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adventure motorcycle tours

How to prepare your Adventure Bike – Pt.2

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KTM 990 Adventure motorcycle dashboard with two Garmin Montana GPS units

In Part 1 of our adventure motorcycle preparation features, we looked at points 1 – 4. Here in Part 2 we’ll be looking at points 5 – 8. If you haven’t read Part 1 you can find it here – How to prepare your adventure bike Part 1

      1. Service & Maintenance
      2. Protection
      3. Ergonomics
      4. Gearing
      5. Tyres
      6. Luggage carrying
      7. Navigation & Electrical
      8. Suspension set-up

5. Tyres

With so many ‘adventure tyres’ to choose from, doing so can seem like a minefield.

Tyre choice depends on many factors. Your bikes’ rim sizes, the surfaces you’re likely to be riding, longevity vs grip, and – if you’re on a long journey – what’s available. Many riders have their favourites, the pro and cons for which provide page after page of online opinion. We’re not going to get into all that here. What I will say is that when you’re comparing online reviews or listening to others opinions, be mindful of the bike the tyres were fitted to and the riding conditions on which the opinion is based. The weight and rim size have an impact on how a tyre performs, and so what works/doesn’t work for one combination of bike and rider may not be applicable to you.

The example that sticks in my mind is the Continental TKC 80 that works extremely well on a BMW 1200 GS (19″ front), but that I found to be useless on a DR650 (21″ front). Comparing the tyres side-by-side, the obvious difference is the block spacing which is much closer on the 21″.

– Choosing a tyre

Manufactures have a myriad of ways to describe the intended use of their tyres from “90% road – 10% dirt” through to “20% road – 80% dirt” but we divide them into just three: Road, 50/50 and Knobby. This eliminates a lot of confusion and allows us to recommend a category of tyre for each of our tours.

Table showing classification of road, 50/50 and Knobby tyres for adventure motorcycles

Note: The above examples do not necessarily reflect the manufacturers recommendations.

This is not an exhaustive list but you get the idea of what type of tyre we allocate where. Each allocation contains a range of tyres with some better suited to certain conditions than others. For example, within the Knobby category you’d choose a ‘paddle’ shaped pattern for sand and a ‘spikey’ motocross type pattern for muddy conditions.

It’s all about the ‘bite’. How much bite do you need?

A road tyre will perform adequately on a hardpacked gravel road but will be left wanting when the going gets loose, steep, wet, muddy, sandy etc. A knobby tyre will cope with all of those conditions but will wear quicker, vibrate more, be more noisy and offer less grip on-road. For all but mud, deep sand and very loose surfaces a 50/50 tyre will strike a happy medium and even then you’ll be surprised how well they cope in the sand once you’ve lowered the pressures.

Another option (one I employed regularly on my RTW trip) was a knobby front and a 50/50 rear. This gives a good combination of braking, steering and wear. It’s a set-up I still use today on my KTM990 Adventure.

– Pressures

Tyre pressures play a very important role with regard to grip and wear on the dirt. Lowering your tyre pressures increases the tyres footprint, and therefore grip which in turn creates less wheelspin and helps wear. However, the flipside of lower pressures is to increase the chance of rim damage and rim pinches (pinching the inner tube between the tyre and the rim, causing a puncture). This is especially true of heavy adventure bikes with their wide rims.

There is no ‘correct’ pressure; only what works for you, your bike, the load you’re carrying and the terrain you’re riding. For multi-cylinder bikes it’s somewhere between the low 20’s and high 30’s (PSI). The greater the total weight, the higher the pressure you’ll need to prevent rim pinches.

Sand, mud, roots etc will require lower pressures whilst rocks and ditches (G-outs) will warrant higher.

– Tyre creep

Single-cylinder bikes with their lower mass and narrower rims can run even lower pressures. They’re often fitted with rim locks to help prevent tyre creep at very low pressures, by clamping the tyre to the rim. If you’re bike isn’t fitted with rim locks, elongating the rims’ valve holes slightly will allow the tyre to creep a little without tearing the valve.

Remember that underinflated tyres will overheat once you get up to highway speeds so carry a pump to re-inflate your tyres if/when you return to tarmac for a long stint.

– Heavy duty inner tubes & mouses

If your bike runs tubes, then fit heavy duty (HD) tubes. Our favorites are Vee Rubber, Heidenau and Motoz as these are made from natural rubber and can be patched easily.

Replacing the inner tubes with mouses is another consideration for certain journeys on bikes with narrower rims; but they’re not road legal. The pro’s & con’s of mouses are a whole other discussion.

