He who would travel happily must travel light.
I’m often asked about what kit to take on a long trip but I’m not so brave as to attempt to tell anyone how to equip their bike and themselves. But, a few ideas may stop some lessons being learned the hard, painful, or expensive way. I’ve never met anyone who has ‘done’ a trip, who claims to even remotely know it all – I certainly don’t, but most of my knowledge has come from the kindness of others or in fact, the hard way. The following information is what I set out with and or learnt along the way.
1991 BMW R80 GS
Chosen because of good ground clearance, simple maintenance and its reputation for reliability. It performed really well and dealt with every riding condition except very soft sand and deep mud. The bike was comfortable and the riding position suited my height (6’ 1”) very well. For 95% of the journey I couldn’t have wished for a better bike. The only problems with it were (eventually) a broken drive shaft (at 22,000 miles), a faulty speedo and (at 10,000 miles) the rear sub frame cracked. BMW replaced the former and welded the latter. The rest of the hassles were down to extreme wear and tear, accidents and my own ignorance.
Acerbis 43-litre petrol tank
I had a minimum of 400 miles range in mind and this did the job well.
WP. rear shock absorber
The bike was always, if not overloaded, well loaded. The shock was replaced at 260,000 miles of hard life. The original had been serviced twice.
WP. progressive fork springs
With the large fuel tank up front and rough roads a plenty, the bike handled really well.
Under the engine and also under the gearbox. Saved my bacon – and the bike – many times.
Tubular steel pannier rack
This did the job reasonably but did break several times. However, with it being steel, it was always easy to find someone to fix it. I now have a larger, more rugged box tube affair.
Terrible. Broke, leaked and let dust in. I use 3 mm. aluminium boxes now – stronger and more secure. They also make a nice seat at the end of the day. As extra security for your panniers, strap them on with lightweight ratchet straps. When you take a tumble these can save you a lot of hassle, and they are always handy if you need to tie the bike down. i.e. – on a ferry. As a point of interest, bungee cords aren’t much use over a long journey. Sun and heat perish the rubber.
Plastic Hand guards
Well worth having. Not only do they keep some of the elements off your hands, but also when riding behind vehicles on dirt roads, a lot of gravel gets flung at you. A friend had his fingers broken when a bird flew up off the road and hit his hand.
Plastic top box
This was bad news. It always put the weight in the wrong place. Too high! Throw over panniers on your petrol tank work much better. The weight is down low, between the wheels and helps balance out the weight of your main panniers. I use army surplus knap sacks. When even more space is needed I use a canoeing waterproof kit bag on the pillion seat. They are excellent.
10 litre Water tank
Mine was too fancy, but carried in front of the panniers, it was in the right place. In the desert you’ll need more than 10 litres but elsewhere, with care, water of sorts can always be found. Now I carry five litres and use local plastic bottles when extra is needed. I give or trade them away when I no longer want them. One thing to remember is that you should make a point of drinking, even when you are not thirsty.
10 litre Spare fuel tank
I only had to use mine once. Junked it, and have never regretted it. Again, ‘throw away’ temporary use plastic ones will keep you going if you need extra for a limited time.
A very useful piece of kit, particularly with a quick release set up and good carry straps. I use mine to carry my camera, admin, compass, map, rain gear, water bottle, a small medical kit, sun lotion, mossie repellent, torch and hat. It’s really handy to just clip off at borders or when on a room hunt. Mine is a small middleweight rucksack, which doubles up as a daypack, and (though I’ve never needed it) as a hike out of trouble sac.
Side stand plate
A 2 x 3 inch steel plate added to the ‘foot’ of your side stand will go a long way towards stopping the stand sinking into soft sand and mud. A real red face saver! I also strengthened the stand itself.
Head light protector
Plastic and wire mesh.
Enduro type with a deep tread pattern. I prefer to use tubed type as you can inflate them yourself. But be warned, 17” rear tyres are harder to find.
