A Guide to Riding with Your Kids

Tips and tricks to get the most out of your family rides


We all love to ride motorcycles. For many of us with kids, we consider it our mission to pass on our enthusiasm for two wheels.

But as with most things in life, there’s one way to ride with your kids, and then there’s a better, safer way to ride with your kids.

From how to get your young ones started to how to end your riding day right, here you’ll find practical advice on how to get the most out of every part of motorcycling with young enthusiasts.

So read up, and then stock up, gear up and head out for one of the greatest journeys in motorcycling: one that takes the love of riding into the next generation.

5 Ways to be Sure They’re Ready

Every child is different. How can you tell if yours is ready to ride?

Jeff Martin, who runs Wheels-4-Tots in DeMotte, Ind., markets an innovative training-wheel system and teaches young kids how to ride (starting with the four young riders in his home). Here’s his checklist:

  1. Are they really interested? “A kid who makes incessant motorcycle sounds at 2-1/2 might be ready, while a 6-year-old with a passing interest may not be,” Martin says. “What you want to avoid is forcing riding on a kid who doesn’t want it. That will only turn them off.”
  2. Can they judge obstacles? “The child needs to be able to steer around things, either on a bicycle or tricycle,” Martin says. “If they can’t, don’t put them on a motorcycle.”
  3. How strong are their hands? It’s a simple question, but many parents overlook it. Kids need to apply the brakes firmly and turn the throttle steadily before they can be expected to do so reliably and safely.
  4. Do they have the coordination? Martin employs a “controls game” that tests each child’s reflexes. He lets them ride only after they’ve developed split-second reflexes to commands, such as, “Show me the brake. Show me the gas.” 
  5. Do they have the patience? A kid must be able to focus to operate a motorcycle. Regardless of their physical abilities, if they can’t concentrate, they won’t be able to use those abilities properly.

5 Ways to Buy the Right Bike

Walk into a motorcycle dealership or visit a few websites, and you’ll quickly realize that the variety of youth models on the floor can be bewildering. Here are several key ways to narrow the field when it comes to choosing a bike for a kid.

  1. Don’t buy too big. Often, parents are tempted to buy their kid the next size up, figuring that they’ll “grow into it.” Big mistake. If ever your kid needed something easily manageable, it’s when they’re learning to ride. Beginners should be able to hold up the bike with both feet flat on the ground and comfortably reach the bars. Make sure their hands can easily reach and apply the hand controls with palms on the grips.
  2. Don’t go too small. Some parents just feel more secure with the idea of a small bike with an automatic clutch. But don’t underestimate your kid’s ability to learn. If your child comfortably fits on a larger dirt bike and has the coordination to operate a manual clutch, consider it.
  3. Get the right type of bike. Kids’ bikes can be just as specialized as full-sized motorcycles. The right bike will make you and your rider happier. A typical mistake is buying a motocross race bike for trail riding. In most cases, even kids destined to spend most of their time racing one day are better off starting on a mild-mannered play bike. 
  4. Consider buying used. A used bike can make for an inexpensive test machine. Plus, when it comes time to sell this bike and buy another, you’ll get more of your money back out of a used motorcycle than a new one.
  5. Know what you’re getting into. If you do go used, make sure you don’t buy a lemon. If you’re not confident in your own ability to evaluate your skills, most dealers’ service departments will look over a bike for a small fee, which you may be able to negotiate out of the purchase price.

7 Reasons to Consider an Off-Road School

An easy way to teach your kid the basics may be to have someone else do it, such as the instructors at the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s DirtBike School.

You can find a school near you on the website or by calling (877) 288-7093. Here are a few of the things your kid will learn:

  1. Body position. There’s one right way to sit on a motorcycle, but a lot of wrong ways. You want your head up, your shoulders relaxed, your elbows bent, your knees gripping the tank and your feet positioned to provide the best balance and most flexibility.
  2. Starting the bike. The DirtBike School’s FINE-C method ingrains the proper steps for starting a motorcycle. It stands for Fuel valve, Ignition, Neutral, Engine, Choke.
  3. Operating a clutch. If they’re ready, kids large enough will be encouraged to try a motorcycle with a manual clutch, and drills designed to teach proper operation will have them using it in no time.
  4. Reading the terrain. Different ground conditions provide different levels of traction. By reading the terrain as early as possible, kids can be ready to react long before they must.
  5. How not to get lost. When riding on public lands, an unfamiliar trail can be disorienting. Never set out without a map, and make sure kids always keep their leader in sight.
  6. Responsible riding. Riding right is more than not hurting yourself or others. It’s also about not hurting the environment. The DirtBike School teaches these lessons.
  7. Riding drills. Kids get plenty of chances to get out and ride at the DirtBike School. Drills help teach braking, clutch operation, hill climbing, swerving and more.

