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The Rally Virgin

January 27, 1999
The Rally Virgin

Welcome to my inaugural rant. In preparation for spring and the opening of this year's riding season I was going over notes from last year and I hit upon something that sat in my gullet: the first-time rally attendee.

I got more than a few e-mails and phone calls from people who had just bought (or were in the process of buying) motorcycles and wanted in on this whole rally thing. For the most part, the questions have been the same or at least very similar, always with an oddball thrown in. Going over my e-mails, I've included some of the better ones here. As always. if you have a question, e-mail me - who knows, it may even end up below :)

Q: What is a Rally?
A: A rally is typically an organized gathering of motorcyclists, usually a local club's annual event. They usually start Friday afternoon and conclude Sunday around lunchtime. For the most part, rallies are open to any who want to attend and the cost is typically about $25 with at least camping, a meal or two, doorprize drawings, and rally pin included in the price (some rallies are pre-register only or invite-only, though these are very much the minority.)

Q: What is a good "first rally" to attend?
A: Your local club rally is a great place to start. It will probably be close enough for an easy day's ride and the people you will meet will probably make up most of your permanent riding partners. The BMW MOA page has a great listing of local clubs. If you've missed it or you're itching to go to a rally and can't wait, ask local club members at a club meeting which rallies they will be attending (then see if you can tag along :)

Q: How do I find someone to go with?
A: First and foremost, ask the members of your local club (club meetings, club rides, etc.) You might also check out the IBMWR list and keep an ear open for local people planning a ride. When you find someone, don't be shy about asking to tag along. BMW motorcyclists are a pretty inclusive bunch and there is usually always room for one more. A caller recently asked if it would be OK to put a notice in the club newsletter the he is a new rider looking for riding partners to area rallies - what a great idea.

Q: Any hints on what gear to bring and how to pack?
A: This will be a long one as there are as many opinions as there are types and colors of tents. I will list what I have learned works well, then list some alternatives. Note that some rallies provide bunkrooms, and at some rallies (namely the MOA and RA Nationals) you may want to consider staying at a nearby motel.

Camping Gear

  • Tent
    Buy a good tent, period. There are few things as miserable as packing up a wet tent and sleeping bag Sunday morning after a fitful and soggy night's sleep. I use an LL Bean 2-man dome tent and it has proven bulletproof (and waterproof) from the Dolly Sods Wilderness to the tip of Nova Scotia. It does not pack down nearly as much as some other tents, but it is inexpensive and you cannot beat the customer service. Some other manufacturers of tents can be found on the REI and Campmor pages. While the dome seems to be the most popular style, many favor the mini not-free-standing style, the "A-Frame" style, and some (with plenty of room to spare) prefer the huge multi-room tents.
  • Sleeping Bag
    Slightly less annoying than a leaky tent is a sleeping bag that is either not warm enough or not cut correctly. Bags are rated by comfort at a certain temperature (Fahrenheit degrees, with the bag being used with a sleeping pad.) While available in several different cuts, most manufacturers of quality bags have abandoned the "square" cut for the "mummy" cut. Some bags are cut very generously in width and length, while some are quite narrow (and confining...) The North Face Cat's Meow is an excellent bag at a good price that will cover most of your needs, but you will have to your nearest camping store to lay down in a few and find out what fits you best.
  • Sleeping Pad
    Basically there are three types (from most to least popular): a Thermrest, a foam pad, or a blow-up air mattress. The Thermarest is the most popular because it is basically an air mattress that packs down to smaller than a foam mattress yet is easy to inflate. They are not inexpensive (between $35 and $65) but are extremely rugged and will last a long time. Foam pads are the least expensive, but are not very compact and do not last long. Further, they are typically only about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch thick. They typically cost around $12 to $17. Air mattresses are a luxury as they are usually about 4" thick when blown up, and provide by far the most comfortable sleep. While they are not terribly expensive ($20 or so), they are almost impossible to fully inflate without an accompanying $20 12v air pump. They pack to a moderate size and are easy to deflate and pack.
  • Helpful Stuff
    Kermit Chair - You can buy less expensive folding chairs but none that will last as long or fit as well as the Kermit. They run about $70 and are not easy to find. You can get buy with a tripod cheapie until then (about $15)
    Flashlight - You'll need at least a mini-mag light for those late-night trips to the nearest tree. You can get fancy head-mounted rig or simply go for the small and incredible durable mini Mag Lite. About $10
    Pack Towel - These lightweight beauties soak up buckets of water yet back down to the size of a bar of soap. About $10
    Outdoor Research Toiletry Kit - Has 4 loops for sample-size containers of shampoo, deodorant, etc., plus zippered mesh and velcroed slip pockets for toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc., a mirror and a hanging loop. About $14
  • Other Stuff
    Aside from a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping bag everything else is fluff and optional. Most other things you will want (hot coffee, hot food, etc.) are available on the rally site or a short ride away. You will see people bringing mini pack stoves & cooksets, lanterns, canopies and even folding tables. Pack minimally then work your way up to what you are comfortable carrying.


