Preparation is key to surviving a long desert ride but as any desert rat will tell you: In the desert, nothing goes as planned. Since you will be riding in the most inhospitable environment known to man, you can get lost, bikes can break and injuries can happen. This Desert Ride Preparation Guide is intended as a good starting point to set-up your bike, along-with a few riding and survival tips we have found helpful over the years.
One of our favorite desert rides is the annual Best in the Desert Nevada 200 Trail Ride presented by Motion Pro. This three day event takes place in Caliente, Nevada and it consists of about 200-miles of challenging, gnarly and scenic desert terrain that southern Nevada has to offer so we incorporated a recap of the trip along with the bike prep tips to make the guide a little more entertaining. As I mentioned earlier, the most important part of riding in the desert is being prepared so our first order of business is to set-up the bikes to survive the ride. We won’t be looking at suspension settings in this guide but we will show you the equipment we used on the Trail Ride and offer up some alternative-parts that we feel are worth considering as well.
For the 30th Annual Nevada 200 we rode a 2012 Yamaha WR450F, a 2008 Honda CRF250R and our third rider was fortunate enough to get a 2014 Beta 450RR. We will focus on the first two bikes in this guide. The WR was equipped with just about everything you need to survive the desert while the CRF is equipped with the bare minimum necessary to survive.
As you can see from this list, both bikes were set up with desert tanks, off-road tires, durable handlebars, levers and handguards. These six upgrades are a great starting point for any serious off-road or desert rider. Working from the top of the list down you can see the WR also features radiator guards, skid plate and a steering stabilizer. Many people out there will run their MX bike in the woods or desert and never have an issue but there are a few key differences. These differences include the 19-inch rear wheel on most MX bikes means you have a shorter rear tire sidewall which is more-prone to pinch-flats and the OEM fuel tank is often smaller than a stock Enduro gas tank. Let’s take a look at the benefits of each and how they performed at the Nevada 200 Trail Ride.
Fuel Tank: If you plan to ride in the desert the most important piece of equipment you can put on any motorcycle is a large capacity fuel tank. Often referred to as a desert tank, the added range offered by these little beauties can be a real blessing. At the Nevada 200 you must have a 50-mile range to reach the designated fuel stops or else you have to carry extra fuel in a container and that is not the best option. The 2012 WR450F with the 3.0 IMS went 65-miles without even reaching reserve. The Acerbis 2.9 gallon tank on the CRF250R looked a little low at the 35-mile mark so we topped it off just to be safe. You may have noticed that the WR had a Dry-Brake equipped IMS tank. We had used this bike in a desert race last year so the dry brake made for much quicker fuel stops but is a pain in the butt for general refueling from a gas can. An alternative cap can be purchased but it looks a little funky so we just rolled with the brake.
If you have never installed an aftermarket fuel tank of any type you should know a few things. First of all, nothing seems to fit exactly perfect. So, take your time and loosely fit all the brackets, mounting hardware and radiator shroud mounting bolts before you start tightening anything down. This will leave you a little wiggle room to reposition things or make any modifications if they are necessary. In the case of the WR, the installation of the IMS tank required that we cut off a two-inch wide, 10-inch long strip from the top of our radiator shrouds. It also required swapping the factory Fuel-Injection module from the OEM tank to the IMS tank. This process takes some patience since there are tricky OEM plugs and a very finicky seal between the FI-unit and the base of the tank. It must be perfectly lined up and tightened in a sequence so as not to allow one side to squish down further than the other. It took a couple tries but we got it right. The dry-brake cap also required re-tightening a couple times throughout the weekend. (15-16) Allen-head bolts keep the aluminum brake in place and they seem to loosen up after a few hundred miles of pounding through the Nevada desert.
The Acerbis tank on the CRF on the other hand was much-more straight forward to install and use. The carbureted bikes still require you to swap the fuel petcock from the OEM tank to the desert tank and that means you have to pay attention, follow instructions and make sure not to mess up the gaskets upon install. Once your tanks are in place you have usually added a good 20-30 plus miles of range to your motorcycle. The gas cap is a standard screw-type so there was no hassle when refueling from a jug.
Handle Bars: We ran Renthal Bars on both the WR and the CRF. Your bars and should be set-up for your preferred riding style and height so that you are comfortable for those long stints in the saddle. As a general rule you will be standing up more in the desert so as long as you ride on your pegs most of the time your bars should be high and your levers should be adjusted so that you have a comfortable reach while standing. The WR was set-up for standing with Fastway bar risers and a taller EVO Windham bend to the Renthal bar. The Windham is actually a low-style bar which slightly off-sets the added height of the bar-risers and gives added width to the clamp area which were both necessary to get the steering stabilizer in place. If you tend to ride sitting down a lot then you should set them up to be easy to reach from the seat. Over the course of three days we all spent a fair amount of time on the seat. In theory you want to be standing up as much as possible, especially in the washes and when tip-toeing through the rough and rocky terrain but normal humans tend to wear out after a while.
