Dressed in your Klim riding suit, mounted on your brand new BMW GS 1200, complete with crash guards and high adventure tour-package, you sit idling at the end of your driveway. Left or right? Which way to adventure?
Planning a route for your new adventure bike can be as challenging as riding it once you’ve gotten there. Ideally, your riding buddies will have plenty of knowledge to share with you and you can just follow along. But, that only works so long: eventually you need to find your own way.
For dual-sport and adventure riders in Vermont, your primary tools are Google Maps, Garmin’s Basecamp software and traditional maps. Using these tools – and some advice from the AdvRider forum – you can map rides that fit your skill and your bike.
Getting the Big Picture
Start your mapping by getting the big picture. Use a combination of Google Maps and traditional paper maps to plot a general route. Google Maps is great for plotting a direct course from point to point on paved roads. The mileage and time estimate can give you an approximation of riding time to get from the city to the riding zone.
Until Google adds a “good motorcycle road” checkbox, the route plotted will simply get you from origin to destination. You’ll get fast and paved, but not necessarily interesting and uncrowded. Use the “Avoid highways” option to skip Interstate highways and stay on secondary roads.
There are some tricks you can use to finesse Google Maps into plotting the course you prefer, but you’ll need additional information before employing these.
The Vermont Road Classification System
When evaluating a route, Vermont has a road classification system that can help. Class 1 roads are highways and State roads that receive the highest amount of traffic and maintenance. They are also boring, straight roads that you’ll want to avoid, except when trying to make time.
Class 2 roads are well traveled roads that lead to Class 1 roads. These are usually paved and can be fun on your cruiser or touring bike, but are not our focus here.
GPS and online mapping tools, like Google Maps, default to using Class 1 and 2 roads when possible. For dual-sport riders your goal is to find roads in the next two classifications.
Class 3 roads are town roads and can be paved, but are frequently gravel or dirt. They are usually passable by standard passenger cars and can be great fun, scenic and well suited to larger dual-sport motorcycles. When you can, use Class-3 roads as your primary “travelers” for getting from Class 2 roads to Class-4 roads.
Class 4 roads are public right-of-ways that are not maintained by anyone. Their condition can vary from easily passable to a goat path and are the holy-grail of adventure riding in Vermont. The tricky bit is finding class 4 roads that are both challenging and passable.
Google Maps makes no distinction between Class-3 and Class-4 roads. I have found numerous cases where abandon Class-4 roads are shown on Google Maps, so always use additional sources to verify roads found on Google.
I use the Jimapco county maps series or the DeLorme Vermont Atlas & Gazetteer to verify roads found on Google Maps. Unlike Google Maps, which make no distinction between a well-used, town-maintained Class 3 roads and an ancient cart path, these maps differentiate between paved and gravel. If the road exists on Google maps, but not on the Jimapco map, it may be too rough for a larger dual-sport.
The Gazetteer and Jimapco’s county maps include most of the passable Class 4 roads – but not all. If you find a road in Google Maps, but not on these maps, it may be obsolete. Before committing to ride there, you need to investigate further.
VTrans – the Vermont Department of Transportation – has online maps that include every public roadway in the state. These maps are the definitive source for determining whether a road is public.
The maps are divided by town, which makes them difficult to use for general route planning. Use the Jimapco road atlas or county maps to determine the town a road is located in and then use the VTrans maps to evaluate the condition.
The VTrans maps classify roads as hard surface or paved, gravel, soil or graded and drained earth, and unimproved or primitive. They also indicate whether a road is Class 3 or Class 4. Knowing the road surface and whether it is maintained is vital in determining whether it is passable.
The VTrans maps also show legal right-of-ways that are “impassable or untraveled”, legal trails and discontinued. These last 3 road classifications are dicey at best and in most cases should be avoided.
Impassable or untraveled roads are Class 4 roads that have decayed sufficiently to be downgraded to “impassable”. These roads can be fun or a holy hell of a slog: local knowledge is needed to determine whether they are passable. Recent weather can greatly affect your ability to ride these roads, which are not maintained and can be significant mud pits.
Roads designated as legal trails may or may not allow motorized vehicle traffic. Local ordinances cover these roads and you should check with the local selectboard to determine whether these roads are legal for motorcycles. Unless you know a legal trail allows motorcycles, assume it doesn’t. In many cases, riding illegally on a designated trail could be cause for a fine.
Discontinued roads have been given up by the town and are no longer public rights-of-way. Do not go there.
Note: these maps will help determine if a road passable. You are responsible for determining if the road is passable by you, on your bike, in the road’s current condition. No map will tell you this: maps will only assist you in making this determination.
See this article for an example comparison of Google, Basecamp and VTrans sources
A GPS is an essential tool for any off-road rider. Motorcycle specific models are easy to read while underway, glove friendly and have Bluetooth ear pieces to hear turn-by-turn directions, but many do not have topographical information and may not show Class-4 roads.
A GPS does not need to be a motorcycle specific model to be useful. Many dual-sport riders prefer hand-held units like Garmin's Oregon 450and Montana 650 for their versatility and lower cost.
Garmin’s City Navigator North America map series includes many Class-4 roads and is included with their motorcycle specific models. City Navigator is similar to Jimapco’s county maps in detail and can provide another data point when evaluating a road.
Garmin’s Topo US 24K Northeast series of maps are essential for evaluating terrain. These detailed topographical maps can be used to determine if a road is steep or runs through a marsh. Topographical features can also be used in navigating, since road signs will be rare once you’re off the beaten path.
Use Garmin’s Basecamp to create a route that combines paved roads and Class-4 roads. The route can be loaded into your GPS and used for navigating while riding. I always supplement my GPS directions with hand-written directions and I carry paper maps for getting the big picture.
After plotting your route, it’s helpful to check with local sources to learn about recent conditions. The AdvRider forum can be a good place to get this information. Just beware that a rider’s bike, riding experience and point-of-view can greatly color their assessment of “good condition”. Use this information as another data point in your decision, but let your instincts guide you.
For the most part, riding in Vermont is not life-threatening. If things go wrong, choosing an overly ambitious route will –in most cases -- result in no more than a huge inconvenience. However, it is entirely possible to crash your bike in a place that isn’t accessible via a pickup truck, so don’t be afraid to turn your bike around if things get dicey.
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