6. Luggage Carrying

Here at Big Sky Riders we advocate the use of soft luggage for our dirt road adventures. Whether or not that soft luggage will need additional support depends upon your particular journey; how long you will be travelling for, where are you planning to travel, whether you’re packing for 2, 3 or 4 season travel? The answers to these questions will determine the carrying capacity you require and whether or not your chosen luggage will need additional support.

Until fairly recently, even throw-over panniers have required pannier frames to keep them secure on the dirt. However, innovations in design from the likes of Kriega, Moskomoto, Giantloop and X-Country have provided us with rackless Motopacking style options.

KTM 990 Adventure motorcycle with soft luggage

X-Country Enduro bags

Whether or not these can be used with no additional support depends on the model of bike and the packing of the load. For example, my X-Country bags when loaded onto my DRZ400 sit very close to the chain guard and would benefit from a tubular rail to prevent fouling when bouncing over rough terrain. However, the same bags, with the same contents but fitted to my KTM990 cause no such problems and require no additional support.

See our guide to choosing soft luggage – How-to-choose-soft-luggage-for-adventure-motorcycling

7. Navigation & Electrical

Whether you decide to navigate with a smart phone, tablet or a dedicated GPS unit, you’re going to need to mount it securely and power it; preferably so that you can view it both seated and standing.

– Powering your GPS

Hardwired is preferable to plug-in as there’s one less connection to come loose. I prefer a permanent feed over an ignition feed as it allows us to use the GPS with the ignition turned off, and you don’t need to wait for your GPS to boot-up every time you turn your ignition on.

Some bikes are pre-wired with auxiliary outputs that can be used for a GPS. Often referred to as ‘Accessory Plugs’, they can be ignition fed, battery fed, or both. Check your manual/wiring diagram and have a root around behind the headlight. If there is an OEM supply it will be fused. If you are adding your own then make sure it is fused; the closer to the power source the better.

Garmin GPS mounting bracket fitted to KTM 990 Adventure motorcycle

KTM Hardpart GPS mount – 990 Adventure

– USB charging

Just about every electronic gadget we carry these days can be charged via USB. It makes sense therefore to add one or more charging outlets, depending upon your personal needs. The obvious place to add an outlet is to the handlebars but some bikes offer other options.

USB Outlets for motorcycles

Double USB outlet for handlebar or ‘glove box’ mounting

If your chosen outlet includes a ‘power-on’ LED and you want it permanently (battery) powered, then it’s a good idea to fit an on/off switch to prevent it from flattening the battery.

Many tankbags come with cable ports allowing you to charge on the move without compromising waterproofing. For tankbag use, you may want to fit your outlet elsewhere on the bike. As per your GPS output, don’t forget to fuse your USB supply. Running a supply to a tailpack is another option, just think about where you’re going to mount the outlet so it’s well protected from trail crud.

– Heated Grips

Once you’ve experienced heated grips you will never, ever…. ever own a motorcycle without them! Personally, I don’t like riding in winter gloves and with the addition of heated grips I can wear motocross gloves year round. Heated grips aren’t just for the cold either. They do a great job of drying-out wet gloves too.

Heated grips generally require an ignition, NOT a battery feed. However, some grips (like the Oxford Products ones below) feature an ‘intelligent’ cut-out and are designed to be connected directly to the battery.

There are three ways to add heated grips to your bike.

1. Purchase the parts from the model of your bike that is supplied with heated grips and plug them all together. The bikes wiring harness should(!) contain all the necessary connections. NOTE: This is not straightforward on bikes with a CANBUS electrical system.

  • Pros: Tidy installation.
  • Cons: Potential cost of parts and the need to drill the handlebars for internal cable routing

2. Grips included type kit like this one from Oxford Products

  • Pros: Ease of fitting. Range of control.
  • Cons: Price, bulky electrical leads, increased grip diameter for small hands.

Components of a heated handlebar grip kit for motorcycles

Moulded heated grip kit

3. Grips excluded kit like this one from Symtec.

  • Pros: Price, choice of grips, slimmest possible finished product.
  • Cons: Fitting of grips. Limited to 2 heat settings.

Heated handlebar grip kit for motorcycles

Element style heated grip kit

When using types 2 or 3, before gluing the grip or heater element in place, determine the position of the cable outlet at the throttle grip to ensure the throttle can move through its full travel without fouling on anything. Finally, check you can turn your handlebars from lock-to-lock without causing and tight cables before you fully secure them.

8. Suspension set-up

Good suspension set-up will have the single biggest positive effect on your riding experience. Good set-up will unlock your bikes true potential by allowing it to perform as it was designed. Poor suspension set-up makes for a bike that will get out of shape very quickly and become tiring to ride.

Suspension set-up is an article in itself and so for this feature we’re just going to look at basic set-up – correctly setting the sag.

