How to Plan a Motorcycle Trip
Ask yourself these questions:
Why do you want to go?
Who do you want to go with?
Where do you want to go?
How much time do you have?
Camping or Motels?
The wind in your face.
Isn’t this the essence of why we ride motorcycles in the first place? There is something vastly different from being in a car and I’m not sure why, but I’ve heard it from other riders as well.
On a bike it seems easier to pull over whenever you see something slightly interesting, where in a car you just slow down to look as you whiz by. This affects your planning & travel timing a great deal.
When I say, it will take 5 hours for a particular segment, Karla replies, “OK, so let’s plan on 8 hours!” And she is usually correct.
Of course you can go to the same places on a bike you would go in a car, and have more fun getting there. That picture was taken on a southern California beach; Oregon has beautiful beaches, but not warm enough to be laying out there without a jacket.
We use the motorcycle for our summer vacations and this may be where, “How to Plan a Motorcycle Trip” is most useful. When we decide on a basecamp town and explore the area, you need to figure out every point of interest you might want to see.
On our Yellowstone/Grand Tetons ride, we stayed in Jackson Hole, WY for several days. That was like a more normal vacation, but we still rode 3000 miles.
Getting there is half the fun
There are endless possibilities of places to go. We love mountains, lakes, rivers and waterfalls as well as ghost towns, deserts and the ocean.
While Oregon only has one National Park, there are many within a day or two of us. Seattle is close enough you can be there by early afternoon, the ocean is 3 hours away and we’re surrounded by 10,000 foot mountains.
We pick a destination depending on how much time we have. A Saturday ride, a 4 day weekend or a two week adventure.
All who wander are not lost
Karla is quick to point out that you can’t see the good stuff unless you get off, and take off! Very few waterfalls are seen from the road, so plan extra time, grab your camera and take a hike.
Karla will ride long days on the bike, but there comes a point where she needs to hike. Karla says, “for every 100 miles ridden we need to hike X number of miles.”
When I met Karla, she lived on Lewis Street, next to, “Lewis & Clark” park and every street in her neighborhood had a name related to the explorers.
Would you like some company ?
Some people like to go alone, sometimes I go solo. There are times when Karla recognizes that I need to get away and she’s not interested in going. She’ll say, “Why don’t you take off for the weekend?”
Riding a motorcyle is therapy, an escape from routine. I have a stressful job (don’t we all?) dealing with people; lots of people, and problems all week. If I wanted to be around more people on the weekend, I’d drive a bus. Instead I ride a motorcycle. On the other hand, my favorite trips are when both of us go and we can share the experiences.
Who don’t you want to go with ?
OK, hold on this could get ugly. There are people who should not go on motorcycle trips and you don’t want to go with them. If there are two of you and one is unhappy, it’s not going to be a fun experience, so let’s be honest.
When you go on a weekend outing, in a car, on a airplane, I mean anything but not on a motorcycle ………………do you:
- Require multiple pairs of shoes
- Take more than one carry on bag
- Get upset when you don’t have the, “right” clothes
- Get upset about almost anything when things don’t go as you planned
These should be red flags to a motorcycling companion. It’s not a deal breaker, but it may be time to talk about expectations before you plan a motorcycle trip. You can’t take much, things are going to go, “wrong,” and you need to go with the flow even if it’s a figurative tsumani.
One poorly planned motorcycle trip can damage a relationship, it’s not worth it. If you aren’t convinced your partner is ready for the realities, go alone. You’ll both be better in the long run.
High Maintenance & Motorcycles Don’t Mix
Should you get an intercom?
Karla and I spend hours a day in conversation and would feel lost without an intercom on the bike. That doesn’t mean it’s the answer for everyone. Perhaps it would be better if the lack of chatter for an hour or two between stops was unavoidable. If you don’t want constant contact, don’t get an intercom, although even we have times during everyday where one of us says, “How about some music?”
