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ADV NewsWhy You Should Consider Riding A Small Bike For Your Adventures

Why You Should Consider Riding A Small Bike For Your Adventures

Small on size, big on adventure. Ready to join the small-bore revolution?

Published on 03.07.2024

For decades, the adventure motorcycle industry’s mantra was “There’s no replacement for displacement” … or, “Go big or go home.” But is that really good advice? A small-bore revolution has been picking up steam for years now. Bikes in the sub-500cc category are better than ever, and people are reconsidering their attitude towards smaller motorcycles. Here are good reasons to take a minimalist approach when shopping for your next adventure bike.

Overall Affordability

We might as well say the obvious part first. If you’re cash-strapped, a small-bore bike costs less than a larger machine. This is somewhat less noticeable on the used market, but when you’re buying new, something like a KTM 390 Adventure is going to cost you a lot less than its 790/890/1290 big brother. In our increasingly cash-strapped economy, this could be the difference between owning a motorcycle, or forgetting about riding altogether.

riding-small-adventure-bikes

The savings with a small bike really start after the purchase. You’ll notice it as soon as you sign your new insurance policy; you’ll pay less for a small bike. The difference between a 250cc and a 1250cc is significant.


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Those savings continue, every time you throw a leg over the seat. Every motorcyclist has to buy gas; your small-bore bike needs a lot less dino juice than a big ADV. Every motorcyclist needs to buy tires; with your lightweight, lower-powered machine, you can use cheaper tires and they’ll still give you plenty of life. Also, tune-ups, replacement parts and general maintenance is typically less costly.

If you’re commuting on your bike, those savings add up. For instance, if you’re traveling long-term, a dollar saved on gas is a dollar more you can spend on other expenses—you can stay on the road longer, or go farther. Some of the best-known ADV travelers of the past decade are riding small machines, and no doubt this is a big reason why. Check out Itchy Boots, or Steph Jeavons to see how well their small bikes worked for their big trips.

riding-small-adventure-bikes

And as mentioned above, the difference in pricing between smaller and larger bikes is less noticeable if you’re buying used, but that’s only really true of newer bikes. Older air-cooled bikes like the DR350, XT350, DR200 or XT225 are often extremely affordable, and easy for a shade tree mechanic to maintain themselves as well, with minimal dealership expenditures.

Easier To Ride

A small-bore bike weighs less than even a middleweight ADV; they’re much easier to manhandle than a full-sized bike, and they stop more easily. Power delivery is generally a lot less abrupt—not that you can’t get yourself into trouble with the throttle on a 450, or even a 150, but it’s less likely. For beginners, this is especially important, but even experienced riders can appreciate a more relaxed ride, especially if they’re switching to off-road riding after a career on the street. ADVers at the tail end of their careers might also appreciate an easier-to-manage small bike, as aging riders don’t necessarily want to dead-lift a 550-pound behemoth if they fall off in the woods.

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Mind you, a small engine doesn’t necessarily mean a low seat height, and some smaller bikes still have a tall saddle height—the Honda CRF300L, for example, has a 34.7 inch seat height. But, the OEMs are starting to smarten up here, and we see the little Honda now coming in a lowered version. Same for Kawasaki’s KLX230. Royal Enfield offers the Scram 411, a lowered, scramblerized version of the Himalayan 410. Expect to see more of this in the future.

Of course, if you’re looking for something really easy to ride, Yamaha’s trusty TW200, with its fat tires and 31.1-inch seat height, might be the funnest bike in the world to ride slow. A Suzuki VanVan is pretty much the same idea, if you can find one.

 Good For Developing Your Skills

When you’re on a small bike, you can’t solve as many problems with a twist of the throttle. Where a big bike can use gobs of engine torque to overcome tough off-road climbs, a small bike must conserve momentum, or carefully pick an optimal riding line.

riding-small-adventure-bikes

On the street, if you want to maintain a fast pace, you’ve got to keep your corner velocity up, since you can’t just whack on the gas to make up for the speed you just scrubbed off before the apex. You’ll have an almost symbiotic relationship with your engine, knowing the perfect shift points.

