Is a Dual-Sport Motorcycle a Street-Legal Dirt Bike?

For all their strengths and popularity, many dirt bikes have the same problem: they’re not street-legal. Note, though, that I said ‘many,’ not ‘all.’ That’s because some of these off-road motorcycles can be legally registered for road use. However, if you search through many manufacturers’ catalogs, you likely won’t find the phrase ‘street-legal dirt bike.’ Instead, you’ll likely see references to dual-sport motorcycles. But are they in fact the same thing?

Dual-sport motorcycles might be street-legal, but are they dirt bikes?

Trail dirt bike riders at the Boone Road/Johnson Valley OHV area in California
Trail dirt bike riders at the Boone Road/Johnson Valley OHV area in California | Getty Images/Bob Riha, Jr.

Tackling this dual-sport motorcycle question first requires understanding what a dirt bike is. Or rather, what separates a dirt bike from other kinds of motorcycles. And this gets complicated because, as it happens, the term ‘dirt bike’ doesn’t just apply to one kind of bike.

If you asked the average person to imagine a dirt bike, they’d likely picture something like the Honda CRF250R James Bond rode. But while it’s part of the dirt bike family, it’s not a trail bike like the CRF250F. It’s technically a motocross bike, Dirt Rider explains. So, while it can go off-road, it’s designed for racing around special outdoor courses featuring natural terrain and man-made obstacles. Supercross bikes look similar, and often face similar challenges, but they race over short distances in arenas. And none of these dirt bikes are street-legal.

But then, by definition, dirt bikes aren’t supposed to be street-legal. “By their nature,” Cycle World explains, “dirt bikes are sold as OHV or off-highway vehicles.” Dirt Rider says something similar: “Off-road motorcycles, or dirt bikes, are any motorized two-wheeled machines that are designed to be ridden…essentially anywhere but the street.” In that regard, ‘street-legal dirt bike’ is arguably an oxymoron.

A red-and-white 2021 Honda CRF300L dual-sport motorcycle amongst desert plains
2021 Honda CRF300L dual-sport motorcycle | Honda

So, that sounds like dual-sport motorcycles aren’t dirt bikes, then? Well, no. Dual-sports “are in the same bloodline” as enduro bikes, RideApart explains. Enduros are yet another member of the dirt bike family. But they’re beefier, more powerful, can carry more fuel, and have more protection than simple trail bikes. That’s because they’re designed to explore the terrain, not just race through it, Dirt Rider says.

And as it happens, the same things that make a dirt bike better over longer distances also make it more usable on the road. It’s just that, while enduros aren’t necessarily street-legal, dual-sport bikes are. So, while a dual-sport motorcycle isn’t a trail bike, it is a street-legal dirt bike.

Is a dual-sport motorcycle the same thing as an adventure bike?

A black-clad rider on a gray-camo 2022 Kawasaki KLR 650 Adventure dual-sport motorcycle in the desert
2022 Kawasaki KLR 650 Adventure dual-sport motorcycle | Kawasaki

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This ability to freely go between pavement and dirt is a big reason why dual-sport motorcycles have become extremely popular. Riders Share CEO Guillermo Cornejo says it’s “one of the fastest-growing segments in all of motorcycling.’” And as mentioned earlier, their off-road-friendly features, such as long-travel suspension and economical, relatively simple engines make them excellent urban commuters. Plus, unlike a trail bike, you can carry luggage on a dual-sport.

However, there’s another kind of motorcycle that also fits this description: an adventure bike. Like dual-sports, adventure bikes have long-travel suspension, off-road tires, and many come with additional protection such as skid plates. And some models blur the lines between the two segments.

For example, most dual-sport motorcycles have single-cylinder engines. However, the Royal Enfield Himalayan, though it’s classified as an adventure bike, has a single-cylinder engine. In contrast, while the KTM 690 Enduro R has a single-cylinder engine, it has adventure-bike-like electronic features. Plus, KTM lists it in the same category as the 790 Adventure, which is an ADV. And while the Kawasaki KLR650 is perhaps the definitive dual-sport motorcycle, it now offers an Adventure trim.

So, what separates a dual-sport from an ADV? Mostly intent. Dual-sport motorcycles are derived from their non-street-legal brethren. They’re genuine dirt bikes that have enough accouterments to be street-legal and cover longer distances without too much discomfort. In contrast, adventure bikes are basically touring motorcycles with added off-road capability. Case in point, the very first ADV, the BMW R80 G/S, was based on a street bike, not an off-road one.

Dual-sport and adventure motorcycles might be similar in some ways, but they’re not the same kinds of bikes.

Which manufacturers offer dual-sport bikes in the US?

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As a result of dual-sport motorcycles’ increasing popularity, more manufacturers are starting to throw their helmets into the fray. As of this writing, these companies can sell you one of these street-legal dirt bikes:

  • Beta
  • Honda
  • Husqvarna
  • Kawasaki
  • KTM
  • SSR
  • Suzuki
  • SWM
  • Yamaha
  • Zero

In short, if you want to buy a street-legal dirt bike, there are plenty of dual-sport motorcycles to choose from.

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