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Choosing the Best Adventure Motorcycle for New ADV Riders

 The most important things to consider when making your decision

Published on 12.07.2013
Adventure Touring Motorcycle Models
With so many choices, which one is best for you?

As you may have heard, Adventure Bike sales have been riding high lately and they continue to grow at a rapid pace. More sales translates into a lot of new Adventure Bike Riders coming in to the market.  Some new adventure bike riders come from a Sport Bike background looking for something with a more upright riding position that can still give them a rush. Others come from an off-road background and are looking to extend their mileage by linking up dirt tracks with some asphalt in between. Many are completely new riders and just discovered their dream is to travel the world on a motorbike.   All have the same question though, “What is the best best Adventure Motorcycle for me?”

Just a few years ago, your choices for Adventure Bike models were pretty slim. Luckily, the motorcycle industry has responded to the strong demand and launched many new and exciting models designed to meet the diverse needs of the market. Today we have a diverse range of new and used Adventure Bikes to choose from. With so many choices, making a decision has become more difficult than ever.  But you are more likely now than ever to find the Best Adventure Motorcycle for your individual needs.

With the many choices available, you can be sure there are a lot of motorcycles out there that are not for you. Taking the time to sit down and think about what you really need (vs. what you want) is an important step that can help you save time and money down the road.

To begin your quest for the best Adventure Motorcycle, you’ll need to do some soul searching about your riding style and intended usage for the bike.  The key factors you should consider in your decision are outlined below:

Off-Road Riding Experience

It may look like Adventure Bike Riders are just sitting there twisting the throttle and holding on. The truth is some guys and gals with a lot of experience make it look easy.  Riding big bikes off-road takes a great deal of skill, strength and stamina. Overestimating your abilities can lead to major repair bills for your bike and your body.

If your dirt riding experience is limited or way in the past and you intend to ride your Adventure Bike off-road, do yourself a favor and get a small or middleweight adventure bike. A lighter bike will make your time on the trail much more enjoyable.

If you do have significant off-road experience, then you will probably adapt quickly to a larger Adventure Bike. However, you may need to roll back your expectations on riding deep sand, steep hills, single track or rocky terrain if you choose a large bike. A smaller Adventure bike may be more desirable because it will impose fewer limits on the terrain you can ride.

Your Physical Conditioning

Many people do not realize how physically demanding off-road riding can be. Navigating through sand or steep rocky inclines gets your heart rate up to peak levels in a hurry. Picking up a heavy adventure bike after a crash or even changing a flat takes a great deal of energy. It is a shock to the system for many new Adventure Bike Riders going off-road for the first time. After a serious day of off-road riding, you can expect to be sore for several days.

Your physical condition will determine what kind of riding you are realistically able to do. If you are athletic and stay fit, you can more easily adapt to the punishment you will receive from a long day on the trail.  Even if you are able to handle a large Adventure Bike off-road, you will probably learn faster if you have a lighter bike. Don’t forget to take it slow and stay on the easy trails at first to avoid any big surprises. You should always have a healthy respect for the weight of the bike and the speeds you are traveling.

If you currently are not in the best physical shape and you are serious about riding off-road, then you may want to spend some hours at the gym getting your body prepared before you do your first major trip. This will ensure you have the endurance to keep riding at a comfortable pace and you will not be too soar to get out of bed on your second day of the trip.  Even if you are a big guy, you may still be better off with a smaller Adventure Bike that is going to be easier for you to handle and pickup when you go down. Most Adventure Bikes have more than enough power off-road and even a small Adventure Bike will have no problem getting you up a steep hill.

Type of Terrain

If you like the idea of learning to ride aggressive off road trails, it might make more sense to buy a motocross or dual sport bike to get some experience off-road before you step up to a heavy Adventure Bike. A smaller dirt focused motorcycle will allow you to gain valuable experience off-road and develop your dirt riding skills. Or you may want to consider a second motorcycle just for off-road use.  With a second bike (motocross or small dual sport) you can avoid beating up your Adventure Bike on the rough stuff unnecessarily.  The cost of an inexpensive dirt bike can be less than a single repair bill on a big Adventure Bike.

