An Explorer's Guide to Motorcycle Touring

Our roving correspondent tells you everything you need to know, pack, and buy to head out on your own moto adventure
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Apr 17, 2015 | By Chris Brinlee Jr.

here are few combinations more liberating than two wheels, a humming engine, and the open road. Motorcycles connect riders with their environments in ways that cars never can because of the open-air designs, manual transmissions, and ability to leave the asphalt behind.

As such, touring by motorcycle is one of my favorite ways to explore. Here's how you can do it too.

If you've already got a motorcycle, you're good to go. Obviously, a dedicated adventure-touring bike will be more comfortable on long-distance rides than an un-faired naked sport bike, but use what you have - it'll work.

If you don't have a motorcycle, you'll need to get one (and, more importantly, learn how to ride it safely.) Depending on where you live, you could possibly rent a bike — or even pick up a used one for cheap on Craigslist.

Try to find a motorcycle with an upright seating position, good ground clearance, and decent suspension travel (basically, you probably don't want a cramped sport bike that forces you to ride hunched over for hours on end.) Modern fuel-injected bikes will likely be more efficient and reliable, but older carbureted bikes are easier to fix in the event of a breakdown. Take your pick.

Packing for a motorcycle tour is an exercise in restraint. You won't have a trunk to fill with junk, so be prepared to leave unnecessary stuff behind — only take the essentials.

Riding gear. My dad taught me to ride, and he also taught me that you don't dress for the ride, you dress for the fall. That means a helmet (an open-face helmet with a visor will provide a good balance of freedom and protection), leather gloves, sturdy boots, and a riding jacket. If you don't want the bulk of a full touring suit, jeans will give you a decent amount of protection if you go down.

A pack. You'll need something to keep your gear in while riding that also works on the trail; a pack that's durable, waterproof, and can easily be strapped to your bike will be key. Madden Equipment's Penguin bag has a weather-tight top and tons of pockets, loops, and tabs. Mission Workshop's Vandal pack is another great choice thanks to its waterproof design and expandable carrying capacity. Use bungee cords to strap the pack  to your bike, but use backup attachments as well (like paracord) in case the bungees fail.

A shelter system. Because of their light weight, compact size, and ease-of-use, hammocks like the Kammok Roo Hammock are ideal for motorcycle touring. Make sure to get a rain fly in case of inclement weather.

The Poler 1-Man tent is a great lightweight option when you're traveling solo. The Abel Brown Nomad Tent is also a great choice for motorcycle touring because it pitches using your bike, allowing you to leave the bulky tent poles behind. It also features built-in bug protection, keeping pesky mosquitoes at bay.

Sleeping System. Nights in the wild can get cold, even during the summer. To keep the chill out, you'll need a good sleeping bag. Down is the insulating material of choice because its warmth-to-weight ratio is second to none. Down also packs better than synthetic insulation, making bags like the Nemo Nocturne 15 an obvious choice for motorcycle touring.

A sleeping bag will insulate your body from the air around you, but not from the ground. For that, you'll need a sleeping pad; yep, even if you're hammock camping. I like the Nemo Cosmo Air. In addition to providing insulation from the ground, sleeping pads will make your night's rest comfortable, which is important when sleeping outside for days or weeks at a time.

Cooking System. You'll need to eat while out there, and you're probably going to want to eat hot food once in awhile; man cannot live on trail mix alone. A lightweight stove like the Esbit folding titanium stove will provide the heat to boil your water in the event that you're unable to make a fire. The Biolite Bundle is great for cooking your food without needing to use fuel, and it'll charge your electronics to boot.

Don't forget a pot with a lid (I prefer titanium for its light weight and durability) and some eating utensils (you're not a caveman).

Miscellaneous Items. Carry a headlamp so you you're not fumbling around in the dark. Keep a basic mechanic’s tool kit on hand so you can make simple repairs or adjustments to your bike on-the-spot. I like to keep a SealLine dry bag around as an added level of protection for my camera and electronics in case the sky dumps water down on me. A pocketknife like the Gerber 39 Series will be useful in a variety of situations. Keep a fire starter kit handy for making sparks fly when you want to light up the night. Water is life, so always carry a Lifestraw and have the ability to instantly purify water for drinking. The Goal Zero Guide 10 solar charging kit will harness energy from the sun, giving  you power independence for your phone, headlamp, or GPS.

This part is really up to you. The best part? On a motorcycle, you can go wherever your heart desires and wherever the road leads, and there are lots of roads. You could literally ride from Alaska down to South America if you wanted to.

With access to millions of acres of public lands, your opportunities for exploration are endless. Get a yearlong National Parks pass and get out there. National parks and forests (and even some state parks) will provide plenty of camping opportunities along the way. And if the light's running out and you still don't have a place to stay, don't be afraid to ask permission to post up in someone's yard for the night. You'll be surprised how many times you'll hear yes.

So get your motor running and head out on the highway. Freedom awaits! [H]

Chris is an intrepid explorer who quit a fancy job in Los Angeles to pursue his dreams of adventure around the globe. You can follow his ongoing journey via Instagram

Images © Chris Brinlee Jr.