Embarking on a dirt biking journey as a beginner is a thrilling adventure. However, it does require certain prerequisites and comes with a learning curve. This article will delve into these essentials to pave the way for a fitting introduction to the world of dirt biking for newcomers.
For beginners, getting into dirt biking entails proper training, choosing the right bike, gearing up, and exploring off-road riding opportunities. Being savvy in local dirt bike trails and regulations is integral to the enjoyment of this sport, as well as safety and gradual skill development.
This guide covers the fundamentals of dirt biking — from riding techniques to information sources for riding opportunities and events. To delve into more advanced or region-specific instructions, I recommend enrolling in an off-road vehicle safety course or training program. Doing so not only enhances your understanding of the sport’s nuances but also ensures you are legally permitted to ride a dirt bike in your area.
Know the Sport
Although deemed extra by a few, knowing the origins of dirt biking plays a vital role in appreciating the sport. This understanding is particularly crucial for beginners, as it provides a profound insight into the recreational activity they’re about to get themselves into. It also aids in their adherence to the demands of dirt biking — local regulations, needed training, conscientious riding practices, or all of these.
The origins of dirt biking can be traced back to the development of motorcycles in the late 19th century. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that motorcycle manufacturers created more robust and versatile designs capable of handling rugged terrain. The need for practical transportation in rural areas and military purposes primarily drove this shift.
One of the first instances of dirt biking being regarded as a sport was in the early 1900s — thanks to legendary British motorcycle manufacturer, Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA). At this time, the firm started producing motorcycles specifically designed for off-road use, known as “scramblers.” These dirt bikes featured lightweight frames, knobby tires, and powerful engines.
Eventually, the term “scramble” evolved into “motocross,” which became synonymous with off-road racing on dirt tracks filled with challenging terrain, jumps, and obstacles. Later on, the popularity of dirt biking as a recreational and competitive sport gave rise to various disciplines, from motocross and enduro to trials and desert racing.
Risks and Dangers
As hinted above, dirt biking carries inherent risks that beginners must know. Riding on challenging terrains, such as dirt trails, rocky paths, and wooded areas, exposes riders to potential accidents and injuries. Lack of proper training and safety gear can lead to accidents, including falls and collisions, which may result in minor to severe injuries.
Furthermore, dirt biking frequently occurs in remote locations, increasing the importance of riders being prepared for emergencies and understanding the need for responsible, cautious riding to mitigate these perils.
Given these risks, it’s time to get back to the gist of today’s guide — starting with choosing the appropriate two-wheeler for the task at hand.
Choose the Right Bike
Off-highway motorcycles (OHMs) fall into several off-road sports categories, with the most prominent ones including:
- Motocross: These motorcycles are specifically engineered for racing over jumps and are not suitable for on-road use.
- Enduro: These long-distance competition motorcycles are designed to meet the minimum requirements for “street legal” status and comply with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.
- Dual-purpose: These motorcycles are versatile, intended for paved-road and off-road use, and fully street-legal. Also, they meet the following criteria:
- Tires are DOT-approved.
- The USFS approves spark arrestors.
- Noise- and emission-control devices meet EPA standards.
They typically have the following controls: main switch, clutch, brake, handlebar switches, and throttle grip. But depending on the make and model of the two-wheeler, it could have more or less of these.
Dirt bikes, in particular, could be classified as any of these three. However, the most common types of motorcycles used for dirt biking are either Enduros or MX-oriented thumpers.
Regardless of which type of OHM you select from the above, there are several motorcycle specs and features that you simply can’t do without. These specifications will help guarantee you a safe and enjoyable off-roading experience. That said, here’s a list of essential motorcycle specifications for beginners:
This attribute should be at the fore of your considerations. Choose a motorcycle from a reputable manufacturer that produces reliable, durable dirt bikes.
4-stroke engines offer smoother power delivery and are generally easier to control for newcomers. They’re also the norm nowadays since they’re emissions-compliant.
Electric start systems are convenient, especially for beginners, as they eliminate the need for kick-starting the bike. Personally, however, I’d go for an electric starter with an auxiliary kickstart system — just in case something happens with the starting system.
Look for a bike with a lightweight chassis to enhance maneuverability and reduce fatigue during riding.
This suspension configuration allows riders to fine-tune the bike’s performance to match their skill level and the terrain they’re riding on.
Ample Ground Clearance
Sufficient ground clearance is essential to navigate rough and uneven terrain without getting stuck. However, it’s important to understand that high-ground clearance isn’t always best for dirt biking. Especially for beginners, a lower ground clearance may be more beneficial as it would:
- enhance stability
- make for easier mounting and dismounting
- reduce the risk of tipovers
- reduce fatigue
- lend to improved (if not precise) bike control
- support a nouveau rider’s learning curve
Smooth Power Delivery
Choose a bike with a smooth and linear power delivery, as this is more forgiving for beginners and helps prevent sudden surges of power.
