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ADV NewsMastering Motocamping: Tips From A Long-Range Motorcycle Traveler

Mastering Motocamping: Tips From A Long-Range Motorcycle Traveler

Finding the right balance between being comfortable and not overloading the bike.

Published on 07.06.2022
Motocamping. Finding the perfect campsite for the night
Photo by Ely Woody.

After a few decades of traveling around the world, I’ve had my share of extreme motocamping experiences. I’ve been snowed-in in the Sierra Nevadas without a tent. I’ve run out of water in the middle of the Utah desert in 100-degree + temperatures. I’ve been rescued on the back of a mule, delirious with giardia… Somehow I managed to survive it all. And what I’ve learned is that the #1 essential item to bring along on every motocamping trip is the right attitude.

Packing a good attitude, costs nothing and takes up no space in your bags. Not only that, but your capacity for discomfort will play a crucial role in how, and what, you pack. It may seem like an odd approach, but someone who eats a bag of beef jerky for dinner before passing out next to the campfire in their riding boots, will pack differently than someone who prefers retiring to a cot in their stand-up tent, after a steak dinner. And as with anything in life, there’s a trade-off… 

Motocamping: finding the perfect campsite.
Photo by Ely Woody.

Those of us who pack the oversized mototent, cot, fancy camp chair and fuzzy bunny slippers, will suffer more on the trail. Those of us forgoing amenities like a tent or toilet paper, in an effort to stay “ultralight” will suffer more in camp. Therein lies the rub! Motocamping requires us to be discerning with what we pack. 


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So, where do we start?

START AT THE BEGINNING: 

Chances are you’ve already invested in the two fundamental components for successful motocamping – a motorcycle and bags. And while a moto-specific luggage system is not mandatory (you could just wear a backpack afterall) they sure do help. For brevity’s sake, we’ll skip the “soft-bags vs. hard panniers” debate and assume you’ve already got that much sorted… 

Motocamping essentials: First Aid Kit
Photo by Stephen Gregory.

Likewise, if you’re ready to take the leap to multi-day trips, we assume you’ve got fundamentals like tools and first-aid dialed-in. These items should be with you on any ride, motocamping or not. 

CAMP NECESSITIES:

In addition to your typical kit, it’s important to take into consideration the length and location of your ride. Trips in sight of the road and within cell range won’t require the level of “doomsday preparation” as a ride to the edge of the map.  

I’ve seen people pack portable electric bear fences and fire-extinguisher-sized canisters of bear spray in British Columbia. I have a friend who carries a small chainsaw on most rides…  But if you’re riding through Death Valley, chances are you won’t need any of those items.

So… where are we going, and for how long?? What’s the weather forecast? Are we cooking out, or eating in town before retiring to camp? Will there be drycamps, or is water readily available? Will we be able to buy provisions on the road, or are we packing food for an entire week? 

Motocamping: what you need to bring.
Photo by Stephen Gregory.

With the limited packing space afforded on a motorcycle, these are all valid questions to ask before setting off. My typical camp necessities include:

  • Shelter
  • Bedroll
  • Camp clothes
  • Headlamp
  • Cookware
  • Food
  • Water

Shelter

Be it a tent, a bivy sack, or even a hammock, shelter can be a necessity (keeping you and your gear dry and warm) or merely a luxury. Often, riding through the Mojave Desert, I forego a shelter altogether, opting instead to sleep under the stars. If the environment and weather allow, leaving the tent at home can be one of the most significant weight-saving choices you make.

Shelter, tents, covers and other motocamping essentials.
Photo by Chad Horton.

But sometimes rain, bugs or even the simple desire for privacy requires a bit of nylon between you and the rest of the world. In that case, lightweight backpacking tents from manufactures like Big Agnes or The North Face are an excellent choice. It’s important to keep in mind that a “one person” tent fits exactly that, one person and nothing more – no gear! Minimally, I travel with a two-person tent when riding solo, or a 3 to 4 person tent when 2-up.

Tents with a large vestibule also give you more options to keep your gear dry and out of sight, without taking up valuable floor space.

For those of us traveling with a pillion (fancy moto-talk for “passenger”), a double-sided tent with a door and a vestibule at each end ensures that no one will crawl over you in the middle of the night to relieve themselves, and everyone has ample storage for gear.

Motocamping with a hammock
Photo by Alfonse Palaima.

In instances where the weather is nice, but the ground is not, a hammock is my go-to for a good night’s rest. Like tents, a one-person hammock tends to be a bit claustrophobic, and the extra fabric of a two-person hammock ensures you won’t roll out in the middle of the night. Many hammocks even come with mosquito netting and a rain-fly, for the hardcore tree-swingers out there!