5 Places to Ride (and what you should keep in mind for each)

Finding a good place to ride is one of the most challenging parts of the equation. Here are five options, and some specific considerations for each locale:

  1. Your own land. This is the first place most of us consider. But while an average-sized yard may be big enough to practice the basics, such as braking and throttle control, you’ll need to respect your neighbors, local noise ordinances, and in some places, unfortunately, laws against riding on your own property. The more land you have, the easier it can be.
  2. State and federal riding areas. You’ll need a way to transport your bikes there, and they’ll need spark arrestors on their mufflers. In most cases, the bikes must be registered, and you may have to pay an access fee. Generally, these registration and use fees are funneled back into the public trail system for maintenance and, sometimes, expansion. 
  3. Locally managed public riding areas. In some places, local governments are helping create places to ride. Because local governments don’t typically directly own large areas of land, these usually take the form of partnerships with corporate landowners. Examples are the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System in West Virginia and Harlan County, Ky., where county officials have reclaimed timbered and mined land for OHV trails. Rules at places like these are often the same as for federal- and state-owned trails.
  4. Private riding parks and tracks. In some states, privately owned riding areas are the most abundant riding options. These parks typically charge a fee, generally by the day, and have their own rules to follow. Make sure you go over those rules with your kid so you’ll be welcomed back.
  5. Riding club land. Riding clubs operate similarly to private parks, but instead of a daily riding fee, you’ll usually be asked to pay yearly club dues and donate some time to help maintain trails or clubgrounds. Riding clubs are great ways for kids to make friends and learn about the responsibility of building and maintaining trails.

6 Things to Remember to Pack

With luck, you’ll remember to bring the motorcycles and safety gear. But don’t forget this other stuff, too:

  1. First-aid kit. Scrapes and bumps are as much a part of trail-riding as they are a part of having kids. Don’t leave home without a multi-purpose first-aid kit.
  2. Snacks. Kids need fuel, both quality and quantity. Figure out how many apples, bananas, granola bars and crackers you think they’ll eat, and double it. Don’t forget the juice and water.
  3. Stuff for idle hands. Even though they might want to, kids can’t ride all the time. Pack some books, handheld video games, coloring books or whatever else will keep them occupied and out of trouble during pit stops.
  4. Towels and extra water. Maybe it’s because they’re shorter and therefore closer to the mud, but kids get dirty. Pack a few simple cleaning supplies, and you can make a kid’s ride home more comfortable, while adding years to the life of your vehicle’s upholstery.
  5. Extra gear. You don’t need to pack a whole second set of riding gear, but an extra pair of gloves and some extra goggles can be worth their weight in gold when your kid’s original pair fall off the tailgate into the mud.
  6. A master list. With all the extra stuff kids require, it’s easy to overlook something. Make a list of necessary tools, fuel and gear, and go over it every time. Better yet: Have your kid gather stuff up and check it off the list, while you supervise.

5 Keys to Eating Right

The fuel that young racers put in their bodies is at least as important as the fuel you put in their motorcycles. Longtime motocross trainer Gary Semics, who runs the Gary Semics MX School, offers this advice:

  1. Avoid simple sugars, caffeine and fried foods. They can give a short-lived burst of energy, but when your blood sugar level falls below the normal range after the spike, you’ll feel run down.
  2. Eat a healthy breakfast. The first meal of the day provides the foundation for a quality diet.
  3. Time your meals. Don’t wolf down a sandwich just before the gate drops. Work meals into the longest breaks between practice and each moto.
  4. Eat good stuff. Need some ideas? Consider fruit, almonds, peanut butter and jelly, a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise.
  5. Stay hydrated. Either water or energy drinks, such as Gatorade and Powerade, are fine. On really hot days, lean out the energy drinks with 50 percent water.

