Now here's a load!
Carrying the Load

Every ride begins with a load, even if that load is just you. Add a passenger and the load goes up. However, except for a diet for you, and a rule about carrying fat chicks on your scooter, there's not much you can do about human loads.

But the rest of the stuff you carry can be managed, and ought to be managed well. Here are a few things to consider.

Each of those factors interacts with or impacts the others.

In The Beginning . . .
We're gonna approach this as if this were the first time you've ever packed your bike for a real trip. Once you've done it a few times, things sorta fall naturally into place, but you should always be looking for a better way to do it. Circumstances change the packing too. Maybe this time the ole lady is going along and you're staying in motels. Next time it might be just you camping out. The basic rules are the same; it's just the stuff that changes.

First of all, you have a fairly limited amount of space and load capacity, so try to think like a backpacker. Don't carry anything unless you know you're going to need it. Don't carry something heavy if you can get something light to replace it. Don't carry something bulky if you can get something compact. Don't carry something if you can pick up and dispose of something else that will do the job along the way (the best example of this is hammers; I know guys who carry hammers to pound tent pegs. I have to wonder what they think God made rocks for.) When you can, carry money instead of stuff. Money is lightweight, small, and can be turned into anything that man ever made except love. And it'll even get you a reasonable simulation of that if you have enough of it.

So first gather up all the stuff you want to take, from socks to screw drivers to sleeping bags. Put it all in a big heap out in the yard or in the garage. Don't try to sort it out yet, just look at it for now. Impressive heap, ain't it?

Go get a cup of coffee or a beer and watch a football game, or fool around with the ole lady or something for an hour or two. Come back and look at it again. Gather up and throw on the heap all the things you remembered you needed while you were watching the game.

And NOW you are ready to start the real job, that of selecting the stuff you need.

Look, it's nice to have a full set of tools along, but for their size, they are the heaviest things you can carry. So just carry tools that you know how to use for jobs you are prepared to do alongside the road. Don't carry a full set of sockets, just the few that fit bolts you might have to work on. Got a special bolt you can't get to with a socket? Carry the right open-end wrench, and only that one. Vice grips do anything pliers do, plus a few other things, so toss the pliers and carry vice grips. Don't carry six screwdrivers; carry one with six changeable tips. And so forth.
Cull the Stuff
Start by asking yourself "What must I have?" A lot of guys start out with a heap of stuff, then say "What can I get rid of." That's the wrong approach. You want to begin with what you know are the essentials, stuff you absolutely, positively, can't get by without. A guy who rides a 30-year old shovelhead, and knows how to change wheel bearings alongside the road because he's had to do it so often, is gonna have different "gotta-haves", for instance, than some guy on a new Twin Cam who has to look at the book to remember which way to loosen a bolt. You typically make underwear last a month, and you're only gonna be in the wind two weeks? Well, there shouldn't be jockeys in your stack at all, right?

OK, you've moved the "gotta have" stuff over into one pile. Throw your ole lady's "gotta have" stuff on there too. That'll take a while, 'cause a woman has a waaaay different view of "gotta have" than a man does, and you're gonna have a long discussion, maybe several discussions, with her about what goes on that heap.

Now let's say the "gotta have" heap is complete. Look at it again and make sure that there is absolutely nothing there that is not essential.

Once it is complete, sort it. There's no point wrapping your vice grips up in your wife's panties, is there? It'll make her cranky when she finds 'em there, and they'll be unhandy when you need 'em. What I'm gettin' at is, put stuff in logical heaps. Tools together, clothes together, sorted by wearer, camping gear in another heap, etc. You come up with your own organization for it.

Once you've got it sorted out you pack it. This is just a preliminary packing to see where the essential items fit. The best way to pack stuff is in bags, of course, even the things that are going in saddlebags if you have 'em. Those nylon duffle bags that you can find everywhere do a pretty good job at this stage. Tools need to go into a leather pouch or one made of heavy-duty canvas. If you only carry a few, and you get the right type of roll for them, you may be able to strap it on somewhere down low and forward, like on the frame downtubes behind the front wheel.

