Bad Times . . . Basic Bikes

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If times get tough, getting around will likely become a major challenge. Gas may only be sporadically available – in addition to being unaffordable. Imagine, for instance, what might have happened had Dear Leader gone through with his 1939 Poland-style attack on Syria – and the cost of a gallon of gas tripled a few days later. super sherpa

An internal crisis – such as the bursting of the latest shyster-fueled speculative bubble, for instance – could have the same horrendous consequences. The fact is The System’s a late-stage diabetic with renal failure and no access to dialysis.

Things could fall apart tomorrow. If they do, what will you do for transportation?

One option – which I’ve recommended before – is to forgo four wheels entirely. Get a motorcycle. Ideally, an older (pre-2000s) pre-computer, pre-EFI model with an air-cooled engine and a carburetor. A “starter bike” like a Kaw Ninja 250 or Honda Rebel – or a small CC dual-sport/dirt bike –  would be the perfect candidate. Older bikes (pre-1990s) will also often have kick-starters, which will help you conserve the battery by not using it much. And in an emergency, you can still start (and ride) a kick-start bike – even if the battery is completely dead.

Such bikes can be picked up for relatively little money ($2,000 or so ought to be sufficient) and – unlike almost any car – they cost almost nothing to keep you on the road.KL250 oil:filter

And off your feet.

A bike like my early 2000s 250 CC Kawasaki dual-sport (on and off-road capable), for instance.

I bought it for less than $2,000 about eight years ago with only 3,300 miles on the clock – hardly used. This is typical. Bikes in this class/size range tend to be bought and then not ridden much. After a few years, the owner – or his wife – decides it’s time to clean out the garage. Which is exactly the moment when you should appear with cash in hand. Keep your eyes open; scan Craigslist daily. These bikes pop up all the time.

Dual-sports (and dirt bikes) are rugged – built to deal with rough roads (and no roads at all). Mine has a very simple air-cooled, single-cylinder engine that’s capable of 75-100 MPG (depending on the tires; off-road style knobbies reduce the MPGs). If you have say 25 gallons of  treated gas stored away, it would be enough to keep you rolling for a couple thousand milesold bike pic

Ration that out, and it’s enough to keep you mobile when it matters.

Additionally – and very very importantly, if Things Go Bad – a bike like this requires very little in the way of upkeep – and what little it does require involves not much money and only basic DIY skills/ tools.

For instance:

The KL250 only takes about 1.5 quarts of oil (vs. 4-5 for the typical car) and uses a small, cheap filter. Maybe $10 (using high-end synthetic oil) and you can literally do the job in 5 minutes with a crescent wrench or slip joint pliers. A socket set is nice, but not necessary. If you keep say 5 quarts of oil and two or three filters in reserve, you’ve got oil changes covered for years. Even if the system goes completely off-line for a long time, your bike will still be operable because you’ll have fresh oil. Might cost you $40 to stock up. How much oil would you need to stock up to keep your car in fresh oil for say 3-5 years?

Air filter – reusable. Wash it, dry it. You’re done.

Spark plug – just one. Buy a spare ($5) and you’re set for the next 5-10 years. Kaw eliminator

No radiator or coolant. No worries about pinhole leaks, burst hoses, dirty coolant, water pumps or thermostats.

Clean/adjust chain once a year. Replace chain/sprockets maybe every third year ($100 for that, assuming you do the work – and it’s not a tough job).

Clean the carb occasionally; adjust various cables. Brake pads every other year – less than $15 and takes 10 minutes to swap out with very basic tools. Bleed the brakes once year – a pint of fluid, maybe $6.

Now, a bike’s tires definitely don’t last very long – relative to the typical car’s tires. But the upside is that bike tires (for a basic type of bike) are inexpensive. The KL’s cost me about $60 each – and they’ll last 2-3 years. Have a spare set on hand and you’re set. KZ900 2

That’s pretty much it as far as maintenance costs. A machine like my KL250 – or a Honda Nighthawk, Suzuki DR, etc. – is both cheap to buy and to keep. For a long time, if it comes to that.

