The Nerds' Official Motorcycle Camping Guide
There are many ways and styles to go motorcycle camping and we are here to facilitate all camping styles from the UL minimalist riders to the comfy campers who bring it all for a more relaxed camping experience. If you’ve seen our content before, you know we are firm believers that the "best" gear is relative to you and your style of camping and there is no one way that is better than the other, only what works best for you. You do you. So we're going to touch on all the info you need to know, and what you need to take with you, on your motorcycle camping trip.
TLDR: Almost everything in this article is also covered in a moto camping 101 video and seminar replay I did previously that are linked below. This is a fresh writeup as of June 2023, and some information here has been updated from those videos.
Moto Camping 101 Seminar Replay
This article will cover:
- Sleep Systems
- Food and Water
- Personal Hygiene Accessories
- Storage and what to pack
- Planning your trip and
- What you need to expect when you're on the road
- What to expect when you get to site
- Leave No Trace & Tread Lightly
I’ve taken a phrase from our friend Dork in the Road (camp to ride versus ride to camp) and use it as a way to help determine your style of camping. Are you camping to ride, or riding to camp? and where (front country vs backcountry) are you camping? Answering these questions helps determine how you pack and what you pack. Lets dive a little deeper.
“Camp to ride” is when you like riding long days getting the miles, shredding backroads, or doing BDR style off pavement rides, and you enjoy camping as a way to facilitate more riding. This packing style will be light and fast oriented.
The Bonneville loaded with gear for a 2up camping trip. We cut the load but still brought the chairs.
“Ride to camp” would be more of a leisure pace when you may enjoy stopping for a hike, sightseeing, or just getting outdoors to enjoy it and relax. This packing style may be a little heavier for comfort and convenience.
Can you do both? Of Course! These are just two ends of the spectrum but a good way to think about how you'll want to pack. Even the UL fast and light riders enjoy a chair at camp after a long day of riding. And those riders who bring everything to cook a full meal with need to pick the ultra light gear to keep their weight down since they are taking it all with them.
The Triumph Bonneville T120 slightly overloaded for 2up moto camping with food, kitchen gear, or more stuff than we really needed.
Where do you camp? Well if you’re front country camping at an established campground, you’ll probably have most of the amenities close by, but if you’re backcountry camping, you’ll need to consider packing in and packing out all of your resources since a town or store may be hour(s) away from your camp.
So now you're thinking about your camping style, time to dig into the gear!
One of the smallest and simplest forms of camping is just a simple tarp tent or a tarp that you turn into a tent. You can grab a tarp from a local hardware store or you can grab a camping specific tarp or rain fly that actually has the eyelets and bungees in key spots so to form it into a type of tent, lean to, or shelter.
-Less protection from elements.
Hammocks are a popular option for being minimalist, small packing, and lightweight. If you’re riding to areas with plenty of trees where you are allowed to hang a hammock, this one might be for you. Yes, some areas and campgrounds restrict hanging hammock for either their own personal reasons OR to prevent damage to the trees. So double check to make sure. Paired with a tarp to keep the rain off, hammocks are a relatively cheap setup to get started as you won’t need a pad, or pillow, and could use a cheaper warm sleeping bag for warmer climates.
There's a catch. As you get into a colder climate you’ll want to add accessories like a good top quilt and under quilt to keep you warm. Keep in mind, when the temperatures drop, the pack size increases with more insulated gear and layers. Adding the two quilts gets you to a basic tent pack size.
+Can be quick and easy, after you get the hang of it.
-Slight learning curve for setup.
-Less protection from elements.
-More layers in colder seasons so pack size is about the same as a tent/pad/bag setup
Tents also come in all sorts of shapes and sizes from small backpacking tents all the way up to massive tents that can house you and your moto. I usually break these down into two categories, freestanding tents, and non-freestanding tents. My preference is a freestanding dome style tent because they are generally quick and easy to set up, and can easily be moved around, and don’t have to be perfectly staked out. If you find your site to be rocky or uneven after setup, it’s easy to pick it up and move around. Non-freestanding tents will require you to stake them out, which may be difficult in sandy, rocky, or overly saturated terrain.
