Big or Small? What Makes an Ideal Adventure Bike?

The adventure bike market is huge and probably the biggest growing segment in the motorcycle industry today. While adventure riding has been around for decades, it has recently undergone a renaissance of sorts thanks to a certain television series featuring the BMW R 1200 GS. Now, every company wants in on the action.

That’s because adventure bikes are normally priced at the upper end of the scale, which generally means more profit margins. But are riders missing the obvious here? Instead of spending huge wads of cash on bikes that come with all the latest technology and gadgets, why not settle for a humble dual sport – essentially a dirt bike that can legally be ridden on and off road?

For a new dual sport, you’ll probably be forking out less than half the amount of money for a machine that’s arguably more capable of adventure riding. Or is it? We decided to take a look at that supposition – for adventure riding are you better off on a smaller, cheap(er) dual sport, or a big, more expensive ADV bike?The KTM 1190 Adventure R is powerful, but is that power needed?

The KTM 1190 Adventure R is powerful, but is that power needed?

For the purposes comparison, we’re going to focus on two specific motorcycles just to help us see real numbers and specifications – although the comparison could equally apply to similar machines. Those two bikes are the Yamaha WR250R and the BMW R 1200 GS – both are regarded (arguably) as among the best in their respective categories. The WR250R has long been classed as the best dual sport machine in the market, while the 1200 GS is a sales success and has no doubt inspired many an individual to purchase an adventure bike.

But if your purpose is to actually ride a wide variety of surfaces and conditions, which is better? The roughly 1200 GS with all its gadgets and glamour or the far cheaper and more humble WR250R? And regardless of the specific bike your’re looking at, is big or small better?


The Yamaha WR250R weighs only 295 lb (about 133 kg) fully fueled.

Here, smaller bikes win, no question. Heavier ADV bikes are less able to take on technical trails which means that your choice of where and what you can see are reduced. We’re not saying it’s impossible for an ADV bike to overcome, it’s just far easier and more within the grasp of mere mortals on a dual sport. And given the difficulties in some types of terrain, when you eventually do go down you’ve sometimes got double the weight to pick up.

Yamaha’s WR250R weighs only 133 kg (295 lb) as opposed to the R 1200 GS’s 256 kg (564 lb). That’s a massive difference and while there are big adventure bikes that do weigh less, they’re pretty much all tipping the scales at well over 200 kg.


Most small capacity dual sports have around 20 to 30 horsepower, whereas big sized ADV bikes with their liter plus capacities have over 100 horsepower and a far stronger power to weight ratio. That makes them the winner, right? It does, but it’s a lot closer than the specifications might indicate.

For the vast majority of off-road riding, you really don’t need much power at all – 30 horsepower on a bike that weighs less than 150 kg is more than enough for off-road riding. It will still get you to 100 km/h – a speed that most won’t hit off-road, and it’s plenty for getting up inclines and over obstacles.

Where the lack of horsepower does become an issue is when you’re on highways. All dual sports will hit the speed limit of a highway with a bit to spare, but it generally won’t be its preferred habitat. You’ll be in sixth gear and on your way to redline with the accompanying buzzing and noise that goes with it. A big ADV bike on the other hand will barely be breaking a sweat and have plenty of speed in reserve for overtaking.

As the saying goes, there’s no replacement for displacement and while not much is needed when you’re off the beaten track, it becomes an issue at other times.


This is a somewhat subjective criteria, but it’s also the one that you can’t really nail down by just looking at our two picks – the WR250R and the R 1200 GS. But as a general rule of thumb, dual sports are designed to inflict extreme pain on your posterior from a days riding, while ADV bikes will only make you feel sorry for yourself until the next morning.

Most stock bikes come with seats that are awful, but overall the padding and cushioning you get on an ADV as opposed to a dual sport is better.  Some dual sports like the KLX250 have a seat that’s just a small piece of foam over what we’re assuming is a slab of concrete and has been designed by sadists.

This isn’t really recommended on a dual sport with their less than well padded seats.

Additionally, ergos on ADV bikes are just generally better than dual sports. Again, dual sports are generally just modified motocross bikes which are designed for riders to do fairly short stints around a track whereas ADV bikes are made from the outset to accommodate entire days in the saddle. Add in luxuries like heated grips, seats, adjustable windshields and so on and it’s a far more pleasant place to be for days on end.