Reserving your Adventure Bike for easier trails and long distance touring on dirt roads will help preserve your precious machine.  If a second bike is not in the cards and you are set on serious trail riding, then the best Adventure Motorcycle for you may be a Dual Sport (650cc or smaller) that you accessorize to make more comfortable for long-distance touring. By adding a windscreen, large tank and comfortable seat, you can convert a small Dual Sport into an Adventure Bike.

If you feel that most of your riding will be on pavement (with only the occasional dirt road), then the best Adventure Motorcycle may be a more street oriented model. You will want something that has the most comfort on the highway. If off-road riding is not really part of your plan, then you may consider a larger Adventure Bike or “Adventure Styled” street bike.

Distance You Live from the Trails

Consider the distance to the nearest trail system from your house. If you are lucky enough to live where the trails are right in your backyard and you plan on riding local most of the time, then you will be better off with a more dirt focused Dual Sport bike in the 250cc-650cc range instead of an Adventure Bike (See article “Dual Sport or Adventure Bike — Which is best for you?“).

If you live in the city, you probably need to drive an hour or more to get to the trails. You’ll need a bike that you can ride comfortably at speed on the highway so you will not be worn out by the time you arrive. If your stints on the highway are one to two hours at a time, then you can probably get by with a single cylinder Adventure Bike that will offer more fun and confidence on the trails. Look for a bike that has some highway amenities like a windscreen, comfortable seat and enough power to allow you to maintain speed with the flow of traffic and accelerate quickly to avoid trouble.

If your commute to the trails is greater than two hours, then the best Adventure Motorcycle is a larger bike that can get you there in comfort. The other option is to purchase a small Adventure Bike or Dual Sport and use a trailer or a truck to transport your vehicle to the riding area.

Ride Distances

If you intend to go on long-distance tours in remote areas of the world with potentially bad roads, then the best Adventure Motorcycle is one with a good reputation for reliability, plentiful accessories and ease of maintenance and repair. You should choose a brand and model that is easier to get parts in remote places.

A small adventure bike will be easier to handle on tricky roads and can be picked up with less effort when dropped. Only the most experienced riders can handle a fully loaded full-sized Adventure Bike like the BMW R1200GS in difficult off-road conditions. Costs for world travel on a large Adventure Bike go up significantly as well (fuel costs, carnet fees, etc.). Popular choices for light-weight long-distance touring bikes are BMW F650GS, BMW F800GS, and Kawasaki KLR 650.

A Heavy Adventure Bike Requires Significant Skill to Ride Off-Road…

Comfort is a primary concern when spending many hours in the saddle on the highway. You can upgrade your seat if it is not comfortable, but some things are hard to change like the vibration from a small displacement engine. Small Adventure Bikes with large single-cylinder engines are prone to vibration at speed. It may not seem noticeable when riding for 20 minutes, but the vibrations start to set-in and can really destroy your ride comfort.

Some small Adventure Bikes have excessive vibration (e.g. KTM 640 Adventure) while others are smooth (e.g. BMW F650GS). So it is best to read as many reviews as you can before choosing your bike to determine if this is a problem.  If you are disciplined enough to keep your speed around 65 mph, even when traffic is zooming by at 80 mph, then you probably will not have to worry about vibration as much. But once you reach speeds around 75 mph, most single-cylinder Adventure Bikes start to get a bit buzzy. For long stretches of highway, you’ll be better off with a middleweight adventure bike that will not struggle at speed or vibrate excessively.

Commuting

Adventure Bikes tend to make great commuter bikes. The upright riding position, relatively light weight and nimble handling make them very efficient at weaving through the urban jungle. Just keep in mind that you still need to get to work on Monday. So if you are getting into serious off-road use on the weekends,  the best Adventure Motorcycle is one that can take the abuse.   If not installed already, upgrade your bike with  heavy duty rock guards, hand guards and crash bars to help limit the trail damage.