Bedroll

A cowboy’s bedroll typically consisted of a canvas ground-cloth and wool blanket. That’s a bit more suffering than I’m willing to endure, so I carry a sleeping bag and pad instead. 

Whereas pads were once considered a luxury, many modern sleeping bags require pads to insure proper insulation, as they have less fill along the underside (back) to save weight. And, like sleeping bags, pads have an R-Value (insulation rating) and temperature range. (The temperature ratings on sleeping bags can be a bit arbitrary, and while there are uniform standards by which bags are rated, manufacturers are not obliged to use them.)

Motocamping compact lightweight sleeping pad
Sea to Summit’s Comfort Light Insulated Sleeping Pad has an R-value of 4.2. Photo by Rob Dabney.

Often the temperature rating on a sleeping bag denotes the “Transition Range” (the point at which comfort turns into danger) and not the comfort range, so don’t think you’ll be snug as a bug in that 20-degree bag when the temps dip below freezing.

It’s important to make sure your sleeping pad is rated similarly to your bag, even more so if you’re planning on sleeping off the ground in a hammock or cot. Compressed under your body weight, the insulation of your sleeping bag does little to keep your hindquarters warm when you have cold air freely circulating beneath you!

Other considerations, like sleep position are critical when selecting the proper bedroll. If you generally sleep in the fetal position, as do I, you’ll need a bag that provides ample enough room to roll over.

Manufacturers like Big Agnes produce some of the best sleeping bags and pads on the market. Many of their bags even have an integrated pad sleeve, which ensures you don’t roll off your pad in the middle of the night! Thermarest and Nemo also produce some impressive, albeit pricey, options.

Compact lightweight sleeping bag for your motocamping journey.
The Sea to Summit Spark SPII uses 850+ Down insulation and packs small. Photo by Rob Dabney.

An option for fortifying your three-season bag when the temperatures drop, is a thermal liner. Cheaper than buying another bag, a liner can add 10 – 25 degrees to your bag’s “transition range” and is easier to throw in the washing machine after a particularly stinky outing! 

Always be sure to carry a patch kit for your sleeping pad, as nothing ruins a good night’s rest more than a pinhole leak!!

Camp Clothes

While matching smoking jacket and slippers are far from a necessity, changing out of sweaty riding socks on a cold night most certainly is! And, most moto jackets aren’t well insulated, making a lightweight and compact down jacket awfully handy when the sun goes down, and with it, the temperature. 

Wearing layers on a motocamping journey
Photo by Karla Robleto.

I often layer my gear, using a down jacket under my riding jacket on cold days. This jacket not only keeps me toasty around the campfire, but can double as my camp pillow at night. 

Camp shoes of some sort are nice too, as riding boots generally aren’t great for hiking or lounging around the fire. 

There are some ADV-specific boots that are comfortable enough for a short hike or camp wear, but generally what you get in comfort, you sacrifice in safety. I carry flip flops at a minimum, and lightweight trail runners on longer rides.

Headlamp

Motocamping necessities: headlamp
Photo by Ely Woody.

Hands-free lighting is critical when fiddling with your bike or pitching your tent in the dark. Lightweight and compact, companies like Black Diamond or Petzl make quality LED headlamps more than capable of blinding your campmates. Petzl also has an option for a case that turns your headlamp into a lantern for the tent… And don’t forget to store it in a place that is readily accessible when you arrive at camp after dark.

Cookware

For the camp chefs among us, those who regularly produce gourmet meals on the trail, this is where things can easily go off the rails! There is no shortage of YouTube channels or cookbooks dedicated to trailside gourmet. Sterling Noren’s Motorcycle Travel Channel is equal parts motocamping and cooking channel. And with the popularity of firebox stoves, and camping-specific cookware, it’s easy to get carried away!

Cooking while motocamping.
Photo by Karla Robleto.

Personally, I carry either a Jetboil or “pocket rocket” style stove from MSR, but primarily for the one thing I refuse to do without – coffee!! 

The advantage of a Jetboil is the built-in “cooking cup” making it a great solution for preparing coffee or dehydrated meals. Jetboil and manufacturers like Sea to Summit also have frying pans with folding handles, lightweight pots, and in the case of the latter, a complete offering of  collapsible silicone dining ware and “backcountry kitchen” cooksets. If you really want to impress your friends, they even make a collapsible kitchen sink (although I’d be remiss to label that a necessity).

Compact, lightweight cookware for your motocamping journey.
Sea to Summit X-set 11 collapsible cooking kit. Photos by Bill Lieras.

