Few bikes are set up for our kind of travel right out of the box. While we decided that the XR600R was the best base bike for us, it certainly needed a fair bit of prep and modification before it was going to ready.
While we have the luxury of a full metal shop and the experience to build whatever we want, we will also share other options that are readily available. Most everything can be accomplished on a tight budget and by doing it yourself, you will have the advantage of knowing your bike inside and out.
Fuel is a big deal. The more fuel you can carry, the farther from the beaten path you can get and the more you can see and ride.
We managed to get 8.5 gallons on board by building 7 gallon main tanks and making 1.5 gallon reserve tanks at the rear of the bike.
Under ideal conditions this gave us a range of a little over 400 miles (650 ams). Fuel range is a fickle thing though. We saw our range bounce all over the place depending on altitude and conditions, from riding high in the Andes to sea level sand pits in Baja. It got as low as 250 miles (400kms) at some points.
I made tanks out of 19 gauge steel for durability and ease of repair on the road. Aluminum is lighter, but much more prone to cracking and does not hold up to crashes well.
Aftermarket plastic tanks are readily available from numerous manufactures. Most offer a 6 gallon tank which is plenty of fuel for 90% of the areas we went. There are also companies such as Rotopax that offer slim auxilary tanks.
In post trip assessment, 8.5 gallon capacity is more than what is really necessary. But, I'm stoked we had it. It allowed us to do a handful of routes with out sweating it, or strapping on extra jerry cans, and we never had to adjust our course to chase gas stations. That being said, we wouldn't suggest any less than 6 gallons to do a trip similar to ours.
One last note on fuel pertaining mostly to Bolivia and southern Patagonia; Just because you know there's a gas station ahead doesn't always mean that it's open or that is has fuel.
With the increased weight of your luggage and larger fuel capacity, you will need to increase the spring weight on both ends of your bike. We bought new springs all around. Any reputable company can match you up with the proper spring rate for your needs.
Shock seals and bushings should be replaced before you leave. They are cheap and much easier to do before hand in your clean garage. Fresh seals should last you well over 30,000 miles of rough riding assuming your boots are keeping the stanchions clean.
The XR600R subframe wasn't designed to carry anything other than a rider. In order to handle luggage weight it requires some reinforcement, much like most dirt oriented bikes looking to turn into overlanders. For ours, we opted to build completely new subframes out of thicker steel with a more triangulated geometry and incorporated rack system.
When keeping the stock subframe, the weakest points are where it meets the vertical supports of the main frame by your feet. You will need to brace this joint and build a loop to connect the rear ends of the subframe. When it comes time to build/buy your racks for luggage try to incorporate them into the subframe for added strength. There are many aftermarket racks available. We suggest going for the beefier ones. Stronger the better. You will drop your bike, and the extra strength here will save you some headaches. Plus, what's a pound when you're carrying over 6 gallons of fuel and all your camping gear?
Finding a gear ration that allows for highway cruising and low speed action is key. While you're not likely to find yourself in tight single track, navigating many South American cities will have you wanting the low end in heavy traffic. There are plenty of resources for people's chosen gear ratios on most bikes, so you should not need to experiment too much.
The stock XR600R ratio is 14-tooth front with a 48 tooth rear, which is too tall for highway speed. For the characteristics we wanted, we settled on a 14 tooth up front with a 43 tooth in the rear. This allowed us to cruise at 60mph with plenty of revs left for passing. Probably could have gone with a 41 tooth in the rear for a little higher cruising speed in the long highway sections.
The stock XR600R/XR650L front sprocket is prone to wearing out the output shaft splines, so we chose a front sprocket from the later XR650R (2000-2007). The 650R sprocket has a wider spline engagement solving this problem (the 650R sprocket needs to be installed in reverse).
It is worth your while to buy quality steel sprockets matched to a quality o-ring chain. We had great results using an OEM Honda front sprocket, Sunstar steel rear sprocket and DID vx2 x-ring chain. They made it over 18,000 miles using 20w-50 engine oil as lube before we swapped them out.
We are firm believers in soft luggage. They pack down smaller, are easier to take off, and absorb a lot of impact when you crash or drop your bike. Hard cases stick out wide, and are not forgiving to your subframe or their mounts in the event of a crash. We put our side bags through hell. Eventually putting a few holes in them that were easily patched with extra rubberized fabric we were carrying or duct tape. The only downside to the soft luggage is the lack of security that comes with lockable hard cases.
There are a lot of choices for waterproof soft luggage. We went with the Wolfman Bags because they are simple, tough, made in the USA, and very affordable. We also carried a pelican case on the side of one of our bikes for our camera gear, but it was tucked in tight and gave us no issues.
Air Intake/Watercrossing prep:
Air intake and water crossing prep are closely tied issues. If you're looking to get way out there, chances are that some water is gonna cross your path. After reading a bunch of trip reports from others doing heavy off road long distance trips in Russia, Africa, and South America we wanted to be ready to cross some deep water and eliminate as many potential road blocks as we could.
