Off Road Riding Skills & Tips
The following information has been provided to offer the novice off road trail rider some guidance when it comes to venturing off road for the first time.
To get you started we have covered some of the most basic skills and techniques required to get you on your way. If in doubt ask an experienced fellow trail rider as this can be a valuable source of information. Also study their techniques and follow their example providing you are confident to do so.
- If in doubt stop, and wait for help and assistance. Better to finish the day on your bike than risk injury.
- It’s ill advised to ride alone and not recommended. In the event that you do, ensure you make someone aware of your planned route and the time you expect to be home.
- Take your mobile.
- Ensure your bike is well maintained and fit for purpose.
- Always ride wearing the correct protective equipment – See ‘What to Wear’ article.
- Take appropriate tools in the event of a breakdown – See ‘Don’t Leave Home Without it’ article
- Look Up – Look Ahead
- Stand Up – Adjust Body Position
- Maintain Your Momentum
- Riding in Mud
- Riding in Ruts
- Uphill Riding Techniques
- Downhill Riding Technique
- Water Crossings
- Tyres and Pressure
Note: Some of the following advice may go against your natural reaction and instinct when riding off road initially. With practice and experience it will become second nature.
Look Up Look Ahead – A simple fact, What you see . . . You hit!!
When riding an uneven trail it’s important to look ahead of you and not to focus on what’s immediately under your front wheel. Look down – go down, your attention is drawn towards that large rock in the middle of the track and suddenly you’re heading straight for it!
- Keep your eyes up and focused on the trail well ahead of you
- Look where you want to go and your bike will naturally follow your intended route
- Don’t look down or focus on the track directly in front of you
- Pick your line, there is often a less challenging route to be found
Look ahead, read the trail, pick route –
Stand Up – Adjust Body Position
A lot of your riding (esp. over rough, hard terrain) should be done in the standing position. It distributes your weight to a lower point on the bike (your foot pegs) which can allow you more control and used to steer your bike.
- Stand with the foot pegs in the middle of your feet for good control.
- Your back should be slightly arched. Keep your arms up, and elbows forward with your head over the handle bars.
- Grip the tank firmly with your knees slightly bent and push down onto the foot pegs. This makes you and the bike into a single unified unit where your body weight is as much part of the steering process as the front wheel. Your upper body should be relaxed and free to move about easily.
- Try and keep either 1 or 2 fingers on the clutch and brake levers as much as possible. It may feel awkward to begin with but after practice it will feel natural.
Adopting the above will make it far easier to cross rough terrain. Whilst your bike moves around beneath you, your focus will be to maintain balance and control. In this instance your knees and elbows act as additional suspension units.
Sitting down on a bike when it’s bucking around violently will see you thrown around like a rag doll and drastically reduce your ability to effectively operate the bikes controls smoothly whilst trying to maintain balance.
Do not use the handlebars to pull yourself up – their job is to steer, not pull!
Tip: Steering your Bike with your foot pegs
Try this next time you’re out riding: Find a flat paddock of some sort and ride in a straight line in 2nd gear while standing. Shift your weight to the left foot peg to steer the bike to the left without turning your handlebars. Now try the right side. You can actually control and steer your bike by using your lower body weight through the pegs.
Knees bent, elbows wide, adjust weight according to track surface. Weighting your foot pegs to steer the bike.
Big, wide foot pegs make a HUGE difference when riding standing-up, especially on a technical trail.
Maintain your Momentum
When the going gets tough your natural reaction is to back off and reduce your speed, especially when crossing loose surfaces. Don’t! The amount of stability a motorcycle has depends on its forward motion. Generally as your speed increases so does your stability, the bike is more balanced and controllable especially when in the standing position.
- Reduce your speed a little then start accelerating smoothly until clear.
- Whilst in the standing position move your body position back slightly.
- Allow the front end to float.
- Choose a lower gear at the bottom end of the power band allowing you to accelerate.
- If the bike becomes unstable give it more gas.
Going too slowly over rough terrain will cause the bike to move around more and perhaps cause you to panic. Within reason go a bit faster than you are comfortable with.
A decelerating bike will flounder!
Accelerate smoothly, adjust body position to allow the front wheel to float, power through using lower gear/s.
Cornering – Sit Down Mid Apex
When approaching a corner it’s always best to exercise a little caution. As you don’t know how tight the corner may be or what might be coming in the opposite direction. The safest way is to control your speed, slow in and smoothly accelerate out.
The majority of the time you will find it best to sit down mid apex with your body position forward, weighting the front wheel for grip. Applying pressure to the outside peg will help stop the centrifugal forces throwing the back wheel outwards. Putting your inside foot out towards the front wheel also adds weight to the front end but is there in case the front tucks and you need a quick dab to save your pride.
- Look through the corner to the point where you aim to be.
