Editor’s Note: This is the first piece in our 8-part series on Motorcycle Road Trips by Gary McKechnie. Explore these and more in the Road Trips section of this blog.
Lacking the storage capacity of a van (or a mailbox, for that matter), when you embark on a motorcycle tour you become, by necessity, a minimalist. But what are the essentials? From protective gear and clothing to general gear and gadgets, here are a few items that should make every rider’s short list.
Protective Gear and Clothing
Helmet. Although some states still let you ride without one, this is the key piece of protective equipment. There are three basic types: full face, which covers your entire head and has a face/chin shield; open face or three-quarters (that is, it doesn’t have the face/chin shield); and half-shell, which covers just the top of your head. The full face gets our vote for maximum protection, though it can be hot in the summer.
Eyewear and Earplugs. When kicked out from a car’s tire, even a pebble can spell disaster for the rider in its path. Dust, rain, sand, or any foreign object can also cloud your vision. So, if you opt for a helmet without a face/chin shield, protective eyewear (e.g., goggles) is a must. Regardless, sunglasses will come in handy. Also, after a long ride, the rhythm of a droning engine can stay with you for hours in the form of a steady hum. To prevent this, tune out the noise with earplugs. The disposable foam types come several to a package and couldn’t be more affordable or packable.
Gloves. Gloves keep your hands warm (especially battery-powered heated models) in winter and callous-free at any time of the year. Plus, they add a layer of protection between your palms and the pavement. Fingerless gloves let you readily manipulate the throttle, clutch, and brakes, although full-finger styles offer more protection.
Footwear. It’s sad to see riders wearing flip-flops. Your feet see a lot of action when you ride, so wear closed-toe shoes at the very least. Better still, wear boots, which can withstand the rigors of supporting an 800-pound bike at a stoplight or keeping you balanced on a rough road. Calf-high athletic socks are fine for riding, but pack some thinner dress socks for the evening.
Leather Jacket. Fonzie, like most bikers, doesn’t wear his just for show. A leather jacket protects you from biting cold, foreign objects, and even abrasion if you happen to lay down your bike. Some styles add an extra layer of protection with built-in elbow, shoulder, and back pads.
Shirts and Pants. You need long pants for riding, but they should be suited to the climate (so, leave those leathers at home on that July trip to Key West). Dark jeans work well in most places and seasons; two pairs will last for days without needing to be washed. It’s also good to have a pair of lightweight khaki or black-cotton slacks that you can wear for an evening out. A limited assortment of T-shirts, flannel shirts, sweatshirts, and polo shirts will get you anywhere—letting you add or remove layers as you go.
Weatherproofing Gear. When it rains (and it will) a one- or two-piece rain-gear set will be worth its weight in weatherproof gold. If you’re riding in cool or cold climates, bring a set of long underwear. The silk kind is particularly good as it’s very thin (even the heavier-weight varieties), and it’s easy to hand wash and line dry. Finally, you need a UVA/UVB sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 (though 30 is better). That steady breeze might make you feel cool, but without sunscreen, your scorched hands, arms, and face will tell a different story.
General Gear and Gadgets
Smartphone. A basic cell phone is fine, but having a smartphone is like having a full office and home-entertainment center along for the ride. It’s amazing to think about all that you can do with this one small device: make recordings, take pictures and videos, navigate, check e-mail, share your travel experiences on social media, listen to music, watch TV shows and movies—the list goes on. That being said, you might reach a region without mobile service. Having a calling card on hand will keep you connected.
Camera Gear. For higher-resolution photography, invest in an inexpensive 10-megapixel camera. Many of these also shoot video, but buy a separate camcorder if you want high-quality footage. Consider a GoPro model, which you can attach to your helmet or handlebars, capturing the scenery from a rider’s perspective. Also, a foldable or telescoping tripod takes up very little space and is great for setting up timed exposures to get you in the picture Finally, carry a spare memory card or two, as you might you fill up one card before you have a chance to download the images.
Bike Gear. Pack a strong cable lock and a spare set of keys for both it and your bike. Hide those spares somewhere safe on your bike (inside a headlight cover, for instance). Also, bring a bike cover. Leaving your bike outside a hotel room or, in the event of a breakdown, exposed along the road, can get people thinking. Keep it covered, and it’s a far less tempting target. Finally, there’s a good chance that your saddle and tank bags won’t accommodate everything you find during a ride. Bungee cords will help you haul it home.
Tools, Etc. You need a basic tool kit with vise grips or pliers, Allen wrenches, hex wrenches, screwdrivers, hose clamps, electrical tape, wire, connectors, a small flashlight, and extra batteries. (Note that there are free smartphone flashlight apps—again, is there anything this gadget can’t do?) Many ready-made first-aid kits are comprehensive yet small. At the very least, pack bandages, pain reliever, hydrogen peroxide, antibacterial ointment, and water-purification tablets. You’ll also need a cleaning cloth for removing bugs, dirt, and grime. Wash it out, and stow it in a re-sealable plastic bag. In fact, carry several such bags for this and other needs.
Gary McKechnie is the author of Great American Motorcycle Tours, the nation’s best-selling motorcycle guidebook, which is now in its fifth edition. Its 25 tours detail back road rides from coast to coast.