Sleep like a baby. A grumpy, whining baby.


What’s the worst that could happen?

On an adventure ride, apparently it’s going to bed.

If a daily sprint between small-town motels isn’t your style – or isn’t your MasterCard’s style – you’re going to be bedding down in a tent.

And, honestly, that keeps a lot of riders at home.

I’ve heard the lament about sore backs and kinked necks since my first memories of family camping trips. Back then, my Dad was lamenting; since then, I’ve done some lamenting myself. And you likely have too.

So how can you get a comfortable sleep in the backcountry? Instead of sleeping like a grumpy, whining baby?

Big bike, big bags, happy baby.

One common strategy for getting a cozy night’s sleep might be behind the proliferation of big bikes with bigger bags: thick, wide inflatable mattresses paired with half-scale pillows and plush, voluminous sleeping bags. It’s a good solution, no doubt, if you don’t mind the beefy and bulky thing. And, if you do, more power to you. Stop reading and go get a great night’s sleep.

Compact little babies can sleep like a champ!

Thing is, a lot of us hanker after a solution that packs up small and light. No fold-up camp cots for us; no cotton-lined sleeping duvets.

But there are excellent solutions for the fast and light crowd. Just know that your MasterCard is still going to take a hit on this – although not as much as it would subsidizing a decked-out R1200GS with 130 litres of hard luggage capacity….

Before we jump in, you should know that I don’t receive any money for endorsing camping or motorcycling products.

camping gear
My “sleep like a happy baby” system: MEC Talon sleeping bag, Cocoon Air Core inflatable pillow, Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite pad. Total weight about 1.25 kg. Keys for size reference. And for driving a car.

Your friend, Paddy o’ Mattress.

First, the foundation. Sleeping pads have come a long way since the days of racking out on a limp scrap of blue foam that did little more than blunt the edges of the sharpest rocks under your spine.

Therm-a-Rest is the original manufacturer of self-inflating foam mattresses, but now shares the market with numerous others. There are endless variations in size, shape, R-value, colour, Zodiac sign….

These camping mattresses have evolved and improved, keeping pace with innovations in technology and materials. I use the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. It’s thick and cushy enough to keep my shoulders and hips off the ground, a vast improvement over blue foam, and double the thickness of the more recent self-inflating mattress options, like the familiar burnt-orange Therm-a-Rest.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. Seriously, the name is ridiculously over complicated…but it is comfy.

I use the short length, since there’s really no need to carry extra bulk to cushion and insulate my legs in the moderate temperatures experienced by typical three-season campers and adventure motorcyclists.

To add some cush for my legs, I fold my riding pants and place them below the pad, which ends at about mid-thigh. Then there’s stuff sacks, jackets, towels, even backpacks and soft luggage – whatever you’ve got – to supplement the cushioning and insulation of your lower extremities.

With this system, you’re packing only 230 grams into a bag a little bigger than a pop can. About $130.00 USD.

One economy I beg you not to engage: don’t toss the tiny patch kit included when you buy your XLite, as this type of mattress provides exactly as much support and insulation as a wet paper towel when you puncture it. That said, I haven’t punctured mine yet.

Roll your own.

I also use clothing, rolled up or formed into wedges, under the sleeping pad to level uneven surfaces. Even on the flattest desert playa (like Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, up there at the top of this post), I place clothing under both sides of my pad to form the mattress into a bit of a U-shaped cradle. Sleep like a baby, I do.

If I have any damp clothing like gloves, socks or insulating layers, I spread them on the top of the sleeping pad before laying out my sleeping bag. They’ll be warm and dry by morning, and the moisture isn’t noticeable inside my bag, nor does it compromise the down insulation. Of course, I’m not doing this with sodden, dripping gear – but since I use almost exclusively synthetics, I can wring out wet items and hang them outside for the evening if it’s dry, or in the tent if not, before using this technique.

If you dislike the clammy feeling you get swaddled inside your synthetic-lined sleeping bag in damp conditions, try wearing a full-length set of lightweight silk underwear as pyjamas. Or get a silk or cotton sleeping bag liner; they reduce the humid embrace – although they can get a bit twisted up. And, if you carry one, you have less room in your panniers for single-malt Scotch, so there’s that….

Pillow talk.

Inflating pillows are fairly new on the scene, and I give them my qualified support — just as they give me theirs. I don’t think they’re perfected yet.

Since they’re basically a balloon for your noggin, you could be rightly concerned about settling back on one. I find they work well if they have some internal baffling, rather than simply being a bag of air; in addition, I like an external surface treatment that feels like cotton or fleece against my downy cheeks. I use the Coccoon Air Core Hood/Camp Pillow, 108 grams. $27 USD at REI.

Cocoon Air Core Hood/Camp Pillow. Again with the names….

Most important, however, is knowing how to deploy an inflating pillow. If you blow it up tight like a belly stretched after Thanksgiving dinner, it’s admirably stable and unmoving under your head.

And it’s also about as comfortable as a frozen turkey.

