Best laid plans

So you’ve made the decision to go and you know – roughly – what direction you’re headed, but how do you go about planning your overland motorcycle route?  Some are of the school of thought that you don’t plan at all; just throw as little as possible on the bike and ride in an approximate direction until you feel the need to stop. I totally get that, but it has its pitfalls. Without any planning you’ll not be armed with those little bits of knowledge, that can make the difference; like whether you’re going to be travelling at altitude (it’ll be cold, mountains passes could be closed), like what the border formalities require in terms of paperwork (oh, maybe I should have got that Russian visa before I left), like when and where fuel will be available, if you can use credit cards where you’ll be, or whether the region you’re heading to is on the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office travel warning list.

Equally, you could miss some amazing roads or incredible sights or scenery that are within easy reach, but you just didn’t know about it.  Still not convinced? Believe me, there’ll be enough unexpected things happening en-route, that even the best of planning can’t provide for, and they’ll make sure it will be an adventure.

Here’s our top tips about how to plan a great overland motorcycle route:

  • Once you’ve picked your country or continent, there’s nothing better than to surround yourself with hard copy maps and guidebooks. It’s old-fashioned, but nothing beats the crinkling papery smell as you unfold a map for the first time, stand back and look over your new playground.  Identify roads with green lines, plenty of squiggles, or those that go over closely packed contours.  We then quickly follow on by using GoogleMyMaps to start plotting interesting things you want to see and do and possible routes and distances.
  • Once you’ve taken to the internet, find out who else has been there and what do they recommend? The Horizons Unlimited website is great for this type of advice or try Mad or Nomad.  If you want to add some culture, the UNESCO World Heritage website is a good start for stop-offs on your route.  Or for something a bit more quirky, try looking at Atlas Obscura.
  • For a big overland adventure, think about the impact of motorcycle freight in determining your route.  For riders in the UK and Europe, an extended trip in the Americas will require you to freight your bike out and back.  That’s a big chunk of budget on motorcycle freight.  So budget conscious riders may prefer to consider a loop ride, where there’s no freight.  If you do freight your motorcycle, then you will need to use a good freight hub and that will determine your start and finish point.  Our advice is to speak to a good freight agent like Motofreight for tips as to the best start and end points.
Who’d want to miss seeing the magnificent Ait Ben Haddou (below) when you’re in Morocco?

  • Check with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (UK) or your own country’s equivalent for advice on whether you need any visas in advance for travel and also what are potential hotspots. Travelling to places with an “against essential travel” warning are often not covered by travel insurance and are best avoided.  If you do head to a region like this, make sure you have local support networks and contacts in place.
  • Then check what the entry requirements are for the countries you want to visit.  If you need a visa in advance of entry, then you may need to obtain this whilst still at home.  For example, a Chinese Visa must be applied for in your country of residence.  You cannot get it en route.  Do your proper research via a visa agency, such as The Visa Machine.
  • Just as your research entry requirements for yourself, then you need to do this about getting entry for your bike.  Some countries require a carnet de passage, some issue temporary import permits at the borders, some don’t allow entry of your motorcycle unless it is arranged in advance (eg China, Vietnam).  For others, you may need to present minimum motorcycle 3rd party insurance cover.  If you’ve not got the right paperwork for your bike, then this will stop you in your tracks.
It takes months of planning to ensure you have your Chinese registration plates and driving licences ready for your arrival into China

  • Once you get your approximate route in mind, think about some of the nitty-gritty. We prefer to keep big cities and main routes to a minimum, as urban areas are generally more expensive, less safe and have heavy and often chaotic traffic. Better to stick to smaller towns and quieter routes. . . .
  • . . . although on any major long-distance ride, it’s wise to plan in stops in some cities where there is good infrastructure, so you can iron out any issues you may have had with the bike – servicing, new tyres, getting spare parts etc. and even just to take a break from the road for a few days; it’s surprising how travel fatigue can creep up.  Sometimes a few days off the bike is great to rest so you can continue your journey afresh a few days or even weeks later.
  • If you are planning a route that is very remote – no regular facilities or places to stay – you’re going to have to plan on being totally self-sufficient. Camping gear then comes into play and this has a knock on impact on your luggage and packing.
  • Planning should also take into account when to go. Trying to get to Prudhoe Bay, some 3000 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in any month other than June to August is realistically unachievable and could leave you freezing in a snowdrift. Know your climates.  Equally, knowing how many daylight hours you have each day is also key.  Research your sunrise and sunset times for the country and time of year.  So using the Prudhoe Bay example, the final 240 miles from Coldfoot Camp to Prudhoe Bay is a tough ride, but if you’re there in July, then you’ve got lots of daylight and there’s no need to rush the ride.
Don’t expect a fuel station between Coldfoot and Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, despite the oil pipeline being visible for most of the route!

  • Planning needs to take into account what you want to see and do as well.  No point in planning your South America dream ride for February, if you next thing on your bucket list is to hike the Inca Trail because its closed in February!
  • Be aware that you always think you can cram more into a day that is actually realistically comfortable, whether it is in terms of miles to be ridden or places to be visited. Routes should be planned to take into account less, rather than more miles, and should be based on a riding style that suits your country – you can go a lot further, faster in Europe, than you can in Africa or Asia. Likewise, if there is something unmissable to see during a riding day, factor in time for sight seeing.   Generally we would look at the mileage for a day and work our riding time – so lets say its a 210 mile day on very twisty mountain roads, we’d only plan on 30 miles per hour average, so 7 hours riding time plus 2 hours for breaks is an approximate 9 hour day.  If there is something to see along the way, then you’d add up to two hours for this and so on.
  • We’d always advise you incorporate rest days into your itinerary, so you are not riding every day.  They can also act as contingency days, if things don’t quite go to plan.
  • In developing countries, often borders take time.  We plan to stay close the a border the night before and be ready to get there first thing in the morning.  Depending on which border, the process could take all day!
The Iranian border (below) may take a while, but in our experience the Turkmen border takes the record at over 14 hours . . .

  • Don’t be afraid to adapt your route as you go. Local information about roads and safety is useful and it can mean avoiding a trouble spot, not taking a road that has a recently collapsed bridge or knowing where you can get fuel. But taking advice from locals as you travel is a bit of a double-edged sword, as many will simply try to please.  On balance, we will use local police to help and we will try and get factual information, rather than the road is “good” or “bad”.

Once you’ve got your route, some riders create daily routes, using apps such as BaseCamp (for Garmin users) or Calimoto, or Scenic, which they can then download to their GPS or phone.  It just depends on how much detail you want to go into.

There’s no surprise that we are big believers in pre-trip planning.  We just don’t want to be caught out by something that could cause a major disruption to our big adventure.  But on the other hand all the preparation in the world can’t foresee every possible outcome, and things do change once you’re already on the road.  So just as important as planning is flexibility and being able to adapt as you go.  Happy travels!

Kevin & Julia Sanders