In many years of motorcycle travelling, we have come up with a number of things we regard as indispensable; others that are handy, but easy to live without; and some that are not really worth the effort of carrying about.
Surprisingly useful for a number of things, including holding 'gapping' curtains together. Tie a piece of bright-coloured ribbon to them to make it harder to leave them behind.
It is very easy to forget things when you set out on a tour -- even things as basic as the waterproofs, if you leave on a sunny day. A checklist on the computer, to be printed out whenever you need it, is a good idea. Base it on our sample checklist. Leave a copy in the panniers, tank bag, etc.
A small, light compass is useful (but far from indispensable) when you are semi-lost and navigating by dead reckoning. Suddenly, all the signs for the place you want are missing, and you know that you need to go north. Navigating by the sun, or the mossy side of trees, is all good Boy Scout stuff, but a compass makes life easier. Get off the bike before you use it: the needle may be influenced by all the iron.
Dental floss is not only useful for its intended purpose: it is also a very strong thread. My Leatherman sheath is re-sewn with dental floss; missing buttons can be replaced; and once, after an accident in Italy, we stitched together a smashed Krauser pannier with dental floss, through holes bored with the awl on a Swiss Army knife. It looked like hell, it leaked, and it was a write-off -- but it got us home.
All three of us -- Frances, Karl and I -- regard this as next to essential, as we all suffer to varying degrees from deafness, principally as a result of riding motorcycles for decades. We have found soft wax or (better still, though much more expensive) mouldable silicone to be the most effective and least uncomfortable options: the sort of foam earplugs that many people wear irritate our ears. We have not tried made-to-measure slip-in plugs, principally because of cost. They may be great, but if they are not, it is a lot of money down the drain. Heartfelt advice to young riders: if you don't wear ear plugs, start NOW. An empty 35mm film canister is a good way to store a pair of plugs.
The smallest, lightest electrical adapter you can find, to allow you to recharge your mobile phone (if you can't do it from the bike -- BMWs do an adapter) and run your hair dryer (Frances has a tiny one). Remember that the USA does not use the international standard voltage of 220-240v, but instead 110-120v. Look for dual-voltage appliances or buy a converter.
This may sound a bit survivalist but it is worth carrying two or three muesli bars or something similar for those times when you are tired and hungry and can't find anywhere to eat; or when you want a quick, easy breakfast; or just to cheer yourself up. A hip flask may serve the same function. Cherry brandy isn't very alcoholic and even a tiny nip can be very cheering. Of course you can only do this where it's legal -- places like Poland, France, Britain, Spain, etc. -- not in the Czech Republic where there is zero tolerance of alcohol in the blood, or in California where even carrying a hip-flask with anything alcoholic in it is illegal.
If your eyesight isn't what it was, carry a spare pair, on the bike somewhere: in the tool compartment is fine. This is reputed to be a legal requirement in some countries, though it's hard to see how it could be enforced. Californians whose licenses are endorsed with a requirement to wear glasses must wear them when touring in their home state.
This is a legal requirement in many countries. You can assemble one yourself -- keep it in a heavy Zip-Loc or similar self-sealing plastic bag -- but a better (if more expensive) idea is to go to a shop specializing in outdoor activities. They sell a range of kits, from extremely basic to very comprehensive, in well-sealed packages. The second or third model up from the bottom of the range is generally a good bet, though if you are travelling in countries where you are nervous about the sterility of surgical equipment, go up another step and get one that includes sterile needles and a syringe.
Ours lives under the seat of the BMW. The only thing we have added is alginate wound dressings -- the sort of super sticking plasters that are left on (and will stay on) until the cut heals. You may also care to add a short course of broad-spectrum antibiotics (your doctor will usually oblige) and some antibiotic powder.
We'll be honest: we don't have one. My father does, and swears by it. We keep thinking of buying a small, light GPS, the sort that is sold for walkers, but there is also a lot to be said (if you can afford the space and weight) for the sort that has maps 'built in' or at least readable from a CD.
Go to outdoor stores to check their stocks of portable hand-warmers. You may be surprised at the variety available, from charcoal heaters the size of an old-fashioned cigar case through 'high tech' chemical heaters, some of which are single-use and others of which can be regenerated by boiling or microwaving. If you buy an electric jacket you may not feel the need as much.
