Long-time biking buddies Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman really started something with their global ‘Long Way Round’ and ‘Long Way Down’ motorcycle tours of 2005 and 2007. Their adventures aboard a pair of giant BMW R1150 trail bikes, which took them from Shepherd’s Bush to the African bush and everywhere in between, resulted in books and films that inspired thousands of people around the world to pack it all in, saddle-up and head out in search of roads less travelled.
The result was a surge in the sales of the R1150 and a race by rival manufacturers to develop comparable ‘adventure sports’ bikes that were capable of eating up motorway miles but which could also tackle un-mettled roads and muddy tracks, ford rivers and conquer mountains.
With their large-capacity fuel tanks, thick, knobbly tyres, long-travel suspension and commanding riding positions, such go-anywhere machines are designed to be loaded to the gunnels with luggage and have become the default choice of the world’s ‘overlanders’ to whom there’s no place on the planet that’s too remote to ride to.
But while such big capacity bikes are capable of crossing continents without breaking sweat, there’s now a growing demand for smaller capacity adventure sports models that, thanks to their lighter weight and smaller dimensions, are less of a handful to ride – and to pick-up again if dropped in a swollen river or on gravel-strewn track. Such bikes are also more nifty around town when used as urban commuters and can fall within the ‘A2’ licence category, allowing them to be ridden by people of 19 years plus who don’t have a full motorcycle licence.
Here are six of the best.
1. Kawasaki Versys X-300
One of the smallest-capacity adventure sports bikes on the market, the Versys X-300 has a 296cc, twin-cylinder engine that produces 40 hp – making it eligible for riders with A2 licences. Despite its small size, the bike is comfortably capable of covering long distances and, at just 175kg, really comes in to its own on the rough roads of the wilderness.
The ‘Adventure’ edition comes equipped with a useful set of panniers, while accessories include an Akrapovic silencer, fog lamps, a centre stand and handguards. Capable of cruising at 80 – 90mph, yet offering fuel economy of more than 70 mpg if ridden more carefully, the Versys has the potential to cover up to 300 miles on a tank of fuel. From £5,149, kawasaki.co.uk
2. Royal Enfield Himalayan
The British arm of Royal Enfield might have gone bust in 1970, but the marque has been powering ahead in India since 1955 – and now builds a staggering 800,000 machines per year, mainly for the home market. Although most famous for the long-running single-cylinder Bullet road bike, the manufacturer launched its Himalayan mid-weight adventure sports model in 2016 – and it has proved a smash-hit thanks to its simplicity, reliability and knock-down price tag.
The 411cc, single-cylinder engine puts out just 24.5 bhp but will plod along at 60 mph all day and has a gentle power delivery that makes it perfect for slow-speed off-roading, while a wealth of bespoke accessories mean it can easily be equipped for overlanding. £4,399, royalenfield.com
3. Yamaha XT700 Tenere
Yamaha’s first ‘Tenere’ was a 600cc, single-cylinder rally raid bike of 1983 which, with its vast, 30 litre fuel tank, was intended as an off-the-shelf desert racer with the potential to travel up to 300 miles between refills.
The Tenere name remains synonymous with off-road adventure, and the latest, 689cc, twin-cylinder version is lithe, nimble and powerful. A slim, 16-litre fuel tank gives a range of more than 200 miles and a host of optional extras are available – including a £1,860 ‘Explorer Pack’ that adds pannier frames, aluminium side cases, a rack that replaces the pillion seat and a sump guard and skid plate to protect the engine from flying rocks. The pack also includes a centre stand that enables the front or rear wheels to be kept off the ground to facilitate tyre changing. From £9,145 yamaha-motor.eu
4. Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled
Ducati first used the ‘Scrambler’ name on a single cylinder street/trail bike launched during the early 1960s – but the retro trend led to it being revived in 2015 on a new-generation, 803cc, twin-cylinder model that majored on the ‘cool’ factor and could be configured in a variety of different looks and fitted with numerous accessories to give it the personal touch. The Scrambl;er is not, however, just for poseurs – as demonstrated 23-year-old Henry Crew who rode one 55,000 miles around the world in 381 days, crossing 35 countries.
The feat earned Cole a place in the record books as the youngest person to circumnavigate the world by motorcycle. From £9,995. Ducati.com
5. BMW F850GS
BMW was the first marque to offer a large-capacity, dual-purpose motorcycle specifically designed for overlanding way back in 1980 when it launched the R80G/S (for Gelande/Strasse – or offroad/road). The later 1100 and 1150 cc models of the 1990s and 2000s established a benchmark in the category which other manufacturers struggled to match, and the current R1250GS still leads the field. Less intimidating, however, is the F850GS which is 20 kilos lighter yet still features a parallel twin engine producing a useful 95 bhp.
Featuring satellite navigation and media connectivity as standard, it can be fitted with a host of BMW accessories designed to make it ideal for adventurers, ranging from off-road foot pegs to a custom-designed tank bag and higher handlebars to high-capacity panniers. From £10,170 bmw-motorrad.co.uk
6. Honda CB500X
Honda’s best known adventure bike is the Africa Twin which, since its re-launch in 2016, has proved to be the strongest rival to BMW’s R1250GS as a serious, long-distance overlanding machine.
The CB500X takes a few styling cues from its bigger brother, but is considerably more road orientated and intended intended more for the urban jungle than the actual jungle – although it’s still capable of carrying rider, passenger and plenty of luggage almost anywhere they might wish to go. In typical Honda style, it offers great value for money and, in all probability, cast-iron reliability. And, with 47 bhp on tap from its 471xx, twin-cylin der engine, it’s A2 licence compliant. From £6,069 honda.co.uk