I’ve been on the road full time now for over five years, spending a vast majority of that time in a large four-wheeled overland adventuremobile; first a 4×4 Sportsmobile E350 van and recently in a fully-customized 4×4 Dodge Ram-based camper. A life of adventure is what I strive for, and that requires constant change, challenge and getting off the beaten path, which means lots of off-pavement excursions. While many people see living out of a relatively small four-wheeled home on wheels as roughing it, it’s nothing compared to living off of a motorcycle. Life is all about perspective, and there might be no better way than chasing off-road travel goals on two wheels to provide it.
I learned this firsthand, when I recently took a nearly month long, 5,000-plus-mile, motorcycle trip through the Northeast, focusing on adventures in Maine, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec. The following are tips from lessons I’ve learned from my time being involved with the overland industry, as well as the invaluable experience on my recent trip. It should give you a little taste of the adventure motorcycle world, from the perspective of my first real two-wheeled overland adventure.
If you’ve always wanted to hit the open road, find the path less traveled and have a real seat of the pants experience, read on. Perhaps there’s a two-wheeled adventure in your future.
“Being realistic about your intended use will help you find the right machine to throw your leg over on your next adventure.”
The Choice Is Yours
Before embarking on an off road adventure on two wheels, you are going to need a machine that can handle the task at hand first. There are really only two classifications of motorcycle that will handle long distance travel with an off road focus and these two classifications often times blur into a continuum of compromises. Being realistic about your intended use will help you find the right machine to throw your leg over on your next adventure. The most basic is called a “dual-sport” motorcycle and is generally made up of small displacement dirt bikes that are street legal, meaning they have appropriate indicator lights, mirrors, a speedometer, horn and a license plate holder.
“Always remember that less is more, especially on a motorcycle.”
“Adventure” motorcycles are the second classification, which are specifically designed for long distance travel on a wide range of surfaces. These bikes are generally 650cc or larger, have large capacity fuel tanks, offering a 200-plus mile range, and offer wind protection in the form of fairings and a windshield. Adventure motorcycles are also designed with the capability of carrying large loads, and doing so while keeping up with traffic on the highway.
Be aware that these days, many people lump all dual-purpose motorcycles into the “adventure” motorcycle classification, which can range from tiny, barely street legal, dirt bikes, all the way up to very street oriented large sport touring bikes, featuring some off road oriented components, like wire wheels.
First Things First
The questions you need to ask yourself, when choosing a two-wheeled adventure partner: How experienced a rider are you – both on and off road? How much gear will you be travelling with? Will you have a passenger on the bike? How many miles do you plan to ride on highways? Will your off pavement excursions include technical terrain? How available are replacement parts for your specific bike, where you’ll be travelling? What is your overall budget for the motorcycle, riding gear and accessories?
“Much like getting a truck ready for going off road, you will also want to upgrade the bike in a few key ways, depending on the conditions and terrain you plan to ride.”
The first step is to honestly access your personal motorcycle skill level and propensity for risk. My first three times ever on motorcycles were on old, barely running dirt bikes, all involving crashes and permanent scars. Of all my motorcycle experience, I might have ridden about five thousand miles total with less than five hundred of that being off pavement. While I did take a Harley Riders Edge course when I first got my license and more recently the Dirt 101/102 course with Puget Sound Safety Off Road, I’m still very much a beginner motorcyclist.
Luckily I have a pretty high-risk tolerance, enjoy new challenges and learn pretty quickly, even if that means accumulating some more scars along the way. Even once you’ve answered all those questions, it can still be hard to find the “right” bike for you. A friend, and overland travel expert, once told me; “If you don’t look back at your motorcycle admiringly as you walk away from it, you chose the wrong bike.” I find this to be a great guiding principle, but only after you’ve answered the aforementioned questions, and refined your list of options to meet those requirements.
