In search of the ultimate adventure bike

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In search of the ultimate adventure bike

By Bret Tkacs

Dual-sport and adventure riding is a rapidly-growing segment of motorcycling and nowhere is it more evident than here in the Northwest where we have ample access to some of the best dual-sport riding in the world. However, selecting the right bike can be a daunting task if you are new to the sport and often the advice we are given is as valuable as the price we pay for it. I currently own two bikes that fall into the off-pavement category: my BMW F800GS falls to the adventure side of things while my Suzuki DRZ400S is more fitting of the traditional category of a dual-sport. To thwart off angry letters to the editor about how I define the bikes, I will define the two by how I interpret their capabilities.

Adventure bikes are generally large displacement bikes (650cc – 1200cc) designed and capable of long rides that include long stretches of pavement and dirt roads or trails while being able to carry heavy loads of gear. These bikes must share their off-road capabilities with the realities of pavement. Many of these bikes see little more than gravel roads while others traverse the globe.

Dual-sport bikes are generally smaller displacement machines (125cc – 650cc). These are more trail worthy machines while also street legal, allowing them to be ridden to their off-road destinations. Bikes in this category range from bikes that are little more than dirt-bikes with lights to bikes that can be used as lightweight adventure bikes; of course reality often blurs these definitions. There are people who have ridden around the world on small displacement motorcycles while 1000cc motorcycles have been ridden in off-road races such as the Paris-Dakar, so what you do with your bike will often define it more than a physical description.

My focus is specifically on the process I went through in selecting my adventure bike for the kind of riding I wanted to do. I went through the same process when I purchased my last three off-pavement bikes, two dual sports and an adventure bike. The first thing I do is define what I need my bike to do for me. I started off by asking myself a series of questions to help get me pointed in the right direction. For my last bike I was looking for a machine I could ride into Mexico, South America and Alaska as well as places like Montana and New Mexico. Because of the long distances, I immediately ruled out my lightweight 400cc dual-sport as I knew I would be carrying heavy loads that would overwhelm it.

So here is the process that led me to my current ride…

Related: Buying A Dual Sport Motorcycle

How much time am I going to spend off-road vs. on road? Many of us have dreams of traveling the globe but are faced with the realities of a paved commute. I am lucky enough to own more than one motorcycle and have a very capable street bike I can use for commuting. So this left me with the option to select a more purpose-built machine. I needed a bike that was tour capable but that could be used in more extreme off-road conditions.

Bret's answer: I need a bike that can be ridden as a 50/50 bike

Will I be riding trails or dirt/gravel roads? If your idea of off road is a nicely-graveled forest service road or an occasional muddy dirt road, heavyweight ADV bikes such as BMW's R1200GS or even the road bias Suzuki V-Strom can handle these with little effort and are extremely good road touring bikes. However, if you prefer roads that vanish into single track lanes or the occasional single track trail, then something lighter with more suspension travel is in order.

Bret's answer: I want to be able to hit some trails to get to my location

What is the fuel economy and tank size? Based on the first two questions, I was already leaning toward a bike that was trail capable. Fuel economy and tank size are interrelated as they affect both distance and weight. It is obvious that if I am comparing two bikes with similar fuel mileage such as a Suzuki DR650 and a Kawasaki KLR 650, the KLR would get the nod for distance as it packs a whopping 6.1 gallon in comparison to the Suzuki's 3.4. However, when comparing bikes such as KTM's 990 Adventure and BMW's F800GS, the differences fall into a different category. The KTM holds 5.8 gallons in comparison to the GS's messily 4.2 gal, but the KTM only manages fuel numbers in the low to mid 30s compared to the BMW's upper 40s to low 50s, leveling out the total distance per tank.

Bret's answer: I want the bike with better fuel economy so I will have to carry less fuel for the same mileage meaning less weight and less space taken up with extra fuel.

How much gear will it need to carry? When adventure touring, I like to be as self-sufficient as possible. I carry camping supplies, food, water, spare fuel, tools, parts and self rescue gear if I get stuck. If you prefer campgrounds or hotels on your travels rather than remote camping, this will influence your choice. I wanted a balance between enough power to comfortably carry myself and gear down the highway. This ruled out the 650s as they are all singles and can feel underpowered when heavily loaded. You will often give up any fuel economy advantage of the smaller motor as they have to work harder at highway speeds causing them to often end up with MPG numbers equal to or less than many larger displacement machines. This is more than enough on back roads and trails but is anemic at highway speeds.

Bret's answer: I would prefer a multi -cylinder bike of middle displacement. I very much like single cylinder bikes for off-road use, but a multi-cylinders bike will handle highway speeds much better.

How much do I have to spend? If you are looking for a deal, it is hard to look past bikes like the KLR 650 where you can find a new bike for under $6000! However, I was looking for a long-term relationship so I was more interested in the machine's abilities than price. If you are just getting into this type of riding, it is hard not to look at the plethora of bargains and used machines that can be picked up at very affordable prices. I began with a dual-sport bike and then picked up a used street-bias adventure bike to try out the sport. Now that I am hooked, it is time for a more purposeful machine.