Running Costs

As we said at the outset, smaller dualsports are cheaper to purchase than big ADV bikes, sometimes by more than half. And those savings continue when you own the bike, too. A dual sport on average is going to use less oil and other fluids, go through tires less (plus replacement tires which are smaller will also be cheaper) and service intervals are usually greater for the smaller bikes too.

For example, the current model WR250R only requires a valve check every 40,000 kilometers, whereas the 1200 GS needs to have its valves checked twice as often at 20,000 kilometer intervals.

And given that a dual sport uses cheap and flexible plastics as their fairings, any scratches, dents or breaks are much easier and cheaper to replace – and there’s also the added benefit of aftermarket replacement plastics which you generally won’t be able to get for bigger ADV bikes.


If you’re going on a driving holiday with the family, what’s better – a family statoin wagon or a compact? Obviously, the bigger vehicle. It fits more in without a hassle whereas a smaller car means you have to play virtual tetris to fit everything in. So the same applies to bikes, right?

Well, if you’re going solo like most would, how much do you actually need? For adventure riding, both types of bikes will probably be adequate when it comes to the amount of luggage you need to fit. So, draw?

No, because when it comes to luggage options – both for the actual carrying of your items and for attaching them onto your bike, ADV bikes are way out in front. Panniers, top cases, various types of mounts – there are entire companies out there that design and produce luggage systems for ADV bikes. If you’re lucky, they might do the same for the most popular dual sports.

That’s aftermarket. Many ADV bikes come standard with luggage options from the get go – that’s pretty much unheard of for small dual sports.


Here, maths gives us an easy answer. A WR250R has a fuel tank that can hold two gallons of fuel (about 7.5 litres) whereas, a 1200 GS is happy to hold 20 litres of black gold (5.3 gal). While the bigger machine is thirstier, that isn’t enough to for the smaller dual sport to compete on range. The BMW is good for around 300 miles (a bit under 500 kilometers) while the WR250R can eek out around 117 miles (a bit under 200 km).

This Suzuki DR-Z400 owner ran out of fuel while crossing the Amazon river.

How important is this? Well, that obviously depends on where you’re riding but there’s probably few riders who don’t get range anxiety on their dual sports when they’re out in the middle of nowhere with an OEM tank. As we said, larger aftermarket tanks alleviate this, as do fuel bladders and the like, but from the showroom floor, ADV’s win this hands down.


When you’re out riding in the bush, forest or desert, you’re always praying to the motorcycle gods that everything is reliable. And the less that can go wrong, the better. Here, dual sports reign supreme.

All those luxuries you miss out on – ABS, heated grips, cruise control and so forth can become a curse if they malfunction in the wilderness. ADV bikes often sport the most sophisticated and recent technology of all bikes – even superbikes – one just needs to look at the list of standard features on the KTM 1290 Super Adventure to see that.

On the other hand dual sports tend not to have changed much in the past decade. Sure, companies refine them but they’re essentially very similar machines to what they were many, many years ago. Same engine, suspension, chassis and so. They’re fairly low-tech.

That means that should an issue arise, they’re simpler to fix but also parts are far easier to come by. Given the lack of electronics on smaller dual sports, you can usually Macgyver something up in a pinch. Even today you can buy a brand new dual sport from a dealer like the Kawasaki KLX250S that uses a carburetor instead of electronic fuel injection – that’s how basic they can be. Add to that the options available for a two-stroke machine and it gets even easier.


So it’s a fairly even result, which shouldn’t be surprising – they’re essentially two different machines that approach the same problem in different ways. For the real hardcore adventure rider, a dual sport will get you to places you can’t easily access on a big ADV bike, especially highly technical terrain.

That said, while the dual sport does have advantages in maneuverability and weight, we’d argue for them to be a truly “one size fits all” bike, they do need some upgrades – not least is a larger fuel tank. Generally, larger ADV motorcycles are ready to go from the showroom floor, have more range and better luggage options. And while they’re not quite capable as a smaller bike (at least without considerable effort) it will still get a capable rider wherever they want to go 90 per cent of the time more comfortably and at home on the tarmac.

Like so many things in life, it’s all a matter of compromise. Now, if only someone decided to sell a mid-capacity adventure bike, like a 690 Enduro…

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