How to Prepare for a Backcountry Adventure Ride

By Lukas Eddy. So, you’ve got an off-road capable motorcycle, some camping gear and the inspiring visions of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round motivating you to set off on an adventure motorcycle trip of your own. But where in the massive universe of “farkles”(short for “functional sparkles” – upgrades for your steed), gear, parts and luggage options do you begin?

It’s best to approach these in a categorized process to narrow down what you’ll need and want to take along. Looking back, Bill Dragoo, an experienced adventure rider, racer, riding instructor and motorcycle journalist wishes he had simply started adventure riding earlier in life, so don’t hesitate to start exploring the world around you in arguably the best way to do so.

Trip Planning :

You should establish only a rough outline of what you’d like to do with this trip. Is there a planned end date? Landmarks or people to see along the way? This guide will assume your trip will be primarily based on off-road backcountry riding. It’s recommended to keep exact plans and itinerary limited to give yourself the freedom to enjoy the experience.

“For me the key has been…to know that things are not gonna go as planned,” says Steph Terrien, an established adventure rider who’s been riding on and off since she was 8. For any trip, however, adventure riders take into account weather possibilities, access to food and water, and the type of terrain they’ll cross.

Gear :

You’ll be going farther than the grocery store, and this is what will keep you safe and comfortable when it’s rainy, cold and muddy, so luggage setup and gear will be instrumental. This is no place to cheap out. The owner of Zacker Adventures riding school Todd Zacker, among others, suggests buying better quality gear from the start instead of running through lower quality equipment before finally getting the high-end stuff anyways. Zacker Adventures Operations Manager Nick Zacker, Todd Zacker, Terrien and Dragoo all wish they had known to bring fewer things when they started adventure riding, because when your setup weighs less you’ll have more fun with it. For example, Nick Zackers luggage setup weighs almost half as much now as it did when he started, so expect yours to evolve over time but get a head start by bringing less than you may initially want to.

Helmet : “What’s your head worth? A hundred bucks?” Todd Zacker asks. “Then buy a hundred dollar helmet. If your head’s worth five hundred dollars or six hundred dollars and you want to be comfortable, buy a good helmet.”

Dirt helmets and “adventure” helmets that can accept goggles are recommended to keep your face shield from fogging up, but if all you’ve got for now is a normal helmet it’ll still protect your skull. Ultimately it’s your preference, but a quality DOT, ECE 22.05 and/or Snell certified helmet that fits properly and comfortably is the priority.

Boots : Many riders like waterproof boots, such as the Sidi Adventure Gore-Tex boots worn by Todd Zacker and Dragoo. Terrien plans to buy those as well when her Sidi Adventure Rain boots wear out. But if you’ve already got non-waterproof motocross boots you can couple those with waterproof Gore-Tex socks, which is what Nick Zacker and others do. Your boots should be stiff and high rising to protect your legs from your bike and obstacles. If you don’t think your motocross boots are comfortable enough for an adventure ride, there are softer but less protective “adventure” or “dualsport” boot options. Just know that when riders like Todd Zacker go on more aggressive adventure rides they do tend to opt for motocross boots. When it comes to protection or mobility it will be up to you where to draw the compromise, just don’t bother cheaping out on boots.

Pants, Jacket and Gloves : Abrasion resistance and functional pockets are why you shouldn’t just use a light mesh jersey. Comfort, durability and customer support all tend to get better with higher pricing, so keep that in mind. Klim, Touratech, Rev’It and Aerostich are some of the many reputable gear companies available.

Rain Gear : Bill Dragoo, Todd Zacker and Nick Zacker wear Klim riding gear that has waterproof Gore-Tex built in, while others like Terrien prefer wearing a larger separate rain jacket and pants over her gear so she can easily put them on when it starts raining. You can ease costs by wearing less expensive hiking rain gear.

Clothing/Comfort : “You’re gonna use a lot less than you actually think you’re going to when it comes to packing for when you’re not riding,” Nick Zacker says. Still, Terrien is a proponent of some camp comforts like an inflatable pillow and sleeping pad, but emphasizes prioritization of the limited space for necessities. Bring two sets of non-cotton base layers so that one can be either dry or drying while you wear the other set. Dragoo lightly washes his base layers at the end of each day to keep them fresh. Some bring a cheap pair of flip flops to air their feet out, or hiking boots to explore the area after reaching camp, but you can still get away with hiking around in riding boots. Extra pairs of merino wool socks are ideal for extended trips because they’re antimicrobial, durable and insulate when wet. At the end of a wet day, Todd Zacker stuffs paper into his boots and Dragoo powders the insides with Gold Bond to help absorb moisture.

