How To Plan A Motorcycle Trip

How To -

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I love motorcycle trips. I love the weeks of planning, the feeling of setting out for an adventure, being out on the road in a new and interesting place with your friends, and coming home with new memories and experiences. Many of you may be the “set out on your bike with nothing but an extra pair of socks and underwear and a tent” type, but others of you aren’t and need a little help in how to plan for such an adventure.

Some of this information may seem a bit overboard and you’ll have to excuse my enthusiasm, but I’m a planner. As much fun as our trip to Arizona and back was, I also took supreme satisfaction in the dudes being stoked on a lunch spot I found for us weeks prior to the trip or a road I’d found a way to fit in to our route that was fun to ride. I’m sure many of you don’t get to go on trips as often and you’d like and so I present to you this guide; that you can both make the most of your trip as well as avoid many of the mistakes that disrupt or halt a road trip altogether.

Photo by: Sherman Thomas

Step 1: The Destination

The first thing you have to think about when beginning to plan a trip is how much time you have and where you want to go. Take into consideration your previous riding and how many miles you think you have done/can do in a day, how often you will need to stop for gas or to rest, and then give yourself some wiggle room for when things don’t go as planned. The most I have done is 350-400 miles in a day, but I can tell you from experience that with my bad back and lack of an ass, I can’t do that for more than a day and I am much happier doing less miles over multiple days.

On our trip to Arizona, I rode my Bonneville with cafe bars and knew I had a range of 250-300 miles a day and could only do 70-85 miles before getting really uncomfortable on the bike. When Wes and I rode to Nevada for the Taste of Dakar, I was worried about the 300 miles we would have to cover but didn’t really have much of a choice. I could have done closer to 100 miles at a time if the gas tank had let me. When riding to Seattle on the F6B, I knew I had a range of 400 or so twisty miles or 600 straight miles and that I could do 150-180 miles before needing a break.

Once I have my destination, I like to try and break it equal increments over the amount of days I have allotted for my trip and then find smaller destinations or places that would be fun to stop at on the way to our final destination. Next, I looked at what kind of places would be fun for the nights we needed to stay somewhere between home and our final destination. You have to take into account the miles and hours you hope to complete the ride in and give yourself extra time to get lost, run to atm to get money for an entrance fee, or just hang out longer than expected.

On the way to Arizona, the Salton Sea was a little out of the way, but were in the right direction and about the target distance away and had some really cool stuff to do when we got out there. Joshua Tree was another option, but worked just as well for the day between Arizona and home. Similarly, on my trip to Seattle, I planned my routes through areas so that my rest stops were places I would enjoy rather than just gas stations every 150-180 miles.

Step 2: Lodging

The first thing you have to decide when considering lodging for a multi-day trip is whether you want to camp, stay with friends, or stay in a motel somewhere. Again, consider your personal riding history, endurance and abilities as well as the weather conditions when making a decision. As much as we all dream of sleeping under our bike and the stars, sometimes it’s simply smarter to book a room somewhere. Mixing the two can work well for a longer trip where it’s worth packing all the gear to sleep outside most nights and shell out for a motel (or more accurately for a shower and a bed) one or two of the nights, but for shorter trips it isn’t worth lugging all the camping gear to sleep outside a night and in motels the other 2 or 3.

Regardless of which way route you choose, the next step is to spend some time with your friend Google and his cousins Yelp, Expedia, and Advrider. Depending on the time of year, things like pools, AC, heaters, fire pits, lockable parking, and other amenities will become more or less important depending on what you want. The same rules apply when researching camping spots and about the attractions you’d like to see. Find out things like how to pay for the campsite or how much cash you’ll need to enter a national park. It’s no fun to get kicked out of a campsite after you’re all set up and have had a beer or two or to ride an hour to a national park to find out you don’t have enough cash to get in. Keep in mind the audience you’re planning for and try and find a motel or camping spot or attraction that best fits what you and your companions want out of your trip.