Sheep skin saddle cover
It took me a long time to learn the value of one of these. It’s softer and cooler to sit on – though when it’s cold, it’s warmer. Because the sheepskin surface is never completely smooth it gives your backside a good massage as you ride. Another bonus is that should you ride somewhere really cold, you can always stuff it up the front of your jacket.
I bought a cheap Jawa motorcycle flap in Cairo and it saved me a lot of engine cleaning. It also keeps a considerable amount of dust off your bike, which cuts down on the sand paper effect between the exposed moving parts, wiring etc.
These spares are what I keep now, not the ‘extra bike’ I originally carried. They are of course R80GS oriented but still give an idea of the sort of parts that should be taken on a long trip, whatever your bike is. If your bike is prepared properly the chances are you won’t break down and that means you should be able to be really selective. A useful point to remember is that you can use a company like DHL, to get any spares you are not carrying out to you – you can’t carry everything anyway. In fact using a courier service can work out far cheaper than you would think. For example, things get ‘lost’ in the general post, you could face a chase round a bunch of sweaty inefficient offices to find your part, and then have to face customs papers and fee’s. A courier does all of that for you and if you supply them with a copy of your carnet, they will know how to get your parts in without duty – after all you are only importing them temporarily.
Oil Filters x 2
It’s worth changing your oil and filters more often than the spec. says. Good preventative medicine in harsh conditions.
In line paper fuel filters x 2
There’s an awful lot of bitty fuel from dirty storage tanks out there. Besides that, filling up in a dust-laden wind makes fuel filters essential. But you can get these en route.
Air filters x 2
K&N do ‘washable’ oil covered air filters for many bikes, which mean that you don’t need to carry the bulk of paper filters. However, if you use paper, then clean them out regularly – especially after dusty conditions. I rattle mine out every day on dry dirt roads. A good blast from a high-pressure air hose at a petrol station does the job really well.
Set of spark plugs. Alternator brushes. ‘Black box’. Ignition unit. Starter relay. Blinker relay. Fuses. Spark plug caps – NGK make caps with rubber seals. These are excellent at keeping the plugs dry.
Light bulbs. Length of electrical wire. – Very useful for ‘bridging’ breaks. Electrical tape.
For front and rear wheels. Not stainless steel. They are too brittle for hard roads. You only really need to carry spare spokes if you are a ‘go for it merchant’. Normally you will be treating your bike well enough not to bend or break a spoke. In any event, check and replace any dodgy ones before you go.
1/2 metre – but again, in Africa you can find this if you look in the right places.
Servicing kit plus cylinder head and rocker gaskets. Only worth carrying if you are going to be in out of the way places for a very long time.
Lubricants and glues
Araldite. Blue Hylomar silicone sealer. Loctite. Coppa slip and heavy-duty grease. A film canister of the latter two is plenty. WD40 light oil spray.
Throttle, clutch and brake cables. – The originals lasted me really well but there’s a lot of peace of mind to have these if something goes wrong. For me, they were always worth the weight. To save space in your luggage and to make life simpler if something breaks, it’s worth cable tying the spares onto the bike, parallel to the ones in use. Clutch lever, as often it’s the first thing to snap when you fall off. It’s worth slackening off the holding bolts for the throttle and clutch hand grips, just a touch. If you hit the deck, chances are they will twist enough to absorb the impact enough so your levers won’t break at all.
Disc brake pads – again, only if you are planning a very remote long term trip.
Selection of nuts, bolts and washers
Plus ‘O’ rings for sump drains. Before setting out, it’s an idea to replace all the nuts that aren’t affected by heat, with the nylox type. The vibrations from the road conditions can loosen just about anything, but these nylon-lined nuts survive well. Loctite everything else.
Spare inner tubes
Motocross weight last really well.
Puncture repair kit
A good set with some extra large patches from a truck puncture kit will get you out of a lot of trouble. I prefer to put a ‘good’ tube in when on the road, and then repair the damaged one at the end of the days ride when it’s cooler and there is plenty of water. Another tip is to carry some lightweight (surgical) rubber gloves with your puncture kit. Use these when swapping tubes and you’ll end up putting clean hands back in your gloves instead of filthy, oily hands. My punctures have always happened when a fair way from hand washing water.