Effective and responsive front and rear brakes are crucial for control and safety during off-road riding.
Off-road tires with aggressive treads provide better traction in dirt and mud, making them essential for dirt biking.
I actually have mixed feelings when it comes to recommending the more advantageous clutch assembly for beginners. Hydraulic clutches are often advised to and preferred by beginner riders since they offer smoother and more consistent engagement and reduced effort — the latter being beneficial for bikers who haven’t built up the hand strength and stamina required for a cable clutch.
This is exactly the reason I’m leaning toward a cable-actuated clutch. It is a good training ground for dirt bikers to build that hand strength that’ll eventually translate to precise bike control once they get the hang of the clutch assembly. To each their own, really. Just know that either is a viable option for dirt biking.
Protective and Safety Features
Ensure the bike has protective components like handguards, engine guards, and skid plates to shield critical parts from damage. Similarly, safety features such as a kill switch and a wrist strap will come in handy during emergencies.
As a beginner, you’ll spend many hours practicing on your dirt bike. To reduce rider fatigue, choose a dirt bike with comfortable handlebars, footpegs, and seating position.
Lastly, consider a bike that is easy to maintain and service, as regular maintenance is crucial for the longevity of the motorcycle. This applies to both new and secondhand two-wheelers.
Sizing and Appropriate Bike per Skill Level
Naturally, there is no singular type of motorcycle solely recommended for dirt biking. Your choice of make, displacement, and specs (among other considerations) should be contingent on your budget, riding skills, and preferences.
Enthusiasts who can afford separate bikes for ‘work and play’ typically use an Enduro or MX-style two-wheeler. Meanwhile, hobbyists or those just getting into the sport usually opt for dual-sport bikes that they can use for daily rides and weekend adventures.
In terms of displacement, the starting point for most novices is anywhere from a 250cc to 450cc dirt bike. However, note that this displacement range isn’t a hard-fast rule in choosing your first dirt bike. Depending on your riding skills and personal preferences, you may opt for something slightly smaller, like a Kawasaki KX 125, or something more powerful, like a KTM 525 EXC.
New vs. Used Bikes and Budget Considerations
It is highly recommended by veteran revheads that beginners purchase a secondhand motorcycle as their first dirt bike. The reasons behind this are simple — the availability of a wider array of options and budget.
There are a lot of iconic two-wheelers no longer in production (meaning you can only buy them from the used-bike market). And even if your preference isn’t that old of a model, you’d still be able to score cheaper finds in an auction or from a private seller than buying it brand-new.
This isn’t to say that getting your hands on a KTM or Kawasaki fresh out of the crate should automatically be frowned upon. If you want a dirt bike in pristine condition that you can enjoy for years to come, then by all means, go ahead and get yourself a brand-new one. But personally, it’s just not a practical choice.
All beginners are expected to ‘trash’ their inaugural bike as they learn the ropes of the sport. Furthermore, there’s the issue of outgrowing that first dirt bike — a phase that may happen sooner than later, especially for naturally skilled and intuitive riders.
Maintain Proper Riding Position
The proper riding position on a dirt bike is crucial for effective control and maneuverability, ensuring you can navigate various terrains with confidence and agility. To achieve this, follow these steps to maintain the correct body position:
Follow the “step-though method’ when mounting your dirt bike. You may check out this article for a more detailed explanation or this post on How to Get on and Off a Motorcycle Properly for a complete rundown of this technique.
Sitting or Standing
- Keep your body weight directly over the footpegs, leaning slightly forward.
- Maintain your feet on the footpegs with your knees slightly bent, allowing for flexibility and absorption of shocks.
- Gently press your knees into the gas tank, using them as anchors to maintain stability and control.
- Hold the handle grips securely, allowing you to control the motorcycle effectively, especially when riding on challenging terrain.
- Maintain a firm grip on the handle grips with the right wrist slightly lower to prevent unintentional excessive throttle application.
- If your body position is correct, your arms should have a slight bend when holding the handle grips, ensuring you have the necessary control while keeping your arms relaxed and avoiding unnecessary strain.
Practice Your Riding Skills
Unless you’re riding a dirt bike for the first time, you should already possess some (if not all) fundamental riding skills. That said, transitioning to dirt biking mainly requires refining those skills.
On and off-road riding share more similarities than you might think. However, off-road riding does necessitate finer control over a motorcycle’s handling and mannerisms.
- Keep your hips directly over or slightly ahead of the footpegs. Lean your upper body forward to enhance control.
