The truth is this: like so many before me, I saw Steve McQueen and Malcolm Smith ripping across the landscape in the 1971 documentary On Any Sunday, and voila! Just like that, a dirtbike dream was born.
It’s one thing to daydream about riding off-road, quite another thing to actually do it, especially if you’re a new rider, like me.
But, as everyone — including Editor Mark — keeps telling me: learning to ride off-road will make you a better, more confident rider. Plus, it’s a great way to learn to ride if you don’t have a licence or a bike.
For reference, before I hit the dirt, I was green as they come. My M2 motorcycle learner’s licence was still shiny and new. My total riding career consisted of less than 600 kilometres, all on dry pavement. I didn’t even ride in the rain because, frankly, I was scared. I’m not proud of it, but reader: these are the facts.
However, not only did I recently survive my first off-road riding experiences at Trail Tours and the Calabogie Boogie, I had so much fun I’m now harassing my non-motorcycling friends to come try it.
The point is, if I could learn to ride on dirt, so can you.
Here then is CMG’s Official Guide to Off-Road Riding for Newbies (and Non-Riders).
Do I need a licence?
No. You do not need a motorcycle licence, or even a driver’s licence, to ride a motorcycle off-road. Anyone, even children, can do it. Some kids start learning to ride soon after they learn to walk, but you’re never too old.
Do I need a motorcycle?
Also no! There are off-road schools across the country — either privately run or run by motorcycle manufacturers — that will provide you a bike and all necessary riding gear. All you need to do is show up.
So, where do I start?
Those off-road schools I mentioned are the best places to begin. They let you try out dirtbiking without investing in gear or a motorcycle.
I went to Trail Tours dirtbike and ATV school, near Peterborough, Ontario. They provided everything, including an awesome and patient instructor (thanks Carl!). There are no cars to worry about, and endless trails in the Ganaraska Forest to explore.
If you ride your own motorcycle on public land, like the Ganaraska Forest, it has to be insured and registered, but when you ride a school’s bike, that is all included.
The majority of people who go to Trail Tours have never ridden off-road before. If you’re a total beginner, you’ll be in good company. They have a full range of pristine Honda bikes for you to ride, from tiny 100cc bikes for young children (minimum age is 7) to the pro-level Honda CRF450X cross-country weapon. Prices range from $150 – $261.
If you’re looking to get your kid on a bike for the first time, Honda’s Junior Red Riders is a half-day of instruction and costs $150 and up. Yamaha’s Team Blue Level 1 program is 15 minutes of introductory riding and is free, usually tied in to existing bike shows and events. Both are specifically for children aged 6-12.
Um, is it really hard?
As Steve Ray, senior instructor at Trail Tours said, “As far as dirt biking is concerned, I think it’s the hardest motorized sport to do. So don’t get frustrated, we will teach you.” Fair warning: you will sweat.
That said, the basics are easy to pick up. Most people will be comfortably riding on dirt by mid-morning. Getting really good, like Malcolm Smith or James Stewart good, is an entirely different thing.
What’s the next level?
You could sign up for an organized trail ride. These take place all across the country, and are usually organized by local rider associations. They’re non-competitive and offer different routes depending on your skill level. For these events, you’ll need to buy or borrow gear and a motorcycle. Because they’re all off-road, children/teenagers are usually welcome to ride too.
I went to the Calabogie Boogie to try some of Husqvarna Motorcycles’ off-road machines and get a riding lesson from Rome Haloftis, event coordinator for the Ontario Federation of Trail Riders (OFTR).
Around 250 riders showed up to the Boogie to spend their weekend riding trails, camping, and sitting around a bonfire. The entry fee is around $150 and the event sells out every year. As Haloftis said, “It’s a real community. That’s what it’s all about, you get involved with these clubs and it’s a pleasure to volunteer…. It’s a total escape.”
What did a proper dirtbike feel like?
