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Alan Dowds

Professional Motorcycle Expert

Best Trail Bikes & Best Trail Motorcyles

In a similar way to the 4x4 sector of the automobile market, off-road styled motorcycles have become a massively important part of the motorcycle world. Thousands of riders worldwide have appreciated the benefits offered by a large capacity machine, with a commanding and comfy riding position, space for a pillion, good luggage provision and a protective fairing. If that machine also combines long-travel suspension with ample ground clearance and tyres suited to unpaved roads, so much the better. Whether the rider actually embarks on any adventures more arduous than riding across a gravel car park isn’t important – these bikes look as if they could take you to the ends of the earth, and that’s what counts.

Having said that, some adventure sports bikes do offer genuine off-road performance. BMW’s GS range, made famous by the exploits of ‘Star Wars’ star Ewan Macgregor on his round-the-world charity rides, are the Range Rovers of the bike world, offering civilised touring comfort as well as solid capability on the dirt. Similarly, KTM’s Adventure was developed from the Austrian firm’s hugely successful competition off-road range, particularly its Dakar-Rally winning machinery.

Some firms have given up any pretence that their bikes have much off-road ability though. Triumph’s Tiger originally wore dirt-styled tyres and wire-spoked rims when it launched in the early 1990s. But the latest 1050 version has sport-touring road tyres, cast aluminium wheels and sportsbike brakes, and has hardly any offroad ability. But it makes an excellent offroad-styled touring machine, and is ideal for many riders.

Our best trail bikes recommendations could take you to the ends of the earth with their powerful performance and comfy designs. Choose these trail motorcycles when you want genuine off-road performance or any fun in civilization.

Best Trail Bikes by Alan Dowds

The Best You Can Get

  • BMW R1200GS

    Alan says: BMW is in many ways the original ‘Adventure Sports’ manufacturer. Its GS range of bikes was first seen back in 1980 in the form of the R80 G/S: a barely-disguised racebike, intended to win the prestigious, challenging Dakar Rally. It was an unusual design: the company’s trademark flat-twin ‘Boxer’ engine layout didn’t seem suited to an offroad bike. The motor was heavy, wide, and the shaft drive BMW insisted on using added even more weight and made providing sufficient ground clearance difficult. Still, BMW developed the GS design alongside its other touring and roadster machinery through the 1980s and 1990s, until the second generation Boxer engine appeared with the R1100GS in 1994. That machine won mainstream popularity with its mix of sound (if quirky) road handling, decent engine performance and novel styling. But it’s in this latest 1200 form that the GS range has really excelled. The 1200 is lighter and more powerful than ever, which allow riders to make even more of its off-road abilities. Cutting-edge electronic systems have improved reliability and reduced weight, while BMW’s huge range of high-quality optional extras lets owners customise the bike to suit their needs.

    BMW also offers an ‘Adventure’ version of the GS, with massive engine and fairing bars, aluminium luggage cases, and extra driving lights. It turns the GS into a massively imposing machine, and really does look like a bike you can ride to the ends of the earth.

    • 1,170cc flat-twin high-cam, 8-valve air-cooled engine
    • BMS-K fuel injection
    • 100bhp
    • 199kg (438lb) dry mass
    • 135mph top speed
  • Triumph Tiger 1050

    Alan says: Triumph resurrected the Tiger name when the firm relaunched itself in the early 1990s, with a new range of then-modern machines. The first of these new-generation Tigers was a rather crude trail-styled machine, built around the firm’s 900cc three-cylinder engine, but by 1999, it was replaced by a new fuel-injected version. Then, in 2007, the current Tiger appeared. This time, the bike had a full-bore 1,050cc motor, borrowed from the firm’s all-conquering Sprint ST sport-tourer. This state-of-the-art engine is behind much of the bike’s success – its strong, torquey delivery gives instant drive in all situations, and makes it a near-perfect roadbike power unit. Fuel injection is crisp and precise, while the six-speed gearbox and chain final drive work well – if a little clunky at times.