Foot pump and tyre pressure gauge
I don’t like the pencil gauges, they get blocked up with grit and then become unreliable. My gauge gets used a lot as I change my tyre pressures according to terrain. When riding on soft sand or mud, let approx. 50% of the air out of your tyres. This spreads the tyre over a greater road surface area, which gives you a lot more grip. In some deep sand conditions 50% isn’t really enough but unless you have tyre clamps fitted to your rims then you run the risk of tyre slip. This will eventually rip out the valves. Try to time your journeys for the earlier hours of the day. In the desert the low light makes an amazing difference to what you can see of surface texture changes. The sand is also firmer then as overnight dew holds the sand grains together. Besides that, an early start means an early finish and time to explore before dark. On thick gravel, put a few more pounds in, as this helps the tyre to repel the sharper edges and lessens the likelihood of tyre splits.
Spare set of keys!
I’ve had keys break, stolen and lost one once. The Abus lock company do sets of padlocks that you can have the same key for. Very handy and also weight/bulk saving. Many cheap hotels in Africa give you a room with a hasp, but no lock, so having a decent padlock is good news.
Here you are torn between security and weight. Again, Abus locks solved my problem with a ‘Granite’ lock and I slept better at night. Having said that, before the trip a dealer commented that if I made it across Europe without the bike being nicked, then I’d make it all the way. Your bike stands out like a sore thumb from the local smaller cc bikes. You are more likely to have a mirror or a switch stolen. As a rule it’s not hard to find ‘Off road’ parking, and in the developing world many hotel parking places have security guards too.
The BMW kit was excellent but I added a voltmeter, a torque wrench, full size tyre levers and a very small set of jump leads. The latter haven’t been much use to me but have helped a lot of other people along the way so I still carry them – not very sensible really.
It’s your home for much of the time, and in all weather conditions too. Mine was too small (as in one man and a small dog), its dark colour attracted too much heat, there was no way to get a through draft, and I couldn’t sit up in it. It did have a porch which was really useful to hide things away under, and to cook inside. It also had mosquito net on its inner entrance, which was an absolute bonus. I use a two-person double entry dome tent now. The extra kilo’s is well worth it. When on a trip with Birgit, my partner, we use a three-person dome tent. A dome tent works so well because you can erect it without pegs. We have camped on car parks and hotel flat roofs with ours.
Very useful. There are a lot of thorns and sharp stones out there. Besides that, there are ants which will eat through an ordinary tent ground sheet. I use a thick clear plastic sheet with the idea that if I ever get stuck in the desert, then I can use it to make a solar still to get water. Half a dozen six inch nails are a good addition to your tent kit. In many places the ground is so hard that ordinary tent pegs just bend. A handful of sand pegs are useful too. Try to find a shady spot to camp in. UV rays are strong enough to eventually destroy your tent outer. Another tip is to make sure that you don’t camp in a dip in the ground or a gully. It can look as if it hasn’t rained for years, but it can. I once woke up floating in a small stream. I didn’t do that again!
3-season sleeping bag
I started with a ‘2’ and it wasn’t enough at all. There’s a lot of altitude around the world and even nights in the desert can be cold.
Cotton or silk sleeping bag liner
Wonderful thing. Perfect when it’s too hot for the bag, adds warmth when the bag isn’t enough and it’s much easier to wash regularly than your sleeping bag.
Not being a macho man, I need a comfortable night’s sleep. I use a 3/4 length Therma Rest as it’s very comfortable to lie on, it’s light and packs up very small.
Being without a cooker lessens your quality of life and your flexibility – though there are those who would argue. It also saves you money. I use a petrol stove, always fuel on tap as it were. Each person you meet with a petrol stove raves about his/her own make but the most common ones are MSR, Coleman, and Optimus. It’s often hard to find gas, meths or white fuel, but petrol…
1ltr and 1.5ltr stainless steel pans
With lids (preferably one that can be used as a frying pan). Many people stack one inside the other and use the empty spaces for their stove, lighter, mini wooden spoon, salt and pepper, herbs, spices (I always carry curry powder, mixed herbs, chilli and garlic), brillo pad and so on.