 Mechanical Knowledge

If you have a background in motorcycle or auto mechanics, then your options for purchasing a new Adventure Bike are more wide open. Part of the fun of owning a motorcycle is the tinkering in the garage, improving and customizing your bike to meet your exact needs. Don’t like the handling? Improve the suspension. Not enough power? Install a larger carburetor and performance exhaust. Want to save money? Get a great deal on a used Adventure Bike and fix it up yourself.

If you are like the majority of riders out there, you probably have limited mechanical experience. If you plan to go on long trips in remote areas, you will need to learn some basic mechanical skills or bring along a friend that does.  If your mechanic skills are limited, start by purchasing a bike that is reasonably new and reliable.  Try to buy something that is as new as possible with low miles (less than 6,000 miles).

Take your time with your search for the best Adventure Motorcycle and try to find a bike that already has everything you need like a windscreen, luggage rack, big tank, and comfortable seat. Each part you need to add to the bike to customize it can take hours of research online.  Dealer costs to install aftermarket parts can be excessive if you are not able to do it yourself. While we all want to save money, your time is also valuable.  You do not want to spend days in the garage getting your bike prepared when your buddies are out riding.

Riding Style

Are you an aggressive rider? The type that likes to hang off your bike while riding in the canyons? The type that craves the power and acceleration of a big bore motorcycle and riding on the edge?

An aggressive mentality is helpful if you want to achieve an advanced level of skill off-road. To become a good off-road rider, you need to learn how to attack the trail and not be too afraid of falling.  Off-road newbies with an aggressive demeanor adapt quickly to off-road riding. You also need to be willing to endure some discomfort and have the grit to keep going when conditions become hostile.

To become truly adept at off-road riding, you need to be able to endure the pain and keep asking for more. Those that push through their discomfort are often the ones that achieve the most memorable and unique experiences.

If you are the aggressive type, the best Adventure Motorcycle for you is one that has a performance focus. A bike that can take the abuse of riding hard on difficult trails. You may need to make a few sacrifices in comfort in exchange for better performance and durability. Focus your search on Adventure Bikes that have a good power-to-weight ratio, high quality suspension components and long-travel suspensions. You can often improve comfort later with aftermarket parts like seats, bar end weights and windscreens without sacrificing performance.

However, Adventure Bike riding is more about exploring natural landscapes than it is about activating your adrenal glands. Many riders are more utilitarian focused and just want to get out there in nature or explore distant lands at a comfortable pace. If all that hardcore riding seems a bit masochistic to you, then the best Adventure Motorcycle for you will be one that offers more comfort than performance.

You are probably not going to spend much time on difficult trails at wide-open-throttle, so there is no point in spending money on long-travel suspension or major horsepower. Weight savings is less important if you are riding mostly on highways and mild dirt roads. So getting a larger adventure bike won’t be a problem. Look for a practical Adventure Bike with a comfortable seat, good wind protection and smooth engine that will allow you to maintain your inner-peace.

Your Budget

If you have a limited budget that is less than $2,500, then you are probably in the market for a fixer upper or a bike that is going to need some expensive work soon. If you have mechanic skills and don’t mind tinkering to save a few bucks, then you can probably find something in the $2,500 range. Just be sure you can get the bike up to a level of reliability that won’t leave you hesitant to go on long rides in remote areas.

If you do not have mechanical skills, then you want to stay clear of a fixer upper. You would be better off saving your money a bit longer until you can afford a bike that is going to be reliable. Otherwise, you could end up getting yourself into a money pit, spending more money in the long run with frequent trips to the mechanic.

There are good lightly used bikes available in the $3,500 to $5,000 range that are an excellent choice for a first Adventure Bike. If you do not have mechanical skills, then you should try to get something that has low mileage (less than 6,000 miles) and is no more than 6 years old. An older bike (greater than 6 years old), even if it has low mileage, may experience electrical problems if it’s been sitting for a long time.

New is better when it comes to purchasing a motorcycle you are going to take to remote areas. A brand new bike may even be more affordable because of financing options. A warranty is always nice or if you buy a used bike from a dealer, you will have peace of mind knowing the bike was checked out by a professional mechanic.

