Getting Started in Dirt Bike Riding

Six truths for a safe, fun experience

Dirt bike riding isn’t rocket science, but there are a few lessons that can make your journey into off-highway motorcycle riding more fun. Whether you are a new off-road rider or a veteran of the sport, here are six truths that every rider should know.

Truth I: Two (Or More) Are Better Than One

It’s not much fun to splash mud on your shadow or have only yourself to talk into trying a tough hillclimb. While from time to time some do enjoy the solitude of riding by themselves, dirt bikes are always more fun when shared with a few of your favorite friends.

Plus, group riding is safer. Nobody plans on crashing or breaking down miles from where they parked their hauling rig. When it does happen, though, it’s always better to have your rescue crew along for the ride.

Don’t discount the social benefits, either. Life dictates that we’ll spend more time remembering our adventures than actually adventuring. If you can share those memories with a few close friends, you’ll be more likely to come back for more.

Truth II: Your First Dirt Bike Should Be a Used Bike

One of the cool things about dirt bikes is pound-for-pound, displacement-for-displacement, they are some of the most capable machines you can buy. Their small size, ample suspension and relatively powerful engines make sure of that. Plus, with the tight confines of most trail systems, many of which rarely have sections that allow even split-second full-throttle applications, massive power isn’t required anyway.

The good news is off-highway motorcycles have been comfortably at that performance edge for years. That means new riders can be perfectly confident going back several production cycles for their first machine.

While you can’t deny the ease of maintenance, freshness and new-bike feeling you’ll get with a motorcycle right off the showroom floor, performance-wise, the superior capabilities of a new model will be lost on a new rider. Throttle-position sensors, fuel injection, electronic two-stroke power valves, hydraulic clutches, modern ergonomics and high- and low-speed damping adjustment are nice, but not really necessary to have fun or learn the sport.

How old should you go? In general, the technological evolution of trail bikes and starter bikes leveled off roughly 15 or 20 years ago – yes, nearly two decades.

Granted, the clock hasn’t stopped ticking on wear and tear. Obviously, all other things being equal, older bikes require more investment to freshen up the brakes, drivetrain and other wear items. So, while it’s fine to consider older motorcycles for your first bike, look at them more closely and negotiate accordingly. 

The bottom line is that if you spend $1,500 for your first dirt bike instead of $7,000, you’ll be a lot less bummed when you tip over in a pile of rocks and bang up your machine.

Good First Bikes 

Just a few models, current and non-current, to consider for your first dirt bike: 

  • Honda XR250/400 
  • Honda CRF230 
  • Kawasaki KDX200/220 
  • Kawasaki KLX300 
  • Suzuki DR250/350 
  • Suzuki DRZ400 
  • Yamaha TTR230/250 
  • Yamaha TTR125

Truth III: Gear Matters

You see it all too often: new riders cruising local riding parks and public lands without proper boots, eye protection, long pants and even helmets. All motorcycle riding is unpredictable, but off-road riding takes the unknown to another level. With rocks, roots, ruts, logs and more, a trail can even change composition within a single day of riding. Even the best riders crash now and then, and you need to be ready for the inevitable.

At a minimum you want to wear a quality helmet, goggles, long pants, full arm protection, gloves and over-the-ankle boots. Knee pads and elbow pads are important as well, and you also should consider a chest protector that offers full back protection. A pair of purpose-built off-road riding boots should also be near the top of your shopping list.

Truth IV: There’s A Right Way To Learn

Dirt biking is no different than any other sport or pastime that requires a serious amount of skill to do it safely and well. If you develop bad habits early, those bad habits can hold you back no matter how much experience you rack up. Your speed will not increase, you’ll struggle to conquer more difficult trails, and you won’t have as much fun.

While it’s certainly possible to learn from an experienced friend, there’s no guarantee that friend, regardless of how long he or she has been riding, will pass along the key fundamentals for a solid foundation of growth. Even great riders can make poor teachers, especially those whose speed comes from natural talent rather than learned technique.

A better way is to take a class based on a well-developed curriculum, such as the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s DirtBike School. Then, once you’re comfortable with these basic skills, consider a performance-oriented class. (An example is former AMA National Hare Scrambles Champion Jason Raine’s Riding University.) Even if you never intend to race, these skills can make you a safer rider at slower speeds.

Truth V: Riding Legally Protects Your Freedoms

Off-highway riding is under attack like never before. Although the AMA and our partner organizations are hard at work defending your right to ride, anti-access groups are relentless in their efforts to end off-highway motorcycle riding forever. Inappropriate federal Wilderness designations that ban all riding on affected land and unfair Travel Management Plans that ignore long-established routes are two examples of these attacks.

Getting involved on a local level and helping to fund our fight are a great start. One of the most important ways you can make a difference is simple: Ride by the rules.

Ride your off-highway motorcycle only on properly designated public land or in private riding parks where you have permission to ride. The AMA website can help you find these areas. Or simply ask local riders or dealers for suggestions.

Wherever you ride, make sure you stay on the trail, respect the land and pick up after yourself. Be considerate of other trail users, and don’t infringe on their rights to use the land as well. Also, equip your bike with a U.S. Forest Service approved spark arrestor and keep the silencer freshly packed so you meet sound regulations.

The battle for our off-highway rights is tough enough. Don’t give anti-access groups more ammunition to use against us.

Truth VI: Ride Local

Many new riders make a mistake of omission. They stay away from organized riding events. Maybe they’re unsure of their skills or they’re intimidated by the unknown. The answer to both concerns is the same: Don’t be.

The best motorcycling organizers in the country run AMA-sanctioned events. They know the local trails and landowners that make these events possible. They also know their customers, and they design rides and races that appeal to a broad range of riders.

While some off-road races, such as hare scrambles and enduros, challenge even the best riders, others target a more utilitarian crowd. The biggest of these events are found on the AMA National Dual Sport Series and the AMA National Adventure Riding Series. There also are local dual-sport events. These rides do require street-legal motorcycles, however. More laid-back examples of sanctioned rides that don’t require street-legal bikes are trail rides and off-road poker runs. Find them by searching the AMA online event database.

If your area doesn’t offer a non-competitive off-highway event, don’t shy away from competition. Off-road motorcycle racing is accessible and fun, with a class for almost every type of off-road bike or rider skill level.

The bottom line is: Just do it! So, get a bike, buy some gear, get trained, find some friends and go ride. It will be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make.