The Magic Bag: Roadside Necessities for Motorcyclists

Also known as "the breakdown bag," this is what goes along on our motorcycle rides to deal with routine events and major problems. From the December 1998 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. By _ [Art Fr

After a recent multi-motorcycle comparison road test, a rider who had never gone along with us before commented, "You should tell people about your Magic Bag." The Magic Bag is a tailbag which accompanies me on every ride that will last longer than a jaunt around town. It's actually one of two bags of supplies I have available.

I also have a fanny pack that comes along on every ride. These two bags contain tools and supplies which will allow me and my cohorts to keep going in the face of many incidents that could end or significantly delay a ride.

Fanny Pack

The items we drag along on rides are those we have discovered (usually the hard way) are more than nice to have. I bought the fanny pack from a vendor at Daytona a few years ago. Its largish size is divided into four compartments with two small pockets along the belt. The prime necessity is a cellular phone, which can summon help when a bike has a problem -- a flat tire being the most likely. An electronic organizer keeps track of the phone numbers of people I will call and plead with to come rescue me.

Since these kinds of annoying things frequently happen at night, a flashlight is essential. The little LED built into my Swisslite pocketknife provides enough illumination for a cursory inspection. But if I need a brighter or longer-lasting light, the Mitylite in my fanny pack fills the bill. It also clips to my sleeve or visor to provide hands-free illumination. Like the organizer, it uses AA batteries, so I keep four of them in the bag too. I prefer Kirkland from Costco because they come packaged in convenient four-packs.

The multitool provides a few basic tools -- file, knife, pliers, screwdrivers -- and is backed up by the tiny Sears Craftsman fold-up screwdriver set shown. The cable ties can fix a variety of minor problems.

Since I wear contact lenses, I carry saline solution and a lens case, along with glasses. Saline solution can also clean debris out of an eye. Wipes to clean my hands before handling my contacts, or after doing repairs, are in there too. The bandanna can serve as neck protection, face shield cleaner or bandage.

Most of the remaining contents are self-explanatory, except for the whistle. I have heard tales of riders who fell out of view of passers-by and were unable to move. The whistle might summon help in such a situation (try blowing an SOS). The camera, like the other items listed in parentheses on the next page, may not be useful to all riders. On days when rain is looming, the fanny pack goes into a saddlebag or backpack with rain gear.

The Tailbag

Once I travel beyond the greater L.A. area, I throw the Magic Bag onto the back of whatever I'm riding. Its contents are intended to help me deal with routine and emergency problems that arise on longer treks. The beauty of having all this stuff in one bag is that I'm always ready for a long ride. If someone calls and suggests a cruise up the coast, I'm already packed. For rides that will last several days, all I need to add is sufficient clothing. The contents are chosen to work with a variety of bikes, with both metric and American tools and fasteners. Although it's tempting to tailor the contents just for the bike(s) I'll be riding, there is always the chance I will come across a broken bike of the other persuasion.

I normally use a Wolfman (303/ 541-9723) tailbag, chosen for its several accessible pockets and convenient size -- big enough for everything but not too bulky. The same stuff will also fit into most saddlebags or tankbags, but a tailbag is the best choice for me because I can quickly mount it on a variety of stock motorcycles. As much as practical, the contents are divided into subcontainers (like the envelope-style bags from Aerostich, 800/222-1994). My loose tools snuggle in a tool roll from RevPack (800/ 766-2461).

Topping my list of contents are spare face shields -- one clear, one tinted. I store them in a pair of heavy socks, one per sock. This protects the shields and provides a source of added warmth for my feet. Protect All or Pledge can clean windshields, face shields or the bike itself. I normally carry a single bottle of water in case I get stranded. But if I venture into the desert I take two or three more, usually freezing them the night before.

My small first-aid kit is equipped to treat abrasions, bleeding and insect stings. It includes more hand-cleaning wipes, rubber gloves (2 sets), a selection of small and large bandages, moist burn pads, tape, and nonaspirin pain reliever. A small bottle of hydrogen peroxide can clean up scrapes with the aid of a surgical scrub sponge, and there are small packets of antibiotic ointment to apply under bandages. My pocketknife also has tweezers. I started carrying a bicycle strobe light after being stranded at night in the rain on an interstate highway divider. This small, flashing red light uses that same AA battery and clips to my helmet, jacket or seat. Its rapid flashing is eye-catching. The possible danger is some drowsy or drunk driver will steer toward it, but I think it serves as a warning signal for the overwhelming majority.

My tool kit must serve a variety of bikes, since what I ride changes from day to day. Yours will probably be more compact if you are building it for a single bike. However, if you frequently ride in a group, having a universal kit can reduce everyone's load. The ratchet and socket seem essential for most bikes, because even if they have a tool kit, many parts are difficult to remove with just a wrench. Include a spark-plug socket as well, I usually carry both U.S. and metric sizes. Make sure you have the tools needed to adjust or remove accessory pieces which may not be compatible with your tool kit.

The crescent wrench should fit the largest hex on your bike (usually an axle nut) and can also serve as a makeshift hammer or lever for bending a fallen-upon piece. The small locking pliers provide an extra hand when removing a fastener, fill-in for a broken shift lever, or clamp something that's trying to escape. Those adjustable box wrenches turn any nut or bolt I don't have a wrench for. A tube of citrus-based hand cleaner from Finish Line (516/666-7300) makes post-fix cleanup easy and quick.