On the rare occasion I do prepare a proper meal, I typically get by with a campfire, a bit of heavy-duty aluminum foil, an MSR stowaway pot, and a few basic implements. Forego the frying pan and grill and cook on a hot rock instead (if you’re unfamiliar – YouTube!). Forget the pot and learn how to bake potatoes or roast vegetables using heavy-duty foil and hot coals. All of these cooking methods are, in my opinion, much more satisfying (and require less gear to haul around). A dishtowel, scrub pad, small squeeze bottle of dish soap, and spices all fit nicely inside the pot when tucked away…

Food

This is where I admittingly falter. As a connoisseur of dehydrated meals, MREs and protein bars, I’ve never put much thought or care into my menus. My first cross-country trip as a teenager was fueled by a case of refried beans and Budweiser… 

But, a man’s gotta eat, which begs a few questions: Are we eating on the road, or preparing food at camp? Resupplying daily or packing for a week in the bush?? 

One of the biggest challenges I faced exploring the remote corners of Tierra del Fuego during the Covid pandemic, in the midst of quarantines and mass closures, was food. Packing a week’s-worth of food for 2 people was challenging to say the least, especially since dehydrated meals weren’t readily available.

Photo by Bill Lieras.

Food can be one of the largest logistical challenges for remote trips – so keeping both our bodies AND our bikes fed, will require regular excursions back to civilization. When living on our bikes, wild camping and eating on the cheap, I typically shop every other day, and keep anything I don’t want crushed (like eggs or fruit) in oversized tupperware bins in the bottom of my aluminum panniers.

On shorter motocamping trips, running soft-bags, I only keep emergency rations packed in the drybags so as not to upset the delicate balance. Aside from that, I tend to eat in town when convenient, and pack my daily groceries and snacks in a backpack.

Everyone’s dining preferences are different, but either way you’ll need to figure out how to eat, and where to pack your food!!  

When packing for more than a couple days away from civilization, dehydrated meals are usually the most compact and lightweight option. Another option if dry-camping (when water is scarce) are MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Originally military rations, MREs are pre-packaged, calorically dense meals in a sturdy package, that have a scary-long shelf life, and are nearly indestructible. Heavier and bulkier than dehydrated food, they do not require additional water or a camp stove…

Marinated steak on a fire.
Photo by Rob Dabney.

When resupplying in town, anything from a sandwich to steak and potatoes will do! A typical offering of dried salami, cheese (harder cheeses like cheddar and parmesan do not require refrigeration), and dried fruits works great for a snack or a meal around the campfire. 

As an added tip, I always pack (or wear) a small backpack, allowing me to pick up food and a six-pack of beer at the store, without having to repack or reconfigure my luggage. Likewise, it’s also great for packing out camp trash the next morning!

Additionally, simple protein bars, a bag of beef jerky or trail mix is great in a pinch. Something calorically dense and compact is best. Gear shops like REI also have a wide selection of energy gel packets and gummies that can help keep your energy up and blood sugar in check when cooking is out of the question. 

A simple sampling of the above, thrown in a small stuff sack, can really make you a hero out on the trail!  

Water

In addition to a hydration pack (one of those fundamentals) I also always carry a 6 liter / 1.5 gallon dromedary bag. Dromedaries from companies like MSR, weigh virtually nothing, collapse flat and stash anywhere when empty. When needed, simply fill it up at the closest creek or hose bib before hitting the trail… 

Bringing lots of extra water and fuel on a long-range motocamping journey.
Photo by Jon Beck.

Coupled with a lightweight water filter or purification tablets when potable water is not available, a dromedary or two gives you the ultimate in packability and flexibility!

Creature Comforts

We’ve cut the handles off our toothbrushes and pared down the load. We still have a few nooks to fill and crannies to stuff.  So what creature comforts do we pack?? 

Well, comfort is subjective. Some of us dream of that medium-rare T-bone steak with lightly roasted vegetables, drizzled with melted butter. Others are perfectly happy with a cold IPA or three from the local brewery. Some of us have worked too damn hard for too damn long to sleep in the dirt! And some of us just want to dance, dance, dance… 

Whether a well-seasoned cast iron pan that cooks everything to perfection, stainless steel growler, lightweight cot, or bluetooth speaker with built-in synchronized disco lighting, we all have different ways of embracing the suck. 

My creature comforts? I thought you’d never ask!

I am NOT an ultralight motocamper… Many of the subjects we did not discuss, such as photo & video equipment, comm units, laptops, navigation, etc… and the many charging cables, batteries and accessories for such, generally take any spare room I have, and then some! 

