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The best dual-sport motorcycles to take you on or off-road

Dual-sport motorcycles live in a land of compromise. The jack-of-all-trades of the motorcycle world, dual-sport bikes can really do it all, and with one in your stable, you’ll be able to cruise the street, hit the trail, and return home without worry. The broad capabilities of these bikes mean they’re less focused than others though, so if you’re only going to ride on paved roads, don’t choose a dual-sport bike “just in case.” The same goes for riders with no intention of hitting the street. Thankfully, the motorcycles listed below are purposely designed for both types of riding.

If you’re new to motorcycling or have never ridden off-road, we advise starting with a smaller bike to learn the basics, develop your reflexes, and fine-tune your off-road “spider sense.” Controlling a motorcycle off the pavement calls for more strength and finesse than street riding. If you start too large, it can result in a lousy first experience, potentially prompting you to give up — which is a shame because you’ll miss out on some of the most rewarding, exhilarating, and challenging experiences possible on two wheels. Personal height can be a factor in choosing a dual-sport bike as well because the seat heights are high, so if you’re 5 feet 6 inches tall or less, ensure you can plant both feet firmly on the ground while sitting on the seat.

For our purposes, we divided dual-sport bikes into three levels arbitrarily by engine size: Lightweight (up to 400cc), middleweight (400cc to 800cc), and heavyweight (those larger than 800cc). Grab your gear and let’s get started.

Lightweight bikes

The Best

2017 Yamaha XT 250 ($5,199)

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Say hello to an old-timer. The Yamaha XT 250 has been in continuous production since 1980 when the 1981 model was first introduced. Like it did in the ’80s, the XT 250 equips an air-cooled, single-overhead-camshaft, two-valve single-cylinder 249cc engine, and a five-speed transmission. The little dual-sport hasn’t strayed much from its initial build, but the minor tweaks in the years since have added small improvements without changing the nature of this popular model.

The dual-sport Yamaha’s weight has increased, from 270 pounds to 291, and the compression ratio is now 9.5:1 instead of 9.2:1. In addition, today’s XT 250 has a hassle-free electric start, modern fuel injection, and disc brakes at the front and rear. The seat height is just 31.9 in, which is about as low as you’ll find on a dual-sport bike. Ground clearance is a healthy 11.2 in.

You won’t want to take the XT 250 on the interstate — well, certainly not for more than an exit or two. If the wind is right it will probably hit 70 mph, but just as the Yamaha isn’t a powerful dirt digger, it’s not a long-haul cruiser made for the turnpike. Don’t think the bike is just for little kids, however: Sylvester Stallone rode one in First Blood.

The Yamaha XT 250 is the perfect bike to learn on if your idea of ultimate biking is noodling around town and riding trails. Maybe after another 36 years, you’ll decide to pass this bike on to someone and buy a new one for yourself.

The Rest

2017 Honda CRF 250L ($5,149)

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The 2017 Honda CRF 250L’s liquid-cooled, single-cylinder, four-stroke dual-sport bike is geared more toward the street than the trail, even if the tires and 34.4-in seat height might lead you to think otherwise. The pint-sized Honda has been in production since 2013, and this year is joined by a Rally edition, which is a capable adventure bike with a more off-road suspension and a larger gas tank. It even has a small, frame-attached fairing and windscreen. We’ll stick with the standard CRF 250L for a beginner’s bike though, or for those who prefer to ride on the street and occasionally go off-road without pushing the limits.

2017 Suzuki DR-Z400S ($6,600)

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Suzuki’s DR-Z400S favors off-road driving more than street riding, but it’s street legal and weighs only 317 lbs. The seat height is a lofty 36.8 in, however, so be prepared to reach to touch the ground with your feet. The four-stroke, liquid-cooled 398cc single-cylinder engine pulls hard and can cruise at higher speeds on the highway, but the supportive seat and stiff suspension are a better choice for off-road riding. Once you’re off the pavement, you have the power and clearance to go pretty much anywhere.

2017 Yamaha WR250R ($6,700)

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If the Yamaha XT 250 sounds good but you know that you’re going to spend most of your time off-road, consider the 2017 Yamaha WR250R. The Yamaha 250 dual-sport has a liquid-cooled, four-valve 250cc engine with a six-speed transmission that is better tailored toward dirt. The seat height is 36.6 in, too, so it’s a lot higher than its brand mate, while the front and rear shocks each have 10.6 in of travel, compared to the XT 250’s 8.9-in front and 7.1-in rear travel. And at 295 lbs, the WR 250R is only 4 lbs heavier.

