So, you're not planning on taking on a thousand mile trek across roadless Mongolia, climb the Rockies on single track, or cross the United States on the Trans America Trail (TAT). Still, you might want to ride a few miles down that gravel road that you've always wondered about where it went or take some of those intriguing Forest Roads up in the Pisgah National Forest. Even on an epic ride to Alaska, out of ten thousand miles you may only be riding one-tenth of the distance off road.
For you, maybe it doesn't make sense to buy a purpose-built off road bike when over ninety-five percent of the time you are going to be on tarmac, either via America's network of US, State, and County Roads or via the Interstate system. Still, wouldn't it be nice to take an off road adventure once in a while?
You don't have to ride round the world to be an adventure rider; there are many opportunities to challenge yourself without logging thousands of miles off the asphalt. Maybe a big, heavy cruiser, tipping the scales at 800 pounds, won't be the best choice for adventure riding, but there are many things you can do to a stock, mid-sized standard or Universal Japanese Motorcycle (UJM) that makes tackling two track and gravel back roads much easier and is relatively easy to fit it out for rides to far away or out-of-the-way places. And, you don't have to break the bank to do it.
My modern mount of choice is a 2011 Bonneville T100, but many of these modifications can be done to any number of other mid- to light-weight machines. Some are a good idea to do even if you already have a dual sport or dirt bike.
The first obvious task is to choose the right tires. While I've ridden on gravel on the stock Metzeler Lasertecs that come on the T100, they are not ideal. Along with the desire for more dirt road friendly tires I was also not happy with the mere 6,000 miles I got out of a rear Metzeler. There are many choices when it comes to dual sport tires (dual sport—remember, you are not planning on climbing the backside of Pikes Peak by mountain goat paths.) Usually, tire sellers will list the percentage of street to dirt for which a tire is intended. I looked at everything from 60/40 street/dirt to 95/5. The 60/40s are cool looking, but realistically I am only likely to be riding five percent, if that, off road. I settled on a set of Pirelli Scorpion Trails, which are 95/5 tires. If you live in an area where your opportunities for more off pavement riding abound then you might opt for a 90/10, or 70/30. Because, if this is also your bike for commuting and doing road trips, you don't want to sacrifice too much durability or handling on the street. The Pirellis I chose turned out to handle even better than my stock tires on the street and I was happy to find that tread life was greatly extended. I am at the end of my first rear Scorpion Trail and I have had over 14,000 happy miles on this tire—win!
Dual sport tires can make riding off pavement much easier.
Some bikes will have obvious weak points for adapting them to dirt riding. The Bonnie's Achille's heel was the rear brake caliper, which hung precariously close to the ground under the swing arm. I found a relocation kit that moved it to the top of the swing arm and didn't require new brake lines. This is one of the most practical changes I have made and it does not involve any compromises for street riding. My kit cost about $125.
This image shows the stock position of the rear brake caliper. Compare it to the photo above and you can see how less vulnerable the top of the swing arm mount is.
Speaking of the lower extremities of the motorcycle, one often vulnerable part is the bottom of the engine sump, which is just sitting there a target for flying rocks and debris as you negotiate your way through gravel. There, again, are many choices for protecting this area. Twisted Throttle sells them for many bikes. I am not too concerned with the engine coming down onto large rocks as much as I am about a small rock being kicked up and knocking a hole in the sump. I made a simple bash plate out of aluminum diamond plate I had laying around. You need something fairly thick and if you can get quarter inch thick plate, all the better. I simply cut and bent the sheet so that it would cover the most vulnerable part of the motor's underside. It probably would not stand up to the bike dropping onto very large rocks, but for flying debris it will work fine and even in an extreme event, it is better than not having anything there and would probably reduce the amount of damage that might occur.
Protecting the side of the motor and shift and brake levers in a drop is also a concern. My Hepco-Becker bars cost a bit, about $300, probably my most expensive purchase. The nice thing is that on the highway, on that long road trip to get to where I might want to get off the street, they are a convenient place to add foot pegs which give me an alternative after sitting in the same position for hours in the saddle. They also are handy places where small PVC tubes could be added to store spare bulbs, small tools, or tire irons. Not long after I bought mine, of course, New Bonneville offered another brand for half the cost!
Here you can see both the crash bar and home-made bash plate.