Kelty Far Out 2
When picking out a tent for motorcycle camping, keep in mind the size of the tent for what your camping and riding style is. This is really finding your balance of convenience, pack size, space in the tent, and cost. If you're someone who wants to bring all of your gear inside the tent with you, consider at least a two person, or even three person tent. If you are riding two up, you will want a three or four person tent so that you are able to comfortably fit you and some gear inside the tent with you. Of course, if you prefer not to have any gear with you at all you can get something like a bivy or one person tent to minimize your pack weight and size.
Another factor is the pack size of your tent. If you prefer something that packs smaller and lightweight, you may want to go with something like the Big Agnes bikepacking series of tents for a freestanding tent, or even a backpacking pyramid tent that only uses one pole and packs lighter and smaller. If you don't mind the extra weight or the extra pack size, you can save some money and choose something like the Kelty Far Out 2. It packs larger, weighs more, has less features, but costs one third of the Big Agnes Bikepack tents.
Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 Bikepack Tent. The 12" pole segments make this easy to fit inside almost any pannier system.
This is where I mention the convenience factor of packing small or light and still be roomy and easy to setup. The difference between a bikepack tent versus a family tent. If you really want a convenient tent, it's going to cost a little bit more money than something simple and less frills. Less convenient to throw onto the bike, but cheaper up front.
Dana Brown @StrykerADV on Instagram cooking after setting up his Big Agnes Blacktail Hotel 2 Bikepack Tent with his Triumph Tiger.
This seems to be the topic for most on getting a good setup. Comfort is key because you want to make sure you get a good night's rest to stay focused while riding all day. To me, this is also a safety factor being able to stay alert and focused on the ride. I remember using a sweater as a pillow on my first moto camping trip. I was miserable. It was this hard balled up cheap hoody pressing against my temple just right all night. You can imagine how refreshing it was to wake up and get riding. Again, camping is different for everyone so evaluate what works best for you. Some prefer and firmer pillow so a balled up sweater might be your go to.
Keep in mind, the sleep system is made to keep you warm, like a hot beverage in your favorite vacuum sealed tumbler. We want keep the heat your body is generating inside the bag and close to you. Your body will need to heat up all of the insulation inside the sleeping bag and sleeping pad through conduction, convection, and thermal radiation to keep you warm.
Sleeping Bags & Backpacking Quilts
When selecting your sleeping bag for motorcycle camping (or quilt) there's several factors to consider from size, shape, temperature rating, and fill. So let’s dive in.
Shape and Size
Mummy style bags are designed to contour to your body and will be the most efficient at keeping you warm, but most people find them too restricting. If you’re a side or belly sleeper, or just prefer the ability to turn inside of your bag, look for wide and relaxed fit sleeping bags or quilts. The more popular options for wider bags are the:
- NEMO Disco, with it’s spoon shape. Available in 15F and 30F temperature options.
- Big Agnes Diamond Park for being tall and extra wide giving you plenty of room to toss and turn. Available in 0F, 15F, and 30F temperature options. This is out best selling sleeping bag out of all.
- Enlightened Equipment Revelation Backpacking Quilt for being wide with an open back and the ability to unzip the footbox to turn into a blanket.
Getting a properly rated bag and understanding what the ratings mean are key to staying warm and cozy on your motorcycle camping trip. When selecting your sleeping bag, consider where you're going to be camping and what the lowest temperature will be over night. Spring and Fall seasons can be tricky with temperature swings in several parts of the United States along with higher elevations you may be traveling through. It may be a warm sunny 70*F day but then drop into the low 30s at night, especially at higher elevations.
