How to Ride a Motorcycle in the Dirt

01
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How to Ride a Dirtbike: First, Prep Your Motorcycle for the Dirt

How to Ride a Dirtbike
Lower tire pressure helps your bike's rubber conform to irregular offroad surfaces. Photo © Getty Images

If you already know how to ride a motorcycle but want to head offroad on a dirtbike or dual purpose machine, here are ten tips to keep in mind when you're moving from pavement to trail.

Just as you would on a road bike, you'll want to use the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's T-CLOCS checklist which ensures that your motorcycle is ready for action.

But hitting the dirt can also involve dropping tire pressure (sometimes to around 20 lbs or so), in order to help the rubber become more flexible with the terrain. It's also a good idea to ditch saddlebags or accessories that could weigh you down or shake loose due to vibrations. Finally, you should also consider tucking or removing turn signals, windscreens, and mirrors, as they will easily get damaged if and when you take a spill.

02
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Gear Up!

How to Ride a Dirtbike
An (incomplete) view of offroad motorcycle gear... those bare elbows could suffer some serious damage in a spill!. Photo © Plush Studios

Dirt may be soft, but offroad accidents can still cause serious injuries; after all, the human body is a fragile thing. As with road riding, choosing the proper safety gear-- from helmet to boots-- is a key part of protecting yourself.

Offroading gear differs quite a bit from road gear, as boots are taller and have more reinforcement in areas like the shins. Protective padding for knees, shoulders, chest (aka, roost deflector), and elbows (not seen here) tend to be covered by jerseys and light pants. Gloves are usually lighter and more flexible, in order to cope with the wide range of movement associated with offroad riding, and dirt or motocross helmets incorporate a sunshade and an open area for goggles. Believe me, one ride on a dusty trail will make you appreciate goggles that keep the dirt out of your eyes.

03
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Loosen Up

How to Ride a Dirtbike
Check yourself before you ride: are your limbs loose enough to roll with the punches?. Photo © Andrea Wilson

 

It's important to avoid stiffening up when you ride on the road, but the art of loosening up takes on an entirely different dimension when you're offroad. Due to unpredictable changes in terrain surfaces, increased suspension travel and lack of traction, your body will either cope with a dirtbike's jostling, heaving, and shifting... or simply put, it will make it much more likely that you will go down.

 

Be sure to check yourself before heading out on a dirt ride; shake out your body and make sure you're as limber as possible and ready to roll with the punches. Otherwise, it's all too easy to lose the flow and that vital connection with your bike.

04
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Standing Up = Lowering Your Center of Gravity

How to Ride a Dirtbike
Proper standing posture on a bike. Photo © BMW

A bike's center of gravity usually resides around its engine, and when a rider sits on the saddle that center gets raised.

Everyone knows that a higher center of gravity makes a bike top heavy and harder to maneuver. And though it sounds counterintuitive, standing on the footpegs actually drops the center of gravity dramatically, since all your weight is now resting on the pegs. It's no wonder that roughly three-quarters of offroading involve standing on the pegs; moving a bike around tight spaces becomes a lot easier when you're off the seat.

A few tips for standing up on a bike:

  • Stand on the balls of your feet, not the heels; the shifter and brake pedal are a bit out of reach that way, but it's much easier to get a feel for the bike's physics.​
  • Lightly hug the tank with your thighs; it will give you a better sense of lean angle, and help you keep the bike in control.
  • Use your knees as shock absorbers; that will ensure you don't get thrown off the bike.
  • Ride with your elbows out; that will provide flexibility when the road gets bumpy.

05
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Fear No Obstacles

How to Ride a Dirtbike
We have no fear of water here!. Photo © Kevin Wing

Street riders have a natural impulse to avoid obstacles, and for good reason: most street bikes don't have enough suspension travel to absorb serious shocks. On the other hand, dirtbikes are equipped to climb over logs, through mud, and across all manner of ridges, ripples, and ruts.