These are probably the finest combination tools on the market: good-sized needle-nose pliers, blades, files, screwdrivers and more. We have owned others but they tend to be bigger, heavier and more limited. Beware of cheap imitations: there is a good reason why Leathermans cost so much, though they tend to be 50 per cent more expensive in Europe than in their native USA. There are several models: look at them all before deciding which model is best for you. See also Swiss Army knives.
Your need for maps depends very much on what you want to do. It is entirely possible to work with a map that has almost no detail, navigating by a combination of dead reckoning and major towns. You will be more or less lost most of the time, but this may not matter if you want to explore a country. We did this with great success in India, using a map of the entire Sub-Continent that was about 24x36 inches or 60x90cm -- though admittedly, it was supplemented by locally acquired maps wherever possible.
Conversely, maps can be invaluable if you are looking for specific sites and points of interest, or if you want to get from A to B quickly. In Portugal, in particular, there is always the feeling that you are missing things unless you have a good map. Unfortunately, there is a limit to how many maps you can carry on a motorcycle. Michelin's European Atlas serves very well for multi-country European tours, supplemented by maps picked up wherever possible at tourist offices, hotels, or anyone else that gives them away. For exploring individual countries in depth, the Michelin country atlases are very good. There are map recommendations in the individual country entries.
You can buy tiny monoculars that weigh no more than two or three ounces (50-100 gm) and allow you to read distant signs, examine faraway hills to see if they look interesting, and so forth. We have one, made in Russia, but we usually forget it and we don't really miss it all that much when we do. Just a thought.
What can we say? If you break down, in particular, you will really, really appreciate one. Some providers require you to remove an 'international block' before you leave your home country -- and US and European phones are not normally cross-compatible. Consider rental.
Most countries now offer excellent networks, especially those of the former Communist Bloc: they leap-frogged land-lines and went straight to mobiles when it became obvious that this was quicker and more cost-effective than rebuilding a hopelessly outdated and under-strength land-line system.
Some countries are not so good, though, especially in rural areas. Three that we have had problems with are the United States, France and India.
We are great believers in the small plug-in heaters that vapourise mosquito repellent into the room. We use them at home; we use them on tour. The heaters themselves are tiny, and a pack of twenty or thirty tabs, packed in silver foil, doesn't take up much room either. You just stick the heater in a wall socket, put in a tab impregnated with anti-mosquito-stuff (we prefer natural pyrethrum), and you're away. The biggest risk is forgetting them and leaving them behind in the room, but they're not very expensive (you can find them in most supermarkets, or for a little more money, in pharmacies) and we find it worth the risk.
We also carry mosquito repellent we can apply to our bodies. The best we have found is Autan, though the American Cutters brand is also excellent. To be honest, either they work or they don't, and after the first night in mosquito country, you should have a good idea of which do and which don't. If they don't, pitch them and buy another one.
Most work far better if you've had a bath or shower first. Go to bed dirty, and you have an excellent chance of being bitten. The worst bites we ever had from mosquitoes -- one of my eyes was closed and the other was half-closed, when I woke up in the morning -- was at a Tibetan refugee settlement in south India where the water supply (including the toilet flush) dried up on the first day and still hadn't come back when we left three days later.
Even if you are not the sort that takes notes, there are times when you want to jot down an address, or plan a route, or make a note of something or somewhere you particularly enjoyed.
A small padlock -- or even two or three -- can be useful for securing all sort of things. In many cheap Indian hotels, they are the only security: the hotel provides the hasp and staple, and a cheap Chinese padlock to which they hold the master key, but they are more than happy for you to use your own padlock. Just don't expect to have the room made up...
For a fairly modest fee per lock, many locksmiths will provide a 'suite' of padlocks, all keyed alike. They should also be able to key new locks of the same type to match existing keys. This makes life much easier.
A padlock through one of the holes in a drilled brake disk is a useful subsidiary anti-theft device, but all too easy to forget. At worst you can damage the disk, the lock and the brake.
To go with the notepad, above, but also for signing credit cards, filling in forms, etc.
If you take any prescription drugs, ask your doctor to write a 'To Whom It May Concern' letter. This is not only useful in the unlikely event that you are busted by the drugs squad; it can also come in handy if you run out of something and want to persuade a local pharmacy to let you have a few days' supply without a prescription. Surprisingly many will.
A couple of needles, one with a big eye in it (for carpet thread and dental floss) can come in handy for running repairs. Use the scissors on your Leatherman or Swiss Army knife.