My Two-Wheel Partner
Way too often the cool, shiny, be part of a group and impress your friends motivations, outweigh the functional requirements that will provide you with the most enjoyment on your specific adventures. With that said, you can also never have enough motorcycles, and can always change up machines as your adventures, skills and desires change. That said, I don’t have a place to store nor the finances to support a quiver of motorcycles at this time, so I needed to pick a single versatile machine for some big two-wheeled overland adventures I’ve been dreaming up. Up until now, I have owned three motorcycles: an ’05 Suzuki SV650 S street bike for about 6 months, a KTM 640 Adventure for about 6 months and recently picked up my latest two-wheeled partner, a KTM 950 Adventure.
I had narrowed my choices down to a used Kawasaki KLR 650, used KTM 950 Adventure or a new Honda Africa Twin 1,000. All three of these bikes offer quality off road capabilities, can handle long highway stretches in relative comfort and are relatively globally available. The industry-leading BMW GS line of bikes was left off that list, but that was only because I was looking for something a bit different and couldn’t find a quality GS for a good price. The KLR is the most economical, reliable and common, but in my opinion, isn’t very exciting and lacks refinement. The Africa Twin is the most modern and comfortable, but hasn’t been proven, isn’t light and gets quite expensive once built out. I settled on the middle-of-the-road option, the KTM 950 Adventure, which is a proven platform, extremely capable off road, reasonably priced, looks awesome and has two speeds, fast and faster. As a new-ish rider, that last part probably isn’t a positive, but it sure is fun!
“I don’t have a place to store nor the finances to support a quiver of motorcycles at this time, so I needed to pick a single versatile machine for some big two-wheeled overland adventures I’ve been dreaming up.”
Remember what I said about compromises earlier? The KTM I chose isn’t all sunshine and rainbows – it does have a reputation for some reliability issues, has a smaller dealer network than the other options and can be expensive to repair and maintain. Everything is a compromise with a do-it-all machine like this. Its impressive off road prowess, aggressive styling and endless smiles the KTM’s throttle provides me are what sealed my decision. Best of all, I do look back at it admiringly every time I walk away from it.
Once you’ve made your decisions on which machine is right for you, you need to outfit it for the adventures ahead. Obviously, an adventure with two people trekking around the globe will require different outfitting requirements than a weeklong solo adventure in the local mountains. Much like getting a truck ready for going off road, you will also want to upgrade the bike in a few key ways, depending on the conditions and terrain you plan to ride. Things like auxiliary lighting, an engine skid plate, tank guards and better than factory tires can all greatly improve your two-wheeled experience, as well as the likelihood of riding home when the beaten path is left in your rear-view. Always remember that less is more, especially on a motorcycle. The more weight you add to the bike the less performance, durability and fuel economy you’ll get out of your machine. In order to carry all of your essentials, you’re going to need some luggage of some sort. There are three general ways to do this: strap on some duffel bags and possibly wear a backpack, install soft luggage or mount hard luggage. Each option has its pros and cons, but I’d warn against just strapping on some duffel bags and carrying gear in a backpack. Weight on your person is fatiguing, and lifts your center of gravity considerably when standing on the foot pegs, and strapping duffel bags on top of the bike also raises the center of gravity, and isn’t generally very secure.
Hard luggage is great for protecting your gear from the elements, fall overs and crashes. They also provide the most security for your gear, and can double as camp chairs and tables. Soft luggage is the way I decided to go with my adventure bike. I like the versatility, lighter weight and how easy they are to carry into a hotel room, or check onto a plane. Soft luggage also has the benefit of being much less likely to injure your legs when you inevitably fall over or crash and can hold up to these inevitabilities better than hard luggage, requiring little to no repairs.
Once you have your luggage system figured out, don’t overfill it! The less stuff you carry, the better the bike will handle, the easier it will be to repack along the way and the more food, extra fuel and other essentials you can carry, to best suit each leg of your journey. In order to keep the moto rolling, no matter where you find yourself, you’ll want to carry a lightweight tool kit for your specific bike, the supplies necessary to handle a flat tire (tire levers, tire plugs, tube patches, extra tube and a compact 12v air compressor) and some basic fluids (chain lube, clutch oil and engine oil).
