The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a Kawasaki KLR650 Adventure Bike

With the crazy number of adventure touring bikes on the market today, it is easy to overlook one of the originals because it often rides under the radar. The Kawasaki KLR650 has been around forever and it is still one of the best bang-for-the-buck adventure bikes you can buy.

I’ve always been a fan of riding off road and about 10 years ago I started to really enjoy dual-sport and ADV riding. There’s just something about riding a big-ass bike on the nastiest trails you can squeeze them through that intrigues me. I know that the Suzuki DR-Z series are arguably better suited to dual sport, and the KTM Adventure series of bikes are better for long-distance exploration trips on Jeep roads, but the big, ugly KLR 650 is capable of both. Which is why I own one.

I picked up a used 2012 KLR650 that already had a few things on it, then proceeded to bolt on and swap around a series of components that I thought would make it an even better off-road-focused adventure touring bike. Over the years I’ve ridden it in Death Valley, the Amargosa Dunes, the Oregon Dunes, and the Sierra Nevada mountains; I've taken it to a number of AltRider "Taste of Dakar" rides, and I regularly ride it on the roads and trails of Southern Oregon.

Over the years I have tried a variety of seats, a few different footpeg types, lightweight luggage, windscreens, and some good and bad bolt-on parts. We recently posted an article called "Why I Bought a Kawasaki KLR650" and it was popular with you guys, so I figured I would add my two cents' worth and share some of my experiences regarding what has worked and what hasn’t, and get some feedback from other KLR fans on what they’ve done. Maybe we can combine it all and develop our bikes into something even better.

Here's a look at some of the KLR650 aftermarket goodies that have worked well for me:

Progressive Suspension

One of the first things I did was have my local bike shop install Heavy Duty ($100) Progressive Fork Springs, thick oil, and a preload-adjustable Progressive 465 Series rear shock ($460) in an effort to make the bike better on the street and more capable off-road. The pair cost roughly $600 for the parts and another $150 to install. Shade tree mechanics can tackle it on their own and save a few bucks, but I prefer to have a shop do this type of work.


The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

When you ride my 2012 back to back with a new KLR, the difference in the suspension is night and day. The OEM set-up is too soft and when you combine that with the spindly fork tubes it just makes for a real flighty riding experience if you are pushing it on the street or dirt. With the aftermarket set up, I can push so much harder off road; it is not even comparable. The forks soak up ruts, rocks and roots without nearly the same degree of deflection or surprise response to the obstacles.

The rear shock is almost always cranked near max preload and as a result it keeps the rear of the bike as high as possible considering I’m over 200 lbs with gear (I always have an assortment of stuff in my tail bag to make the ride more fun). These Progressive components give the best ROI of almost all the other pieces on this bike combined.


The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

Givi TN421 Engine Guard - Crash Bars

These crash bars were on the bike when I bought it and they’ve been awesome so far. I don’t tip over often, but the few times it's happened, these bars haven’t taken any damage. Plus, they look great and appear to be fairly straight forward to install and remove. The upper bar doubles as a footrest on long, boring road rides. You can still pick these up for under $200 from any reputable online retailer.

Michelin T63 DOT Legal Knobby Tires

I’ve used a number of different tire combinations over the years but the Michelin T63 continue to supply the traction I’m looking for. The knobs are tough enough to withstand a few thousand miles of on-road riding and seem to rarely show wear from the off-road abuse. Since the KLR has so little horsepower, the knobs don’t tear off in the dirt either. These work well on hard pack granite and loamy muck-mud or whatever we have here under the lush forest canopy of the Pacific Northwest. On the street, they provide a surprising level of traction.


The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

I’m not saying you can drag a knee on the bike, but I’ve never thought to myself, “Geez, I wish I had more traction right now,” while I was connecting trails on the tarmac. They work fine in the wet or dry and they hold up really, really well. I have more than 3,500 miles on my current set (the ones seen in these pictures) and will keep everyone posted as to how they hold up when I go back to my 60-mile daily commute now that spring is here.