We don’t recommend getting the top of the line Adventure Bike though even if you have money to burn. Dropping tons of cash on your first Adventure Bike is not a good idea, especially if you intend to ride off-road. If you are buying this as your first off-road bike or you have not ridden off-road in years, be prepared to crash the bike many times during your learning process. The best Adventure Bike for you will be a more dirt focused model that can take a fall without breaking plastic.  Once you get your skills to a more advanced level, you can trade it in for your dream Adventure Bike.

After you purchase your bike, you may still need to buy items like aftermarket upgrades and Adventure Gear, so make sure you figure in all those additional costs into your total budget. You do not want to end up with a large hospital bill because you didn’t have the cash for good boots.

Your Height

Adventure bikes have long travel suspension to allow them to absorb the bumps well off road. That makes them some of the tallest motorcycles available on the market. Tall and heavy bikes are a bad combination for height challenged riders. Having the ability to put both feet on the ground is important for gaining confidence while learning to ride off road.

If you are over 5’11″ (1.8 meters), then most Adventure Bikes will suite you fine. But even 5’11″ rider might feel that some adventure bikes are too tall for learning how to ride off road. If you are up on your tippie toes or you can only put one foot down at a time, then you should probably choose a different ADV Bike.

Some tall bikes can be modified to decrease the seat height through aftermarket parts (e.g BMW F650GS). If your heart is set on a particular bike that you feel is too tall, then you should research the aftermarket options available for lowering the suspension or a lower replacement seat.

Go see the bike and sit on it while a friend pushes down on the suspension until you are comfortable, then measure the seat height difference between compressed and uncompressed to determine the amount you need to lower the bike. Most aftermarket solutions will disclose how much they lower the bike, so you will be able to determine if a viable solution is available.

If you are under 5’7″ (1.7 meters) tall, then you will have a short list of bikes to choose from that will be rideable for your first Adventure Bike. That is not to say you will not be able to ride a tall Adventure Bike some day. We have seen plenty of small guys start their tall bikes on the kickstand and ride circles around other tall riders off road. Some of the best off-road racers in the world are short.  They had to develop deep fundamental skills off-road because putting a foot down to regain their balance was never an option.  But if you are just getting started off-road, the best Adventure Motorcycle will be a light bike with a low seat height. Take a look at our “Top 10 Adventure Motorcycles for Shorter Riders” article for some bike suggestions.

The best Adventure Motorcycle for riders under 5’7″ is a 250cc-400cc Dual Sport bike that has been upgraded with aftermarket parts (windscreen, comfy seat, big tank, and luggage rack) to have long-distance touring capabilities. You may still need to modify the bike to decrease the seat height further, but the lighter weight will make it much easier for you to control the bike and pickup if you fall.

Carrying A Passenger?

If you just intend to carry a passenger occasionally for short distances, then this should not impact your purchasing decision. Most Adventure Bikes will have pegs and a seat for a passenger to be comfortable for at least an hour or two.

If you are planning long-duration trips or frequent excursions with a passenger, then you will both be more comfortable on a larger bike that has a more spacious seating area. A larger bike will limit your off-road riding options.  But if 2-up riding is important to you, then you will be willing to make that sacrifice.  The best Adventure Motorcycle for 2-up riding is a larger Bike that offers more stability and safety on the highway.

You can improve the comfort of your passenger by getting a top box that give them a backrest. This will reduce fatigue because your passenger can lean back and relax instead of leaning on you. With a passenger you will have less room to move around in the saddle and avoid soreness, so you may want to purchase an aftermarket seat that offers improved long-range comfort for both you and your passenger.

Your Emotions

Deciding on the best Adventure Motorcycle is not always based on logical thinking and many of us make emotional decisions. You may decide that you want to get a BMW R1200GS because all your friends have one, even though they have a vast amount of off-road riding experience and you do not. You might be obsessed with the new Ducati Panigale and just have to have one no matter what. Or maybe you just want a bike that is faster than your buddy’s bike so you get a KTM 990 Adventure R.