Some things need to be broken down below their first-level group and stored separately. Tools are a good example. You might carry 20 pounds of tools somewhere in the bottom of a saddlebag, but you don't need most of them day to day. However, you may very well want immediate access to a screwdriver or crescent wrench during the day, so pack your torque wrenches, vise, and cutting torch deep, but keep a small selection of common tools handy. The same holds for clothing. Your main stash of clothes needs to be put away, but if you carry rain gear, keep it handy. If it's buried deep you won't be inclined to dig it out when you hit rain, and will wind up riding soaked. That's a bad idea.
Load for Control
Start putting stuff on the bike now. Here's where packing interacts with handling. The basic rule is to try to keep the weight down low and between the axles as much as possible. The absolute WORST place for weight is high and back, followed by up on the forks. The photos below illustrate exactly what I am talking about.
A Bad Example
On a recent ride I was keeping an eye out for a bike to use as an example of the bad things you can do when I came across this one in Truckee, California. He has made just about every mistake you can make but one: he doesn't have a bunch of stuff hanging off loose and flapping. He might have soon, though.

I'll be referring back to this photo as we go along, so if you click the image, a larger version will show up in a separate window for your examination. For now, let's just look at where he has placed his stuff.

To start with, you've got to understand that the bike is a lever, with its weight (including you and your gear) being the load the lever works on, and your inputs as rider (including throttle and brakes) being the force to move that weight. What you must do is set the lever up so that the weight has the least mechanical advantage working against you.

Not only will weight take advantage of leverage against you, but so will wind loads, especially from the side. Look at the photo. The guy has what amounts to a huge sail hung out back and up high. Every gust of wind will hit that thing and try to knock the bike over. Get it down low, guys.
I'm going to start with a simplified example of how weight and levers work, and hope you can apply it to the bike. If you can grasp this basic idea, lots of things will be clear to you.

Let's take a pole as tall as you are, stand it on end, and put a 100 pound weight on the very top of it. Now you stand there and hold the pole right in the middle. As long as it's perfectly balanced and standing still, no problem. But how well will you be able to control the weight once it moves off-center? It'll be pretty hard, huh? And the farther off center it goes, the harder it will be and the slower you'll be able to bring it back up.

Now let's take that weight and move it down to the center of the pole, and you hold the top of the pole. You got better control, right? Well, the load on the bike acts the same way. And remember, levers act in all directions, so if you push that load backwards (which is the effect you get when you accelerate and the rear wheel tries to move out from under it,) it will try to pivot backwards around the rear tire contact patch, thus lifting the front end.

So what we have here in this photo is a bike that, when leaned over, will be difficult and slow to bring back upright. When it accelerates, it will want to lift the front wheel off the ground. While it may not actually come up (but there's good chance on this example that it will) , it will get light and lose some of its "bite" on the road.

This load can also induce a steering wobble. It's a little hard to visualize why, so refer to the sketch, and see if you can follow the explanation. Let's give the load (the square in the drawing) a push from the side, say a gust of wind. For this explanation ignore the fact that it will make the motorcycle lean over; imagine that you counter that effect.

What it will also do is try to make the bike "twist" around the rear contact patch, like a lever. Remember how a lever works when the fulcrum is not at the center? A small movement on the short end results in a larger, but weaker, movement on the long end? Well, that's what happens here.

Now you might think that the bike can't pivot like that because the front contact patch will resist it. Partly true, BUT - there is a hinge (the steering neck) between the front and rear contact patches. That "hinge" will be deflected somewhat, which amounts to a steering input as it twists the front end, so you'll get a twitch in the steering.

It works the other direction too, but it is a little harder to visualize.

To make it easy to imagine, suppose that for some reason the rider gives one end of the handlebar a sharp rap. That will put a deflection into the "hinge" that will be passed back through the chassis to the load, pivoting a bit around the rear contact patch. The load will move slightly out of line, then snap back. As it comes back, it feeds in an input through the chassis just as though it had been hit with a wind gust, which makes the steering twist again. Under the wrong combination of circumstances, that process can become self-feeding, and turn into a speed wobble.

But as long as the inputs are not too strong and the load not too heavy, and the steering head is well-maintained, it will resist those impluses and not be a problem.

None of these motions works independently, of course; each feeds its inputs into the other. And when they all add up the wrong way, the motorcycle winds up riding you down the road.

So, to minimize the problems, envision that load broken down into smaller parts. It'll still be the same amount of weight but you can put it in better places. Move heavy stuff out of the trunk and down into saddlebags. That moves it low, like the load on the pole, and makes it much easier to control because it has less leverage working against you and the bike. By being on a lateral line with the tire contact patch it feeds no inputs into the chassis like we explored above. All in all, the best place for a load is low and between the axles. That's why they put the engine there, you know.