- Move your body forwards to weight the front wheel to stop it from sliding out.
- Weight the outside peg – E.g. Right peg when riding a left hand bend.
- Inside leg out to catch the front end from sliding.
- Keep arms up and bent for maximum leverage.
- Avoid hard braking or acceleration – stay smooth.
Tip: Cornering while in the central standing position
Once you’re comfortable with seated cornering you should try cornering while in the central standing position. This is a fantastic technique to use on wooded trails when a lot of standing is required. It’s a little bit trickier to learn but in certain situations can help you conserve energy and travel faster through corners. Basically you just need to lean into the corner and weight your ‘inside’ leg on the foot peg.
E.g. place more weight on your left foot when riding through a left hand corner.
Focus on your exit point, forward riding position, weighting outside peg.
You should have little need for hard braking when riding your motorcycle off road. Down shifting through the gears especially on four stroke bikes provides a lot of engine braking.
The front brake provides 70% of your bikes braking with the rear brake just 30%. Wherever possible, do your braking in a straight line, applying both brakes simultaneously, as this will unsettle the bike far less and allow the suspension to cope with the rough terrain.
If you need the extra stopping power you can progressively pile on the front brake until it shows signs of locking up – then ease off a little.
- Changing down to a lower gear helps you slow down with more control.
- Get your braking done while you’re going straight – braking in a turn may cause you to lock a wheel and slide out of control.
- The front brake has much more stopping power than the rear, apply progressively.
- If you feel a wheel lock up, ease off the brake momentarily until the wheel is rolling again and then re-apply the brake more gently.
It’s worth taking time to practice your breaking to get the feel of how much stopping power is available from either brake. Start off using only the front then only the rear. You will notice immediately how much longer it will take you to stop using just the rear brake over the same distance. As you are travelling in a forward motion it is very easy to lock the rear wheel up and skid as the weight transfer is all on the front end. It is therefore preferable to use a combination of both brakes at the same time.
With time and experience on different surfaces your ability to brake harder / later will improve.
On technical surfaces train yourself to use the front brake only. It’s fast, powerful and decisive. On slick slippery surfaces use the back brake only.
Riding in Mud / Sand / Bog
The best technique is shift your body weight rearward with your arms outstretched, whether sitting or standing. The idea is to surf across the soft ground so your front wheel doesn’t wash out or dig in and try to throw you over the bars – It does happen!
This will also give the rear wheel greater traction. Try and maintain a brisk pace as this may also help clear the sludge from your wheels so they no longer look like slicks. Keep the clutch covered to avoid stalling the bike and watch others for lines which may be easier to ride.
- Keep your weight to the rear of the bike.
- Maintain a reasonable pace.
- Keep the clutch covered to avoid stalling.
- Look for easier routes that others have taken.
Riding too slowly will increase the chances of your bike sinking into the gloop. Periodically check your radiators are not caked in mud and clean out any debris as your bike will overheat otherwise!
Choosing the right line can make all the difference!
I have yet to meet anyone who likes riding in ruts, although some find it far easier than others. A few simple tips here will make all the difference.
It’s best to stand up and maintain a neutral riding position and look well ahead. Keep in a lower power band with a less aggressive delivery with a smooth and steady throttle. Use your body position to keep the bike balanced and weight your foot pegs to assist with steering.
- Stand up; look down the trail at where you want to go.
- Keep in a lower gear and maintain a smooth steady throttle.
- Neutral body position allowing weight transfer through the pegs to steer
- When you start to get out of shape give it some beans!
If you start to wobble and lose control give it a little more gas. The gyroscopic effect will straighten your bike up and keep you moving in a forwardly direction. Once in a rut, stick with it and look for a shallow point before you attempt an exit. Trying to change direction in deep ruts seldom works and will only lead to a fall.
Riding in ruts that are waterlogged requires further concentration as the surface and sides of the rut are obscured from sight.
Uphill Riding Techniques
On steep, uphill’s with mud or loose gravelly surfaces the traction will be poor. Stand up with your body shifted back to transfer weight to the rear wheel for traction. Pull back on the bars, this will ensure the combined weight of you and your bike is on the back wheel.
In these conditions experienced riders carry 98% of this combined weight on the rear wheel.
Try to apply smooth, steady throttle, shifting your weight forward if the front end lifts. Where traction is poor, looping out is usually not an issue. Try to keep your speed up but be ready to slip the clutch if you begin to lose speed.
It is advisable to gain speed and engine revs before starting up the hill since you are likely to lose speed as you progress uphill. Try to stay on the foot pegs as long as possible in order to let the bike do the work. Once you begin dabbing to push the bike, it becomes very tiring
- Stand up, pull back on the bars.
- Move body position to rear of bike.
- Keep in a lower gear and maintain a smooth steady throttle.