Enamel is more hygienic over time.
Large plastic mug
You need to drink lots and a large mug encourages you to do so. Plastic stops you burning your lips.
Spoon and a Swiss Army knife
Who needs a fork?
At least five litres with you all the time. A nice trick to get a cold drink when you need one, is to fix a bottle covered in sacking to one of the front surfaces of your bike. Make a very small hole in the neck of the bottle. As you ride, small quantities of water dribble through the hole, onto the sacking and then the water is whipped away in your slipstream. Result, cold water – you’ve made the bottle ‘sweat’.
Washing gear (minimal)
And you can help that by not taking a proper towel. A terry towel is heavy when wet, smelly when not dried properly, is a chore to hand wash and it takes up too much space. A camping towel is better and you can even pick up a useable cloth in a good supermarket. A camping shop might charge you £8 for a nicely wrapped, brand name version of a kitchen cloth. Check ‘em out; you’ll see what I mean. I’ve seen them on sale for as little as a pound – £7 goes a long way ‘out there’.
Include some heavy-duty button thread, or plan on using your dental floss for heavier repairs.
If you wear them. Take your prescription too.
UV protection is really important.
Just a small bottle will do as you can find it, for a price, in many major cities.
Compass and Maps
Michelin maps are superb. Do remember to read your compass well away from the corrupting influence of the metal on your bike. If you get lost in the desert, or break down, stay with your bike. Make a large (100m at least) regular pattern around the bike with stones or tyre marks in the sand. This should be large enough to be seen from the air. Take off a mirror and have it handy to flash at an over-flying plane. This and smoke (from a burning tyre, or old oil and petrol mixed with sand) are the best ways to be seen from above.
Note book. Calculator. Diary/journal. Guidebook. Reading book. Address book. Pen and pencil. Alarm clock. A couple of photo’s from home, ones of your family always go down well with people along the way. Friends always take a short wave radio, perhaps I should too. If you hunt around, you can find very small versions that work well. A general point with your paperwork is, leave copies at home with someone who has access to them. Carry copies of your most important papers, separate to the originals of course. If you use email, scan and save colour copies into your ‘draft’ and then you can download copies from a surprising number of places along the way. Colour copies normally go undetected.
A credit card is invaluable. I was always surprised at how many places would take one, and at how many ‘Hole in the wall’ points there were. A good stash of undamaged US dollars in all sizes of notes – $50 and under will get you out of a lot of scrapes. It’s an idea to carry traveller’s cheques too. I normally carry two types. Visa and Amex. Some banks will accept one and not the other. When there is only one bank in town and you’ve the wrong type… Try to find safe places to distribute your cash stash. Some handy for easy access, and the rest in your boots, a money belt and perhaps, the frame of your bike. A friend tucks some away in the shoulder pads of his bike jacket. Chances are that if you are unlucky enough to get one stash ripped off, then the others will still be safe. Wrap everything in plastic because sweat or a fall in a river can ruin your day. It’s also worth taking a couple of cheques from your ordinary bank account. These can be very handy. Another tip is to have a length of thin chain running from your wallet to your belt. This way no one can snatch your loot. Have two wallets – one as your ‘running around money’ and another tucked away as your real wallet. To make the first (which is more likely to be nicked) look more genuine, tuck in a couple of cancelled credit cards.
I carried a mini hospital – far too much. You should talk to your GP. At least take something for diarrhoea, major pain, Paracetamol, antiseptic (dry spray is very good), plasters, a crepe bandage, sterile dressings, a suture needle and thread, talcum powder (feet and your crotch can cause a lot of grief), small container of fungal cream (Canesteen), multi vitamins, anti malarial’s, and anti histamine for insect bites. If you feel you can afford the space then a small bottle of eyewash comes in very handy. Dust and grit in the eyes happens a lot. Nowadays, some people carry an ‘Anti Aids kit’. Don’t forget to take along a sufficient supply of any medication you may personally need. Make sure it is in a properly labelled container (stuffed with cotton wool to stop vibration problems). It’s also a good idea to take a prescription for this medication so that you don’t have problems with customs at any of the borders.