Even at low speed, it’s pretty hard to communicate by yelling at each other. Generally you only have signals when your passenger needs to stop. Riding through Yellowstone, it would be disappointing to hear at the next stop that you missed seeing a bear. We like our Sena headsets.
Where are we going ?
First make a list of all the places you have wanted to visit, but haven’t. Don’t restrict yourself, this is a, “bucket list.”
Depending on where you live, some of these spots may be thousands of miles away, but list them anyway. Remember, life is short and you’ve got to have dreams. I’ll bet you’re list includes some that are within a days ride and some would require a week or longer, ours does.
Our list includes, National Parks & lists of the great motorcycle roads in the US. Since we live in Oregon, most of our motorcycle trips involve the area from the Pacific Ocean, to the Rocky Mountains. After I retire, that may expand.
What are your planning tools?
There is nothing like good old fashioned paper maps and we would never travel without them. Paper maps give you perspective while still maintaining detail.
Paper maps don’t require you to zoom in to see the smaller roads the way that Google Maps do. Grab a highlighter and mark your route, even if you decide to change something in mid-trip, you still have everything you need in one place.
Of course paper maps do wear out….and that’s a good thing, I love to pull out my map and find it’s seams are mostly split wide open and a good wind would blow it in 5 directions…….a good map is a used map!
We keep a, “Master” map at home and we highlight all the roads we’ve traveled. It is a reminder, and a trophy all in one. Looking at that map causes us to remember, and to get excited about the trips we have not yet taken.
Google Maps is a powerful tool. It could be used as your only planning map, with route planning, mileages and Points of Interest (POI’s) included. We always use Google, but think it has some drawbacks that are filled in with paper maps.
Using Google, as you zoom out to get a perspective on where you are, say to look at a whole state, then you lose detail like smaller roads disappear.
When you combine this with Google Earth, you really drill down to detail you will not find anywhere else.
I have checked out Forest Service roads, mile by mile to make sure we were going to be on pavement, it’s slow but we’ve scouted some great roads.
Maybe it’s just me, but I spend a lot of time trying to figure out where I am. That’s where having a paper map on the table as you scan Google Maps is really the way to go.
AAA, not only will they be there to pick you up in the event of a breakdown, but they have the tried and true Guide Books for every state.
OK, so it’s legendary roadside service and make sure you buy the, “Plus” membership to cover motorcycles, but the trip planning is beyond worth it’s weight in gold. I’ve used AAA books for decades. When you’re scouring every route for anything that might be a worthwhile stop, you must read AAA.
Of course you find duplicate information from multiple sources, but AAA is the original town by town, road by road leader in showing you the POI’s.
To boot they have the motel ratings and contact info., and remember it’s all a bonus to having the widest network of roadside assistance in the nation !
We have on our bike the Garmin 665 motorcycle specific GPS. The planning software is called BaseCamp, and while it is poorly documented (It’s hard to learn) it is very powerful and our strongest tool.
The BaseCamp software contains so much information it is almost enough to make you give up, but don’t give up, just learn to use it’s sorting tools to find your trip.
I try to look at all the sources I have to make sure I haven’t missed the petrified, brontosaurus egg that I’m sure Karla had her heart set on seeing. Oh sure it may get a little ridiculous digging through all the minutia that you have no interest in, but hey you might find some stuff that only you want to see.
I say, “winters are for researching the trips we will take in the summer.”
That is, “How to plan a motorcycle trip.”
How much time do you have ?
Unless you’re retired…..Not Enough !
You are not going to have enough time to see & do all the things you planned or hoped to do. Every place we have gone to on a motorcycle trip, we want to go back. Especially if you’re going to places you’ve never been to before, not just on a motorcycle, but brand new places. We call them scouting trips and we add many more stops than you will accomplish, but we survey the sights, and on a subsequent trip we have highlights to spend more time on, or things that didn’t fit in the first one.
As a rule we over-plan; knowing this, we are not disappointed when we don’t get to see everything on the list. Of course you make priorities, but never be so locked into a schedule as to ruin your fun…..there’s always next time. And you’ll look forward to the 2nd adventure.
