Getting Started

6 Truths About Dirtbike Riding

By James Holter

Other areas on this site serve up the practical advice you need to get started right in motorcycling. It also helps to get in the proper frame of mind. Dirtbike riding isn't rocket science, but there are a few lessons that can make your journey into off-highway motorcycle riding more fun. Here are six truths about the sport that every new rider should know.

Truth I: Don’t Ride Alone

It’s not much fun to splash mud on your shadow or have only yourselfto persuade to try a tough hillclimb. While from time to time some experienced riders enjoy the solitude of riding by themselves, dirtbikes are always more fun when shared with a few of your favorite friends.

Plus, it’s 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. It will always be more fun to ride than talk about riding, but real life unfortunately 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 Bike Should Be a Used Bike

Good first bikes

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

  • Honda XR250 or 400 

  • Honda CRF230 

  • Kawasaki KDX200 or 220 

  • Kawasaki KLX300 

  • Suzuki DR250 or 350 

  • Suzuki DRZ400 

  • Yamaha TTR230 or 250 

One of the cool things about dirtbikes is pound-for-pound, displacement-for-displacement, they are some of the most capable machines you can buy. Their small size and relatively powerful engines make sure of that. Plus, with the tight confines of trail systems, most 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 not technological godsends, they are just a collective percentage point in the whole scheme of motorcycle improvement.

How old do you go? In general, the technological evolution of trailbikes 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 will be more broken down and 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 dirtbike instead of $7,000, you'll be a lot less bummed when you tip over in a pile of rocks and smash the radiator.

Truth III: Gear Up

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: Learn the Right Way

Dirtbiking 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: Ride Legally – and Quietly

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. Improper federal Wilderness designations that ban all riding on affected land and unfair Travel Management Plans that ignore long-established routes are just two examples of these attacks.

While you can help by getting involved on a local level and by helping to fund our fight, one of the most important ways you can make a difference is simple: Ride by the rules.

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

But 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: Get Involved in Local Events

One mistake that many beginning riders make is that of omission. They stay away from organized riding events. Maybe you’re unsure of your skills or you’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 design rides and races that appeal to a broad range of riders.

While some off-road events, 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 are trail rides and off-road poker runs. Find them by searching the AMA online events 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! You know you want this. 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.

A few things you will need before heading out.

  • OPRD ATV Safety Education Card.
  • USFS Approved Spark Arrestor
  • Valid OHV Permit