Bret's answer: "The BRET TKACS motorcycle industry stimulus plan." Someone has to keep the dealers in business.

Will I be riding with a passenger? Passengers add a lot of weight, both body and gear. If you are planning on adventuring with a passenger, you must consider factors like passenger comfort, motor size, room for extra gear, etc. Generally this means you are less likely to get into difficult trails and will end up on a much larger bike than a solo rider may choose.

Bret's answer: I won't be adventure touring with a passenger so this is a non-factor.

How skilled am I as a rider off-road? If you are new to off-road riding, I would strongly suggest starting out with a lighter adventure bike or, better yet, a lightweight dual-sport in the 250cc to 400cc range. Be smart and take a riding class to learn techniques for riding off road such as those offered by PSSOR .

There are even special classes specifically designed for adventure riders in the form of a 2-day Adventure Camp held in the spring and fall of each year. Another valuable way to learn critical skills is by attending rider-focused rallies such as the Sound RIDER! Dual-Sport Northwest where you can get access to a tremendous amount of resources and free clinics for the nominal cost of your registration fee. In my case, I started with a Kawasaki KLX250S, a Suzuki DRZ400S and then a Suzuki DL1000, so I was shopping specifically for a bike that would merge the abilities of my dual-sports with the practicality of the heavyweight.

Related: Top Ten List For Alaska

Bret's answer: Size is not an issue for my off-road skills but it is when I have to recover it from a ledge or pull it out of sand or mud.

How crash-proof is my bike? Air-cooled bikes are more resilient to damage in that they do not have delicate radiators that can be damaged, but I knew the small 650s were already ruled out for me and there is only one street bias heavyweight that is not liquid cooled. For me, a mega-huge adventure bike would not make me happy off-road. I needed something in between that I could crash proof. I also looked at how much plastic was exposed, what aftermarket support there was for parts and gear and how secure the sub frame and fasteners were.

Bret's answer: I want a bike with a large selection of aftermarket protection.

How does the bike fit me? Since I was looking for maximum ground clearance for off-roading, I was not too concerned about being flat footed when seated on the bike. It is common in off-road riding to have bikes that leave the rider short of leg. As long as I could touch ground on the balls of my feet, I was good to go. Fit meant it had to be comfortable when I was sitting for long periods, but that when I stood up I was not hunched over the bars. Another critical measure was that I could squeeze the bike with my knees.

Bret's answer: being 6 feet tall, I was good with any bike up to a 36" seat height which kept all the bikes in the running. In fact, I was looking for the most ground clearance so the taller the bike, the happier I was.

After answering all of the above questions I had narrowed my choices down to only a couple of bikes… the BMW F800GS and the KTM 990 Adventure. It is likely that if Triumph had its new 800 Tiger XC out, it would be a strong contender and may have won my $$$. Of the two choices I was left with, both are premium well-built machines.



  • Lighter weight than the KTM
  • Excellent fuel economy (less weight carried per mile)
  • Good dealer support
  • Outstanding aftermarket support
  • Well balanced
  • MSRP that starts below the KTM


  • Non-adjustable front forks! (Really, BMW, at this price?)
  • Light weight rims susceptible to damage when used heavily off-road
  • Cost almost as much as the KTM once ABS is added and suspension is upgraded
  • Small fuel tank
  • Very few aggressive off-road tire choices

KTM 990 Adventure


  • Fully adjustable high-quality suspension
  • Standard with ABS
  • Powerful 1000cc motor
  • Racing heritage
  • Good off-road tire selection for rim sizes
  • Good tip-over protection for vital parts


  • Cost more than the BMW
  • Poor fuel economy
  • Powerful 1000cc motor
  • Frequent maintenance requirements
  • Short valve adjustment intervals
  • Shrouded in plastic

I'm sure I could have happily lived with either of my final 2 choices, but the fuel economy, service intervals and overall feel of the bike tipped in favor of the BMW. This past spring I spent several weeks staying as far away from civilization as possible while riding in Mexico and I feel I made the best choice. Is the BMW perfect? No, but that is what the aftermarket is all about, customizing your bike to fit your needs. Remember the manufacturer has a much broader market to appeal to, so they all have to make concessions. Don't expect to find the perfect machine, just the perfect starting point. If you would like to see what I have done to my GS to make it my ultimate adventure bike, come take a look at the Sound RIDER! Northwest Motorcycle Display at the 2011 International Motorcycle Show in Seattle.

When you get ready to choose a bike or switch to a new machine, take the time to interview yourself and narrow your choices to match what will work best for you.

Original Bike list (new bikes available):

  • BMW = G450X, G650, F650GS, F800GS, R1200GS,

  • Honda = Honda XR650L,

  • Kawasaki = KLX250s, KLR 650,

  • KTM = 690 Enduro, 990 Adventure

  • Moto Guzzi = Stelvio 1200,

  • Suzuki = DRZ400S, DR650, V-Strom DL650 & DL1000,

  • Yamaha = WR250R

  • New for 2011 = Triumph 800 Tiger XC, Yamaha 1200 Super Tenere

BT/Fall 2010

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