For our Arizona trip, we ended up getting a friend to come drive a chase truck so two of our buddies could join with their less-than-reliable bikes and we mixed camping with motels because we could put the camping gear in the truck. I spent an afternoon reading Yelp and Expedia reviews of the seediest motels near the Salton Sea with two major things in mind: pool and price. We were all fairly poor, but knew we wanted to end our first day in a bed somewhere and I had dreams of riding through the hot desert to end our day in a motel pool with a cold beer in hand. I spent a second afternoon reading about people’s experiences in different camping areas around the Joshua Tree (the North side of the park is better than the south) and trying to learn where to buy adventure passes, what time we needed to be there by, and any extra rules we’d need to follow when inside the camping area (it would be a felony for Wes to wheelie on federal grounds). For the Seattle trip I focused more on weather reports, since I knew it would be wet in places, and on any additional steps I would need to follow since I would be showing up after most people had gone to sleep.

Step 3: Gas and other stops

This is another area you will need to take into consideration. You or members of your group might need to stop in certain time or distance intervals for gas or for a rest and you will need to find and plan places along your route accordingly (assuming your route takes you somewhere that the gaps between gas stations are more than a few miles). If you’re travelling in desolate places, the Googles may not be up to date with hours of operation or if places are even open. If there’s any chance that you’ll be pushing the range of someone’s smaller tank, I’d call ahead just to be safe. Carrying a spare canister of gas is always a good idea if you can find the room.

For our Arizona trip, that meant planning for our friend’s sportster’s gas tank and for our sissiest member’s spine and butt (mine). His tank was fine for about 80-90 miles and my back was ok for 70-80 miles, but seeing as how most of our days were 200-250 miles and I was the one planning it, we stopped for gas every 70-75 miles or so and I blamed it on the Harley and lack of gas stations. Seeing as how we were talking about Arizona and summertime, I went online to make sure that all signs pointed to the gas station actually existing and being open. While on the trip, we found that one of them no longer existed and barely made it to the next one on fumes.

If you are like me and you want all of your road trips to feel like some movie where every place and person you experience fits into the quintessential road trip, you’ll also probably want to look into where you’ll find fuel for your body. I spent a ton of time reading ride reports and reviews on yelp and asking friends for recommendations about different restaurants and bars that would be near our destinations (the Ski Inn in Niland/Bombay Beach is an awesome food spot if you’re doing the Saltan Sea/Salvation Mountain thing). If winging it is your thing or you’re fine finding some chain restaurant you can trust along the way, this step isn’t necessary, but doing so led to a better and more complete experience of the places we were visiting and to some of the most memorable parts of our trip.

Step 4: Maps and Roads


View Larger Map

The final step is to place all of these locations onto a map. I like Google maps best, although I’m sure most other map sites have the same features I use. My first step is to click the “get directions” box and place the address we will be departing from in the start box. From there I just start putting in addresses in the order I plan to stop at them, clicking the “add destination” button to add the next stop until I have my entire trip drawn as one giant route. From there I can look and see if there are any special roads or routes that look like more fun and I can drag the purple line of my route so that it incorporates the change I want and the site makes all the necessary changes as I update it. Once I am happy and have a map that uses every road I want and stops at all of the necessary places, I print a version with the whole map, the turn by turn written directions, and smaller maps of any sections that could be confusing later on. From there I just have to make copies for every member of the team for them to keep in case anyone is separated and we’re ready to set off on our journey.

Hopefully this little guide helps. If there is anything I forgot or that you would like to know or to add, feel free to add them in the comments section. I imagine within the community that reads this magazine, there is a wealth of knowledge and ideas I haven’t yet discovered.

  • Number Three

    OH MAN!!!! Great article. I too am a planner and I always think I am over planning and annoying my fellow riders by being as prepared as I can so it makes me feel good to know I’m doing it right.

    • http://www.twitter.com/seanmacdonald sean macdonald

      Thanks!

