Tips for Motorcycle Camping

Snuggling up to the rocky bosom of Mother Earth

One of the things we like most about motorcycles is that they let us experience the ride directly, rather than from inside a steel and glass cage. That's why motorcycles and camping are a natural match. After all, why spend the day with the wind in your face only to spend the night in a motel with noisy plumbing? Moto-camping takes a lot of preparation and forethought, and the consequences of not having the right gear or skills are far worse than those of picking the wrong motel.

Motorcycle camping tips
Motorcycles and camping just go hand in hand, so we are here to help you set up camp.Illustration by Joe Baker

Sleeping Bags
Like a motorcycle ride, a motorcycle camping trip is only as good as the equipment you bring along, and one of the most important pieces of camping gear is your sleeping bag. You can put up with a lot on a camping trip—bad roads, bad food, bad weather—as long as you get a good night's sleep. Most bags are rated by their manufacturers according to how many pounds of insulation are in them, which, in turn, gives you a rough idea of the coldest temperature the bag is suited for. More is not necessarily better when it comes to choosing the right-weight bag.

Goose down is a better insulator, pound for pound, than synthetic materials, but it’s more expensive and, when wet, loses its loft, which is the ability to fluff up and hold heat. Synthetics, on the other hand, are cheaper and work just as well for the conditions in which most motorcycle camping will be done. Some are water-resistant, and many are durable enough to withstand repeated washings.

Shape is more a matter of personal preference. Mummy bags sleep warmer, because there’s less room inside them, but they constrict foot movement. If you’re a restless sleeper, consider a rectangular bag, which leaves more room for your feet.

Sleeping pads add an extra measure of comfort and help insulate you from the cold ground. Many riders still rely on the old standby, a piece of closed-cell foam, but self-inflating pads like the Therm-A-Rest beat foam hands down for comfort and insulation. As light and compact as foam, these come in a variety of widths, lengths and thicknesses, but they tend to be more expensive.

Some moto-campers don't use tents at all, preferring to drape a tarp over their campsite, anchored to the bike on one side and a picnic table or a tree on the other. A step up from that is the bivy bag, which is essentially a canopy just big enough to cover a sleeping bag. It's small and light, and it's quick and easy to set up if all you need is a place to grab a few winks before setting off again the next morning.

Most campers prefer the security and privacy of a tent. The range of sizes and styles of camping tents is staggering, but a few general rules apply to all. Make sure the tent you choose is easy to set up. Try it in the store if you're not sure—it beats trying it in the rain. Self-supporting tents—the most familiar of these are dome-shaped—can be picked up and moved, and even held over your head and shaken to clean out the inside. The best are made of ripstop nylon, which is very hard to tear and easy to patch. When you choose your spot and want to secure your tent, metal stakes are the only ones worth having—and don't forget to bring something to drive them into the ground with. (The tools on your bike will not prove adequate, and you can't always find a rock when you need one.)

A rain fly does two things: It keeps water off the tent in bad weather, and it protects the tent from damaging UV rays in sunny times. It fits over the tent without touching it, allowing air to circulate and condensation (which naturally forms inside the tent as you sleep) to escape. Water can seep into your tent from below, too, so make sure the floor is waterproof. Even better is a “bathtub” floor, with waterproof material that extends several inches up the sides of the tent. And don’t forget to choose a tent big enough for you to sleep in and store all your gear in at the same time. As a rule of thumb, add one “person” to the tent’s advertised size. A two-person tent is usually just about right for a solo camper’s sleeping bag and riding gear.

Ground Cloth
Even if the tent has a waterproof bathtub floor, get a ground cloth to put under it. A simple waterproof plastic or PVC-coated nylon tarp will do. Not only will it add an extra layer of insulation from both cold and moisture, but it will protect your tent's floor from rocks and rough ground, thus adding years to its useful life.

