Some riders use the terms dual sport bike and adventure bike interchangeably. Others believe there is a clear line in the sand between the two. With the wide range of motorcycles available today that are capable of going off-road as well as get you there on the tarmac, how do you know whether a motorcycle is a dual sport or an adventure motorcycle?
Dual sport bikes are lighter, have smaller engines (up to 650 cc) and are generally more suited to off-road conditions. Adventure bikes, on the other hand have big, powerful engines of 650 cc or more, are much heavier and feature electronic rider aids that make them safer and more comfortable touring on pavement.
Those are the general differences if you absolutely have to draw a distinction, but with modern bikes the lines are increasingly blurred. Before we look at 26 examples of dual sport/adventure bikes and where they fit in, lets chat about the differences between dual sport and adventure bikes that are often sited.
The Main Difference Between Dual Sport and Adventure Bikes
I believe the difference between dual sport and adventure motorcycles are academic and theoretical. If you want adventure on a motorcycle, all you need is two wheels. We’ve traveled thousands of miles through Africa on small Chinese delivery bikes without any issues. For a complete post of why I think small motorcycles are better than adventure (or ADV) bikes, read this post.
That said, many believe there is a difference between what is classified as a dual sport motorcycle and an adventure bike. If you absolutely have to know into which category a particular bike belongs, then read on.
The difference between dual sport and adventure bikes can be seen in two different ways:
- all bikes that are capable of street riding and going off-road, are classified as dual sport motorcycles, with adventure bikes being a sub-category of dual sport bike that are more biased toward fast, highway touring; or
- all the bikes capable of both street and dirt riding, falls on a scale rather than a binary ‘this’ or ‘that’ bucket. With dual sports on the one side, being lighter, more off-road orientated and having small capacity engines, and adventure bikes on the other, with bigger engines geared for the highway.
Most riders treat the distinction between dual sport and adventure bikes in this latter way. So before we dive into the detail of each type of motorcycle, check out the table below for a summary of the general features of each category.
|Engine displacement||650 cc or less||650 cc or more|
|Gas tank capacity||Small, short range (<150 miles)||Large, long range (200+ miles)|
|Body panels||Soft plastic, don’t damage easily||Easily scratched, expensive repairs|
|Luggage||Limited space, light frame||More space, strong frame|
|Front wheel||21 inch||19 or 21 inch|
|Ground clearance||High||Lower than DS|
|Gearing||Low (for trails)||High (for highway speed)|
|Tyres||Off-road||Road (can replace with off-road)|
|Seat||Motorcross style, high seat||Molded and comfortable|
|Electronic rider aids||Few to none||Some to many|
It is important to remember that some bikes that are classified as dual sport bikes, may have some features from the adventure bike column, and vice versa. Honda Powersports in the U.S., for instance, lists the Honda XR 650 L on both the Dual Sport page as well as the Adventure page. In another country, I’ve found Honda listing both categories of bikes under “Dual Purpose”.
Features of Dual Sport and Adventure Bikes
Next let us have a look at the features that distinguish dual sport bikes from ADV motorcycles.
Number of cylinders
Dual sport motorcycles generally only have one cylinder making them simpler and therefore easier and cheaper to maintain. If something does go wrong, there is less of it to do so and as a result dual sport bikes may be seen as more reliable for long distance touring to remote corners of the developing world. Having only one cylinder results in more noise and vibration, especially at highway speeds.
Most adventure bikes have twin-cylinder engines. This means they can reach higher RPM for more comfortable cruising at the national speed limit. They are also much more powerful than singles with less vibration. Some adventure bikes have three cylinders, like the Triumph Tiger line-up. More cylinders tend to increase the weight of the bikes. Multi-cylinder engines are more complex and require more specialized skills to repair if something does go wrong.
Dual sport bikes usually have an engine size from around 250 cc up to 650 cc. Very few dual sport singles have bigger engines, with the most popular being the old Suzuki DR Big from the late 80’s with its 750 cc, and later 800 cc single cylinder engines. Most manufactures at some stage produced a 650 cc dual sport motorcycle and they are still very popular for long adventure bike trips. With around 45 hp, they have just enough power to keep riding all day at 75 mph on the highway. It is a tiring affair, but possible.
