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Common Tread

The OCD rider's guide to planning the perfect motorcycle trip

Apr 23, 2014

I'm leaving for the Grand Canyon in three days. Few things in life make me more excited than a good motorcycle trip. Days spent on the open road in places I've never been with a few friends and the attitude of adventure. This trip is forming up to be one I'll remember for the rest of my life, in good part because of the planning that went into it.

Photo by Joshua Ariza.

Disclaimer: Please excuse my, uh, let’s call it “enthusiasm.” While I was never in the Boy Scouts, I may as well have “Be Prepared” tattooed across the inside of my eyelids. Many of you are able, and would probably prefer, to pack a few pairs of clean underwear and socks and a sleeping bag and hit the road. For a lot of people, making it up as they go along is the adventure. To you, I say kudos and part of me is a bit jealous, but I'm warning you now: I’m at the other end of the spectrum. Consider this the obsessive-compulsive rider’s guide to planning a trip. It’s not meant to be list of required steps. It’s just the process this research-obsessed nerd has learned after a few years of doing this sort of thing.

Picking your destination

Photo by Lance Oliver.
Picking a destination is one of the most fun and frustrating parts of the process. I can’t tell you how many photos I see on a friend’s Instagram or on some motorcycle blog that get my wheels spinning. The Earth is a beautiful place and there are an infinite number of natural attractions or events that make it worthwhile to get out of the house.

Pick a destination that is interesting, but also within the limits of your riding abilities. Consider how far you’ve ridden previously and be honest with yourself about the kind of mileage you’d like to do in a day. I did my first trip years ago on a Triumph Bonneville and knew I was only good for 200 to 250 miles per day, given how much that bike beat me up and my need to take breaks. I felt like a n00b, but it was a great trip and my trips these days have gotten quite a bit longer. I have the rest of my life to work up to doing an Iron Butt ride.

Decide your daily mileage

Photo by Lance Oliver.
Once you have a destination in mind, break the mileage down by the number of days you have. Resist the temptation to do everything. Just because you can easily do a 500-mile day, that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy six of them back to back, so don’t try to cram a 3,000-mile trip into your one week off from work. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun, not a death march.

Look at a map for fun places to stop for the night along the way to your destination. Consider your state of mind for that time of the trip. On the way out, you’ll probably have the energy to camp somewhere awesome, even if it’s 40 miles out of the way and at the end of a rutted dirt road. On the tail end of a six-day trip in Death Valley, nothing will sound better than a run-down motel’s pool.

Finally, build in some buffer so you can get lost, stop at an ATM to get money for an entrance fee, or hang somewhere longer than expected just because you’re having fun there. I’ve never been a fan of arriving at camp at midnight totally burned out, so I usually plan shorter mileage so I can arrive at a decent hour and enjoy the evening.

Note: Use your map’s legend. Squiggly lines equal fun, green areas equal plant life (for us So Cal people), blue equals water. Buy a Butler Map to see if any of their favorite roads are nearby and worth taking (hint: it’s worth it).

We all have to sleep

With the destination and daily mileage planned, the next question is: camping or motel? Some will say camping is the only way to go, but there are a lot of people who do incredible trips and don’t want to carry the extra supplies or deal with the hassle of finding places to pitch a tent. Sometimes it just makes more sense. A mixture of the two can work well for slightly longer trips where it’s still worth taking your camping gear for most of the nights, but you make one of the nights a stop in town to re-supply, get a shower, and enjoy a brew and a burger cooked by someone else.

Regardless of the route you choose, your next stop should be Yelp, TripAdvisor, Expedia, ADVRider, or whatever your preferred method of search is. If you’re looking at getting a room somewhere, think about how important things like pools, AC, heaters, secure parking, and other amenities are to you, given the location and time of year. If you decide to camp, make sure you know things like how many bikes and tents can be on a site, how much it is for a site and how to pay if you show up after hours.

Photo by Sean MacDonald.

Gas and food

Even with all of the major stops planned, we aren’t done yet. Motorcycles have fairly short ranges (some much more than others), and you’ll want to plan your gas stops ahead of time if you’re going to be away from highly populated areas. Look for gas ahead of time on Google Maps and call ahead to make sure gas stations still exist if you think it’s going to be close (I learned the hard way in 119-degree No Man’s Land). Carrying a little extra fuel can take the scary out of an unpleasant situation.

Remember how I said I had the tendency to go a little overboard? I like to plan food stops as well, if possible. With so many restaurants with so much character in the random and weird places I find myself on a trip, eating at Taco Bell would be a let down. This step definitely isn’t necessary, but has led to some of the more memorable moments on some of my trips. If you ever find yourself in Bombay Beach/Niland, Calif., stop by the Ski Inn.

Photo by Lance Oliver.

Take your plans with you

The final step is to plot all of this goodness onto a map of some sort. Whether you want to buy a physical map and draw it all on there and then shove that map in your tank bag or bring the maps electronically, there’s no way you’ll remember it all. If you have a GPS unit, bringing a list of destinations and addresses can be sufficient. If you’re just using your phone, you can email yourself the links to Google Maps files and save them to your phone so you can access them without service.

It’s a good idea to make sure everyone in your group has a list of the directions or destinations if possible. Chances are, you won’t be splitting up, but it’s a good precaution to take should something come up.

As stated, this is just my method after being fortunate enough to do my fair share of motorcycle trips. This isn’t the definitive guide by any means. Do you have some travel tips I haven’t mentioned? Share them below.