To Keep You Functioning : Food, water and shelter. Camping gear suppliers offer great, simple options for food production like an aluminum pot, an isobutane-propane stove and some simple utensils. Nick Zacker uses an extremely light aluminum can alcohol (yellow HEET) stove. Dragoo, Terrien and both Zackers advocate for hydration packs for water while riding. Having supplemental water on your bike is also recommended in case the middle-of-nowhere gas station doesn’t have accessible water, and if you’re really remote, a way to treat water is a must.

Shelter should be whatever you’re comfortable with, be it a hammock, tent or hotel, but it should be light. Minimalist backpacking tents or lightweight hammock systems like the Jacks R Better setups that both Zackers use are ideal because of their weight and small packing size. An individual first aid kit is important to have for yourself or anyone that needs help.

To Keep Your Bike Functioning : Bring the tools you use for normal maintenance, but don’t bring anything you don’t need such as tools not meant for your bike or duplicate tools. Spare parts such as control levers can be good, but a more effective investment is a pair of solid lever guards. Todd Zacker, Terrien, and Dragoo all carry tubes and patch/plug kits – even though both of their bikes run tubeless tires – as well as a small amount of various tapes, epoxies like JB Weld and lots of zip-ties. Chain cleaning and lubrication is very important, but one of the most frequently neglected areas. Automatic chain oilers are convenient, but a cheaper option is to lube your chain simply as often as needed. Before oiling her chain Terrien uses an old toothbrush for cleaning to extend the life of her sprockets and chain.

Bike Protection : Depending on your bike you may want crash bars and likely a skid plate, but sturdy lever guards are highly recommended for any adventure motorcycle. Many bikes have small quirks that need specialized protective pieces, so research those.

Luggage : Keep heavy items low and towards the center of the bike. Hard luggage is not recommended for technical terrain and remote areas. In cities it can be nice to lock your luggage, but all the riders emphasize both the dangers of using hard cases in difficult terrain as well as the benefits of using soft bags. Hard luggage weighs more and is unforgiving on impacts with both you and obstacles. In his classes Dragoo likes to compare hard and soft luggage as “getting hit in the back of the calf with a cinderblock or getting hit in the back of the calf with something like an underinflated basketball.” Soft bags are lighter, they keep gear from rattling round, are less likely to damage you in a spill and some luggage systems from Giant Loop, Mosko Moto and Wolfman don’t even need a bulky metal rack to carry them. Dragoo and I both know people who have broken bones from hard luggage crushing their leg, so unless you need to use hard luggage it should be avoided.

Bike Preparation : Take care of preliminary maintenance such as changing your oil, cleaning your air filter and checking wear items such as brake pads, tires, chain and wheel bearings. All bikes have their own maintenance schedules, so make sure you won’t exceed important intervals for things like valve adjustments. Check fluid levels for brakes, clutch, coolant and oil. Confirm your tire pressure is at the proper level for the load you’re carrying. Have the knowledge to troubleshoot and fix your motorcycle. Even though people poke fun at their clean bikes, Todd Zacker and Nick Zacker wash their motorcycles thoroughly before any adventure ride to help them in their thorough check for everything from loose fasteners to proper chain tension.

Mindset :

Things are going to go wrong. Parts you paid money for are going to break. The weather will get ugly. These are the realities of adventure riding, they are what justify the use of the word “adventure” instead of just calling it “riding”. The goal here is the journey, not the destination, so it’s important to be relatively loose in planning your expectations to provide room for new experiences.

When things do go wrong, Todd Zacker does his best to “always look at it as life could be so much worse – you could not be on that trip,” and to take the time to stop what he’s doing and enjoy where he is. If attitudes drop, he has found that pulling off to talk to locals is a great way to refresh yourself and, of course, they know where to get the best food. Dragoo supports the approach of also embracing the moment, good or bad, for it can always be looked at as a learning opportunity. When parts break, Dragoo recommends finding productive ways to fill the time, even if what you’re doing is to “stay busy until someone comes up with a better idea,” because at some point progress will happen. “If you don’t have a set plan there’s nothing to go wrong,” Terrien said, while emphasizing that she limits overarching expectations and urges others to focus on enjoying the adventure as a journey.

This guide is not a fully comprehensive list of the exact gear and bike setup you need, but it should stimulate some thought about preparations for your backcountry ride. Just remember to expect the unexpected, appreciate every experience for what it is and to aim for lightweight simplicity. As Todd Zacker said before a frigid spring ride from Tennessee to Michigan, “ride safe, but have fun!”