– What is Sag and why is it so important?

Sag is how much the bike’s suspension compresses under its own weight (static sag) and fully loaded (race sag). Sag effects your bikes geometry and so dramatically effects how it handles. Setting your race sag correctly maintains the proper geometry of the bike, enabling it to handle as it was designed.

  • Too much sag/insufficient pre-load and the bike will feel harsh over bumps, it will likely run wide (understeer), steering will be slow and possibly twitchy with less weight on the front wheel leading to a lack of grip.
  • Insufficient sag/too much pre-load and the rear will be harsh, leading to a lack of grip and possibly a twitchy front end caused by an increase in steering head angle.

If you carry a lot of luggage and/or a pillion it’s unlikely you’ll be able to achieve the perfect set-up and a compromise will have to be made. Take a set of measurements for each of your loaded set-ups to help you make the best compromise.

– Measuring sag

To measure sag you need to take three measurements:

a) Fully extended or base setting – This is is measured with the wheels off the ground. Measure vertically from a point on the swingarm close to the wheel spindle, to a point on the rear bodywork/mudguard/rack. It doesn’t matter exactly where they are so long as you use the same points for each measurement (use some sticky tape and a marker pen if necessary).

b) Race sag – You’ll need some help with this. Climb on board wearing your riding gear and any load you want to set your bike up to carry – luggage, tools, camelback (full) etc. Bounce on the suspension to overcome any stiction in the seals, then sit where you ride. With someone to steady the bike, have a third person take a second measurement. Subtract this figure from the base measurement to calculate race sag.

Measuring motorcycle rear suspension sag
The pointed edge of the indicator makes a good reference point on this KTM 990

Race sag should be approximately 30% of suspension travel (check your manual if you don’t know how much travel your bike has).

  • If your race sag is less than 30% you need to reduce the pre-load.
  • If your race sag is greater than 30% you need to increase pre-load.

Follow your user manual to do this.

c. Static sag – Once your race sag is set correctly you can measure the static sag. Take the bike off its stand, bounce up and down on the suspension a few times to overcome any stiction, then take a third measurement using the same datum points.

a minus c = static sag.

A ballpark figure here is 5-10mm but some manufacturers list more. Check your manual.

– Is the spring rate right for you?

If you have correctly set your race sag, and find that your static sag is less than required, the spring is likely too soft for you as too much pre-load has had to be used to attain the correct race sag. If your static sag is more than required, the spring is likely too heavy for you.

Remember – all bikes are built for an ‘average’ rider of approx 12 stone (76kg) + riding gear. The further away from this average you are, the less likely it will be for you to correctly adjust the sag without having to change the spring.

– Constantly changing your load?

If you find yourself constantly changing your load (and therefore you pre-load adjustment), you may want to consider investing in a sag measuring tool that affords one person operation. Review by ADV Pulse – https://www.advpulse.com/adv-products/motool-slacker-review/

Tool for measuring sag in motorcycle suspension

Suspension sag measuring tool

– Forks

The same principle for measuring sag applies to your forks. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers and models have forks with adjustable pre-load. The pre-load on forks without external pre-load adjusters can be changed internally by changing the length of the spacer that sits on top of the spring.

If you’re measurements suggest a need to change your fork springs, the best thing you can do is consult a suspension expert. Whether that’s just to check one of several online spring rate calculators, or to discuss your personal needs is up to you. If suspension set-up is new to you there’s a lot of knowledge to be gained from dealing with an expert. Ask what alterations they’re making and why.

– Damping

Once you’ve dialled in the correct sag you can begin to think about damping adjustment. That’s a subject for a dedicated suspension article but for now we suggest a few things.

Your forks will likely have Compression & Rebound damping whilst your rear shock may have high and low speed compression damping as well as rebound – consult your manual.

Remember that ‘clicker’ positions are measured as ‘turns out’ from fully in.

  • Make a note of your bikes clicker settings as they are NOW, along with the date.
  • Keep a record of any changes you make and the differences you noticed.
  • Change one thing at a time to get a feel for the difference the adjustment makes.
  • If you get ‘lost’ return to either your recorded settings or to those recommended in your manual.

Important – Check the torque setting of all suspension bolts. This is particularly important for the fork tube pinch bolts.


This article is far from being an exhaustive as a lot of prep work is bike specific. If for example you’re preparing an older bike you’ll want to look into fitting braided steel brake hoses, carburetted bikes will require the breather pipes routing to prevent them from being submerged in water crossings. And so the list goes on.

The most important thing is to get your bike set-up for YOU.

Who’s writing? – Adam Lewis


– Our other ‘How To’ posts

How to prepare your Adventure Bike – Part 1

How to choose soft luggage for Adventure Motorcycling


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