Whether you plan to camp or find lodging along the way, it is usually a good idea to bring a basic shelter and sleep system. This allows you to get further off the beaten path, and more comfortably deal with injuries, sickness and breakdowns along the way. Water is heavy, but essential, so be sure to always have plenty on hand. It’s also a great idea to bring along a water purification system – hydration is important. Also realize that “hanger,” the lack of food induced anger, is a real thing, so also always be sure to carry a good supply of quality snacks.
Now that you have a trusty bike that is outfitted for your adventure, it’s time for quite possibly the most important part of the equation, the riding gear that will protect you from impacts and the elements.
The basics are a helmet, jacket, pants, boots and gloves. For adventure touring, it is important for these pieces to be waterproof, windproof and be able to handle a wide range of temperatures and conditions. High end water proof breathable fabrics, lots of venting options and layering options are all essential to your riding comfort.
I tend to carry at least two pair of gloves with me at all times: one ultra thin pair that provide me with the most dexterity possible and an insulated pair that will keep my hands warm. Boots are offered in a huge range of styles, but since I travel off road quite often, I ride with a motocross style tall armored boot, which is also waterproof and has slightly more mobility in the ankle, for ease of walking when off the bike. A good helmet is also extremely important, and a quality fit is key here. I prefer a helmet with a visor and a clear shield, which I can wear sunglasses behind, for its versatility in all conditions. When the weather turns wet and/or cold, I also highly recommend a wind and waterproof balaclava, which will keep the elements off your neck, and from running down your jacket at the neck. Don’t skimp on the riding gear. Make sure you budget for quality gear as you purchase and outfit yourself and your bike.
If you somehow still have money in the budget, after budgeting for the adventures ahead, there are some luxury items that can make your adventure motorcycle experience that much more fun. One thing that I’m glad I splurged on are heated grips, as my hands easily get cold, especially in the wind and weather that they are exposed to while riding. I also have a tall torso and a taller windscreen helps keep the wind off my body and reduces buffeting of the helmet. I was also lucky enough to purchase a bike with an already upgraded seat, which provides much more comfort than the stock unit. A throttle lock, basically a rudimentary cruise control, is really handy to prevent wrist fatigue on those long highway stretches, between off road routes.
Navigation can be done by paper maps, but I find that a combination of a few phone apps, specifically Google Maps and DeLorme Earthmate, and an all weather GPS unit are quite nice to have.
“Remember that adventure is the key to this whole endeavor”
Quite possibly the ultimate luxury is a Bluetooth headset, which can pipe music, directions, and phone calls into your helmet from your smartphone, and also allows you to communicate with riding partners when travelling in a group.
Hit The (Off) Road
Once you are all sorted with a bike, some basic tools, supplies, luggage and quality riding gear, it is time to throw a leg over your new stead and ride of into the distance. Remember that adventure is the key to this whole endeavor, in my opinion, so don’t fiddle with your setup for too long, as it will never be perfect or “done.”
“Perhaps, there’s a two-wheeled adventure in your future.”
I managed to find a well-kitted bike at a good price and three weeks later, I took off on my first major motorcycle adventure. Over 26 days and 5,150 miles, I managed to traverse 13 states and provinces across the U.S. and Canada, travel about 2,000 miles off pavement, reach the Eastern most point in North America, meet too many amazing people to count and experience remote landscapes with all my senses. I battled extreme winds, torrential down pours, thick fog, early season snow, technical off road terrain, endless miles of loose gravel, sickness, fall overs, a crash and a variety of mechanical failures, which all combined to create memories that will last a life time that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I may call my large four-wheeled camper home on the road, but I’m already yearning for adventures on my much smaller two-wheeled partner.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2016 print issue of Tread magazine.