50 Tips for Riding A Motorcycle Across America

Jim McDermott
by Jim McDermott

Riding across America is the dream of many motorcyclists. The notion of traversing the U.S.A. on two wheels has a certain romantic aspect; 4000 miles unspooling before you like reels of an old, epic film. A lone rider and his/her machine, dusty and stoic, sharing tales of the road with strangers at every stop but never lingering in one place for more than a meal or a night’s sleep.

Unlike some things in life, the dream is not let down by the reality of actually doing it. Every ride across America is special – I’ve done it four times, and each trip provided unforgettable moments, the types of peak experiences we all long for when we get on a motorcycle. Still, there’s a lot to consider when planning a coast to coast trip: Do you use your own bike or rent one? How will you get your motorcycle back home when the ride’s done? What are the essential items to bring? How much time should you allocate, and what route should you take?

The answers to these questions are really based on the individual. Everyone’s ideal coast-to-coast ride is their own, even amongst riders doing it together in a group. That said, there are a few things I’ve learned on my cross-country motorcycle journeys that may be of help to others thinking of doing this ride. So here goes, 50 Tips for Riding A Motorcycle Across America:

#1) Stop putting it off, life is short! Don’t forestall joy – why not do it this year?

#2) America is a lot bigger than you thought, and it takes time to see and appreciate it. Don’t rush.

#3) Take at least two weeks to do the ride, ideally more (see #2). Unless you’re in the IBA ( http://www.ironbutt.com), it’s not a race.

#4) Should you ride East to West, or West To East? Well, America “opens up” as you head East to West. West to East, it gets more congested and populated. Psychologically, East to West “feels” a bit better because of that.

#5) Which route should you take? Start by figuring out which destinations you want to visit, then connect the dots by choosing good roads between them. Michelin regional maps are best for this task.

#6) Route suggestion #1: Start in New York City. Head to the battlefield at Gettysburg, then to Cleveland and the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, then Chicago, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and Yellowstone, Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, finish in San Francisco.

#7) Route suggestion #2: Start in Washington D.C. Head down the Blue Ridge Parkway into the Smokey Mountains, over to Nashville, then pick up Route 66 in St Louis and follow it to Los Angeles.

#8) Route suggestion #3: Start in Orlando, Florida, ride along Gulf Coast, see New Orleans, go inland to Austin, Texas, visit Big Bend National Park, Roswell, New Mexico, across Arizona to the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree National Park and Palm Springs, and finish in Los Angeles.

#9) Interstates = ZERO FUN. Boring to ride, and you don’t get quality time with people and places.

#10) A country is not just about the roads and the places, it’s about the people. Spend time talking to locals for a richer, more rewarding ride.

#11) When choosing a bike for the journey, bigger/more expensive does not always equal more fun. Rat bikes can be great cross-country mounts, as can small-displacement motorcycles, depending on the roads you take.

#12) Regarding accessories (GPS, satellite radio, random gadgets from the Aerostich catalog): more farkles equals more distractions and less fun. Map, smartphone, wallet, water, first aid kit and a change of underwear gets you 99% there.

#13) Make sure your tires can handle 3500-4500 miles of riding. Really sticky sportbike tires won’t.

#14) Give your bike an oil change before you go (not during the night before the ride!).

#15) Use GPS on your smartphone for emergencies, otherwise stick to maps. Maps look better with coffee spilt on them than a Zumo does.

#16) If you’re riding in summer, buy a cooling vest. You can ride comfortably for much greater distances in serious heat with a good cooling vest. I like these from Silver Eagle Outfitters.

#17) Bring earplugs and don’t be lazy about wearing them if you value your hearing.

#18) If you can take three weeks or longer for the trip, using your own bike makes sense financially versus renting. But remember that you have to get your bike back home once the ride is done, and after 4000 miles, you might not be too excited to ride back to wherever home is. Shipping can be expensive, and it may take several weeks to get your bike back.

#19) Best months to cross the U.S.A. on a motorcycle: mid May to late October (start a bit later and a finish earlier if you’re doing a northerly route.)

#20) If you bring your rain gear or heated clothing, fate and irony will ensure you won’t need it. If you leave home without them, you’re just begging for historic rain and low temperatures on the ride.

#21) People will be asking you to tell them about this trip for years, so:

#22) Start and end your trip in an interesting place (Note: your Uncle Morty’s house is NOT an interesting place).

#23) Take plenty of photographs and short video (smartphones are great for both, especially if you set them to embed GPS information automatically)

#24) Take time to document the places that resonate in you. Twenty years from now a grainy video clip you took at some hamburger joint will be absolute treasure.

#25) Blog about your trip while on the road so family and friends can ride along virtually.

#26) Consider riding for your fave charity. Learn about how to properly fundraise by contacting the charity (they often have instructions on their website).

#27) Plan for spotty to non-existent cell reception in some rural parts of the country.

#28) Post a brief “Flight Plan” every day before you ride, and check in with family/friends when you arrive at your final destination. This will ease the worry for people who love you and are understandably concerned for your safety.

#29) You’ll take your best photos around dawn and dusk – that’s when the light is best (“Golden Hour”). Think about that when you’re deciding where you’re going to be at those times.

#30) You’ll see countless smears of road kill while riding across America, and most of these creatures are hit at night by tractor trailers. Critters come out when the sun starts to go down. Your chance of encountering animals goes up exponentially at night, so be off the bike at or before sundown if you wish to avoid this.

