Can Touring Motorcycles Go Off-Road?

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Updated May 2022

Did I tell you about the time I went off-roading on a Honda CBR600F? It was in Luxembourg, and it was the first time I’d ever been touring abroad.

I was having the time of my life; the European sun was bronzing my pasty English skin.

The roads were so satisfying that I never wanted them to end! I’d never seen such deliciously empty and perfectly surfaced roads.

But end they did when I ignored my TomTom for a few minutes too long.

It’s Probably Happened To You

You see, the tarmac came to an end. And the perfectly surfaced road turned into a gravel track in a heartbeat.

Filled with confidence, I convinced myself that this was merely a bit of road resurfacing. Lovely, smooth tarmac would return around the corner, right?

Nope! Okay fine. Around this next bend, then, yes?

Wrong again.

And before I knew it, I was halfway across a chasm of gravel on a fully-loaded sports touring motorcycle. Rocking road tyres.

Stuck Between A Rock And A Hard Place

At this point, I stopped to assess my situation and make what I thought would be an informed decision.

Do I keep going seeing as though I’ve come this far? Or do I turn back?

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I realised there was no easy option. So I forged on.

Subsequently, I lost the front end of my bike and had to pick it up in pieces. And since then, I’ve found myself off-road many times on bikes that weren’t built to be there.

Each time, I made it back to tell the tale. So in that respect, yes, touring motorcycles can go off-road. But it’s not quite as simple as that.

harley-davidson on gravel
Image: Javier Aguilera

Can” Touring Motorcycles Go Off-Road?

This post came to light when a friend asked me if touring motorcycles could go off-road.

My initial response was, “No, don’t be stupid!”

I knew, deep down, that such advice was not entirely accurate. Taking a touring bike off-road isn’t the norm. But neither is taking an off-road bike on a long-distance road trip.

Does that mean that neither is possible?

Of course not.

ktm off-road - can touring motorcycles go off-road
Image: Sumit Saharkar

Most Road Bikes Are Ridden Off-Road

As part of my research, I looked into countries with the highest motorcycle usage. And as it transpires, Vietnam has the highest number of motorcycles per capita – followed by Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.

These countries have a motorcycle-riding population around three times the size of the closest European country (Italy.)

And last time I looked, the people of rural Vietnam weren’t riding around on beautifully tarmacked roads. Nor were they riding on £20,000 adventure bikes in matching (beige) adventure suits.

They were riding small-capacity road bikes.

And they were riding them on gravel tracks or unbuilt roads. Or through fields. Or on unpaved roads in the mountains.

In monsoon season.

Whilst juggling a goat.

Image: Leonie Clough

Touring Motorcycles Can Work Off-Road

Millions of people worldwide ride road-based motorcycles in environments they’re not meant to be in. But who said they’re not meant to be there?

Could it be that the people embedding this notion into our minds are the ones who are trying to sell us overpriced, oversized, and over-equipped adventure bikes that we don’t need?

You know, the really expensive ones with those cool-looking knobbly tyres that we don’t need on the tarmac?

Surely not!

Off-Road Bikes Are A New Concept

Let’s not forget that off-road bikes, as we know them, are a relatively new concept. And dual-sports/adventure bikes are even newer.

But motorcycles have been around since the late 1800s. So for the last hundred years, people have been happily riding their under-suspended street bikes off-road. And they’ve been coping just fine.

There are no knobbly tyres, no traction control, no ABS, and no correct suspension. Yet they managed perfectly well.

dual-sport bike - can touring motorcycles go off-road
Image: Stephen Andrews

Touring Motorcycles Off-Road: Bike Limitations

There are fundamental limitations that make a touring bike nervous off-road.

The first is the tyres.

If you’re on a road-going bike, chances are you have road-biased tyres. And road-biased tyres are, as you would expect, shit off-road.

Not only this, but the suspension is not set up to deal with holes and divots found off-road. Nor is there (generally) enough ground clearance or traction.

But all that said, riding touring motorcycles off-road is more about the rider than the bike.

Do you know how I know that?

Because I know plenty of people who own dual-sport or adventure bikes (that do have the tyres, and do have the clearance, and do have the traction), and they still can’t ride them off-road!

Rider Limitations

We’ve already established that street-going touring bikes can go off-road. We know this because people have been doing it for decades – long before the arrival of dedicated off-road bikes.

So why is it that riders before us could take touring motorcycles off-road, but we can’t?

Well, it all comes down to the ability of the rider. And this is something I bang on about all the time in these posts.

For the most part, our bikes are more capable than we are. It’s hardly ever the bikes that let us down – we do a great job of doing that ourselves.

In almost every situation, the bike is better than we are.

motorbike on gravel
Image: Henry Dick

Touring Motorcycles Off-Road: Running Out Of Ability

Here is another example of a street bike in an off-road setting. Remember the story I told you at the start of this post? The one about being on gravel in Luxembourg?

I wish I’d recorded it so I could show you. But the bike actually did pretty well!

What let it down in this scenario was the person riding it. Overly confident, too fast, and lacking ability.

Yet if you jump over to the many videos on YouTube, you’ll see plenty of people riding their 400kg BMW K1600s along gravel dirt tracks in Norway with ease.

It goes to show that you can take a bike just about anywhere (including large touring motorcycles off-road) if you’re not in a rush.

And there are countless examples of this on YouTube.

So, Can Touring Motorcycles Go Off-Road?

Yes, is the short answer!

I’m not saying you should take it in deep mud or through rivers. Because the chances of you dropping it are high.

Then again, even if you were on a dedicated dirt bike, the chances of you dropping it are still high in thick mud.

But with a bit of patience and some gentle persuasion, you’ll find that most touring motorcycles will get you through an off-road stretch when you need them to.

Top image: Javier Aguilera


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