11 Essential Tips for the Newbie Dirt Bike Rider

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A young kid gets on a dirt bike and jumps over the desert sand.

If you are a new dirt bike rider and you want to get started off on the right foot, here are 11 non-obvious tips to help you learn to become a dirt biking legend.  Okay… maybe not a legend, but at least much more competent.

Dirt Bike Clutches Are Different than the Clutch on a Car

All adult dirt bikes have a clutch and you’ll have to practice using it every time you change gears until it becomes second nature.

A dirt bike clutch isn’t like a car’s clutch.  A dirt bike’s clutch is multi-plated and sits in a pool of oil.  It’s okay to ride a dirt bike clutch a bit.  You can grab your clutch and pull it in a little to slow down before a turn, and you’re not really in danger of ruining your bike.  You certainly wouldn’t want to half-press the clutch all the time, but you can use it more than when you’re driving an old truck.

The other major difference is that you don’t need the clutch to shift down gears on a dirt bike.  When switching up gears, you need the clutch each time, though.  If you’re learning to downshift for the first time, read this article.

Dirt bike boots at a store

Do Not Cheap Out on Boots or Helmet

The two most expenses pieces of protective gear are the helmet and the boots; unfortunately, they are also the pieces of gear that you’ll hate the most if you get something cheap.

There are several brands of sub-$100 dirt bike boots.  I would advise not buying them.  I’ve tried everything from the cheap Fly boots, to the cheap O’neal boots, and more.  The cheap boots don’t have enough flex in them, so you can’t feel the shifter or the foot brake when you’re riding, which means you have to look down each time, which means you’ll crash a lot.  Also, 65% of bone brakes while dirt biking are bones below the waist, so a good quality set of boots is indispensable.  One very popular option for dirt bike boots that is still reasonably priced but FAR superior to the junky sub-$100 boots is the Fox Comp 3Y boots.  They usually run a little more, and they are an EXCELLENT boot.  Buy the same size boot as you buy shoes–don’t go up a size.

Inexpensive $70 – $100 helmets are also problematic.  They may look the same on the outside, but they are not at all the same on the inside.  Generally, the cheaper helmets don’t have as good of ventilation.  Very often, they’ll have “vents” on the outside, but the vents don’t actually go anywhere.  They are just blocked off with lining, so it doesn’t keep you any cooler.  Also, cheap helmets won’t get the best technology available to protect you.  Dirt biking deaths have declined 30% over the last 10 years, and part of that is because of advanced safety gear.

Buy a good helmet and boots first, or else you’ll make the common mistake of needing to buy boots twice.  If you’re into photography, it’s just like buying a cheap tripod–if you buy a junky tripod you’ll waste your money and need to buy a good quality one later.

It’s NOT Like Riding a Bike

One thing that causes lots of crashes and keeps new riders from progressing more quickly is that they sit on a dirt bike the same way they would sit on a bicycle.  They lazily sit down with all their weight on their butt, elbows down, etc.  Dirt bike riders sit in an aggressive stance to soak up bumps and give greater control of the dirt bike.  Here’s how to sit on a dirt bike:

  • Don’t sit too far back on the bike or you’ll pop a wheelie accidentally.  Sit forward on the bike.
  • Squeeze the bike with your knees.  You’ll get arm pump if you use your arms for all turning and control.  By squeezing with your knees, you can use your leg power to tilt and turn the bike.
  • All your weight shouldn’t be on your butt.  Put weight on the foot pegs and slightly sit up with a straight back.  You should be in an aggressive stance like a tennis player waiting for a ball to come, or a football linebacker waiting to see where the play will develop.
  • Put out your elbows away from the body and high up in the air.  This will give you much more power to make quick turns and control the bike if you start to lose traction.

Make Loading and Unloading Painless

Whenever I look on Craigslist for dirt bikes, I see a 2 to 3-year-old bike that has barely been ridden at all.  Someone bought it thinking they’d go ride frequently, but they haven’t gotten out much.  This could be for a lot of reasons, but I decided after noticing this trend that I’d make it as quick and painless as possible to get from my house to the dirt bike trails.

I made the dumb mistake when I first got my bike of buying a cheapie little skinny Fly dirt bike ramp to get the bike up into the back of my truck.  This made it very difficult to load the bikes and took twice as long as it should.  I’d recommend getting this Black Widow loading ramp from Amazon that is reasonably priced and will make loading easy.

