How to plan a long distance motorcycle trip
Arctic countries ride specialist Gordon Stuart tells us how he plans a long distance motorcycle trip, from deciding on routes to choosing a date that works.
Working full-time alongside having a wife & two small children means even an afternoon ride out to the countryside takes some planning these days, let alone a multi-week, multi-country motorcycle trip. However, it’s entirely possible to fit in one of your dream trips alongside ‘real life’ but you need to be prepared to put in the legwork to ensure everything fits into place.
Since I passed my test 12 years ago, I’ve completed several multi-week motorbike tours. My first was aged 19 when two mates and I hit the road for a no-frills four-week tour of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg. My most recent trip was a 3,500-mile trek to Arctic Iceland. I also spent the past 18 months planning a trip to Alaska, ready to ride the infamous Dalton Highway, only for a last-minute paperwork hitch delay my departure.
The ‘thinking about it’ stage
It’s no exaggeration to say that not a day goes by when I’m not visualising a motorbike trip, from finding some new twisties in my native Northumberland, to battling through rugged roads on the other side of the earth. For me, and it might seem basic, but I find Google Maps a great tool to get inspiration. From estimating how long your trip is going to be, to using ‘street-view’ to get a close-up view of road conditions and scenery, it’s an excellent tool for planning your next big trip and its free!
I’ve got an extensive list of destinations in mind, including a long-term ambition to ride a motorcycle in every Arctic country, but my tips below are equally as applicable whether you’re looking to do your first ride abroad or explore the British Isles as your summer holiday.
The route planning stage
When first thinking about a trip I also like to have a destination in mind like a city, landmark, or someone to visit. This then allows me to look at interesting roads and sites along the way, then the route starts to build itself. It also gives me a focal point when riding to aim for, so I don’t get too distracted or lose motivation. When the route is starting to take shape, I head out to reliable sources of good roads such as Facebook groups (‘Motorcycle Tours’ and ‘Horizons Unlimited’), YouTube searches, and of course Twitter.
I also get into the detail on Google Maps and look at back roads and try and find the road less travelled. Depending on how far my destination is, I have no shame jumping on a motorway to get the miles in. I know a lot of bikers who somehow think you are cheating on your tyres and potential of the bike by getting on the motorway, but to me, it’s a means to an end. If I have to do a 500-mile day on a motorway to get to some amazing roads or to see my buddy in Switzerland, I will.
The UK is big enough and varied enough to do some fantastic long-distance trips, whether a whole UK tour or a week in the highlands. Further afield, Europe has an almost endless list of great destinations. As I live in the North of England, if I want to get onto the Continent, I need two days either side of my trip to get of out the UK. I’m a big fan of overnight ferries to the low countries from Hull or Harwich. Landing in Southern Netherlands or Belgium is a great place to start any trip in Europe, and although not as frequent as the busier Dover-Calais/Dunkirk & Portsmouth routes, they are good value for money if you’ve had a long day down from the North or West and want a good kip and a beer while still covering some miles. If you are based in South East, get up early and jump on the ferry or the Euro Tunnel and you can be in the Alps by tea-time if you put in a big day – amazing. If you are planning to travel further than EU borders, check with the Government’s Foreign Travel Advice website, a great resource on when to go and what issues to expect, such as hurricane seasons and links to information on local law and customs.
Getting your dates right
Daily life can really get in the way of planning and doing a long-distance bike trip but it’s not impossible. Once you’ve worked out where you’re going and how you are leaving the UK, the next thing is getting a date in the diary. From my experience, this is one of the hardest parts, but once you’ve set a date and committed, things start to fall into place. It might sound basic but making sure it fits with the family calendar (not missing any key birthdays, anniversaries, school plays etc..), and outside of any key dates at work will make things easier. It’s also worth looking at events calendars for your destinations to either give you an event to aim at or avoid. To keep motivated I make sure I book something (like a ferry, flight, or first night’s camping/hotel) to really set things in stone, then go from there.
Doing the paperwork
Once you’re booked up, make a list of the key things you need to do pre-trip and allocate time to do them to ensure you don’t get caught out close to the trip. Get your paperwork done up front. Things like in-date passport and European Health insurance card (if you are travelling abroad), break-down cover, travel insurance are all small jobs but tend to be fiddly and take time. Also, make sure your bike insurance covers you for the trip – many policies have limitations on the time you can spend abroad and the countries you can take your bike to. You may need a specialist policy for some trips. Depending on where you are riding to, you might need to apply for visas or other travel permits. You can check the countries that require a visa here.
Preparing to leave
Getting the bike ready is also an important item to put on the list. Making sure the bike is serviced, has plenty left on the tyres and brakes, and you’ve got spare bulbs, fuses, and other basics tools to your mechanical ability level are key. Next, I always make sure I pack the bike up front and give it a run out fully loaded before I leave. Riding a bike with full camping gear, two weeks of supplies, spare parts, luggage, and a load of other supplies you won’t end up using will make the bike much heavier and ride differently. The thing you don’t want is to jump on your bike on the morning of your trip and drop it on the first corner as you’re not used to the weight (I’ve seen this happen).
Saving up for a long-distance trip is never easy. My top tip would be to be realistic with how much your trip will cost per day (fuel, food, accommodation plus a 20% risk on top is a good start) but also optimistic about how much you can save before you go. You want to have a good trip, but you also want to not feel guilty spending your family savings, so it’s all a balance.
The bike you take really doesn’t matter unless you’re planning a big off-road trip where you’ll need something capable. I had conversations with other bikers who think you need the latest large capacity adventure bike or something from the Harley Glide family to do a long-distance tour but you really don’t… and I think it’s more fun when you ride something a bit more basic. I did my first ever road trip when I’d passed my test aged 17, two-up, on a Suzuki Marauder 125 riding for five hours in the rain. My first attempt to the Arctic, I rode a Kawasaki ER-5. This year I rode a V-Strom 1000XT to Iceland, and what a bike it was, but nothing beats being at a motorway services leaning up against your mid-sized sports bike when in conversation someone says, “Your riding 5,000 miles on that?!”… Yes, I am, and it’s going to be great.
In summary, if you want to do a long-distance bike trip but you feel like life will get in the way, take some time, do some planning, and commit to a date (even if its two years away) and start to realise your dream. Finally, regardless of what bike you have, it’s the right one and your long-distance tour is right in front of you.
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