On the other hand, if you partially inflate your pillow, it’s nicely squishy but still supportive….

And every time you move the air sloshes around like water in a water balloon, and your face slides off the flattened edge, while a bulging tumescence pushes up behind your head. (Okay: now that I read that, it’s proper disgusting. Sorry.)

Here’s my secret to a satisfying pillow situation. I start by laying my riding jacket down, just above the top of my Therm-a-Rest. Then I moderately inflate the pillow and place it inside the hood of my sleeping bag, in a hollow formed by encircling it in the sleeves of my riding jacket. The elbow pads create a ring that holds things in place even when I turn and thrash in my sleep, dreaming that I’m riding a disintegrating Chinese knockoff motorcycle across a simmering Sahara Desert.

Somebody call the UN: this could get ugly.

Sleeping bags are obviously a topic worthy of protracted states of siege between nations. You probably think I’m kidding.  I am not. They’re that contentious.

Here’s my take on the central debate: down. Or, alternatively, down. If you wish, change it up and try, oh, I don’t know…maybe down?

Yes: synthetic bags are far better insulators when wet. That’s why you stuff your down bag into a waterproof stuff sack or compression sack.

Synthetic bags are cheaper. That’s why manufacturers load them up with bells and whistles and doodads to increase their profit margins. And their bags’ weight.

I’m trying to be unbiased here. But, truth is, I’m not. I’ve used down bags in temperatures as low as – 47 C in northern Canada and as high as 40 C in deserts around the world; in dry conditions, wet conditions — in conditions entirely lacking conditions. And I haven’t found a synthetic bag that compresses smaller, breathes better, or more thoroughly warms the cockles of my heart.

The only disadvantages of down are that you must keep it dry, and that you must pay your MasterCard bill when it arrives – although many quality synthetic bags are equally expensive.

If you’re sleeping in a decent tent — rather than in your indecent tent, on the forest floor, or in a bivy sack — you don’t need water resistant or water proof coatings or fabric layers in your down bag, so skip them and keep the cost down. (Pun thing there, I know.)

I’ve used numerous long-forgotten models, as well as enjoying a long term relationship with the North Face Blue Kazoo. 

But then this happened to it.

One rivet. That’s all it took: one rivet missing from the exhaust pipe, sending a tiny jet of hot KLR pollution through the stuff sack and into my nice sleeping bag. Crying happened.

I switched to an MEC Talon, which isn’t as warm as the Blue Kazoo, but smaller and lighter.

There are a million down bags out there. Get one that’s made by a reputable manufacturer, is stuffed with at least 650 fill down (and not feathers!), and fits tightly around your uniquely massive or dainty frame, as the case may be.

Published temperature ratings are pretty subjective; your best guarantee of performance is staying with a reputable brand or retailer such as REI or MEC. Most riders in most riding seasons will be happy with a three-season bag, rated to around -5 C.

Expect to spend from $250 USD upwards for a bag fitting these criteria and weighing around 1 kg.

Don’t get too caught up in comparing specs: that’s time better spent on the road, sleeping like a contented baby – and avoiding the arrival of your monthly credit card bill.

Sleep well!

Packing for Off-road Adventures: the LIST.

packing your adventure motorcycle

Please: think before you pack. He didn’t.

Here’s the thing: writing about adventure motorcycling means that packing lists most assuredly figure in my fate.

So, that makes this the day to trot out the clichés:

You can’t fight fate.

Time waits for no one.

Man does not control his own fate; the women in his life do that for him.

Oh, that last one isn’t really what I’m getting at — it might be true, but not what I’m getting at….

Packing lists are the first thing many people ask me about; they’re the last thing most riders agree on. And that means I’m going to ruffle some feathers.

Rustler. Ruffler. Whatever…

But I’m not really a ruffler. So let me approach my first kick at the can this way. I’m not going to push my opinions or make any judgements. I’ll simply tell you what I pack.

But first you need a couple details.

The gear I take on any overnight adventure bike trip is always the same, whether for one night or 30. The only variable items are food.

Here’s how it works. I roll into some little town with my bike loaded up, find the local greasy spoon, and use GPS and maps to plan a route through the desert or forest to the next town. Then I provision with food to last me two to three days, top up my fuel tank and water bladders and get riding. When I reach the town I’ve targeted…well…lather rinse and repeat.

The problem’s between your legs.

The limiting factor to how far I ride in two to three days is sloshing around between my legs. The gas tank of my TE610, combined with the two litres of supplemental fuel I carry, gives me close to 300 kilometres’ range. It doesn’t seem like much distance for a three-day ride – especially if you’re used to road riding – but the terrain is often challenging, so the riding pace is slow. And I stop to take lots of photos.

Oh, and I’ve a got a problem with mornings, so I usually start riding long after the early bird has not only found but digested his worm and is looking for a copy of Reader’s Digest to peruse in the bathroom….