This can all make you into a much smarter rider, and you’ll understand why savvy veterans often say it’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than it is to ride a fast bike slow.

riding-small-adventure-bikes

This applies to more than just the riding skills themselves—small bikes are also good for helping you learn how to be a better navigator, at least for street riding. If you don’t want to take your small bike on the freeway, you’ll have to learn another way to get from A to B. You’ll be forced to take small byways, back roads and even gravel tracks that you might never have discovered otherwise. The journey may take longer, but you’ll become a much better-rounded rider if you aren’t just solving every problem with horsepower.

The same goes for other motorcycling smarts. Do you bring too much stuff with you when traveling? A small-bore bike forces you to be better at packing, since too much junk in the trunk will slow you down a lot.

More Capable Than Ever

For a long time, small-bore machines were built to a price point, and performance wasn’t important. That’s not the case anymore; although a sub-500cc bike doesn’t have the power of a big bike, the latest liquid-cooled engine designs are made like the old Timex watch ad said: They can take a licking and keep on ticking. Tolerances on the new designs are much tighter, and better thermal management plus improved engineering means the engines have a longer lifespan.

riding-small-adventure-bikes

Consider the Honda CRF300L. It’s derived from the single-cylinder CBR250 design, an engine that was flogged on roadracing tracks around the world through spec racing programs. The big-bored version is certainly capable of lasting for many years of riding, as long as you don’t mind life in the slow lane. These aren’t the throw-away bikes that little thumpers used to be. Most of the new small-bore bikes can keep up with the slow lane on the interstate, at least, with the occasional pass, as long as you’re willing to flog the engine.

And now we can buy purpose-built adventure travel bikes in the under-500cc bracket, including the G310GS, 390 Adventure, Versys-X 300 and now the new Himalayan 452 and CFMOTO 450 Ibex (both on their way to North America soon). There haven’t been a whole lot of small-bore travel bikes in the past—but now the Japanese and European manufacturers have been bringing in more choices in the past few years, and China’s OEMs are starting to get in on the Adventure Bike action too.

riding-small-adventure-bikes

Manufacturers are packing a lot more technology into small bikes as well. EFI is standard on almost all machines sold in western markets. That means no re-jetting your carburetor for riding in the mountains, and a lot less fussing around with gunked-up internals. Switchable ABS is available as an option for almost every new small bike—leave it on for street riding, turn it off so you can steer with the rear in the dirt. Traction control is even becoming standard on smaller twin-cylinder machines; experienced riders might not need it, but it will provide a lot of peace of mind on slippery, rainy streets or in other sketchy scenarios. KTM’s 390 engine even has a quickshifter—a feature that was only available on expensive race bikes only a decade ago.

CFMoto Ibex 450

The aftermarket has gotten better at servicing the small-bore bike market, too. Companies like Happy Trails, Cycle Racks or Dirt Racks offer plenty of luggage capacity. Check out Pro Cycle, RMATV/MC or other online retailers and you can easily find all the farkles you need from skid plates to crash bars to windshields.

Some Things To Consider… 

In the developing world, you see whole families moving around on small sub-250 motorcycles, but in those countries, traffic is often slower and expects to see those riders everywhere. Several small bikes like the KTM 390 and Himalayan 452 can hold their own on the freeway but if you’re going to ride a small bike that doesn’t have sufficient power to keep up with North American highway speeds, you will need to ride a bit more defensively, or even better, find a new route. 

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Also, gas stops might be more frequent if taking a long journey on enduro-style bikes. However, there are several small bikes that have similar mile ranges to their bigger cousins. And you can always get a larger aftermarket tank or carry extra fuel if needed. 

Why Else?

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Small bikes are also just plain fun. It’s almost like the rules change when you go small. Without the weight and size of a larger machine, you’re less on-edge, even if you’re riding hard. You’ll take more chances, have more fun, jumping curbs or perfecting wheelies or power-slides or stoppies—and if things go wrong, there’s usually less consequence, due to reduced speeds and lower mass flying around unpredictably. Get together with other small-bore riders, and you’ll have even more fun tackling the trails or exploring remote backroads; there’s nothing like sharing a challenge to add to the fun. There’s a reason things like the Smoky Mountain Small Bore Rally exist!

What are some of the reasons you ride a small bike? Let us know in the comments below!