  • As a general rule, after you pack, repack with half the clothes and twice the cash (thanks to Dana Preising for that proven gem :)
  • I usually bank on a pair of underwear, socks, and a t-shirt for each day with a pair of jeans and a pair of shorts for the trip. I also take along a fleece and a pair of comfortable shoes. That is it! If you plan on swimming, take along a second set of shorts :)

Packing it

  • Hard cases - Do you have bag liners yet? If not the Kathy's Cordura Liners are worth the $80 - just make sure to Scotch-Guard them :) I use one liner for all my clothes and my PackTowel (the OR Dop Kit fits easily in the expansion pocket.) I use the other liner for smaller random items that will leave me enough room to jam in my tankbag should I want to secure it while I am off of the bike. During extended travel, I usually make on liner the clean clothes liner and the other the dirty. Liners also make excellent pillows :)
  • Tankbag - The center of your touring universe :) Here you will keep everything you will need during the ride, things like a camera, cell phone, wallet (you're not ruining your spine by leaving it in your back pocket are you?), maps, tin of change and individually folded $1-dollar bills for tolls, powerbars, Wee-Willy visor cleaner, sun shield for the nose, etc. The BMW Multivario tankbags are tailor made for the bikes and I have never seen a better K-bike tank bag - it even detatches from the base and with the attached shoulder strap can easily be toted along.
  • Dry Bag or U-Pack - I use an REI drybag ($23.00) which I mount across the passenger portion of the seat (Pic). I like the REI bag because it has a strong and waterproof handle through which straps and bungees can be used to secure the bag. I use both straps and bungee cords. The straps run $1.50 each from REI and are used to hold the bag tight and not allow any movement. I use bungees, $1.85 each from REI, as a safety backup should one of the straps fail. The drybag easily holds my tent, my thermarest, my campchair, my camp kit (Gaz mini stove & lantern, stainless nested cookset & coffee) and my Gerbings heated jacket liner.

Q: OK, this is my first road trip - any hints on riding with others?
A: Yes :)