45 litres of luggage

Okay, that was my first long-winded explanation before I give you the list. Here’s the second: I fit all my gear in approximately 45 litres of luggage space, plus a tool tube mounted to the front of the skid plate.

adventure bike luggage
Packed and ready to ride — 3 days or 30.

My luggage breaks down like this:

  • Outdoor Research Drycomp compression backpack – 30 litres *strapped to the seat with Roc Straps; my camp chair folds around the pack.
  • Wolfman Enduro saddlebags (pair) – 11 litres total  *discontinued, but similar to the Wolfman Daytripper bags
  • Tankbags (pair) – 4 litres total  *homemade, using two old fanny packs
  • Tooltube – 2 litres total  *homemade (yes, this is a theme with me) from 4″ ABS piping

47 litres is enough volume for all my gear, 7 litres of water, food, tools and spares. 

I also have two litres of gas in bottles flanking my rear fender.

extra fuel bottles

To put that in perspective, many soft saddlebag sets fall in the 60 to 80 litre range; riders usually add a tail bag as well, and these frequently offer about a 30 to 40 litre capacity. So I’m toting no more than half the 90 to 120 litre volume I see on most adventure bikes.

So that’s…50% smaller, right?

Yes: I’m doing the math and blowing my own horn. And finally – drum roll please (how many of these can I shoehorn in here?) – here’s my packing list.

General equipment

  • Wallet (water resistant):
    • Passport, credit card, debit card, license, health card, auto club (CAA or AAA) card, travel health insurance card, cash, bike insurance, spare motorcycle key
  • Electronics:
    • Cell phone
    • Batteries (4 x AA), USB 12V DC battery charger, 6″ USB cables (1 each, mini and micro USB)
    • Camera
    • GPS (x 2: Lowrance iFinder; Garmin Oregon 600)
    • Flash drive with motorcycle information
    • Kobo reader (mini)  *Remember: I mostly ride solo. I take this because I spend lots of time reading in the evening and don’t want to rely on my phone in a rough, dirty environment — although I do also load books onto it.
GPS and maps
Those are pulleys for my Z-drag recovery kit mounted on the left mirror stalk. You can see my pair of GPS units and paper maps and AA battery charger on the handlebars.
  • First aid kit  *detailed list of contents in an upcoming post
first aid kit
As a solo rider, I carry a substantial first aid kit prioritizing two functions: bandaging and pain relief.
  • Journal and pen
  • Compass
  • Lighter
  • Knife
  • Headlamp
  • Sunglasses, cloth case
  • Eye drops, TUMS, Lip balm (in small Ziploc bag)
  • Repair tape (Tenacious)
  • 2 carabiners and z-drag (mechanical advantage) recovery kit
  • Flares (x2) and launcher
  • Tire gauge
adventure bike accessories
Note high-tech reference scale in photographs, courtesy of Honda Civic.

adventure accessories packed

Camping gear

  • Camp chair  *rolled around the backpack in the bike photo above
  • Ground sheet
  • Sleeping mattress (Thermarest NeoAir XLite, short)  *take a repair patch
  • Tent (REI Passage 1)
  • Sleeping bag (down fill)
  • Pillow (Cocoon ultralight inflatable)

camping gear

adventure camping equipment
Camp chair, with tent and poles. And really fancy high-tech reference scale phone-thingey.

Cooking and kitchen

camping kitchen

camping kitchen kit


*all clothing items except t-shirts are synthetic; I wear cotton T-shirts because I generally ride in hot, dry weather and don’t require the wicking properties of synthetics. Plus they feel better. For cooler weather and nighttime, I change into my synthetic base-layer top.

  • Baseball cap
  • Toque
  • Shorts, usable for swimming
  • Underwear (x 2 pairs)
  • Socks (x 2 pairs thin, 1 pair thicker)
  • Long-sleeved fleece top
  • Long-sleeved base-layer top
  • T-shirts (x 2, cotton)
  • Pants (1 pair)
  • Waterproof stuff sack to hold it all
  • Flip flops (in plastic bag)
  • Jacket (synthetic PrimaLoft insulation) in compression stuff sack
camping clothing
Heavy socks and fleece sweater are not included in this image. Forgot em.

camp clothes

Riding gear

  • Boots
  • Gloves
  • Helmet with goggles
  • Mesh jacket
  • Mesh pants
  • Ear plugs

Bathroom kit

  • Pack towel, mini
  • Toothpaste, toothbrush
  • Glasses (in cloth bag)
  • Contact lens solution
  • Contact lens case  *I’ve cut mine in half; since my prescription is the same in both eyes, I can drop both lenses into one cup and not worry about mixing them up.
  • Contact lenses  *on my eyeballs
  • Contact lenses, spare pair
  • Baby powder
  • Sunscreen
  • Soap
  • Dental floss
  • Prescription meds if you got ’em
  • Stuff sack to hold all these items

*I pack toilet paper separately, in a Ziploc bag.

bathroom kit for adventure motorcycling

bathroom kit packed



camping gear for adventure motorcycle
That’s pretty much everything…

adventure bike camping gear

On the bike

  • Saddlebags (11 litres)
  • Backpack (30 litres) *my old Summit Sack holds a bit more than the new 27 litre model
  • Roc Straps
  • Tool tube (2 litres)  *look for upcoming posts on my tool kit. In the meantime…
  • Fuel bottles (2 x 1 Litre)
  • GPS mounting brackets (x 2)
  • 12VDC to USB adapter for charging batteries
  • Paper maps

As I am a true gourmet, you’re likely desperate to know what kind of food I might take. So the following list fits under the “Don’t blame me; you asked for it” kind of maxim.

