Budget Adventure Touring on a Ducati Scrambler

Think of it as ADV Lite, where less is more.

riding the Ducati Scrambler in the desert

Who hasn't had the dream? Hop on a bike, throw a sleeping bag on the back, and go where life takes you. Forget about slavin' away for the man; you're a cowboy wandering the West. Seeking adventure and truth. Enlightening others with your freedom. A wing-footed god of the highway. Easy Rider. Then Came Bronson. Long Way Round. All you need is a bitchin' new ADV bike that lets you go anywhere. But they cost, like, 20 grand by the time you get them kitted out. Hmmm. Looks like we're sayin' hello to the man again on Monday morning.

Of course, there's another way. You just ride what you have, make it work, and look for the cheap way out. Hotel? Bloody luxury—we'll sleep on the ground. Starbucks coffee? Pack a thermos. Camp stove and kitchen? Beef jerky and gas-station deli sandwiches. Hot shower? That's why they make truck stops. Embrace that third-world refugee lifestyle—you're still living better than most of the planet, and you'll ride while others are stuck at the office. Sure, this comes more naturally when your car is showing 415,000 miles on the clock (and that's the good vehicle) or if you're just a delinquent mortgage payment from living under an overpass, both of which describe my pathetic existence with painful accuracy.

But talk's cheap too. It's time to walk the walk or, in this case, ride the ride. Ducati's new Scrambler might be a super-popular machine, but it's hardly anyone's definition of a modern ADV bike. No long-travel suspension, no aluminum panniers or travel trunk. It does have the right number of cylinders though, and its name says it can handle dirt roads. Maybe it's time to find out.

the author asking for directions and advice

The Scrambler mentality is about more than Point-A-to-Point-B riding. It's about abandoning structure, keeping an open mind, and just wandering around.

By now the Scrambler’s story is well known, harking back to 1962 when Ducati imported light, high-bar singles into the US, designed to scramble along dirt trails as well as pavement. The new 2015 Scrambler is a modern riff on that heritage: Lightish at a claimed 375 pounds dry/410 pounds wet, it offers a neutral seating position. No windshield, no bodywork, a single disc brake on each wheel, and a wide (33-inch) handlebar. Available in four iterations (Icon, Urban Enduro, Classic, and Full Throttle), we’re on the Icon today.

"Scrambler" rhymes with "rambler," and rambling around on this little 803cc twin is exactly what we plan to do. To that end we need a way to carry a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and a toothbrush. Cowboys had their saddlebags, and real ADV bikes have their sophisticated hard-luggage systems. We opt for a pair of DrySpec D20 saddlebags and a D38 top bag from Twisted Throttle (twistedthrottle.com).

“The Duc’s engine is a lot of fun. It might produce only 75 hp, but I only have about 75 hp of talent.

How can we put this decorously? The new Ducati isn’t exactly Sir Mix-A-Lot’s dream. This baby ain’t got no back, no junk in the trunk, no Kardashian-esque caboose. No passenger in her (or his) right mind would volunteer to perch here for more than 20 minutes. There’s not much booty to hang those bags on, but the Twisted Throttle luggage design offers plenty of adjustability. If they work on the Scrambler, they’ll probably work on anything. One thing we did find with these soft bags: To get the adjustments right, it’s best to first pack them tight when they’re off the bike then sling them over the saddle, rather than trying to put them on the bike empty and then load them up.

Like the Scrambler, our route is a little bit of everything—freeway, mountain roads, deserts, a national park, dirt sections. Even a little tearing around on a dry lake bed. No particular place to go—just trying to link up some interesting sights with a thin wallet and a few days off. Rambling.

riding the Ducati Scrambler on a curvy road

Riding up to the pine-forest village of Idyllwild, California, we climb from sea level up to 5,400 feet. The Ducati has a lot of character, mostly because its engine is a lot better than its chassis. This imbalance differs from typical Japanese bikes, which tend to be equally developed in all areas. The Duc’s engine is a lot of fun. It might produce only 75 hp, but I only have about 75 hp of talent.

Part of the reason for its responsive nature is its low gearing. At 80 mph indicated the Scrambler revs close to six grand. My old Superhawk, also a 90-degree twin, tachs about 4,400 at the same speed.

On these mountain roads the Scrambler is light and easy to flick from turn to turn. The lack of a windshield, a drag on highway drones, is a lot less annoying when the road starts to snake around, even with that extra-wide handlebar. About that handlebar: We’ve loosened the perch clamps and rolled it forward a couple of inches to open up the cockpit. The Scrambler is friendly for short riders—a little less so if you’re 6-foot or taller. The abbreviated, sloping seat is well matched to the bike’s 100-mile fuel range. You’ll want to step off every couple of hours, but it’s good enough for a 400-mile day.

An advantage of any adventure bike shows up when that day is finished. Hotels? Who needs ’em? Just find a dirt road, wander down it for a while, and find a place to flop. At the day’s last gas stop I pay five bucks for a bundle of firewood and another five for a sandwich, a bottle of beer, and to have my thermos filled with coffee. On the way out I score some free cardboard boxes from the market’s dumpster, break them down, and bungee them on top of the wood—they’ll provide the “kindling” to get the campfire going. I’ve brought a ground pad along, otherwise a little more cardboard would address that issue too.

the author setting up his tent next to the Ducati Scrambler

Have you ever ridden on a dry lake or on Bonneville’s flat salt? It’s like nothing else on the face of the planet. We’re so used to having our way dictated by paths and roads, both in life and on our bikes. Out here there are no boundaries. Just a horizon. It’s disorienting at first and then a ton of fun.