Even a hard-core adventure trip usually requires a long road trip to just “get there,” so you will probably want some place to store your stuff—clothes, tools, electronic equipment, and camera. A rear rack is a nice platform for a tail bag where stuff you might need quickly can be stashed. And if you use fabric panniers, like I do, you need something to keep them off the moving parts of the bike, like the shocks. I rectified that situation too late on my Bonnie and have the scars on the front and back side of my bags to show for it. If you have the money for them, you can get robust bars for the sides of the rear of almost any bike, which can either support your soft bags or to which you can attach hard bags. These also give the side of the bike some protection should you fall (and if your dirt riding involves sand at all, you will fall). I could afford neither the heavy pannier bars or the side case, so I opted to make my own standoffs to keep my soft bags off the shocks. All it takes is some bar stock, a simple welder (or someone you know who can weld), some flat stock for the brackets, a jigsaw with metal cutting blades and some ingenuity. All I wanted to do was protect the bags, so I bent some 5/16” solid bar, welded mounting lugs to the ends and bolted them onto the bike. Now the bags sit well clear of the bouncing springs and hang more upright. Those supports also give me more options for attaching Rokstraps or bungee cords to secure the gear stacked on the rear of the saddle.
Simple, home-made pannier supports.
Speaking of luggage, it is amazing how much you can get on the back of even a mid-sized bike. Weight is the biggest factor, so keep tools and heavier gear keep down low at the bottom of your saddlebags. But generally, you want to keep the load as light as possible. The heavier you are when you have to cross that sandy ditch the harder it will be. I find a combination of basic tank bag (with a clear map pocket on top), tail bag, saddlebags, and top bag sitting on the rear of the saddle between the saddlebags works well and can accommodate a lot of gear. All my bags have rain covers, and so should yours, or they should be rain proof right out of the box. Bulky but light stuff, like my sleeping bag and pad, go into compression sacks and then into a dry bag that I strap above the top bag and in front of the tail bag. The tent, camp stool, and tripod get strapped to the ”shelves” formed to the sides of the top bag and the to of the saddlebags. This load is manageable and does not extend beyond my handlebars side to side or above the middle of my back behind me. I also have a magnetic tank bag right in front of me (I bought a pop up low-profile gas cap to allow it to sit more flat on the tank.) which holds all sort of stuff I might want to get to quickly and, most importantly, has a clear map pocket on top. I've gone for weeks with just this setup and didn't feel the need for any more space. I do ride alone on these trips, so if riding two-up with a partner, well, good luck!
The Bonnie loaded and ready for an extended road trip.
Another thing that can make those long days on the paved road is a windscreen. Even a small one is a great help and reduces rider fatigue. Mine is a simple handlebar mounted National Cycle Deflector Screen DX. DX signifies quick release; with a spin of the mounting knobs I can pop it off in seconds in case I am off the road and don't need it or want it to get scratched up or damaged in case of a fall. It also doubles as the screen for my CB350, on which I have identical mounts.
Another, in my opinion, very important change for most bikes for long haul riding is a saddle upgrade. If you've ridden on a stock Bonneville saddle for hundreds of miles like I have, you will know what I am talking about. Not many bikes come with comfortable all day saddles and having the right one can make the difference between a mildly tired rider at day's end and one in pain. I swapped my stock saddle out for a Triumph “Queen and King” and it is as comfortable after six hundred miles as the stock one was after two hundred. There are lots of other brands available for many different bikes that promise more comfort than what the OEM usually provides.
If you are really hitting the trail for isolated areas far from home, where you may be own your own fixing a flat tire, you might consider adding a fender bag to the front fender (available from Aerostitch for less than $30) to hold a spare tube (bring one the size of your biggest wheel, and in a pinch you can use it for either front or back). This assumes you are running tubed tires. Either way, make sure to pack a repair kit and some means of inflating the repaired tire, even if it is just a bicycle frame pump. It might take you a while, but it will get you back on the road or trail…eventually. Also, a spare throttle cable and clutch cable zip-tied to the ones in use can save you much work should you have to do roadside repairs because of a broken cable, and this takes up no space.
For repairing tires, tensioning the chain, and for making sure you bike is parked securely without the risk of a sidestand sinking in and the bike falling over you might consider adding a center stand. Many bikes can be outfitted with one. Finding one was a bit of a challenge on the Bonneville because mine has Arrow two-into-one pipes and the standard Triumph one would not work. I checked other aftermarket models that had the same problem, but finally found a TEC stand that would work. Installing it was easy and it makes all sorts of maintenance chores easier.
Center stands make maintenance much easier. This one is from TEC.
Adventure riding often means being on roads less traveled, where fueling stations can be far apart. When I am on extended rides, I have two MSR bottles of extra fuel. I made some simple mounts for the holders out of wood and flat bar that attach to each passenger foot peg strut and keeps the bottle close at hand but out of the way. I carry a minuscule cooking stove that runs of regular gasoline, so these bottles serve double duty for storing cooking fuel and back up fuel for the bike. They are small and only provide about a half gallon between both of them, but that is equal to about twenty more miles of riding to the next gas station. On trips where fuel availability may be really a problem, I also have a Rotopax one gallon container that can be neatly mounted under the tail bag on the rear rack, giving me a “I've run out of gas” range combined with the bottles of at least sixty miles. That extends the Bonnie's range from 160 to 220 miles.
