LUGGAGE AND LOADING

Deciding what to carry, and how to carry it, is a perennial struggle. On the one hand, it's very convenient to have everything you might conceivably need, and plenty of changes of clean clothing. On the other, you've got to consider weight and bulk; security; and safety. I'll take these in reverse order.

SAFETY

First of all, you don't want to overload the bike. Actual physical breakage is unlikely, but that isn't the real risk. The greatest is inferior handling; the second, seriously bad handling; the third, a small but non-negligible risk of controls being blocked or limited because there is stuff in the way or because control cables are pinched.

Obviously, the more a bike is laden, the slower it accelerates; the harder it is to brake; the less 'flickable' it is on the corners; the greater the demands that are placed on the tyres when braking, accelerating or cornering. The precise extent to which this is acceptable is very much a matter of personal preference and riding skill. If you are prepared to ride slowly enough, you can overload a bike quite horribly, way beyond the manufacturers' maximum recommended vehicle weight. Indeed, this is the way that many people do ride in India. But forget yourself, and go a little quicker than you should, and life can suddenly get very interesting indeed.

In particular -- though you will have to overload most bikes quite a bit to provoke it -- you may suddenly find that the steering has a bad fit of the shakes. As this is unlikely to manifest itself at low speed, you may be going too fast to correct the 'flutter' on the handlebars when it arrives. Result: you fall off at speed. Not good.

In order to create the minimum disturbance possible for a given weight, you want it as low as possible, and as far forward as possible, as long as it is inside the wheelbase. Tank bags are ideal -- they are not very low down, but they are well forward.

To create the maximum disturbance possible, put the weight as high as possible and as far back as possible. The worst offenders here are the kind of top-box that is cantilevered out behind the bike. They are very convenient, but they should not be used to carry anything heavy if you can possibly avoid it.

With a small, light bike with a short wheelbase, even a large passenger can provoke problems: I once had a nasty surprise with an MZ when instead of the (relatively) light and compact young maids whom I preferred to carry, I was giving a lift to a tall, well-fed male friend. Fortunately I was riding in a very gingerly fashion -- he was a lousy pillion passenger as well -- and I was able to slow down below the critical speed before we fell off.

BUNGIES

I'm not even sure how you spell these: I've also seen bungees, bunjees and bunjies. In France they call them Sandows, and you can buy both the elastic (in various weights) and the hooks (in various sizes) in many hardware/DIY stores. 'Elastic tie-downs' just doesn't have the right ring to it, apart from being long- winded.

They need to be in good condition, so they don't break or snap. This sounds obvious, but there's always a temptation to use an old bungie because you haven't got around to replacing it. They need to be tight enough to hold things on without allowing them to move about: a bag that has been dragged along behind a moving motorcycle will never be the same again. They shouldn't mar the bike -- American bungees, with bare steel hooks instead of plastic-covered, are particularly bad for this.

And you need to be careful when you are fitting them: incautious bungie users risk their eyesight if the things snap back unexpectedly. After a few close calls over the years I treat them with a lot more respect than I used to.

BACKPACKS

Backpacks are convenient and secure -- you just take them with you -- but they probably the most dangerous way to carry things. They add weight high up, which does nothing for the handling, and especially if they are worn by a pillion passenger, they are well back on the bike. The extra strain on the upper body means that you are likely to be a lot more tired when you get off. And for us, the most conclusive argument against them is that if you fall off -- a likelihood they greatly increase -- then they can be very bad news indeed.

We carry a small, light nylon-mesh knapsack, but the only time we ever use it on the bike is for carrying picnic supplies short distances at low speeds.

SECURITY

What do you do when you leave the bike? A lot depends on where you are. In rural France, for example (or in rural pretty much anywhere, to be honest) you don't have to worry too much: the likelihood that someone will abscond with your possessions is modest. But in London or Paris, you'd better chain the bike to a fairly solid piece of real estate, and either lock everything in (or down) or bear it away with you. Detachable panniers (saddlebags) are a risk, unless they are locked on; soft-side luggage yields all to readily to a knife.

Admittedly, hard-side panniers are horribly expensive, and some people feel that they spoil the lines of some bikes. Even so, for security and load-carrying, they are probably unbeatable. They should be mounted as low as possible, and as far forward as possible, while taking into account the needs of the pillion passenger to have somewhere to put her/his legs.

PANNIERS AND FRAMES

Some people reckon that panniers aren't worth buying, because they will only be used once a year. All I can say to this is that once you've got them, they're incredibly useful -- and besides, you may well find that if touring is easier (as it is with panniers) you do it more often, with the occasional overnighter or week-end or long week-end as well as full-scale tours. They are also useful for carrying groceries. I find it much easier (and more pleasant) to visit Loudun, ten miles away, on the bike than in the car.

Most panniers can be persuaded to fit on most bikes, either with custom frames supplied by the pannier manufacturer or a general-application frame 'bodged' onto the bike. This also means that you don't necessarily need to buy new panniers when you change the bike. It is however worth mentioning that when we bodged a set of Krausers onto a Bullet we had to have the pannier frame welded back up twice and one of the Krausers itself cracked.

I think we've got through three set of panniers in 20+ years. The original white set was very pretty, but flimsy; the second black set was the one that was cracked in India then written off in an accident in Italy; and the current black set really needs replacing on one side following a hard 'nudge' a few years back, but we just don't seem to get around to it.

PANNIER INNERS

Something we find all but essential is 'inners', removable bags that fit precisely inside the panniers. We used to take the panniers themselves up to the room, like suitcases, but of course they were often filthy (especially on the side that faces the rear wheel) and they were never very waterproof, so we used to carry everything inside them in black plastic bin liners. Then we discovered inners. Any water that gets through is stopped by the inner, and we can carry nice, clean inners up to the room and leave the panniers on the bike.