At the smaller end of the scale, ADV bikes start at around 800 cc. Some 650 cc twins may be classified as adventure bikes, but it is a grey area not worth debating about. Most true adventure bikes (it you insist they exist) have engines of between 800 cc and 1 300 cc. This means they are powerful and quick. The KTM 1290 Super Adventure R has 160 hp of power and 140 Nm of torque. That is a lot for anything weighing 600 lbs.
One of the main differences between dual sport and adventure bikes is their weight. The biggest draw card of the dual sport class is their lower weight. A lighter bike means less is required from the rider when the going gets tough. It is much easier to control a 400 lbs dual sport in the sand or over rocks, than a 700 lbs ADV motorcycle. Dual sport bikes are lighter due to having smaller engines and less safety equipment.
Most adventure bikes weigh at least 500 lbs and the bigger ones can easily exceed 600 lbs without luggage or rider. Not only are these big bikes more difficult to keep upright once you lose your balance standing still, but to pick it up after the inevitable tumble requires skills that needs to be practiced. Most dual sport bikes can easily be picked up by one person without much effort.
Gas tank capacity
Factory gas tanks on most dual sports aren’t much bigger than 4 gallons. Some manufactures were more generous like the legendary Kawasaki KLR 650 or the Yamaha XT 660 Z, both with 6 gallon tanks. Luckily, aftermarket tanks are available for most dual sport bikes from companies like Acerbis. My first bike, an old 1980 Yamaha XT 500, had a massive 9 gallon custom tank in the place of its original 2.6 gallon tank. I could easily reach 400 miles or more on a tank of gas.
While some adventure bikes also only have 4 gallon tanks, most manufacturers have an adventure model in the range with a larger tank. The difference in tank size between the standard BMW F 850 GS and the GS Adventure is 2 gallons. Similarly, upgrading from the standard BMW R 1250 GS to the GS Adventure stretches the tank from 5.3 to 8 gallons. This means you can ride further on a tank of gas without carrying extra fuel. This is very useful on a long adventure bike trip where gas stations may be few and far between in some developing countries.
If you have to carry extra gas on your adventure bike trip, check out my post on 4 popular ways to safely carry extra fuel on a motorcycle.
The standard windscreens on most dual sport bikes are rudimentary at best. This is fine for slower riding on dirt roads and great for dropping the bike without damaging it. At highway speeds you will have to crouch to get out of the wind and to prevent the peak of your dual sport helmet to give you a stiff neck. Luckily, aftermarket screens are available. You’ll also be taking frequent breaks anyways, due to the noise and vibration from the single cylinder bouncing up and down with the tacho close to the red-line.
The shape of an adventure bike is unmistakable due to its tall windscreen. Just as well, as you’ll easily be cruising way above the speed limit with the amount of power at your disposal. This makes adventure bikes much more comfortable on the highway where you can sit upright without your head buffeting in the wind. Less noise and vibration will have you do more miles without the need to take a breather. Many modern adventure bikes have adjustable windscreens which can be raised and lowered as you vary your cruising speed.
Body panels damage, scratch or break when you drop your bike. You will drop your bike at some stage, either from not focusing while standing still or by taking a tumble in sand or crawling over loose rocks. When this happens, a dual sport bike is much less likely to get damaged due to its smaller, soft plastics.
Adventure bikes, on the other hand, have hard plastic covers that may crack with glossy paintwork that will scratch if you drop it. A low speed crash on an expensive adventure bike may result in a repair bill of thousands of dollars.
I dropped my 2007 KLR 650 dual sport so many times and the only real repairs I made to the sun-faded body panels were zip-tying them back on. I sold the bike like that without the new owner so much as questioning it.
The whole point of dual sport and adventure bikes alike, is being able to tour long distance on them. Dual sport machines have lighter frames that cannot take the same amount of weight as the larger adventure bikes. While you can fit hard luggage to dual sport bikes, on some bikes you are better off bracing the frame if you do. I always used soft luggage on mine which can be simply thrown over the saddle. It is more difficult to overload a bike with saddlebags, as they will tear before your frame will collapse. For a whole range of hard and soft luggage bags, check out Viking Bags’ extensive range.
Big adventure bikes all have the option of large hard luggage boxes and their frames were designed with this in mind. While the re-enforced frames add weight, it allows you to add even more without risking a broken sub-frame. That does not mean they are indestructible and I’ve seen accounts of broken frames on bigger bikes. It is, however, usually as a result of overloading and/or crashing it.
