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Off-Road Elements Common to Off-Road Motorcycling


Riding a dirt bike Off-Road is a Blast... I know this because I ride and the unexpected off-road elements are what provides some of the most fun when riding a dirt bike off-road and in the woods, as you will likely and unexpectedly encounter many of the off-road elements and conditions listed here, as well as plenty that are not listed, all of which can require quick reflexes so as to avoid any close encounters with the ground and furthermore, if you're new to the sport of riding dirt bikes it is really important that you take a look at the page on Dirt Bike Safety before loading up the bike(s) and heading out.

I felt that as a fellow rider, it would be beneficial to others (especially new riders) to write a page detailing some of the most common off-road elements a rider is likely to encounter on the trail, so this page is mainly intended to give a newer, less experienced rider an idea of the off-road elements they're likely to be up against.

The links below will take you directly to some of the most common off-road elements anyone is likely to encounter during their time spent riding a dirt bike off-road in the woods and this page should give you a pretty good idea of what you're up against.

For the newer riders, Always remember; Riding a dirt bike off-road can quickly bring a new and fast changing condition with every turn or crest of a hill so anytime you are riding in a new area that you may be unfamiliar with, stay "Low and Slow" until you're familiar with the area and any off-road elements you may encounter in an unfamiliar area.

I'm hoping this page can save someone some pain and problems from tagging a tree, launching themselves off of a cliff or getting ripped off of their dirt bike by an unseen and unexpected tree vine or low hanging branch.

Wire and Other Fencing Materials

Barbwire and Fencing Hazards

When riding in an off-road environment, It is really important that you either stay on a marked course, Well ridden trail or know the surrounding area well, as fencing materials such as barbed wire (which can be found commonly in off-road areas) can cause any type of unfavorable outcome imaginable from a flat tire to severe injuries including death so I have tried to place a little extra emphasis on this element.

Fencing is a VERY serious threat to anyone riding off road and should be treated as such. I am writing this subject in hopes of saving someone from the perils of wire and fencing so pay attention here...
Fencing can usually be seen but there are many scenarios where fencing simply "Vanishes" until you're right on it and this is especially true at higher speeds on a dirt bike.

Some tips that ought to help you avoid fencing are:

  • Staying on Marked Courses or Well Ridden Trails
  • Knowing the area where you are Riding
  • Visible Fence Posts in the Immediate Area
  • Scraps of Old Fencing
  • Farms or Houses Nearby
  • A Trail Ending
  • Common Sense
Tree with markings from barbwire

If you see a tree that looks like this then approach the area carefully and look around so you know where any fencing materials may be before you power on by on the pipe in about third gear and end up being ripped off of your dirt bike or with barbwire wrapped around your wheels, caught up in your drive and brakes along with a flat tire such as in the picture below miles from the truck or camp.

Rear wheel wrapped in barbwire

Cliffs or Drop Offs

Cliff Face

Cliffs or Sudden drop offs are an off-road element that can be extremely dangerous to come upon suddenly without knowing of their presence's beforehand as you can probably imagine. One thing to keep in mind is that if you cannot see the ground in the distance, Don't assume it is there, Coming upon a cliff or a 100ft drop off while wide open can have severe consequences as you would probably imagine.

Palmettos, Bushes or Undergrowth

Undergrowth on Trail

When riding in an area covered with Palmettos, Bushes or Undergrowth care should be exercised as these off-road elements have a way all their own of hiding Rocks, Stumps and other hazards.

Palmettos can be a lot of fun to ride through but the root area of the plant can also become slick offering even an experienced rider a handful of a dirt bike. Just remember that Palmettos, Bushes and Undergrowth can conceal very real hazards as well such as Stumps, Rocks, Trash, Holes, Abandoned well pipes, a Ditch or anything else imaginable and finding a Hole, Rock, Stump, Rebar or other trash concealed in a bush or undergrowth by surprise can result in a very unwanted condition such as broken engine cases, smashed feet or even a trip over the bars.

