As part of the series of posts about trail side maintenance, this one talks about oil changes. Doing an oil change is a basic maintenance job that every adventure rider should know how to do for their bike. Most mid-size and big adventure bikes have long intervals so you can plan those oil changes around the trips you are making. But many lightweight adventure bikes, such as adventurized KTM EXC’s or Honda’s CRF 450L, have shorter intervals and therefore may require you to do an oil change on the trail.

The way an oil change is done, depends on the bike, so I cannot give you exact instructions, but here’s what you need to know or look for.

Recommended Oil for your oil change

The manual of your motorcycle will tell you the recommended oil for your motorcycle. For my ’08 KTM 690 Enduro, it is 10W60. KTM recommends Motorex for all non-fuel fluids, so the manual states a specific brand and type, but the 10W60 is the important bit. Look up the recommended oil for your adventure bike in this table.

The W in the oil specification stands for “Winter”. Basically, the number before the W indicates how fluid (the viscosity) is at cold temperatures and the number after the W indicates how the oil behaves, how fluid it is, when hot. The higher the number, the thicker the oil is. So, 10W oil will be flowing more than 20W oil at the same temperature.

Topping up

Your engine may use a bit of oil as you ride. Especially thumpers (single cilinder motorcycles) will use a bit of oil. So, keeping an eye on the oil level in your engine is good practise. To know if you bike uses oil. Check the oil level every few 100 km’s (or miles) with a cold engine (so, before starting it up) by putting the motorcycle vertical and check the oil level glass. If you bike has a center stand, put it on that, otherwise you may want to ask someone else to keep the bike upright as you check the oil level.

Then, make note of the oil level and the odometer. Write it down to keep track of it over time so you learn how much oil your bike uses.

With that knowledge, you know if you need to bring oil on a long trip so you can top it up if needed.

Oil Filter

As the oil is going around the engine to keep it clean, it picks up tiny particles along the way. The oil is also going through the oil filter, which makes sure the particles stay in the filter and the clean oil can go back into the engine again.

These particles can come from various places in the engine, such as the clutch plates. But, getting those particles in the piston and cylinder could damage the engine, hence the oil filter is an important part and should be replaced as per your motorcycle manufacturers recommendation. Most of the time this means, replacing the oil filter every planned oil change. Some bikes have multiple oil filters and/or additional oil screens, such my Bigfoot Bike.

Going over the recommended oil change interval is of course not recommended. But it can be done of course. Your engine will not suddenly blow up if you go 100km over the recommended oil change interval. Just remember if you are riding your motorcycle very conservatively, the engine is not stressed as much as if it is being run aggressively.

On long trips, I will replace the oil before I leave, even it is not yet recommended. But if you expect to ride your bike aggressively, or continuously at high revs for example, you may want to change the oil and the filter(s) during a long trip.

What tools to bring

Like I recommend in the other maintenance articles, it is best to do your first oil change in the comfort of your own home or garage. That way you know what it will take to do it. But in general, consider taking one or more of these items with you:

  • Wrench or bit to remove oil drain plug
  • Tool to remove oil filter
  • New oil filter
  • Tools to inspect and clean oil screens, if you bike has them
  • Spare engine oil recommended for your bike
  • Liquid metal to repair a damaged engine case.
  • A funnel is handy when pouring oil into the engine. It is easy to improvise a funnel from a soda bottle or cardboard.
  • Disposable gloves. Oil

Armed with that knowledge, you equip your travel toolkit with those tools to perform the oil change. Or, if you don’t have them, research a garage in the area along your route to borrow the tools and do the oil change there. Again, check the details of the oil change procedure for your bike before you leave. Better yet, practise it once or twice with the tools you plan on taking with you.

Dispose of old oil correctly

Never ever let (used) engine oil leak into the environment. When in a garage you will have access to an oil pan to catch any oil coming out of the engine and then dispose of it correctly. If you are prepared, it is highly unlikely that you have to do an oil change in the field.

Oil leak or damaged engine case

There are two ways your engine can loose oil unplanned. One is a leaking gasket. In that case you will usually find oil drops on the ground when the bike has been standing still. It is seeping/sweating small amounts. Unless you are a seasoned mechanic, the chances of you fixing that on the trail are slim to none. Keep riding carefully, topping up oil as needed and find a garage to fix the leaking gasket. Or if you are capable of doing it yourself, do it at your own, planned place and time.

If you damage your engine case and oil spills out, it will require service along the trail. When riding off road you can hit the engine on the terrain and punch a whole in the engine casing. In that case, a repair is needed first, probably with something like liquid metal to fix the whole in the engine case, then refill the engine with oil.

Wrapping up

  • Changing oil on a trip is only necessary if the trip is longer than the recommended oil change interval for your bike
  • Check your bike’s manual for the recommended oil weight to use
  • Equip your toolkit with the proper tools to drain oil and replace the filter if you need to do a change.
  • Or find a garage on your route to do it there or have them do it for you.
  • Be aware of the oil use of your engine so you can top up if needed.
  • Bring liquid metal to repair a damaged engine case to stop the engine leaking oil.

This post is one in a series that talks about trail side maintenance. There is often no roadside assistance where we ride our bikes. So, you need to be able to do some jobs yourself. Besides oil, other posts in this series are: chain maintenance, flat tire trouble, air filter maintenance, bike setup and general tips and tricks.