Food — or, as Yvonne calls it, “Seriously? I’m not eating that.”

  • Milk powder
  • Granola
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Pasta and sauce prepared meals
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Ramen instant noodles
  • Power bars

What’s on your list?

Let me know if I missed something, or if you want details about specific items. And hang around for future posts: I’ll fill in some gaps about camping gear, first aid kits, tools and luggage.

Water. How much to bring, how to carry it…and how it can make you sick.

Water, water, everywhere / Nor any drop to drink

Now, I enjoy Coleridge’s poetry as much as the next fellow, and maybe more than some. But even if reading his Rime of the Ancient Mariner is well down your personal list of merrymaking options, you’ve gotta admit that first line is pretty familiar – and the famous poem evokes the sound and feeling of seafaring adventure as well as any lines ever written:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew

The furrow followed free;

We were the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea.

Okay, enough hoity-toity. When I’m on an adventure ride, I need some drops to drink and to cook my legendary campsite meals of powdered something-or-other.

But how many drops of water should you drink?

More. That’s probably the best answer, since most of us simply don’t drink enough.

Opinions vary, but most figures come in around 4 litres per day for an average-sized man exercising in hot conditions. I say “man” because we’re often heavier than women, and one variable that determines intake is body weight. Check out the US Army’s calculations if you want to get really specific for your weight, climate and exercise. According to their algorithm, at 175 pounds, I should drink (or consume in food) 163.25 ounces of water per day, or 4.8 litres, when riding in the desert.

I think their figures are generous: I usually carry 7 litres for a two-day ride from town to town in the desert, with temperatures reaching up to 45 Celsius, and have found that an adequate amount — although it doesn’t leave a lot of margin for error. If I break down or crash, delaying my ability to resupply, I could be in a bit of a pickle.

Does my pee look brown?

You can tell if you’re dehydrated by the colour of your pee, the lighter the better. Clear and copious is the ideal, but it’s difficult to attain when your water supplies are limited. A pale straw colour means you’re doing good.  If it starts to look darker than that, get some water in you.

(Notice how I omitted inserting a photo here? You’re welcome.)

And when should I drink it? (the water, not the pee)

Before you get thirsty.

By the time you feel the need for water, you’ve waited too long. For me, that’s marked by an itchiness in my throat, followed by a headache. Too long.

Drink small amounts of water regularly, up to about a cup (a quarter litre) per hour. Again, you can use the Army’s calculations. I figure they’ve done some pretty extensive field trials, so their numbers should be as accurate as anyone’s.

Drinking from a bottle allows you to monitor your water intake, since most bottles allow you to see precisely how much you’ve consumed; many are even marked in volume units.


But don’t use water bottles.

Since weight is my enemy and space is precious, I don’t carry bottles. Nalgene and other purpose-built water bottles aren’t collapsible when empty, and I don’t want to carry the weight either. Lighter, one-time use water bottles, on the other hand, are flimsy and easily punctured when you fall down go boom. And the research is pretty clear that they degrade with time and heat, possibly leaching nasty chemicals into your drink.

Bag it: carrying water on your adventure ride.

There are many different water systems out there.

I use water bladders. They’re light, collapsible, and some brands are really tough. Their disadvantage I already mentioned: it’s harder to track your intake than it is when you drink from a bottle, so you’ll need to be diligent about monitoring your consumption.

I’ve experimented with bunches of bags. The plastic ones are prone to failure, splitting at the seams or succumbing to cactus thorns, so I carry them only as a backup water carrier. Rolled up in my panniers, they occupy very little space.


For primary water-carrying duties, I’ve settled on MSR water bladders, their “Dromedary” line up. These bags are made of a durable 1000 denier fabric, coated for waterproofing on the inside where the BPA-free lining is safe from abrasion.

And I have never killed one yet. Oh, I tried. But never.


Dromedaries come in various sizes (4, 6 and 10 litres), and I’ve used them all. I usually carry at least a 2 and a 4 litre bladder.

You can purchase a variety of interchangeable accessory kits: 3-in-one caps that let you fill, carefully meter water into a cup or pot, or attach a drinking hose; spigots for quicker pouring; solar shower hoses… The cap size mates up directly with MSR’s extensive series of water purifiers, too, if you’re the pure type.


But there’s always a but…

I’m not too keen on the bite valve design MSR is using now for their drinking hoses. Unlike the older versions of the product, the newer valves don’t come with a shutoff mechanism or a rigid cap to ensure you don’t lose your water when a bite valve is accidentally compressed in your bags or between your bike and the ground. You can see their current design at the bottom right, below, and what I think are some better designs above it.