Photos by Spencer Hill, Stephen Gregory, Royal Enfield and CFMoto

Author: ADV Pulse Staff
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Tristan Gillis
Tristan Gillis
March 7, 2024 3:34 pm

As a VanVan rider, I firmly agree with the article. That bike has yet to say no to me on any of my terrible ideas – long trips, snow rides, hitting a motocross track, following a group of Enduros offroad – it just happily goes “Yep, seems like a good idea” and goes along with it.

Ashley
Ashley
March 8, 2024 4:26 am
Reply to  Tristan Gillis

My TW feels the same

Jason
Jason
March 8, 2024 1:34 pm
Reply to  Tristan Gillis

Yeah ahhh sadly the small displacement ” adventure” bike rave is a hoax! It should be called when you wanna sleep in hotels or get there with your bike in the back of your truck! I did the small adventure bike thing and it sucked! I still wanted a dirt bike since I was living the dirt bike lifestyle on it.nope sorry adventure bikes are big they are loaded down with gear and they tour

John Seidel
John Seidel
May 13, 2024 10:34 am
Reply to  Jason

Look up Itchy Boots on youtube.

Trailrider
Trailrider
May 27, 2024 4:42 am
Reply to  John Seidel

We are not itchy boots. She rides in very slow pace roads and can afford to go very slow on an uphill. I agree with the statement above. There is no way I would do a 500 miles trip on a crf300l. I owned 2 crf250l. You US highways move fast and by the second to 3 hour riding you are somewhat tired. I have a vstrom 800 de and comfortably do 10 hours days riding it. I will get a 300l or 450l if I can haul it

Jason W
Jason W
June 3, 2024 5:13 pm
Reply to  Jason

Actually it’s not. Place I picked up my Royal Enfield at said they’ve been getting a lot of the big adventure bikes traded in for smaller ones in fact the day I went to look at them a guy had brought his bike in on consignment a Honda Africa twin Why because it was too heavy and he wanted something lighter so I think he was looking at a 400 cc bike The point is people don’t want to have to hire a tow truck to pull their big bike out of a ditch so they realize this is a precarious situation and they’d rather be more in the trail and not so much in trouble. This is why I went with this weight class of bike because I can actually get it back up. I even remember somebody with a 1200 GS telling me that he loved the bike but he was too afraid to even take it down a lot of gravel roads and cheer of dumping it and not being able to pick it back up. So I actually think the small displacement is catching on It sure was at my dealership.

J. Braun
J. Braun
March 7, 2024 3:38 pm

Quite simply – you can pick it up !!

Rick Rezac
Rick Rezac
March 7, 2024 6:12 pm

I had a CRF250L, lived in Thailand and it was pretty tricked out(Thais are amazing), and I rode that all over Thai from south to north, and when did have a problem, most side road shops could fix anything(my rectifier went out halfway from BKKI to Huahin, pulled off, found a small shop, guy had an old one from another Honda, was back on the road in 30 min). It looked sharp and so reliable. That was a tight bike!

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donny
donny
March 7, 2024 8:41 pm

I love single cylinder bikes. I currently ride a 500cc after riding a 690 & 701 for a year. I rode yamaha xt 500 and suzuki dr350 before and all have been a blast to ride. But it’s hard to beat a 500cc dual sport.

Ashley
Ashley
March 8, 2024 4:27 am

I have a TW200 and just bought a WR250 for the trails. I’m impatiently waiting for the Ibex 450 to round out the dirt fleet (along with my KLR650) but I do love the small bikes, especially as a smaller person.

Roger
Roger
March 8, 2024 5:39 am

My 1200 has a dead battery sitting next to the.ready to roll 390. A small bike that performs like a bike bike. Love it.

Fred FlannD
Fred Flann
March 8, 2024 7:27 am
Reply to  Roger

I love bike bikes.

Fred FlannD
Fred Flann
March 8, 2024 7:26 am

The established companies will never make a great small displacement ADV bike sold off the shelf because they are addicted to the profits of the 1000cc to 1300cc class tourers. Even if they do make it, it will be hard to get because they won’t import many into the US. The only solution will be to customize a dual sport with aftermarket parts. Not that I am a fan of the PLA and CCP using commerce to enslave the free world, but at least Kove is willing to try doing what none of the big shareholder owned companies will do.