5 Ways to be a Good Coach

Teaching kids is an art. Here are a few tips from Jeff Martin of Wheels-4-Tots to help make it easy:

  1. Instruct from in front. It’s easy for kids’ minds to wander. If you’re standing in front, instead of barking orders from behind, it’s easier to tell if you’ve got their full attention.
  2. Get on their level—physically. Martin gets his best results when he gets on his knees and speaks to a kid face-to-face. “Don’t look down on them, and make sure they maintain eye contact,” he says.
  3. Get on their level—mentally. Try to use plain, direct commands. “Don’t tell the kid to ‘accelerate.’ Tell them to ‘twist the throttle.’”
  4. Keep control. “The goal is to keep this fun. If it’s getting to the point where it isn’t fun, cut your losses and relax.”
  5. Expect less—not more—from your own kids. Martin points out that because your own kids feel more at ease with you, they naturally perform with less intensity. “Tone down your expectations, and they’ll often respond even better,” he notes.

8 Good Rules of the Trail

Being able to ride dirtbikes on public land is a privilege that must be respected. Chad Wilberger, the recreation program manager for the Wayne National Forest in Ohio, offers these eight common-sense tips:

  1. Stay on the trail. “Riding off the trail even in small amounts impacts the environment,” Wilberger says. “It’s also a safety issue. There are cliffs and hazards that might be hidden.”
  2. Trail-riding is not a race. Most public trails have two-way traffic, so go slow around corners and leave plenty of room for oncoming riders to pass. If you come upon other trail users, be courteous.
  3. Don’t ride double. ATVs and dirtbikes are designed for a single rider. Adding an extra person is particularly dangerous for smaller and inexperienced riders.
  4. Carry out what you carried in. This rule applies to all trail users. It’s important to properly dispose of your garbage.
  5. Leave the wildlife alone. “These are the woods,” Wilberger says. “You might see a deer, snake or turtle out on the trail. Just leave them alone—well, it might not hurt to stop and move the turtle out of harm’s way [if it’s in the trail].”
  6. Be wary of water crossings. It’s not uncommon for trails to hold standing water after heavy rains, and mudholes can be deep. Wilberger says kids on smaller bikes might want to check the depth of a mudhole with a stick before crossing and, “if you’re not comfortable crossing, turn back. Whatever you do, don’t make a new trail to get around it.”
  7. Kids, stay with your parents. It’s easy to get lost on the trails, and new riders need to be supervised. This rule works both ways: Parents, don’t leave your kids.
  8. Less sound means more ground. Only quiet bikes are welcome in the woods. Not only do loud bikes offend other trail users and disturb wildlife, but they often aren’t equipped with the required spark arrestors. “If there’s a fire, and the Forest Service finds out you started it, you could be liable for the costs of fighting that fire,” Wilberger says.

6 Rules of the Track

At the track, you’ll find more users per acre than in any other type of riding area, which makes them pretty unique. Because of this, and the obstacles encountered, there are some special considerations to keep in mind.

  1. Size is a safety issue. The risks of choosing a too-big motorcycle are amplified in an environment with aggressive traffic. Being able to physically control your motorcycle is critical—plus, it may be necessary to push a disabled bike off the track and out of harm’s way in case of a crash or breakdown.
  2. Teach kids what to do if they crash. Sometimes kids will tip over in a corner and stand up and focus on fixing their goggles or take their time to casually assess the situation. Instill in your kids a healthy sense of urgency. If they crash, and are able to do so, they need to get off the track immediately.
  3. Know the rules for parents. At most tracks, parents aren’t allowed on the track for anything larger than the 50cc classes, and some tracks don’t even allow that. If you’re at a new track, make sure you ask what areas are off-limits to spectators.
  4. Behave in the pits. Many tracks allow pit riding. Be aware as you walk through the pits, and if you ride through the pits, respect this privilege. Go slow (first gear idle) and always wear a helmet. 
  5. Know your group. Although it isn’t an issue on organized race days, it’s important to always ride with the right class during practice days. Small 50cc bikes shouldn’t be on the course with full-sized machines. If the practice is unorganized, parents should take control to ensure kids aren’t on the track with big bikes.
  6. What’s behind you does matter. Slower riders can cause a serious accident by moving over into a faster rider’s line unexpectedly. Know the proper and safe way to exit the track. Some rules of thumb: choose a spot where riders around you have ample visibility, slow down before you change direction, change direction slowly, and always perform an over-the-shoulder head check before moving over. If there are designated entry and exit points, use them, but safety rules still apply.