Here you can see one of the MSR bottles (about a quart each) mounted to the footpeg.
For more extended range I added this Rotopax one gallon container, which fits neatly underneath the tail bag.
On the road, and especially off, if you're caught out at night you are going to need light and lots of it to see your way ahead and to give you early warning of wild critters or walking people who might be sharing your pathway. That means either upgrading your existing lighting or adding auxiliary lights to your bike. Again, there are many options from different sellers ranging from forty dollars to five hundred. I added Model 30 auxiliary lights from ADVMonster, my favorite lighting vendor. The Model 30s are their least expensive LED offering and run about $100 for pair. You will also need a switch or dimmer to control them. I opted for the simple push-on push-off switch, for twelve dollars, and wired it directly into the lighting wiring for the headlight. You can opt for a dimmer, a rely to wire it through, etcetera, but a simple switch and direct wiring worked for me and I have left my Model 30s on ever since I mounted them. I can usually see other vehicles alright, but what I am concerned with is stuff crossing the road or at the edge of it about to jump out and ruin my night. I aim my right auxiliary light slightly to the right to illuminate the edge of the road and, likewise, aim the left a little to the right so it can have the job of illuminating the road or trail directly in front of the bike. With the lights adjusted this way, on the street I have not had drivers flashing their brights at me to induce me to quit blinding them. Another option, in place of or in addition to the auxiliary lights, is a brighter replacement headlight “bulb.” There are many alternatives available, from brighter, conventional halogen bulbs to LED replacements, which not only can provide more light, but also less draw on your alternator output. Finally, not for seeing as much as for being seen, there are replacements for the typical 1157-style tail light bulbs in LED which can further reduce your amperage draw, providing more light and more surplus power for other uses.
Model 30 LED auxiliary spots and H-4 replacement LED headlight from ADVMonster.com. This combination lights up the night and makes me much more visible to other motorists during the day.
Now that you've reduced the amp draw on your alternator output you might want to tap some of that reserve to power stuff. If you are going to be away for even a couple days, unless you make a habit of “camping out” at the Holiday Inn on your adventure rides, you will need a way to keep your electronics charged. Most of us carry a camera, sometimes a laptop for blogging from the road, a cell phone, and often a GPS, and they all need to either be plugged in to run or need periodic recharging. I have a pigtail from the battery hiding behind the frame tube I use to connect a Battery Tender Jr. when the bike is parked for any length of time and it can serve double duty to charge stuff by plugging a cigarette adapter when needed. I also have a plug that inserts into the cigarette lighter plug that has two USB outputs. I can throw things into the saddlebag while riding connected to this and have them ready for use when I stop. Besides that pigtail, I wired a twin USB outlet into the wiring so that it is turned off when the bike is off. It's no fun in the morning finding a dead battery and no way to start the bike! This is mounted on the handlebar and serves to power the GPS and cell phone as needed, which can be placed in the tank bag nearby and out of the weather.
Auxiliary power outlets.
Speaking of GPS, I use a common car-type and keep it in a handlebar-mounted case. For general navigation I prefer maps, but a GPS is handy to find a specific address, say of a campground, restaurant, or a gas station. The car-type GPS is pretty dim in the sunlight, but I don't care much. I can stop and check it when I need to and rely on the map for most of my navigation. So far I have resisted the urge to buy an expensive motorcycle specific unit. Those run over $600 typically, and that can pay for more nights on the road, instead, but if you have the coin and love all things electronic, then a proper motorcycle GPS could be mounted instead.
Another thing I have added to the Bonnie is a Scott Oiler unit. This is a drip a minute system that lubes the chain automatically. It is actuated by vacuum from the throttle bodies (or carburetors) and so when you stop the oiler stops. This system keeps the chain and rear of the bike much cleaner and extends chain life and intervals between chain tensioning. Once adjusted correctly, the worst fling I get is a few drops over a hundred miles on the rear fender, but the oil is much lighter than those spray lubes, so it wipes off very easily.
A Scottoiler is easy to install and extends the life of chain and sprockets and eliminates the need for messy chain sprays.
If you plan to do more extensive off highway excursion, you might consider progressive springs up front and high performance shocks on the rear. For extended riding and off highway adventures there are almost unlimited possibilities for modifying your bike or adding equipment to make the ride more enjoyable with less maintenance. These are just some of the things I have done to my Bonneville. Some may apply to other bikes and others may not, but I hope they will be useful to other riders wanting to add more adventure into their riding.