Finding the best lightweight adventure bike is a perennial source of debate and argument amongst the adventure motorcycling fraternity. Deciding what bike to buy is also one of the most common reasons to research online for help, advice and information. We’ve put together a list of the most important factors to consider whilst choosing your perfect bike, and a guide on some of the best and most popular motorcycles out there.
Adventure. Everyone has their own definition of ‘adventure’. For some they will spend most of the time on packed dirt tracks, fire breaks and desert; perhaps with the odd stretch of tarmac thrown in to connect the trip together. Others will spend 90% of the journey on tarmac, only venturing on the occasional foray off road. Most riders will fall somewhere in the middle, looking for the best adventure orientated dual sport machine for them and the kind of riding they do.
Riding. There may also be a delta between the kind of riding people want to do and the kind of riding they actually do. Adventure motorcycling’s ultimate vision is all about heading off into the distance on that trip of a lifetime around the world, ready for all the challenges ahead. The most common riding we actually do is either a regular commute or longer weekend trips at best. In the US or Europe most of the miles are done on tarmac.
Lightweight. We’ll consider bikes up to around 600cc as ‘lightweight’. There are lots of other designs that change the weight, power and appeal of these dual sport motorcycles but the outstanding design component is that they’ll all be enduro styled and able to carry a rider and equipment for a couple of day’s riding on and off road.
Deciding Factors. There are some pretty key requirements for a lightweight adventure motorcycle; here are the top ones.
Weight. ‘Light is might’ and ‘Light is right’. No two ways about it. There is nothing like the amount of sheer pain and effort of riding a bike that is too heavy to pick up, overloaded with gear and fuel in a challenging off road context. Lighter bikes are easier to ride, particularly off road in the wet, and easier to lift (or manhandle onto a vehicle if need be). There’s also a trade off with a better MPG return – useful for long distances between fill ups and for saving money.
Reliability. Once you’re on the road you’ll be happier with a more reliable bike because you rely on it. Any machine that’s solid, easy to work on and with a plentiful supply of spares will be better than an exotic bike with major electrical problems. The truth is that adventure motorcycles get exposed to a lot of wear and tear and the elements. They will break down at some point.
The aim is to reduce the number of times or impact of this when it does happen. Bikes that are easy to work on will make it possible for you to not only repair if need be but also stay ahead of trouble; with regular servicing and replacing of worn parts.
The amount of power needed to go round the world is much less than the amount of power most dual sport bikes make. A healthy, lean power-to-weight ratio is the holy grail. Useable and agile power will get you through tricky off road sections, over obstacles and even out of trouble around other vehicles on the roads. The top end of the engine power bands will help with long distance cruising in comfort and overall road ability. Too small an engine and you may get trapped between trucks or around other road users, too big an engine and the bike is going to be overweight and handle badly when you do get off road.
Engine. The engine design will affect the amount of power that you can put through the tyres in different situations. In general most adventure bikes favour a variation of one – three cyclinders, usually offset or opposed to produce more torque lower down the rpm range. This helps with low speed control and handling in off road situations.
The bike’s frame needs to be strong enough to take the weight of at least the rider, a full load of equipment and spare pack fuel as well as the possibility of a pillion passenger.
Luggage attachment points on the frame, panniers options and positioning of the exhaust system affects this. Think about what kind of luggage you want early on and plan ahead.
Extras to consider
Fuel tank – can you fit an aftermarket one to increase range?
Handlebar risers – are there risers available to aid control when stood up?
Screen and wind protection – is it sufficient for you?
Storage and luggage – how much do you really need?
Kick start – peace of mind when the electric start fails!
Having read this far you’ve hopefully got an idea of what to look for – and what might suit you and your style of riding. Here’s a compilation of some of the best lightweight bikes available:
KTM 690 Enduro
The KTM middleweight entry to the Dakar Rally from 2008 – 2010. Class leading power to weight ratio and a bulletproof single cylinder 654cc engine. KTM have designed this bike and it’s engine to fit at the upper end of the lightweight adventure motorcycle group (hence it’s included here).
• Lightweight overall and excellent power
• Excellent off road ability
• Limited long range comfort and protection
• Not many equipment options for hard panniers
A hard core option for dedicated trail riding and off road adventure. Few compromises made to long distance ability. Lots of power makes it a popular hypermotard model for street use rather than a true ’round the world’ option. KTM build may indicate high maintenance and can suffer from electrical gremlins with the speedo cabling. For short trips off road it’s hard to beat.
Single 650cc ‘thumper’ with a reputation for being solid off road. Can be ‘vibey’ during long distance on road runs.
• Long running Suzuki stalwart – plenty of spares and modification options.
• 46bhp on the road
• Heavy off road
• Needs modifications for off road comfort.
A good all round option on paper. Riders complain of nerveless hands after long distances. Hardcore following modify it for RTW trips.
Honda’s virtually unchanged answer to the lightweight adventure market has been part of their long running XR production series since 1993.
• Great off road
• Reliable, easy to maintain engine.
• Limited comforts on road
• Fewer equipment options.
Lots of owners upgrade the tank and seat .
It’s noted for excellent useable power off road and has a more dirt capable focus than it’s nearest competition (KLR and DR series). It probably suffers slightly as a trade off once on the road with a weaker frame and fewer hard luggage options.
Yamaha Tenere XT660Z
‘Out of the crate’ ready for overland travel. This is Yamaha’s definitive adventure lightweight bike. Single cylinder not for everyone.
• Long range – 400 miles
• Simple and reliable construction
• Robust design with good options
• Single cylinder can be vibey
• Tall seat height
Very popular adventure travel machine. It’s centred around a single cylinder engine but solid and very capable on and off road.
BMW F650 ‘Dakar’
BMW’s popular lightweight adventure bike. Built on an air cooled single cylinder engine with a tall seat and robust frame.
• BMW build quality
• Good mix of on and off road capability
• Tall seat height
• BMW premiums.
Tall, miles of suspension travel and it’s got ‘Dakar’ in it’s name. Popular.
Kawasaki’s lightweight adventure bike is ugly, has plenty of modification options and is popular for it’s agile ability off road and solid presence on road.
• The simple design and ease of repair likelihood.
• Cheap and available. Plus good low down power.
• Heavy, underpowered and small range comparatively.
• Ugly yet functional!
Impossible to overlook, the KLR650 deserves it’s place in this lineup but it’s not for everyone.