Most manufacturers advertise their sleeping bags on the lower limit temperature rating. Each brand uses different wording but essentially you have three ratings. Comfort, Lower Limit, and Survival. The Comfort Rating is exactly that, the temperature you will be comfortable at wearing your base layers. Low Limit will be the temperature you may start to feel cool or slightly chilled. Survival is the temperature you can stay in the bag for a few hours before hypothermia sets in.
Sea to Summit Spark ii shows the advertised rating at 28F and the comfort is at 38F.
All these temperature ratings are created with an insulated sleeping pad with an R value of around 4.0-4.8 and the person wearing base layers head to toe. So if you're not going to be wearing base layers you're going to want to make sure you compensate with a lower rated bag. Sometimes these ratings are also referred to as the male and female ratings or the warm and cold sleeper ratings. I like to sleep cooler, but for me, the comfort rating isn’t too hot or too cold.
As a general rule of thumb when shopping for a good down bag, add 10F to whatever the advertised bag rating is to find your comfort rating. It’s a quick and easy way to shop without having to read every bags comfort rating. For example, the above shown Sea to Summit Spark ii is advertised as a 28F, but the comfort rating is 38F.
Insulation and Fill
Synthetic and Down are the two main types used to insulate sleeping bags. Synthetic is essentially polyester strands that come in various forms. Synthetic is going to pack larger than a down fill sleeping bag but it generally is going to cost you less. Down comes from the layer under the feathers from ducks and geese and has much better insulation properties, and generally compresses more than synthetic, but with a higher price tag.
Now what are you going to sleep on? Is it going to be a pad, or a cot? Pads come in various shapes and sizes from rectangular shapes to the tapered mummy style. Then you've got the different thicknesses and then there’s insulated and non insulated pads, and self inflating. If you are camping in anything under 60F, you are going to want an insulated sleeping pad, and we suggest something with an R value around 4.0 or higher. The higher the R Value, the more the pad will Resist that heat leaving your body to try and warm up the ground below. This will also ensure your sleeping bag is going to work effectively. I’ve heard stories of campers spending $500 on a bag and freezing at night because they had a non-insulated pad. If you're camping in the middle of summer and it's going to be 70F+ all the time you're probably going to be okay with just a plain simple air mat without insulation in it.
I'm comfortable sleeping on my Big Agnes Boundary Deluxe with an R value of 4.3 in a Diamond Park Sleeping bag down to high 40s before I notice a cooling sensation under me.
Another alternative to the sleeping pad is the cot. They are a few on the market now that are made where they pack smaller and maybe not large enough to fit in your pannier, but more likely in a duffel thrown over the back seat.
This is the chart that EXPED uses on their sleeping pads to judge the R value needed for the climate you'll be camping in.
Now let's figure out what you're going to put your head on besides a rock. Like I said before, my first motorcycle camping trip I used a sweatshirt balled up, and I was miserable! Never again! But some people enjoy a harder pillow and a balled up jacket or stuff sack with clothes works fine for them. Make sure you find something that's comfortable for you to get you the best night's sleep. Camping pillows now can pack really small.
Camping pillows have a range of fill from foam or synthetic filled, or air bladders, and even pillows that are filled with foam and air. Something as simple as a Snugpak air pillow is $25 and it works to keep your head off the ground or something more luxurious like the NEMO Fillo Camp Pillow with the memory foam layer on top is one you may splurge for. It really depends on your sleeping style what's comfortable for you. I’ve found the air pillows with TPU bladders are generally more firm and pack small, while the foam or synthetic filled pillows are softer but pack a little larger.
For me, water is something I always carry when I leave the house even for day rides. Carrying water on the bike can be either water bottles you pick up at the store, a hydration backpack, or you can get something like the Giant Loop Cactus Cantten, Water Cell X, or Pack Tap. Just a note, the Water Cell X actually doubles as a shower also. These all pack really small so that way you can shove them in your bag and fill up when you get to camp, or if you know you're going to be camping in an area where there is no water source, you can fill it up and strap it to the bike to carry with you.