A bike like this is also low profile. It is easier to hide than a car. And of course, if it’s a dual-sport or dirt bike, it can go places very few cars – and even 4×4 trucks – dare.

In a Things Go Bad scenario, that could be a life saver.

Even if things don’t go completely south, a solid, simple bike can be a real benefit simply by giving you options – and by reducing your getting-around costs. During the summer months, for instance, I often ride rather than drive. It’s enjoyable – and it’s a big money-saver. Even my “big bikes” – the ’76 Kz900 and the ’03 ZRX1200 – are capable of Prius-like mileage, while also being quicker than a new Corvette.'83GL6502

The Kz – basically, the the CHiPS cop bike, but without the fairing – is also cheap to keep. Though a much larger, much more powerful bike than the little 250 CC Kaw dual sport, its inline four is still air-cooled, there is no computer – and other than oil/filter changes, occasional valve clearance checks – it really doesn’t ask for much in the way of upkeep. Ditto one of my other older bikes, the ’83 Honda Silverwing. This bike has a full fairing and windshield, which provides a surprising degree of protection from the elements – which makes it realistically ridable in all but the worst weather. It is water-cooled, which adds another layer of maintenance – but it doesn’t have a computer, EFI or complex electronics. That’s why it’s still an everyday ridable/reliable bike 30 years after it left the Honda factory.

And probably will be another 30 years from now.

That’s the sort of bike you want. Even if the S does not H the F.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  1. I have the newer, better version – the KLX250S, with fuel injection, water-cooling and computers :'(

    Here on Borneo it’s ridiculously hard to find good bikes other than step-thru mopeds, but I can certainly vouch for a Kawasaki 250’s ability to go places!

    The bike I’d love to get hold of is the newer (with electric start) Honda XT250. Basically the same as your Kawa, air cooled, carbed, simple, tough as old boots. They’re popular in Thailand but can’t find them here, only once in awhile and I never seem to have the spare beans when one pops up.

  2. Dang, it’s almost been a year and I still haven’t pulled the trigger and bought a bike.

    There’s this 250 on Craigslist which has dropped to a price I like.
    …But, it’s not a 650+.

    Anyway, the search motor on EPA’s website kind of sucks. Enter the term, “650” and all I got was the latest.

    “650 vs. 250” did a little better, …but still.

    …. I saw a Harley at a garage sale today. It was in this bubble dome kinda thing. I’ve heard of guys doing that for sparkly clean muscle cars like a 69′ Chevelle, ..but for a motorcycle?

    Wouldn’t that be a moisture trap? A.k.a. a rust magnet?
    It was funny, I imagined the jumping bubble domes they have for kids these days,… and here was this motor. Trapped. Like it was a kid. Or, one of those, “don’t touch me” furniture pieces found in high-end homes. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud.

    • Hi Helot,

      A 250 can be ok!

      The KLR 250 is a great little bike; so is the 250 Ninja.

      They’re not rockets, but they can easily keep up with traffic. Very agile, maneuverable… and the 250 KLR can go off road, too!

  3. My first bike (when I was 12) was a Honda trail 90

    90cc’s of awesome power, high and low range, extra gas tank, luggage rack etc

    also had a XL-175, XL-250 , SL-175, CB-350 Yamaha TT-250 etc

    two very different scenarios, if there is still law & order and no social unrest/riots etc, just very expensive or unavailable gas, a bike is a great way to save gas, or if you have to bug out of a big city with lots of jammed up roads a bike is good, but after TSHTF anyone traveling in ANY type of vehicle is gonna be a fat, slow moving valuable target the bad guys can hear coming miles away.

    obviously in that situation, if you have an operable vehicle and fuel to run it, you must have other valuable items on board as well.

    A bike is good to get you to your bug out location but once youre there, you better hunker down and stay put.

    on a quiet day, on a country road, you can hear a vehicle coming 3 to 5 minutes before you see it. plenty of time to ambush you.

    • justin wrote, “if there is still law & order [Ah-hem, still? ] and no social unrest/riots etc, just very expensive or unavailable gas”

      I’m trying to imagine unavailable gas without social unrest/riots etc.