Your dream bike is typically not the best Adventure Motorcycle for a first time Adventure Rider.  We recommend taking the emotion out of your decision as much as possible so that you can think clearly. Do not let your judgment become clouded by your desires. Do not start talking yourself into a purchase that you know is a bad idea. Let your gut be your guide, not your emotions. Decisions based on emotions rarely end up being good ones.

Be patient and wait for the right bike and the right deal to come along. Many new Adventure Riders get over-excited and make a rush purchase only to find out on their first ride that the bike is not right for them.

But we are human, not robots right? So if there is an Adventure Bike you really want that makes your eyes light up like a kid, then take a little time to cool off and think about your decision. Consider all the pros and cons between the bike you really want compared to the bike you really should get. Just be honest with yourself when you are making your decision. If you are willing to live with some sacrifices and deal with the consequences, then maybe the best Adventure Bike for you really is your dream bike.

If you do decide to go out and get a big BMW R1200GS as your first bike, then do yourself a favor and go to one of the Adventure Bike training schools that will teach you how to ride a big bike off road with confidence.

More things to consider

Just remember this is your first Adventure Bike and this is likely to be a short-term decision. The bike of your dreams can wait a little while until you gain more experience. Buy something that you can learn off-road skills with over the next one to two years. Consider getting a bike that you can live with dropping if you intend to do any off-road riding.

As multi-purpose motorcycles, Adventure Bikes are full of compromises. It is also hard to predict what type of riding you will prefer until you get some experience. Most likely you will not achieve true perfection with your first bike, so don’t get hung up on the details. After a year or two, you will know a lot more about the type of riding you like and the shortcomings of your current bike. One thing is for sure: your idea of the best Adventure Motorcycle will change after some time in the saddle.

Narrow down your decision to just a few different models and then test ride the bikes, if possible, to get a sense of how each model feels. Make sure you test how the bikes feels at highway speeds and slow speeds. You can seek out test rides from your local dealer or private sellers of used bikes. Local motorcycle rental companies may also have Adventure Bike models available to rent. In addition, you should always read several review articles and check out opinions on Adventure Bike forums to get a better idea of a particular bike’s qualities and characteristics.

Additional Resources for First Time Adventure Bike Buyers

Need more help figuring out which bike to get? Check out our Top 10 Adventure Bikes for New Adventure Riders or try our First Adventure Bike Selector Tool. Answer a few questions about your skill level, intended usage and riding style to get a recommendation for the best Adventure Motorcycle for you. Just remember to be completely honest and realistic with your answers to get a recommendation that is a good match for your needs.

For a lot of new Adventure Bike Riders, the subtle differences between a Dual Sport and an Adventure Bike may be a little confusing.  Sometimes it is hard to decide which style motorcycle is the best for your needs.  Take a look at our story “Dual Sport or Adventure Bike — Which is best for you?” to get a more clear understanding.  Once you understand the subtleties that make these two bike categories different, you will know whether an Adventure Bike or a Dual Sport is best for you.

Your Thoughts

For those of you that have already been through the experience of buying your first Adventure Bike, let us know your story in the comments below.  Was your decision the right one?  A total disaster? What would you choose for your first Adventure Bike if you had it to do all over again?

Author: Rob Dabney

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6 thoughts on “Choosing the Best Adventure Motorcycle for New ADV Riders

  1. Breaking into a more street oriented sport is proving to be really tough. I can’t seem to find any good advice out there. Most of the dual sport crowd seem to be MX’ers that just needed a street legal kit and a little more range from their MX bikes…..um aftermarket gas tank, anyone? Meanwhile, the ADV crowd is 80% street / 20% dirt, which is great if the only bike you ride is an expensive KTM or a still sorely dirt lacking Kawasaki. The rest just seem to want to ride “near” dirt trails…..or just trails that have some dirt on them.
    I am looking at a Suzuki DR650 because it seems the most capable (according to the primarily brand loyal and biased owner group…..which doesn’t seem to be any different than the others who say theirs is the best…) and most customizable.

    I am looking for a bike that does highway speeds without vibrating me out of my seat, yet is still capable of climbing, wheeling over obstacles, and fording a little water no and again. I had a CR650L that was so-so on the dirt but absolutely terrible on the road. I might as well have drove my dirt bike out to the trail head since I did that frequently with the CR to avoid having to ride it out if the trip was long.

