What is Adventure Motorcycle Riding?

The adventure motorcycle segment has been the bright spot in a slow motorcycle economy for the past several years, according to most industry sources. But what, exactly, is an adventure motorcycle? And what is adventure motorcycle riding?

Two adventure motorcycles: A BMW R-100 GS, and a Kawasaki KLR650

Two iconic adventure motorcycles, photographed near Lake Tahoe:
A well-traveled BMW R-100 GS, with a Kawasaki KLR650 in the background.


Adventure motorcycles

There aren’t any exact specifications to define the adventure motorcycle box and determine whether or not a particular bike fits into it. But there are some general characteristics that most adventure motorcycles share. Features like generous fuel range, ample suspension travel, and crash bars are common. Also an upright riding position, comfortable ergonomics, and a seat that works for long days and hundreds of miles. In recent years adventure bikes have also skewed toward more power and more weight. And like most motorcycles, they have become more complicated. This can tend to make them less capable on the dirt and more difficult to repair in remote places. But it does make them more suited for long-distance travel, especially riding two-up with luggage, and great for exploring paved back roads. And if the pavement starts to disappear, it doesn’t mean the ride has to end.

Some bikes will be better suited to particular conditions or styles of riding. A big late-model BMW GS, Triumph Tiger, or something similar will be a great choice for a few thousand miles on pavement of questionable quality with perhaps some gravel and a bit of dirt thrown in to keep it interesting. A lighter, simpler, dual-sport bike such as a Kawasaki KLR650 or Suzuki DR650 will probably be a better choice if the trip has a lot more dirt. The big KTM 990 Adventure has a boot firmly in both camps. And there are many more bikes that are great for exploring out-of-the-way places, even some not typically thought of as adventure motorcycles.

We would go so far as to say that almost any motorcycle can be an adventure motorcycle. Because adventure motorcycling is about riding to new places, seeing new things, meeting new people, and having new experiences.


Adventure motorcycle riding

Adventure motorcycle riding shares at least one trait with pornography: You’ll know what it is when you see it. But defining it ahead of time can be difficult. For some, adventure motorcycling means riding on dirt rather than pavement. And for some of those riders, it’s not really adventure unless the dirt is technical and challenging. The Dakar Rally might be the biggest technical challenge a motorcyclist could face. But unless you are Jimmy Lewis, you probably won’t be riding the Dakar. So there must be more to this adventure motorcycling thing than extreme off-road rally racing.

One of the things that defines adventure is purposefully facing the unknown and dealing with whatever it throws at you. So adventure motorcycling generally means being prepared to ride in lots of different weather conditions, handle mechanical mishaps on the side of the road, and mostly, not allow unexpected challenges to ruin your day. Or your entire trip.

The adventure will depend upon the experience, abilities, and expectations of the individual rider. We’ve met motorcyclists who ride every day in San Francisco, but rarely leave the city. For those folks, riding Highway 4 up over Ebbetts Pass for a weekend in the Sierra could be a very big adventure. For a rider used to uncrowded mountain roads and wide-open deserts, riding in Los Angeles commute traffic could be a definite challenge. Adventure is all around; you just have to go looking for it.

For us, the key word in adventure motorcycle riding is riding. It’s pretty tough to avoid adventure if you actually get out and ride. And the more you ride, the more adventure you will find. Building your experience and skills will set you up to seek out even more. Successful adventures are all about stretching the boundaries of your own comfort zone. If you are doing that on a motorcycle, then you are an adventure rider.


Adventure motorcycle travel

So, what is adventure motorcycle travel? We think it means setting off on your bike, ready for adventure, and riding away from the familiar roads of home for a few days. Or weeks. Or more. Like motorcycling, adventure travel is very much an independent experience. It’s not about packaged tours, cruise ships, fixed itineraries, or gift shops. Certainly, it could be riding your bike to the tip of South America, or across the Sahara. Unfortunately, for most of us in North America the realities of our world make big trips like that a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If we’re lucky. It’s just not feasible to take four months off work for an epic motorcycle trip across a dozen international borders.

But a four-day weekend? That’s doable. And that’s what the Carson / Tahoe Adventure Moto event is all about. We created it to show off some of the best—and most accessible—adventure motorcycle riding in the US. The Carson Valley is just a day’s riding from most of the major population centers in the West, so we are easy to get to. Once here, you’ll find great riding on some of the best roads anywhere, whether pavement or dirt. And if you can stretch your trip out a few days, the roads between our home and yours can turn your long weekend into a truly epic ride.

Look again at the photo at the top of this page. We found that obviously well-traveled BMW R-100-GS parked at Lake Tahoe during our 2012 event. It’s covered in road dirt and the panniers are a little battered, with lots of stickers from lots of exotic places. And the license plate is from a town on the Rhine River, in Germany. It’s most definitely an adventure bike and the rider is most definitely an adventure traveler. Who rode here, to our part of the world, on an epic trip.

We think that says a lot.

adventure motorcycle at Lake Tahoe

License plate from Rüdesheim, in Germany’s Rhine Gorge.
Seen on a BMW R-100 GS, traveling near Lake Tahoe.