One with a large percentage of ‘Deet’ should do the trick (but don’t spill any on your plastic gear, it’ll damage it). I tried the more natural ‘Citronella’ but found that it didn’t work so well. Other travellers told me that it was the business, so in the end, it’s a case of finding out what works the best for you. The rule is, cover up, particularly at dusk and in the early hours.
One with as many empty pages (Africans are enthusiastic rubber stamper’s), and as much validity time as possible.
Endsleigh and STA do policies that are well suited to the overland biker. Many other companies list biking as being a dangerous sport and won’t cover you. Odd really…
Make sure that this is always completed properly when you get ‘stabbed’ and do allow yourself plenty of time to get the inoculations. Some are a course over several weeks.
Carnet de Passage and International Driving Licence
The main motoring organisations can do these for you. It has been known for travellers to make their journeys without the use of a Carnet but to do it now would involve considerable hassle and bribery. Quite simply, it’s just not worth being without these temporary importation documents. It’s also imperative that the forms are filled out correctly, going in and going out. Two years after leaving Egypt I received a letter from Egyptian customs demanding that I pay my outstanding importation duties. They’d lost my carnet exit details. Happily I’d made sure that they’d been done properly, and I’d kept copies.
Ordinary driving licence
With all of these, make sure you have a set of photocopies at home and another set with you. Getting hold of new documents is always faster if you have copies and if you ‘loose’ something, then you at least have some proof that will normally keep you travelling. It’s in fact worth carrying four copies of your bike paperwork with you. At several borders you are required to hand sets over. It’s one less hassle in a big time hassle situation. The other thing to have is a set of passport photos. You’ll need these for visa applications and at some borders. Most visa’s can be obtained in capital cites along the way but, for some (i.e. Sudan) apply at home.
I use two. A small ‘point and shoot’ with a flash, and an SLR. My first camera was a brilliant auto focus but its plastic construction just wasn’t strong enough to deal with the harsh conditions and constant vibrations. I use a 28-80 and a 210 zoom lens. For Africa, you’ll be happy if you can afford a 300 zoom. Take along a polarising filter and a skylight filter for each. There’s often haze, dust or heat distortion in an African sky and these filters not only help protect your lenses, but they cut out a lot of refracted light distortion too. A lens dust brush helps a lot. Your camera bag should be really over stuffed, and have the ability to keep water and dust out. If you plan to spend time in damp humid conditions put some silica gel sachets in your bag.
Yes, a brolly. It’s been one of my best and most used bits of equipment. When it’s stinking hot and raining at the same time, a pair of shorts, a ‘T’ shirt and my brolly have been far nicer than a raincoat. It’s a big help with taking photos, and toilet dashes are never quite as bad if you don’t get soaked. Some folks I met used theirs, like the Ethiopians, as sunshades. It’s also a lot smaller to carry around than your bike rain jacket or kagoul.
Carry a piece the exact width of your bike at its widest point. This will enable you to work out which hotel alleyways or doors you can get through with your bike.
Finally, a luxury item
This is just a personal quirk. However, everyone I’ve ever met who has something ‘silly’ says the same. My first one was a beard trimmer. One guy had an espresso coffee maker, another a cheese grater, and another a garlic press. Whatever it is, something rather illogical adds to your quality of life, but still be weight conscious of course.
I try to go for safety and comfort on the bike, plus the minimum for the rest of the time. Things that hand wash and dry easily are the best. Cotton is the best material for both durability and health. Man-made materials do not deal with sweat well. You can easily obtain ‘normal’ clothing along the way and often much cheaper than at home.
I prefer leather but there are many armoured cordura and goretex jackets around that would do the job well, and don’t make you look so much like a ‘dirty biker’. I used leather because it’s easy to repair.
Tough canvas/denim jeans
With removable kneepads and plenty of pockets.
Separate jacket and trousers are more practical than a one-piece suit.