      I’m also imagining what “very expensive” means, at what level, and when does “very expensive” equal unavailable?

      justin wrote, “on a quiet day, on a country road, you can hear a vehicle coming 3 to 5 minutes before you see it. ”

      Most times, I think that’s true, then there are those few times when it’s not.
      Even on gravel roads it’s possible to surprise someone. It’s happened to me more times than I care to admit. But then, I wasn’t in a SHTF situation with heightened senses either.

      Which did you like better, the XL-250, or the Yamaha TT-250?

  4. I was looking at those Russian Ural sidecar bikes- fuel economy is not the best for a bike, but they have 2wd and can be ridden cheaply all year, and you can carry all your gear or 3 people. I think they still do have the kick start option as well as electric, and they are air cooled. Main problem is the price of the new ones- but there are cheaper used ones. There is the Ukranian Dnepr version, which has interchangable parts with the ural and is mostly the same, except the 2wd has an open axle instead of locked like the Ural.

    • @Anchar – I have two friends that ride them. Troublesome machines in my opinion. Old technology, underpowered, and prone to engine / carb/ parts problems. They are cool and you can ride them in the snow though.

      • Yea, 90’s Urals and all Dneprs definately fit that bill, but I thought the improvements they have made in the past 7 years with Ural solved most of those problems….at least I hope so, they are asking an MSRP of over $14000 for a new Gear Up, and they powdercoat some versions of them. They use japanese carbs now, I know that, and ditched the drum brakes and made other tweaks. Still no computer though. I don’t think people want a lot of mechancial issues with a bike of that price- thats why Harley needed to ditch the shovelhead to save it’s buisness.

        • @anchar – Send an email to this guy who owns one and knows all about them. Tell him Gary scott sent you. wildbear ((at))

  5. Don’t forget proper clothing. Nothing worse then trying to use your hiking / casual clothing on a cold day or night, or when it rains. Real motorcycle jacket, pants and boots make all the difference in the world, and most have safety padding built in. Check local Craigs List for lightly used stuff from people who have upgraded or just quit the sport. I recently bought a $1,000.00 Aerostitch one piece touring/ riding suit in very good condition for $150.00.

  6. Eric,

    Good information. Can one kick start any of those older MCs? If no, can a kick start mechanism (relatively) easily be added to it?

    If one looked for a dual-sport, would it be better to look for popular models (easier to find parts if needed)?

    Are the 250cc dual sports capable of riding about 70mph? Although it probably would not be ideal, it would be good to know if one could ride on the interstate if needed. I know the Ninja 250 and CBR250R are interstate capable although these MCs do not have the off-road capabilities of dual-sport bikes.

    Would it be practical to have tires for road use and off road use? (Intending to switch tires as needed?)

    Personally, I would not plan on riding off-road. Would a basic 250cc bike (primarily for road use) be good enough?


    Good thought about potential for injuries on a MC. Although, if one is in a SHTF scenario then Health care in general may be in short supply. I guess one must weigh the pros and cons and decide for themselves what risks one is willing to accept.

    Have you read the Tripod Trilogy (John Christopher 1966-1968)? There was a character called ozymandias in the first book (The White Mountains). The trilogy is a good read.

    • On the rest:

      “If one looked for a dual-sport, would it be better to look for popular models (easier to find parts if needed)?”

      Yes, absolutely. The Kaw KLR250 and 650, the Honda XL250/650, Suzuki DR series… they made these in big numbers and parts are very easy to find.

      “Would it be practical to have tires for road use and off road use? (Intending to switch tires as needed?)”

      You could keep an extra set of tires, or: There are dual-purpose tires that are street (DOT) legal with tread that’ll allow mild off-roading, too. Kind of like M/S tires for trucks.

      “Personally, I would not plan on riding off-road. Would a basic 250cc bike (primarily for road use) be good enough?”

      Yes. Any four-stroke 250 CC dual sport will have a top speed close to 100 MPH and enough power to cruise at 65-70, which is sufficient for short hops on the highway. In city-type traffic, a 250’s acceleration and nimbleness is just the ticket for threading through the Clovers!