Garmin Zumo 660 GPS

I had my Garmin Zumo 660 wired to the bike and for more than two years the little GPS performed flawlessly. The mount held the unit in place despite major pounding in the dirt and the screen was always easy to read. Sometimes the system didn’t have the trails I was on, so I just used it to map my position – so I could back track if I lost my way. I loved everything about the Zumo and at some point, I started to get complacent about looking after the precious gadget and began leaving it on the bike when I was at work and whatnot. One afternoon I made a quick blast to the local burger joint, ate my food and enjoyed the conversation of a cool WWII vet who shared a seat with me. When I came out, my GPS had been snagged off my bike by some (**Long string of expletives deleted**). I will get a replacement one day, but they’re $650. Damn.


The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

AltRider Skid Plate

The stock ABS plastic skid plate on the KLR is actually pretty tough, but it is feeble in comparison to the burly 1/8-inch thick aluminum skid plate form AltRider. This poor plate has been pounded on and continues to hold up, look great and perform its role perfectly. It was easy to install, it still allows access to the oil drain plug and it only runs about $200.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

Moose Hybrid Footpegs

The OEM pegs are tiny and worthless. I swapped them out for the wide and aggressive Moose Hybrid off-road pegs and never looked back. The new pegs are wide so it spreads the weight across your feet. The teeth are sharp so I always have great traction no matter what type of boots I have on.


The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

Touratech Headlight Guard

This lightweight CNC cut stainless steel Touratech Light Guard really looks the business. I decided to put this piece on after getting smacked by some big branches that left scratches on the light surface. My buddies I was riding with also kicked up rocks a few times that clacked off the front end, which got me thinking about what would happen if the light got busted out. I figured it would have been a disaster on a longer trip and it was only a couple hundred bucks, so I ordered one up. It took an hour to install and it looks pretty bad ass if I do say so myself. The biggest flaw in the design is that it casts shadows behind the grid of metal that protects the light. So, you can argue that it is not optimal for night riding but I have a gut feeling this is still the right call.


The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

Giant Loop Fandango Pro Tank Bag

This Giant Loop Fandango Pro Tank Bag is a complicated son of a (**More expletives deleted**), but I like it. It requires a mounting base be strapped to the bike, then you zipper the tank bag onto it. That means it will not go anywhere, but you have to unzip it to access the gas cap and that annoys me every time. Still, it holds a lot of stuff, and has a clear top so you can place a map in there to guide you when your GPS eventually goes away. It will hold a handgun, some spare mags, a cell phone, flashlight, extra batteries, snacks, water bottle, spare gloves, sunglasses, wallet and other various necessities used by adventure riders.


The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

Soft Tail Bag

I have this really old, Moto Centric tail bag that I found at a pawn shop for $10 and it has been a heck of a good way to haul stuff with me over the years. It came with a waterproof cover that I have only used once and all the zipper tabs are busted off. It’s starting to get sun fade, too. But it has two side compartments where I stick the first aid kit, spare tube and spoons, miscellaneous tools, and stuff like that. The thin rear storage area holds my survival knife, tow strap, wire ties, bailing wire, duct tape, and other stuff that I’d only need in an emergency. The main compartment is reserved for whatever I need for that particular trip. When moto-camping it can hold a few butane tanks, my backpack stove, mess kit, water bottles, soft cooler, cups, a few fifths of brandy, three or four MREs, hot cocoa, a few cans of soup, spare gloves, toilet paper, Goal Zero solar charger panel, and whatever else I can cram into it. I bring my 9-year-old son with me on lots of these rides and it also doubles as a nice back rest for him.

Aftermarket Seats

There were three seats with the bike when I bought it. The OEM seat, which I really like, a Sargent Heated Seat that works well for keeping your bum warm in the winter, and a weird looking Saddlemen seat. The heated seat is vinyl-like material that is stretched across a very flat and wide surface, so it isn’t as comfortable as I would like. But I use it all the time in the colder riding conditions. Lately, though, I’ve been using the Saddlemen Adventure Track seat.


