10 Steps to Mapping Out Your Motorcycle Road Trip


One of my dream trips that I’ve wanted to do for years is a solo motorcycle tour around the United States, and I plan to make that happen very soon. But the questions is, how does one begin to plan for such a trip? Not everyone is brave or crazy enough to just pack up and ride without figuring out where they will go and where they will stay ahead of time. Also, if your time is limited, careful planning is necessary so you can see the sights and still make it back home on time and on schedule.

In this article we’ll look at 10 steps you might want to take to map out your route, calculate your miles and figure out where you will stop for lodging, gas and sightseeing. Keep in mind that this is only one way of mapping out a cross country ride. It’s how I have approached it, and hopefully it will work for you.

1. Determine the Length of your Trip

This is an important first step because it will determine the length of your route and may limit the number of attractions or towns you can visit. If you are considering a tour of the entire country, from coast to coast and back, you will probably want to give yourself at least a couple of months to do it right. Just to give you and idea, it takes about 5 to 6 days to drive from New York to Los Angeles if you drive 8 to 10 hours a day or 800 to 1,000 miles per day, and that’s without stoping to see the sights. So, just the fact that you’ll be on a motorcycle will cut those hours in half. In addition, if you want to see any landmarks or get to know the towns you’ll be visiting, this will increase your travel time even more.

If you don’t have 2 or 3 months to dedicate to your ride, you can consider taking a shorter trip and enjoying a shorter route, one that covers a particular region of the country. A grand tour of the Pacific Northwest, or a tour of canyon lands and deserts of Utah and Arizona.

At this point it’s also a good idea to consider what type of roads you’d like to ride. Do you want to limit it all to freeway or interstate highway riding? Or, would you like to brake away from the highway and tour some of the less traveled roads? The type of road you choose will also determine how many total miles you’ll be able to ride. Riding at highway speeds makes going from point A to point B a quicker journey. While riding through winding forest roads or narrow country roads will slow you down significantly.

The last thing to consider is the time of year you want to ride. Some parts of the country are limited by season. So, if you want to see the north eastern part of the country, don’t plan your ride in winter. If you want to see Death Valley and surrounding deserts, don’t do it in the summer, you’ll hate it. In fact, Death Valley campgrounds and hotels are closed during summer months because the valley floor in July regularly reaches temperatures of close to 120°F. Best time to visit the desert is in March and April when the wildflowers are in bloom. So, summer in the north and winter in the south.

One last tip is to always add a couple of days to your expected time, up to a week depending on your full trip length. This will allow you to relax and not feel in such a rush. It will also keep your prepared for unexpected down time in case your motorcycle needs repairs or if you realize you just need an extra day of rest before getting back on the motorcycle.

At this point, set a date. Get all the approvals you need from your boss, spouse, kids, dogs and cats.

2. Decide How Many Riding Miles Per Day?

No that you know how long you total trip will take, it’s time to brake it down into average daily mileage. Determine how many miles you have ridden in the past. What’s been your longest day so far? How did you feel during the ride and after? You will want to avoid riding so many miles in one day that you begin to compromise your safety. Also, when trying to figure this out, you need to look beyond mileage only and look at how many hours you will be on the motorcycle, and how much energy you’ll be spending while riding. Twisty, technical roads will wear you out faster than cruising on the freeway.

When plotting out your route you’ll find that some days will be shorter than others due to the towns or sights you want to visit. This makes a long riding day easier to handle knowing that you’ll have a shorter ride the next day. But, too many long days in a row will take it’s toll, so keep this in mind when mapping out your ride.

3. Decide What you Want to See

This is a great time to get out a bag map, lay it out on the kitchen table and start planning. I like to use paper maps at this point rather than staring at a computer screen. A big map gives you a visualization of the big picture. A laminated map like this one on Amazon, along with a set of colored dry erase pens is the perfect tool for this step. This is your brainstorm session. At this point, don’t worry about mileage, just start marking all the points you’ve always wanted to visit. If you have friends or family that you want to see, mark it down on your map.

You can use different colors to determine “must see” sights vs. sights you’d like to see if you have time. If some towns will require more than one day’s stay, write down a number along side that town on the map. Right now, you’re starting to build your route and it is soon going to take shape. This is the fun part. And at this point you can mark down anything you want, any natural or man-made wonder you’ve ever dreamed of seeing, even the giant ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas. Seriously.

