Preparation Update: T-minus 64 days
Updated: Jul 21, 2018
How to carry it all
In my last update, I gave an overview on why I plan to undertake this trip using a Triumph Speed Triple motorcycle. This week, I wanted to profile the luggage I plan to use.
You may remember the concluding question to my preparation Q and A:
Q: How are you going to carry everything you need on such a small bike?
How to carry what you might need on an extended trip is an ongoing issue among motorcyclists. Some simply buy giant cruisers like the Honda Goldwing, complete with attached hard luggage containers. They then strap on additional bags, some even adding a small trailer for extra carrying capacity. While you can carry a small house’s worth of items like this, you end up with a heavy, lumbering set-up that is great for hauling stuff but bleeds away speed and nimbleness. Conversely, assuming you can manage to find a way to remain comfortable for long periods of time, the vast majority of sport bikes are extremely limited in the room they have available for attaching travel luggage.
My motorcycle isn’t quite as spartan as a sport bike, but it does have some limitations to just how much I can comfortably carry without sacrificing safety or enjoyment. After several years of research, trial and error, I believe I have worked out the optimal travel set-up for my motorcycle: tank bag, panniers, and a travel duffle.
“But while backpacks will increase the amount you can carry on a motorcycle, I know from experience just how uncomfortable and painful wearing a backpack while on a motorcycle for extended periods can be.”
One of the easier ways to secure travel luggage to a motorcycle is to attach a medium-sized, rectangular bag to the top of the fuel tank, between the rider’s seat and the handlebars. Most tank bags come with either magnets or straps that allow for tight and secure attachment. Many are also waterproof, have clear panels where you can insert electronics or paper maps, as well as extra zippers to allow for easy access to the contents of the bag.
The tank bag I have chosen is the Ortlieb Moto tank bag. Made by the same company that makes waterproof bicycle luggage, this tank bag is also waterproof, with a roll-top and buckle arrangement to keep moisture out. The bottom of the bag is constructed with a large, scuba wetsuit-style zipper designed to seals out moisture. The zipper allows access into the bag without having to remove the bag from the motorcycle and unroll it.
How waterproof is it? I used this bag as my personal bag on two river-rafting trips last year: an expedition-length, 8-day, 251-mile Grand Canyon adventure in Arizona, and a day trip down the Deschutes River in Oregon. This bag kept out water from dozens of rapids-worth of splashes and dunkings. I’m not at all worried about a little bit of rain soaking anything I keep in here.
BONUS: this tank bag comes with a couple of attachments that really boosted its functionality. First is the detachable clear, waterproof map panel. While I plan to use GPS for this trip, I never go anywhere without paper maps as a backup. If my electronics fail, I’ll have an easy way to navigate without having to constantly stop to pull out a crumpled paper map from inside my jacket.
Second, there is also an optional carrying system for this bag. The tank bag is secured to the motorcycle via buckles that attach the bag to a base that I strap to the fuel tank. I can unbuckle the bag, then using the same buckles, I can attach the carrying system, turning my tank bag into a waterproof backpack. No need to worry about leaving my tank bag in a sketchy, half-lit parking lot or side street, and no worries about how I’ll carry the bag (and my valuables) around.
Panniers, or saddle bags, vary in size and come in hard or soft options. There are hard, lockable plastic cases that you attach to your motorcycle via mounts bolted to the frame of the motorcycle. There are also soft bags that you can secure to the motorcycle using straps, buckles and bungee cords. Both options have their benefits and pitfalls.
The biggest negative for hard luggage involves cost and aesthetics. Hard luggage typically costs two to three times as much as soft luggage. The mounts required for them are bolted onto the motorcycle and not easily removed. Most hard case systems do not allow you to remove the panniers from your motorcycle (although some manufacturers have quick release features), making them a permanent feature. This changes the look and, often, the handling of your motorcycle. Soft luggage is typically secured to a motorcycle using a base strapped to the rear. Once you park your bike, you can just unclip them and bring them inside with you.
The biggest positive for hard luggage is security and protection from the elements. Most are lockable, which means you typically don’t have to worry about thieves when you run inside the gas station for a bathroom break or stop at a restaurant for a meal. With soft luggage, you can simply bring it in with you; no more worries about enterprising thieves destroying the locks on a set of hard panniers looking for goodies. But you HAVE to bring them with you when you’re away from your motorcycle if you want to keep them. The only thing keeping your goodies from disappearing from your soft luggage are zippers, and that softer material is easily cut with a knife. A determined thief would have to work to break into your hard luggage. Rain is also not (usually) an issue with hard luggage, while most soft luggage will soak through even in a light rain (although some are water-resistant or come with rain covers).
With no easy way to bolt hard luggage mounts onto my motorcycle, and no desire to ruin the aesthetics, I went with soft luggage. My Triumph-brand soft panniers come with integrated rain covers, so if I believe I’m going to get caught in a downpour, I can easily slip the covers over the bags from a hidden zipper compartment and make it to my destination with a reasonable expectation of being able to change into something dry once I arrive. And I have no desire to leave anything valuable on my motorcycle. I would rather have all of my bags inside with me than give thieves a reason to mess with my motorcycle.
Really, any bag that you can strap onto your motorcycle will allow you to carry your gear and various odds and ends. The devil, however, is in the details. As a result, a number of manufacturers make bags specifically designed for motorcycle travel. These bags are typically waterproof and include extra straps and D-ring attachments areas to make it easier to secure. I have been enamored of the modular travel luggage made by Kriega, a British motorcycle accessory company; I own one of their 20L bags and it has been a wonderful bit of equipment. However, their asking price for a 40L combination of motorcycle luggage is almost four times the cost of the 40L Firstgear waterproof duffle I recently discovered.
This particular bag, like my tank bag, features a large roll-top that buckles down into the sides of the bag in order to maintain a water-tight seal. In addition to a shoulder strap, the bag came with extra straps to secure the bag to the bike in any way I want. Not quite as business-like in its approach, nor with the adventure pedigree of Kriega, the Firstgear bag is still pretty nice looking, as well as flexible enough to use on a trip to the beach on as carry-on luggage for a flight.
You will note that I do not include any dedicated backpacks on my list. There are some amazing backpacks out there, and I even own a few of them (Kriega's R25 and an older model Boblbee GT 20L). But while backpacks will increase the amount you can carry on a motorcycle, I know from experience just how uncomfortable and painful wearing a backpack while on a motorcycle for extended periods can be. Yeah...no thanks.
Fully loaded, I should have a minimum of 90L of carrying capacity. I also have a spare Ortlieb tank bag, and that 20L Kriega bag that I may consider packing away in case I need the extra carrying capacity. I'll be testing my setup of the next couple of months to be sure everything is secure with full loads before heading out. I'll report back on how everything looks before I head out on my trip.