Bottom line here is: If you cannot see clearly what is on the ground then it's a good idea to proceed slowly and cautiously so as to not find something you weren't looking for.

Fallen Trees or Branches

Tree across Trail

Fallen trees or large branches are an off-road element that an experienced off-road rider will usually approach with enthusiasm (Read: "On the Gas") as these can be a lot of fun. Although fallen trees may be intimidating to some, some people (such as myself) look forward to coming around a corner and seeing these laying across a trail as they can add a little bit more of a challenge to a ride.

Fallen Trees or Branches are a common off-road element you'll be seeing and can be a lot of fun when approached and handled properly, in addition to providing another path to pass a rider that may be lacking some confidence or skills to cross the log at first sight.

If crossing a fallen tree or a large branch is what you have in mind next time your faced with the opportunity, it is essential that the log is crossed at a square angle and with a light front end to prevent either wheel from sliding along the length of the log, or you ending up on the other side of the handlebars.

Loose Branches on a Trail

Smaller Branches such as the one on the right are a common off-road element, but are usually not a concern although some if large enough and hit at an angle can cause your front wheel to deflect and send you in an unwanted direction (mainly down) the same way that a fallen tree will.

A word of caution about riding through an area where there are branches and debris of the like on the ground is that upon contact with a branch by either wheel, A branch can be "Kicked up" potentially causing Wheel, Radiator or other damage to a dirt bike and even potentially injuring a riders foot or lower leg.

Ever Changing Conditions

Rain Ruts on a Trail

Ever changing conditions can cause some rather surprising and unexpected terrain changes at times such as deep rain ruts developing from one ride outting to the next.

Changing conditions is certainly something that is a common scenario when riding off-road and should be given some thought when heading out onto a trail.

Rain can cause erosion of a trail resulting in deep ruts that will easily upset a riders balance resulting in a collision course with the ground, nearby trees, other riders or whatever may be nearby.

Fallen trees or limbs along with other unexpected off-road elements in your path when flying around a corner could also certainly fall under the category of ever changing conditions and cause any possible scenario to change abruptly requiring unplanned actions that need you to react quickly in order to avoid a trip to over the bars.

Low Branches

Low Branch across Trail

When coming upon a low hanging branch over a trail, it's smart to proceed with caution so as to prevent a Head, Neck or Back injury.

Remember:
While in a crouched position (The most common position when riding under tree limbs) don't forget that your helmet will add another 2 inches or so to your overall height, along with the neck braces that are available adding to your overall height as well and restricting your ability to move your head.

Additionally, A "Camelbak" or other type of hydration system also adds height to your overall clearance and not taking into consideration the height added to your stature when wearing a Helmet, Neck brace, Backpack or Hydration system can cause a rider to become "Wedged" between a dirt bike and tree limb when going under a low hanging limb potentially causing neck or back injuries both of which are in everyone's best interest to avoid.

Another common scenario regarding low branches is riding in an area that is covered by many large trees where the trail is very shaded and almost "dark" there are often low hanging branches that are not easily seen yet will quickly remove a rider from their dirt bike possibly causing injury and / or potentially rendering someone unconscious if struck in the head even while wearing a helmet at an average speed typical of trail riding.

Animals

Animals are not really an off-road element Per Se' but seeing wild or domestic animals while on a trail ride is not uncommon at all especially when riding near a farm or other private property.

Animals of any type are very unpredictable and should be respected and avoided as Livestock, Horses and other types of Domestic animals can be easily spooked and possibly run right into the path you are taking potentially causing injury to the animal and yourself so anytime you are in close proximity of an animal it's best to slow down and pay close attention to what the animal's next move might be.

If you spot wildlife during your ride do not try to chase the animal as this is simply uncool, not to mention dangerous for the way you could quickly encounter Stumps, Fallen Tree's or Branches, a Fence or anything else you may not expect since you will likely no longer be on a trail's path.

Whoops

Whoops, or sometimes called "whoop-de-do's" are a common off-road element that you're sure to encounter eventually when riding off-road.