Given the choice of a Leatherman or a Swiss Army knife, the Leatherman is probably more useful. But carry both (as we do) and you have an incredibly versatile array of tools in two small pouches on your belt. Besides, my Leatherman doesn't have a corkscrew, and my Swiss Army knife does. Other things it has that the Leatherman doesn't include a magnifying glass (useful for very fine detail on maps, removing splinters, and more); a pen; a toothpick; a pair of tweezers (splinters again -- and once, a hornet sting); an awl; and a small but very sharp chisel. It's a Swiss Army Champ, the biggest they make, though it doesn't have the built-in watch.
Both Victorinox and Wenger, the only real Swiss Army knives, are actually made in Switzerland, though the cheapest country we have found to buy them is Germany. As with Leathermans, beware of cheap imitations. The worst we have ever seen was a Chinese copy where the corkscrew first began to straighten out as we tried to pull the cork, then snapped.
Apart from the obvious uses, also handy for cleaning your goggles, and for washing the blade on your Swiss Army knife before and after a picnic. A little wine on a tissue makes an excellent cleaner and solvent.
A small, reliable torch is all but indispensable, whether you are using it to read a map, make roadside repairs, find your way to your hotel on foot, or find things in a hotel room where the power has gone off.
Until recently, we would have said that there was no competition: a small MagLite, the sort that takes two AA cells, was the automatic choice (the ones with AAA cells don't last long enough, and the ones that take other battery sizes are too big). MagLites are brighter, better built, longer lasting and in just about every way superior to other torches, though they are quite expensive -- ten or twenty times the price of the cheapest Chinese options.
Now, we'd say that there is competition, but unfortunately, it is even more expensive. These are LED torches, whether white-light or coloured-light. The great advantages are enormously increased bulb life and battery life; the great disadvantage is the price, which is at least twice as much as a twin-AA MagLite.
These are big flat discs that really do work on the vast majority of tubs. Very useful in all cheap hotels, especially in Eastern Europe and India, but surprisingly often needed in the United States as well.
Keep the contents of your sponge-bag to a minimum, and if you want to carry liquid soaps, shampoos, etc., decant them into tiny screw-top bottles -- the sort, conveniently enough, that some hotels provide with shower gel and shampoo already in them. Alternatively, if you know any hairdressers, ask them if they have any screw-top sample bottles. Tubes and snap-top bottles are a sure-fire recipe for leakage. Even toothpaste can be a problem: tooth powder (decanted into a 35mm film canister to save still more space) has much to commend it.
Use the soaps, etc., provided by your lodgings whenever possible, and don't be above taking 'spares' with you. This can be particularly useful when you stop at a motorway rest area (or anywhere else) that there is no soap. Just open a new pack, and abandon it when you have used it -- much easier than carrying wet, slippery soap.
It's a good idea to carry the sponge-bag where it will cause the least grief if it leaks -- not in among the clean underwear and T-shirts if at all possible!
Some hotels are manically against this; others go so far as to provide washing-lines over the tub. Either way, you can wash out 'smalls' (and even T-shirts) with a surprisingly small amount of concentrated liquid detergent, again carried in a screw-top bottle. Or buy a tube of highly concentrated travel detergent: look in your supermarket.
If we carry a water bottle at all, we tend to carry neat rum in it: a useful disinfectant as well as a pick-me-up in the evening. Once, after a minor accident in India (we fell off on soft sand), I cleaned up my cut elbow with toilet paper and neat rum, trimmed off the hanging flap of skin with my Swiss Army knife and stuck on a plaster from the first aid kit before riding to the nearest hospital. As they were dusting it with antibiotic powder, they said, 'But you have already had it looked at.' Actual water is carried in the bottles we buy it in. On a hot day, when the water you are carrying will not stay cool, Perrier is one of the least disgusting waters when drunk hot.
Either water sterilizing tablets (very compact) or a water purifying straw can be useful under extreme conditions. They make the water taste vile but at least you won't catch anything. You are getting a bit survivalist at this point, though: this is where the older guide books (from the 19th century) recommended that you carry a pistol for shooting mad dogs. Not a bad idea, but bulky, and likely to give trouble with customs. We leave ours at home.
Another bit of survivalist equipment, rather more practical, that you may wish to consider is a fire-starter. For example, we have one that consists of a slab of magnesium, with an artificial flint embedded in it. The flint creates a spark when scratched with a knife: the idea is that this ignites shaved-off magnesium particles to get a really hot fire going. It weighs very little and takes up very little space, but how badly are we really likely to need it? Especially when a motorcycle can usually provide a spark and some petrol.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
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last updated: 31/07/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks