Want to have a two-wheeled adventure? The shows, the marketing and the magazines might all make you think you need a $20,000 BMW to do it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. No matter what motorcycle you have, no matter how little money, you can get out there and do it. Here’s how to go adventure touring on a budget.
Believe it or not, but a lot of those ridiculous ADV bikes are actually terrible off-road. Why? They’re heavy! Like insanely, inconceivably heavy.
Most standard motorcycles or all-rounders are perfectly capable of riding down a dirt road just as well as a GS or SuperTen or Tiger. Sure, a highly modified ADV bike complete with significant crash protection, dirt ergonomics, heavy duty suspension and dirt tires can be a real weapon in the hands of a pro, buy you shouldn’t kid yourself — you’re no desert racer. For you, a little less weight is going to make an awful lot of difference. And, once you are actually on the dirt, any old dual-sport is going to be approximately 1,000,000 times more capable than any 500 lbs + tourer. If you’re looking to buy something specifically for adventure, we’d recommend a used dual-sport.
Just be aware of your bike’s limitations and plan accordingly. If you’re throwing luggage on an R1 and heading for the mountains, we’d probably try and stick to graded fire roads over short distances only. Whatever you have, it can get you into the outdoors.
What you wear is going to be more important than the bike you take. Over multiple days in the mountains or desert or anywhere in the great outdoors you’re going to encounter a wide variety of temperatures and weather conditions. It’s your gear that will get you through that comfortably.
The best advice here is to take stuff you’re familiar with. ADV riding frequently involves long distances a long way from nowhere. Three hours into three days of solid rain isn’t the time to learn that your suit leaks or that the collar snap flaps against your helmet incessantly at highway speeds. Gear you know and trust can be relied on; no matter how much you spend on fancy new stuff, you have no guarantee it will work for you.
There are a couple unique requirements of adventuring to keep in mind though: 1) You need serious boots. Supporting the weight of a bike, luggage and yourself on slippery, uneven surfaces is a huge test for any footwear. As is standing for long periods, where your entire body weight is directed through narrow pegs. Any get off will also be a serious test of your boot’s safety. You want tall, waterproof, supportive, armored, tank-like dirt bike boots, nothing less. 2) You’ll be riding off-road, where your chances of falling off increase and you’ll be experiencing that increased risk a long way from help, likely in an area without cell phone reception. Really, safe gear can be the difference between laughing it off and dying of dehydration in the desert because you can’t ride or walk with a broken leg.
Riding off-road often means going slow and working hard. And going slow and working hard means visor fogging. You don’t need a fancy ADV helmet or a dirt bike helmet with goggles (which will be miserable on the highway). Taking your normal street helmet that you know is comfortable will work just fine, but take the time to fit a Pinlock or similar anti-fog visor insert. You’ll want to be able to keep the visor closed to protect your eyes from flying debris, but you’ll want to be able to see where you’re riding, too.
Google is a great way to get an overview of an area and route, but rely on a paper map for actual navigation.
Planning is what’s going to make your trip possible. I’m an Eagle Scout and the whole “Be Prepared” thing has never steered me wrong. In fact, going more prepared than necessary will make your experience more flexible, more enjoyable and arm you to deal with the (sometimes very) unexpected.
First, you’ll need to pick a route or destination. Spend some time reading forums and magazines (not necessarily motorcycle ones, don’t limit yourself), then pick a place you want to go and start looking at maps. If this is going to be your first off-road trip, keep it simple and achievable. There’s no need to head to Alaska to find adventure, your nearest mountain range will do just fine. Make sure you compare your goals to local regulations. Can you take a motorcycle there? The answer is probably important. Can you have a campfire? I know I like sitting around one at night.
Also consider the logistics. If your bike has a 100-mile fuel range, then a route which involves traveling 600 miles between gas stations is likely impractical. If you’re going on your Bonneville, then deep sand could defeat you. Bite off an adventure you can chew, then consider it a learning experience and scale up as you gain experience.
Important factors to consider when planning a trip are: fuel range and availability; road or trail difficulty and current conditions (is that pass snowed in?); and distances and time. Remember that, in the dirt, your fuel range will halve and your travel times will at least double.
It’s also a good idea to arm yourself to change plans mid-trip. Sometimes, you may find a route is blocked due to extreme weather. Even something as simple as finding a campsite filled with screaming children can cause you to change plans. Give yourself options.
Whatever you do, buy a paper map or several to cover your entire trip and spend some time before you go studying them and marking them up with locations of fuel stops, hazards, campsites and anything you want to see along the way. Paper maps are cheap and don’t break or require batteries; GPS units are nice and all, but not in any way necessary. I don’t use one.