  1. Time. Work on being ready to go before your riding partners. Few things aggravate fellow riders more than a rider that is always late at gas stops, after meals, and especially packing up to leave in the morning. If you find your riding partners on their bikes staring at you while you are fiddling with something on your bike, that is a strong hint you need to speed it up a bit. This does not mean that if you are last to get to the pump you are instantly a problem, but it does mean that as the new rider you need to be extra careful of your time.
  2. Riding Habits. Let your riding partners lead while you follow. Do: Carefully observe how much space they feel comfortable leaving between bikes and don't let your gap be any tighter. Do Not: switch tracks unless the rider ahead of you does; change lanes out of formation; pass the rider ahead of you in the same lane ever. Remember that you are there as a guest and the way they ride is the way they in all likelihood want you to ride.
  3. Gas. Make sure you tank up whenever your riding partners do, and that you arrive at all meeting spots full of gas.
  4. Equipment. Few things are more annoying than riding with an ill-prepared rider. Check your tires and your bike thoroughly before heading out for a trip! I always hear horror stories about riders that arrive at a rally with a bald tire and expect everyone to drop everything to find a new one. If it is nearing then end of its life expectancy, replace it! Some tires (like Metzelers) look great until the last 400 miles when the proceed to go totally to cord (note that I myself was guilty of this on my very first rally trip.) If you do not feel confident inspecting your bike for a long trip, bring it to your dealer and ask them to look it over. Make sure you have easy access to things like gas and toll money, and that you don't need to make a special stop for things like cool drinks. Yes, my own nightmare riding partner was a guy that took forever to get ready, insisted on hunting down a particular brand of gasoline so he could use his gas card, needed to repeatedly stop at payphones to make (long) calls to his wife, went to cord on both tires, then suffered a breakdown because he had neglected to change his brake fluid in 4 years.
  5. Maps & Directions - Make sure you not only have maps for where you are going but have familiarized yourself with them. Make sure you have directions to meeting points and to destinations (I keep them in a zip-loc baggy in the map compartment of my Multivario - use the zip-loc not only to keep the printed material dry, but to keep the ink from transferring to the inside of the clear vinyl of the map window.)

Q: Anything I should do to plan for the trip?
A: Be prepared :)  In all seriousness, the number one complaint about new riding partners is lack of preparation (followed closely by lack of consideration...) Being prepared, being on time, and conforming to your partner's riding style will make you a welcome addition to a riding circle.

Q: How do I know if my bike is ready, what things do I need to have on the bike for a road trip?
A: Good questions! Is your bike current with ALL scheduled maintenance? If not, don't leave your town limits until it is. Not sure what they are? Contact your local dealer, he will furnish you with a scheduled maintenance sheet that BMW puts out listing all maintenance items and the scheduled intervals. Check your tires! If they are more than 2/3 spent, replace them before the rally season starts. If you are not sure how much life you have left on them, ask your dealer for his opinion. Remember, old tires wear faster than new ones. If you have any doubt, go ahead and replace them. Here are some things you should keep on your bike (all this will fit in the tail cowling) for any trips: (r-required, o-optional) - update, see the rant on "Being Prepared" :)

  • a complete BMW toolroll (r)
  • a spare set of spark plugs (o unless you have a K75 then r)
  • Miscellaneous stuff  like a spare oil filler cap & a spare clutch cable (o)
  • a spare fuel filter (r)
  • BMW first aid kit (r)
  • BMW tire repair kit (r)
  • BMW Bulb kit (r)
  • small stuff sack with duct tape, some zip-ties and various other bits (o)
  • Zip-loc baggie with emergency sheet & matches. The emergency sheet should be a photocopy of your drivers license, registration & insurance info, with emergency contact numbers, blood type, any allergies, health insurance, etc. written on the other side.