- Press your feet firmly down and backward into the footpegs. This action helps counter the forces pushing you rearward.
- Practice the coordination of the throttle, clutch, and shifter until you can seamlessly execute these actions in one fluid and swift motion.
- Engage in acceleration drills to refine your control skills.
- Accelerate forcefully until you reach 3rd gear.
- Cease acceleration.
- Apply the brakes to bring the bike to a complete stop.
With consistent practice, you may notice that using the throttle, clutch, and shifter occurs closer in timing with when you plant your feet firmly on the footpegs when riding.
- Shift your weight forward to improve your control during braking.
- Gradually release the throttle to reduce speed.
- Ensure your weight remains forward and directly over footpegs.
- Push your knees against the gas tank to maintain forward balance and control.
- Make use of the engine stop or kill switch during regular stops and emergency situations.
- After coming to a stop, turn off the ignition key or switch to conserve your battery.
While the front brake is typically the most effective for stopping on various surfaces, it’s crucial to practice using both the front and rear brakes across different terrains.
Turning & Cornering
- When doing slow turns, shift your weight in the opposite direction of the turn you’re making.
- For quick turns, employ the countersteering technique, simultaneously applying pressure to the inside of the handlegrip for enhanced control.
- Depending on the turn’s speed and sharpness, apply brakes, shift gears, or adjust the throttle as needed.
Understand that each aspect of your body position significantly affects your ability to steer, turn, control the throttle, maintain balance, and quickly identify obstacles. That said, always adhere to the correct body position to gain mastery over your motorcycle.
Follow Safety Guidelines
Wearing the right protective clothing and gear is crucial, not only for accident prevention but also for general safety. This includes eye protection, brightly colored protective clothing, and a DOT-approved crash helmet. Ensure you’re appropriately dressed for your own safety.
For reference, here’s a more extensive list of items that should be part of your safety and protective gear when dirt biking:
- DOT/ECE-approved helmet and goggles
- A durable motorcycle jacket suitable for all weather conditions
- Riding pants and sturdy boots
- Elbow and knee pads for added protection
- Reflective gear or a visibility-enhancing vest
- A chest protector, particularly advisable for riders on mid-size bikes exceeding 500cc
- Full-fingered gloves and a balaclava mask for cold-weather rides
- Finger-exposed gloves in warmer climates
- A neck brace to provide additional support and safeguard against sudden jerks or impacts
- Shin guards to shield against branches, debris, and potential impacts
In addition, always perform a pre-ride inspection of your dirt bike in the order stated below (don’t forget to include registration and trail pass decals in your checklist, lest you won’t be able to ride on the trails):
- Throttle and brakes
- Lighting assembly
- Air filter
- Spark plugs
- Tire, wheels, and suspension
- Spark arrestor and muffler
- Fuel and engine oil levels
Be in the Know
Getting into dirt biking may lead you to pursue it as a genuine passion rather than just a recreational activity. Therefore, it’s prudent to familiarize yourself with available riding opportunities and related resources.
You may not be aiming for participation in an AMA tournament just yet. Nonetheless, being informed about sources for dirt biking information will allow you to learn from the experts and get in touch with fellow dirt bike enthusiasts.
- American Motorcyclist Association (AMA): The AMA provides comprehensive information about dirt bike riding opportunities, events, and races across the United States. They also offer resources for riders to connect with local clubs and tracks.
- Dirt Bike and Motocross Tracks Directory: Websites like DirtRider and MX Sports provide directories of dirt bike and motocross tracks across the country, allowing riders to find nearby locations for practice and events.
- Local Off-Road Riding Groups: Many states and regions have local off-road riding groups and forums where riders share information about trails, tracks, and events. Websites like Thumpertalk and Adventure Rider are great platforms to connect with local enthusiasts.
- Canadian Motorcycle Association (CMA): The CMA offers information about dirt bike riding in Canada, including events, races, and clubs nationwide.
- Trail and Track Directories: Websites like Trailsource and Canada Moto Guide provide directories of off-road trails and motocross tracks in Canada, helping riders find suitable locations for their skill level.
- Canadian Dirt Bike Forums: Online forums such as Canadatrails.ca and RidersWest have sections dedicated to dirt biking and off-road riding, where riders can exchange information and advice.
- European Enduro and Motocross Events Websites: Websites like Enduro21 and Europe’s motocross organizations provide information on enduro and motocross events across the region, including locations, dates, and registration.
- Trail Riding Associations: Many European countries have trail riding associations that offer information about off-road riding opportunities. For example, the UK has the Trail Riders Fellowship (TRF), and France has Moto Verte.
