How to Plan a Motorcycle Road Trip

Every rider loves a road trip. Open highway ahead, leaving everyday life behind as you ride towards a point on the map. Clutch and Chrome walks through different ways to make an enjoyable experience that much better.

Warm weather always brings the promise of open roads and leaves bikers everywhere anxiously anticipating the opportunity to plan a motorcycle getaway.
Like the proverbial sugar plum fairies that play upon children’s minds in winter months, thoughts and daydreams of road trips dance through the minds of bikers nationwide with even a sniff of good weather. We all know there’s nothing like a road-trip.

For those lucky enough to have the childhood memory of riding away from home with the camping gear piled up on the bicycle, it came with such a mixed bag of emotions; worrying whether or not you had everything, would the bike would make the 10 or 20 mile trip and the excitement of heading out on an unknown adventure, leaving the everyday blues behind.

Motorcycle road trips are all of these, but on steroids.

What this guide is and isn’t
Road trips, like motorcycles are things of personal choice and preferences. 

Some swear by planning so precise a NASA shuttle launch looks thrown together by comparison. Others will consider choosing the destination as in depth as the planning will ever get.

Similarly, preferences on sleeping arrangements range from riders who want to camp their way across the country while others prefer the comfort of a motel bed every night. I met one biker who didn’t even bother to carry tent, but anchored a piece of tarpaulin to the ground with stones and attached the other end to the parked motorcycle and slept in the makeshift lean-to.

Since a road trip can take on many different forms this article is more about getting you, the rider, on the road safely, efficiently and prepared with as few surprises as possible.

A road trip can take on many forms and are rarely as seen on-screen
Wild Hogs - Source Touchstone Pictures

Before you even think of starting the bike
An area of the pre-planning which won’t be covered in this article but is certainly crucial to the trip, making sure the motorcycle is mechanically sound and ready to cover the miles you’re expecting to ride. From checking the tread on the tires to how miles are left before the next oil change, it should all be reviewed and checked according to the motorcycle manufacturers recommended schedule.

This is also great practice for the rest of the preparations, since it’s your very first part of forward planning, which is as important as the gas in the motorcycle's tank. If your next oil change is due in three hundred miles and the expected trip is one thousand miles long, a smart move would be to change the oil before leaving.

Personally, I know of a rider who takes five weeks off each year to not only attend the Sturgis Bike Rally but afterwards ride west across the country. Naturally, he changes out his oil during the trip, but at the same place by the same shop every year.

Although the details aren't covered here, it can’t be stressed enough how important the motorcycle maintenance pre-planning is. Nothing can ruin a trip quicker than sitting in a dealership far from home praying to the motorcycle gods that not only will your bike get fixed, but it’s won't cost an arm and a leg.

A fine mix of pre-planning and the unknown
A little smart pre-planning can help create some pleasant surprises along the trip giving a great lead in for your next story, ‘A funny thing happened on the way to…’.

How can any kind of planning lead to surprises?

Let's look at the most basic part of the preparation, where you’re going and how long it'll take to get there. This starting point of planning isn’t necessarily done to create a mandatory schedule or limit your options while riding, but help with the other parts of preparation, such as how much stuff you’ll need to take and how much storage space is needed to take it!

Admittedly, these are all small details.

Besides, who hasn’t experienced the thrill of tracing a finger or eye along a printed road on a map, imagined riding the route and dreamed of all the possibilities?

Something as simple as following your route on a map can offer unexpected surprises for a memorable trip

When looking at your route, as well as the final destination, be generous with traveling time and underestimate how many miles can be covered in a day. This will not only keep you fresh and alert while riding, which is important in itself, but the added time allows for unplanned excursions or stops.

While filling up with gas a local tells you about a breathtaking view, worthwhile detour or even nearby historical site. Having some time built into the traveling schedule all of these can be great memories instead of ‘what ifs’. Very worst case scenario of underestimating daily mileage is having more time to enjoy your destination.

On the practical side, regardless of how much a person loves to ride, the thrill can quickly disappear by the end of a very long second day of riding. After all, the trip is meant to be a vacation from the rigors of everyday life, where’s the fun of constantly being under pressure to reach a certain location by an unrealistic time? Or worst yet, being terminally tired from riding hard which isn’t only un-enjoyable, but a downright dangerous way to ride.

As with other parts of this ‘How to’ guide, everything to do with the preparation will depend on whether it’s a solo or group trip. With a group the distance that can be traveled in a day will depend on the slowest rider involved. Surprisingly, this may not necessarily be the rookie among you. Since there are few bikers who can tolerate the buffering winds that come from traveling at high speeds for a prolonged amount of time, someone riding without a windshield could end up being the slowest (over the entire days travel) and will certainly tire before everyone else.

