What kind of riding do you like to do? Lots of people grow up riding dirt, and then might progress to street riding over time. That’s awesome for them, but unfortunately for me, I wasn’t one of them. For those of us whose main riding experience is paved street riding, dirt, gravel, and off road pursuits might look cool—but also extremely intimidating.
If you’re like me, and you’ve primarily been a street rider for your entire riding career, then seasoned adventure riding instructor Bret Tkacs has just the video for us. In it, he goes over a handful of first time adventure rider advice, approaching it from the mindset of someone who’s extremely comfortable and familiar with riding paved roads.
The first thing he notes is that a lot of off-road riding will involve gravel roads. If four-wheeled vehicles also ride those roads, chances are good that you’re going to find the tracks where their wheels have packed the surface down will be more solid and harder-packed than the loose stuff in the middle. Still, all of it will feel different than riding on a smooth, paved road. So, the main thing that we street riders need to do is get used to how different the bike feels on such a surface.
Another important thing that Tkacs points out is that our tendency to ride super slow because we’re freaked out and unfamiliar with the terrain won't help with the bike's stability. In fact, he says, it makes it worse. A bike with dual sport capabilities is going to be happier and more stable in the 25-to-35 mile per hour speed range than it will be at speeds around five to 15 miles per hour.
Those slow speeds seem extremely enticing when you’re first learning, but they’re actually not helping. I would like you to know that I’m writing this as much to myself as I am to you, because improving my off-road skills is something I really want to work on in my own riding.
Earlier in 2023, I had the chance to check out Honda’s XR150L dual sport bike, and one other journalist I met on the trip was one of those riders who was practically born riding dirt. A key piece of wisdom he gave me was “when in doubt, throttle out.”
It’s the kind of thing that sounds almost too simple to be sound advice, but it saved me more than once. You don’t need to try to go super fast, but going super slow is also something to avoid.
Body Positioning and Attitude Count
These two things are true on the street, too—but they’re a little different off road. Tkacs says it’s OK to sit down your first time off roading. Although you’ll eventually find out how, when, and why standing up on the foot pegs can help you control the bike, it’s not very helpful if you don’t know what you’re doing yet. The first time you go off road, the main thing to focus on is getting used to how the bike moves underneath you, and how it feels.
That’s where body positioning comes into play. While you get used to leaning and counterbalancing a certain way on the street, off road riding relies on moving the bike around underneath you while you keep your body perpendicular to the ground. It feels very weird at first to be pushing the bike away from you, but you’ll get used to it.
Getting angry and frustrated when you’re trying to learn something new is normal. However, just like with street riding, if you’re in a bad head space and you try to ride off road, it’s more likely that bad things will happen. Allow yourself time to get off the bike, take a break, eat a snack, drink some water, and chill. You can always get back on later—or you can even go home and try another day if you need to. Don’t beat yourself up about it. This is supposed to be fun, remember?
Other Important Notes
Tkacs also gives some information about appropriate gear for off-road riding, as well as what the most common injuries are. He says that collarbone, rib, and foot/ankle injuries are the most usual ones. Additionally, he gives advice on body positioning to help avoid rib injuries (holding your arms like you do on a street bike is usually the culprit here, he says).
He also talks about choosing appropriate boots with good ankle protection and stiff soles to help protect against foot and ankle injuries. While full-on motocross boots offer the most protection, he says, the very minimum you probably want to do is get a solid pair of adventure touring boots. Speaking as a rider who has sprained their ankle in a pair of street boots that didn’t have the best ankle protection, that’s advice that I would second in a heartbeat.