Top 16 Off-Road Riding Tips

Fun and challenging!

Gettin’ My Mud On!

I recently returned from an epic dirt riding trip. But, instead of boring you with details about where I went and what I ate, I’m going to share some tips about how I survived the slimy, rocky, ascents and descents of the Rock House section of the Hatfield McCoy trail system in West Virginia.

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Ken, Tony and the guys at Hatfield McCoy

Ken, Tony and the guys at Hatfield McCoy

It all started when a group of us from Tony’s Track Days arrived at the small town of Gilbert, WV to ride up and down some of the slimiest and rockiest terrain I’ve encountered.

Check out the video:

You’ll hear me talking while I slip, slide and bounce along the trails, because I am using Interphone brand Bluetooth communicators with my friend, Tony. I can’t recommend using communicators enough…it makes off road riding even more enjoyable and allows the person in the lead to warn about particularly gnarly hazards. I’m on a Kawasaki KLX250s.


Some hills are just too tough.

Some hills are just too tough.

Slippery, Slimy Mud on hard packed rock.

Slippery, Slimy Mud on hard packed rock.

Why Do That?

To understand some reasons why I ride off-road (and why you should, too), you may want to read the blog article “10 Reasons Why Street Riders Should Ride in the Dirt” . Sure, riding off-road makes anyone a better street rider, but I also do it because it is challenging and fun, fun, fun.

I talk about “riding in the zone” as it pertains to street riding and even track riding, but off-road riding brings the zone experience to a whole new level of alertness.  Any significant lapse in focus could mean careening down a steep slope with the only thing stopping me from a long descent are stands of trees.

Fun and challenging!

Fun and challenging!

Tips for Surviving Mud, Rocks, Hills and Other Off-road Encounters

I’m no off-road riding expert. But, I know enough to share some tips that can help you survive your next off-road riding experience. With no further ado, here they are:

  1. 1. Manage Your Speed: Nothing increases risk more than a too fast speed for your ability and/or the conditions. Keeping your throttle hand in check is fairly easy to do, but managing speed on a steep, muddy downhill trail is tough. The trick is to see the problem well before you get to it and slow down to a crawl so you aren’t trying to scrub off speed where gravity and almost zero traction create the equivalent of a slip and slide.
  2. 2. Keep Your Eyes Up: We look down when we are scared or tired. The problem is that as soon as you look down, you’re unable to deal with the terrain that is suddenly under your front wheel. This problem compounds until you are so far behind what’s going on underneath you that you get more scared, look down more and eventually crash. This pertains to most athletic activities, including street riding.
  3. 3. Use Momentum: When traction is limited, you must rely more on momentum. This means keeping your eyes up to see what’s coming and getting on the gas before you are on a surface that has little grip.
  4. 4. Believe You Can Do it: If you hesitate, you will likely not make it up that steep incline. So, go for it! That said, avoid terrain that is over your head.
  5. 5. Stand Up, Sit Down: It’s nearly impossible to ride an off-road bike well if you aren’t good at riding while standing. It’s also important to know when it’s best to stand and when to sit. In general, stand for any significant bumps so your legs absorb the impacts and sit for corners, especially corners with berms so you can load the rear tire for the drive out.
  6. 6. Find the Center: Whether sitting or standing, you must find the spot where your body’s mass is located for optimum maneuverability and fluid control. This means sitting forward on the seat and standing so your belly is over the steering stem.
  7. 7. Bent Arms: The bike is going to move up, down, left and right at great frequency. Yet, you must hold onto the handlebars and operate the controls while the bike is jerking around. Bent arms allow the bike to move as necessary and for your hands to still control the throttle and brake with precision.
  8. 8. Counter-lean: This is something street riders have a hard time with when they first start dirt-riding. If you lean with the bike (or low and inside) then the bike will slip out from under you. The bike must lean to turn, but if you stay on top of the bike, your weight keeps the load pressing vertically to allow the tires to grip the terrain.
  9. 9. Forget the Clutch: Forget using the clutch for upshifts. There is usually no time to go for the clutch lever when you’re accelerating out of one rocky, muddy mess into another one.
  10. 10. Use the Clutch: On the other hand, you want to use the clutch to control drive as much as possible. By slipping the clutch you can stay in a taller gear to avoid excessive shifting and control your speed with greater precision.
  11. 11. Use the Rear Brake: On muddy terrain, you’ll rely heavily on the rear brake. Skidding the rear tire is not usually a big deal, but skidding the front will quickly toss you on your head.
  12. 12. Use the Front Brake: Yeah, I know what I just said, but when there is traction, you can (and should) use both the front and rear brakes when descending hills. This may sound tricky, and it is. But, sometimes you need all the slowing power available, just learn to apply the front brake carefully.
  13. 13. Learn to Wheelie and Jump: Not so you can be a squid, but so you can get over fallen trees, big rocks and to jump whoops like Pastrana. If you can’t wheelie, then at least learn to loft or bunny-hop over obstacles.
  14. 14. Steer with the Rear: When you don’t have a lot of grip, trying to steer with the front tire is a bad idea. Instead, get the bike turned in the general direction, but get on the gas to prevent a front tire washout.
  15. 15. Make sure Your Bike is Ready: It sucks to be stranded in the woods.
  16. 16. Take Breaks: Off-road riding uses a lot of physical and mental energy. If you get tired, you will start looking down and your timing will become imprecise. Before you know it, you’re on the ground.

