If you recently got a dirt bike or will be riding one for the first time, then this is the guide for you. Read carefully through this guide and you’ll skip the tough learning curve that most riders have to go through.
Riding a dirt bike is not hard, but if you attempt to take shortcuts on your first few rides, you can learn bad habits that could take a long time to undo. After reading through this guide, come back to it a few times after your rides and make sure you aren’t skipping any steps. This practice just may be as good as a series of private lessons.
Once you master these fundamentals, you’ll be able to take on any ride you want.
Starting the Bike
To start a dirt bike, you’ll first need to turn on the battery power of the bike. This won’t actually start the engine, but will initiate the dirt bike’s battery so that the engine can start later. On most dirt bikes, you’ll do this by simply turning the key to the “on” position. On some bikes, such as the Yamaha TTR-230, you’ll press the “on” button.
Next, you need to decide if you need the choke. if it’s warm outside or if the bike has been running already that day, then you likely won’t need to even use the choke. However, if you’re starting cold, then you may need to pull out the choke. The choke is sometimes a switch you flip underneath the battery like on the Yamaha TTR-50E, but more commonly will be found as a pull-out on the left side of the bike near where your leg would be when sitting on the bike.
Now we need to get into neutral (if this is a kids bike), or pull in the clutch and go to first gear if this is an adult bike. If your bike has a manual clutch (as is the case with virtually all adult dirt bikes, but which is not usually the case with kids bikes), then you’ll need to pull in the clutch first. The clutch is your left handle (as if it were the left hand brake on a bicycle). Pull it in fully. This effectively places the bike in neutral because the clutch disengages the gear.
If this is a kids bike without a clutch, sit on the bike and reach your left foot forward to the gear shifter. Step down on the lever in front of the foot beg repeatedly—about 6 times to ensure you’re in neutral.
If you are on an adult bike, you need to follow the same procedure to put the bike in first gear. Sit on the bike and with your left foot, reach forward from the foot peg to the gear shifter and step down on it 6 times to ensure you’re in first gear. We’ll start the bike in first gear, but holding the clutch to be able to start it. We could go into neutral, but as we’ll discuss in the next section, neutral can be tricky to find on your first ride, so the clutch is an easier starting position.
Now, you’ll actually start the engine. On older dirt bikes, this means using the kick starter. This is usually on the right side of the bike when you’re seated. You’ll flip out the tall silver metal kick starter with your hand, then stand on the foot peg with your left foot, and put your right foot on the kick starter lever. Now forcefully come down with your right foot on the lever to start the bike. On newer bikes with an electric start, just press the button.
You may find that you need to give just a slight amount of gas as you use the electric start or the kick start. Don’t pull the throttle too hard or long even if the bike isn’t started, because pulling the throttle will send gas to the engine and flood it.
The bike should be started. If you used the choke, push it back in. I usually find it’s nice to leave the bike idling for 2 minutes before beginning my ride to warm it up a bit. This is where it’s nice to have the bike in neutral if you want to let it idle for a minute. Otherwise, you have to keep the clutch held in for a while.
Clutch Control and Shifting
The only way to change gears on a dirt bike is by using the shifter, which is in front of your left foot peg. There is generally no display on a dirt bike to tell you what gear you’re in, so you will have to get a feel for it.
On adult dirt bikes, there are usually 5 gears. Stepping down repeatedly on the shifter will put you in 1st gear. Then if you hook your toe underneath the shifter and raise it slightly a half click, you’ll be in neutral. Again, neutral is tough for most first-time riders to find since it’s not a full click up from 1st gear. We’ll simply avoid neutral for now and just use the clutch for this reason. Lifting the shifter again will take you into 2nd gear, then third gear, fourth gear, and fifth gear. So it’s 1, neutral, 2, 3, 4, 5.
On kids bikes with no clutch, there are more commonly only 3 gears. Stepping on the shifter repeatedly puts you in neutral. Then one click up is 1st, then 2nd, then 3rd.
We’ll start riding the bike with it in first gear. You’ve pulled in your clutch to start the bike. Now, we want to move. To do this, we’ll roll back the throttle, which is your right handle grip. As you let go of the clutch slowly with your left hand, you slowly roll back the throttle with your right hand. The two movements need to happen at the same time. If you let the clutch out too fast without enough gas, it will lurch forward an inch and then kill the engine. If you give it too much gas, once the throttle is disengaged, the bike will shoot forward powerfully out of your hands and leave you on your butt.
