Taking Touring Motorcycles Off-Road: The Good, Bad & Ugly

Chetan Rao

It is a rare motorcycle rider who avoids getting bitten by the long-distance-touring bug. After all, once you see those pictures of places that lie beyond the ‘road ends here’ markers on maps, and hear the amazing stories from fellow riders, how can you resist? And when you start planning those long adventures, it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself wondering: Can I take my touring motorcycle off-road?

If your touring motorcycle has more than six inches of ground clearance, it probably can handle light to intermediate off-roading. However, going off-road depends not just on motorcycle specs, but also on your riding skills and factors such as the weather.

To really make sense of this, you have to break down the question into three sub-questions:

Firstly, what exactly do you have in mind when referring to a “touring motorcycle”? Everything from a Harley Davidson Street Glide to a BMW K 1600 GTL -- two dramatically different models in terms of specifications and ride dynamics -- qualifies as a “tourer”. Manufacturers already like segmenting tourers into sub-categories like adventure, sport, cruise and so on. So an answer that holds true for one may not for another.

Secondly, how off-road is “off-road”? There is no universally accepted rating system for off-road trail condition or difficulty, so anything from flat dirt tracks with a little gravel, to wildly uneven trails with loose rocks, deep sand, slippery mud, water crossings, and steep gradients, are all considered off-road. And of course, changes in weather, like rain or partially-melted snow can completely alter the difficulty, so any trail you choose comes with caveats.

And finally, what does the “can” in, “Can a tourer go off-road?”, mean, precisely? For instance, Stephane Peterhansel showed that even a supersport Yamaha R1 can traverse sand dunes in the Moroccan Sahara desert. But then, he’s won the Dakar Rally 13 times, so your mileage may vary. More importantly, just because something can be done, doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be enjoyable. If you’re going to reach your destination questioning why you ever wanted to go in the first place, what’s the point?

Now, let’s simplify all of this, shall we?

Tourer Specifications and Off-road Performance

If you’re riding an adventure tourer, such as a KTM 790 Adventure or a Honda Africa Twin, then you’re all set. These machines can handle pretty much any kind of off-road trail, and most riders will run out of skill long before such bikes run out of ability. But adventure tourers are purpose-built to handle difficult terrain, unlike sport tourers and cruisers.

Arguably, the four most important attributes when it comes to a motorcycle’s off-road-ability are ground clearance, weight, suspension travel, and wheel size, possibly in that order. Take a look at the table below, which compares some of the most popular touring motorcycles along those four parameters.

The Importance of Ground Clearance

In the context of motorcycles, the simplest way to understand ground clearance (sometimes called “ride height”) is as the distance between the base of the tires (where the bike touches the ground) and the lowest point on the chassis. Depending on the bike, this “lowest point” could be a piece of fairing, or exhaust tubing, footpeg, kickstand, and so forth.

Why is ground clearance important? Well, ask any experienced off-road rider and they’ll tell you that the most common thing to watch out for when riding off-road is the underside of the bike hitting a rock, log, or other hard surface. Such impacts could damage the engine, oil sump, radiator, pump, or exhaust manifold, to name just a few critical parts.

Having a cracked oil sump is never a happy event, and you can’t just call the AAA when you’re on a remote trail in the back of beyond. Accessories such as bash plates (aka skid plates) can help protect against such damage to a great extent, but they’re not foolproof. With high ground clearance, however, you reduce the odds of your bike sustaining critical damage in the first place.

So if you’re riding a tourer like a Harley Heritage Classic or a Kawi Concours, watch out very carefully for steps or obstacles that could smash into your bike’s underside.

The flip side of having high ground clearance, though, is that it usually correlates to a higher seat height and higher centre of gravity, both of which make a motorcycle harder to ride, particularly if you’re new to riding off-road. Another drawback is that bikes with high ground clearance, like adventure bikes, are also generally heavy, which brings us to the next point: weight.

Why Weight Matters

With the exception of hardcore offroad or enduro motorcycles (which are unfortunately not great for long-distance touring, especially on highways), most tall, high-ground-clearance bikes are also quite heavy. Unless you’re a highly-skilled rider, weight can become a major disadvantage while riding off-road.

In the fight between gravity and balance, it’s only a question of time before gravity sometimes gets the upper hand. The heavier your bike, the harder it can be to get out of a ditch or other tricky spot.

The flip side (there’s always a flip side) is that light motorcycles also tend to be lightweights in the horsepower department. A BMW G 310 GS, for instance, can competently maintain 70mph on the freeway, but it’s going to feel a tad frenetic compared to a more powerful machine. If you’re going on a 2000-mile road trip where only the last 10 miles is off-road, you may want to prioritize horsepower rather than weight. (But if the trail has obstacles, ground clearance is still important!)

Suspension Travel and Wheel Size

These last two factors aren’t as crucial as the first two, but depending on the extent of off-road riding you’re planning to do, they may still matter. Suspension travel, aka wheel travel, is how much the suspension can compress or how much the wheel can move up and down. This is essential to deal with rutted terrain, and travel can be different at the front and rear of the motorcycle.

Inadequate travel can lead to the suspension “bottoming out” over bumps. Bottoming out frequently or violently can transmit undue forces that damage other parts of the motorcycle, or even knock the suspension out of commission. Another disadvantage of inadequate travel is that it can make off-road riding very exhausting because more of the shocks are transmitted to the rider rather than being absorbed by the suspension.

Lastly, wheel size is a factor to consider if you’re negotiating very challenging off-road terrain. As you may have noticed, motorcycles designed for off-road riding tend to have bigger wheels -- 19- or 21-inch rims instead of 16 or 17 -- especially at the front. This is because bigger wheels make it easier to get the bike over obstacles, such as large rocks or fallen logs.

Honestly though, if you’re attempting such ambitious things off-road, you should definitely consider a motorcycle designed specifically for off-road or adventure riding, rather than a tourer meant for the highway  Also, if you don’t already have a lot of off-road riding experience, it would be a good idea to take some off-road riding lessons before setting out on such an adventure.

That said, even a Harley with a ride height of less than 5 inches and a whopping 900+ lb weight, will still manage alright on light trails as long as the surface is not too broken or rutted. Just be careful not to hit the underside against anything.

Most importantly, if you’re planning to ride off-road, remember that riding solo is NOT recommended even for fairly experienced riders. As far as possible, ride with a group or at least a buddy -- you never know when you might need backup in case you find yourself in a tight spot.

Wrapping it All Up

If you’re riding a motorcycle with more than 6 inches of ground clearance, you’re probably fine -- that much will get you past most beginner or intermediate off-road trails without too much trouble. Something like a Honda NC750X with a 6.5-inch ride height and 479-lb wet weight offers a great balance between ground clearance and weight.