There’s no doubt that the road calls to every motorcyclist, but dirt can call too! Motorcycling is one of the most fun and versatile hobbies out there. Our two-wheeled machines can take us on a variety of adventures, including off-road ones.
You don’t need a dedicated “dirt bike” to do Adventure (ADV) riding. With the right amount of preparation and a few easy modifications, almost any standard road bike can be used to enjoy the beautiful scenery and incredible memories that adventure riding has to offer.
Motorcycle Adventure Riding: Transitioning from Road to Dirt
1. Motorcycle – Modifications and Maintenance Changes
Any motorcycle adventure typically begins with a motorcycle… and luckily for street riders everywhere, modifying your bike to begin introductory ADV riding is relatively easy. A few key areas to start with are:
- Tires: The only thing separating you from the road, or in this case, dirt. Adventure riding will require you to purchase some form of more aggressive tire for your motorcycle. These unique patterns will offer you more grip in the dirt (standard street tires can become packed with dirt quickly, and will lose traction). Most major tire manufacturers will offer a street/ADV option for riders, and it’s important to choose the best option for both your bike and off-road plans.
Check with manufacturer specifications first, but decreasing your tire PSI by at least 5-10 any time you transition from road to dirt can increase your traction and stability. Most motorcycles can handle a PSI as low as even 15 for aggressive conditions (sand or mud). This is one of the most important things a road-to-dirt rider can do, and is a great confidence and safety booster.
- Suspension: Softer springs and lighter fluid. This modification is about as easy and you make it. Many riders begin by simply lightening their spring tension, but you can go as far as the full fluid replacement and spring change.
- Upright Bars: For some bike styles, not changing out your bars can be a safety issue, but for others, it may only be a matter of comfort. When riding ADV riders must be able to comfortably stand on the pegs through adverse conditions. This puts weight lower on the bike, stabilizing it (and minimizing impact to the rider).
- Optional Changes: Some modifications aren’t required, but simply make life easier! Switching out your seat with a more comfortable or lower touring model, adding luggage or gas containers, or purchasing frame sliders and handguards are all steps you can take to increase your road bike’s dirt-worthiness.
If you begin occasionally riding dirt or ADV trails with your road bike, your maintenance type won’t change much, but your frequency will. More exposure to dust means your air filter will need more frequent changing, and your chain will need to be lubricated more often.
Increase vibrations from bumpy trails mean it’s important to monitor your bike more closely for loosening bolts or friction areas.
2. Dirt Gear
Luckily if you’re just beginning to test dirt (ADV) riding with your road bike, most of your road gear will work too. Some other gear options to explore are:
Dirt bike Helmet + Goggles: Most of your riding on the dirt will be at lower speeds than when your ride on the road. For this reason, a dirt bike helmet/goggle combination can help increase airflow while decreasing fogging.
Boots: If you don’t have over-the-ankle boots for riding on the road (which you really should anyway) you’ll absolutely need them for riding dirt. The additional grip that dirt or dirt/road hybrid boots also provide can be a huge help while standing on your bike’s pegs and navigating challenging terrain as well. Some boots to consider are the Alpinestars Tech T and Sidi Adventure Rain.
- Textile Jacket/Pants: Not many things are more uncomfortable than wearing wet leather, and when you’re riding dirt there’s a greater likelihood that you’ll be exposed to the weather (and less likelihood that you’ll be able to get away from it quickly). Textile gear sets are often lightweight, compact, reflective, waterproof, and an all-around great choice for both road and dirt.
- Camera System: Going off-road usually brings you to amazing scenery and stopping points that most people will only see on Google Maps. Use a helmet-mounted action camera to capture all those views and share with friends. You can also use mobile apps like Relive to create stunning videos of your journey with added images, video clips and riding milestones.
- Water/Emergency pack: Any time you set off on a dirt adventure it’s important to have not only essentials for your bike, but for yourself too. This should include some sort of emergency kit, possible emergency bike needs (puncture kit and portable compressor), and water/food. Pro tip: if you’re planning a longer ride a Camelbak makes for a great way to stay hydrated while on the bike.