Middleweight bikes

The Best

2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled ($11,395)

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How does spending the whole day jumping over hills, gullies, and fallen tree trunks sound? Maybe that’s more than you’d like to sign up for, but it’s nice to know that you could do all that if you wanted to. After all, Ducati doesn’t call this bike the Scrambler Desert Sled without a good reason.

Ducati makes five other scrambler bikes — four of which use the same 803cc, 75-horsepower, air-cooled engine — and they’re fine for their respective cafe racer, flat track, and more street-ish purposes. If you look at all six Ducati Scramblers, only one has a high mudguard on the front and a headlight rock guard, which are great indicators. The Desert Sled, at 456 lbs with fuel, weighs at least 30 lbs more than the other models. The extra weight is due to the reinforced tubular frame, which protects a bike built for endurance races and allows it to take more punishment than most off-road riders will ever give it.

The Desert Sled is inspired by off-road bikes from the ’60s and ’70s, which raced in the western desert and mountains of California. Back in the day, “Desert Sleds” were motorcycles with 500cc or larger engines with reinforced suspension, engine protection plates, spoked wheels, and knobby tires. Now, match those facets to the 2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled: Check, check, check, check, and check. And to top it off, you can drive it home or commute with the Desert Sled and it won’t beat you up.

The field of mid-weight, dual-sport bikes is chock-full of great models, but we’re giving the nod to the 2017 Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled.

The Rest

2017 Honda XR650L ($6,890)

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The Honda XR650L made its debut in 1992 as a 1993 model, and not much has changed in the time since. Its 644cc air-cooled four-stroke engine, five-speed transmission, 2.8-gallon gas tank, and 11.6-in front suspension travel all read the same on the 1993 spec sheet as today’s. Honda doesn’t keep it around for nostalgia’s sake, however. In this category of mid-weight bikes, when something works, buyers continue to show up. The XR650L weighs 356 lbs ready to ride, which is actually 3 lbs less than in 1993. You can commute with the Honda XR650L, but take a look at the tires and you’ll quickly realize this bike is meant more for dirt than hardtop.

2017 KTM 690 Enduro R ($10,800)

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KTM’s 690 Enduro R is the lightest mid-size bike on our list. Dry weight is 309 lbs, but when you fill the 3.2-gallon tank and add other ride-ready fluids to the 690cc single-cylinder engine –namely, oil and coolant — the wet weight is likely still substantially lighter than the Honda’s 356 lbs. The KTM XR690 Enduro R falls in the mostly off-road category. Standard ABS, a slipper clutch, camshaft balance shaft, and three-mode ride-by-wire throttle valve management help the KTM’s role as a mid-range adventure bike for riding both on and off the pavement.

2017 Kawasaki KLR 650 ($6,700)

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Here’s another dual-sport bike that has stood the test of time. The Kawasaki KLR650 was introduced in 1987 and remained almost the same until 2008, when the bike underwent a redesign. The manufacturer has been tweaking the bike ever since, but it’s still the same concept and model name. Now, as it did in 1987, the KLR has a four-stroke, single-cylinder, water-cooled 651cc engine. The weight is also the same at 432 lbs when fueled. Age alone doesn’t garner high ratings for the Kawasaki, though; it has long been considered an excellent and inexpensive touring bike. This bike is often used by the U.S. military with an altered engine, allowing it to run on military diesel.

Heavyweight bikes, aka adventure-tourers

The Best

2017 BMW R 1200 GS ($16,695), 2017 BMW R 1200 GS Adventure ($18,695)

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If you’re fighting a big battle, bring big guns. BMW did just that back in 2004 when it launched the first R 1200 Gs, followed in 2005 by the R 1200 GS Adventure (GSA). Since 2012, the BMW R 1200 GS and its off-road-focused mate have been BMW’s best-selling motorcycles. These bikes will take you across the country in comfort and then let you run through mud, dirt, shale, sand, and rocks. Big Harleys, Indians, and even the big BMW touring bikes can give you a smoother touring experience, but don’t take them into the dirt because it won’t be pretty.