Once the daily distance for the trip has been decided, finding somewhere to lay your head at the end of an exciting days’ worth of riding is next on the list.

Campfire or cable
As mentioned earlier, some bikers feel road trips and camping go hand in hand. Generally speaking though, staying in motels allows for more flexibility as well as comfort. Unless the route goes through the backwoods or deserts of America, you’ll only ever be a good set of directions away from a place to park your bike and your head, both in relative comfort and safety.

But if the decision is made to camp, whether it’s from a passion or simple economics, planning will have to be a little more structured. That’s a horrible word to use in any motorcycle related article we know.

Not only deciding which campsites, but making reservations and knowing a campground’s restrictions all have to be considered well ahead of time. Many set times for check in and ‘quiet hours’ which ban loud noises, with sound of a motorcycle surely falling into that category. Camping also requires extra items to be packed such as a tent, sleeping bag, food and a way to cook it.

If camping with a new tent, set it up once or twice before you head out on the highway with at least one attempt being in the dark. This would also be the time to make sure everyone on the trip has a place to sleep and enough room for any additional items that will be stored in the tent. Even if it’s a tent you've used before, set it up to make sure there are no rips or tears and most importantly, all the bits and pieces needed for assembly are there.

Just as a road trip on a motorcycle is a truly singular experience, packing for one has its own unique challenges. In particular, a limited amount of packing space and the few places put luggage while still being able to operate the motorcycle safely. That last point apparently seems lost on some riders with their bikes packed so precariously they look more like an escaped juggling act from a circus rather than a vacationing biker. Not only is a rider dangerous to themselves in a situation like that, but all the other road users around them.

To help maximize what can be taken, the motorcycle should ideally have saddlebags and a sissy bar (for cruisers) to help secure additional pieces of luggage. The most common reasons for riders not having saddlebags seems to be; they ruin the bike’s look, security issues or motorcycle manufacturers overpricing the bags as well as the installation kits. A great work-around for all of these concerns are Ghost Brackets, hardware that not only helps mount the saddlebag of choice, but also allows the bags to be removable. In a nutshell, your bike keeps its show room look while still keeping functionality and purpose. The company has installation kits for Harley-Davidson, Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha and Triumph motorcycles. They even make a handle so the saddlebags can be carried like luggage at the end of each days ride.

Packing tips will depend on the raod trip, rider and of course the style of motorcycle

Sportbike riders can find expandable saddlebags which fit over the back part of the seat and offer a fair amount of storage. Usually made of waterproof nylon and come with shoulder straps or sown in handles. Some of the features you should look for when buying this type of luggage are; Reflective piping for increased visibility, D-rings for additional tie down straps or mounting points and expandable pockets.

Additional luggage which helps with storage space is available in the form of tank bags which double as map holders as well as three piece luggage sets that fasten together and strap to your bike. As with the saddlebags, look for tank bags that have expandable pockets.

Many specialty websites sell duffle bags designed specifically for motorcycles which are waterproof, sturdy and feature ties and bungee cords built into the bag.

But what to pack?
To make life a little easier we’ve created a printable list of important items to pack. The most obvious piece of equipment isn’t on the list, a helmet, simply because it really should be worn and not packed. Besides, do we really need to tell you to take it?

Once again, if traveling in a group space can be saved with a little coordination. Compare packing lists and eliminate duplicate items. Only one roll of duct tape and one set of tools needs to be brought. Just make sure everyone knows who's carrying what during the ride.

However, it is advisable for every rider to carry a multi-tool. While not perfect, they can offer a range of tools in a compact place and are usuallly no larger than a pocket knife and consequently easy to store.

When it comes to toiletries, buy the small travel size of your favorite shampoo, toothpaste and deodorant at a supermarket or drug store. Not only will this save valuable room, but they can be refilled with the free supply found in most motel rooms. If you’re taking someone who’s never packed for a motorcycle road trip before do the same for them, asking what they usually bring when traveling.

Instead of packing folded clothes, buy a box of 1 gallon zipper lock plastic freezer bags and roll your clothes tight enough to fit inside. Jeans are the most difficult, but after a few attempts you’ll be amazed how tightly they can be rolled.

There a few schools of thought when packing your clothes using the zipper lock bags. Some recommend putting a days worth of clothes in one bag, with the logic that it’s easier to pull a days worth of clothes. With an average sized pair of jeans barely squeezing into a bag by themselves, it seems only the smallest people can follow this method.

Another idea, have all the similar clothes in the same bag, so for example, if you have to change your shirt on the side of the highway, only the bag containing t-shirts needs to be taken out. Some people will go as far as to pack sleeveless t-shirts, t-shirts and long sleeve t-shirts all in separate bags. Either way, by using freezer bags not only are clothes kept dry, but the plastic allows the bags to slip in and out of tight luggage spaces with less effort.