Is it legal to sleep out here? Who knows? The price is right though. Choosing a mountaineer’s bivvy sack rather than a tent keeps things even more low-profile and lets us enjoy a heaven full of stars and a moon so bright I’m almost happy when it sinks below the horizon. With no cell coverage and no hotel TV, it’s just me and the campfire. That Scrambler minimalism again.

The coffee’s still pretty warm the next morning, and after a couple cups it’s time to pack up and find some breakfast. Six-fifteen in the morning. If I were backpacking, I’d just choke down a couple Powerbars, but a roadside-diner breakfast is one of the great affordable luxuries of travel. An hour’s ride east lies the town of Joshua Tree, entrance to the national park of the same name.

There’s a passage from the great American writer Charles Portis I always think of when I’m on the road:

I had decided to drive over to one of the tourist hotels on the Paseo Montejo. Their dining rooms would be open. A big gringo breakfast there would be expensive but would hold me for the rest of the day, what with a few supplementary rolls stuffed in my pockets.

the author drinking coffee aboard his Ducati Scrambler

We're all learning to make do with less–less time, less money, less water. Motorcyclists are nothing if not adaptable, and we're used to traveling light.

In Josh it’s not a tourist hotel we sniff out but instead a tiny café. They’re used to dirtbag rock climbers here, so a dirtbag motorcyclist who wants to shave in their bathroom sink is right at home. Every-one’s interested in the Scrambler too, parked out front. This thing’s a good-will magnet, just so much fun and so approachable with its friendly school-bus-yellow tank. What looks good on the menu? Diced potatoes, patty sausage, OJ, some more coffee, flour tortillas. How do I want my eggs? Gotta be scrambled today.

The tariff to enter the park is 15 bucks, but on a bike they only charge five—sweet! Lots of memories here from when I used to climb. Back then I sacked out in my ’62 VW bus, using the same sleeping bag I used last night. On the south side of the park it’s time to ride past the Salton Sea, a freakish post-apocalyptic vision of the American Dream gone wrong, complete with heavy-metal pollution, skeletal buildings, and bubbling mud volcanoes.

The Ducati’s single round digital instrument display evidences a mechanical oddity—the speedometer reads when traveling backward as well as forward. This never leads to any good, as nobody can resist seeing how fast they can ride backward (personal best: 7 mph). The display also lets you toggle up such useful information as air temperature. It’s 107 degrees now, warm riding even given my half-man/half-lizard physiology. It’ll be cooler in the mountains, so we’ll ride over there, rewarded with a 25-degree drop in 10 miles.

Here’s something I’ve learned about travel. Most of the time, it’s about the destination: Let’s visit Paris, or let’s see the Grand Canyon. If you’re doing that, maybe it doesn’t matter how you get there—it’s all about the place. But on a motorcycle, it’s all about the journey, more the how than the where. If the roads are good enough and you have enough time, it doesn’t matter where “there” is at all.

traveling along a desert road with the Ducati Scrambler

Apple pie and ice cream await in the old gold-mining town of Julian. From here it’s just an hour and a half back to the coast. But then there’s trouble. On a tiny mountain road, traffic comes to a dead stop. Fatal accident ahead. Road completely shut down. Cops galore. The prospect of a three-hour detour looms, along with a bad aftertaste from what was supposed to be the end to a fine day.

So I turn around and go back the way I came. But what's this, off on the left? A dirt road? A quick glance at a map shows it goes through. On a low-barred sports machine these next 12 miles would be a deal breaker, but the Scrambler champs at the bit. It's not a fast ride, but we're moving. The Scrambler's ABS is a drag on this dirt. You can turn it off, but figuring out how isn't intuitive. Plus, the maniacs on the Cycle World staff have worn the Scrambler's rear tire down to a slick with their incessant wheelspin, so it really doesn't hook up to any degree. But we're still moving forward while them other poor bastards are stuck in their cars. And come to think of it, this unplanned back road is kinda cool.

Would this pocket adventure have been any more enjoyable on a bigger bike with more suspension and hard bags or if I’d stayed in a hotel like a respectable member of the human race? I don’t think so. Sure, it would have been simpler. And the Scrambler, while dirt-road friendly, offers nowhere the capabilities of a genuine dirt bike. But if you’re willing to go a little slower it’ll still take you plenty of interesting places, and you’ll have a lot of fun. And more than a few riders are intimidated by the high seats and heavy weight of the big ADV bikes, plus a price that’s easily double the Scrambler’s.

viewing the sunrise through the Ducati Scrambler

Once upon a time, I ran into Valentino Rossi at a Monterey restaurant when he was racing at Laguna Seca. He'd just jumped from Honda to Yamaha and wondered if I wouldn't talk to him because of that. I told him that when I go to a concert, I don't care what brand of piano or violin the musician is playing—I just want to hear good music.

And that’s the great truth in all of this. Sure, the Scrambler’s fun. But the bike you have in your garage right now is probably fun too. Better yet, it’s paid for. Dig that sleeping bag out of the basement. Get yourself some saddlebags. Budget 50 bucks for gas and another 40 for food. You’re in for under a C-note. Remember why you first fell in love with motorcycling. A lot of things might have changed, but one thing sure hasn’t: Everything’s still better on a bike.

Photo #1

Ducati Scrambler action.Jeff Allen

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The Scrambler mentality is about more than Point-A-to-Point-B riding.Jeff Allen

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Ducati Scrambler action.Jeff Allen

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Setting up the tent.Jeff Allen

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Ducati Scrambler action.Jeff Allen

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Morning coffee.Jeff Allen

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Ducati Scrambler action.Jeff Allen

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Sunrise Scrambler.Jeff Allen

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Ducati Scrambler action.Jeff Allen

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Everyone's interested in the Scrambler too.Jeff Allen