      I would want a bigger bike (650) for extended highway riding, though.

    • mith, no haven’t read it (or heard of it, before now). but when landing here, i spied shaffer’s book, “the wizards of ozymandias” in the pile, took it for handle.

      re the bikes, the post- style i have in mind is “motorized horse”. walk it, trot it, but avoid yee-haw & hi-ho silver & polo (chris reeves), if at all possible. that said, i know a guy who fell, in a training for licensure course, in a parking lot, while “at a walk”. his shoulder has been screwed ever since.

      it ain’t bikes, but it transfers: aron ralston

      • ozymandias,

        Here are several reviews for Review for White Mouuntains.

        You should be able to find a copy in a local library or book store. I would highly recommend the trilogy to anyone interested in dystopian societies. Even though it was written over 40 years ago, I think it is still applicable to today’s society.

        The books are not too long and the trilogy could be read in a week.

    • Mithrandir – I’m running Heidenau K60 Scout tires on my KLR 650 and I’m very pleased with them. They are very stable on pavement and work acceptably well off road. In this area (near KC) there are a lot of “county roads” (i.e. gravel or hard packed dirt). I can comfortably run 65 – 70 MPH on them with the K60s, no problem. I also do fine on grass and dirt in the pasture, although these aren’t really the best for mud. But I have no problem corner carving on asphalt. The reviews I’ve read indicate good durability. One guy claimed to have ridden his Beemer from So. Africa to Europe and got 17K kilometers out of the rear alone. Some German reviewers wrote that they are a top notch Alpine snow tire that even performs on ice! I’ll take their word for it. I would say they are a 75% pavement / 25% offroad tire.

      I have an cooworker that runs Michelin Anakee IIs on his Beemer and has great results, although dirt roads are as “off road” as he goes. I had Anakees on the KLR when I bought it, but they weren’t quite agressive enough for me. They are probably an 85%/15% on/off road tire. Since one of my concerns in any SHTF environment is that I might have to circumnavigate a bad situation by way of single track or no track, the Heidenaus seemed to be my best choice. So maybe you wouldn’t need two set of tires after all.

  7. yes to all the yes-factors. but….

    amongst shtf privations will be medical care. easier to get hurt on bikes. factor that in. at the least, riding styles, pre/post apocalypse should differ. post should be even more basic than the bike, you might say.

    i raced mx, teen years. never got hurt. luck, & “the confidence of youth”. street rice-burners came later. i got seriously hurt (drunk turned left in front of me). ALL my street friends got hurt. one died.

    tough enough to come back from multiple fractures at 23, with access to medical infrastructure. different story at 53. & if help isn’t there, even more different.

    some games, not losing is winning. shtf is one of those games.

    • That’s true, Ozzy – nothing’s a freebie!

      That said, I wrote this article after imagining what it’d be like for me to deal with $10 gas. We live 35 miles from anything, so a round trip is about 70 miles. On my 250 Kaw, I could get into town and back – with supplies, etc. – for about half to three-quarters of a gallon. Viable.

      In either of my trucks, at $10 a gallon, it’d cost me $40 just to go to the store and back….

      • nope. TANSTAAFL.

        and i was imagining “the road”, “the book of eli”, & “mad max”. ☻

        not the price point, but flashing on trials bikes (bultaco used to be it), & rokons….

    • Ozy – You’re quite right; sometimes winning really is “not losing.” I tend to believe that if medical care becomes essentially unobtainable and the infrastructure has broken down or checkpoints and blockades have sprouted up to the point that 4 wheeled travel is nigh on impossible, the wise traveler would be very careful regardless of his mode of trasportation. Those of us on two wheels especially would have to be very careful, since we are quite vulnerable to physical assault (such as a cager side checking you, a pedestrian tackling you when you stop, etc.) in addition to the normal hazards of the sport.