3 Ways to Race

If your kid is ready for the additional physical and mental demands of competition, an important step is choosing the right class. You can find class details in the official AMA Competition Rulebook, but youth racing classes generally fall into three categories.

These descriptions apply to motocross, but off-road and dirt-track disciplines have similar class breakdowns.

  1. National-caliber racing. National classes are very competitive and are not intended for beginning riders. Even classes for 51cc bikes, Class 1 and Class 2, feature highly tuned race machines capable of serious speeds and jumps. The kids who race these classes have extensive experience, talent and skill to push these bikes to their limits.
  2. National-caliber training. In terms of nationally recognized classes, Class 3 and Class 4 allow bikes that are more beginner-friendly, such as Yamaha’s PW50 (Class 3) and Honda’s XR50 (Class 4). While these classes are intended for beginners at the local level, they will feature some seriously fast talent at national qualifying events.
  3. Just for fun. Most AMA-chartered promoters offer classes for first-time racers and kids just out to enjoy themselves. These classes may not pay season championship points, but they will include other less-experienced racers.

The bottom line? There’s almost always a place for every skill level at the racetrack. If you’re in doubt which class to race, just ask at registration.

4 Racing Tips for New Riders

Gary Semics, who runs the Gary Semics MX School, has been training motocross racers from beginner to pro for years. Here are four of his tips for pre-empting some common bad beginner habits:

  1. Learn to stand up on the footpegs. You should be just as comfortable and confident standing as sitting.
  2. Learn to use the front and rear brakes properly. Many young riders slow down by coasting. They should learn to use the front and rear brakes instead. In motocross, always accelerate or brake—never coast. 
  3. Learn to put the sections of the track together. Good lines will give you the fastest route through entire sections of a track, not just individual corners or obstacles. 
  4. Become a good rider before you go to the races. You should have at least six months of practice time before you race. Be confident in your abilities and know your limits before entering organized races.

7 Things to do before Riding Day

Sometimes, it’s the little things that make all the difference. Here are a few suggestions for avoiding some big headaches:

  1. Practice getting geared up. Even younger kids can take control of this part of their routine, and it’s something they can practice at home. Just be sure to check all the buckles.
  2. Go over starting. Kickstarting a motorcycle can be frustrating. Consider practicing starting drills at home, away from the distractions of the track or trail.
  3. Practice pickups. Most crashes are minor tip-overs, but you still have to pick up your bike. Practicing how to recover at home can help. Go ahead and lay the bike over—make sure the petcock is turned off—and help your kid learn how to pick it up.
  4. Make sure the bike works. A good time to go through your kid’s motorcycle is the night before the ride (start it, too, just to be sure). Your owner’s manual should include a detailed pre-ride checklist.
  5. Get a good night’s sleep. Everyone will be better rested, more energetic and in a better mood on riding day. (This goes for Mom and Dad, too.)
  6. If possible, load up the night before. Everyone’s in a hurry to hit the road. The more you can streamline the morning loading-up process, the easier the rest of your day will be. The best way to do that is to shovel as much as you can in the family hauler the night before.
  7. Be ready for repairs. Depending on your bike, common things that could go wrong mechanically include fouled spark plugs, plugged carburetor jets or fuel filters, broken levers or flat tires. Depending on your mechanical skills and tools, other items to pack along include clutch plates, cables, brake pads, chain and sprockets, wheel bearings, an extra pre-oiled air filter and even extra radiators. Always have plenty of fasteners, safety wire, zip ties and duct tape on hand, as well as a full contingent of fluids, including oil, coolant, brake fluid, lubricant and, of course, fuel.