Now that you have your "gotta have" load properly distributed you can begin to put on the stuff you want to take along. Following the overall rule shown above, jam it into empty space, or tie it on wherever you can, heavier stuff low and forward, and things like sleeping bags in the higher spots. Make sure you leave space for anything you might pick up during the trip. If you don't have room for something you pick up you'll be tempted to put it on the bike some stupid way, like tied onto the front end with a set of bootlaces or something. Which leads us into the next subject.


Stuff on the Front End
OK, Bronson looked cool with his bedroll lashed to the front end, and Fernando Lamas does it on Renegade and it looks great, right? Well, yeah. But. . .

Depending on what you put there, and where you put it, it can be a real bad deal. I don't do it, and I don't recommend it if there's any way out of it. Having stuff on the front end can affect your suspension and your steering.

Now this is well-packed.
This guy has, as the saying goes, his shit in a neat little heap. Note that nothing is stacked up high. It's all tied down tight. From talking to him I know that his entire bedroom and kitchen are in the green and dark blue bags, his jacket is the light blue thing, and his clothes, tools, and food are in his saddlebags. He's a road dog, for sure.

We gotta start with another physics lesson, but it's simple, so pay attention. Objects at rest tend to remain at rest and objects in motion tend to remain in motion until they are acted upon by an outside force. And the heavier the object is the more it tends to stay still or stay moving. That means it takes more of an outside force to move it or stop it. This tendency is called inertia. End of lesson. There will be a test later (out on some dark and stormy road someday,) so I trust you took notes.
So, let's take the classic sleeping bag on the front fender. It only weighs three or four pounds, right? Or maybe six or seven if it's an old K-Mart special with kapok insulation. If it is actually on the fender, tied to the sliders, it becomes unsprung weight; in effect it makes the front wheel heavier, maybe as much as 15% heavier. That means it will have more intertia once a bump gets it moving, and that means the front end responds more harshly to bumps. The wheel transmits more shock through the springs to the chassis because it is a heavier weight being thrown up against the springs in the fork.
The purpose of springs in the suspension is not to cushion your ass, although it has that happy effect too. They are there to keep the wheels pressed down against the road, so you can control the bike. If the wheel is up in the air because the springs can no longer press it back down quickly due to its upward inertia, then you have just lost that much control.
It also means that when the wheel is deflected sideways, either by a bump or by the rider with the bars, it has just that much more tendency to keep moving in the direction it was pushed, and will resist being brought back that much more. That means slower steering response.

You've also got the potential problem of the load on the fender jamming up between the fender as it rises, and the triple clamp. In that case, you just lost the effect of your springs, and the load becomes the spring. If it happens to you I hope at least that the load is a sleeping bag, and it has some "give" to it.

So if you just GOTTA tie something to the front end, keep it above the sliders; you want it to be "sprung" weight.

So that just leaves us the handlebars, right? Or on top of the headlight, which is pretty much the same thing. That's not actually such a bad deal, as long as the load is light weight. Otherwise, you still wind up with that inertia problem: give the handlebars a twist and they'll want to keep moving, or won't want to move quickly. With a light weight it's not really an issue though.

That doesn't mean it's not without problems. You've still got something up there that can come loose and get tangled up between the handlebars and the bike, or you. And it can also feed wind gust unputs into the steering, but Harley's big fairing does that too, so no big deal. If you are careful about tying it on, well, you'll probably be all right, but I don't recommend it.

The best way to go of course, is to put everything into saddlebags and maybe even a trunk on a stout luggage rack. If the boxes aren't weathertight, then use bags in 'em that are.

Some don't have those items, and others (like me on a camping run) have more stuff than will fit in those locations, so we put it on the back seat and lashed to the top of the saddlebags. If you can afford those good expedition bags, heavy-duty nylon or Cordura coated with vinyl that are everything-proof, use them. They are available from outfitters such as Cabela's, REI, or Brigade Quartermaster. Incidentally, all these places have great gear for backpackers, which is also very useful for us on scooters.

And now I'm gonna do a free plug for the best damn gear you can use to pack things onto your scooter. Drop by Helen Two Wheels site. This woman makes bags and straps especially designed for use on bikes. She's a long-rider herself, so she knows what we need.

However, most of us don't have purpose-built gear; we gotta make do with what we have at hand. Here are the basic rules for actually setting and securing up your load, as opposed to distributing it, which was covered earlier. They are not gospel engraved on parchment scrolls; they just work for me, and have for 30 years.