Front wheel size
Dual sport bikes generally have large front wheels, often 21 inches in diameter. This makes it easier to clear obstacles and more comfortable on uneven gravel roads. These narrow, large wheels result in less direct steering on twisting tar roads and can make them feel unstable at speed. Many adventure bikes only have 19 inch front wheels to make them handle better on pavement. Some adventure bikes, like BMW’s F 850 GS Adventure model has a 21 inch front wheel, but even the mighty BMW R 1250 GS Adventure runs an 19 inch up front.
As a result of the large front wheel and long travel suspension, dual sport bikes have higher ground clearance. This makes them more capable off-road without the risk of damaging vital parts under the bike.
Big adventure bikes are lower in order to ensure better stability at high speeds and more secure steering on tarred mountain passes. The much heavier weight also contributes to a lower ground clearance. Luckily, most adventure bikes come out with belly pans to protect the underside of the bike from rocks and obstacles. While factory skid plates are not always durable, there are numerous aftermarket protection plates available form companies like Touratech.
In order to promote low-end grunt on rough terrain, dual sport bikes tend to have lower gearing. Not quite as low as dirt bikes though. This results in a lower top speed. Smaller dual sports will top out around 80 mph while many 650 cc singles will red-line in top gear around 100. Some riders replace the front sprocket with a slightly larger one for more relaxed highway touring.
Adventure bikes are geared much higher. The big twin-cylinder engines are powerful enough to move the heavy chassis in a taller gear, and this makes them fast and comfortable at the same time. Some ADV bikes suffer in slow, technical terrain as a result. I remember how a KTM 950 Adventure rider simply gave up half-way through a rider training course I attended. He just couldn’t keep his bike from stalling at crawling pace. BMW fixed this by lowering the gear ratio in first on its Adventure models.
Tire are obviously an item that gets replaced fairly soon after purchasing a new bike, so it really depends on the rider. It is still worth noting, however, that most modern adventure bikes (the big powerful twins) roll out the showroom on street tires. That doesn’t mean many buyers don’t immediately swap them out for Continental TKC‘s.
The different types of seats is maybe one of the more distinct differences between dual sport and adventure bikes.
Dual sport bikes tend to have flat, hard seats closer to those on dirt bikes. This make it easier for the rider to move around on the bike when navigating tricky off-road situations. This also makes them butt-breaking during long hours in the saddle. This is one of the aspects that riders often complain about on long trips. Seat heights are also taller on most dual sport bikes, making it inaccessible for shorter riders.
Adventure bikes excel at refining the ergonomics of the riding position. The modern ADV motorcycles have molded seats that are designed to keep both rider and pillion more comfortable on longer trips. Many offer seats that can be lowered to accommodate shorter riders or to ensure that you can keep both feet planted firmly next to the bike.
Electronic rider aids
Generally, dual sport bikes are very simple with little to no electronics. Some models have ABS brakes, a requirement on all new bikes these days and older dual sports were considered advanced if they had fuel injection.
Adventure bikes are getting more and more complicated each year. Most have had ABS and traction control for years and many now feature cruise control and different rider modes. With these modes the rider can chose the throttle response and the level of intervention from the traction control and ABS systems. Some even have electronically adjustable suspension.
For a post on which modern adventure bikes have cruise control from the factory, check out this post.
Other types of bikes used for adventure bike touring
Like I mentioned earlier, the categories of bikes used for adventure touring is more of a scale than a line in the sand. If you move all the way over to the dual sport side… a little further still… until you drop off the end, you will find enduro bikes.
These are basically dirt bikes that are street legal. A great example of a factory enduro bike is the KTM 690 Enduro R. I mean, it says so on the side. Enduro bikes are lightweight and have narrow seats, making them perfect for serious off-road riding. The KTM 690 Enduro R has a claimed dry weight of only 322 lbs. Just to show how blurred the lines between the different types of bikes really are, this KTM features ABS and traction control.
What many riders do is take a proper endurance racing bike, like a KTM 525 EXC, Honda CRF 450 R or Yamaha WR 450 F and make it street legal. The advantages of touring on a bike like this is the super light weight and off-road capabilities. The downside: lower cruising speed (with standard gearing), more regular oil changes and valve clearance adjustments, and less space for luggage. Oh, and a numb backside. That does not stop Round The World Paul from riding his KTM 500 EXC anywhere and everywhere.