6 Keys to a good Raceday Attitude

To be a gracious competitor, young racers need to develop and maintain a positive attitude. Kids (and adults) should keep these positive thoughts in mind:

  1. Winning will take care of itself. Focus on doing the best you can at every moment.
  2. Hard work can be fun.
  3. When you enjoy what you’re doing, you perform better.
  4. Mistakes are a necessary part of learning.
  5. Strive to be positive and enthusiastic no matter what.
  6. Success will come.

3 Things to Keep in Mind When Friends Come Along

Many parents treat a riding trip as a trip to the local playground—in other words, the more the merrier. However, motorcycle riding, even at its safest, involves unique risks. So, if you bring along kids other than your own, you need to take special care.

  1. Know the rules where you ride. Many tracks and riding parks won’t allow a minor to ride without a signed, notarized release from both parents. Some only allow kids to ride when the parent is present. The simple solution is to call and find out what’s needed, before you burst a kid’s bubble. 
  2. Know the rules of the parent. Find out what the other parents allow, and align your rules with theirs. One solution is to always enforce the strictest rule for all present. For example, if your friend’s kid isn’t allowed on a certain trail but yours is, make that trail off-limits for everybody on that day.
  3. Consider your liability. As with any sport—football, hockey, etc.—kids can and do get hurt. Keeping kids safe matters above all else, but you’ll also want to think about the risks you expose yourself to when you bring other kids along. Talk with your insurance agent about what your liability policy covers.

6 Things Kids Can Maintain

While you shouldn’t expect your 6-year-old to perform an annual top-end teardown, there are some things kids can safely maintain on their motorcycle—with you watching over their shoulders, of course.

  1. Tire pressure. Checking tire air pressure is not only safe and relatively easy, it’s important to good handling. Warning: Make sure you have an air pump ready before you turn a kid loose with a pressure gauge.
  2. The air filter. Back in the bad old days, we used dangerous solvents to clean air filters. Now, plenty of cleaners, such as dishwashing detergents with degreasers and motorcycle-specific commercial products, are safe for kids to use.
  3. Oil level. Again, be careful with exposure, but checking a dipstick or an oil-sight window and adding the right amount of motor oil in accordance with the procedure in the owner’s manual is safe and easy to do.
  4. Chain tension. While it might be too much to have a 6-year-old adjust a chain, kids can at least check to see if the adjustment is in spec. Check your manual for the procedure, and do the adjustment yourself.
  5. Are the knobbies knobby enough? For optimum grip on slick terrain, dirt bike knobbies need sharp edges and ample tread. Point out these aspects to your kid, and encourage them to point out to you when they think the rubber might be due for a replacement.
  6. Watch play in the controls. Many kids bikes come with drum brakes, sometimes on both the rear and the front. That means excessive play in the brake cables can be more of an issue as the brake shoe material wears. Since your kid will be the one using the bike most often, make sure they know how to recognized too much slop in the controls. Be careful letting them adjust out that slop, however. Too much tension can cause brake drag, overheating and loss of function.

3 Ways to Gear Up

If your kid’s just starting out or going for a casual trail ride, there’s no reason to gear him or her up like a professional motocross racer. However, if he or she is going to venture out on the track, it’s a good idea to supply complete protection. Here’s the range of protection you can chose from:

  1. Go light. Everybody’s list should include a helmet and motorcycle goggles. Also, it doesn’t have to be riding gear, per se, but you also should outfit your kid with long sleeves, long pants, gloves and heavy boots.
  2. Go medium. When your kid gets up to speed, they really should have the extra protection of specific motorcycle boots. The shin protection, alone, is vastly superior to even the sturdiest pair of work boots. And although riding gloves may not provide significant additional protection vs. leather gloves, for example, they are far more comfortable.
  3. Go heavy. If your kid decides to try racing or even practice days on the motocross track, it’s time to get serious about riding gear. At the least, you’ll want to add a proper jersey with built-in padding, kneepads, elbow pads, riding pants and a chest protector to the gear bag.

1 Reason Why

We can’t deny it. Teaching a kid to ride is challenging, expensive and time-consuming. But there’s a reason we do what we do.

  1. That smile. The joy of riding a motorcycle is infectious, and it can last a lifetime. Spreading that love to the next generation—especially when it means you get to spend more time with your kids—makes it all worth it many times over.