It takes a while to get over the idea that you CAN cross that obstacle, but once you do, the feeling is liberating. Just be sure to cross the object in your path at a 90-degree angle; that way, your tire won't get caught. Also, dirtbikes are able to lift their front wheel much easier than streetbikes, which is easily accomplished by rolling on the throttle and tugging up at the handlebars. And on that note, remember to use momentum to your advantage-- hesitate, and you can easily get bogged down and miss your opportunity.

06
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Think Backwards: Braking

How to Ride a Dirtbike
How to brake on a dirtbike. Photo © Getty Images

One thing you'll have to re-learn in the dirt is the act of braking on a motorcycle. Stopping on a paved surface primarily involves using the front brake; about 70 percent of lever effort tends to go towards the front since weight transfers there when a bike starts to slow down.

However, the dirt presents an entirely different traction paradigm: since it's easy to "wash out" or "tuck" the front wheel due to tire slippage, you've got to think backward and apply most of your effort towards the rear brake. Sliding the rear, as seen above, is a perfectly natural way to scrub off speed when you're offroad.

Practice repeated slides to get a sense of what it feels like, so you're not caught unawares when you find yourself in a situation that demands panic braking... and stay off those fronts unless you know it won't wash out.

07
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Think Backwards: Turning

How to Ride a Dirtbike
As strange as it looks, this posture creates an ideal balance for turning a bike offroad. Photo © Yamaha

Road riders are trained to lean into the turn, and race fans know that hanging off the bike on the inside of a turn lowers the motorcycle's center of gravity. But things are done the opposite way in the dirt.

For starters, countersteering can get you in a heap of trouble since it allows more room for tire slippage, and ultimately the possibility of wiping out. Instead of leaning into a turn, rest your weight on the outside peg, as seen here, and shift your body away from the inside of the turn so it puts maximum downforce on the tires. It takes some getting used to, but once you experience how much more secure the bike feels with this method of turning, it will come naturally.

08
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Bonus Turning Tip: Throw a Leg Out

How to Ride a Dirtbike
When to use your leg on a dirtbike. Photo © Red Bull

Once you've wrapped your head around turning in the dirt, another component to the process will add a layer of security: throwing a leg out.

First, let's clarify that this isn't a recommended tactic for heavier bikes-- in fact, most adventure tourers and dual purpose motorcycles are weighty enough to snap bones if they come down on your leg. Many dirtbikes, however, are light enough not to pose a danger to an outstretched boot; stick it out, and you'll have a little bit of insurance, being able to keep the bike up if it falls over.

09
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Enjoy the Slip 'n Slide

How to Ride a Dirtbike
Don't be afraid to slide your ride!. Photo © BMW

When we ride on the road, we program ourselves to make sure we've got an ultimate grip with pavement, and the sensation of tire slip can be extremely disconcerting when it sneaks up on us. On the dirt, however, sliding is a way of life. The bike's path is a fluid line that shifts and alters depending on many variables, and experienced dirt riders can trigger serious drifts and yaw angles without thinking twice.

De-programming yourself away from the fear of sliding can be a challenging process, but the only way to become accustomed to the sensation of slipping in the dirt is by doing it and making peace with the fact that traction loss is part of the fun. Master this one, and you'll tackle one of the biggest challenges in offroad riding.

10
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... Oh, And One More Thing: You Will Fall!

How to Ride a Dirtbike
Don't be afraid to fall off a dirtbike-- it's all but inevitable. Photo © Getty Images Sport

Thanks to an abundance of concrete, curbs, cars and all manner of hard-surfaced menaces, crashing on public roads can be a nasty event. Dirt, on the other hand, doesn't hurt nearly as much. Though wearing safety gear is just as important off-road as it is on-road, the risks associated with crashing are far fewer in the dirt. Put simply, just like traction loss and riding over obstacles, falling off is an accepted part of dirtbike riding, and it's one of those inevitabilities you simply have to anticipate.

So gear up, get out to a motocross park or trail, and have fun; you'll find that it's not only a blast to ride offroad, the techniques you develop there will also improve your street skills.

And since there's only so much you can learn on your own, we recommend the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's dirtbike school, where you can learn offroad skills from the pros.