3. Finding Trails
So you’re all set to ride, next is up is figuring out where to! Getting started on dirt trails and plugged into the ADV community can be as easy as a few mouse clicks…
- Apps: A few key apps can help you plug in and plan your next (or first!) ADV trip. These include iOverlander, which provides user-generated recommendations, route notes, lodging options, and more. Maps.Me is an open-source offline map resource, Wikiloc and ADV Tracks can be downloaded straight to your GPS. Additional popular apps and websites include Tracks Africa, Trans America Trail, Gravel Travel (Canada), and Trans Europe Trail.
- Websites: Most local departments of natural resources will have off-road routes and park information. If you’re looking for places to ride and/or people to ride with, online forums can be a great place to connect and make plans as well. Some of the most popular ADV websites include BackCountry Discovery Routes, ADVrider.com, and WorldCrosser.
- Schools + Courses: If you’re brand new to riding on anything other than pavement then an ADV school might be a wise initial investment. ADV Pulse provides a global map of adventure/off-road schools, and most states and cities have additional schools at the local level. These can be a great place to get the best information about nearby trails as well.
- Companies: Around the world there are touring companies that provide ADV travel adventures, and some even provide bikes! These ADV-specific touring companies include RideADV, Edelweiss Bike Travel, and Rawhyde Adventures
- Events: Every country has local ADV rallies, events, and races. If you’re getting a bit more serious about ADV riding, these are a great way to meet up with clubs, push yourself, and make new friends.
As with anything new, start off slowly and with easier trails. Keep in mind that you may need permits or trail passes for specific areas.
4. Riding Style Modifications
From the moment your tires first cross from the pavement onto the dirt your riding style will need to change. Your riding style modifications should include at least these 3 major changes:
- Body Positioning: When Riding ADV you will need to adjust your body positioning based on what terrain you’re navigating. For example, moving your weight back during water crossings, mud, sand, or while riding downhill.
Standing on the pegs can be used to stabilize the bike in loose gravel, hills, rocks, and other challenging areas. Learning how to unload your front suspension with a “mini wheelie” can be extremely useful for obstacle crossing as well.
Being able to adjust your riding style is a crucial part of ADV riding safety. If you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with these body position basics start off by investing in an off-road school or course. See point 3 above on how to find a class near you.
- Cornering/Obstacle Navigation: Unlike road riding when you lean to the inside of turns, on dirt the bike will lean and move under you while you stay upright.
- Clutch/Throttle Control: At low speeds and in challenging conditions, your clutch and throttle coordination will be essential. Many ADV riders will ride with two fingers covering the clutch at all times.
More advanced riders can also use a back brake steering technique to negotiate turns while riding. When you apply the back brake in dirt, the back tire will begin to slide — you can use this slide to aim your bike where you would like to turn, or while navigating sharp corners. Be careful not to slide too sharply though as the back tire can slide out completely, causing a crash.
Which is a great reason to bring up our next point… before you set off on your first ADV motorcycle adventure, practice the proper form of picking up your motorcycle from the ground. You will undoubtedly (and most likely at very low speeds) crash at some point while riding off-road. It’s a normal part of learning, and it’s important to know how to recover from it without causing injury.
5. General Tips
As with any kind of riding, it’s important to plan ahead and make safe choices. Pick a trail that matches your bike. For example, if you have a Goldwing with 50/50 tires, it’s likely not a good idea to try advanced river crossings and large rocky trail areas.
Try to never ride alone when you first begin, and if you have to, ensure that you let someone know where you will be, for how long, and activate GPS tracking on your phone or bike so they can follow your progress. If you’ll be out of cellphone range, provide a mapped route of where you will be.
It’s important to pick easy trails when you first begin. Check the weather just before you ride to make sure you’re not caught by surprise, and most importantly, trust your instincts. If an area seems dangerous, turn back and pick a different trail.
Most importantly, have fun while staying safe! Get great photos and video documentation of your ride and memories with friends, keep a log of your adventures, and make plans for fun future trips. Like all motorcycling, ADV riding is challenging, fun, and fulfilling.
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