The Nevada 200 is a good mix of high-speed and technical sand washes which are best tackled from the standing position. If you hit a hidden rock while seated, your chances of getting bucked-off are higher than if you are on the pegs. In the rough, single track, there were loads of low-hanging branches so the challenge was to stand when you could and use the trees as an excuse to sit down.
Grips: Stock grips are fine for many people but once you discover the joy of a grip that fits your hand perfect, you will never settle for stock waffle grips again. In the desert you are riding for long, long periods of time so a soft, comfortable grip can go a long way to help prevent blisters. Over the years we have discovered that the Pro Taper Pillow Grip is a great grip for all types of riding.
Levers: Usually, levers run on the OEM perch, but that’s not always the case. Both our CRF and WR were equipped with Motion Pro OEM Replacement levers on both sides which also run the OEM perch. Make sure to adjust your levers to coincide with your riding style like we mentioned earlier in the handlebar section. It’s a good idea to tighten your lever mounts just enough where they stay put but loose enough to allow them to rotate if you hit the ground hard. You should always bring some sort of spare lever in your tool kit when you are riding in remote locations. Be aware of that if you are running aftermarket levers with different perches, your spares need to be compatible.
Hand Guards: There are a variety of hand guards to choose from but the most important thing is having them on your motorcycle. The WR featured Cycra Stealth Alloy guards while the CRF was set up with Acerbis Tri Fit. These Cyrca guards easy to install accessories that make a world of difference by protecting your hands from brush, cactus, rocks and other debris. These are the most basic bar-mount style guards which attach quickly to the handlebar with a strong perch. Other brand hand guard perches even fold to reduce the chance of the guard breaking off in case of a tip-over but these two are solid mount. The Acerbis guards on the CRF are the popular “Bark Buster” style that incorporates a flat aluminum bar that wraps in front of the controls to the end of the handlebar for maximum impact protection while the plastic guards conceal the metal and offer a wide shield for protection. An added benefit of this style bar is that it protects the levers in a crash. This added protection comes at a cost because they take more effort to install and they add a bit of weight to the bar.
On this particular ride the two personal bikes had guards but the stock Beta 450RR did not. As a result, poor Justin was used and abused by Mother Nature. We spent a lot of time banging brush in the single track and while the occasional knuckle-buster is a nuisance, J-Dawes was being pummeled by every branch on the trail and his fingers bore the brunt of the attack. They were swollen-up like sausages by lunch time and by the end of the trip he looked like he got in a bar brawl. The morale of the story is hand guards are a great way to protect your hands at a value that should not be underestimated.
Steering Stabilizer: If you plan to get serious about desert riding, a good steering stabilizer is a real luxury item. Not everyone needs or even likes them but you won’t find a racer without one. If you plan to go fast a stabilizer adds a measure of protection from deflection in the rough stuff and hidden rocks that are common in the desert. Look close and you can see a Fastway System 5 stabilizer located under the bars on the WR. This layout is great for a rider who like the taller bar setup. There are quite a few stabilizer options on the market so just remember that in most cases, you get what you pay for. Honda recognized the benefit of the stabilizer so the ’08 CRF250R comes with its Honda Progressive Steering Damper from the factory.
It was a good thing too because as we mentioned before the terrain was rough. A steering stabilizer is such a nice addition to a desert bike in particular. If you are blitzing washes and hit a rock it can be the difference between getting swapped into oblivion or having a mild heart palpitation. It happens all the time if you are carrying any sort of speed so you tend to tense up and this puts stress on your arms and upper body. With a stabilizer you can relax a bit knowing that you have that safety guard. In the rocky trails it helps to because the bars don’t tend to deflect so quickly. A stabilizer helps keep the bike tracking straight and gives you that split-second of help that can be the difference in a tip-over or an easy save. Some of the goat trails on the 200 proved this point again and again.
Foot Pegs: Having a good, solid platform to stand on is a great way to reduce rider fatigue and dissipate the weight across a wider area of your boots. Stock pegs tend to be narrow and offer minimum grip from the factory. An aftermarket peg can be chosen that suits your needs perfectly. We replaced the OEM pegs on the WR with black-anodized Fastway Evolution F3 series stainless steel pegs with replaceable teeth. There are many different types of aftermarket footpegs on the market. They range from lightweight Titanium or aluminum with intricate CNC-machined designs to burly-looking traditional style with wide footpads and sharp teeth for added traction.