High ankle leather that are good for both biking and walking. Wear them in well before you go.
I go for combination leather and breathable fabric – if they are in a light colour, so much the cooler. Ideally they should come high up the wrist so that you don’t get a gap between them and your jacket. My first pair gave me a slash of severe sunburn on each wrist.
Cotton or silk and wide enough to cover your mouth and nose when necessary.
I started with an open face but now use a full face with a flip up front. You have more protection, and they are in fact cooler as they keep direct heat away. The flip up front makes asking directions and making friends much easier. White is an excellent colour as it reflects the worst of the heat and makes you more visible. Don’t forget to pack some earplugs. Not only are they a good deal on long open road days, but also there are some pretty noisy campsites and hotels. In Islamic countries, the call to prayer is a very early wake up call at four am.
Other than that, a baseball cap (the sun off your head, and your face in the shade can help you stay well, and deal with a days hassles), shorts, flip flops – for general wandering and for use in showers. If you’ve been sitting with your feet inside hot boots all day it’s important to let your feet ‘breath’ and at the same time let your boots dry out. This is a big help in keeping athletes foot and the like at bay. I took 3 pairs of undies, 3 pairs of socks, 2 ‘T’ shirts and a long sleeve cotton shirt.
Though dark colours are easier to keep clean, lighter colours attract fewer bugs, particularly mossies. My woollen sweater is an old favourite and it got used a lot. A fleece would be a good alternative and certainly dries faster. Don’t forget your swimming gear but make them small or just use your shorts. As there’s such a good cure for Bilharzia, I follow the rules about not going into sluggish water, or where there are reeds, and by not swimming where there are villages, but I do swim a lot. I feel doctors cringing as I write that!
It’s worth packing most things in plastic bags. Not only do they keep your kit dry and dust free but they can save you a lot of friction wear too.
Having written all of that, every bike you meet is loaded and kitted out in its own individual way. There isn’t a ‘right’ way. But keeping the bike moving and both of you healthy affects what you pack the most. Common sense rules the day. One of the biggest pre-trip tips is decide what sort of journey you actually want to make. A personal Paris- Dakar? A gentle cruise? The idea of trying to go where no ‘biker’ has ever been before? A one-month Cairo to Cape Town dash? Or an open, ‘see what happens’ adventure? If you are specialising, then you’ll need to load your kit accordingly. Whatever you do, keep your total weight to a minimum, keep what you do carry as low as possible and make sure that your packing is balanced. A low, even centre of gravity helps you stay upright. Loading your bike is far more fun than a ‘Rubics’ cube. It’s an ever-changing 3D jigsaw puzzle!
One thing you can never pack enough of is time. The only travellers I’ve ever met who genuinely weren’t enjoying their trips were those who sadly seemed to be constantly sick, or were trying to do too much in too short a space of time. Many of the ones who were ill should have accepted that their dream must wait and could be lived another day. Who needs a nightmare? When you are constantly ill, that’s what it must feel like. The folks on a dash were missing nearly everything. The only thing they had time for was movement, quick glimpses and hassle. With no time to recharge their batteries or to enjoy the unplanned, they seemed to be permanently off balance and that seemed open the door to lurgies.
The way you mentally load yourself is just as important as how you deal with your kit and your preparation. Life on the road is full of high points, why else would anybody do it, and keep going back for more? But there are low points where you find parts of yourself, strengths and weaknesses, you never knew existed. Paul R. Pratt, the highly experienced motorcycle overlander, says, ‘The right state of mind allows you to take one thing at a time and cross every bridge when you come to it.’ The travellers that seem to enjoy their journeys the most, are the ones who have time, keep an open mind and stay positive whatever they are faced with. The famous round the worlder and journalist Ted Simon says, ‘The interruptions are the journey’. With each adventure, you can make a set of memories worth having. There’s always something good going on, whatever the situation. Often, it’s the people who are creating the scene that you’ll remember with a smile.
As Goethe said, ‘He who enjoys doing and enjoys what he is doing is happy.’ I hope this lot will help you to pick out what you need to travel safely and happily.