Most Dirt bikes pull air from under the seat. The XR is no different. The removable air filter service panel is the weak link, if you can seal this up your chances in the water will be greatly improved. While this is probably fine for most trips, we wanted to be prepared for anything. Water in the motor is a pain in the ass. So we made a snorkel system that took the intake to the top of the gas tank. Sealed all the way up so we never had a worry.
There are a few other areas that need attention before you head off.
Make sure you are using a serviceable foam air filter. Paper filters can be easily damaged leaving you stranded, and being able to simply clean and re-oil your filter on the road is way easier than trying to track down new filters.
Carb vent tubes need to have T joints added and then be run into your air box or somewhere high on the frame.
Look to see where your crankcase breather terminates as well, On our bikes we removed the factory tube and ran one high up above the motor with a small filter attached to the end.
All the electrical components on the XR can handle full submersion in water, the only thing we did was add dielectric grease to the connections and spark plug boot.
We never planned on riding at night, but it happened a lot. On too many occasions we found ourselves riding over mountain passes and down shitty gravel roads in the dark. Lots of things can go wrong causing unavoidable night miles and good lights are critical. Hazards are not commonly labeled and the roads are littered with stray dogs, pot holes and livestock.
The stock lights on most dual sports don't cut it. Invest in a quality headlight, making sure it uses common replacement bulbs (and carry extras). We used a pair of Hella Rally 500’s, they are cheep, super bright and use an off the shelf bulb. One thing we regret is not running some type rock shield. Over the miles we both picked up several chips and cracks allowing water to enter the headlight. Also, like we've talked about many times, you are going to drop or crash your bike at some point, make sure your headlight is protected in case of that.
While we don't find turn signals necessary, especially in South America where no one uses them anyways, a bright running/brake light is critical for being seen from behind. Make sure people can see you.
When searching for a used trip bike there are a couple different ways to go. Buy a cheap abused bike that you are planning to completely rebuild, or spend more up front on a gently used bike (this way is cheaper in the long run). Since we were going to heavily modify our bikes, we chose to buy the cheapest bikes we could find and rebuild everything on them. It seemed to make sense at the time….
The XR600/650L motor is one of those 'bullet proof' gems, but most have seen hard lives. When shopping for an XR the easiest way to tell how healthy the bottom end and gear box are is by removing the oil fitting at the bottom of the downtube. There is a screen that keeps engine shavings from entering the oil pump and will tell lots about the engine. When inspecting the screen it's normal to see small metal shavings, what you don’t want to see is large steel flakes. That would indicate gear surface breakdown (usually 3rd gear). If you see copper then kindly decline the bike, this is a firm indicator of a worn bottom end. What you are seeing is thrust washer material from excessive side to side play or a bent crank. Another easy thing to check is the splines on the output shaft. If you have at least 60% left you will be fine as long as you use a sprocket off the later 650R that engages more splines than the original 600R/650L sprocket.
Another issue is a lot of XR600R’s have been modified with big bore kits and high compression pistons. That's the last thing you want when building a bike for long distance trips. We always recommend buying a bike that is as stock as possible. In the case of my bike, it had lived a rough life, spending most of the 90’s pre running the Baja 1000. It ran strong, but when it was time to rebuild the motor I found plenty of issues. The bike was punched out to 628cc with a high compression flat top piston and the gearbox was thrashed. The worst part was when I found pieces of the main rod bearing in the bottom of the case along with a severely bent crankshaft. That all resulted in a complete engine rebuild and sourcing good condition used gears on ebay.
Rebuilding the top end of the XR is relatively simple and cheep. You will want to inspect your camshaft and rocker surfaces, any pitted parts should be replaced. We recommend installing a new cam chain tensioner before leaving (they are prone to going out). Also, you will want to make sure you have a stock type piston. We replaced our high compression pistons using Pro-X brand pistons with great results. We also had thicker copper head gaskets made to drop compression a bit more. If you plan to put 30,000 plus miles on your bike then plan on putting a fresh piston/cylinder bore before you leave.
Go over your bike closely. Any leaks should be dealt with before leaving. Gaskets and seals are cheep, no Japanese bike should leak. Wheel bearings, bent rims and loose spokes should be checked, suspension pivot points inspected and greased. Look closely at your wiring, add grommets to suspect areas and heat resistant tape to hot spots. Reduce as many cheap crimp connectors as possible by soldering. By doing all this service and disassembling your bike you will gain a huge amount of knowledge and understand what tools are essential in your tool kit.
Last but not least, put some miles on your bike before you leave. More than likely you will discover weak links and change things before it’s a major inconvenience on the road. We both love the adventure of breaking down and the thrill of searching for parts. But, the reality is that once your out of the states parts become much more expensive, especially if you need to ship them down. Getting stuck in a crappy city waiting for parts to arrive is no fun and you will watch your travel budget evaporate before your eyes.