  • Bones Over Metal

    On printing the maps and turn by turn directions: In Canada if you are a CAA member they will do all of that for you free of charge. They compile it all into a little booklet and will include updated construction and traffic information, as well.
    I’m sure AAA has something similar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shad.whitten Shad Whitten

    Good article but don’t forget one major thing. Make sure the bike/ bikes are in good working order and you have tools for the quick roadside fix. While that should always be the case of course, it becomes that much more important when 100+ miles from your garage or your buddies pick up.
    Man I need to get on a trip…

    • http://www.twitter.com/seanmacdonald sean macdonald

      I would file that under how to pack for a trip, not plan for a trip…

      • Number Three

        10 Essential items for 100+ trips. Sounds like a good read.

        • http://www.twitter.com/seanmacdonald sean macdonald

          Doesn’t sound like a bad idea….

      • ReelScience

        Planning on what to pack is part of planning a trip.

        • http://www.twitter.com/seanmacdonald sean macdonald

          no. it isn’t. they are two connected activities.

  • http://twitter.com/pushover69 Bill White

    Good article. The most enjoyable trips I’ve been on have been those based on the loosest of plans i.e., I’ll meet you guys on X date at X o’clock, and I’ve got to be home by X date. Everything else unfolds organically. We usually have a general destination in mind and it’s always one showing lots of squiggly lines on a map. There’s something liberating about not knowing where you’re sleeping that night and it’s a lot of fun to pull out the maps once you’ve found your $34 motel room, a burrito, and a 12 pack to figure out where you are & what direction you’ll head the next day. Adventure!

  • http://twitter.com/MRSallee Mark Ryan Sallee

    So this is how it’s supposed to be done. I’m really bad at planning these things.

  • markbvt

    It’s funny how some of us are just naturally good at planning and others aren’t. I’m full-blooded German by heritage, so the planning/logistics gene is almost overwhelming. I joke that I have to restrain myself from conquering small countries when planning trips. I put together a 6000-mile loop a couple of years ago, months in advance, and as trip time approached the weather and various other circumstances began looking problematic, so I worked out a Plan B… and then a Plan C, D, E, and F. Yes, really. I think we ended up using Plan D.

    Anyway, all of the above information is a great start. For those who own a Garmin GPS, their BaseCamp software is also super useful for trip planning once you learn how to use it to its potential. As you do more trips, you learn what other odds and ends to keep in mind, and what sort of daily mileage you can realistically do on the type of roads you’re riding. For me, on secondary roads, 325-350 miles per day is a good average; that leaves enough time for the occasional photo break, a good lunch stop, and getting to a campground early enough to not have to set up camp in the dark.

    I understand the desire that many people have to make it up as they go along, but that doesn’t work for me. I would spend too much of the ride thinking about finding a place to stay that night, instead of just enjoying the ride and the scenery around me. Planning the trip lets me work all of that stuff out in advance so I can properly enjoy the trip — plus it makes it a lot easier to work in those great out-of-the-way twisty roads that you might never know were there if you were just riding through the area without a plan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/OMG.Awesome Clint Keener

    Sean, you guys should post up routes you’ve taken, so other people can take the same trips. With all the cool stops and notes about each place. That could be another section of the site.

  • Evan Zalesak

    Excellent article.

    Paper maps rule. Even if you have a GPS – or phone – the signal quits, mountains get in the way, the power supply is flaky, it takes longer to boot up than it takes you to unfold or refold a paper map (yes, really). I joined AAA just to get the maps you can get for free (mark each one up with highlighter and notes as needed). For riding in groups, the abovementioned Google maps method is best, adding your buddies as collaborators. And a few tools are nice to have: a compact LED flash, bicycle allen kit, tiny vice grips or channel lock pliers, a needlenose and an adjustable wrench cover a lot of quick fix needs.

    • KevinB

      You can cache google maps so you don’t need data service. A RAM mount and a power supply takes about half an hour to install and is well worth it. I have an old cell phone that lives on my bike and I’ll never go back to paper.

    • http://www.butlermaps.com/ Butler Maps

      Indeed they do!