- Cover the clutch and slip it if momentum is lost
- Build up speed prior to the climb
On uphill’s with good traction, such as granite, body weight should be shifted forward more to avoid looping the bike. The steeper the hill, the more you move forward.
Sitting down on shallow climbs with poor traction allows a rider to position their body weight much further back. Move body position forward if front wheel starts to lift.
Downhill Riding Techniques
On a downhill route the centre of gravity of both bike and rider shifts forward, putting more weight on the front wheel and less on the rear wheel. This makes your rear brake less effective so that most of the braking is done using the front brake.
For extremely steep downhill’s, the front wheel does nearly all of the braking. Therefore it is important to lower your centre of gravity and shift your bodyweight back to keep you from going over the bars should you hit an obstacle.
- Use moderate pressure on the front break being careful not to lock up the front wheel. Use light rear brake pressure.
- Avoid locking rear wheel.
- Crouch low, arms straight out and get your backside back as far as possible.
- Select a lower gear and use the engine breaking to reduce speed further.
Do not lock up the front wheel. Steer around rocks or holes if you can, but if you must hit an obstacle, release the front brake briefly as the front Tyre impacts.
With the correct body position controlling your speed and picking your line is very important. Sitting down may give you more confidence, using your feet to assist with balance.
It goes without saying that you should always approach any such crossing with caution. If you’re unsure as to the approximate depth then stop, park up and investigate further. You should also take note of the strength of the current / flow of water or river you are looking to cross.
Once you have assessed the crossing and found the most suitable place in which to do so, sitting down with a neutral riding position will allow you to put a foot down should a dab be required. Look at the point of exit, and select a lower gear with a slow and steady approach..
Keep your clutch covered and be prepared to kill the engine immediately if your bike begins to fall. Dropping a running bike in water can cause serious damage.
- If in doubt – check water depth and current.
- Find suitable place to cross and exit.
- The seated position will allow you to put a foot down if needed.
- Keep the clutch covered.
- Low gear, steady smooth throttle.
- Be prepared to cut engine.
Following a more experienced rider/s may pay dividends to establish the best line to take or not.
Traction will be poor and slippery. Beware of rocks which will deflect you from your intended route.
Tyres and Tyre Pressure
First and foremost any tyre that is worn and in poor shape will not perform at its optimum. You will struggle noticeably for both grip and traction, which in slippery, muddy wet conditions are exaggerated. Ultimately making you work that much harder to control your bike.
Whilst there are a multitude of brands to choose from you should consider what type of trail riding you are likely to be doing before selecting a tyre which is more suited to that type of riding.
You can buy a tyre that is made to perform well in soft muddy conditions but will obviously not cope as well should you wish to use it over rocky terrain. Here a harder compound tyre would be far more appropriate.
After deciding what rubber you’re going to run, you should then set the tyre pressures accordingly.
Rocky Going: Higher pressure front and back as you want to avoid damaging your rims, breaking spokes and causing punctures.
Note: Running higher tyre pressures will reduce your tyres footprint and therefore grip.
Front: 14 – 16psi
Riding at full throttle over a hard pothole or rock is asking for trouble. Therefore ensure you reduce your speed and move your body weight back, thereby taking the weight off the front wheel.
Muddy Conditions: Lower pressure both front and back will provide a larger footprint which will result in better traction and grip.
Note: It’s important that you use rim locks on both wheels especially when running lower tyre pressures as the tyre can slip on the wheel rim and rip the inner tube around the base of the valve!
Focus on your exit point, forward riding position, weighting outside peg.
Mousses or Inner Tubes
The option to run mousses may come down to price and budget as they are not cheap and not especially easy to fit. The upside of running a solid foam insert is that you are guaranteed not to get a puncture.
New mouse’s are the equivalent of an inner tube inflated to 14psi. However, over time and use this figure will decrease as the mouse shrinks. Mouse’s should not be subjected to high prolonged road miles as this ‘can’ cause them to overheat and degrade.
- Puncture proof
- Low maintenance
- Fixed pressure
- Not suitable for high road mileages
- Should be removed from tyre periodically and re coated in anti friction mousses lube.
Fitting heavy duty inner tubes which are generally 4mm thick are a cost effective alternative and a vast improvement over a standard tube. Although not puncture proof they definitely offer a much higher level of protection especially when dropping tyre pressures which can make tubes prone to pinch punctures.
Some heavy duty tubes are sold as not for road use as it is claimed they ‘can’ overheat due to friction and be prone to failure. I have yet to encounter anyone who has had any issues running HD tubes.
For additional protection some riders double tube, putting a new tube within an old tube which is cut open.
- Relatively cheap.
- Low maintenance
- Adjustable tyre pressure
- Not puncture proof
- Not suitable for high road mileages – allegedly
Speaking to other trail riders and doing a little research through online dirt bike forums will provide a wealth of information although personal preference and the type of riding may differ considerably.