MSR is correct in saying their valve has a better flow rate than most others, but I’m more concerned about a catastrophic loss of water when I’m a couple days out in the desert.

Lighten up!

DromLite bags are a new series of MSR bladders that are, not surprisingly, lighter than the old ones; they’re apparently even more compressible, too. Whether they are as durable and abrasion resistant as the standard MSR bags only time will tell.

DromLites come in 2, 4 and 6 litre sizes, and I’ve never tried them. Some reviewers say there are problems fitting Dromedary system accessories to the new DromLite bags. I assume MSR will fix any teething pains with their new product – but do your own research.


It’s in the bag.

The ounce or two you shed in weight going to these newer bladders probably won’t matter to you – but the fact they come in smaller sizes might. I stuff my 2 litre bag into a gas tank pannier for easily-accessed drinking water throughout the day. But MSR no longer makes a 2 litre Dromedary — the DromLite is your only option for that size.



Along with my 2 litre, I fill a larger bag or two and jam them into the empty spaces in my panniers. When I set up camp, a small carabiner through a grommet or strap allows me to hang these bag from my handlebars, allowing me turn on the spigot one-handed while filling a cup or pot.

Hold on!

Most water bladder drinking hoses include a clip to attach the hose to your backpack or jersey near your thirsty mouth. Useful — but don’t rely on them to hold securely while riding off-road. I know riders who have stopped for a drink only to discover their tasty water nipple bite-valve thingy dragging in the dust beside them. Or, worse yet, torn right off during that single-track romp through the trees.


Similarly, I have personally experienced bite valves actually falling right off the hose and taking most of my water with them. If I’m uncertain, I use a cable tie to secure the valve to the hose. (You can see a blue cable tie in the photo of the various bite valves, above.)

I hate that monkey on my back…

Of course, you’ve seen hydration backpacks. I only use mine if absolutely necessary: I would rather let my motorcycle carry the weight, and, anyways, the backpack interferes with the bag I strap onto the rear fender.


If you do use one, you might be able to substitute a durable MSR bladder for the failure-prone plastic one that comes in many such backpacks.


…but I love that dirty water!

I admit to my impurity.

Er – that is, I don’t use a water purifier.

They’re too bulky – although they are shrinking all the time, and innovations like ultraviolet purification devices are actually remarkably compact.

More importantly, purifiers can break.

Besides, I seldom need to use ground-sourced water, since my fuel range means I’m at a gas station every two or three days anyways. I just fill up my bladders at the sink after I empty my bladder at the…too much information….

On the rare occasions I need to drink water I find in the field, I purify it with Aquatabs. Totally reliable, tiny, and they never break. You won’t even notice you’re carrying them, since enough tablets to treat dozens of litres of water take up no more room than a couple Bandaids.


Feeling hot, hot, hot – and sick?

If you ride in the summer (Umm…isn’t that all of us?) your drinking water gets pretty hot. Whether it’s sloshing around in bottles or bladders, it can easily reach temperatures that bacteria find irresistibly inviting.

But that doesn’t mean drinking the water will make you sick. Potable water from public sources – like that faucet in the gas station bathroom, or the restaurant – is treated with a form of chlorine, which kills existing bacteria in the water, and protects against bacteria that may be introduced to your water later on (backwash, anyone?). If you treat ground water with Aquatabs, you have similar protection.

There is a time limit, however; the protection diminishes with time and exposure to heat. Still, if you’re carrying water for a couple days on your adventure bike, you’ll drink it before that becomes a problem anyways.

So don’t worry about it. Or do. Up to you. I’ve never been sick, even after drinking water more than five days old in temperatures creeping up to nearly 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).

This water tastes like armpit.

Of course, that old, stale hot water can be difficult to drink. But you need to keep up your intake, remember?

So I add these little guys to my water. They’re cheap, weigh next to nothing, and make a tasty drink when you arrive at your campsite with a big bag o’ hot water. You would likely grimace and pour it down the sink at home – but, hey, this is camping. Therefore yummy.


I don’t recommend the liquid water flavouring products like MiO: not only are they more bulky, but the bottles can burst, and the concentrated syrup leaves concentrated stains and smells when they do. And, in my opinion, they taste even more artificial than the powdered mixes…if that’s possible….

Don’t use any drink mixes directly in your water bladders, either, as they leave a taste behind. Mix up your “Sunrise Classic Orange” in a cup or pot.

What’s your drinking water system for adventure riding?

I bet you’ve got some great tips and products I’ve never used.

Let me know!




Navigation for adventure motoryclists

Basic equipment and techniques to map your adventure

It was 1932 when three Swedish brothers, including Bjorn Kjellstrom, the Swedish national ski orienteering champion, designed a new kind of compass. Their modifications, a liquid-damped housing and clear baseplate, became the foundation of the Silva Compass company which thrives to this day.