Q: OK, walk me through going to a rally.
A: OK, here goes

  • Day -1, Prepare & Pack
    a. Pack your clothes. Lay all your clothes on a table. Now do you really need all this stuff? Put some stuff back in your closet :)  Pack what you have in one of the bag liners. Have stuff left over? Put it back in the closet :)
    b. Pack your Tankbag. Do you have maps and directions you'll need? Your Cell phone fully charged? Forget the Powerbars? Have change for tolls? Chapstick? Swiss Army Knife? Camera? Small notepad and pen for taking notes (to keep mileage and make writing a trip report easier.) National Park Passport?
    c. Money. Cash, you'll need it and more of it than you think. Figure on about $40 a day for gas, food and other incidentals. Remember to include at least $100 for emergency cash (don't budget for this, it is for emergencies ONLY.)
    e. Pack your drybag. If your equipment is new, have you tried everything out? Can you set your tent up in the dark? Tent in first, so that the polls are next to the drybag handle. Then the campstool, the sleeping pad and finally the sleeping bag. Everything else will fit in around.
    f. Riding Gear. Have your gear ready to go, Aerostich (or the suit of your choice), good armored riding boots, good gloves, helmet (clean the screen, polish with a little Pledge - yes really!) Suit up and sit on the packed bike - are you comfortable? Tomorrow morning is simply too late to find out something is broken or doesn't fit right.
    g. Pack the bike. If the bike is not in a secure place, pack it anyway, then unpack it. I recommend the drybag, but many people have many different ways of doing it. Whatever way you choose, make sure your bag(s) is rock solid, as in will not move an inch, that it is waterproof, comfortable when sitting on the bike, and that it is solid and not moving an inch (yes, that needs to be repeated!)
  • Day 1, On the Road
    Suit up, pack up and go. Did you remember to put your wallet in your tankbag or the interior pocket of your riding suit? Remember to leave time to stop and go to the bathroom and get gas (inevitably as soon as you are suited up you'll have to go to the bathroom.) Be at your predetermined meeting spot early. Nothing like starting off a trip on a bad note by being late and leaving your riding partners champing at the bit.
    After talking a bit at the meeting spot, your ride leader (generally the person that put the ride together, the person who knows where he is going or the person best at spotting radar traps) will usually tell everyone where you are going and go over some basic signals - usually a finger pointing at the tank for "I need gas", a hand patting on the top of the head for "I think there are police about", and the groin point for "I need to take a leak." Be ready to go as soon as your riding partners are, and follow for the first few hours. Observe riding styles, following distances and speeds. Fill up every time everyone else does, whether you need to or not. Your sole aim is to make it as though you weren't even there.
    When you get to the rally site, you will need to park your bike at the registration tent and go register. For your $25 you will usually get a cup, a pin, a meal ticket, some door prize tickets, a rally program, and they will usually adorn you with a hospital bracelet signifying that you are legit.
    Time to find a spot to pitch your tent. Follow your friends, they probably have an idea where the good camping is. Look for access to bathrooms (close but not too close ;), nearness to the "quiet camping" area, and availability of shade-giving trees. - remember your Boy Scout training (never in a crease or culvert or you'll be swimming in a storm, as level as possible with your head pointing uphill, feel for rocks or twigs that would tear the tent floor and bruise the back.) Unroll your sleeping pad, your sleeping bag, stow your liners and put your tankbag out of sight and as far from the tent flap as possible (to prevent wandering hands - very, very rare but it does unfortunately happen...)
    Dinner time! Find your friends and ride out to dinner, don't forget to pick up ice and some drinks on the way back to the rally! Drink too much, laugh a lot and go to sleep too late.
  • Day 2, At the Rally
    Ahhh Saturday Morning. You have a ton of choices ahead of you. You can stick around the rally site and watch the field events or you can have a quick breakfast and go out and explore. Some of the best times I have had at rallies have been away from the rally site exploring - Chimney Rock at the '97 Morganton Rally, any nearby road at any year's Georgia Mountain Rally, Gettysburgh at the Square Route Rally, the list goes on. Maps are critical here, as is local knowledge (so ask the local club members where they recommend and look for riding maps or tips at the registration or information tent.) Just make sure to be back by 5pm for dinner and the door prize drawings :)
  • Day 3, Going Home
    Sunday Morning, time to head home. Hopefully you had some time yesterday to plan a long series of backroads to get home. Get up early, break camp, pack, and go have breakfast. When you get home make SURE to air everything out and make sure everything is dry. Never store your sleeping bag or Thermarest in the stuff sack. Take a long bath and when your are done write up a trip report - believe me, 3 years from now you'll treasure it :)

The most important thing is to enjoy yourself, explore a bit and above all else, be prepared :)

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