ON THE BACK

Both the advantages and the disadvantages of hard-side top-boxes have already been canvassed, and again there's the question of looks. We normally use a soft kit-bag on a small luggage rack on the back of the R100RS, secured with bungies. It's only for holding waterproofs and outer clothes, plus dirty linen and the sponge-bag; the latter because if anything in it does leak, it won't do so over our clean clothes. If we lose it, it would be expensive, but there's nothing life-threatening in there, and we've been lucky so far (talk about tempting fate!)

TANK BAGS

Although it's possible to buy tank bags that lock onto the bike and have locks of their own, they are in their nature soft-sides and besides we carry all the really important, expensive stuff in the tank bag: cameras, passports, bike documents. We therefore tend to carry our tank-bags with us.

For some years now we have used Held double-decker tank bags. The two halves of the bag (top and bottom) can be detached from each other and from the magnetic 'blanket' that holds the tank bag to the tank. This can then be left on the bike: not a bad idea, because it weighs close on a kilo in its own right. There's always the risk that some evil-minded person would remove the 'blanket' just for the hell of it but it's a risk you can take in many places. The two halves of the Held then have their own strap-loops so you can carry them as shoulder bags.

With the R100RS we normally use only one half of the bag (either can be used, independently or together) because the bag is so high that it obscures my view of the speedometer; but it's fine on a Bullet and we've used it in India. We keep thinking about buying another tank bag with slightly more room than one half of the Held but we don't really need it so we haven't.

Despite our best efforts, no manufacturers so far have taken up our suggestion of a tank bag/backpack. This would be one bag, with two harnesses: one that goes on the bike, and one that goes on the rider (or pillion). The bag would snap on to either.

TANK RACKS

The old 'goolie trap' grid-type luggage racks on the tanks of some vintage bikes (you can get them for Enfields, too) are wonderfully convenient, but it's advisable to tie down whatever you are carrying with inextensible straps, or to use very short bungies. Otherwise, there is a genuine risk of movement. The risk of castration seems, however, to be more apparent that real. I have never heard of more than one example, and that was short on detail: I am not sure that it ever really happened.

HATS -- AND WIRE MESH BAGS

Crash-helmets are surprisingly rarely stolen (tempting fate again!) but we have seen dogs pee on them if they are slung too low on the front wheel: not an appealing prospect. Many bikes provide helmet locks, though not all helmets have suitable lugs and besides, straps are easily cut.

For maximum security for helmets, and sometimes for the soft bag on the back, or even for a part-empty tank bag (after we've taken the important stuff out) we use tough, stainless steel wire mesh holders with lockable draw-strings that can be padlocked to the bike. Of course they are fair game for anyone with a pair of wire-cutters -- even pliers would probably do it -- but then, nothing is ever 100 per cent secure.

These bags were apparently designed for backpackers by an Australian but we encountered them in the photographic trade: they are imported to the US and the UK by LowePro. You should be able to find a picture of these bags on the [LowePro] website. They pack down (with difficulty) into a nylon wallet and don't take up much room: we usually carry two, if we remember. They are quite expensive, but they last forever (or until you lose them).

WEIGHT AND BULK

This brings us straight back to the original point, about safety: you don't want to overload the bike to the point where it's dangerous. The manufacturer's maximum permitted vehicle weight (MPVW) is an excellent guideline.

Although overloading is normally a matter of weight, rather than bulk, excess bulk can bring its own problems. I have seen bikes where the front suspension has been compromised by having a bulky bed-roll slung between the headlamp and the front mudguard, quite apart from the risk of a piece of string coming undone and getting into the front wheel. Loose tie-downs can be a risk with the rear wheel, too.

Even if a bulky load is securely fastened, air resistance may be significant and the battering effect of the wind can cause part or all of the load to come free. This can range from minor problems such as rips and fraying if you don't notice things flapping in the breeze behind you, to major problems such as losing things or even causing accidents among the vehicles following you.

For carrying waterproofs, etc., on the back of the bike (see above), arguably the best sort of bag is a fairly small canvas kit bag: fairly small so there is not too much temptation to overload it, and canvas because it does not bulge and deform as much as thin nylon. A maximum diameter of about a foot (30cm) and a maximum length of about 30 inches (75 cm) would probably be ideal but such bags are quite hard to find -- the old school-type 'duffel bag' is less common than it used to be -- and their draw- strings rarely keep them closed adequately. Military-style kit-bags are better but usually too large, thereby leading to temptations to overload. We know. We've done it.

HOW MUCH SPACE DO YOU NEED?

With the aid of print-outs from this site, assemble all the things you think you are likely to need, and likely to be able to carry. Stash what you can on the bike, and then look hard at the rest. Cut it down as far as you can, but don't forget your waterproofs.

Put it in two bin bags, and carry a third bin bag as a spare. The reason for using bin bags is that they are squishy and can adapt to all sorts of sizes and shapes of pannier, top box, tank bag and stuff bag. Go to your friendly local motorcycle dealer. Start looking at luggage. When the tears of pain (at the prices) have cleared from your eyes, try your bin bags in various panniers. You'll then have a good idea of how much space you need. If it won't go into panniers, start looking at other luggage as well.

When I used to tour solo, I could carry everything I needed in two small panniers (Cravens, the sort the police used to use) and a medium-size top-box. This included cameras which always add to the bulk of my luggage. If you can't do the same (or preferably, two small panniers and a tank bag) then ask yourself why not. Of course, if you're touring two-up, the sky, or at least the MPVW, is the limit.

DISCLAIMER

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: 30/10/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks