Thread Rating:
  • 0 Vote(s) - 0 Average
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Guidelines For Choosing Off-road Motorcycles
ML has kindly furnished us with a reprint of two posts he made on the old ezBoard forum. Since this subject comes up occasionally it seems only logical to include ML's comments in the FAQ section so we don't lose them again.


From ML:

(The following material was originally posted in January of 2003 on the Hoods Woods Forum. Some small details have changed since then, but the majority of the information is still correct.)

* * * * *

A street-legal dirt bike (as opposed to a dirt-only machine) makes sense for a lot of us, for a couple of reasons. First, you don’t have to wait until the end of the world to ride the thing—you can use it around town or on trail rides to not only keep it in running condition, but to keep your skills up, too. In a street-legal configuration, it does largely eliminate the need to trailer it to your prime riding location, and it allows you to legally play what I think of as “connect the dots;” using short paved sections to link dirt trails, or to bail out of a dirt section to buy gas or go for help should a riding companion suffer something unexpected.

In terms of choosing a street-legal dirt bike, here are a couple of observations, drawn from someone who has spent a great portion of his life riding motorcycles as part of his profession.

First, I’d look for a four-stroke single cylinder from Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki or Kawasaki. This need not be a new motorcycle, but you do want one which is reliable.

For extended on-road highway use, the bike really needs to be at least 250cc. If you expect to do much riding in altitudes above 5000-6000 feet, a bike in the 400cc displacement class is nice, as all internal-combustion engines loose power as the air gets thinner (about a 30-40 percent power loss by 12,000 feet if I remember correctly). Generally, at present the largest single-cylinder off-road bikes are in the 650cc displacement category. These offer more power, and are generally more pleasant to ride at freeway speeds because you don’t need to ride them flat out to keep up with traffic. As the engines get bigger, though, the bike usually gets heavier, and becomes more challenging to ride off-road for a novice rider. So, depending on your skill level, I’d advise occasional riders to stick to the 250-400 class machines, while more skilled riders might opt for something bigger.

Next, I think you really need to decide if you want a true off-road bike, or a sort of dirt-road bike. If you’re talking about dirt fire roads, logging roads, etc., then the larger displacement bikes will do fine—even some old twin-cylinder streetbikes can be amazingly competent here. But if the roads are rutted, really steep, rocky, or you want to be able to ride on single-track trails, then you need something which was designed as a dirt bike or a “dual-purpose” or “dual-sport” bike.

Let’s define some terms here. Motorcycles designed to be ridden both on-road and off-road used to be called “enduros” or “dual-purpose” bikes, and now they’re called “dual-sport” bikes by the Japanese big four. Still, we’re fundamentally talking about dirt bikes with a horn, turn blinkers, and a license-plate holder. There are other differences as well, though. Compared with true dirt-only bikes, the dual-sports (and I’ll use only that term for them from now on) are generally 20-50 pounds heavier due to a battery, steel fuel tank, and other street-legal extras. They often have taller gearing in their transmissions as well—better for the highway, not as desirable for slow trails. Many newer dual-sport bikes also feature electric starters. This is a convenience around town, and so long as you keep them well maintained, they are about as reliable as the electric starters in your car (remember, you can generally “push-start” or “bump-start” a bike even if the starter fails). Just about every dual-sport model is set up to carry a passenger as well as the operator.

True dirt bikes are generally lighter for a similar displacement model, often have superior suspension, have shorter transmission- and final-drive gearing, and are often kick-start only. Kick-starting a large-displacement motorcycle is intimidating and frustrating to many (smaller bikes are generally easier to start), but like anything it is a skill which mere mortals can master. Almost without exception, these bikes are designed to carry a solo rider and no passenger.

There is a class of high-performance dirt-only bike—the motocross bike—which I generally do not recommend. Contemporary motocross bikes are truly incredible machines in terms of their performance and handling, but they tend to be more maintenance intensive and high strung. At present, the majority of the motocross bikes available are two-strokes, although this is changing, and there are more and more four-stroke MX bikes every year.

Now, in many states, one may take an off-road bike and make certain modifications which make it street-legal. Aftermarket vendors (Baja Designs is one of the best) make kits which often even include the paperwork you need to file with your local DMV. For serious riders, this is often the best of both worlds, as it gives them true dirt-bike performance with the street-legal convenience of a dual-sport.

Now, what would I recommend? Let me break this down according to brand and type:

Honda Dual-Sports


Honda Off-Road




Kawasaki Dual-Sport




KL250 Super Sherpa

Kawasaki Off-Road




Suzuki Dual-Sport



Suzuki Off-Road




Yamaha Dual-Sport



Yamaha Off-Road




If you visit the websites of those companies (listed at the end of this post), you’ll find more information and prices for all of these bikes.

Note, though, that like anything else, the prices can get pretty serious—close to $6000 for a brand-new 650-class machine, and you’ve got to factor in a helmet, other protective equipment, and some sort of cargo-carrying rack or saddlebag setup. So what does Your Man On The Left Coast keep stashed away?

It’s pretty unremarkable, but it’s utilitarian—and cheap. I have an old 1983 Honda XL350R dual-sport, which I bought 12 years ago for $500.

I’ve got a 21-year-old Honda CT110—the final iteration of the legendary Honda Trail 90. When I was involved with the CSUN survival program, we used to haul this to the mountains in the back of a van and use it to motor up trails looking for lost students. It only weighs 204 pounds, and comes with a dual-range transmission (like the transfer case in a four-wheel-drive truck), so it is really more off-road worthy than it might first appear. It’s small enough to lift onto a bumper rack or muscle into the back of a pickup without a ramp. These things just refuse to die, and while they’re not freeway legal, they’re quite utilitarian. It’s really sort of an off-road scooter rather than a real motorcycle, but it’s street-legal. Mostly, I like it because I can ride on railroad easements and it gets 103 miles per gallon if I do my part.

Stashed out of state at the top-secret ML retreat/bunker/tax shelter/refuge/toxic waste disposal site is a 1978 Honda XR250R with an expired license plate zip-tied to the rear fender. It’s got a pair of 20mm mortar ammunition cans bolted to a rack saddlebag-style over the rear wheel, and a couple of old GI combat packs that sling over the tank saddlebag-style, too. I think I paid $100 for that one, and it’s a real ratbike, but it blends in with the local machines perfectly. It’s sort of the SKS of motorcycles (needless to say, there’s an SKS stashed there too). There’s even a Honda FourTrax Foreman 400 ATV in the mix, used mostly for property maintenance.

Due to the nature of my profession, I have access to a variety of new street and dirt bikes pretty much at will, and in general there’s always one or two in my garage. I won’t bore anyone with those details other than to say that from a purely functional standpoint, the new stuff is all better than the old crap I actually own, and I’d take an new XR650L over any of it.

From the above cited examples, it should be clear that an inexpensive four-stroke will get the job done, even if it’s ten to 15 years old, although a new machine will almost always be more reliable. As with any older vehicle, though, condition is (almost) everything. Motorcycles which are operated off-road, while essentially simple vehicles, are more maintenance-intensive than most modern cars, and it is important that whatever bike you choose, new or old, be well maintained.

Two more things which I feel I do need to discuss. First, motorcycles are dangerous; so are knives, axes, and guns. As with so many things, your skill level, judgement, and the manner in which you operate them make all the difference, and you have to be honest with yourself in appraising your skills. After all, if you’re contemplating one as an item in your wilderness toolbox, you’ve got to make sure that you don’t gravely injure yourself while trying to survive. In addition, they’re capable of getting you deep, deep into some pretty remote country in a very short time. Consequently, if you do injure yourself back there, or if you encounter a mechanical problem which you’re not prepared to deal with yourself, you WILL be using that fine Woodsmaster training, like it or not.

Second, after protective equipment (helmet, eye protection, gloves, stout boots, etc.), experience, good judgement, and proper training, I think the one biggest physical advantage you can give yourself in this department is . . .


The tires on most dual-sport bikes really put you at a disadvantage in the dirt. Conversely, true dirt-bike knobbies wear exceptionally poorly on pavement and don’t grip well on the street either, especially under hard barking. But, of the two, the dirt is the more demanding environment traction-wise, so I run dirt-spec knobbies on all of the bikes I ride off-road. Yes, this increases stopping distance on the street, and they wear faster, but the tradeoff (for me) is worth it. More and more, you can find DOT-legal knobbies that are almost as good. Regardless, whatever decision you make here, for God’s sake, don’t put yourself at such a disadvantage that you shove a broken rib through a lung 25 miles from a paved road.

Off-road motorcycles are a fantastic way to explore a great deal of the world you might not normally see. Yes, there are ecological issues, and one must ride responsibly, just as one must shoot responsibly or drink responsibly. And no, you probably won’t see as much detail as you will on foot. Like all motor vehicles, they may intrude on others’ wilderness experience. But this isn’t an either/or proposition—you don’t (and shouldn’t) give up by-foot travel because you choose to learn to ride a motorcycle, any more than you choose to abandon on-foot travel simply because you drive your car to the trailhead.

Leaning to ride a dirt bike or an ATV with some facility, like learning to pilot a small boat or canoe, or ride a horse, or learning first-aid, should be part of every well-prepared outdoorsman’s (and –woman’s) skillset, just as learning to operate an automobile with a standard transmission should be. You don’t have to devote your life to it, but it is definitely useful to familiarize yourself with the machines and to build some expertise.

Website links:









Baja Designs


Best Regards,


* * * * *

Some thoughts:

In general, I’d advise anyone with limited experience and who chooses to start ride down this dirt-bike/dual-sport path to start small. And by that, specifically I mean to consider acquiring a used, single-cylinder four-stroke dirt-worthy motorcycle in the 125cc range, and certainly no larger than a 250. Don’t think of this as your ultimate survival bike; think of it as your training bike. The outlay should also be small—in the hundreds of dollars for a used example rather than in the thousands. Six months’ worth of riding will do two very important things: First, you’ll discover whether a dirtbike will really do the things you want and need it to do in the context of this discussion. And second, you’ll build the skills you need to ride a larger, more capable bike.

Six months or a year down the line, you’ll probably be able to sell the small bike for what you paid for it, so your out-of-pocket expense is really nil.

A motorcycle which is too heavy or powerful is a disservice to the novice—it’s akin to teaching someone to shoot by using a .458 Winchester Magnum instead of a .22—the power, weight, and intimidating characteristics of the machine work against learning proper technique.

Well-documented research indicates that dual-sport bikes are ridden about 85 percent of the time on pavement and 15 percent of the time in the dirt. Hence, logic would seem to indicate that they should be biased 85/15 street/dirt in their construction, right?

Well, it doesn’t work out that way. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. The 15 percent of dirt usage is way more demanding than the 85 percent of blacktop droning. Following that same logic, if a lifeboat spends 99 percent of its time hanging from the davits and only 1 percent of its time in the water, then it doesn’t need to be very seaworthy, does it? In reality, it probably needs to be more seaworthy than the parent ship, because if you need to put a lifeboat in the water, you’re already in trouble deep.

So it is with dual-sport motorcycles. The dirt places far more demands on their capabilities than the street, and they need to be designed with that bias in mind. None of them are going to be a huge amount of fun if you need to ride for three hours on Highway 395 to get into the mountains—that’s more a matter of simple endurance.

On the other hand, once you get them in the dirt, you’ll find them a great way to cover territory fast, and to explore areas which you might not take your four-wheeled vehicle.

And one final, final observation. In many years spent outdoors and many years riding motorcycles, I have to say that I have seen far more people hurt on bikes than in the woods, so if you are going to ride, be careful, and build your skills deliberately.

Some day, you may come across some doddering old fart with a monstrous pack advancing up the trail with the speed of a tectonic plate. Look down at his feet, and you’ll notice that one size-12 boot has three small bells tied into the laces, while the other boot has four small bells. The three are to remind me of three close friends killed on motorcycles, and four of that number lost in the mountains.

It would be very good if nobody reading any of this ends up as another bell on my climbing boot.

* * * * *

Hope that old stuff was of some interest.


Of all the things I've lost, I think I miss my mind the most.

Forum Jump:

Users browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)