I recommend the tire-repair kits from Stop & Go (800/747-0238). The firm has kits for tubeless and tube-type tires. I carry both, along with tire irons and a container of sealant for tube-type tires. As we have discussed in previous issues, sealants should be avoided (if possible), since they can cause the layers of your tire to separate. Tire companies recommend prompt replacement if you use this stuff. Finally, have a method of inflating tires. I carry mini CO2 cartridges and a compression-actuated pump that goes into the spark-plug hole -- both from Stop & Go.

I have a set of Road Gear jumper cables or you can make a set of your own with four-gauge (or heavier) wire. A hammer driver is only worthwhile if your bike uses Phillips screws in the cases, and a tow strap is only useful if you are riding in a group. (You should also know how to use it and recognize its use may be illegal on the road.) Some bikes can be propped up on the right side by a length of pipe, which is helpful in some situations. That pipe can also serve as an extension for a wrench or a lever.

The supplies are pretty obvious, though you may have some problem fasteners or other parts that you want to include in addition to a standard selection of nuts, bolts and screws. You should also know what you need to do to reach your fuses in the dark (God help you if you have a Suzuki 1500). I suggest carrying an instrument bulb, a taillight bulb and -- if applicable -- a headlight bulb. A turn signal bulb can be obtained at most gas stations and is less urgent than a taillight bulb. An ideal place to stash bulbs, especially for the headlight, is inside the headlight shell. Extra fuses have also been important in my experience, since the extras supplied with the bike usually just serve to prove you didn't fix the electrical problem on your first attempt.

Carry chain-care equipment if you have a chain. Remember that many bikes have press-in master links, which require an additional tool. Be sure the master link fits your chain.

If you cling to the belief that motorcycle-specific oils are just a conspiracy to separate you from extra money every time you buy oil, there is no sense in carrying a container of oil. But if you are using the right oil and your engine tends to consume a lot, having a bit extra is worthwhile.

Maps of the riding area are always practical, and a compass can help you navigate. I also get a lot of use from the weather-band radio I bought for less than $20 at Radio Shack (more AA batteries).

Finally, bungee cords and the bungee net I use to provide extra security for the tailbag (I had a different brand tailbag pull loose from its straps several years ago, stick in the rear wheel, and launch me.) are handy for providing a home for clothes I shed, things I acquire along the way, or overflow from other riders' bikes.

Because my bag contains supplies to serve a variety of bikes, it is fairly heavy -- typically more than 20 pounds. But the gear needed for one bike can weigh significantly less if you are selective. Since I often ride with large groups of bikes, the Magic Bag gets called on regularly. A single rider might go all season without ever opening it, even if he rides frequently. But there is peace of mind in knowing that if you have a problem, the solution is probably in the bag.


  • Change for phone booth
  • Credit cards
  • Small pocketknife/flashlight combination


  • Face shields stored in socks
  • Small can of Protect All or Pledge
  • Clean rags
  • Water bottle(s)
  • Spare gloves
  • Rainsuit
  • First-aid kit
  • Bicycle strobe light


  • Crescent wrench
  • Small locking pliers
  • Ratchet and appropriate sockets
  • Sears box wrenches
  • Allen wrench set
  • Tire repair kit(s) with inflator
  • Jumper cables
  • Waterless hand cleaner
  • (Impact driver)
  • (Tow strap)
  • (Pipe as extension and stand)

Parts and Supplies

  • Duct tape
  • Nuts and bolts
  • Six feet of electrical wire
  • Four to six feet of baling wire
  • Cotter pins
  • Bulbs
  • Spare fuses
  • Tire sealant
  • (Master link)
  • (Chain lube)
  • (Spark plugs)
  • (Small container of oil)


  • Motorcycle Cruiser cap
  • Lighter or heavier gloves
  • Weather-band radio
  • Local and state maps
  • Compass
  • Bike lock
  • Bungee cords


  • Cellular phone
  • Organizer with phone numbers
  • Waterproof Mitylite flashlight
  • Spare batteries for all of the above
  • Small bottle of solution for face shield cleaning
  • Craftsman pocket screwdriver
  • Pen and paper
  • Sunglasses
  • Whistle
  • Glasses
  • Earplugs
  • Multitool
  • Tire gauge
  • Spare bike key
  • Cable ties
  • Bandanna
  • Lip balm
  • Contact lens supplies
  • Small bottle of sunscreen
  • Hand-cleaner wipes
  • (Camera and spare battery)

This list is intended to be tailored to your bike and requirements, but it has been refined by a lot of experience, mostly the kind where you wish you'd brought something.

For more articles on how to maintain and modify your motorcycle, see the Tech section of

For evaluations of, comparisons of, and shopping advice for motorcycle gear and accessories, see the Accessories and Gear section of

For descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of

_My personal fanny pack (which can be carried in a saddlebag) includes items tailored to my particular needs, such as the contact-lens supplies at the upper left. Other items shown include (from left) sunglasses, multitool, earplugs, sunscreen, batteries, pocket screwdriver kit, whistle, flashlight, hand cleaner, cable ties, cell phone and PDA (since this was originally written, the phone and the PDA have been combined).
With careful packing, you can get virtually anything you need for roadside repair, basic first-aid, and other other motorcycling adventures in a full-size tail bag like the Wolfman item.