- Online Forums: European off-road riding communities often gather on forums like Enduroforum and Advrider, where riders discuss trails, events, and riding tips.
- Local Riding Clubs: In many Asian countries, local riding clubs and associations share information about dirt biking opportunities, tracks, and events.
- Social Media Groups: Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have active dirt bike and off-road riding groups specific to various Asian regions. These groups are great for connecting with local riders and staying updated on events.
- Trail Riding Websites and Adventure Tour Operators: Trails of Asia and other motorcycle tour websites provide information on adventure and trail riding opportunities in various Asian countries.
Local and Regional Dirt Biking Events
- Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (South Dakota): Although it’s primarily a celebration of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, this rally includes off-road events and dirt biking competitions, drawing riders from all over the country.
- Red Bull Last Man Standing (Texas): This extreme enduro event in Bridgeport challenges riders with its rugged terrain, obstacles, and difficult trails, making it one of the toughest off-road races in the US.
- Moab Rally on the Rocks (Utah): Moab offers breathtaking desert landscapes perfect for off-road and dirt bike enthusiasts. This annual event showcases the area’s beauty and includes guided trail rides and competitions.
- The Corduroy Enduro (Ontario): This multi-day off-road enduro race in Haliburton Forest, Ontario, is one of Canada’s most famous dirt biking events, attracting riders from across the country.
- TransCan Grand National Championship (Ontario): Known as the largest amateur motocross race in Canada, this event in Walton features various classes and age groups, making it an inclusive competition.
- Rev Limiter Extreme Enduro (Alberta): Held in the picturesque Crowsnest Pass, this challenging enduro event is known for its steep hills, rocky trails, and rugged terrain.
- Erzberg Rodeo (Austria): This extreme enduro race in the iron mines of Eisenerz is one of the world’s most prestigious dirt biking events, attracting top riders from Europe and beyond.
- Red Bull Romaniacs (Romania): Held in the Carpathian Mountains, this hard enduro race is notorious for its tough and varied terrain, making it a favorite among off-road riders.
- Hells Gate Enduro (Italy): Known for its challenging obstacles and rocky trails, this Italian event in Il Ciocco is a must for extreme enduro enthusiasts.
- Rider Mania (India): This annual event in India, organized by the Royal Enfield motorcycle brand, celebrates riding culture and includes dirt biking competitions and off-road rides.
- Dirt Track Nationals (Thailand): This dirt track racing event in Thailand features motocross and off-road races, attracting riders from Southeast Asia.
- Malaysian International Motocross GP (Malaysia): Located in the Sepang Circuit, this international motocross race gathers top riders from Asia and around the world to compete on a world-class track.
Get Trained and Certified
Dirt biking-related courses and accreditation (and the required number to be completed) differ per location. In North America, for instance, several programs aim to educate and certify riders before they embark on dirt biking adventures. Essential training and certifications in this region include:
- Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) Course: The MSF offers courses like the Basic Rider Course (BRC) to teach fundamental riding skills, including those relevant to dirt biking. The European counterpart is the Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) — a full-day intensive course covering essential riding skills and road safety knowledge.
- Off-Road Riding Courses: Many riding schools, like NSORRA in Nova Scotia, Canada, provide specialized off-road and dirt bike training programs to teach riders the skills necessary for riding on various terrains.
- State- or Township-Specific Training: Some states and provinces may have their own off-road or dirt biking training programs, which may be mandatory for riding in certain areas.
- Rider Education Certification: In addition to training courses, riders can obtain certifications that demonstrate their skills and knowledge in off-road riding.
- Off-Road Vehicle Safety Course: These courses focus on safety, trail ethics, and environmental responsibility for off-road riding. They are often facilitated by state departments of Natural Resources/Environment in the US (or their equivalent elsewhere).
- Recreational or Club Certifications: Some off-road clubs and organizations offer certifications or training programs tailored to specific riding disciplines.
Completing these training and certification programs will not only enhance your skills but also promote safe and responsible dirt biking. Additionally, taking these programs helps foster camaraderie among local riding clubs and organizations. Especially for beginners, these are integral to their enjoyment of the sport.
Conclusion — How to Get Into Dirt Biking
With the essentials shared in this guide, embarking on your first dirt biking adventure should be a blend of enthusiasm and prudence. While the sport promises excitement, it’s important to proceed with a steady and cautious approach like in any other motorsport.
Select a thumper that matches your developing skills and growing confidence. Avoid venturing into risky maneuvers that surpass your current abilities. And finally, stay motivated to keep progressing in this exhilarating sport.
Kris is an avid off-roader and outdoor enthusiast who loves to brave the elements and take on challenging terrain. He also enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge with others so that they, too, can appreciate the ride.