Okay. It’s your turn. Please use the comments area below to share your favorite tips for riding rugged and muddy off-road terrain.


 

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Ken is author of "Motorcycling the Right Way” and "Riding in the Zone" (book and blog). He is also the "Street Savvy" columnist for Motorcyclist Magazine, and former longtime author of the Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies columns for Motorcycle Consumer News. Ken is Lead Instructor for Tony's Track Days, a 20 year Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor, and owner of Riding in the Zone Motorcyclist Training.

Posted in Adventures, All Things Motorcycle, Dual-Sport Motorcycling, Riding Technique & Tips Tagged with: , , ,
13 comments on “Top 16 Off-Road Riding Tips
  1. I’ve been looking at getting a dirt bike, so I appreciated the tips you provided. I especially like your suggestion to keep my eyes up and forward when I’m riding. I’ll definitely keep this in mind in the future for when I get a dirt bike.

  2. Finn Stewart says:

    I like how you mentioned how important it is to find the center of a bike. I have been dirt biking for years and am trying to pass the sport on to my son but the bike doesn’t feel right to him. It seems like choosing a good bike that fits the rider is very important. When we look at dirt bikes I’ll make sure he feels centered on it.

  3. Harley Ron says:

    I like the mention of the counter lean.
    At slow speeds, counter leaning keeps a more vertical load on the tires and maintains balance where there is less lateral load.
    Definitely a necessary skill.

  4. I like your advice to never look down and always keep your eyes up. My wife and I really want to ride motorcycles; however, we were unaware if it was better to look up at the road coming or to stay focused on what you are riding over at the moment. This has been really helpful, and we did not know that believing in yourself played such a big role. Thank you so much!

  5. Cromoth says:

    Mountain biking (even on a rental) pays huge dividends for dirt moto. Bike prep should include basic suspension setup (sag). Air down tires & consider rim locks. Thanks for a good article & I find Ride Reports entertaining, btw. Have you demoed a Zero FX yet?

  6. Marc R says:

    “Keep Your Eyes Up”. As a new dirt rider, here are some of the obstacles that made this fundamental skill challenging.

    Eventually you encounter roots, holes or rocks big enough where you hesitate and your focus is reduced to a short distance. Riding with a group, I benefited from “monkey see, monkey do” and choose to believe I can do this also, and eventually avoided giving the bigger obstacles undue attention. This also lead to many first time experiences, with a big grin and amazed at the bikes capability.

    My body position is a work in progress, which results in using more energy than an experienced rider on the same track. After a few hours, the lower energy reduced my anxiety threshold. Yeah, I get tired, my vision gets closer and trail riding gets harder.

    Great article Ken. Nice meeting you Kris.

  7. Kris Hopkins says:

    Being one of the fortunate members of the recent Hatfield-McCoy group ride, it’s great to see a lot of the conversations we all shared about surviving show up in your blog here. I love how riding in the dirt, especially very slippery dirt, stresses the importance of being smooth. Every time I teach my boys any new technique, I always make them start by saying the word out loud “smooooth”. The old saying, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, is very important to me for surviving the dirty rides and is my mantra as I’m cruising along. Body position changes, throttle, braking and the pressure placed on your hands and feet all become super enhanced as the traction diminishes so try to make purposeful but gentle inputs. Also a decent tool kit helps. I keep the common tools my bike requires, some metric sockets and allens, multi-tip screwdriver, small channel locks, multi tool with a knife, lotls of zip ties, lots of 1′ long chunks of safety wire and the all important 25′ webbing tow strap just in case. It all fits very comfortably in my camelback without being too heavy.

  8. steve berthiaume says:

    that terrain looks a lot like some of the Tour of the Battenkill bicycle race course, which I worked last year on a street bike with bald tires. I learned real fast about not using the front brake and standing up on the pegs. Talk about a trial by fire! Look forward to using the rest of the tips next year!

  9. Jeffrey Meyers says:

    Looks like a LOT of fun!! From my experience mountain bicycling, the tips sound very familiar. I would add that having adequate water/diluted sport drink and food seem like a must have too.

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