    This article has gotten me no closer to a decision since it pretty much says “be careful….and make the right choice!”

    • I found the read very resourceful in pointing me towards the type of bike I should get. Seems like you are looking for something very personalized. Although the article even has a link to a bike selector tool for personalized bike recommendations. That should help you.

    • @deckecds – The one thing that jumps out in your comment is ”I am looking for a bike that does highway speeds without vibrating me out of my seat, …” Try to look at 2-3 cylinder bikes, they will make a huge difference for hwy vibration at speed.

      No matter what bike you get, first thing you will need to do is change the tires – a good set of TKC 80′s will allow you to go where alot of guys can’t.

      A V-Strom 650 can be lots of fun but ground clearance is a little low, BMW F650GS (or 800GS) are awesome but if you break something $$$$$$, KTM 640 or 690 are true beasts on trails but not so great on Hwy, KLR650 is a watered down KTM but still works great on trails, Last summer I tryed a Triumph Tiger 800 (3 cylinders) and just loved it.

      I personnaly ride a V-Strom 1000 on Kenda Big Block Tires – I can’t follow MX but sand, mud, rocks, hills I love – bring on Canyonland. (I’m 6’4” 230Lb).

      a low mileage 5 yr old bike will keep its value so if you are leaning towards one, buy used and sell for same price next year :)

      Good luck on you choice and welcome to the community

  2. I have been riding all my life, both dirt and street. Adventure riding can be so vague and means just about anything one can think of. The point is there in NO PERFECT BIKE. If you want to have fun, and that is the key word, don’t take the bike where it was not designed to go. A BMW dealer what’s you to believe the fantasy of taking a 1200GS on any type of trail it just is so. I can take a BMW 1200GS or a Harley down a steep small rocky trail but and maybe not fall over but it is NOT going to be fun. The bike will manage me not the other way. Those big bikes were not built to do that. I can take a KTM EXE 350 or my 250 XCF from Florida to California but it is going to wear me out and not be that much fun.

    Currently I am looking at a BMW F700. When I went into the BMW store they told me the F800 is a great single-track bike. Well guess what; BMW does not build a single-track bike. That does not mean you could not take a F800 on a single-track trail and jump some logs but if you want to do that buy a KTM 200 and you will have lots of fun.

    The truth is if you want to ride 350 miles in a day, say Denver to Durango, any road worthy bike would do the job and be fun. Remember fun is why we buy two wheels. If you want a diversion along the way and pick up a connecting jeep road like Engineer Pass, ANY adventure bike works well for that trip and you will accomplish the FUN factor.

    So what to buy. I am in the market again to buy an adventure bike and struggling with what to buy. I had a 2010 BMW 650 and it would do the job but was week on the highway if I wanted to run 75mph. It would do it just not well. Plus even thought I am only 5’8” I felt cramped and locked into the seat pocket and could not scoot around to alleviate cramping. I hated it. The KLR is only 6,500. Great value compared to double for other bikes but not fuel injected and again it will be a little weak at top highway speed. Yes it will run 90mph but when you are going 65mph and want to pass it floats around rather than zips around what you are passing. Not a huge deal but on a cross county trip not the most desirable. BMW F700 is twice the money but has a 17” front tire street forks. Still for me a contender. BMW F800 is more than I want to spend and I think top heavy. Definitely not the best for gravel roads. The Vstorm may be a great choice and KTM can’t seem to decide what they want to build and only has the Adventure 1190 that is 17K. Nice bike but like the BMW1200 expensive. So guess what there is no perfect bike. At least not for me.

  3. Article is right on with many tips. My xr650l vibrates my hands to death and kills on the butt when I do a 3 hour asphalt trip, but I love it for forest roads and trails in the woods. currently looking for a adv bike to compliment what the enduro is missing for longer road/dirt trips.

  4. Very nice read. I’ve been on harleys for years but I’m hooked on this adventure touring stuff… wife says I’m “obsessed”! Thanks for the article I’m leaning towards the KTM 1190 R

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