    The Tiger 1050’s chassis benefits from not being compromised by fantasy-off-road capabilities. The Tiger is a road bike – simple as that. The fact it has longer-travel suspension and upswept exhausts is merely down to styling – the real meat of the chassis is pure roadbike. Radial-mount brake calipers, upside-down front forks, braced aluminium frame and swingarm; these are all aimed at tightening up the Tiger’s road handling, and they work. Best of all, the Tiger’s ergonomic package makes it a true mile-muncher: add some luggage, throw your gear in it, sling your spouse on the back, and it’s next stop: who knows?

    • 1,050cc inline-triple DOHC, 12-valve liquid-cooled engine
    • Electronic fuel injection
    • 114bhp
    • 198kg (436lb) dry mass
    • 140mph top speed
  • KTM 990 Adventure

    Alan says: For many years, the idea of a KTM road bike was a joke. The Austrian-based firm was known for its savagely effective offroad competition machines; motocrossers and enduro tools aimed at the hardcore dirtbike fan. The only time a KTM wore a license plate was to ride between rally stages.

    But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the firm released its Duke and Super Duke models – straight-up roadbikes with loads of performance and stacks of attitude. Then came the Adventure: a no-holds-barred assault on BMW’s GS range. Initially a 950, then a 999, the Adventure at first looked slightly implausible, with its enormous orange fairing, tall seat height, and full-on offroad running gear. But one ride on the bike soon quashed any notions that the Adventure was unusable. Rather, the Adventure performed every bit as well as the BMW – both on and off the road. It seemed that KTM’s competition experience allowed the firm to design a taut, sweet-handling chassis, with a strong, dependable engine inside. The Adventure wasn’t perfect: reliability was down compared with Japanese bikes, and the styling isn’t for everyone. But for most riders, the excellent engine and accomplished chassis more than make up for these minor niggles.

    • 999cc 75° V-twin DOHC, 8-valve liquid-cooled engine
    • Electronic fuel injection
    • 98bhp
    • 199kg (438lb)lb dry mass
    • 135mph top speed
  • Honda XL1000V Varadero

    Alan says: The Varadero is, implausibly, named after a seaside resort town in Cuba. Using the same 90° V-twin engine as the firm’s VTR1000 sportsbike, the Varadero is undoubtedly at the roadbike end of the adventure sports spectrum. Its road-biased tyres and suspension work well enough on the street, while the VTR engine gives a reasonably powerful punch. Early models of the Varadero, from 1999, used carburettors, but later bikes have fuel-injected engines. Both designs offer smooth, predictable drive all through the rev range. The engine is an old design now though – it first appeared a decade ago – and this shows up in the relative lack of power and a certain lack of sophistication.

    The chassis isn’t quite at the cutting edge either. The suspension components are unexceptional, basic items, and the XL lacks a bit of precision in its handling. Optional ABS brakes give an extra level of security in poor conditions, although the CBS linked brake system isn’t as refined as on more recent models.

    Soft suspension and lacklustre engine aside, the Honda is a pretty sound package. Owners love its civilised nature, and high levels of build quality. And while it’s not the best adventure sportsbike, it’s by no means a bad bike.

    • 996cc 90° V-twin, DOHC, 8-valve liquid-cooled engine
    • Electronic fuel injection
    • 93bhp
    • 244kg (537lb) dry mass
    • 130mph top speed
  • Aprilia ETV1000 Capo Nord

    Alan says: Italian bikes are generally associated with glamour, race-track performance, expensive maintenance, and an occasionally unreliable nature. None of which suggests they would be much use in the hard-slogging world of adventure-sport, offroad-styled bikes. But, that hasn’t put Aprilia off, and once its RSV Mille sportbike had proved itself reliable and popular, the firm set about developing it into the Capo Nord adventure sportsbike in 2001. Using the well-proven V-twin engine from the RSV meant Aprilia had a ready-made foundation to work with, and with some re-tuning of the engine, the result was a smooth, torquey powertrain. This engine was installed in a tall, rugged chassis, with aluminium twin-spar frame, long-travel suspension, and triple disc brakes all round. The styling was not uncontroversial – Aprilia has always used unconventional, modernistic designs, and the Capo Nord’s enormous dual headlight fairing and angular lines wasn’t a hit with everyone. Nevertheless, it proved to be a strong performer on the road, with willing performance, decent practicality, and comfortable accommodation. Later updates gave the Capo Nord an ABS anti-lock brake option, and a more modern, smoother bodywork style.