But it took 23 more years for the famous Kjellstrom brother to publish his famous bestseller, Be Expert with Map and Compass. His daughter, Carina Kjellstrom Elgin, updated the book in 2010, and it’s now available online as a free PDF. If you don’t have a copy, well…you’ve got that to look forward to! It’s a great introduction to the art and science of terrestrial navigation.

map and compass book

Be expert with map and compass

The title of the book may be a promise or an admonition; I’m not sure which.

But, since the book only arrived more than two decades after the brothers invented their whiz-bang compass, I figure the 23-years-wiser Swedish champion finally realized that outdoor equipment may be shiny, and navigational party tricks might impress girls (Swedish girls, maybe?) — but people are usually the cause of their own problems….

So, instead of inventing a whiz-bangier compass, he wrote a book. And one of the consistent themes in his book, and others that deal with navigation, is “staying found.” Although perhaps imprecise, the term is grounded in a pretty obvious idea: it’s easier to always be aware of where you are, than it is to figure out your location once you’re “confused of your whereabouts.”

The crucial aspect to navigation is…you.

Navigation anxiety

Now, even if you’ve never picked up a Silva compass, you likely already have one of the essential skills of an orienteer: navigational anxiety. That’s the condition I just invented that refers to the fear of pointing your GS off the pavement and riding until you’re nowhere near a Starbucks. Or a hospital.

NA is one of those specialized performance anxieties that keeps you from jumping out of windows and handling snakes; NA helps you choose smart, adaptive survival techniques.

Like reading the classic book on land navigation, and taking a compass and a map on every single adventure ride.

compass for adventure motorcycling
The Silva compass that revolutionized terrestrial navigation

Android doesn’t play well with Adventure

Let’s just pause a moment here and address the elephant in the room, shall we?

Your phone isn’t good enough. Doesn’t matter which phone you have; it’s not good enough.

Cell signal is sparse or non-existent out where they keep the adventure. But you’ve downloaded maps for offline use, you say? You know how to use the satellite GPS functionality of your shiny new Gizmo two-point-oh? Well, you’re smarter than me.

But are you smart enough to conduct field repairs on a 2,900 mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery after you drop your iPhone into the Sonoran sand or the Pinelands puddle? Can you reverse engineer your Galaxy from the scattering of small plastic bits left in the divot you just gouged in the dirt when you crashed?

Same goes for your tablet, laptop, your phablet, if you’ve got one, and if that name still exists. (It shouldn’t. Seriously.)

Anyway, I’ve ranted about this before.

So let’s get to the other elephant in the room: GPS

I like Global Positioning Systems. I’ve had several, and I’ll write some posts about the units, mapping software and mounting systems I use.

But here’s the thing: as I said, I’ve had several…including three replacement models of a brand-new, high-end, immodestly-priced Garmin unit. Replacement, as in: bought it, tried it, failed. Rinse. Repeat. Repeat. Argh!

So my point is, they’re great when they work. And then the batteries die, or your charging cable succumbs to an errant branch, or aliens target you with their dazzling ray of — whatever: my point is, they fail. I use two different units at the same time — and both have failed. At the same time.

It’s not so surprising. Adventure riding is hard on equipment. Heat, vibration, cold, high-speed impacts, dust, rain, snow… So if you do decide to point that GS off the pavement, you simply can’t rely on your phone or your GPS; use them, love them — by all means. Just don’t rely on them.

Back to Basics, Bjorn

Here’s where you start, with the basics: take a map and a compass with you on every ride.

A modern compass is pretty much bomb-proof: the one moving part — the needle — floats in a vibration-damping bath of oil.

You can rely on paper, too. It’s got a fail-proof battery (i.e., none), and survives vibration darn well. Upgrade to a Ziploc bag, and paper laughs at rain and snow.

If you’re riding long distances, you might require a lot of maps, since you ride across them quickly. But you can purchase smaller-scale maps (which show a larger area), cut away areas you won’t be travelling, and cover a vast area with a stack of maps not much thicker than the flyers you get in the mail even if you’ve told your letter carrier you don’t want them. And you can write on maps, tracking routes, making notes, locating gas stations.

The ideal solution is to combine paper map and compass with a GPS (or two). We’ll get to more detail on that in another post. For now…

Okay, I’ve stuffed my map in that little plastic window on my tank bag? Now what?

Throw it out.

motorcycle tank bag
You do not want to ride off-road with that between your legs. Trust me.

The tank bag, I mean; keep the map. Oh, heck, keep the tank bag if you like as well, but save it for mounting on your street bike.

Tank bags inhibit your ability to move on the bike, particularly when riding while standing and while ascending hills. There are diminutive little tank bags that stay safely out of the way — but then they either don’t have a map pocket, or it’s just too small to be of much use.

Motorcycle-specific map holders often rely on magnetic mounting on the gas tank, but many dual sport and adventure bikes have plastic moldings on their tanks — or even full plastic tanks. Other models clip to the crossbar, which many adventure bikes don’t have. Awkward. I also dislike these models because, even if I have a handy crossbar, the map obscures my view of the instruments and other hardware attached to my handlebars.

