Dirt Bike Beginner Guide: Understanding The Basics (2018)

As a dirt bike beginner, you are either about to buy a bike or researching for a future purchase and need more information. Either way this guide will help any beginner fully understand everything you need to know.

What is a dirt bike?

You don’t have to be Einstein to understand that dirt bikes are about riding off-road. However, what a lot of people don’t understand is that dirt bikes come in a number of different formats.

So working out what kind of bike you want can be confusing when there are so many different bikes available. Fortunately, this guide is here to help you work through this and find the right bike so you quickly shift from a dirt bike beginner to a dirt bike pro!

Basically, the definition of a dirt bike is any bike that is capable of riding off the main sealed roads.  Ok, so technically any bike could ride on a dirt road but really I am talking about two categories of bikes. Dirt bikes that you can ride on the street and dirt bikes that are purely for off-road riding.  This can range from trails and dirt roads to obstacle courses and motor cross circuits that are in or outdoors.


Below I break down the two categories and the dirt bikes relevant to each group.

Let’s start with off-road only category:


Motorcross dirt bike
Example Of A Motocross Dirt Bike

A high-performance machine that is designed for racing typically around a circuit with all sorts of jumps, ruts and banked corners.

These bikes are designed for short bursts of power so they accelerate quickly and can stop on a dime.

They are generally light in weight and their suspension is set up for the jumps associated with motocross tracks.

The suspension set up typically makes these bikes quite tall, so factoring in this is important when looking at this type of bike.

The reduced weight comes from minimal equipment built onto the bike and they usually run a small fuel tank which also contributes to weight reduction.

The high-performance nature of these bikes also makes for a lot of maintenance with a high frequency of service. This may also mean more visits to the bike shop for specialised servicing.

My personal recommendation for a beginner is that unless you are absolutely into motocross, start with a trail bike first.  They are easier to ride, they provide a good starting point to explore, and their costs can be less.

Trail Bikes

Dirt Bike Beginner Trail Bike
KTM trail/enduro bike

When comparing a trail to motocross bike, first impressions can be confusing as both machines look very similar, especially to a dirt bike beginner.

Often the differences are subtle.  For example, gearing for trail bikes is different to motocross as the latter needs to accelerate quickly and trail bikes tend to have better top-end gearing.

Trail bikes also have more safety features like hand protectors and radiator guards.  Front and rear lights are also tell-tale signs of a trail bike.

The suspension is one of the biggest differences. Trail riding means long hours in the saddle so the suspension is softer, whereas a motocross bike needs a stiff suspension to handle the big jumps and landings.

Allowing for distance riding is another feature of a trail bike.  Trail bikes tend to have larger fuel tanks to accommodate greater distances.  Motocross bikes require smaller tanks as the distances of riding are much smaller.

Trials Bikes 

Dirt Bike Beginner Trials Bike
A Trials Bike In Action

A trials bike, unlike a motocross or trail bike, is easy to distinguish from any other style of bike (see photo). This is due to the style of riding that these bikes are used for.

The main characteristics of a trials bike is a low centre of gravity chassis design, little or no seat, and reduced travel in the suspension. They use a different range of tyres that are suitable for the type of obstacles they encounter in competition.

These bikes are used to compete in low-speed specialised obstacle courses (sometimes indoors). In simple terms, the idea of the event is to make it around the course without your feet touching the ground. Points are awarded to you if your feet touch the ground. click here for more detailed information.

As you could imagine this type of riding requires a lot of skill and many of the techniques used in this type of riding are utilised in the other dirt bike riding categories.

For example, the throttle and clutch control for getting over obstacles is also invaluable when needing to get over a log in trail riding.

The clutch and throttle control for doing wheelies is also the same process used for trials riding.


Dirt Bike Beginner Suzuki DRZ400
Suzuki DRZ-400

The easiest way to distinguish a dual sports dirt bike is that they can be ridden on or off-road.

Primarily their main area of riding is off road but the ratio of off-road to on-road can vary with each manufacturer.

These bikes are something that I am quite familiar with having owned many of these bikes over the years. They have the advantage of being able to be ridden to where you want to ride if you have a trail nearby.

They are also handy when you have been riding all day and there is a hotel close by with cold beer!

The negative aspects of a dual sports bike are that they are often heavier than a trail/motocross equivalent. This is due to licensing requirements and also allowing for the necessary components for road riding such as indicators, front and rear lights etc.

Getting the tyres right on a dual sports can also be problematic as you have to allow for the on-road aspect of riding. If you only do a small amount of on-road riding then a knobby tyre might be ok.

A knobby tyre will quickly get chewed up if ridden regularly on a hard surfaced road.

Adventure Touring Bikes Dirt Bike Beginner- Adventure touring

I like to think of adventure touring bikes as a road bike that can be ridden on dirt roads.

These bikes are generally quite large with big engines designed for high-speed cruising.

Adventure touring bikes have a comfortable riding position well suited to long hours in the saddle.

A number of manufacturers now make these bikes as it is becoming a popular category of riding.  BMW and KTM both have bikes that are popular in this group.

How A Dirt Bike Works

Dirt Bike Beginner Flight Deck

The infographic above is a KTM but the main components and the way you use them are fairly consistent across all models of motorcycles.

Dirt Bike Beginner Side Profile

As part of your selection process make sure you get the appropriate safety gear:

  • Click here for identifying the best helmet
  • Click here for identifying the right goggles 
  • Click here for identifying the best boots 

Dirt Bike Beginner: Purchase Considerations

Now that we have covered all the main types of off-road bikes, how do you choose a bike?

  1. Decide what type of riding you want to do.  If you love getting out into the hills then a trail or dual sport is the go. If you love jumps and the thrill of tight racing then motocross might be your thing.
  2. Four-stroke or two-stroke engine?.  For a basic understanding of this consider a four-stroke to have smooth power delivery and a two-stroke to be more explosive in their power delivery. Traditionally two strokes were the best for motocross as the power delivery suited that style of riding but over the past 10 years, this has changed a lot. Four strokes now have heaps of power and can be ridden both on race tracks or out in the trails. In the end, it comes down to preference, take a few bikes for a ride with each type of engine and see what you prefer.
  3. What size engine? If buying from a motorcycle shop then getting the engine size right should be ok. If buying second hand then make sure your bike is neither underpowered or overpowered. A 250cc four-stroke can be a good starting point for a beginner as they are not too underpowered and still have enough get up and go to be enjoyable.  For a physically large rider then something like a Suzuki DRZ-400 could be a good option as they have plenty of manageable power and are suitable for a big body.
  4. Get the bike size right. It’s really important to get the size of the bike right. You need to take into consideration your own height and body weight when making this purchase. For me, I am tall so the height of the bike needs to be able to accommodate my size. If your bike is too big and heavy in relation to your body size then the riding experience may be reduced. Will you be able to pick the bike up if you drop it? Practice this by laying a bike down, if you cant pick it up on your own then consider another option.

Where To From Here?

So now you have a good understanding of the different types of dirt bikes and are aware that there are a number of factors to consider when looking at a purchase.

  • Where you ride
  • What style of riding you like
  • Your body size and weight
  • A four or two stroke
  • Making sure the physical size of the bike is suitable

The next step is to find the right bike and if you click here I will explain some of the options available for dirt bike beginners.