Giant Loop Cactus Canteen 2 Gal fits perfectly on the RTW Panniers.
Food and Snacks
Now this setup really depends on your camping style. As we talked about in the beginning, are you camping to ride, or riding to camp? if you plan on eating out for every meal you're not going to need all the cooking utensils and pots and pans, BUT I still recommend that you have some sort of water or snack with you when you're riding.I pack water and snacks on the motorcycle for every ride, just in case I break down and I’m in for a long wait. It’s good just to make sure you keep hydrated and you have something to eat in between meal stops.
If you decide that you're going to eat out all the time but you still want to have coffee or tea in the morning you'll probably want to pick up something like a small stove and a small cooking pot to boil water and something to drink it out of. An all in one solution like the Jetboil Flash Java Kit has been the go-to for moto campers for years. Another setup could be something like the x-pot kettle and x-mug and x-brew are great little small packing collapsable gear pieces that nest together that you can use to just brew coffee in the mornings.
If you decide you're not going to eat out all the time, one of the simplest ways to eat a meal at camp is with a dehydrated or freeze dried bagged meal. These meals come in all different flavors and some actually have their own built-in heating source where you just pour water into the bag and it will heat itself up. There are several other quick food options that require any heating and you can eat right from the bag or can, but that’s getting into some foods with lots of preservatives and probably isn’t giving your body the best fuel for your ride. Yes, SPAM is a motorcycle camping staple, just try not to eat it every night. What is handy with the dehydrated meals is having a long handled spoon or spork that way you can get to the bottom of the bag without getting your hands in the bag.
A Quick lunch on the side of the road during the 2023 Palmetto ADV Rally.
If dehydrated meals aren't for you and you'd rather have a real cooked meal, then you're going to need a kitchen setup with a stove, pots, pans, utensils, and eating vessels. There’s a huge variety out there and ultimately, you’ll need to prioritize your needs. The X series of collapsable gear from Sea to Summit can nest together and is ideal for stove use not a large open fire. OR you can get something that's hard sided that could be used over an open fire, but consider that it may pack a little larger and heavier. Keep in mind that the Sea to Summit collapsible pots are made for boiling water and cooking foods like pasta and rice that would dissipate heat from the aluminum bottom and silicone sides. If you want to sauté veggies, it’s best to pick up a non-stick frying pan.
If you want a deeper dive into your motorcycle camping kitchen setup, go check out this video from As the Magpie Flies.
Here’s what my typical meals look like while motocamping. Breakfast will consist of oatmeal or a granola bar and a cup of coffee. For lunch, we may stop at a local place if we’re in town, if not, we will stop at an overlook or picnic area and make one of the dehydrated meals, or pack of tuna, or a simple quick snack with nuts and fruit. After riding all day we like to wind down and cook a nicer dinner. On the way to the campground we'll try to stop at a store and pick up some fresh meat and vegetables so that way when we get to camp we'll just set up camp and start cooking.
In the end it depends on what you want to carry on the bike and what your dietary needs are along with your preferred style of camping and cooking.
Next we're going to talk about your personal hygiene while camping. Wipes are great in between showers but really when you hit a campground with a shower house, you're going to want a toiletry bag with all the essentials. There are plenty of options for travel towels that are made to pack small and dry quickly. Make sure you remember things like your toothbrush, some toothpaste, your deodorant, some soap or body wash and shampoo, unless you're going to use your body wash for everything. The most important part of hygiene to keep in mind is to wash or sanitize your hands before handling food and cooking. Speaking of cooking at camp, follow safe food handling and preparation guidelines to avoid cross contamination and ensure to clean up properly afterwards. We typically do a quick rinse/wash and wipe down with a high alcohol content hand sanitizer.