Camping chairs are a motocamping essential that is well worth the weight.
Photo by Chad Horton.

My one and only motocamping indulgence (when I run soft bags) is an ultralight camp chair. Companies like Helinox make lightweight (and pricey) camping chairs and cots that many motocampers swear by. And while I’m not ready for a cot (just yet), a decent chair with a backrest at the end of a long day sure beats sitting on a rock!! 

You’ll also want to skip the inexpensive camping gear sold online from no-name brands, or at big-box stores. While this gear may be appropriate for car camping, it is generally heavy, bulky and prone to failure in the backcountry. Quality backpacking gear, while costing more up front, will pay dividends down the trail. And, coupled with a minimalist mindset, quality lightweight necessities leave you more space for creature comforts.

Bonus Tips

A few road tips and additional items that don’t take up any room, but are worth having:

  • Plastic grocery bags are great for camp trash. I keep a few in the bottom of my backpack… Remember, pack it in, pack it out! 
  • I always grab extra napkins from the coffee shop or local diner and stash them in a pocket. They work well to clean your windscreen in the morning, as trailside TP, or kindling for the campfire.
  • Dedicated camp gloves come in handy for cooking and setting up camp. When it gets a bit wet or muddy out, they help keep your hands clean and save you from starting your day with wet riding gloves.
Compact, cube bags make packing for your motocamping journey more efficient.
Photo by Karla Robleto.
  • Packing cubes and stuff sacks are your friends! If you grew up playing Tetris like I did, you probably have a knack for puzzling them together to maximize your packing potential. Inexpensive packing cubes are great for keeping things organized.
  • I carry a couple battery packs that are absolute lifesavers given my predilection for electronics, and are great for charging on the bike or in your tent at night! 

And Finally…

My last, most important tip – JUST GO! Your motorcycle, luggage, gear, the weather… things will never be perfect. Good enough is usually good enough, and the only way to really dial in your kit is to get out there, do the thing, and figure out what does, and doesn’t work for you.

Motocamping is all about finding your own way to travel.
Photo by Stephen Gregory.

And remember, all the expensive gear aside, no matter what the conditions, the most important thing you can bring along when motocamping is a good attitude. If everything went according to plan, it wouldn’t be an adventure.

See you by the campfire! 

Author: Chad Horton

Originally from Los Angeles, Chad threw a leg over a motorcycle for the first time at the ripe old age of 30. Instantly hooked, he competed in his first District-37 NHHA race less than a year later. Whether racing in the Mojave, riding mopeds through Thailand, Route-66 on a Harley, surviving “Mad Sunday” during the Isle of Man TT races, or riding his Honda Africa Twin solo from California to Patagonia, Chad lives and breathes all things two wheels. When not behind bars, Chad is an active SCUBA Diver, skydiver, avid snowboarder, world traveler and below-average surfer.

Author: Chad Horton
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14 thoughts on “Mastering Motocamping: Tips From A Long-Range Motorcycle Traveler

  1. If you have never tried one of the compact camping cots you may want to give it a try. Packed mine is about the same size as my back packing tent.I put the cot together first and slide it into the tent before I set it up.Some people set up their cot and just put the tent over the top of it. Another must have in my kit is a 16oz.flask filled with some really good bourbon or rye and I NEVER leave home without my 45. Everyone ride safe but, not to safe, the ride still has to be FUN!

    • A note on a cot, in cold weather you will still need an insulated sleeping pad as the air will pass under the cot. I travelled with a cot for about 20 years, but have gone back to one of the modern pads, similar to one shown above. Not having the cot is simply one less thing on the bike. A small added benefit of a cot is that you can store your gear under it in the tent.

      Agree on the bourbon.

  2. Sound advice for life as well. It’s hard to break someone who has a positive attitude. Thanks for your suggestions concerning equipment and quality. If it’s cheap, there’s probably a reason!

  3. What can I say… always a good read! Love your insight on long range traveling on a motorcycle. Like everything in life…your attitude toward the adventure is key!! Can’t wait for your next article!

  4. Great tips! I’m a fan of the old Boy Scout trick of putting each change of clothes in its own ziplock bag, rolling it as tightly as possible, and sealing that. This makes each change individually dry and clean as well as keeps them from puffing up and taking more space. Plus you can shuffle things around and free up a few ziplocks if you need them.

  5. Test your inflatable air mattress before you go. Patching with access to a bathtub full of water (leak finder) is much easier than the ear test, esp for the very small leak which leaves you on the ground at 2 AM. Also, test the mattress for noise. Many of the new ultralight pads make a loud rustling noise when you move position. I have rejected some because they kept me awake all night.

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