Rick Spivey
Rick Spivey
March 8, 2024 10:07 am

I own a 2023 CRF450RL. Replaced the ECU and I promise with the right tires and gearing it will smoke all the 800cc plus bikes unless a professional rider is riding on back roads and off-road. (The riders in the commercials) If you want to have cookouts and camp have a 4×4 meet at the campsites. The article is spot on and should have included every bike under 800cc. The DR650,650l, KLR the original ADV bikes properly modified can run with the 1000cc bikes on good twisty roads. The BDR’s are all sponsored by BMW and when they have a local rider that helped lay out the route look at what they ride.

dan
dan
March 8, 2024 12:50 pm

Did the Postie Bike Challange 3700km Brisbane to Darwin on a 110 Honda, now i think i will sell my DL1000 , never could pick that beast up.

Muhoro
Muhoro
March 8, 2024 2:13 pm

I liked this article and own an xt225

Dan B
Dan B
March 8, 2024 6:28 pm

Great write-up! I ride a Himalayan 411 currently and chose it primary for its off-road capability mixed with manageable weight and maintenance. Waiting for the KTM 390 Adventure R with the reduced weight on the Himalayan and increased suspension travel and pep. I don’t think I’ll ever go for anything over 500cc due to the weight primarily. Mostly riding alone off-road means I need to be able to pick it up myself (quite often repeatedly). Plus, a single is just simpler to wrench on at home. Really liking the looks and specs for the Ibex 450, but very apprehensive on the quality and durability. Only time will tell though.

Kevin
Kevin
March 14, 2024 8:15 am
Reply to  Dan B

I’m also waiting on the 390R but picked up a new CRF300l yesterday. It replaces a ’23 KLR650 that I really enjoyed but knew I would hate once I dropped it for the first time. With a few easy mods the power to weight ratio will be close between the 2 and I’m only blasting around the dirt roads and trails of southern Appalachia so I don’t need much hp anyway.

I Like Motorbikes
I Like Motorbikes
March 9, 2024 2:49 am

Cost is a major factor. I’m currently with my girlfriend riding 2 Honda 125cc machines from UK to South Africa. If we had purchased more expensive bikes we would only have been able to afford to visit mainland Europe

Ian olsma
Ian olsma
March 9, 2024 5:23 am

This article really makes a lot of sense. I’m glad to have come across this. I ride the 411 and i comfortably somewhat can keep up with bigger and faster bikes. A small bike that can do a lot are the best out there.

Wld
Wld
March 9, 2024 8:11 am

I have the KLX 230 and am happy with it on trails and dirt roads. I won’t take it on the frewaybthough

Patrick
Patrick
March 9, 2024 11:18 am

About 20 years ago I was warned by an expierienced adventure traveler not to buy a large bike for adventure riding if it involved off-road riding. When I met him, he was traveling on a KTM 500. Well, I didn’t listen and I bought one anyway, then went on to buy another. I didn’t realize it but I owned two perfect adventure bikes at the time, a DR350 and a DR650 which I sold when I went big. Now that I’m older and a little bit wiser, I finally disposed of those heavy bikes and now I do all of my travels on a KLR650 and a WR250R, and I couldn’t be happier. I have always avoided Interstates whenever possible, so having a smaller and lighter bikes finally made sense to me. Plus, it makes it so much easier when riding in sand, which here in the Southwest, is everywhere.

Don
Don
March 9, 2024 11:20 am

I drive a 2008 Honda Xr250 Tornado. I have it from New and only done 17000km now. South Africa is speed crazy country but being careful you can go places. My Africa twin do my long distance. My Xr250 is my go places locally. Love my bikes to the moon and back.

Kai
Kai
March 10, 2024 1:33 am

After several big allroad tourers (BMWF800GS, KTM 990, 1050, 790, 901, Honda Africa Twin) I have now downsized to a Husqvarna 701. With some accessories 169kg. Regarding fun factor, it beats by far the big bikes, considering 75hp! I have not yet done a multi day trip on it, but many years ago I owned a similar equipped 690, which took me all the way to the Barents sea in northernmost Norway, so why should the Husky not be fun, going to Croatia and Italy (ACT) this year in May? Most important: I am sure I can pick it up even under less that ideal conditions, like steep terrain and loose ground!