    Aprilia also offers a wide range of accessories for the Capo Nord (which is Italian for North Cape), including luggage, heated grips, and optional suspension kit, allowing owners to customise the bike to suit their needs.

    • 998cc 60° V-twin, DOHC 8-valve liquid-cooled engine
    • Electronic fuel injection
    • 98bhp
    • 215kg (473lb) dry mass
    • 135mph top speed

You will be happy with any of these

  • Suzuki V-Strom 1000

    Alan says: Suzuki’s 1,000cc adventure sports bike is based around one of the firm’s most character-laden engines. The 996cc, eight-valve V-twin design was first used in the firm’s TL1000S sportsbike in 1997, and was an instant hit. Designed to take on Ducati’s 916 V-twin superbike, the TL-S had a rather wayward chassis, but an excellent engine, with strong, torquey power delivery, and loads of character.

    This ballsy motor was the perfect choice for Suzuki to fit to its adventure sports machine when it was launched in 2002. The narrow, compact lump slotted easily into a bespoke aluminium frame, and with some re-tuning of the inlet and exhaust systems, it gave the V-Strom a powerful, soulful heart. Dual front brake discs, conventional front forks, and a monoshock rear suspension setup aren’t the most sophisticated chassis components around though, and the damping can be a little soft for more committed riding. The V-Strom is also less capable off-road than bikes like the BMW R1200GS or KTM Adventure, which is mostly down to its road-biased tyres and cast wheels.

    From the rider’s (very comfy) point of view, there’s a comprehensive dashboard, nestled in a neat half-fairing. This, together with a large-capacity 22 litre fuel tank, made the V-Strom a sound choice for relaxed touring. Add a set of hard luggage cases and some Suzuki touring accessories – GPS sat-nav, electrically-heated grips – and you’re ready to head out on your own moto-adventure.

    • 996cc 90° V-twin, DOHC, 8-valve liquid-cooled engine
    • Electronic fuel injection
    • 97bhp
    • 208kg (458lb) dry mass
    • 130mph top speed
  • Suzuki V-Strom 650

    Alan says: Usually in the bike world, bigger is generally best – if you get to choose between a 1,000cc or a 650cc bike, you should go large. But not in the case of the Suzuki 650 V-Strom – this is one time when the little guy wins out. The smaller member of Suzuki’s adventure sport range is based around the engine from Suzuki’s SV650 streetbike, and a very good engine it is too. Compact, torquey, and well-mannered, this gutsy little V-twin puts out performance that belies its middleweight capacity.

    Suzuki’s mounted this engine in a unexceptional, budget chassis. There’s no flashy bells or whistles here, just straightforward, honest fare: long-travel suspension, an aluminium trellis type frame, triple disc brakes (with optional ABS), and a large, protective upper fairing. But to be honest, this is all the V-Strom needs to make it a genuinely capable all-rounder. Stick in town, and it’s in its element – putting you right in command with its tall viewpoint, while the narrow profile makes traffic-splitting a cinch. Venture onto the motorway, and the screen gives great protection, and the optional luggage can swallow up a heap of luggage. And if you find yourself on a twisty back road, the little DL will be able to keep up with many middleweight bikes that offer seemingly greater performance. It’s a fantastic all-round motorcycle, and many riders have found it a more satisfying, all-round package than the bigger V-Strom 1000.