A tall screen like this one isn't just good for keeping the wind off. It can help keep you dry in a rainstorm and warm in cold weather, too.
Want to enable your bike to safely and easily traverse a fire road or trail? The most important factor is going to be tires. Remember the Ducati TerraCorsa? Continental TKC80s enabled an exotic Italian superbike to go anywhere a GS could and even tackle some single track. I was able to complete last year’s Taste of Dakar event aboard a humble NC700X in confident ease because of those same tires. No matter what bike you’re riding or how many mountain silhouettes are plastered in sticker form along its sides, tires are the major determining factor when it comes to dirt ability.
Bear in mind, though, that any adventure is a compromise. TKC80s may be the ideal tire for the Dalton Highway, but you’d burn through two sets just before you got there riding on paved roads. If you’re planning big distances, then sacrificing some off-road ability for the ability to make it there may be necessary.
Next up is protection. Any bike you plan on using over long distances or off-road or both needs some serious protection parts. Start with the sump which, on-road, can be penetrated by a simple rock shot up by the front wheel on the highway. Speaking of which, extending your fenders (front and rear) is a great idea. Next, you’ll want to protect your radiator, both from debris and direct impacts. Holing it will end your journey, period. You should also protect the levers and bars with Barkbusters or similar and provide some total bike crash protection with engine/frame guards of some kind.
It’s also entirely likely that your bike is a long way from being ergonomically ideal. If your trip is going to involve several solid days on the highway, then seated comfort is a major factor. If you’re venturing off-road, then you’ll want to be able to stand while retaining good control and, again, in comfort. Any bike’s handlebars are adjustable in height through the aftermarket, there’s a huge variety of fixes for bad seats and footpegs are cheap and easy to replace. A larger windshield is also a great idea.
You’re also going to need to carry stuff. The cheapest option is a bungee net, the most expensive is hard luggage. The latter is obviously secure and waterproof, the former takes some care to use properly. Just figure out what fits your budget and bike best and pare down your equipment to a comfortable minimum; you don’t want to overload your bike, impinge on your riding area or create a giant sail which flaps in the wind.
Preparation should begin before the road ends.
What To Take With You
Water, fuel and stuff to repair/replace your tires. The rest is optional.
Water: At a minimum, one gallon of water per person, per day. If you’re traveling through the desert or in another place where water is scarce, take some extra in case you break down or get stranded.
Fuel: More than enough to cover the intended mileage between fuel stops remembering that your range will halve off-road.
Tire Repair: If you have tubes, take spare ones and all the tools you need to replace them. Practice before you go. If you’re tubeless, take a good tire plug kit and know how to use it. You will get flat tires.
Bike Repair: You can’t take an entire garage full of tools and parts with you. Know your bike and make smart decisions on packing based on what will most likely fail or need to be repaired. At a minimum, be prepared to deal with basic crash damage or a simple breakdown.
Camping Stuff: You’ll want a tent, a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag rated for a colder temperature than you’re likely to encounter. Pack stuff to purify water, start a fire and see at night. Shoes to walk around in when you’re done riding for the day - water shoes or sandals are a great idea. Oh, and don’t forget the food. Hard liquor packs much more alcohol-per-volume than beer and doesn’t need to be refrigerated, nor will it experience adverse effects when it spends all day being shaken up.
AltRider's Jeremy LeBreton makes this look easy. It's not.
You know motorcycles are dangerous. You also know you can control how much risk you’re exposed to by riding safely. That becomes doubly, triply important when you’re riding off-road, a long way from home.
As mentioned above, getting into real trouble outside of cell reception can have dire consequences. You can reduce that direness by riding with a buddy or buddies and managing your risks. Build a good First Aid kit specifically designed to deal with large, mechanical injuries of the type sustained in a motorcycle accident. Include in it: Quick Clot, SAM Splint, Krazy Glue, duct tape, Motrin, Benadryl, a snake bite pump, blister aids, ACE bandages, anti-diarrhea medicine and more than enough of any prescription medicine you might require.
If you’re unsure of your bike or you can't manage an obstacle — deep water crossing, deep sand, a steep hill — get off your bike and walk it first. If you don’t think you can make it through, don’t try to. Find another way around or head in a different direction.
100 miles from the nearest road, in the middle of nowhere, isn’t the time to teach yourself how to drift a motorcycle. Enjoy the sites, have a good time riding your bike within its and your own limits and you’ll come home with stories to tell.
What was your last adventure? What did you learn that other motorcyclists should know?