Like it could take you to the ends of the earth, once you learn how to ride it properly. The Husqvarna FE 250 was the first machine I tried at Calabogie. The seat was really tall (970mm/38.1 inches) but once I swung a leg over, the bike compressed enough that my 5’11” self could get at least one foot on the ground. The bike felt super-light and narrow, like a big mountain bike, which made it less intimidating to learn on and easy to pick up when the inevitable tip-over happened. Then I briefly tried the fire-breathing TX 300 two-stroke. It’s gentle, until all hell breaks loose. At high rpm, the thing takes off like a supercar with severe turbo lag. It’s like riding the Big Bang. I loved it.
What gear do I need?
Marc Brunet, expert off-road rider and marketing mechanic at Husqvarna Motorcycles Canada, broke the gear into two categories. The must-have stuff is: helmet, pants, jersey, gloves, goggles, boots and a chest protector. As a beginner, the more protection you have the better, so also consider: knee/shin guards, elbow guards, and a neck brace. A hydration backpack would be a good idea too.
Dirtbikes are tall; I am not. Can I still learn to ride off-road?
Yes! The Honda CRF230F I rode at Trail Tours is a “small” bike. Without a rider, seat height is 34.6 inches. With a rider, the height comes down an inch or two. And it’s not even the smallest bike there.
Lowering a dirtbike is also an option for new riders. Brunet of Husqvarna explained the manufacturer won’t recommend it because it changes the geometry and ground clearance. But that only matters if you’ll be going quickly over difficult terrain. “There are a lot of suspension companies that can lower bikes properly for customers’ needs,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to get your bike lowered when just starting out. It’s good to have that confidence.”
What’s the biggest mistake new riders make?
Ty Fazi, instructor at Trail Tours and a 20-year-old pro enduro racer, said it’s all about having confidence. “Once [new riders] get it in their head that they’re not confident, and they think they’re doing badly, they start to forget the things they’ve learned and it just starts to go out the window.”
Is there a community that can help me out?
Absolutely. Your area probably has a local rider group or association. In Ontario, the OFTR is the umbrella group. In British Columbia, it’s the BCORMA. Their websites and Facebook pages have info on upcoming events, and they’re always happy to have new members.
I would say another mistake that new /slightly experienced riders tend to make is “too much bike”. (I’m of shorter stature (5’4″), so that’s why I rode the particular the bikes I’m about to mention)
I went from a TTR-125 to a KTM 200EXC after one season and had a never ending battle of wills with that KTM – for 15 years!! I almost quit riding. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a bike that doesn’t win 90% of the slap fights.
This year, I stepped “back” to a Husky TC-105 and I’m riding faster and with better form and better control than ever and I’m not completely wiped out after a couple of laps like I was manhandling that 200 around. And that Husky 105? I know exactly the Big Bang you speak of. I was afraid I was stepping down in power. Nope. When this one hits its power band, all hell breaks loose. Hubby says it’s so much fun he’d ride it more if he didn’t feel like a gorilla on it. 😉
In Victoria BC we have WestshoreMX, they have a learn to ride program with bikes and gear for rent. http://www.WestshoreMX.com , also the Honda Canada Junior Red Riders page is a good source for finding a place ride. https://motorcycle.honda.ca/ridingevents/juniorredriders
I strongly agree that the best way to learn how to ride a motorcycle is offroad, bought myself a xt250 three summers ago as a 41year old to learn how to ride. Spent the first 500 km riding the backcountry trails in The BC rockies. Lots of dirt, rocks and gravel and mud( had a couple spills in the mud but those didn’t hurt at all) so by the time I hit pavement with it I felt extremely comfortable riding around. Just had to get used to the higher speeds was all. Now I have 2 dedicated pavement bikes(adventure and a cruiser) on top of my xt and feel like a seasoned vet in only 3 summers of riding
Based on the Honda red riders for kids it is indeed not free but 150 per session:
You’re quite right Danny, and we should know – our kids did the course. The price varies with the province, though: it’s $150 in Ontario but $175 in Alberta, etc. We’ve fixed the story now to reflect this. Thanks for the catch.
– Mark R.