Cooking Gear
If you plan to cook at your campsite, a cookstove is a must. Smaller is better, but the design you choose will depend to some extent on the kind of food you want to cook. To prepare freeze-dried food in plastic bags, all your stove has to do is heat water to boiling. More elaborate, multistage meals will require a more elaborate stove, or in some cases, two separate ones. Depending on the design of the stove, it can run on alcohol, propane, butane, white gas, kerosene or the unleaded gasoline in your bike's tank. These fuels are available in lightweight, compact canisters. They can also be purchased in bulk and transported in readily available aluminum flasks. An important factor to keep in mind is that food, fuel, water and all other necessary items can be replenished without difficulty, so unless you're heading for the farthest remotes of the Zimbabwe outback, it's not necessary to transport more than a liter of water or fuel and several days' worth of food at a time.

You’ll need cookware, too, including cutlery and pots and pans. Get purpose-built backpacking cookware that “nests”—the pieces fit inside each other and take up no more room than the largest piece—for compact storage. Ditto for cutlery, and make sure it’s durable. Plastic cutlery isn’t much good for handling very hot food right out of the pot. And don’t forget biodegradable dishwashing soap for the cleanup.

Other Stuff
In addition to whatever you'd pack if you were moteling it, add a knife or a hatchet with a saw blade, a first-aid kit, a flashlight and fresh batteries, snacks for quick meals, insect repellent, a container for water, waterproof matches, rope, shoelaces, trash bags and toilet paper. The more experienced a camper you become, the more items you'll add to the list.

Motorcycle camping tips
You have limited space on your motorcycle, so be sure to pack properly.Illustration by Joe Baker

Now that you know what to bring, you have to fit it all on the bike. Heavy items should be positioned as low as possible and in front of the rear axle. Lighter things can go up higher and farther to the rear. The idea is to keep the loaded bike's center of gravity in about the same place as it would be if the bike were unloaded. You can save some space by using compression bags to compress your sleeping bag and tent, but remember that while this makes them smaller, it doesn't make them lighter. Whatever you do, though, don't strap your tent or sleeping bag onto the handlebar or front fork like you've seen Bronson do in late-night reruns. The weight will affect your bike's handling, and that's the last place you want heavy items in an emergency where you might have to steer yourself out of trouble. On the fork it also blocks cooling air from reaching your engine.

Pack so the items you'll need first when you check into your campsite are the easiest to get to. Your tent and ground cloth are the first things you'll set up, so they should be the last things you pack. Savvy moto-campers also designate "wet" and "dry" saddlebags or duffels. The wet bag is for your soggy, just-unpitched tent and ground cloth, for example, while the dry bag is for your clean clothes and sleeping bag.

You might also want to check out Packing for a Motorcycle Road Trip for more tips!

By now you realize you aren't going to just bungee all your camping gear on the back of the bike and hit the road. Even if your bike has saddlebags, they won't be big enough to carry everything. Unless you're traveling two-up, however, you should be able to get most of your gear on the bike without making it look like a Conestoga wagon heading west.

Put heavy items in a pair of throw-over saddlebags, and store heavy or bulky items in a duffel bag or seat bag on the passenger seat. If your bike has a sissy bar, consider something like the T-Bag, but don’t put heavy items in it unless you absolutely have to, and even then place them only in the bottom of the bag. Put small items that you want to get at quickly—sunscreen, sunglasses, maps, eyeglass repair kit—in a tank bag.

Trial Run
Before you set off on your big trip, pack all your gear on the bike and ride it around for an hour or so. Make sure the load stays stable and doesn't affect the bike's handling. Next, spend the night in a nearby campground or in your backyard. That way if you forgot something important, or if some piece of equipment doesn't work, you can pack up and go home. The trial run has the added advantage of letting you develop and practice your camping routine, so that when you arrive at the real campsite, everything will go a lot more smoothly.

Choosing a Campsite
Once you arrive, it's time to set up camp. Choose your campsite carefully, and avoid pitching camp in low areas where rain might collect or cold air and fog might settle at night. Make sure the prevailing winds don't blow smoke from other campsites toward yours. Avoid sloping or rough, rocky ground. Open up your sleeping bag and lie down if you're unsure if it's level—in five minutes you'll know. Look for hives that might house bees, grass (biting insects) and standing water (mosquitoes). Watch where the sun tracks and set up your tent for maximum shade or sunlight.