#31) Weather band radio is very useful, especially during tornado season in the Midwest.

#32) Regarding camping: It’s a long ride, and you’ll be tired at day’s end. Motorcycle camping is for the young, the poor and/or the acutely adventurous.

#33) For everyone else, Best Western, Motel 6, Super 8 and their ilk are the better choice. A smartphone app that uses GPS to provide a list of lodging nearby can be indispensable (Trip Advisor, Priceline, etc.).

#34) Always call ahead for the best lodging price, and AAA membership always provides an additional discount. Get their best rate first, then mention your AAA membership.

#35) Sometimes you’re forced to stay in seedy, down in the mouth places on the road. In these types of places, always check the room before committing to stay, if only so you don’t get blamed for the dead hooker in the bathtub.

#36) Breakfast buffets at hotels and motels are almost always overpriced and underwhelming. Take some fruit and water for snacks later in the day, but eat breakfast at a local joint. Walk around a bit and you’ll find the right one.

#37) Eat a light breakfast, and a light lunch with healthy snacks as needed until dinner. And make sure you’re properly hydrated – keep a liter bottle of water in your saddlebag, protected from the heat of the sun.

#38) Be hungry for dinner. Save the heavier meals for nighttime. If you ask your body to digest a heavy meal while you’re riding, you’re going to get sleepy, which is dangerous on a bike. If you’re hungry, you won’t be sleepy.

#39) Do not drink any alcohol until after the bike is parked for the day.

#40) When you park your bike for the night, leave nothing of value on it or in it. Leave the empty saddlebags unlocked. Leave it in a well-lit place where people come and go, like the entrance of the motel. There’s less chance of the bike being stolen there. Lock the bike to something solid or at least to itself so it won’t roll.

#41) Music that goes well with a Cross U.S.A. ride: Robert Johnson, The Band, Dylan, Ryan Adams, Wilco, Willie Nelson, Daniel Lanois, Mark Knopfler, Freddie King, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, Ry Cooder, The Grateful Dead without Mickey Hart and The Rolling Stones with Mick Taylor.

#42) The books you choose to bring are important. Books about traveling seem to read really well on long trips, especially if you’re riding alone.

#43) Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar” (or really almost anything he’s written); Ted Simon’s “Jupiter’s Travels” and “One Man Caravan” by Robert Edison Fulton Junior are worth the saddlebag space. Jack London and Raymond Chandler are good companions too. I often bring along some Pirsig for the times when I find myself in some gas station toilet stall that’s run out of paper.

#44) Go to bed early (by 10pm) and be on the road no later than 7:00am. It’s a treasure to watch the world wake up, as an observer, on a motorcycle.

#45) Stay focused at all times. You have to be ready for the unexpected every time you get on a motorcycle, and on a ride like this, where nothing is familiar, weather and traffic conditions changing daily, your head must be screwed on 100%. Do not allow yourself to get distracted.

#46) For some of us, riding long distance solo in lonely places can summon The Black Dog. If your mind drifts to negative thoughts, focus on gratitude. Most of the people you know, even hardcore riders, will never ride a motorcycle across America. You are truly fortunate to experience this journey. Believe this.

#47) On a trip like this, choose the people you ride with carefully. Being on a motorcycle for weeks at a time can be straining both physically and mentally, and everyone manages stress differently. You can make lifelong friends or lose them on a trip like this. Think farts are funny? After 21 days in small, shared motel rooms, they might not be. Some people like to ride early, some to sleep in. And even skinny guys can snore. Think about these things before you head out.

#48) We’ve all had a friend who likes to push it, who’ll take unnecessary risks for the thrill, the attention, or because they’re just wired that way. Do not do a cross-country ride with this person. This is an endurance ride, not a sprint race, not a stunt show. If you’re riding with someone and you don’t feel they’re being safe, have a word with them about it. If they don’t change, don’t ride with them. There’s no room for grab ass when you’re covering hundreds of miles a day.

#49) Build some rest days into your itinerary. Stay somewhere great for two days, see the sights, catch your breath. Your body and mind will need a break every 5-7 days, and it’s nice to break the cycle of pack/unpack every day. Plus, you can get a little crazy at night if you don’t need to ride the next day.

#50) The night before you start the ride, pack your bags completely. Then, unpack them, spread the contents out, and remove 25% of the stuff. YOU DON’T NEED IT. Bring a few pairs of washable quick dry underwear and socks. Bring a few pairs of old t-shirts with holes in them. Wear one until you can smell the stink when you’re riding, then throw it away and put on another. If you need more clothes on the way, buy a cool shirt at some dive bar, or stop by a Target if need be. When you’re done reading a book on the road, leave it where you finished it. The goal is to arrive on the opposite coast with as little as possible in your bags, but your head and heart filled. This might be the most important tip of all.

I hope you’ve found these 50 Tips for Riding A Motorcycle Across America helpful. What tips do you have? Please share them in the comments below.

Jim McDermott
Jim McDermott

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  • Dharma Brain Dharma Brain on Nov 08, 2017

    Great ... Thanks...

  • Bitcoin Blog Bitcoin Blog on Feb 01, 2018

    Great tips. Planning a cross country trip from Buffalo NY, to the Rockies, then California Pacific Coast Highway, Vegas, then back to NY via old Rt.66 or what's left of it.