    • 645cc 90° V-twin DOHC, 8-valve liquid-cooled engine
    • Fuel injection
    • 66bhp
    • 197kg (434lb) dry mass
    • 120mph top speed
  • Honda XL700V Transalp

    Alan says: The Transalp is, together with BMW’s GS, one of the real grand-daddies of the class. First hitting the streets in 1987, this unassuming middleweight machine carved out a niche with European riders as a lightweight touring bike, that was able to keep going on poorly-finished roads that would defeat less capable machines. It wasn’t a particularly powerful machine, with a rather elderly (even then) 52°V-twin engine design based on the VT500. Updates in 2000 and 2007 to 650 then 700cc capacity, the Transalp gradually acquired more performance, and the current bike is certainly more of a match for other bikes in the class, like Suzuki’s DL650 V-Strom. Like the engine, the chassis looks unexceptional on paper, but works well. The suspension is soft, without feeling soggy, the ABS-equipped brakes give ample stopping power, and lightly-offroad styled wheels and tyres mean the XL can be used on unpaved surfaces; although muddy or sandy ground will still defeat them.

    The XL700V can also be equipped with Honda accessories, such as hard luggage and GPS sat-nav, and this latest 2008 version continues the unassuming, yet very capable heritage of the Transalp range.

    • 680cc 52° V-twin, SOHC, 8-valve liquid-cooled engine
    • Electronic fuel injection
    • 59bhp
    • 214kg (470lb) kerb weight
    • 115mph top speed
  • BMW F800GS

    Alan says: BMW’s motorcycles tend not to follow convention in their designs, so it’s no surprise to learn that the F800GS uses an unusual parallel-twin engine layout, with a totally unique balancer system. Normal parallel-twin engines use rotating balance weights to damp out the vibrations from the inherently instable crankshaft, but the F800 uses a pivoting lever instead. Driven by a small ‘slave’ conrod between the two cylinders, the lever is carefully weighted to balance out vibes, giving a much smoother ride.

    This engine was first seen in BMW’s F800S roadster, but it’s equally at home in this offroad-styled GS machine. BMW’s advanced fuel injection and clever cylinder head design gives good peak power and strong midrange and excellent economy. The chassis is based on a steel tube trellis design, which is better at dealing with the bump and grind of off-road riding while long-travel suspension, wire-spoked rims, and dual-purpose tyres give an extra dose of offroad ability.

    On-road, BMW’s typically vast range of accessories and the capacious accommodation offered by the F800GS make it perfect for the touring work beloved of adventure sport fans. And while it is pricier than competitor machines, BMW’s typically high resale values go some way to compensate for that. Recommended!

    • 798cc parallel twin DOHC, 8-valve liquid-cooled engine
    • Fuel injection
    • 85bhp
    • 185kg (407lb) dry mass
    • 125mph top speed
  • Yamaha XTZ660 Tenere

    Alan says: Most ‘proper’ offroad bikes use a single cylinder engine, because they offer the advantages of light weight, small size, and simplicity. The drawbacks of low peak power and vibration are less important off-road – where you can’t really use much more than about 40bhp unless you are a Dakar racer.

    So Yamaha’s choice of a 660cc single-cylinder engine for its Tenere suggests it’s aimed more at dirt use than road use. That’s backed up by a tall seat height, long-travel suspension, and a large, 22-litre fuel tank. The wheels are wire-spoked dirtbike items, and the chunky tyres have large tread blocks for offroad use (although you’d want to change them for more specialised rubber if you were a committed trail rider).

    That water-cooled, fuel-injected motor can find itself a little breathless on longer motorway rides though, and if you’re looking for an adventure bike that can also cross continents two-up, the Tenere may not be perfect. But for shorter trips, commuting and city work, the Tenere is a much better bet. Some riders will also like its committed, hardcore ‘Rally Raid’ styling, which can be accentuated further with Yamaha’s own aluminium luggage cases.

    • 660cc single-cylinder, SOHC, 4-valve, liquid-cooled engine
    • Electronic fuel injection
    • 48bhp
    • 183kg (403lb) dry mass
    • 105mph top speed

Related Articles

Our best trail bikes recommendations are made to compete off-road, but do just as well in a little more civilized parts of the world. Always the best price, these best trail motorcycles combine long-travel suspension with ample ground clearance for the perfect off-road bike. Choose from our suggestions for trail motorcycles for sale, and you'll be going on one adventure after another.