Leave No Trace
Few activities you do on a motorcycle are likely to bring you into such close contact with non-motorcyclists as camping. Even though you might be surrounded by enormous RVs, their generators chugging away and scaring off all wildlife within a five-mile radius, it's you and your motorcycle everyone will be peeking out at from behind their curtained windows.

Defy their expectations by setting up camp quietly, especially if you arrive at night. Don’t rev your engine to herald your arrival, and if your bike has loud pipes, consider asking for a space close to the campground entrance and pushing your bike to it. Be friendly with the other campers. Don’t wait for them to start conversations—go over and introduce yourself. Besides being a great way to show non-motorcyclists that there’s a genuine human being under your leathers, getting to know other people from other places is part of the fun of camping.

When it’s finally time to break camp, clean your campsite thoroughly. Put yourself in the place of the people who will use your site next, and ask yourself how you’d like it to look when you set up camp. Drown the fire, pick up all your trash and leave as quietly as you arrived. Ideally, after you’re gone, no one will be able to tell you were ever there.

Motorcycle camping cooking
Nothing is better than having a nice warm meal cooked over the campfire, but what if there isn't enough room for a cooler on your motorcycle? Continue reading for some helpful tips.Illustration by Joe Baker

There's Nothing Like Grub Cooked Over a Campfire
Just about anything tastes better if it's cooked and eaten around a roaring campfire. But by the time you pack your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, ground cloth and other gear on your bike, there won't be a lot of room left for a cooler—you'll be lucky if you can even fit a candy bar in your pocket. You really don't need to carry a lot of food with you, though, because despite the fact that camping is all about getting away from civilization, in all but the most remote campgrounds you won't really be all that far from it.

Instead of packing all your provisions, buy them as needed. Most campgrounds have a store, and those that don’t are usually near a small town. If you’re staying at the same campground for several days and riding out each day to explore the countryside, stop at a store on your way back. If you’re staying at a different campground each night, shop on the road right before you check in or send someone to do it while the others are setting up camp.

Just because you’re shopping on the run doesn’t mean you can’t prepare a good-tasting, balanced meal. Frozen boil-in-bag entrees, minute rice, canned meat, fish, stew and soup are a snap to cook on a small campstove and make hearty lunches and dinners. For breakfast try instant oatmeal, a spoonful of raisins and a little powdered-milk mix. Pack instant coffee in Ziploc bags to save space. Do the same with condiments, but be sure to label each one—you don’t want to start the day with a cup of salty coffee. And don’t forget spices to perk up bland food.

If you’re camping in critter country, store your food away from the campsite, preferably out of reach. So-called bear bags are made of mesh netting and a long piece of rope or twine. Put the food in the bag, then toss it over a high tree branch so it hangs at least 15 feet above the ground and five feet from the trunk. It’s a good idea, too, to eat and cook some distance from where you’re sleeping. Finally, pack all garbage and leftovers in Ziploc bags to prevent the scent from attracting Yogi and Boo-Boo.

Sometimes you’ll arrive at your campsite too tired to cook and too far from a place where you can get a meal. That’s where MREs come in. MRE is a military acronym for “meal, ready to eat,” a phrase many armed-forces vets dismiss as “three lies in one.” Tracing its ancestry back to the field rations of World War II, the modern MRE has been dressed up in civvies and marketed to hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts as a handy and portable meal that can serve as either primary or backup nutrition. Commercially available MREs come packed in plastic pouches, and depending on what brand you buy, typically contain an entrée, a side dish, crackers, instant coffee or tea, applesauce and a cookie for dessert, salt, pepper, sugar, creamer, a book of matches, gum, a plastic spoon and a moist towelette. The entrée pouches can be placed in boiling water to heat them, or eaten cold. MREs aren’t great eating by anyone’s standard, but they beat going to bed hungry and make decent roadside fare in the middle of a long ride through empty country. When purchased in bulk, they are as cheap as a convenience-store microwave burrito, and they have a shelf life measured in years.


Where do you want to set up camp? Check out these Motorcycle-Friendly Campgrounds HERE.