4.  Choose What Kind of Roads you Want To Ride

All right. Now you have a map with a bunch of stopping points on it. Now it’s time to string all those stops together. This is the point where you will start to determine what kinds of roads you want to ride on. A motorcycle trip is not just about the stopping points, it’s also about the scenery along the way. The beauty of the road, connecting with nature and not letting the world zoom past you is what these kind of trips are all about. In my opinion, the freeways and highways should be ditched as much as possible. Freeways won’t take you through quaint little towns or through great national parks. Although they may be necessary on some days, try to find a more exciting path.

At this step you can add some online research to your planning. Motorcycle rider forums are a great resource for finding amazing roads. The United States is full of legendary roads such as The Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina, or Highway 36 in Northern California, 140 miles of twisties, or Pikes Peak in Colorado. If you’re looking for some of these great riding experiences, it’s time to add them to your brainstorming map. Trace out these “must ride” roads in their own special color. (I know, this color coding thing may sound a little hokey but if you love maps and you love the planning process like I do, you’ll have a lot of fun doing it).

5. Plot Out a Preliminary Route

Now that you have points of interests and special roads you want to ride, go to your laminated map and start tracing routes between the sights you’ve circled. Remember, this is just a preliminary route and you’ll be nailing down actual roads later in the planning process. So, don’t worry too much about accuracy. You can trace out the main highways, then look a little closer on the map to see if there’s an alternate route that will take you off the highway. Do this for every single sight or stopping point you circled on your map, even the one’s that aren’t that important.

During this process of tracing a logical route, you’ll probably find a few stops that are going to be impossible to see without doing a bunch of backtracking and zig zagging. This is where you’ll start eliminating those sights. Hopefully that giant ball of twine won’t be out of the picture. That would be tragic. At this point you’ve probably noticed why the laminated map and dry erase pens are so perfect for this step. Erase, re-draw, erase, re-draw. On a large map you won’t be able to see some of the more narrow roads, but at least you’ll get a good idea of which roads you’ll take to get from one point to the next.

6. Estimate your Daily Mileage

At this next step you will get your first opportunity to calculate your daily mileage. Using your map’s distance ratios scale, make a rough estimate of how many miles you will have to ride between each of your stopping points.  Don’t be surprised if you’ve plotted so many attractions on your map that you will have to ride for a year to get them all in. This step is another point in which you will start eliminating some things and changing your preliminary route to match what you’ve determined to be your average daily riding time and mileage. If your average is 350 miles, then at every 350 miles on your route, make a mark on the map. On some spots on the map you will determine that you can ride more or you can ride less in a day.

This step of the process is going to take a little more time than previous steps and will take a lot more thought along with some trial and error. Again, you’ll probably find yourself erasing and re-drawing, erase, re-draw, erase, re-draw. What you have now, standing back and looking at your giant map, is the rough route, rough mileage and roughly the number of days you will be on your trip. Count up the days and be sure to include the non-riding, sight-seeing, or motorcycle maintenance days that you’ve marked on your map.

7. Plot your Route on GPS

Now it’s time to get more detailed and start plotting your actual route using electronic maps, or GPS systems. A lot of people will automatically turn to Google Maps for this step, which is a good resource for this step. But, there are other web based trip planners that do a good job. Below are a few of the better route planning websites I’ve found.

  • Roadtrippers Trip Planner – great for finding attractions, camping, hotels, lodging in a specific area
  • Trip Maker by Rand McNally – Customize a route and get calculated miles, total driving time and estimated gas prices.
  • Harley Davidson’s Ride Planner – You can customize your route and choose to avoid highways. You can also download your route to a GPX file for your navigation system. The map also shows you where the HD dealerships are located.

Use your big, paper map that you’ve marked up as a reference and start plotting out a route for each section. You can split it up day by day or route out a few days at a time. I find that it’s easier to build a route from one major city to another, then determine what the total is. From there you can divide the route up by mileage and day.

This is the point where you can zoom into the map and find the fun, scenic roads, off the main highways. Most maps start with giving you the quickest route even if you choose the “avoid highways” options. This is a good starting point. You can tweak the route to hit the roads and points of interest that you want to see.