Next up we're going to talk about all the knick-knacks and accessories that you should consider bringing with you. Probably the number one item will be your phone charger. You can add USB ports to your bike if it doesn’t already have them to keep your phone and other accessories charged. If you like using your phone as your GPS, consider getting a mounting device with a charger built in. Let there be light! A lantern, or a headlamp, or both light sources are key to have with you. Battery banks are another thing that you may want to consider keeping with you if you're not going to be around a power source. A nice luxury item might also be a camp chair. Sometimes getting to camp and having a nice comfy seat to relax in makes it much more enjoyable. If you’re a solo traveler, consider getting a satellite messenger like the ZOLEO or Garmin inreach mini2 to keep in touch when you are out of cell phone range. These devices also have an SOS button to use in case of emergency and you have no cell signal.
You really should have a good understanding of what tools you need for basic repairs on your motorcycle. Your tool kit will vary widely too depending on where you are riding and what terrain. Some areas are so remote you need to be self-sufficient to get yourself out while other areas are close enough to civilization, you may only have to wait a couple of hours for a tow truck to come get you. I personally carry a tool kit that I put together with all the sockets, wrenches, and tools that I need for that specific motorcycle. On my older bikes I will also carry some spare parts like spark plugs, tubes, and a clutch and throttle cable. If you’re riding with a group, work together to share the tools and the load to help reduce weight and pack size.
You should also consider carrying a first aid kit along with antihistamine and bug/tick repellant. At a minimum, something to clean a wound and bandage it up.
Take a couple of test runs and figure out what you want versus what you need to take with you that fits your style of camping. Some people like to relax and unwind and will bring a book, some people like to bring a collapsible fishing pole, and some, like us, like to bring games. We actually like the little tabletop games that pack small so that way we can sit on the picnic table and play games while we are hanging out. Dominoes and dice games are great because they pack small and you won’t have to worry if they get wet, and won’t easily blow away.
Pack it up!
Soft and Hard Luggage
So now that you've decided on your shelter, sleeping system, and your food situation, it's time to decide how you're going to pack it on the motorcycle. This will depend on what kind of motorcycle you have and what luggage options are available for you. There are tons of universal options for soft and hard bags, it just depends on your personal preference and the riding style that you're doing. When I’m commuting, riding mostly on the street, and going to more populated areas, I prefer using hard cases. They are lockable, rigid, and if I were to go down at speed, they can handle a little more road rash than the soft bags would. A couple of cons would be that a hard drop could result in bending them and causing them not to be water tight or close properly, and those riding more off road could be at a higher risk of injury during a dab or drop. When I’m riding more low speed back roads and dirt, I favor the soft bags. If I drop the bike I’m not worried about the pannier getting dented and not shutting or sealing. The soft bags are also a little more forgiving when you dab or have an off where the pannier lands on your foot or leg. I currently use the Giant Loop Round the World Panniers on my R1250GS and absolutely love how light they are, and how many pockets and straps they have. They aren’t lockable, but you can buy accessory lockable cables and straps to give you peace of mind. I also have a hard top case / trunk on the back that we use for our kitchen gear and food that serves as a hard container to keep out bears and rodents, and doubles as a backrest.
Now depending on the tent you select, you may or may not be able to fit it in your pannier or saddlebag. Since we ride 2up a lot, everything has to fit in the panniers or trunk. If you ride solo, you could utilize a duffel stye bag like the Giant Loop Tillamook across the back seat to fit your tent if it’s too long for your side cases.
Now say you do run out of room, consider dry bags that can be strapped on to the bike in various locations. There's several brands and types from all the manufacturers out there, some like Giant Loop that are motorcycle specific, and some like Sea to Summit with their Big River Dry Bags that work well since they have lash loops that ROK Straps or Mondo Straps can go through and attach it to the motorcycle.
Some things people overlook are storage bags and packing cubes. Something really cheap and easy if you have a motorcycle helmet, is a motorcycle helmet bag. These are great to use to store your food or clothes. I like to keep everything separated and organized so when I pick it up, I already know what's in the bag, and it just makes it easier to grab and go whenever you're opening up your bags. Now this sometimes doesn’t always result in the tightest pack, but it’s the most manageable and rememberable to cut time digging through random bags searching for one item.