Some riders fit taller rally screens with integrated LED head-lights and navigation systems to make the bike look like a Dakar-style race bike. This can be done to most dual sport or enduro bikes and offer better wind protection and more space to mount a GPS or 12V electrical socket. Other mods like upgraded suspension and shocks are useful if you want to load all your camping gear onto a lightweight bike for long distance adventure touring.
While these upgrades mostly make the bikes look cool, it does have practical value too if done properly. Apart from modifying your bike for a RTW tour, you can also go all out an actually build a rally racing bike. That’s what the guys over at Lyndon Poskitt Racing in the UK does.
Are these 26 motorcycles Dual Sport or Adventure Bikes?
Instead of discussing all the popular bikes in the dual sport or adventure class that can be used for both on and off-road touring, I’ve mapped them on the diagram below. Some of you might disagree about some of the classifications, which just proves how grey the area is. Below the image I discuss a few of the bikes that were difficult to put into a clear category as well as my reasons for it.
The dual sport motorcycles were pretty straight forward and I am fairly comfortable with my classification. Some of the adventure bikes defined the class and clearly belong there, but I’ve included a few models that some may argue are street bikes. These include the Kawasaki Versys 1000, Suzuki VStrom 1000 and the Ducati 1260 Multistrada. The VStrom Adventure XT and Multistrada Enduro both have spoked 19 inch front wheels, similar to a BMW GS while the Kawa has a cast 17 inch made for street riding.
I’ve included two enduro bikes that are popular touring bikes among adventure riders. Both the Suzuki DRZ 400 and the KTM 690 Enduro R are very capable off-road and can cover long distances with a few mods for increased highway comfort.
Then there are six worth discussing separately. The Kawasaki Versys 650 and the Suzuki VStrom 650 are really street touring bikes with an upright riding position. With average suspension travel, lighter weight than their 1 000 cc cousins and a 19 inch front tyre on the VStrom, how bad can they be on gravel?
Smaller bikes are becoming more popular. The BMW G 310 GS and the Kawasaki Versys 300 may be little street bikes, but I can see many riders touring both on and off-road one these little quasi-adventure bikes. The baby Versys has a spoked 19 inch front wheel no less. You may not be able to fit big hard cases (maybe you can), but there are various other luggage options, like these.
Then the real head scratchers: the Yamaha Ténéré 700 and the KTM 790 Adventure R Rally.
Yamaha Ténéré 700
The old Yamaha XT 660 Z Ténéré leaned more toward the dual sport category with its single cylinder and zero electronic riders aids. It didn’t even have ABS brakes. The long-awaited Ténéré 700 (or T7) is powered by a 689 cc twin-cylinder motor and now has ABS thanks to stricter regulations.
Interestingly (and thankfully) Yamaha decided not to include rider modes, traction control or cruise control. This sets it apart from other modern adventure bikes. A nice touch is the fact that you can switch off ABS temporarily on the fly. In my humble opinion, the lack of electronic wizardly (that could leave you stranded in the plains on Mongolia) make the Ténéré the only true adventure bike for cross continental travel straight from the factory.
KTM 790 Adventure R Rally
The KTM 790 Adventure R Rally is a limited edition – only 500 will be produced – adventure (it is in the name!) bike. The Rally is based on the 790 Adventure R, but features hard-core suspension from WP Pro Components. It also has a “Rally” mode which gives you a more sporty throttle response than “Offroad” mode and allows you to adjust the rear wheel slip in 9 stages. You can also switch if off entirely.
While the Rally will be tough to beat if you are looking for a hardcore bike to have fun with on the trails, it would not be my first choice if I had to choose a bike to ride across Africa on my own. Apart from all the electronics that could potentially fail on you and require expert technicians to get going again, the racing nature could land you into trouble. Travelling far from civilization is very different from racing your biking buddies on the desert trails.
After doing some research and applying my mind to categorize the more popular bikes that are capable of dirt and pavement riding, I came to the follow conclusion: The difference between dual sport and adventure bikes is a semantics issue. Some riders are adamant that there is a clear difference and others use the terms interchangeably. In the end, is it really important who is right?
When we traveled 9 630 miles through Africa for 3 months, we had the choice of going on our dual sport bikes. In the end, we chose 200 cc Chinese delivery bikes (read more HERE).
Would that qualify as an adventure bike trip? Who cares!