for the rest of our hints and tips, they cover a host of subjects, such as-

  • Take a spare charging cell for your mobile
  • Carry some extra plastic bags too. These are good for keeping wet clothes in
  • Remember to take extra luggage straps or a cargo net. They always come in handy and you never know what you'll pick up along the way
  • Don’t cook anything in your tent
  • Park your bike, jam something under the side stand to stop it sinking, and then estimate where it will land if it falls over. When you know where that is, pitch your tent accordingly; 400lbs of toppling bike on top of your sleeping bag takes all the fun out of camping
  • Make extra sure to extinguish all fires when you leave
  • Pick up all your garbage and leave the place looking like you were never there
  • Every time you pack and re-pack your bike make sure you can still see the rear light and indicators
  • If you have enough room, pack a small folding chair, sitting on the ground all the time sucks

And that my friends, is that. Motorcycle Camping 101 Hints & Tips for Camping in the Great Outdoors should answer most of your questions, but if we've missed anything or you have any suggestions of your own, we welcome your comments.