Editor’s Note: This is the second piece in our 8-part series on Motorcycle Road Trips by Gary McKechnie. Be sure to read the first article, Essential Motorcycle Gear.
At a service station in Kanab, Utah, I met a group of riders that seemed just like most groups. There were dressed in sleeveless T-shirts, bandanas, and jeans, and they were doing what many American motorcyclists, myself included, do all the time—ride across the country. The twist was that these riders were from France.
Their imaginations sparked by images of America, this gang had carefully considered their options, and then created a tour of the West that was both inspirational and inspired (read: manageable). When I met them, their two-week dream ride had already taken them from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon and Page/Lake Powell. From Kanab, they planned to hit Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.
Like most motorcyclists, these French riders were independent spirits. But they were also wise enough not to confuse independence with indifference. They understood that heading out without a good touring plan could result in groaning across hundreds of miles anesthetizing asphalt. With a plan, they knew they’d experience the trip of a lifetime and create great motorcycling memories. Here are some tips to help you do the same.
#1: Start with Your Interests
Are you a fan of the Civil War? National parks? Jimmy Buffett? Let whatever piques your interest be the first thing that determines where your road leads—be it to Gettysburg, Yosemite, or Key West. And it doesn’t have to be a single interest, either. As the French riders knew, you can connect a lot of destination dots in 14 days. Of course, with limited time, you also have to . . .
#2: …Set Ground Rules on the Daily Ground You Cover
On my tours, I try to limit myself to 200 miles a day, which equates to roughly four hours of riding, leaving about five or six hours for planned stops and breaks and unexpected detours. So if you have a two-week vacation and live in New Jersey, it’s unrealistic to think you’ll ride 3,000 miles to the Pacific Coast Highway and make it back before your vacation clock hits zero. More realistic would be an in-depth tour of New England or a ride down Virginia’s Skyline Drive followed by the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. But what if you really want to see the opposite end of America?
#3: For Distant Trips, Consider Bike-Shipping Services or Rentals
If your heart is set on a distant destination, you have a couple options. One is to ship your bike. Costs vary, but you can send it ahead on a semi and then fly into town for a tour. You can also leave your own bike at home and then rent one through companies like Eaglerider, which carries a wide variety of models, and Harley-Davidson. And, if you’d like to use Orlando or Washington, DC, as jumping-off points, Amtrak’s Auto Train also accommodates motorcycles on its 900-mile overnight service between the two cities.
#4: Consider Your Riding Abilities
If you’ve never ridden your motorcycle in the snow, don’t tackle Vermont in November. Not used to mountain passes? Don’t assume it’ll be easy to handle the steep pitches, hairpin turns, and high altitudes of the Rockies. Plan a tour that matches the climate and terrain with your skill level.
#5: Remember that Timing is Everything
An August tour of Death Valley isn’t smart, nor is a tour of Maine in January. Plan to ride where the weather is right. Along those lines, I’ve found the best times for a motorcycle tour are the months of May and September. The weather’s usually good everywhere, the kids are in school, families are off the road, and most attractions are fully staffed.
#6: Allow for Downtime
When you map out your route and create your itinerary, build in a day or two of downtime. This will keep you on schedule even if your bike breaks down, harsh weather prevents you from riding, or you simply want to take a break or explore a place more fully than originally planned. If your bike runs smoothly and the weather stays clear the whole way, well, then, you’ve given yourself an extra 48 hours of freedom to relax, read a book, take in a movie, check out another museum—whatever you’d like.
#7: Know Yourself: Lone Wolf or Pack Rider?
Deciding whether to make yours a solo adventure or share it with friends is matter of being true to yourself and your preferences. For me, a motorcycle tour is a declaration of independence, and getting caught up in the quirks, opinions, and varying riding-skill levels of others would bug me. Then again, the chance to sit and talk with other riders about each day’s experiences or events is a bonus. It’s your call.
#8: Budget Wisely
Days spent scrimping on gas, meals, lodging, admission fees, or worrying about whether or not you have the cash reserve to cover delays in the event of bad weather or a breakdown can easily transform a pleasure trip into an unpleasant trip. Be very realistic about your budget. Use your itinerary to price out the daily costs of gas, accommodations, food, and fees for activities or admission to sights; factor in a few hundred bucks for an emergency fund as well. If your gut tells you a two-week trip would break the bank, then plan on a single-week tour—and make it really great.
#9: Gear Up for Safety
A major part of planning is knowing what to pack. For a full rundown on bike gear and some packing tips, check out the article, Essential Motorcycle Gear. Also, since you might be riding in remote areas, consider filing a “flight plan.” That is, leave your itinerary with a friend or family member and make arrangements to check in at specified times. This way, if you miss a check-in (or two), your contact will know something’s wrong—and know roughly where you can be found.
#10: Have Fun!
What you’ve dreamed about for years is about to happen. Be open to everything you’ve envisioned and everything you see. And now . . . it’s time to get off the laptop and get on the blacktop.