Exhaust: The stock exhaust system on any off-road bike is designed to offer a decent combination of power and sound emissions along with some sort of spark arrestor. Not all bikes come with a spark arrestor but anyone who rides off-road should have one. In the case of the WR we had an FMF Factory 4.1-series slip-on with optional screen-type spark arrestor. This exhaust is rated at less than 100 dB but is offered with an optional quiet-tip insert that brings it down to 94 dB. This reduces the sound output considerably and makes this particular system compliant in most OHV areas. The CRF250R is equipped with the dual exhaust from the factory. In our tests of this bike, it purred 97-98 dB off the showroom floor and it doesn’t come with a spark arrestor. Depending on where you live, sound ordinances inmost OHV areas range between 94 and 99 dB so make sure to know your local laws before you ride. In most cases a slip-on can be added without any other modifications and it will not only reduce your bike’s weight by a few pounds compared to the OEM mufflers, but it allows you to choose a system that will comply with your local laws. We were informed that starting in 2015 the Nevada 200 Trail Ride will require all attendees to comply with the low 99dB sound restrictions that Nevada riders are subject to.
Radiator Guards: Most of the OEM radiators are not very durable and protecting them is an area often overlooked by many riders. Installing a radiator brace or radiator guard takes a little time but it can pay off by protecting the cooling system of your motorcycle if you happen to fall down. The WR450F we rode here featured GYTR Radiator guards but there are many different brands available. It takes a little time to disassemble the OEM radiators, in some cases you have to drain the coolant and remove a hose or two but when the job is done you have just increased the bike’s durability exponentially. No matter how good you are, you will go down in the dirt. With a reinforced brace you reduce the chances of bending your valuable radiators.
Skid Plate: A good skid plate can save you thousands of dollars in repair costs as it protects the tender underbelly of your dirt bike. The frame tubes that run under the bike are subjected to massive amounts of abuse whether you ride in the desert or the woods. We used a GYTR plastic skid plate on the WR and the CRF250R had an Acerbis plastic skid plate. The plastic versions are popular in the desert racing community because they are light, inexpensive and durable. The reasoning is that while an aluminum skid plate offers a more robust level of protection, they are heavier and if they get bent there is a chance that it can poke into the engine. That is a tip from some of the folks who set-up bikes for desert racing. As a result, the plastic style skid plates have grown very popular in recent years because they tend to flex instead of bending and they glide over rocks, trees and rough ground instead of scraping along. It is a matter of personal preference and there are more than a few woods bikes in the Motorcycle-Superstore garage with aluminum skid plates.
All throughout the trail ride we could feel and hear the skid plates taking abuse. Crawling over big rocks and scraping through the technical rock gardens that seemed to pop up in the middle of every other sand wash in Caliente made us all thankful for the added protection. We even experienced a serious smash on the CRF that resulted in a hairline crack to the outside of the engine case beyond the protected area of the skid plate. Without one, we would have busted that case open and spewed all the vital fluids out in a remote location. Skid plates: Don’t leave home without them.
Rear Disc Guard: You can argue the case for a front disc guard but the are equally important. For whatever reason, only the Honda had one on the front and it’s a OE unit. We stuck a TM Designworks rear brake caliper guard and plastic GYTR disc guard to protect the expensive brake components on the WR450F. Both items come in aluminum or some type of composite options. You might notice a trend that plastic is gaining market share in the design of these guards that historically have been manufactured from aluminum. The same argument is that plastic flexes while metal bends.
Air Filter: There is one more critical component that you can protect from the harsh off-road environment. The engine and your air-filter is the last line of defense against dust, dirt and sand that wants to get sucked into it on any given Sunday. We run the No-Toil filters in both bikes because they are pre-packed and easy to install. Carrying additional air-filter or two in your gear bag is a great way to protect your bike if you plan on riding multiple days or in very dusty conditions.
At desert riding events like the N200 or a desert race you are guaranteed to be riding in dust. Previous Nevada 200 rides have experienced weather conditions ranging from rain and snow to sweltering heat. This event was blessed with rain and snow in the days before and warm weather during the ride so there was plenty of dust when the trails snaked through dense underbrush but the washes were pretty clear. If you choose to ride at the tail of the pack on a trail ride then it’s your own fault for getting dusted out. In an organized event like the Nevada 200 the goal is to enjoy the scenery and the camaraderie so it was in your best interest to fall back and let the crowd go. The southern Nevada scenery is epic with vistas that seemed to go on for a hundred miles surrounding you in every direction. It’s this wide-open sensation that is so appealing about riding in the desert, so unless you are in a race, make sure to relax and enjoy the ride. Your air filter will be glad you did.
