Many new riders are confused about the differences between a Dual Sport and an Adventure Bike. While an Adventure Bike is technically a type of Dual Sport, people usually use the term Dual Sport to describe lightweight “Enduro Style” Motorcycles that are street legal.
To add to the confusion, some of these lightweight Dual Sport bikes can be converted into Adventure Bikes through aftermarket upgrades. Dual Sport bikes are also referred to as Dual Purpose, Dualies or Enduros as well, so it’s no wonder there is a lot of confusion.
Many riders are not really sure if they would be better off with an Adventure Bike or a Dual Sport. There are many different factors that determine which one is best for you. Let’s take a closer look at what differentiates these two motorcycle segments and try to clear up some of the confusion.
The Short Answer
Dual Sport Bikes and Adventure Bikes are both designed to go either off-road or pavement. The main differentiating factor between the two is the location of their sweet spot. Adventure Bikes have a sweet spot that falls more towards the street bike side of the spectrum with an emphasis on long range comfort. Dual Sport bikes tilt more towards the motocross side of the spectrum with a no frills off-road focus.
Early Dual Sport
Evolution of the Dual Sport Motorcycle
Dual Sport motorcycles originally evolved from Enduro bikes. Enduro Bikes are basically motocross bikes with a headlight, tail light (no brake light) and wide ratio transmission. Enduro bikes are designed for competition use and are not street legal.
Enduro bikes are limited to trail riding in designated riding areas. However, by adding lighting upgrades, a horn and rear view mirror you could get them legally licensed for the street in some regions. Converting Enduros into Dual Sports became a popular way to increase riding opportunities with many off-road areas closing down due to wildlife conservation legislation.
For the hardcore off-road riders, the goal was to add only the bare minimum parts required to make the bike street legal and keep the bike light and agile for trail riding. These bikes were to be used primarily for high-intensity off-road riding, with only the occasional detour on pavement to refill gas or link trails together, so comfort was not a concern.
Some manufacturers followed this trend and also began making lightweight street legal Enduro Style Dual Sports. These bikes came from the factory with a license plate and a few refinements for the street like gauges, a key and a quiet muffler. While street manners improved with these factory Dual Sport motorcycles, the trade-off was increased weight and less agility off-road.
Overtime, many factory Dual Sports got more street oriented. Their range and comfort on pavement improved, but keeping the weight down always remained a priority to keep off-road performance high.
Dual Sport Motorcycles General Characteristics:
Single cylinder 250cc-650cc engine
Long flat motocross style seat
Small Gas Tank (~100 mi. range)
High front fender
Minimal body work
Large 21″ front wheel
High ground clearance
High bars for stand up riding
Geared for low speed trails
For simplicity, we’ve generalized the characteristics here to describe a “typical” Dual Sport bike. Some models of Dual Sport motorcycles may vary significantly.
Dual Sport Pros:
The main advantage of a Dual Sport motorcycle is its lightweight and agility off-road. Dual Sport bikes are also designed for excellent off-road durability. The bikes are less likely to get damaged when crashed and are easy to pick up after falling because they are light.
Dual Sport bikes are the “Street Legal” motorcycle of choice to handle the toughest off-road terrain, including sand, rocks, steep inclines, single track and whoops.
With no windscreen and a flat seat, the bikes allow a range of body positions required for high-intensity off-road riding. Acceleration is usually good up to 65 mph. The bikes are fun and easy to maneuver.
Dual Sport Cons: The main disadvantage for a Dual Sport bike is the highway performance. At highway speeds there is no windscreen to protect the rider from wind, which can wear you down quickly. The tall front fender on Dual Sports can sometimes begin to flop around at highway speeds.
Above 65mph, the small single cylinder engines can begin to vibrate or buzz annoyingly. Aggressive off-road knobby style tires can also float around at highway speed, which can be unsettling. Traction on Knobby tires is not good on pavement, requiring more room for emergency braking.
At highway speeds, the Dual Sport’s small displacement engine lacks acceleration and struggles to keep up with fast moving traffic. This requires riders to cruise at a speed below the flow of traffic. The long flat hard motocross style seat may become uncomfortable when riding on the highway in a fixed position for more than 30 minutes.
The smaller gas tank also requires more frequent gas stops that can limit riding opportunities in remote areas. Dual Sport bikes have limited or no luggage hauling capacity and are uncomfortable for carrying a passenger.
If ridden at speed regularly, the small displacement engines are put under stress that can limit durability over time. Knobby tires also wear much quicker than a street tire. Dual Sport bikes also tend to have less oil volume so they require more frequent oil changes.
Evolution of the Adventure Bike
The First True Adventure Bike 1981 BMW R80 G/S (Courtesy Cycleworld Magazine)
With all the drawbacks of a Dual Sport bike, some riders were left wanting more. They wanted a motorcycle that was comfortable for long distances on the highway while still performing well off-road.