In the end, I decided even loading the bikes into the truck was a bit of a pain.  Getting them up there, and then messing with straps wasn’t something I wanted to do before each ride, after each ride, and then unloading again once I got home to get the bikes out of the back of my truck.  Instead, I got a dirt bike trailer and implemented a strapless system for securing the bikes.  Now, I can decide I want to take the kids out dirt biking and be on the road out to the desert in less than 10 minutes.  When I get home, I just unhook the enclosed trailer and I’m off.  This is much easier and makes it more fun to go riding.

There’s no sense in spending thousands on dirt bikes and gear if you won’t use it.  Get a system that works for you to make the loading and unloading simple.

Start on a Dirt Road

When some dirt bikers first go out to learn, they find a nearby dirt bike track, or they hear from a friend of a “great place to go riding.”  That “great place” may end up being single track, or a hilly area where they like to practice climbing.

In my opinion, the best place to learn dirt biking is on an old dirt road.  It’s flat, there aren’t usually any large rocks, and you can practice without any obstacles.  Start by just learning the clutch, braking, and lazy turns.  Just learn to go and stop and not die trying.  Don’t be afraid to get a little speed and feel the wind and feeling of freedom, but keep your first ride easy.

Then, make your next ride a place with gentle hills so you can learn some of the basics of balancing the bike.

Starting off slow will give you much more confidence and will dramatically reduce the risk of injury.

Learn These 5 Simple Ways to Maintain Your Dirt Bike

There are a few things you’ll need to learn how to do yourself to keep your bike running problem-free.  I’m not much of a mechanic at all, so when I started dirt biking, this was intimidating to me.  However, a little Youtube power fixed trained me up and I was able to make these repairs without any trouble.

  • Change the oil.  Many adult dirt bikes require an oil change every 8 hours of riding.  The good news is that it’s really fast and easy.  Undo the bolt to drain out all the old oil, and then put new oil in.
  • Clean the air filter.  Very frequently, you’ll need to remove your air filter, wash out all the dirt, coat it lightly with oil, and put it back in.
  • Check your tire pressure.  Get a tire pressure gauge to check your dirt bikes frequently.  Dirt bike tires generally take 15 pounds of pressure or less, but you can easily rip the valve stem off the kids’ bikes if they don’t have enough pressure.
  • Put your battery on a trickle charger.  You’ll want to put your battery on a trickle charger throughout the winter unless you want to buy a new battery every spring.
  • Keep your chain lubricated.  Buy a couple cans of chain lube to put in your dirt bike gear and just spray the chains periodically.

Dirt bikes are not, at all, difficult to maintain.  If you do these things regularly and then just take it in to the shop once a year to have the oil filter replaced, all or other liquids checked, etc, you’ll be just fine.  If you’re a knowledgeable person, you can do everything yourself.  However, if you’re new and intimidated by bike maintenance, just learning those 5 things will keep your bike running just fine all year until you get it checked out by a mechanic again in the spring.

Don’t Start on a 450

Seriously, don’t.  Do not go buy a 450cc dirt bike.  The 450 is an expert bike that beginners will hate riding.  It’s just too powerful and you’ll scare yourself to death the first few times you ride one.  Most adult men, even with a lot of experience, ride a 250cc bike.

In addition to the power, a 450 is a very heavy bike.  It will be much more tiring to control, and you’ll likely lose your balance when going slowly through obstacles on a trail and dump it frequently.

If you don’t believe me, check out this video from Kyle Brotherson from the excellent Dirt Bike Channel telling of his experience buying a 450.  Kyle is a great asset to the dirt biking community, and I’ve learned a lot from him (via Youtube).  I’ve seen almost all of his videos.

Practice Controls with the Dirt Bike Off

Rather than sitting on the dirt bike for the first time and immediately turning the key and kicking it on, I recommend practicing for 5-10 minutes of shifting with the bike turned off.  Just practice what you’ll do.  Practice shifting with your foot so you can feel for it without looking down, learn where the foot brake is so it’s second nature, and go through the process of using the clutch multiple times.  This can help make your first ride much more successful.

Don’t Use the Kill Switch to Turn Off the Dirt Bike

Since most dirt bikes have electric start these days, a common newbie mistake is to turn off the bike by using the kill switch on the left handlebar.  The problem with doing this is that the battery is still “on”, so your battery will be dead the next time you go out to ride.  Get in the habit of turning off the bike by turning the key to the off position.  I only use the kill switch if it’s an emergency of some sort–like if I crash and the bike is still on when it’s on top of me.

Jim Harmer

I'm the co-owner of Dirt Bike Planet. I live in Star, Idaho and enjoy dirt biking with my wife and two boys throughout the Idaho mountains.

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