Into The Woods

Tips For Street Riders To Tackle The Trails

By Michael Marino

For street riders, experienced and novice alike, the idea of riding on dirt may seem daunting. There’s what gear to wear, techniques to learn, where to ride and, in almost every case, the cost of buying a new bike.

But for many, it’s a journey worth taking. While on-highway riding has its own virtues, riding off-highway can offer a different motorcycling experience that allows the exploration of places that paved highways don’t reach.

Trail and desert riding can improve a street rider’s motorcycling skills, as well.

Off-road riding is not age-restrictive compared to street riding. While cruising the open road alone or with a spouse may be enjoyable, trail riding can bring the entire family together on two wheels.

It also is affordable. Only a few pieces of specialized gear are necessary, and used dirt bikes in good condition can be found for $2,000 or less.

Even for the street rider who is fully content with riding on-highway, the benefits of taking up off-highway riding are plenty. It’s a great way to affordably get family and friends into motorcycling, while also allowing street riders to live the motorcycling lifestyle to the fullest.


Advice For The Trail

One rider who has made the transition from riding on-highway to off-highway riding is AMA Chief Operations Officer Jeff Massey.

After riding minibikes in his youth, Massey gave up motorcycling until he turned 40.

He first got into road riding on his Harley-Davidson, but it didn’t take long for the off-road bug to bite him.

He went on a trail ride or two in 2008, but didn’t get into it seriously until about six years later.

At the beginning of the off-road riding season, Massey went back to that first loop he had ridden years before and could not believe how easy it was for him to ride.

Massey credits his development as an off-highway rider to having knowledgeable people to turn to for advice and direction.

“The best advice I received was from [AMA Director of Road Racing Relations] Bill Cumbow, who told me I needed to trust the bike to deal with the rocks and tree roots I was riding over,” Massey said.

His trail riding skillset also has paid off in an emergency situation.

“I was riding into work when a driver in front of me slammed her brakes on,” he said. “When I got on my brakes, the rear end of my Harley began getting loose. The back end of a trail bike gets loose all the time, so I was used to it. ”

Massey’s advice to street riders is to not let fear of the unknown hold them back.


So, which bike?

Off-road bikes are often lighter weight than street bikes and feature small (500cc or less), single-cylinder engines. The bikes have much longer suspension travel than street bikes, which is necessary for riding over obstacles, like rocks and tree roots, and navigating challenging terrain like hills, mud and sand. The longer suspension travel also means many dirt bikes have seat heights several inches taller than the average cruiser, sport bike or touring machine.

Here are several machines that are ideal for adult novice dirt riders. This group of off-road motorcycles is specifically designed for recreational trail or enduro-type riding. We’re providing 2020 information for the KLX300R—a model just announced in mid-June.


The motorcycles listed below are dual sports—essentially street-legal off-road bikes that can be ridden on-highway and off-highway.

While a dual sport bike may not be as well adapted to riding narrow, motorcycle-only trails through the woods or mastering deep sand washes, these bikes don’t have to be trailered to the trails or back home.

Trail riding and observed trials

One competition discipline that can help novice trail riders develop their off-road riding skills is observed trials.

Unlike racing competition, observed trials is a precision sport in which riders must navigate motorcycles around, over and sometimes up the side of a variety of obstacles.

Observed trials bikes also make for great first trail riding bikes. The smoother power delivery, light weight, small-displacement engines and superb handling make them ideal for a novice trail rider.

While most observed trials bikes lack a seat, this encourages novice riders to learn how to stand on the foot pegs while riding, which improves bike control over rough terrain.

“I would encourage any motorcycling enthusiast who has not made it onto the dirt to give it a try,” said Brad Baumert, North American Trials Council chief enthusiast officer. “Getting started in riding off-road is easy, and used bikes are plentiful.

“Riding on trails is freedom from traffic, the laws of the road and distracted drivers. After you develop a few off-road skills, you can go anywhere and explore.”

Baumert also recommends adding observed trials competition to one’s off-road training regimen.

“Trials riding is the best way to learn how to control a motorcycle,” he said. “When I first tried riding trials, I had been riding motorcycles for 30 years. I quickly realized I had never learned how to actually ride. When I climbed back onto my regular bike, I could go way faster and under more control than ever before.”

What gear do I need?

While your on-road gear may keep you safe at high speeds on country roads and interstate highways, it may be too much—or too little—for off-road riding, depending on the situation.

Basic off-road riding gear does not have to be expensive. The minimum level of protection includes an off-road-specific DOT-approved helmet, goggles, over-the-ankle boots, a pair of gloves, a long-sleeve shirt or sweatshirt and jeans.

Some additional gear that may be necessary, depending on the terrain, include knee pads, elbow pads and a chest protector.

Is training available?

Many street riders’ first step into the world of motorcycling is a beginner safety course.

Trail riding is no different, and several organizations throughout the United States offer introductory-level off-highway riding courses.

One of those organizations is the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which offers its DirtBike School.

Like its on-road equivalent, the BasicRider Course, the DirtBike School provides students with motorcycles and helmets to learn with. It teaches students about the basics of motorcycle operation (some of which will be familiar to street riders), as well as how to ride over different types of off-road terrain.

Training is also available through other private facilities across the nation.


Where do I ride?

After procuring a dirt-worthy motorcycle and the necessary riding gear and training, the next question is where to go trail riding.

For those living in the western United States, federal and state agencies offer enthusiasts access to thousands of acres of trails and desert in designated off-highway vehicle riding areas.

The vast majority of public recreation lands are owned by the U.S. Forest Service or the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. States, such as California, have well-developed OHV riding areas.

Permits may be required and not all public land is open to motorized recreation. Check each department’s website for trail maps before heading out for the first time.

In the eastern United States, many national forests, some state parks and even privately owned off-road riding areas give trail riding enthusiasts many opportunities to get out and ride.

One of the best ways to find places to ride is the AMA Trail Atlas, which features reviews of trails by your fellow AMA members. To view the Trail Atlas, visit


Next step: Racing

Once you’re comfortable riding off-highway at a recreational pace, you may want to consider giving off-road motorcycle competition a go.

For those who think they are ready, AMA Off-Road Racing Manager Erek Kudla recommends starting with enduro competition.

“Enduros are basically big, organized trail rides you can win,” he said. “It’s not a big step going from recreational trail riding to enduro riding.”

Kudla said that there are plenty of breaks for competitors during an enduro. Groups of friends or families can ride the same section one at a time, then meet before moving on to the next test section.

The motorcycles recommended in this article are eligible to compete in AMA-sanctioned enduro events.

Some off-road motorcycles may need to be fitted with an aftermarket spark arrestor, and installing additional lighting may be a benefit at some events.

Riders can also use the same riding gear they have for trail riding in an enduro. Kudla said knee and elbow protection and high-quality riding gloves may be beneficial at some enduros.

He also recommends working with the AMA referee at each event to resolve any questions or concerns as early as possible.

American Motorcyclist August 2019