Practice the movement slowly in the air before you take your first ride. Slowly let out the clutch as you slowly roll back the throttle to give it gas. You’ll likely want to be at about 1/3 of the full motion of the throttle once the clutch is let out. This is enough to get you going slowly. If you were to go to half or full throttle, you may find the bike has too much power and bolts forward.
If the bike were to bolt forward at any time, or you find yourself going too fast, just let go of the throttle. The throttle will spin itself forward and the bike will come to a stop. Too fast? Let go of the throttle. This may seem obvious, but many riders get what’s called “whiskey throttle”, which is when you start going too fast, panic and freeze, and then you jolt forward until you ram into something. Just remind yourself that if you ever get going too fast, just let go of your right hand. Once you’re going forward in first gear, you’ll quickly want to switch to second and higher gears. You’ll know it’s time to shift when you hear the engine working really hard, or when you’re at 3/4 to full throttle.
To shift up once you’re already in motion, keep your throttle with your right hand at the exact position where it already is. Don’t move it while you shift. You need to keep some throttle, so don’t let go. Now quickly pull in the clutch and reach your left foot under the gear shifter and pull it up to the next gear. Now let go of the clutch quickly. You don’t have to let the clutch out slowly this time. You’re now in a higher gear.
When you’re ready to slow down, pull in the clutch first. If you don’t pull in the clutch while you slow down a lot, you’ll kill the bike. Next, use the brake. You can tap the brake a tiny bit without the clutch in, but just don’t cut your speed in half without pulling in the clutch.
If you want to keep moving forward and not come to a stop, but you want to slow down a little, then simply reach your left foot forward and step down on the gear shifter. The cool thing about the shifter on a dirt bike is that you don’t need to use the clutch at all when shifting down gears. It’s still good to use it when shifting up, but the clutch on a dirt bike is multi-plated and in a pool of oil, plus it simply works different than in a car, so it’s not a big deal to shift without the clutch.
Some dirt bike riders don’t use the clutch at all to shift up or down. I personally recommend learning to use the clutch to shift up, but just kicking it down without the clutch. We can enter this debate about clutch use later. For now, just do what 95% of dirt bike riders do and use the clutch to go up gears, and just kick it down to go down a gear with no clutch.
There are two brakes on your dirt bike. The brake that most beginners gravitate toward is the right hand brake (the silver lever in front of your right hand). I don’t want you to use this brake at all on your first 10-15 rides. Hand brakes are notoriously “grabby.” If you aren’t used to the feel of a hand brake, you’ll likely pull it like you would pull the brake on a bicycle, which would leave you flying over the handlebars even at a low speed. My second ever time on a dirt bike, i was only going about 5-7 miles per hour when I pulled on the hand brake to slow down. The brake seized up and I flew over the handlebars and onto my back. I’m not the only one who has done this their first time on a dirt bike.
The front brakes need to be gently squeezed part way. Don’t snatch at it like you could on a bicycle. The front hand brake controls the front tire of the bike. Squeezing it quickly will press down the front of the bike, so it’s not great for going downhill. Eventually, you’ll find the front brake is quite useful, but for now, I recommend not using it at all.
The primary brake on a dirt bike is the foot brake. It takes a minute to get used to using a foot brake because it’s less natural than the hand brake that we learned on a bicycle. However, the foot brake controls the back tire of the dirt bike, which provides the smoothest stop.
The foot brake is the small metal lever about 6” in front of your right foot peg. You should sit so the ball of your foot is on the foot peg, and then you pick up your foot and scoot it forward to the foot brake when you want to stop.
The foot brake is not nearly as “grabby” as the front brake. If you were to stop on the foot brake at full speed, it would make the back tire fishtail a bit, but you’d come to a smooth stop. You don’t have to worry about pressing the foot brake and having the bike seize up and send you flying off of it. The foot brake is smooth, and easier for beginners.
Your Gas Tank
You can ride a dirt bike for several hours without running out of gas. Often, a dirt bike will run about 6 hours before the tank runs dry. For most rides, this is more than sufficient. However, I just want to teach you a cool trick if you ever forget to top off and you run out of gas.