The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

It has two raised pads that are made from suede that covers some very firm, but supple foam. These pads are supposed to distribute the weight more evenly or something to that effect. To my surprise, it actually is very comfortable. But occasionally you drop a cheek in the slot and it sort of spreads them apart and it feels... uh... awkward. Also, when riding in the mud or rain, the wet stuff seems to collect in that area. However, I really like the seat overall and I’ve been using it now for the past few months of commuting.

Here's a bunch of KLR650 parts and goodies that have not worked too well:

Givi 408D Tall Windscreen

The bike came with this really tall Givi 408D windscreen that was supposed to provide wind protection during long street rides. To install it, the tips of the OEM front cowling had to be cut off because the screen is extra wide. That's not a big deal but some folks might not dig that. For the first few months I left it on but once I started to ride off-road a bunch, I was made painfully aware of its downside.

When standing up in the attack position the screen is just below head level for me. So, there I was riding down a whooped out trail, standing on the pegs and letting the bike rock front and back between my legs. All was well until the windscreen karate chopped me in the throat. I went home and tore that worthless POS off the bike before the engine was cool.

SW Motech Center Stand

Once I got the bike everyone told me how important it was to get a center stand. So, I finally got one about six months into owning it. Installation was easy but it looked like it was going to suck from the start. I took a few street rides with it and easily popped it on the center stand, so I figured it might be worthwhile. It was great when I was washing it or lubing the chain and whatnot. Later that year, though, I took it to Death Valley for the Taste of Dakar and learned the shortcoming: when you go through rough terrain the center stand clanks against the frame. So, I zip tied it in place and took it off when I got back home. It also seemed to drag on rocks and reduced ground clearance by an inch or so. Overall I hated that thing.

The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

OEM Hand Guards

I still have the OEM hand guards on the bike but they are going to get replaced soon. They’re big, so they protect your hands from the elements, but a while back I hit a branch and busted something on the right one. Now it does not stay in place. It falls into the front brake lever. So, I've had to zip tie the mount to keep it in position.

I hadn't realized it was causing an issue until I was coasting down a slow, curvy dirt road and the bike seemed to be going really slow compared to what I was expecting. Then, when I arrived at home and was pushing it into the garage it was really hard to push. I was thinking, "WTF is going on?" and upon further inspection: the hand guard was mashing against the tip of the front brake lever. That could’ve been a real fiasco. I have proper dirt bike brush guards on my workbench just waiting to be installed.

What Should I Do Next?

If you can’t tell, I really like this bike. I’ve talked about it in the RideApart Disqus and I’ve been riding it all over the place the past few years, but I’m ready to start piling on some serious miles. But I do not want this to be a one-sided affair, with me simply reporting on the rides and the parts. I need some reader participation. I would like to try some of the tricks other KLR owners have put into place. If there’s obscure parts we can test, let me know what they are. If you own a company that builds them, drop me an e-mail and I will put them to the test. If you want to go ride somewhere, let’s do it.

The most important part of this first story is that I want to get feedback from off-road friendly, dual sport riders and ADV riders as well. I would love to join you and tell the tale about your favorite event or anything else we can do to spread the word about the joy of ADV rides. I am located on the West Coast, so let’s get out and ride.


The Good the Bad and the Ugly - Building a KLR650 Adventure Bike

Heck, if you guys want to coordinate a really challenging but entertaining group ride, I have access to the McGrew Trail outside of my home town in Southern Oregon. It can be challenging for rock crawlers but way fun for bikes. We can take the bypass dirt roads or go face to face with the tough stuff. I haven’t even tackled all the rough terrain in this area yet so maybe there are a few of you out there that just need a reason to come out and do it? Let me know – the point of all this writing is to get you out for a ride. So, call my bluff and let’s go ride together.

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