Riders wanted a multi-purpose bike they could comfortably load up with luggage and a passenger, but still have the confidence to explore back country roads.
Overtime, the Dual Sport began to evolve into a completely different machine. A bike with dirt bike roots but the heart of a street bike.
BMW pioneered the Adventure Bike template back in 1981 with the R80G/S. No one really knew what to make of this new BMW or what it was designed for. On the street it was agile and flickable. In the dirt it was reasonably capable. You could ride comfortably all day on the highway and everyone was surprised of how good it was off-road for such a heavy bike.
The BMW R80G/S had excellent reliability and became the bike of choice for serious global adventurers or anyone that just wanted to get out and explore. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that other manufacturers caught on and developed competing models like the Cagiva Elefant, Kawaski KLR650, and Honda Africa Twin. And thus, the Adventure Bike segment was born. Take a look at thefeature article about the 1981 R80 G/S published by CycleWorld Magazine to read more about the history of this bike.
The Modern Adventure Touring Bike
Adventure Bikes continued to improve in performance with every new model released. Now nearly every motorcycle manufacturer offers one or more Adventure Bike models and competition for market share is high. The popularity of these bikes and strong sales accelerated investment in technology and pushed design improvements further.
Modern Adventure Bikes are capable of handling all but the most extreme trails off-road while still offering the all-day comfort of a touring bike. ADV Bikes offer quick handling that makes them a joy to run hard on twisty back roads. Adventure Bikes offer the most versatility in Motorcycling.
Adventure Bike General Characteristics:
For simplicity, we generalized the characteristics here to describe a “typical” Adventure Touring bike. Some models of Adventure motorcycles may vary significantly.
650cc or larger engine displacement
Big Gas Tank (~200 mi. range)
Comfortable seat for long distance touring
Windscreen for better wind protection at speed
Luggage rack or other luggage system
Heavy duty brakes for paved roads
Good ground clearance and suspension travel
Protective guards to prevent off-road damage
Tires designed more for pavement than off-road
Spoked wheels for better impact resistance off-road
Geared for Riding at Highway Speeds
Adventure Bike Pros:
Adventure Bikes typically have larger displacement twin cylinder engines that can cruise comfortably at speed. The greater horsepower and longer gearing allows them to keep up with the flow of traffic and accelerate with ease during passing maneuvers. The bikes can also stop quickly with street biased tires and more powerful brakes, offering better safety in emergency situations.
The larger engines run at lower RPMs making them smoother and more durable for long-distance travel. Riders are less fatigued with protection from the wind and a comfortable seat as well.
Large gas tanks provide a typical range 200 miles, allowing riders to venture off in remote areas and travel further without refilling.
The bikes can be loaded up with Luggage Racks, panniers and top boxes that allow riders to carry gear for camping and long-term tours. Passenger can also be carried without significant impact on the handling of the bike.
Heavy duty long-travel suspensions are able to absorb the impacts of off-road riding. The bikes allow riders to explore dirt roads and even technical terrain in the hands of a skilled rider. Aftermarket accessories like crash-bars help keep the exposed plastics protected from damage in a fall.
Adventure Bike Cons:
Adventure Bikes are significantly heavier than Dual Sport motorcycles making aggressive off-road riding and technical trails more challenging. During off-road riding, body positioning is limited because of windscreens, seat designs and luggage systems. Their weight and protruding parts (e.g. Panniers and windscreens) can make them more difficult to handle aggressive off-road riding.
Exposed plastic bodywork and windscreens can get damaged in a fall and are expensive to repair. Picking up these heavy beasts can require more than one person. Low front fenders don’t flop on the highway, but they can get packed with mud and lock the front wheel on muddy trails.
The complexity of the engines and advanced electronics can make some Adventure Bikes more difficult to fix if a remote repair is required. The bikes are also more expensive to purchase, maintain and repair than Dual Sport motorcycles.
Deciding Which Style Bike is Best for You
There are several factors to consider when determining whether a Dual Sport or Adventure Bike is best for you. It boils down to your physical capabilities and intended usage of the bike.
If you live close to the trails and want to ride more difficult terrain or just want a lighter bike that is easy to maneuver, then a Dual Sport Bike is for you.
If you need to travel more than 30 minutes to get to the trails and you don’t have a pickup truck or van, then you are probably better off getting an Adventure Bike. If you have aspirations for long trips that include significant paved sections, then and Adventure Bike is definitely for you.
If you’ve decided you want to become an Adventure Bike Rider, then your next step is to figure out which Adventure Bike you should get. Check out our Top 10 Adventure Bikes for New Adventure Riders or try our First Adventure Bike Selector Tool to get an Adventure Bike recommendation. The Questionnaire will help you analyze your needs and discover some different Adventure Bike Models that are potentially a good match for your intended usage and physical capabilities.