Few things beat a long motorcycle road trip. I’d love to just hit the road indefinitely and ride wherever it takes me. Reality, on the other hand, is that I have neither unlimited time nor funds to do so, and I have to stick to a budget to cover my supplies, food, gas, and accommodations. Since I tend to ride motorcycles that aren’t touring models kitted with luggage, and prefer to travel light and lean, I have to stretch my storage space as far as I possibly can. If you’re motorcycle road-tripping on a budget, you have to be resourceful and plan well to put in miles without breaking the bank (or your spirits). Here’s some ways to plan, prep, and pack light for a road trip on a shoestring budget.

First, figure out how much you want to spend. You don’t need to bust out spreadsheets here, but having a vague idea will help with the planning. I don't always go in with a hard number in mind, but always try to keep expenses low. You may not initially know if something even fits into the budget. That’s fine. Keep a tally as you plan and square it up with your budget later. Leave some wiggle room. Set the budget low, spend even less, and always round up when estimating costs. It'll take some trial and error to hit that sweet spot.

Knock out the easy stuff next. Consult the stars (or your smartphone) and plan a route. This can be detailed or fairly rough, depending on how much room for exploration you want to leave in there. Get an idea of the number of miles you’ll be covering and how much gas it takes to do so. Gas expenses are now accounted for. To bring my gas expenses down even more, I carry a gas discount card that saves 5¢ on every gallon. It's not much, but it adds up.

Decide where you’re staying, and for how long. Hotel? Motel? BnB? Camping? Figure out the cost for lodging. You can reduce this expense by road-tripping with some friends and splitting the bill. It's more fun having riding companions, and it has the benefit of adding cargo space for things like cookware, tools, spare parts, and other supplies.

Once the trip is outlined, make a packing list. I borrowed the basic underpinnings of my list from the late Robert M. Pirsig’s packing list in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance after reading it years ago when I was a neophyte rider and the notion of a long road trip was foreign to me. If you’re planning your first road trip and need a place to start, excerpts of Pirsig’s list can be found online, then adjusted and modernized accordingly (don't just stop at the packing lists if you haven’t read Pirsig's watershed novel, though. Do yourself a solid and read the whole book). Below is the list from my recent trip to Austin for the Handbuilt Show.

Everything on that list fit into a backpack and Kriega US-20 bag, with food in an insulated lunch bag strapped to the top of my Kriega bag. I had room to spare, too. I'm not a fan of luggage, and prefer traveling light and minimalist, so a single bag, a backpack, and maybe a few extra items strapped to the top of things is about my limit. Most of the time, I roll with just a backpack or messenger bag. I've occasionally been caught with a set of throw-over saddlebags. If it won't fit in a fairly small set of luggage, I probably don't need it. Maybe I'm asking to be thrown into an unexpected bind, but chances are, a problem beyond something I'm able to carry with a light load would be a catastrophic event that would require a major repair.

The year before. You may notice the absence of luggage on my Z900. Everything I took in 2018 fit in my messenger bag.

I keep the list in the Notes app on my phone. Sometimes I'll draft it up on paper, but it always ends up on my phone. It's a living document that evolves over time, and is curated from lessons of past road trips, and tailored to my preference for traveling light, my current motorcycle and cargo space, and the needs of the trip I'm planning (additional tools, spare parts, and clothes may be needed for longer trips, camping gear for…camping trips, obviously, etc.).

Once the list is together, the items have to check three boxes. 1) Is it actually necessary? 2) If it needs to be purchased, does the cost fit into the budget? 3) Does it fit in my luggage? If it doesn’t meet all three, it gets the axe. It can be tempting to want to take the kitchen sink, but overcome that urge and pare it down.

It's important to be resourceful, know what you have, and put it to use. You'll cut costs for gear, supplies, luggage, and keeping yourself fed and hydrated on the road. You don't need to buy new gear, supplies, and luggage for every trip, nor do you need to spend a ton of money stopping at gas stations, diners and restaurants for food and drink.

Motorcycle-specific luggage can be expensive. If you're working on a tight budget, unless you’re a seasoned road-tripper and have acquired some items over time, or have a touring bike equipped with bags from the factory, you may not have much to work with. You probably have a backpack, messenger bag, duffel bag, or gym bag you can use, though. In the absence of a dedicated dry bag, grocery and/or trash bags work for light waterproofing. They're good for separating your dirty laundry, too.

For securing the load and lugging a few extra items, cargo nets are the budget road-tripper’s friend. Since they usually have six connection points, they tend to be more reliable and secure than bungee cords. Having a few bungees, straps or tie downs never hurts if you need to expand your load. When it comes to bang-for-the-buck, a $10 cargo net or set of bungees and an old duffel bag (if you're going for hipster street-cred, the older, the better) beats a $200 set of saddlebags.

There's no need to spend extra on travel-size grooming products, toothpaste, and such, either. Again, use what you have. Put the stuff you use every day into Ziploc bags (to prevent leakage) and you're good to go. If space is limited and you can't tote larger containers of things like shampoo and body wash, reusable, leak-proof travel bottles (or even small condiment bottles) that you can fill yourself are cheaper in the long run than buying travel-size products.

When it comes to packing, be efficient. Don't procrastinate and do your packing at the last minute. Consider doing a trial run a few days before you leave. Go through your list during this run to make sure 1) You don't forget anything and 2) Everything fits, especially if you're putting a new piece of luggage to use and it's actual capacity is a mystery. This will give you a chance to practice finding ways to Tetris everything into your bag(s). You'll eventually get a pretty good sense of how to pack efficiently, and how much you can carry.

The final area I save on is food. This is probably where I save the most money, in fact. Compact, energy-dense food that won't spoil, like summer sausage, hard cheeses, jerky, trail mix, etc. make up most of my road trip menu. Try not to buy snacks at gas stations or stop at restaurants and diners. Bring water, too. Once at your destination, empty your bags and hit a grocery store to load up on fresh food. If you packed or have access to cookware, you can cook meals for yourself (and your crew) for the entirety of your stay for the cost of one restaurant trip. If a grocery store is out of reach, you might consider sacrificing some of the other items you might pack in order to carry more food. Find the balance you're comfortable with between packing light and saving money.

Minimizing gear is also crucial when it comes to packing light and staying under budget. Versatile pieces, like a jacket and a helmet that can handle virtually anything the road throws at you help keep things light. This is partly personal preference, but I'd rather use the dry clothes I've already packed, pack (or wear) a pair of waterproof gloves, and wear waterproof boots (or shoes), than pack dedicated rain gear. Rain suits, boot covers, and all that, have always let me down, and while they can pack down small, they take up valuable cargo space and eat into my budget in ways that the jacket, helmet, boots, and riding pants I wear every day don't.

Lastly, make sure the service and maintenance on your bike is up to date. Fresh fluids, good tires, good brakes, and all that. Having your bike in good running order can help avoid an expensive breakdown that could've been prevented with meticulous maintenance. If you want to talk about something that'll ruin a trip and obliterate your budget, an emergency tow or repair is it.

Once your trip is over and you're settled in back home, perform some post-trip analysis. Did you overspend? Were you able to further cut costs? Was there anything you packed that you thought was essential, but it turned out you did not need? Forget something crucial and it almost ruined your trip? You’ll learn over time what you do and don't need, and what you are willing to deal with when it comes to mechanical issues and the elements. You won't get it 100% right the first time, or any time, for that matter. With smart budgeting and planning, though, you'll be able to ride far and wide, and barely spend a dime beyond the gas it takes to get you there.