There are good reasons to choose dirt bikes, and other good reasons for choosing an ATV for your off-roading toy. One is not clearly better than the other because it depends on what you want to get from the sport. However, hopefully this post will point you in the right direction.
In general, I recommend dirt bikes to anyone who wants a thrill ride that is easier to transport and more fun to master long-term. I recommend ATVs for someone who wants to use the vehicle as a hauling tool, to take leisurely rides around while camping, and who wants to learn the sport quickly.
I'll explain some of the biggest differences below.
Dirt Bikes Are Safer than Quads
This fact surprises many people, but it is true that the death rate from ATV riding is significantly higher than that of dirt bikes
. There are basically two reasons why ATVs are more dangerous: (1) The more stable platform of an ATV gives the rider a false sense of security, and (2) The 1,000 pound ATV is extremely hazardous in a wreck because it often rolls over the rider.
An ATV feels more steady than a dirt bike. It stands on its own and is easy to learn how to ride initially. This gives riders a false sense of security. They go too fast, they try to corner to quickly and go over uneven surfaces, and it can lead to accidents. In fact, even helmet usage is far lower among ATV riders than dirt bikers; however, even if you take the lower percentage of helmet use on ATVs into account, ATVs are still far more deadly in a crash than dirt bikes. While ATVs may feel more stable, they flip frequently. The center of gravity of an ATV is too high, and it causes rollovers.
Riders on dirt bikes break bones and are injured frequently. However, in a dirt bike crash, the rider is usually thrown clear of the bike. Even if the bike does hit the rider, a dirt bike usually weighs under 200 pounds. ATV accidents are scary. Even going slow over an uneven surface can cause them to flip and cause a moving 1,000 pound metal weight to fall on top of the rider.
Another interesting point is that ATVs are especially dangerous for riders under the age of 16. Statistically, kids are far safer on dirt bikes than four wheelers. Why? Because parents frequently have kids riding ATVs that are the wrong size for them. When junior is 10 year-old and needs a new ATV, parents too commonly just buy a full-size ATV so they won't have to spend another $10,000 on another one when he outgrows it. If you do choose ATVs and you have kids, NEVER let them ride an ATV that is improperly sized for them. Statistically, this is a massive danger.
I wrote a full post on dirt bike safety
that explains much more on this topic and has some intriguing statistics.
Quads Have a Longer Season
Four wheelers have a longer season than dirt bikes--period. A dirt bike is hopeless on snow or ice, but a quad an actually do quite well in light snow. If you want to do any cold-weather riding, then an ATV is a much better choice because it gets more traction and is more stable on flat ground.
Keep in mind, however, that riding in the winter is COLD. Not only is the outside temperature already cold, but you have the wind blowing against you making it even more bitter.
Dirt Bikes Cost Less than Quads
Let's take a look at some lightly used dirt bikes and ATVs and see what the price differences are:
- A new mid-grade Honda ATV costs about $7,300 while a mid-grade Honda dirt-bike costs about $4,500 new.
- A new mid-grade Suzuki ATV costs about $8,500 while a mid-grade Suzuki dirt bike costs about $7,700 new.
- A 2002 Honda Rancher four wheeler costs $3,000 on Craigslist, while you can get a comparable 2002 dirt bike for around $1,500.
- A four-year-old mid-grade Honda ATV is selling for $4,700 on Craigslist, while a comparable Honda dirt bike of the same year is selling for about $3,000.
Those are just a few examples, but suffice it to say that you'll spend more money on buying an ATV.
ATVs Crash Less than Dirt Bikes
If you want to just enjoy leisurely rides around trails or on the farm and don't want to push the limits, then a four wheeler is clearly your best option. Although crashes on ATVs are more serious, they are less likely to occur. If you know you won't be jumping, going fast, or pushing the limits and just want a leisurely ride, then an ATV is a much better option.
Dirt Bikes Can Run on Single Track
In my opinion, one of the most fun parts about off-roading is taking the little trails all over the mountains and out into areas that would be difficult or impossible to reach without an off-road vehicle. Many of those tracks in Idaho are single-track, meaning the trail is only as wide as a deer trail. This means that quads can't ride on all of the tracks that a dirt bike can.
ATVs Are Easier to Learn
If you hop on an ATV with 5 minutes of instruction and just want to go for a ride, you'll do just fine. On a dirt bike, you'll need more instruction and it'll take you a few days before you really feel like you can comfortably ride without thinking about the bike.
Also, you stand a much lower chance of crashing on your first ride on an ATV, where that is a likely scenario when riding a dirt bike for the first time.
Dirt Bikes Are Easier to Haul
I like to go riding with my two boys. I can easily fit our three dirt bikes in the back of a truck to go riding. There is no way that would happen with ATVs because of their large size.
Hauling one ATV is no harder than hauling one dirt bike, but if you'll be riding as a family or with friends, keep in mind that hauling them is much harder.
Dirt Bikes Are More of an Adrenaline Rush
ATVs just aren't made for adrenaline. Sure, you can go fast in a straight line just like you can on a dirt bike; however, jumping an ATV is nothing like jumping a lightweight dirt bike. Cornering on a dirt bike is much faster than an ATV as well.
The fact is that dirt bikes are a far better adrenaline sport than ATVs. ATVs can certainly be ridden hard, but most of the time they are not.
ATVs Are More Functional
Four wheelers are a far better tool for hunting, camping, farming, etc. It'd be tough to carry an elk out on the back of a dirt bike. The only way to haul things on a dirt bike is to put it into a backpack. So if you want to carry a single gun or a bow, you're fine. If you want to bring a small tent and camp out, you're fine. But if you want to use it as a small truck, then a dirt bike is a terrible choice.
Dirt Bikes Weigh Far Less
A full-size adult dirt bike weighs under 200 pounds, whereas a full-size ATV weighs about 1,000 pounds. This makes moving ATVs around harder, loading them harder, makes them less safe, etc.
The weight of the vehicle also changes how they are ridden. A dirt bike can be tipped almost horizontal when cornering without falling. An ATV, however, is very dangerous if it is tipped at all because the rider's weight is not enough to control the momentum of the quad.
ATVs Can Carry Passengers
ATV riders frequently carry passengers. While the vast majority of ATVs are actually only single-rider machines that should not have a passenger for safety reasons, many people do it anyway. Dirt bikes are always single-rider. I still see dads taking their kids out for a slow ride on dirt bikes, but it's mostly a 1-rider affair.
So Which Should You Pick?
Obviously, I'm quite partial to dirt bikes given the topic of this site, but there are good reasons to choose both. If you want to go on leisurely rides or use your off-roader as a functional tool, then get an ATV. If this is a fun toy to ride around and learn and get better at, then choose the safer and easier-to-haul dirt bike.