  • worker88

    Glad this article went up. I live in Florida and am considering taking the Amtrak auto train to Virgina then riding to NYC and then ride all the way back to FL… Has anyone used the auto train. How was the process?

  • karlInSanDiego

    Another thing many don’t realize. That AAA full coverage you have for your cars, doesn’t work for towing your motorcycles (even when you are insured through them). Instead you need the RV Motorcycle coverage to be added. According to their website, gas and locksmith coverage is extended to your bike with the base policy. If you get a flat with a bike on a roadtrip your only option, sometimes, is to get a tow truck to take you somewhere that they can change a tire. Plugs or tire irons & tube patches can work if you know how to use them, but remember most bikes don’t have a center stand to even allow you to safely remove a wheel without an external stand. And if you do want to try to fix your own flats you’ll need air.

    • http://protomech.wordpress.com/ protomech

      Alternatively, AMA members are covered for up to a 50 mile tow.

  • pinkanemone

    We just did an awesome trip to Arizona and share your enthusiasm! We planned our trip using http://www.myscenicdrives.com/road-trip-planner It’s free and has great features!

  • Damien Gaudet

    Good read. I’m looking to take a trip this summer and HAVE to plan it out. When you’re married with child, you better be able to tell your wife when you’ll be back.

  • BMW_rider

    Nice plug for the obvious sources (Google and his cousins); but no mention of Butler Motorcycle Maps? Really?

    • Mykola

      Well, the above are all free resources. Just checked Butler’s website and $15-40/state isn’t bad for the content.

      • http://www.butlermaps.com/ Butler Maps

        Thanks. We feel we offer way more than $15 of info per map than the cost. It takes us approx 6 months of time and $ to produce a map. We are sticklers for details.

    • http://www.facebook.com/scottie.r.smith Scottie Ray Smith

      Also, the Butler Maps come in very handy when you get tired of looking at the small screen on your cell phone or gps. Kinda get a ‘big picture’ look at your ride. I use a Butler map AND my cell phone’s Google Maps together.

      • Number Three

        Butler is working on it. I love their maps cause they are written by riders for riders.

        • http://www.butlermaps.com/ Butler Maps

          It’s taking us longer than we thought to have smartphone versions of our maps. Sorry.

      • BMW_rider

        I like the fact that I don’t have to build up my expectations for a given road just based on its curves. The information provided on Butler maps goes so much further to ensure you get the ride you’re looking for, whatever that may mean.

    • TP

      They have nothing east of the Ozarks :(

    • Matthew Mason

      I wish Butler would make maps for the Northeast too

    • http://www.butlermaps.com/ Butler Maps

      Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/tuscanfoodie Tuscan Foodie

    This comes in handy, as I am finalizing plans for a long trip from Chicago to the Badlands NP and Yellowstone NP/return. As much as I lik the idea of loosely planned trips, I like the idea of knowing with certitude that I have a bed to sleep in after 400 miles of highway even more.

  • Kr Tong

    This should be the next section of rideapart: the weekend roadtrip planner. Do all the legwork and planning, and let me just ride. lol.

  • matthewfritz

    That’s a very nice article! Along these sames lines there is also a website in development called Long Way Rider that I’ve been following which I believe is set to launch sometime in the next few weeks. I found out about it at a bikefest I went to earlier in the year. I got a screenshot from the developer that I’ve also attached although it’s not much to go on. At the bikefest the guy was showed me some of what was included and even a map editor which is even easier than doing it through Google maps. It looked pretty cool. I just checked and the website is still under development but you can register in the mean time at http://www.longwayrider.com.

    • madmusk

      You know, the best route planning app I’ve found online so far is the Harley ride planner. By far the best feature is the “avoid highways” option which works very well.

      Thanks for the Long Way Rider link. I’ll keep an eye on that and hopefully it’s all finished in time for my big trip this summer.

  • KriegaUSA

    Butler Maps are the sh*t. Got the full set!

  • Maneesh Joshi