Whoops have a way of forming naturally from repeated use of a trail or developing in an area that a trail crosses rows of former or present harvestation and can easily result in a violent "Swap" finishing up with a trip over the bars.

Since the consistency of whoops can change and vary greatly in depth and distances between from one to the next, riding in whoops at speed can take quite a bit of courage, skill and proper setup to master.

Trees

Trees beside a woods Trail

Trees are one of the most common off-road elements you will be encountering while riding a dirt bike off-road and upon a close inspection with one it will become clear that trees are very unforgiving. In essence... "They don't move if you tag one"

If riding in the woods is your thing, it is highly recommended that you install a good set of hand guards and radiator guards / braces in order to preserve the integrity of your hands and fingers as well as your radiators.

You can obtain the original "Barkbuster" style hand guards which are generally a thin width metal bar that attaches to your handlebars with optional wider brush / mud / hand guards that are available in different colors, widths and styles, or you can purchase a hand guard that is generally plastic, yet not as strong, but does have a fair amount of coverage. Either way you go, A set of hand guards properly installed will add strength to your handlebars and does not take long to realize their true benefit when riding off-road or why they should be on any off-roaders dirt bike.

As an added tip here, when riding in close proximity of trees it is also a good idea to install a good quality set of radiator guards / braces as these will greatly enhance the strength of your radiators and protect them from incoming branches and the like that are prone to cause leaking radiators, as well as adding strength and additional protection to the radiator in the event of a crash.

Roots

Tree Roots crossing a Woods Trail

Roots are an off-road element that comes in many different sizes, shapes and forms in the off-road world, and even though roots do generally stay close to the ground don't under estimate their ability to rip feet off of foot pegs and brake pedals off of bikes so if riding off-road be sure to install a "brake snake" so as to keep your rear brake pedal intact if you are going to be spending any time riding off-road.

Additionally, roots can be rather slick and offer little traction, especially when wet such as after a water crossing thereby having the ability to quickly upset a riders steering, control and balance.

Another thing to remember is roots that are concealed by fallen leaves and other foliage can cause an instant, unexpected and abrupt jerk of the handlebars resulting in instant chaos and a momentary loss of control so a steering stabilizer or "Steering Damper" as often referred to is a great investment if you're going to be spending time riding off-road on a dirt bike as well as installing a brake snake as previously mentioned.

Vines

Tree Vine extending across woods Trail

Vines can be difficult to ride in the vicinity of for reason being that vines have a way of reaching out and giving you an instant application of front brake when least needed or expected, not to mention a vines ability to simply rip you off of the bike.

Most vines will break if stressed hard enough but many are much stronger and can punish a rider for not taking them seriously or noticing their presence because of the way they blend in with other surroundings at times.

I have personally experienced first hand what it's like to have a vine that doesn't break easily being caught under my helmet while wearing a neck brace at a moderate speed and I can assure you It's no fun and If you're wondering what the outcome was... It was a quick and unexpected trip to the ground without the bike.

You can greatly reduce the chances of vines being caught on your front brake lever by installing a set of quality hand guards AKA "Barkbusters" as also briefly described above under the heading of "Trees" and you can reduce the possibility of having body parts caught on vines or being ripped off of your bike by staying on the main line of a trail versus riding the edge (which is a common tactic for staying out of the deeper part of whoops) Also, avoiding getting hung up on vines is possible by not cutting a corner and being observant of your surroundings.

Rocks

Loose rocks

Rocks are an off-road element that need mentioning because due to the physical nature and makeup of rocks they can bend or break parts with ease as well as smashing feet.

If you hit a rock front wheel first (depending on the size) it's possible that your front wheel will deflect and send you in another direction or the rock could possibly roll on contact then become an obstacle for the rear wheel which can result in some wild, Out-of-Control rides with unpredictable results and even more unpredictable outcomes.