Once you’re out of gas, get off your bike and look on the left side (usually, but it’s sometimes on the right). There is a silver metal switch that controls the gas tank. You’ll see “on”, which is where your bike is right now. Then, you’ll see “off”, which is where you set it after you finish riding so no gas can get out of the tank and evaporate or flood your engine if the bike tips. Then, you’ll see “reserve.” Now that you’re out of gas, flip it to reserve and you’ll have a little more gas to get back to your truck.
Crash Like a Pro
Seems like crashing is simple, right? You’re thinking, woah! I need no tutorial for this! I crashing is the one part of dirt biking I can do without any help from you, Jim. Actually, crashing takes a little practice.
65% of dirt biking injuries are below the waist. There is one mistake you need to avoid that can dramatically improve your chances of not hurting your foot or shin. When you feel like you’re going to crash, don’t stick out your foot to avoid the crash. Let’s say I’m only going 10 miles per hour up a sandy hill and I feel the bike tipping to the right. If I instinctively turn my right foot out and forward to push against the ground, but I’m unsuccessful and the bike continues to tip, where is the 200 pound dirt bike going to fall? Right on my foot, which is now twisted sideways at a 90 degree angle to the bike. Ouch. Or worse, you reach your foot forward in front of the foot peg, but don’t get your foot out far enough to the side and now your foot is trapped between the ground and the metal foot peg as 200 pounds of bike with momentum crushes your ankle.
It’s perfectly okay to use your foot against the ground for stability. Pros do it all the time. But, keep that foot turned horizontal to the bike, keep it out far to the side away from the foot peg, and if you’re going to crash, pull that foot in and set it on the foot peg. It’s not a big deal for the bike to lay onto its side on your leg as long as your foot is in a normal rider position.
The next part of crashing like a pro is dressing like a pro. I recommend a helmet, goggles, gloves, a chest protector (not just a roost protector), good quality full-length dirt bike boots, elbow and knee guards, and gloves. I skip the neck brace unless I were riding at an official MX track or doing crazy jumps. That’s not my style of riding most of the time. I’m usually just out in the forest riding trails or out in the desert doing hill climbs.
I have spent and wasted a lot of money on junky dirt bike protective gear. To help you avoid my mistakes, I created a page on this site where I just recommend the very best battle-tested gear. I call it my recommended gear section. On it, I link to the very best helmets, gloves, boots, and other gear available. I take price into account as much as possible to recommend the cheap gear that works as good as the expensive pro stuff. If you’re buying your dirt bike protective gear, PLEASE give that section of the site a look. It could save you a lot of time and money.
If you just hop on the dirt bike and sit naturally, you’ll likely be setting yourself up for failure. It’s fine to sit comfortably on the bike for a little ride on a flat road, but as soon as you go off-road, you’ll want to know correct rider position.
When I’m in the woods riding down a trail, I usually sit with my butt on the seat and in a pretty casual and comfortable position. However, when I see a pothole or a bumpy section ahead, I go into the proper rider position. If I’m riding on an aggressive trail, I stay in the proper rider position for the entire time.
The most important part of proper rider position is standing up on the foot pegs. Lift your butt a few inches off the seat. This allows your legs and body to soak up the shock of the impacts as you bounce along the trail. If you don’t stand up when you go over significant bumps, you could easily hurt your back or spine.
Straighten out your back as you stand up slightly on the pegs. You should feel like a football defensive player getting ready for the play to start, or a tennis player ready to receive the serve.
Stick out your elbows so they run parallel to the handlebars. This gives you greater power and reaction time when turning.
Put the ball of your foot on the foot pegs and not the heel of your foot. This is especially important with your right foot otherwise you could inadvertently ride the brake slightly with your right foot.
Last, push your head forward so your chin is over the handlebars.
This position isn’t nearly as comfortable, but if you see big bumps or anything coming up, spring into the proper rider position. You can go over just about any obstacle on a dirt bike if you get into this position. It may seem like a small thing, but you’ll find that it feels impossible to crash when you’re in this position.
It’s tiring to maintain this pose for a long aggressive ride, so feel free to sit down and relax during the easy sections, but be ready to spring up anytime you need extra power and shock absorbance.
Riding a dirt bike is not hard. After your first 5 rides where you’re still developing muscle memory, a few parts of the process may feel awkward.
In encourage you not to take any shortcuts on your first 5 rides. Those shortcuts will lead you to bad habits that can take years to break. Trust the teacher (I guess me) at the beginning and carefully follow each part of this process even if it feels uncomfortable at first.
Learn these good habits from the beginning and you’ll be riding like a pro in no time.