A better solution is a map case designed for kayaking and canoeing. I use the SealLine HP: it’s large (comes in two sizes), flexible, durable and thoroughly water proof. They usually last me at least several seasons of riding, if not more.

map case for adventure motorcycle
SealLine HP

Other map cases resemble a resealable, Ziploc style bag on steroids. These tend to be made of stiff plastic, making it a bit challenging to insert your maps. I prefer a softer plastic, like that used in the SealLine HP.

SealLine map case

Put it on

Use zip ties (cable ties) through one set of D-rings to attach the case to your handlebars; if you use the HP, you can actually remove the neck strap and use the webbing fasteners to secure the map case to the bars.

You’ll also need a Velcro strap or some sort of webbing about 20 cm long. Once your map is inserted, you’ll roll up the case and wrap a strap around it to keep it out of the way while you ride. (I use zip ties again to attach this strap to the handlebars.)

map case on motorcycle
SealLine HP rolled up and secured for riding

The downside of this system is that you can’t examine the map without stopping your bike and releasing the strap.

map case on motorcycle
Deployed for mapping

The upside of this system is that I no longer crash while staring at my map when my eyes should be on the trail.

You win some, you lose some…

There’s more to curing your Navigational Anxiety…

There’s more to navigation…but, as they say, walk before you run. Get a map and a map case for your bike; a small baseplate compass; a bit of knowledge. Start reading your copy of Bjorn’s classic, or another of the many great books and websites, and I’ll get back to you with more posts on navigation, including using your GPS.



Bathroom Kits: 4 must-have items for the adventure rider (and for less than $30)

…or: How to banish monkey butt.

I risk it all when I’m riding my bike off-road, clearing massive log piles and getting big air off jumps and over gullies.

In my mind, I mean. That’s the place where I put that overactive imagination Ms. Putnam kept mentioning while I squirmed in the back row of her Grade 3 class.

Actually, the biggest danger I face most of the time while adventure riding isn’t getting air; it’s getting a bad case of monkey butt.

This is a real thing. Imagine the state of your butt after rubbing, chafing and vibrating on a vinyl seat for eight hours, all while wrapped in nylon and foam padding, in sweaty-hot conditions. On second thought, don’t imagine that.

Why the name? Monkey butt? Just imagine a National Geographic special, with a bunch of monkeys scampering away from the camera. Picture their bright red butts. On second thought…

The point is, if you’re on the trail, you need a compact and effective bathroom kit. Here’s what I put in mine.

(Oh — I should mention: these aren’t paid endorsements or affiliate sales links. They’re just products I use and like.)

The “Fundamental 4” must-have items for the adventure rider’s bathroom kit

Trek and Travel Pocket Soaps

Yeah, I used to be one of those hard-core dudes who scorned the idea of wasting space and weight by carrying some pantywaist extravagance like soap. In fact, my record stretch of going without ablutions is 65 days of travel in desert heat. At the time, it wasn’t a problem: since I was alone, there was no one to worry about the smell.

But that was before I started riding motorcycles off-road. Before I had to deal with monkey butt – and before I learned, the uncomfortable way, that you need soap.

What you don’t need is weight and bulk, and these packets of dried soap “leaves” are light and small. You just add a bit of water to dissolve a leaf into liquid soap. There’s no potential for spillage, and carrying 50 leaves means only an extra 15 grams (0.5 oz) of weight.

You can also get shampoo, shaving soap and laundry-wash versions. And, as an added bonus, they’re carry-on compliant for your flight to the Namibian desert.

Baby powder

This is like a good doubles match in tennis: two partners working effectively together and never arguing about who missed the ball.

After you use the Trek and Travel soap on your saddle-contacting bits, dust things down there with some baby powder. I say, “things” because…well, it’s just polite, that’s why. Banish monkey butt. Works wonders.

And since you’re doing this “dual-sport” thing, another way to double-up is to use your baby powder to dust the inside of your tires when you install or repair inner tubes. This reduces the chances of the tube adhering to the tire, which can result in torn valve stems.

PackTowl Nano Towel

What weighs less than an ounce, fits easily in the palm of your hand, dries in minutes, and can be used as a towel and a helmet-lens cleaning cloth? This.

Sunscreen in a bag

I’ve unintentionally used lots of bottles and tubes of sunscreen to protect the inside of my luggage from those pesky UV rays. No more! I now use a durable plastic pouch to carry sunscreen, something like the 0.5 litre Platypus Softbottle. The cap on these bags is threaded onto a spout that is more rigid than you find on a plastic tube or bottle, so they won’t deform and pop open. And, as you use up the sunscreen, the bag is easy to compress. I haven’t had one spring a leak yet – although I haven’t tried packing them beside my knife….