Sprockets Front & Rear: Your chain and sprockets should be viewed as an easy and relatively inexpensive way to tailor your bike to your riding style. You can gear the bike taller for high-speed desert riding or shorter for more technical trail riding. An MX bike will usually come with shorter gears so the rider has to shift a lot which is key to riding on the closed course circuits that they were designed for. The MX bikes also tend to have a lower top speed for this same reason. This makes the MX bikes well suited for trails for many riders, but some taller gearing will reduce the stress on the engine in the desert. Our CRF featured a Sunstar sprockets 13/51 gearing arrangement which is slightly lower than the stock 13/48 configuration. A standard D.I.D. chain put the power to the rear wheel. On the WR we run a 13/45 set up for desert which retains the stock countershaft sprocket but drops five-teeth on the back for a more speed on top, plus a Renthal R3 O-ring chain.
Gearing changes on a dirt bike take about a half hour and pay huge dividends so don’t be afraid to experiment with your bike. Basically one tooth larger on the front equals a three tooth reduction on the rear. Both yield an equal increase in top speed and decrease in low end acceleration. The same equation works for quicker acceleration, dropping a tooth on the countershaft is equal to adding three teeth to the rear sprocket. Any combination between those two scenarios will result in noticeable changes in how your bike accelerates and the top speed.
Wheels: All of the bikes we rode at the Nevada 200 ran the OEM wheels. There are a variety of aftermarket dirt bike wheels and wheel-sets available on the market these days which will offer lighter and stronger layouts, but they are an expensive upgrade. You can buy complete wheel sets with a wheel, spokes and hubs already assembled from a number of manufacturers or you can buy each piece by itself and assemble the wheel of your dreams. If you have the extra cash, they are a great way to enhance the look of your bike. CNC-machined anodized aluminum hubs, fat spokes and various color options make the replacement wheels a popular upgrade with off-road and motocross riders. Yet it always amazes us how much of a beating a wheel can take, which is a testament to RK/Excel wheels that are standard equipment on these three bikes and nearly every other brand on the market these days. After 200-miles of hard riding we didn’t have one bent wheel among three different bikes.
Tires: Are a polarizing subject in the world of motorcycles. Personal preference, experience, word of mouth and even sponsorships often dictate which brand of tire a rider may use. In the end, you should do your best to set-up your motorcycle with the best tires you can afford for the type of riding you intend to do. Knowing that the desert is a tough, demanding place for any tire we took the opportunity to set-up the WR with the new generation Dunlop Geomax Desert AT 81 front and rear. This combination provides a great deal of traction on hard terrain while resisting punctures thanks to its tough design. The CRF was shod with the proven Maxxis Maxxcross Desert IT tires which are available for bikes with a 19-inch rear wheel. The Beta 450RR comes stock with Michelin Enduro tires. All three bikes ran heavy-duty inner tubes as well. Neither experienced a flat over the course of 200-miles and three days of varied desert off-road terrain.
There are lot of factors that come into play when selecting the tires that are right for you but understanding what type of riding you plan to do most is the first step. When it comes to desert riding you want a tough, durable, hard terrain tire that has a strong sidewall so if you do get a flat and have no way to repair it, you have a chance of riding it out. Making sure you run tire pressure that works well for that terrain and that specific tire is a tough task that is often overlooked. Running an over inflated tire will cause the bike to lose a level of feel and be prone to deflecting and feeling loose. Running a tire under-inflated can lead to pinch-flats, so keep a close on your tire pressure. As a general rule, you want to run a desert tire on the hard side around psi: 15-16 is pretty standard stuff. Folks like to run 18-psi in rocky conditions if you are spending more time on the trail than you are on fast roads. If you plan to ride in the desert on a regular basis, you might as well start learning how to ride with harder tires. Also, if you happen to have a street-legal dirt bike you want to make sure you have a DOT-approved knobby or else you could get in legal trouble.
Well, as you can see, the Motorcycle-Superstore team is serious about riding off-road. In one way or another our team members have raced in many local Enduros, regional hare scrambles, motocross, Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno and a few SCORE Baja 1000 races as well. We may not be the supreme authority on how to ride in desert but we love to ride off road and we hope that this guide will help you get off on the right foot. As you can tell in this recap of our Nevada 200 Trail Ride, our bikes are not 100% completely set-up with every accessory known to man, we do have them set-up with the components that help make our bikes a little more suited to surviving rough desert terrain. It was a good thing too because the Nevada 200 abuses all bikes and all riders. Every day the Best in the Desert support trucks brought damaged bikes back to base camp with busted wheels, cracked cases, flat tires and mangled bars. Knowing what to expect allows you to be prepared but always remember that the desert will always surprise you and that’s why it is so much fun to ride there.
Now you have a good starting point to prepare your motorcycle for desert riding. We offer this Desert Riding Gear & Survival Tips Guide for some ideas on how to gear up for your ride.