Years ago I taught a Photography 101 course. Every new class was filled with eager students, each one with a Canon or Nikon and a special lens that was sure to take spectacular photos. They were shocked when I made them do the first few assignments with cameras I had picked up from yard sales for about fifty cents each.
The point I was trying to teach them was that it was the eye and the heart that takes the picture. The camera is merely an electro-mechanical device to record the moment.
It is exactly the same with adventure biking. It is all about your eyes, and ears, and spirit.
The motorcycle is merely a contraption to carry your stuff for you.
The gorilla in the room is, of course, the BMW R 1200 GSA. A 573 pound gorilla to be specific. The thought of picking up this huge bike with another 100+ pounds of gear attached is right up there with visions of a root canal! Maybe if you're a Teutonic warrior or Vin Diesel, but I would need a crane and a winch. Not that this is likely to happen to most of them. These are for people who need to show how cool they can afford to be. At $30,000 fully loaded this bike is not something you want to get scratched up. It's for going to get a latté and letting people admire it.
The Yamaha Super Ténéré ES is the same weight and size as the BMW but around $10,000 cheaper. Long ago this bike started out as the XT600Z Ténéré. Maybe it wasn't that Super, but it was 300 pounds lighter and Chris Scott described it as “the best of the lot” for desert travel in his 1995 book “Desert Biking”.
If you must have a BIG bike the KTM 1290 Super Adventure is the pick of the litter. A dry weight of 503 pounds and deep suspension travel make this a serious contender if you want a bike to go around the world. However, add fifty pounds of fuel in the tank and 100 pounds of luggage and gear and you're right back into jumbo jet territory.
The Triumph Tiger 800 XCx is a more reasonable adventure bike for the rest of us. The $12,000 sticker price is more reasonable, and with the five gallon tank topped off it weighs in at a more reasonable 473 pounds. This is a bike that will be a comfortable commuter and with a change of tires take you anywhere you want to go in the world.
The BMW F 800 GSA is an alternative that costs $2,000 more and weighs about the same. For the extra money you get marginally better dirt performance and give up some on-road comfort and ability.
The Kawasaki KLR 650 is the Rodney Dangerfield of adventure bikes. It's been around forever. It has been ridden everywhere. It is fun, reliable, light, and cheap. And it gets no respect!Right from the factory it has a 6.1 gallon tank. It weighs only 432 pounds. It has over 7” of suspension travel. There is a huge aftermarket industry that supplies inexpensive parts and accessories for it. Kawasaki has been making it for so long there is nothing left to go wrong. And it only costs $6,600! Compared to the BMW GSA you can buy a new one every time it needs new tires and still save money.
If the KLR is the Rodney Dangerfield of adventure bikes, the Honda XR 650 L is the ugly duckling. It is the punchline of every dirt bike joke. Until you ride it. Yes, it is too heavy for woods single track, but it will go through anything if you work at it. Yes, it has an old school air cooled engine and steel tube frame, but there is no radiator to smash or hoses to leak. The steel frame can be welded back together by anyone in any third world country. Try that with an aluminum forged frame.
It's $100 more than the KLR650 and really needs a bigger after market tank to give it any range, but the weight is only 346 pounds fully fueled. If you trade the stock exhaust for an aftermarket pipe you can save another 25 pounds. Suspension travel is 11” front and rear. This is only a fair commuter bike but when the going gets rough the XR650L turns into a beautiful bird. Making it even better, good used examples can be found all day for $3,000 and under.
I'm including the Honda Transalp (XL600V) because it was and is my favorite bike of all time. If I was to choose only one bike of the several that I own it would be this one. The V-twin 600cc engine is powerful enough for any task. It is smooth on the highway and torquey in the rough. The XR suspension soaks up the ruts and bumps and keeps a steady line.
Once accustomed to the 400 pound weight, the rider is rewarded with a virtuous, comfortable bike that goes anywhere with Honda reliability. It's like a Swiss Army knife; it doesn't do anything perfectly but it does everything pretty darn well. Too bad it was far ahead of it's time and Honda didn't promote it properly. Not quite a cult bike, examples appear from time to time for ~$3,000.
Those are some examples of adventure bikes now on the market. I don't have the room or time to list everything. The Suzuki V-Strom 650 Adventure does come to mind, but it's pricey (~$10k), heavy (~500 lbs) and I wouldn't take it anywhere until I got a decent skid plate to protect that exhaust pipe. The KTM 690 Enduro R is another great bike that has always suffered from the high price and lack of promotion in the KTM lineup. The Suzuki DRZ400 deserves an honorable mention as well.
Remember, no matter which you choose, the bike is nothing but a pack mule. If you want an ego extension go buy whatever you can afford. If you want to go for a ride know what you really want to do and be realistic about your choice.
Got a favorite bike you would like to recommend? Or a comment on one of my choices, good or bad? Let me know in the comment section.
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