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What is an adventure bike?

Updated: Jan 2, 2022

Adventure motorcycling is currently the hottest ticket in the motorcycle world with almost every manufacturer (including even Harley-Davidson) offering their own take on the adventure focussed motorcycle. But what exactly do we mean we we talk about an adventure bike and what makes them so popular with riders?

The Genesis

The modern adventure motorcycle class can trace its lineage back to one bike - BMW’s R 80 G/S.

We covered this bike extensively in the High Beam episodes of the Kiwi Rider Podcast, but if you missed it the story goes the R80G/S was a bike that essentially saved BMW Motorrad from financial ruin by creating the adventure class with its go-anywhere philosophy.

With an ability to match the go-anywhere marketing with notable victories in the continent crushing Paris-Dakar Rally, the G/S helped popularise adventure travel to the masses. Other manufacturers soon caught on and started developing their own similar models. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Two Schools Of Thought

Nowadays there are two main camps when it comes to adventure bikes and the bikes involved couldn’t be more different.

These are split into the dual-sport camp of adventure bikes and the more traditional Jack of all trades and master of none camp of larger, multi-cylinder machines. Think of the two styles each as opposite ends of a continuum line. Lightweight dual-sports on one end, and heavy 1200cc adventure tourers on the other.

When it comes to what is best neither is outright better than the other as they both give something away to the other in their overall packaging. For example, a dual-sport such as a KTM 500 EXC dominates a big adventure bike like a BMW F850GS in the rough stuff thanks to its light overall weight and compact design, but on the highway, the Beamer is the bike to have thanks to its weather protection and vastly improved rider comfort.

In the end, they are simply two different approaches to motorcycle-based exploration.

Traditional Adventure Bikes

Now when we write or talk about adventure bikes here at we are most likely using the term to describe a traditional adventure class machine in a broad sense.

This means the bike has a large fuel tank for good touring range, wind protection for the rider via a screen or fairing, decent luggage carrying ability from the factory, or as a factory option) and a large capacity multi-cylinder engine over 500cc.

These bikes are like the Swiss Army knives of the motorcycle world. They are adept at tackling many different tasks but fall short in a number of areas compared to more dedicated machines.

Dual-Sport Adventurers

The dual-sport adventure class (formally these were often referred to as road legal trail bikes) are the domain of the more hardcore rider set in the category. with the bikes often forgoing creature comforts for better power to weight ratios and more off road performance, they attract riders more interested in getting well off the beaten track and exploring than touring the globe. As a general rule, a dual sport typically is a dirt bike with a number plate and lights, though some examples such as Suzuki’s DR650 were developed with road use in mind from the get go.

A dual-sport is stripped back and keeps things essential. You’ll find few creature comforts on a dual sport. What you do get is long-travel suspension, plenty of ground clearance, a narrow saddle and the bare minimum of essentials. These bikes can be outfitted with accessories to make them more adventure-ready such as luggage racks and windscreens, but as a whole, they are best suited for harder off-road riding and shorter trips than traversing the country.

An important note for New Zealand readers is that the future of the dual-sport adventure class doesn't look too hot at the time of writing. With few manufacturers equipping their most off-road capable machines with ABS braking, this means that the class is severely limited moving into the future with NZ implementing mandatory ABS braking for all road legal machines from November 1st, 2021.

This currently means that bikes such as the popular Suzuki DR-Z400E, KTM's entire EXC range and Yamaha WR-F models will no longer be able to be registered for road use while manufacturers such as Kawaski have already decided to not import their brand's latest dual-sport models such as the new KLX300s due to their lack of ABS options.

The Grey Area

As with many things there is a grey area to this argument with some of motorcycling’s most popular models sitting somewhere in between the above definitions. Bikes like the Kawasaki KLR650, Honda CRF250/300L Rally and SWM Superdual straddle the lines between a dual-sport and a traditional adventure machine.

These bikes often still utilise a single-cylinder powerplant but feature touring amenities such as factory-supplied windscreens and in some cases, even factory-supplied luggage.

They're not the perfect adventure machines but often bring to the table a competitive alternative to the large capacity behemoths of the class while also offering high levels of off-road ability.

So What Is An Adventure Bike?

So with all that said, what is an adventure bike? At it’s heart, it’s a bike that lets its rider get out and explore backroads with ease. To put it another way:

Any bike that is designed to ride off sealed roads and allow the rider to explore is an adventure bike.


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