      That being said, with a good pair of fence pliers (i.e. wire cutters), there would be a lot places you could take a dual sport or a dirt bike without ever hitting a road to begin with. With subdued paind and clothing and a quiet exhaust system, keen situational awareness and careful riding technique, you could go where you needed to and return home with nary a soul knowing about it. When I was still in Uncle Sam’s Airplane Club, the Rangers were running small 4 stroke Kawasaki Enduros (KL 250s if memory serves) with Supertrapp mufflers and IR filters over the headlight for training out at White Sands (too many years ago to admit to). They had those Supertrapps stacked to near silence. I was amazed as I watched them purr off and just quietly blend right into the desert in broad daylight. With the IR lamp and NVGs they could come and go right by you at night and you’d never know what it was if you even knew they were there. Scary.

      I really think the venerable dual sport / enduro has a definite purpose for a hyper inflation / fuel challenged or serious SHTF scenario prep. With a few 5 gal. Jerry cans of gas treated with PRI-G, a couple of spare sets of tires and other minor consumeables, you’d literally be good to go for years. You’d just have to ride like you have some sense, not ride it like you stole it. I have successfully eluded pursuers on more than one occasion by turning down a single track on an enduro without riding radically or even all that fast. There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that the only person pissed off in the chase was the tax feeder you got away from. 😉

      • can’t disagree. all makes sense.

        “stole it” was a lot of how i did it, back in the day. tho not on the night described above – which is either irony, or a good thing. or maybe both.

        to stole cautiously, quietly into the (good) night would be the way.

        • Add in some switches to turn of extra lights, use uv or ir lights, disappear… until the drones are officially in the air here.
          We need to get Wikileaks to leak the top-secret stealth tech. Ir masking specifically. Radar might be useful, hiding infared much more effective.
          (In a good cockney accent now)
          And then we mount the machine guns on the handlebars….

          The reason I went to engineering? VR-052 cyclone armor. As a kid, That. Was. THE. Shit!

          • Hi Jean,

            Good call, that – on the switches to kill the lights. Bikes built since the late early ’80s (I can’t remember the exact date) are factory wired to burn the headlight/tail-light whenever the ignition switch is in the “on” position. I rigged up a switch for the KL250 that lets me turn off the lights while riding. It’s especially helpful if the tail/brake light can be rigged to not come on when the headlight comes on. That way, it’s harder for porky to pursue you at night!

          • Jean, I’m big into switches killing lights, have been since I was a teen-ager. Although it’s illegal, I always have hidden switches to kill running lights and brake lights. The very first time I used the brake light kill switch to get away from a donut eater it was very effective. Seems he was using my brake lights to judge when to brake for curves while I was driving by moonlight. Once the switch was flipped and no more brake light, he had him a little old accident the locals tried to keep quiet, impossible in a county with 3,000 people.
            Someone said “you could have killed him”. Not me. He could have killed himself. I wasn’t out to actually harm him but he couldn’t say the same about me. Sometimes, what goes around comes around.

      • @Boothe – I saw the USMC boys playing with their diesel Kawasaki KLR650’s on the beach at Camp Pendleton one day. 6+ gallons of diesel @ 70+ MPG (I heard close to 90 MPG) will take you a long way. Too bad us civilians can’t buy one.

        • Garysco – I feel your pain mang. The diesel conversion (according to has “been coming for years.” Estimated civilian cost = $15,000. That’s right, fifteen thousand, not fifteen hundred. I think I’ll stick with my petrol burner, thank you very much. It must be nice to be “the corps” and have our tax money to burn huh? And based on the (ahem) conservative performance of the gasoline engine (even with a Supertrapp IDS-2, Unifilter and Eagle Mike’s jetting in my case), I don’t see how a diesel would be anything to write home about without a turbo on it. Seems to me our SHTF / zombie apocalypse bike just got a bit too complicated and expensive for the application…

          • @Bothe – I have been tempted to try and build one form time to time. I had on ’08 that was setup perfectly for me, but a guy came by with too much cash and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. So I drove it for 3 years and 22,000 miles almost for free. There are days I miss having it.