Another point to keep in mind while in the vicinity of rocks is a rocks ability to cause "Pinch Flats" although the chances of pinch flats when riding in an area strewn with rocks can be greatly reduced by use of "Heavy Duty" inner tubes set at the proper air pressure and furthermore, the chance of a flat can be completely eliminated by use of a solid foam tire insert commonly referred to as a "Bib-Mousse", Although a "Bib-Mousse" can be difficult to install, their design will ensure a race finish or weekend of riding without the possibility of a flat tire so this is something to consider.

Water

Water on the trail or course should be approached with care and a little common sense since it is often difficult to estimate the depth and any hidden dangers such as Currents, Drop off's or Submerged rocks.

A point to remember is that when crossing a body of water, whether it be a stream, man-made Endurocross type of obstacle or simply standing water is if the depth suddenly becomes too deep it will be difficult if not nearly impossible to back up by sheer muscle once in the water and if water enters your intake while the motor is running this can potentially cause severe engine damage.

If you encounter a natural type water crossing on the trail, first try to determine if it looks like it has been successfully crossed before by looking for recent tire tracks leading away from the water on the opposite side that you are on.

If a water crossing looks cross-able I recommend that before your first attempt you consider dismounting and walking across to assess the situation, then proceed carefully in a standing position and in a low gear all the while looking for an area that the water is rippled. If it is a live stream rippled water sometimes indicates a shallow bottom and this would be the best place to cross but stay prepared because the rippled water can also be caused by a submerged rock or the like that can knock you off balance.

Rain

Riding in rain can be a lot of fun, but it can also cause loss of vision due to your goggles clouding up as well as rains ability to get between "Tear-Offs" or "Roll-Offs" making vision even more difficult. Rain will also cause the ground to become slick offering minimal traction and making a ride even more challenging.

Remember; When its raining, or after a rain... Roots, Logs and other off-road elements on the trail are going to be extremely slick and will offer more of a challenge to successfully cross.

Sand

Sand on a Woods Trail

Sand is an off-road element that is alot of fun, but can be rather difficult to ride in at times as steering and overall control seem to remain somewhat elusive.

Just remember: Riding in deep sand such as dunes is rather hard on a dirt bike due to the strain it places on an engine and the way that the granules work their way into every pivot area and moving part of a dirt bikes suspension causing accelerated wear of most parts unless frequent maintenance and service are performed to prevent this type of wear.

Dust

Dust on a Trail

Dust on the trail which is very common when another rider is in the vicinity can be one of the more hazardous off-road elements as dust can cause almost zero visibility and extreme care should be exercised when riding in blinding dust.

Riding in a dusty condition can cause you to unknowingly center punch a tree, run through a fence, or hit anything imaginable resulting in serious injuries. Just because you can't see through dust doesn't mean trees or other off-road elements are going to be any softer upon impact. If you're racing, try to stay as close to a rider in front of you as possible that is creating the dust and the loss of vision will not be as bad when you are right on their back wheel.

Ruts

Ruts in a turn on an Off-Road Trail

Ruts are an off-road element that are usually best to have both wheels into or out of and not one wheel in, one wheel out which is what is called being "Cross Rutted", getting cross rutted can rob you of all momentum along with making balance an even harder skill to maintain.

Although ruts are sometimes intimidating, ruts can be used to your advantage and direct you through a difficult section as long as they do not become too deep which once a certain depth do nothing but rob you of forward momentum and can leave you stuck, forcing you to dismount your bike and muscle the bike out and to firmer / higher ground.

One thing to remember is that ruts got the way they are because they are usually the quickest route through an area just don't let your eyes become fixated on a rut. Keep your eyes looking ahead and use the ruts to your advantage. Just remember, successfully negotiating ruts is usually a mind over matter technique.

Mud

Mud on an Off-Road Trail

Mud is an off-road element that you are sure to encounter eventually no matter where you ride and riding in mud can have some of the same effects as riding in sand as far as steering, control and wear of parts are concerned.

Mud is one of the off-road elements that will cling to areas on your bike and weigh it down, but there are several things you can do to your dirt bike before riding in an area that you believe will be muddy to help prevent mud accumulation such as placing foam between the engine and skid plate to prevent mud from building up in this area




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