  • First pack for water, then over that, for wind. What that means is first make sure your load is waterproof if it matters, then cover that up with something that will resist the persistent attempts by wind to unpack your load.
  • A couple large bags are better than lots of little bags. Small bags have a way of slipping and sliding around under their bindings, then going away when you aren't looking. If you use small ones, put them together into a bigger one, or lash them together into one package.
  • If you wrap stuff in a tarp, or put it in a bag with lots of slack in the skin, before you secure the bag to the bike either tape or tie down all the places that will flap in the wind. I guarantee that if you try to take care of the slack with your actual tiedowns you are either going to wind up with the loose material flapping in the breeze, or slack in the tiedowns, or both.
  • Don't even think about using trash bags for an exterior skin on a load. It'll whip itself to death right quick, or the tiedowns will cut it to pieces. They do work OK for waterproofing if you have a windproof skin over 'em.
  • As you ride in the rain the water is driven into crevices in your load. As much as possible, make sure an crevices are not exposed to direct windblast, or in a location that water will puddle up and run down into your load.
Securing it
  • Use good-quality bungee cords and nylon straps with positive buckles. Avoid ropes, but if you gotta use 'em, use nylon. It has some spring to it that will allow it to handle surges that hit the load, then spring back. I like the 3/16ths woven stuff. And learn a few knots that really hold well, but release easily when you want them to.
  • If you use straps with cam-lock buckles, have a long enough end on the strap to allow it to be wrapped back around the buckle and secured so that the buckle won't pop open.
  • Secure your load to frame or solid points on the bike such as rings on the saddlebags. Keep in mind that the ring is no better a lashing point than whatever attaches it to the saddlebag. A big, hefty ring held by a thick leather tab attached to the bag by a single skimpy rivet is not much good.
  • Do not secure one piece of the load to another one, or hook one bungie cord or strap to another up on the load. For example, don't secure your tent to the luggage rack, then tie your sleeping bag to the tent. Every cord or strap should hook to a solid point on the bike, or on something that is firmly attached to the bike.
    TIP: You've probably seen straps like this that are usually used to tie a bike to a trailer. You can also loop them around your frame or rack rails and hook bungie cords to them.
  • Critical items should have two tiedowns, each independent of the other.
  • Do not wrap bungee cords around tight bends; it can chafe and break them.
  • Loads should be supported by the structure of the bike and secured to it by the cords or straps. Don't make the straps or cords fight gravity themselves; that's the job of something solid.
Have another look at the photo of the loaded Honda at the top of this article. Click here to bring it up. Note the yellow arrows. They point to weak spots in the load process.

Look at the point indicated by the left center arrow. The guy has used grass rope to secure his load, which is a bad idea. Not terminally stupid, but not very good, either. Try not to use rope at all except maybe to lash things together, like two bags that will be secured together to the bike by something else. Better yet, save rope for use in camp and use straps with positive buckles, or bungee cords to secure the load.

Note just below that same arrow how he has just looped the rope around a fairly sharp edge where the round pipe of the rack is stamped flat. That is a natural stress point for the rope, and while that edge may not be sharp enough to cut it, it can sure-enough chafe it in half over time.

Which leads to the next point. Look at the top arrows; they point to a snap connector and a bungee net hook attached to the rope.

Now on the one hand, that's sort of a good thing. The bungee net has some spring to it, so if the rope develops slack in that area the bungee will take it up.

Those two hookups are a very bad idea though. If the rope breaks the loose end will slip out of those two hookups, leaving them loose. It also looks like if one part of the rope breaks, the whole damn thing will be loose. If you are going to use a rope, tie it off every time you reach a hard point, don't just loop it around.

Now look at the bottom arrow. It points to a spot where his luggage rack bracket has broken before. Despite that demonstration of weakness, he has tied everything he has to that bracket or the box it supports. Bad move, 'cause I'd bet that it's gonna break again. You can see that it's already bent from the stress.

He's got a couple good bungee cords, but they appear to be going to waste stretched between the luggage rack and the bar across the back of the box.

Overall, this load is a disaster looking for a place and time to happen.

From a convenience standpoint, he has a hard time taking just one thing off. It's all too tied up together to make it easy.

Worst case for him though, would be if that luggage rack strut breaks. The other side probably won't break off too, it will bend and leave him trying to handle a bike with all that junk hanging off the right side in a tangle of steel and rope. No thanks, not me.

Or maybe lucky for him it would break off clean and fall away behind. Heaven help the folks following him, especially if they are on bikes. And oncoming traffic if a following car bunts the junk off into their lane.

How you manage your load will have a lot to do with both convenience and safety, yours, and others. Take great care to do it up right: it matters.