At this point in your planning you want to take the time to map out each day’s mileage based on how many miles your are comfortable riding and based on what sights you want to see. Be careful that you don’t schedule too many long riding days in a row. Often when people plan out each day, they want to see so many things that they become over ambitious. For every two long mileage days, schedule a short day or even a non-riding day in places where you want to spend some time seeing the sights.

Once you have each day, or each section mapped out, be sure to save each section of the route that you build. You’ve put in a lot of work so far and you don’t want to lose it. If you’re using Google maps, go to their website called My Maps, where you can save your own custom maps. If you use other route planning websites you will likely have to create an account to safe your routes.

8. Choose Lodging and Gas Stops

In the last step you chose a fairly detailed route with every road and turn. You’ve split up the route into days depending on how many miles you want to ride each day. Now you need to figure out where you’re going to stay each night and determine where your gas stops will be.

There is a wide variety of lodging and accommodations to choose from when you’re traveling with a wider variety of costs. This step will be determined by how much money you have to invest in your trip. Hotels, motels, Air B-n-B’s are the more expensive options, even if you choose to stay at the less expensive ones. Camping is a very affordable option depending on where you are and you can often find BLM land that you can camp on for free. Another option is couch surfing, something I’ve never tried, but people seem to have good luck with it.  Whichever option you choose, do plenty of research and read reviews of others who have stayed at a particular hotel or campground. A month or two before your big trip, you may want to consider making reservations at places where you know it will be difficult to find lodging on the fly. I certainly wouldn’t do this for every stop or every night, especially if you’re on an epic month long trip, or longer. But, if you do make reservations will ahead of time, make sure you understand cancellation policies.

You will be making adjustments to your daily rides due to the availability of lodging. You may have to extend a day’s ride to get to a certain campground, or you may shorten your ride for the day. Again, be careful not to schedule too many miles in one day.

It’s a smart idea to mark now gas stops based on how many miles you can travel between fill ups. It’s nice to have a general idea of how far the next fuel station is so you know whether or not to top-off before leaving a town.  If you will be riding on some out-of-the-way roads with few gas stops, you may want to consider carrying extra fuel. For tips on carry extra gas, read this article. Come to think of it, even if your planned route has a gas stop in a small town, it’s entirely possible that the gas station will be closed or no longer in service. This has happened to me in a few tiny Northern California mining towns. One station, closed on Sundays.

9. Research the Final Route

This is the point where you want to do some final research on your route and be ready to make a few adjustments. GPS navigation systems, satellite maps like Google maps are never 100% accurate. They don’t take into account things like rush hour traffic, dangerous neighborhoods, construction or road closures. So, don’t rely totally on GPS.

If your route takes you through some larger cities, take some time to do some research on those cities and consider traffic, rush hour, etc. Is it making you ride in a notoriously bad neighborhood? GPS map systems can lead you into places you might not want to go. Use the apps as a guideline and then do some research especially if your gps takes you through a city. Research the traffic patterns and the neighborhoods and check to see if there are any major construction projects going on that will create a delay.

While on your ride, you should take time each day to research the next day’s route. Look up information such as traffic, weather, road closures and construction. Watch the local news for local information that might affect your ride.

10. Be Open to Changes

Your route and daily itinerary should always remain flexible. Even though you’ve put a lot of work into planning each day of you ride, you have to be willing to change it on the fly. You never know what you’re going to encounter when on the road. You will face obstacles such as road closures, detours, traffic, or a sudden urge to take a side trip to see the giant ball of twine. So, always be willing to make impromptu changes to your journey and don’t stress over the fact that you didn’t stick to your plan 100%.

If you make sudden changes to your itinerary, be sure to notify someone of your changes, especially if you are traveling alone and riding solo. Maybe this should have been mentioned earlier in this article, but you should always give your ride itinerary to your spouse, a family member or a close friend before you leave, and update your itinerary with that person whenever you make changes.

After you’ve done all this planning, you can look forward to getting your motorcycle in peak travel condition, to deciding what equipment to bring, what clothes to pack. I hope this list of 10 things to do to map out your motorcycle trip have helped you in making your epic vacation a reality. Remember to always stay safe, trust your intuition, relax and enjoy the road.

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