Traveling by motorcycle brings with it a certain freedom and sense of immersion in the world as you pass through it. It is a shame, then, to break this illusion by checking into a hotel in the evening for cable TV and room service.
Instead you can remain in the out doors (with a bit of preparation) and spend the night around a campfire, making smores or looking at the stars (Which are always better away from the city lights). When planning to camp in general, it is important to focus on the three things we need to survive; water, fire and shelter.
You can easily obtain water or food while traveling the US. Every town seems to have a general store or market with all the supplies you could want for cooking. Be careful on how much of what you buy, since keeping leftovers from spoiling can be a real problem on a bike. Spices can be packed and carried with you on the bike. Several manufacturers make small combination shakers for such things, though I prefer the small ones with two chambers you find with hiking supplies. When they run low I refill them from little packets I get at gas stations or fast food chains.
Carrying the food and water is another issue. You can now obtain water bottles that are almost indestructible, important in case they fall off the bike, or the bike falls over. You can also pack food in them, along with ice if you need to keep it cool. It won’t work as well as an actual cooler, and if you are planning to carry perishable items (I like sausage and cheese for lunch or as an easy snack. They keep pretty well but will do better if chilled) get a small soft cooler you can fold up when empty. Use zip lock bags for the ice, double bagging works better.
You can get ice refills at campgrounds (Sometimes for a fee), or at gas stations with soda fountains (Often for no charge, if you are just getting the ice and already purchased gas). Refill the water bottles when you have access to good water, whether they are empty or not. Fresh water is always better. If traveling where clean water is not available, be prepared to boil it before drinking, or carry a filter system or purification tablets.
Most nights after riding you will want to cook something, perhaps over a fire. Some campgrounds have restrictions on firepits, providing small grills instead. Ask when registering about the camps fire policies. There may also be temporary restrictions n cases of local draughts. Always obtain firewood locally. If you are on a tight budget, after you unload your bike at the campsite you can often find a fair amount of fallen wood on secondary roads. In either case you will need some way to convert the wood to fire. Lighter fluid is an obvious answer, but you have to carry it and I don’t like to pack light fluid on my bike. There are smaller commercially available firestarters available at hiking and camping stores, or you can make your own.
You will also want some way for making kindling, smaller bits of wood that catch fire easily. I carry a small pocket knife, enough for making wood chips, though a small hatchet would be helpful as well. You will also want some means of actually making fire. I carry a butane lighter, which is resistant to wind and rain, unlike a normal liquid fuel lighter. I also pack strike anywhere matches in a waterproof carrier as a back up.
If you are cooking over your fire, don’t put the food on right away. Wait for the fire to develop coals, which will provide a steadier heat. There will be a red glow, right in the heart of the fire. You will also need cooking utensils. There is a bewildering supply of pots and pans available for camping, but Aluminum provides the best heat distribution and cleans up well. Stainless steel is next on the list, but can be a little uneven with heating, and is heavier. Titanium is light, but does not heat evenly and should be avoided. I use a combo kit that packs up onto one small round package I obtained when I was a boy scout 25 years ago. Still works fine.
There are also several small, one burner cookers which run on a variety of fuels. I don’t have much personal experience with them, but enough friends have gotten them, and now swear by them, that I am going to purchase one to try this year. Being able to start cooking instantly means you can spend more time riding, relaxing, or sleeping while still having a hot breakfast in the morning. The recommendations are for MSR type, which will burn any fuel. This means they will run on the same white gasoline the motorcycle runs on. Feelings are mixed on the windbreaks available as accessories, I was not going to get one of those.
Last is shelter. There are a large number of tents, with countless features, available on the market. There is also a fair amount of conflicting advise regarding tents. Some say to buy the best, most expensive tent you can afford, as the quality and materials will superior to the $20 tents you can find in chain department stores. I used to purchase the expensive tents, but have switched to the cheaper tents over time. They are not made out of as good materials, but seem to last as long (3 or 4 years) as the more expensive tents, and if they are damaged to severely for further use they are cheap and easy to replace. Stand alone tents, that don’t require stakes or tie downs, can be pitched anywhere, as some campgrounds have prepared surfaces for tents that don’t take stakes well.
It is important, especially if you are planning on going off road or adventure camping, to obtain what is called a footprint for your tent. This is a more robust second floor, which goes between the bottom of the tent and the ground, protecting the tent from sharp rocks and sticks. If your tent does not have a footprint available, you can make one by cutting a tarp to the correct shape. It is important not to have the footprint sticking out around the bottom of the tent, as this will allow water to collect between the footprint and the tent floor if it rains or there is heavy dew.
After the tent you will need something to sleep in and on. I prefer synthetic sleeping bags, as they do a better job of dealing with damp than down ones, but down is definitely warmer, and will last longer. A self inflating pad will pack smaller and prefer more comfort than a hard foam pad. Cots are also good, if you have the room for one. The tent, sleeping bag and pad will probably be the three bulkiest items you will need to pack on the motorcycle, so think about your available space when you are in the store shopping. You will not want to sleep directly on the ground, both because it can be uncomfortable and because the ground can cause you become colder over the course of the night.
Once you have all these items, you have to find where to pack them on the motorcycle. The sleeping bag must be kept dry, so a waterproof bag is needed. The tent should not be placed in a waterproof bag. It won’t hurt it to be come wet, and if it is damp it should be allowed to air out. I find it generally better to pack all my cooking supplies together, but away from my tools, in case something with my tools leak (I care several tubes of lube, sealant and glue, as well as oil. I don’t want that getting on what I use to make my food). Water I keep handy so I don’t have to unpack anything to get it when I stop. The same rule applies for snacks and food. My fire starting tools are generally kept with my cooking supplies, though if I was packing lighter fluid I would keep that with the tools.
It is a really good idea before you take off across the country with your tent, sleeping bag and cook kit to try a shorter, day trip close to home with your bike fully loaded. This will help you determine if you are lacking something you need, and improve your packing skills. Of course, my first trip was 90 days and on a 250. Adventure is out there, go and find it.