How-To: Beginner Tips for Riding Off-Road

As usual, I’ve done a stupid thing. I went and bought an extremely large and too-expensive motorcycle which, as a relatively new and inept rider, is a machine which I am uniquely unqualified to pilot. The smarter decision would have been to place that money into an RRSP, or TSA or something right? Well, I’ve never been accused of being smart, so…Triumph Scrambler 1200 it is! The XE. The big one, with the fat gold forks. I couldn’t resist, it called to me. It was as if the ghost of Bud Ekins told me to come ride this porky British dirt bike with him. Visions of Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman rode across the deserts of my mind.

Matt’s Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE. He bought it, now it’s time to learn how to ride it.

My first bike – a retina-searing 2006 Suzuki DR Z400 supermoto – was sent off to the marketplace from whence it came.

There’s a pandemic on and it’s become painfully clear that everything on Netflix is, in fact, the same. We all need an outlet, and the evidence suggests many of you have come to the same conclusion and have also been riding new motorcycles this season. Sales of dual sports were up 62 per cent in August compared to August 2019, per MMIC data. Overall, 2020 motorcycle sales in Canada are 8 per cent above where they were this time last year, despite many dealerships having to close in Spring.

Soon after taking delivery, the realization that I’m in over my head with this too-tall Triumph slowly dawned on me. It may have been sometime between the second or third time it toppled over on me in a parking lot after losing my footing. Enter Clinton Smout, head instructor and founder of the BMW GS Adventure School at the Horseshoe Valley Resort. The school also goes by BMW Performance Riding Centre, and S.M.A.R.T. Adventures. Google any of that and you’ll find Clinton Smout, and probably some of his eminently helpful YouTube tutorials.

Whatever you call it, this is the place where people who’ve bought too much motorcycle come to learn how to handle it off-road. Located near Orillia, ON, it’s far enough away from everything that nobody will see you fall –except Clinton Smout and his cadre of riding instructors, but they’ve likely seen it all before. Smout saved up for his first motorcycle by selling salamander’s to his classmates in grade school. True story. He’s been teaching people – including Richardson < > – to ride motorcycles since before I could even ride a bicycle. It’s given him gray hair, but he is ineffably cheerful with a boundless reserve of energy and enthusiasm.

Clinton demonstrating how it’s done. Photo courtesy of SMART Adventures.

“So yes, you bought an adventure bike. You saw Charley and Ewan’s video and they’re going through swamps and rivers – they didn’t learn how to do that overnight,” says Smout. “They were horrible in the beginning. But, with thousands and thousands of kilometres of trial and error, they still crashed a lot, but they got a lot more adept. Too often, people buy a big bike and don’t learn how to handle it,” he added. Evidently, I’m not alone.

Rather than scratch up my Triumph (even more), BMW signed me up for a one-day dual sport riding course on their equally-large GS bikes. < > The course costs $399, including gear and your pick from the BMW GS lineup, from the dinky 310 to the monster-truck 1250. If you want more, there’s also a more comprehensive two-day course.

Start slowly, then add speed. Photo courtesy of SMART Adventures.

The morning was spent with our small socially distanced group (4 students, 3 instructors) on small dirt bikes, before we changed into armoured adventure jackets before each straddling a GS for a ride to lunch nearby. The afternoon was spent learning how not to drop a big bike on small dirt trails and gravel roads, or navigating deep sand and steep hills.

Here are just some of the lessons we learned:

Rear brake! Hammer it on!
“Get used to the lack of traction when the rear tire skids,” advised Smout. Then, try putting your weight on one foot peg or turning the bars slightly as you hammer the rear brake. Feel how the rear slides out and comes back as you let off the brake. Practice on gravel or a loose surface, not on pavement. (Note: Smout had us switch off all traction control and ABS on the BMWs while off-road.)

…Except on downhills
“This sounds so weird; people’s eyes pop out when we say front brake only on the downhill,” Smout syas. “One finger only, not pumping it, breathing on it to control the descent.”

Two fingers on the clutch
That’s undoubtedly foreign to many riders. Ride the clutch. Slip the clutch. Use it to control first-gear speeds. If your throttle hand lacks finesse, or you’re not used to the handlebars bucking around like you’re holding onto a bronco, having those fingers ready to pull in the clutch will save you.

Both cheeks on the high side
“On our big street bikes, we can lean with the vehicle over and almost touch your knee down,” Smout explains. “Now off road, we’re going five km/h. If you lean with your motorcycle, you have to put your foot down or it falls over. So, what we get people comfortable with is creating a “V” – lean the motorcycle in the direction you want to turn, and hang your body off the other side: both cheeks to the high side of the bike.” Big bikes will drop like a stone when leaned over, so counterbalance is especially important when off-road.

50/50 Tires
It’s important to have the proper tools for the job. “Most adventure bikes come with a stock tire, called an 80/20: 80 per cent pavement-oriented, 20 per cent gravel,” he said. “We put more aggressive tires on [the BMWs] because we want you to experience more confidence in the sand and mud. We put on 50/50 tires.”

Know when to drop it
“You could really hurt your groin, knee or ankle by dropping the bike wrong,” said Smout. “What I mean by that is, once gravity takes over, if a flat-footed purchase with your foot and leg doesn’t stop the bike falling, get your leg out of the way! It’s just a motorcycle – they make lots of them every day. Put crash guards on your bike and wear good, solid ankle supporting boots – not street boots, they won’t do it.”

Newbie Matt survived his first time riding off-road with both his pride and pandemic beard intact. Oh wait, the facial hair was pre-pandemic.

I’m writing to you now with no broken bones, no bruises and only a few sore muscles. Following Smout’s advice, I survived an afternoon of dirt, gravel and deep sand aboard a BMW 850 GS. Not only that, but getting back on my Triumph later, I felt more confident, more comfortable, more at ease.
Of course, there were a few close calls at the Adventure school, but the bike remained upright the entire day. Around every corner, seemingly impossible obstacles were overcome; challenges were presented, accepted and more-or-less conquered. Such small victories felt especially sweet because, during the pandemic, small victories are all we really have right now. Maybe I haven’t done such a stupid thing after all. Oh well, the season isn’t over yet…


  1. First dirt riding lesson for beginners:
    If you’re not comfortable in the dirt on a 250 lb 20 HP playbike, you might not want to start your off-road experience on a 500 lb 100 HP ADV bike.

Join the conversation!