This how I usually group my items and bags:
- Toiletry bag with everything I would typically store in my bathroom at home, and some meds
- Clean clothes packing cube
- Dirty clothes bag
- Kitchen packing cube with all my cooking, eating, drinking, and clean up gear
- Food bag
- First Aid Bag in easy to access spot
- Tool Bag
- Electronics bag with chargers, batteries, cameras, etc.
- Ditty bag - small bag with knick-knacks that I usually store in an easy to access place like my tank bag that has ear plugs, quick snacks, lip balm, sun screen, headlamp, and other random everyday items you use throughout the day. The Giant Loop Zig-Zag Handlebar bag actually makes a good alternative to tank bags for small items.
When you're packing your bags you’ll want to make sure that you've got a balanced load between left and right with the heavier stuff down low and the lighter stuff up top. I pack my BMW R1250GS with the tent and sleep system in one pannier, clothes and some accessories in the other side pannier, and then the kitchen, toiletries, and food in the top case.
Once you get your bike loaded up it's a good idea to test a ride around and get a feel of the added weight and figure out if you need to shift the weight from one side to the other or more back or more forward.
Now that you've got everything you need to go moto camping it's time to plan your trip.There's tons of resources online to find campgrounds and campsites either dispersed or at an established campground. There are also motorcycle only campgrounds and here in the South Ease and North Carolina we are spoiled with them. You can refer to the Rider Resources on the Moto Camp Nerd website “Where to Camp” and we have a list of all the motorcycle only campgrounds throughout the entire United States. Other apps are available for free and you can use these as resources to find free camping sites or really cheap camping sites. Check out the Fireside Chat Blog articles for more resources like this Finding a Campsite For Your Next Motorcycle Camping Adventure article. For first time campers, I encourage the first trip to be at an established campground with all the amenities or go with already experienced campers to help you get settled in. This way if you forget something, the campground store might have what you need, or you might be close enough to town to ride in. Most of these will have shower houses, with water and possibly electric at the campsite.
Now if you’re wanting to get into backcountry dispersed camping, you’ll need to be self sufficient as these campsites will have no amenities and you may be a good ride away from town. We have this great article Guidlines For Dispersed Camping On Public Lands over on the Fireside Chat Blog.
After I've picked out my campground and campsite, I plan my route. I try to figure out what's along the way as far as resources, amenities, and cool destinations. Be sure to also check the weather in the area you’re going and pack accordingly.
Arriving At Camp
So you've been riding all day and you arrive at the campground, now what? Well, depending on the campground you picked there may be a main office you drive up to as you enter to check in. If you reserved or went to something like a State Park or a National Forest, there may not be an office at all. There may just be a pay box or camp host to check in with or if you've made your reservation online, you may just have to go to your campsite and set up without checking in. Pay attention when you reserve or do you research because every campground is different.
So get to your site, set up your tent in a level area without low spots that may flood if it rains, and look up for loose or possible falling branches. If you can’t find a level spot, make sure you set up your tent and bed so that your head is uphill and higher than your feet and that you aren’t rolling off the side of your pad. Enjoy camp for the night! If you decide to cook a meal, enjoy it, sit back and relax, it's part of the joys of camping. You're out in nature so you get to wind down, relax and disconnect from the world around you.
As we said in the beginning, there's so many ways and so many different styles to go motorcycle camping that there's no wrong way. It's all in your personal preference on what you decide and how you feel comfortable going motorcycle camping. Here at Moto Camp Nerd we try to facilitate all the different styles of motorcycle camping with all the gear that we have available for everybody. We make sure we get the smallest pack sizes available and we get good quality gear so that it's going to last you on the road. At the end of a long day riding, camping should be the easy part. Pack small. Camp easy. And don’t forget to Tread Lightly and Leave No Trace!