        • I’ve seen the diesel Kaws – and yeah, the conversion cost is stupefyingly high. So high that it negates any real advantage that I can see. The mileage difference, for instance, isn’t that much. A gas-burner KLR650 ought to be able to give 50 MPG, at least (my bigger/heavier and much less aerodynamic – because fully faired – GL650 gets 50-plus MPG) and probably can deliver closer to 60. To match the diesel’s effective range for a fraction of the cost, all you’d need to do is strap two 5 gallon jerry cans to the bike (in lieu of side bags) and, viola.

          Or, just buy a 250 instead of the 650.

          The 250 will tickle 100 MPG with the right tires – and is superior for running through the forest, up fire roads and so on because it is so much lighter (which you’ll also appreciate if you ever drop the thing in the woods).

          The 650’s only real advantage, in my opinion, is that it has the power for sustained high-speed (70-plus) highway riding. If you don’t need the bike to do that, you really don’t need the 650.

          • @Eric – Agreed. For a great trail and strret bike I am a big fan of the older (street legal in CA) Honda XR400, as long as freeways are only short distance, and no big electrical draw is needed.

  8. Onec again, you’ve written an excellent and timely article Eric. I was just looking at 250 class bikes on Craig’s List the other day. Although my KLR 650 runs in the mid 40’s for MPG and is carbureted, it is still liquid cooled and has an electronic ignition. That might not do well in the event of an EMP. Or merely a hard failure of the ignition module when times are tough and shipping is interupted could result in an unuseable vehicle. But my thoughts were that a mid seventies 250 class Honda Enduro (“dual sport” for you young guys) could easily be converted to an electronic ignition and you’d still have the points and condenser sitting in a parts drawer should you need them. As I recall those older Hondas had adjustable valve tappets as well. I know that my KLR requires shims to adjust the valves. So that means I either keep a shim kit suitable for a shop on hand or dismantle the engine and grind down the valve stems as they stretch if shims weren’t readily available. Sometimes older really is better.

    • Thanks, Boothe!

      I didn’t mention it in the article, but one of my all-time best bikes (defined as bulletproof, cheap, all kinds of fun) was my ’81 XL250 “thumper.”

      That bike would not stop… ever. Just like The Terminator!

      One time, I hit what I thought was a big puddle. It turned out to be deep puddle. Deep enough to sink me to the handlebars.

      I dragged the bike out, used the tool-kit spark plug wrench to remove the plug – manually cranked the engine a few times, put the plug back in and – after a couple of firm kicks, it fired right up and I was back on my way.

      I often wish I still had that bike!

      • eric, ever since reading this post I’ve been reminded of a couple bikes from way back in my day. Of course the old Yamaha DR 250’s and the bad boy of the bunch, the TS 250 Suzuki “on road/off road” 2 cycle thumper that won the world championship that year. I nearly bought a new model, the very first, a 1969 model bike. I had had a good job before going to college(not my thing)so I had a new car and only needed a few other vehicles to round out my stable. Too bad that job didn’t make so much money in several months I could have retired (rich) ha ha. Still, I nearly bought one, being convinced of what I thought was a simply unbelievable handling bike that would shed you off the back in the first 3 gears. Not realizing what I was coming up on, a RR track with a couple feet of rise on the approach side but about 6-8 feet of air on the back side. The fact that I was able to fly that far without ever having a bike that would do that, land reliably and continue on giving it hell made me want one really bad. A friend years later had one and it seemed as if it needed nothing but gas, oil and a heavy throttle hand. I guess they wore out….eventually, even if the riders might have much more quickly. I shoulda bought that bike and got jaded on the wicked Chevy I drove. it would have been a win/win situation, for car and bike, me physically, mentally and judicially…..not to mention my GF who wouldn’t have had to endure all those Dukes of Hazzard things in my Malibu.

        • Excellent, e!

          I am trying to build a decent collection of vicious two-strokes. I have a restored ’75 S1C triple in the garage already. It may only be a 250, but with chambered pipes – and the unexpected shot of power that just happens at about 6,000 RPM – it’s a hoot to ride.

          I keep trolling eBay and Craigs list for a suitable H2 to bring back to life. After that, I want an RZ350. The “yellow jacket.” It’s the only non-Kaw two stroke that inspires the fear – and the awe!


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