Nobody walks out to the garage and pulls on a helmet and riding gear thinking, “I really want to be bored. I think I’ll go ride my motorcycle.”
Boring is what SUVs are for. We want a little excitement, and adventure riding has all the thrills we embrace about two wheelers, plus the added element of exploring the unknown. And you can start out easy. We may admire intrepid around-the-world-on-two-wheels types, but for most of us those epic dream rides will remain dreams. Still, there is no good reason adventure riding has to remain un-checked on your bucket list.
Getting started is relatively easy and fun whether you are on a Kawasaki KLR budget or are piloting the technological equivalent of a dirt-going das Boot. But you do need to be much more prepared and self-sufficient than you might be accustomed to, especially if you intend to explore beyond the end of the pavement. The very nature of adventure riding is to get away from the normal grind and strike out on your own. Yes, given the growing popularity of adventure bikes, it is possible you will run across a herd of fellow riders. But that’s unlikely. By definition, if you have a problem on an adventure ride, help will probably not be a cell call away.
Fortunately, you can be largely self-reliant without going to a lot of trouble or expense. The key is to think things through and get prepared well before you head out. Here are some tips that will help any adventure rider, but especially those who may be new to the off-road part of the exercise.
If you have the option, start with a smaller bike for your first adventures off the pavement. This Husqvarna 450 (right) is fully road legal, but it is completely at home off road. It is not a great choice for long commutes or touring on the highway, but it excels in the dirt and doesn’t have the weight of a bigger bike, making it easier to enjoy and more appropriate for honing your off-road chops.
Adventure bikes have an enormous range of available tire options. Some skins are sticky at crazy lean angles on pavement and others get a bulldog bite in the dirt. Most fall somewhere in the middle, meaning they are capable enough but not truly optimal for either surface. Still, a tire that is a bit more aggressive for the dirt and tough enough for off-road punishment will add more to your enjoyment of an adventure ride’s dirt portion than anything else you can buy. Look for a tough carcass and blocky, aggressive tread. If your bike uses tubes, opt for thick, heavy-duty ones.
In many cases you must be able to deal with minor mechanical issues and flat tires on your own. There is no auto-club option. The alternatives? Riding out as a passenger behind a buddy is as good as it gets. Worst-case scenarios start at walking and go down from there. Motion Pro, Cruz Tools, and others make specialized tools and sets. Whether you assemble your own kit or buy one, you must have everything your motorcycle requires for basic repair and maintenance. In addition to the necessary hand tools, you will need a way to inflate tires (CO2 cartridges or a pump), putty epoxy for repairs, and some spares like control levers. If the bike runs tubeless, a kit to plug tires is a must-have.
Once you have your tools, perform common maintenance on your bike with the kit at home. Remove the wheels, change a tire and take off the fuel tank. Use your tool pack to get to the fuse box, and since fuses are small and light, carry a lot of extras. If you are running tubeless, before you buy new tires, puncture the old ones with an awl or nail, then practice plugging the hole. Your first attempt at a tire repair should not be while you are alone in the middle of nowhere. On an adventure ride in Baja we discovered that it is all but impossible for one person to change a front tire on a KTM 990 Adventure. It took one person to balance the bike on the centerstand. Plus, a second (heavy) bike’s sidestand was needed to break the bead to install a new tube. You are far better off knowing these things in advance.
Pick your Surface
If you are a rider with mostly pavement experience, plan your initial rides carefully. Most big adventure bikes work amazingly well for what they are. What they are not is true dirt bikes, and riding one off-pavement is always interesting. Plan your rides in areas where the dirt surface is firm with a hard base. Avoid sand and mud if at all possible. Riding a large adventure bike in soft sand is a thrill few riders ever forget—you can eventually get a handle on it, but it takes skill and experience to truly master. Spare yourself the “fun” until you have a lot of time on the bike. Stay with hard-packed and well-traveled dirt roads. An adventure-riding school is a great investment. If you choose to learn as you go, find a place to practice safely on dirt and do some braking and tight turns to get a feel for what’s possible. Going fast on dirt is much easier than stopping quickly.
Heading out alone on the highway to a favorite gathering spot is no big deal. If you have a problem, another rider or a motorist can help. For riding off pavement, a small group is a much better idea. Picking up, turning around or “unstucking” a big bike goes better with friends. If you coordinate as a group you can share out the tools and equipment you need, and each rider can have a lighter load. Remember a first aid kit, spare tubes, water and other essentials. Make arrangements beforehand to stop and wait at all turns, so that following riders don’t feel the need to ride too closely, especially in the dust. Poor group coordination once led former MC staffer Tim Carrithers onto a narrow, not-a-Beemer trail. Turning around was a 10-minute ordeal.
Your bike’s air flter is most likely designed for the “rigors” of a daily street commute, and it is unlikely that it can protect the engine in dusty conditions. If your machine has a paper air filter element, swap it for an oiled-foam type like Uni Filter or an oiled-gauze type like K&N. Either choice offers improved engine protection, and the element can be cleaned and reused many times. If your bike has expensive and delicate body parts, adding crash protection accessories can save vast amounts of money. Don’t wait to learn the hard way. Sturdy, wrap-around hand guards, in addition to helping keep your hands warm and protected from brush, usually protect the levers and throttle in a fall. A low-speed lowside once wiped out a saddlebag and ruined Andrew Cherney’s ride, but the wrap-around handguards and engine guard kept the incident from being even more expensive.
Some riders choose adventure riding for the joy of exploring alone. If you are the hardy individualist type, choose an emergency notification system like a SPOT GPS locator. Hopefully you will never need it, but if you do, it will be the best money you ever spent.