If you find there’s just not enough room, think your way through the trip. Do you plan to buy commemorative t-shirts along the ride at rallies, events or dealerships? If so, you can pack less shirts. The same can be said for any other inexpensive items that can be bought along the way. With space being at a premium on the motorcycle, credit cards and cash are lighter to carry and take up far less room.

However, if you’re the type that doesn’t like to wear the event t-shirts at the event itself, a great practice is to mail home whatever you buy, saving valuable space for the trip back.

Nicknamed our 'throwaway idea', riders can pack their rattiest underwear or any worn items of clothing and throw them away once they've been worn. It could be thought of as a last ride for that favorite t-shirt.

Any heavier items should be packed in luggage that will sit the lowest on the motorcycle and most of the time this would be in the saddlebags. Obviously the items can’t exceed the maximum weight limitations of either the saddlebags, hardware used to attach the bags to the bike, or the load points on the motorcycle itself. We’ll go more in depth on weight distribution in the next section.

Bungee cords and balancing
Now that you’ve managed to squeeze all the items that were spread out on the living room floor into that limited luggage space it needs to be strapped to the motorcycle.

This is nearly as much fun as the packing, and could be considered an art form. Few points to remember;

  • Never attach anything that will impede your ability to control the motorcycle
  • Never attach anything that severely affects the handling of the motorcycle
  • Consult the manufacturer’s weight and load limits for your motorcycle

Although everything needs to be fastened securely, none of the luggage or the cords  should be attached to any of the motorcycle's moving parts or near enough to get caught.

There are two key elements to packing the motorcycle.

Keep as much of the weight as possible close to the bike's center of gravity. This means low and toward the tank as well as evenly from side to side.
Also, when loading up your motorcycle the most commonly needed items should be in the most easily accessed luggage. This would include bottles of water, rags, medical kit, weather gear and an extra shirt.

If your motorcycle doesn't have a large front fairing, consider attaching a rolled up leather jacket or rain gear to the handlebars with bungee cords. Make sure whatever you attach doesn't block any instruments, affect the handling or ability to control the bike.

This puts a jacket or rain gear close at hand if needed in a sudden downpour and it would be wasted space otherwise.

As mentioned earlier, weight is something to be conscious of with this kind of traveling. Being able to get everything in the luggage isn't as important as observing the cargo weight limits of your motorcycle, including individual limitations for saddlebags and racks.

Once the weight falls safely within specifications adjust your motorcycles tire pressure and suspension according the owner’s manual. If you overload the bike, or don't adjust it for the additional weight there could be handling issues during your ride.

After the handling adjustments have been made to the motorcycle, check the headlamp and ensure it's properly aimed, following the manufacturers manual to make any corrections.

A lot of work, time to play
The packing took longer than you thought and not everything attached as easily as it should, so it's time to blow out that frustration with a quick ride.

The good news is, it's part of the preparation!

A dry run with all the gear and luggage is important, with the ride including highway and street riding to get an idea of how the motorcycle handles fully loaded at different speeds. Familiarize yourself on how long the bike takes with the additional weight and how tight turns at slower speeds are affected.

Stop during the ride and check the load, adjusting as needed.

If you don't already have one, make an ICE (In Case of Emergency) card to keep in your wallet during your trip. The card should have the following information on it;

  • In case of accident or emergency in bold letters across the top. This is important since the card will be positioned so it can be seen as soon as someone opens your wallet.
  • Contact names, their relationship to you and telephone numbers
  • Medical info. Blood type and medicines you're allergic to. List of current medication
  • Heath insurance information. Policy number, including any relevant group or plan numbers
  • Motorcycle Insurance information

It can be handwritten, or we've created a blank version for you to print here and complete. Regardless of how it's created, it should be laminated to protect the information. Inexpensive lamination sheets or kits are available in most office supply stores.

Emergency cash and calling card should be kept on your person in case you get separated from your motorcycle or group. Keep the money and call card with the list of telephone numbers for friends at home as well as those on the ride with you.

If this is going to be a group ride it might be a good idea to review group riding rules and expectations. Clutch and Chrome wrote a great article 'How to have a great group ride' which covers all the etiquettes as well as hand signals used to communicate while riding.

Since no-one likes to ride in bad weather check weather sites leading up to the day of the ride. Look at the area's your traveling to as well as where you're starting from. Some websites for weather are, Yahoo! Weather, Wunderground, and Accuweather.

That's it! The hardest part of your road trip is done the night before, trying to get to sleep in all your excitement and anticipation.

So be safe, have fun and keep the shiny side up on whatever road you may travel.

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