There’s more to your bathroom kit, but it’s just the usual suspects:
  • Toothbrush, paste, and dental floss, all purchased in the travel-size section of the store. In case you’re wondering – or suspecting – yes, I do cut the handles off my toothbrushes.
  • Contact lens paraphernalia and glasses for us blind folk. I use a single contact lens cup, instead of the usual paired set, since my prescription is the same in both eyes and I don’t need to remember which is right and which is left. Remember to take a spare set of contact lenses, though, along with your travel-sized bottle of cleaning solution.
  • Throw in an inexpensive pair of glasses and pack them in a cloth bag or case, instead of a bulky hard case. I store them in a protected location in my panniers, and I’ve never broken a pair yet. And now I’ve said that out loud, you know what’s going to happen on my next trip….
  • I’ve got soap, remember? So no deodorant. Live a little.
  • I don’t shave on trips, so that’s that solved.
  • I used to take a small tube of moisturizer, since I often ride in the desert. Never used it. Besides, sunscreen is moisturizer, isn’t it? (Isn’t it? I have no idea.)

You could put all this stuff in a mesh bag, so your stuff dries more quickly. You should do that.

In my pocket

I carry lip balm, eye drops and Tums in my pocket. But that’s only because I’m usually chapped, dry and irritated, and likely to cause indigestion. I’m sure you’re much more welcome in social settings than I am.

A couple of caveats…

I’m not female. So there could be some stuff I haven’t considered — besides the obvious. Let me know your thoughts.

Secondly: I am a fully-evolved man. Consequently, I am bald. So I don’t need the combs and such to which lesser men are slaves.

Finally: toilet paper. That’s a complex topic. So complex, in fact, that we’ll deal with it in another post. Who knew? Seems simple enough: grab some toilet paper and then….

Now you’ve got a compact bathroom kit, no more monkey butt, and lots of time to imagine yourself getting air. Enjoy the ride!

Please let me know about the great stuff you pack in your bathroom kit; maybe you’ll change my mind!

Motorcycle riding schools don’t teach you this stuff

I like riding alone. Especially when I’m in expedition mode: way off the pavement, picking a route through the back country towards some lake or ghost town.

And I like riding with friends even more.

But most of the time, I’m by myself out there….

Be honest: do I smell?

I think more riders would hit the trail with me if either, (a), I showered more frequently, or, (b), they had the skills necessary to take their dual-sport and adventure bikes on long off-road trips: equipment selection, bike preparation, route planning, navigating, camping — you get the picture.

I want to change that. I want more riders to feel confident tackling multi-day trips in the dirt. So I’m sharing my own practical, proven techniques and systems for adventure riders.

This isn’t about teaching you how to ride your bike off-road; there are already lots of schools that do a great job of that. In fact, I’ve created a list of dirt and adventure riding schools. Those guys are the pros. Attending one of their programs is certain to teach you something valuable.

Adventure Ride Guide will teach you something else: the techniques you need to put those riding skills to good use, way off the blacktop.

These are techniques I’ve learned through experience out there, off road, through trial and error and hours in the saddle in the middle of big blank spaces on the map.

Your bike belongs in the dirt. And so do you.

I’ve talked to many riders who want to enjoy epic trips like mine.

But they say they don’t have the knowledge or confidence to get off the beaten path.

Skilled riders, some of them more capable than I am, tell me:

  • I don’t have camping or wilderness experience.

  • I don’t know how to start planning a motorcycle camping trip.

  • Specialized equipment is just too expensive.

  • Once I get my gear on the bike, it’s too heavy to manage off road.

  • I’m not a good enough rider.

That list is probably why I meet those riders, on their GS1200s or their V-Stroms or KLRs, on the pavement.

“I could never do what you do”

I’ll be rolling onto the pavement somewhere in…let’s say, Idaho…dirty and grinning. A guy riding past on a sweet Triumph Tiger waves and pulls over to ask where the gravel road goes. He’s a great guy, friendly and genuine, like most riders.

After I tell him I’ve been out in the mountains for a few days, the conversation usually goes something like this:

“I’m an okay rider. But I could never do what you do.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Well, I’ve never done that much camping and, like, wilderness stuff.”

“You know,” I say, “that’s easier than you think. You just need someone with experience to get you started.”

“Well, I’ve read lots of stuff on the forums…but it’s kind of overwhelming. There’s so much information, and I’m not really sure what to focus on.”

I nod my head. “Yeah, I get that.”

“Then when I pack up my gear for a road trip, it looks like I’m ready to go around the world, and my bike handles like I’m doubling a sumo wrestler. I’ll probably just stick to the pavement. Maybe take the occasional gravel road….”

It kills me

‘Cause he’s a great guy, and he’s got a bike that could take him almost anywhere he wants to go. I’d happily ride with him for a couple days, and I know I could learn lots from him, too.

But then he waves again, and turns back onto the pavement.

While I turn up the old logging road to Fourth of July Lake….

Fourth of July Lake, Sawtooth Range, Idaho

Let’s change that.

Ride farther. Stay out longer.

Don't keep it to yourself. Share the adventure!