Marcelo F. Z.
Marcelo F. Z.
March 14, 2024 7:24 am

I recently went downsize. I’ve bought a 2008 DR-Z400E street legal for the majority of my rides which are up to 300km back and forth. But I did also buy a Transalp 700 for the longer rides. Coming from a Tiger 900 Rally pro is a bit awkward riding position on both. Too much off-road on the DR and the same amount onroad on the Transalp. I feel much happier on the DR, as expected. It’s a decent amount of power, almost half of weight, just the seat is quite harsh. Anyway it’s the compromise in every move you make

Frank Gurule
Frank Gurule
March 18, 2024 5:20 pm

I have a 2021 Xt250 and have rode the entire NM BDR and The Colo BDR with saddle bags with a weeks worth of camping gear my xt rocks it will go anywhere my dirt bike goes and it’s street legal my xt will do 75 80 on the highway and I’ve seen my speedometer hitting 65 on dirt roads

Kristofer J.
Kristofer J.
April 21, 2024 7:02 am

I had 22 KLR650. Sold to it get a xt250. After struggling to get 60 mph riding up sometimes windy 4 to 6 percent grade paved 2 lane roads and not get mowed down by fast pickup trucks I traded it at a loss for a 23 KLR650. I need to be on mountain highways where I live in S. Colorado to get to the back roads, I don’t feel safe on anything less capable than my KLR.

Anon
Anon
May 1, 2024 5:15 pm

Add this one as a good reason. A british guy going RTW in a CRF 250L said “if you’re going over 60 or riding a highway, you’re missing a lot. I just take backroads, travel slow and enjoy the view. Why else would I travel?”.

John
John
May 12, 2024 6:56 pm

I wonder at the no mention of the DRZ 400.

Dave P.
Dave P.
May 21, 2024 9:49 am
Reply to  John

I believe the yellow bike in the first photo is a DRZ400. One of the best bikes to explore on imo. There’s a reason Suzuki hasn’t changed the design since inception. Though, I do think it’s time it got FI. Other than that, it’s a tried, proven, capable machine.

Jason W
Jason W
June 3, 2024 5:07 pm

I 100% agree with this article. In fact I just bought a Royal Enfield Himalayan for this very reason now granted it is not the lightest bike in the world but it’s definitely a lot lighter than a 1200GS. My nephew the same week bought the exact same bike when he had his sights on a Honda Africa twin but it was going to take him several years to get the money together to buy it. So when I convinced him he doesn’t need that big of a bike at just under $8,000 for a bike with panniers the racks to hold the panniers and hand guards out the door with tax and licensing it was a bargain. Not to mention any aftermarket parts are very cheap. The fuel economy is ranging around 60 to 70 miles per gallon and it’s not so powerful that when you try to go up a trail you’re afraid you’re going to overdo it. I actually think even a 250 would make a great adventure bike for the right person. I’ve seen people traveling from Oregon to Alaska on a Himalayan and have been pretty pleased with it and they where roughly 200lbs. And even the dealer said that they’ve been getting a lot of people bringing their big heavy bikes in and trading them for lighter ones even he said that he sold his bike because it was too heavy and it took them all day to get it out of a ditch. I just think people have been fooled by the manufacturers that you have to have a big bike. It’s actually a lie. Also you are on an adventure take less stuff and have an actual adventure.

Aaron Willits
Aaron Willits
June 8, 2024 9:54 pm

I ride a DRZ400S, equipped for backroad travel to the trailhead. There’s something organically satisfying about cruising at 45 on a backroad taking everything in. For what I do, it works great. If I wanted something to do longer trips, the DRZ would get tiring. Loving that the manufacturers are realizing there’s a market for lighter, smaller displacement bikes that are truly capable off-road and on. The thought of a DRZ 400 with a 6 speed, EFI, windscreen and some tech at a reasonable price sounds freaking fun. I’m a bigger guy (225 lbs), so give me fully adjustable suspension too please 🙂
Looking forward to seeing what the market brings in the near future. In the meantime, I might have to check out the new T7…..sorry DRZ- I’ll keep you too. Here’s to the real adventure of exploring and enjoying the trip.

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