Everyone has a different idea of how long they want to ride in a day, including the two of you. We think it’s best in the long run to stick with the shorter of the two, that way both of you are still riding in your comfort zone.
For us a long day is limited to 400 miles, remembering that we do not travel on freeways. That’s a totally arbitrary number depending on the quality of road, amount of traffic and the unplanned stops we make.
A, “Travel Day” is meant to get us from one place to another without planned stops for hiking or sightseeing, they move us from one area to another.
Leisure days are lower mileage with the focus more on stops than distance. While we’re still moving down the road, the goal is usually a National Park visitor center, or a hiking trail so maybe 50% of the day is spent off the bike.
On these days you may only cover 150 – 200 miles and get to your lodging a little later in the day. These make up a majority of our tour days.
I will say we have discovered getting up in a different place every morning and packing the bike is tiring.
These are the days where we set up, “base camp” at our motel, leave the luggage behind and ride out and back for a few days.
These are the really relaxing days with no getting up and packing to hit the road. Honestly, we have come to value these as the actual vacation/rest days.
Don’t get me wrong, we love to ride and cover distance to see lots of various country, but you need to rest as well. On our Utah adventure we stayed 3 nights in Moab, at Yellowstone we stayed 4 days in Jackson Hole.
Sleeping in the car is never an option
This is the most basic decision to make other than, travel alone or with someone. When we’re together, there is no question, we only stay in motels.
When I’m alone, I have a complete set of camping gear in a bag ready to go……I prefer motels still. For some it is a cost factor, you can stay out longer camping and if it’s solely for cost and you don’t really prefer camping, it’s probably not going to be much fun. Some people love to camp, I did when I was younger.
Camping on a motorcycle can be an extension of the freedom, sleeping under the stars, no walls or TV’s. I spent a few decades being an orienteering backpacker and it relates to motorcycle camping, the gear is the same.
You don’t worry as much about how many ounces your equipment weighs when it’s not on your back, but you still have to keep it as small as possible. If you’re riding with a spouse on the same bike, carrying camping gear is going to be almost impossible.
What’s your style ?
If the thought of not knowing where you’re going to stay the night is too much uncertainty, then by all means make plans. If you’re headed into known tourist hot spots eg., Glacier National Park in the summer time, you better make reservations.
Still be aware that having locked in plans means just that, you’re locked in. When you find unexpected fun stuff to see and do, it can put you hours behind and arriving at your hotel that much later.
Going without or with very loose plans can be a blast! You and your travel partner (if you have one) must both be into the whole adventure that comes with no planning.
On some trips it goes off without a hitch, and sometimes you find yourself in a town with no rooms available and down the road you go.
Just a word of caution* When glitches happen and you’re sitting somewhere trying to figure out where you’re going to stay, and maybe it’s another hour on the bike after you really wanted to be parked……it can get stressful. It is best to understand how everyone deals with unexpected stress and decide if this is the way you want to travel.
When things go wrong can you just laugh and say, “here we go!” or will it be an uncomfortable, “what have you gotten us into” moment.
Remember you’re going for fun, don’t let the little stuff get in the way.
But what if you want the best of both worlds? Don’t despair there is a way to go with loose plans but still have a room reserved when you arrive.
I’m not sure if this is totally fair to the motel owners, but in busy areas you may actually be doing a favor for those who are traveling without plans, hoping to score a room at the last minute. So here’s what you do:
Make your touring plans so you know generally the area you want to stay the night and make reservations…..but only make reservations at properties that allow cancellation without penalty.
Many motels will allow you to cancel up to 4 PM on the day you should be arriving. And then make a similar reservation in another town with the same policy. Heck, make a third one if you really aren’t sure. As you get closer in the afternoon you’re probably going to have a pretty good idea of where is the best town to stop for the night.
Be sure to cancel the unneeded rooms before the cut off time, and leave them open for the, “non-planners” to snag. You only pay for the room you’ll actually use, you’re assured of having a room, and there is one available for your last minute motorcycle touring fellow riders