The 538-lb BMW R 1200 GS and 580-lb GS Adventure share most of the same mechanicals. When fueled, the GSA holds 2.6 more gallons of gas, which account for some of the weight difference. Power to the tune of 125 hp and 92 pound-feet of torque is delivered by a venerable 1,170cc four-stroke boxer twin engine with four valves per cylinder, a dual overhead cam, and wet sump lubrication. The mill has shaft drive and a new air and liquid cooling system. In addition to standard ABS, the big BMWs have Automatic Stability Control, button-operated Electronic Suspension Adjustment, Hill Start Control, and Dynamic Traction Control that can account for the bike’s lean angle. The standard drive-by-wire has Rain and Road settings, too, with two more (Dynamic and Enduro) available as an option.

A small fairing and windshield for wind, rain, and bug protection come standard, as does a luggage rack. You can pick from a selection of optional side, rear, and tank luggage, allowing you to better personalize the big bikes. While they can each serve both purposes, buy the GS if most of your riding will be on pavement. If you regularly head into the hills and want to go as far as you can, check the box for the GS Adventure. Among other differences, including more aggressive tires, longer front fork travel, and more standard equipment including the extra driving mode, the Adventure’s gas tank holds 7.9 gallons of gas compared to the GS’s 5.3 gallons.

The big BMW dual-sport bikes have a lot to offer, but be aware they’re large, heavy, powerful, and not at all the right choice for beginners.

The Rest

2017 Ducati Multistrada 1200 Enduro ($21,295)

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Ducati’s 2017 Multistrada 1200 Enduro is a sophisticated, 160-hp bike — the understatement is intentional. The big Ducati’s starting price is the most expensive of the bikes we chose, but it includes many components that come optional on other bikes. Electronically-controlled suspension, ride-by-wire with multiple riding and power modes, cornering ABS, traction control, wheelie control, vertical hold control, cornering lights, and an app called Ducati MultiStrada Link that uses Bluetooth to record bike settings and performance are all standard equipment. Wet weight with gas is 566 lbs, which is closer to the BMW R 1200 GS Adventure than the lighter BMW GS model. Seat height is fixed at 35 in, but there is an optonal adjustable low seat that goes from 33.5 to 34.25 in.

2017 Honda Africa Twin CRF1000L ($13,300)

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Set up with a 998cc parallel-twin water-cooled engine, the 2017 Honda Africa Twin CRF1000L is the lightest, smallest, and most affordable dual-sport in our heavyweight category. It’s not the largest Honda dual-sport adventure bike, that honor goes to the shaft-driven VFR1200X , which comes with a V4 engine, choice of transmissions, and a $16,000 price tag. The Africa Twins, however, have history and many fans. In the late ’80s, 742cc Africa twins won the Paris-Dakar Rally four times, and the bike remained in production until 2003. Reintroduced in 2016, the CRT1000L is considered one of the best adventure bikes of any weight class. The bike comes standard with ABS, fully adjustable front and rear suspension, selective torque control with three settings, and a choice of manual or automatic six-speed transmissions. The CRF1000L weighs 511 lbs ready to ride with 5 gallons of gas in the tank, and the seat height has two positions, 33.5 and 34.3 in.

2017 KTM Super Adventure 1290 R ($18,000)

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KTM puts its 160-hp, 1301cc liquid-cooled V-twin two-cylinder engine in two Super Adventure 1290 models, the T and R. The “T”  is set up for touring and racing, while the “R” is geared more toward both on and off-road travel. The Super Adventure 1290 R delivers 103.2 lb-ft, allowing for all the grunt you’ll need. The dual-sport KTM has knobby tires on 21-in front and 18-in rear-spoked wheels. Brembo brakes with ABS, cruise control, traction control that accounts for lean angle, engine crash bars, and an adjustable windscreen also come standard. Seat height is 35 in, the front suspension travels 8.7 in, and the bike has close to 10 in of ground clearance in total. A big bike intended for experienced riders, the Super Adventure 1290 R weighs in at 529 lbs with its six-gallon gas tank topped off.

Editors' Recommendations

Bruce Brown
Digital Trends Contributing Editor Bruce Brown is a member of the Smart Homes and Commerce teams. Bruce uses smart devices…
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