Riding a Motorcycle Across Loose Terrain

For many riders beginning to venture off-road the biggest challenge they face is riding across loose terrain. When riding on pavement traction is consistent leading to predictable acceleration, cornering, and braking. There is also little need to monitor wheel position, suspension action, or balance – on the road, it’s all a no brainer.

BMW R60/5 Down the Road

When a rider first hits a packed gravel road they generally don’t find too much of a difference. Besides from driving a bit slower and being careful of pot holes, there isn’t a whole lot more involved.

BMW R60/5 and CB750F Cruising the Mt Roads

But that isn’t the type of riding I’m talking about here. I am talking about loose terrain, rough 4wd roads in the deep country that offer both challenge and reward for the rider. Below I am going to attempt to explain proper body position, maneuvering, braking, and navigation across roads that look something like this:

Loose Terrain on a Dirt Road

Whether you are on a dedicated dirt bike, a dual-sport or adventure bike, a giant GS or equivalent, or even a street bike or cruiser, you’ll be amazed how well you can exceed on difficult terrain while being aware of just a few crucial factors.

First, Heads Up!

The key to riding difficult terrain strewn with rocks, ruts, and holes is to keep your head up! Look forward, down the road. Your eyes should be focusing down the road 15 yards. The goal is to find the easiest route as you approach it. The easiest route can never be determined when looking down at your front wheel. Watch the lines, draw them on the ground, and point your bike where you want it to go. Your body and thus your bike will follow where your head is pointed, so always look where you want to go. Heads Up!

Moderating Riding Speed

Without a doubt the biggest cause of riders having difficulty in terrain like this is not because of the terrain itself, but because they are scared to ride over it. When inexperienced riders come across difficult ground their first reaction is to slow way down to a crawl and paddle their way across it with both feet walking on the ground. Moderating speed is extremely important in these conditions. The faster you ride, the smoother the ride is going to be. By maintaining speed through “difficult” sections you increase your ability to balance effectively, and thus you increase your control over the motorcycle.

A good way to practice finding the proper speed is to find a short section of loose rocky terrain. Ride through it at a crawl, then turn around. Ride back through it, but this time go just a slight bit faster. Keep driving back and forth across the same terrain 4 or 5 times increasing the speed each time. You’ll be more comfortable with the lines each time and this will help you overcome the uneasy feeling of maintaining speed through a tricky section. Remember, a motorcycle is just like any other skill, practice makes you a better rider.

Your Suspension is there to Help

Sometimes avoiding the larger bumps, rocks, or potholes is not to your advantage. Keeping the front wheel pointed straight ahead helps a lot with stability. Sometimes riding directly over rocks and debris rather than going around will actually be the easiest and most stable route. Your suspension is there to absorb the rocks, let it do it’s job. If you focus on the line and the bikes momentum and speed, the suspension will do the rest.

Braking! Not too hard.

When the ground is loose the front brake is not your friend. The front brake should always be applied extremely cautiously in an area like this. If you feel the front wheel dig into the ground you are squeezing the lever too hard – careful or your handlebars will jackknife and send you flying.

I always like riding on loose terrain because of the flexibility I have with the rear break. You can use the rear brake to your advantage when cornering and maneuvering on loose terrain. Locking the rear brake under these conditions will often be simple, but this can be very enjoyable and give positive braking effect as if on a pedal bike. Become aware of the point at which your rear wheel locks, and use that point to slide the rear wheel around corners, to drop it around rocks, or to slide the rear down a camber to keep the front wheel pointed upwards and forward.

Depending on your bike, tires, and brake sensitivity you’ll really just have to feel it out. Practice helps.

Get Off the Seat. Body Position.

Beginning off-road riders often have never had experience riding a motorcycle while standing. But standing on the pegs and manipulating the bike beneath you across the terrain is the easiest way to maintain balance and sharp control. Standing should be practiced in a safe location prior to riding difficult terrain. A rider should be able to stand on their bike comfortably, if you can’t, you either need to make some adjustments to your setup, or you need more practice and direction. The balls of your feet should be on the pegs, your knees slightly bent, your back arched, elbows out and head over the handlebars. Depending on the bike you are riding and the purpose it was built for standing may or may not come naturally. Practice in a controlled environment then work up the difficulty.

When riding across loose terrain while standing you will be able to maneuver the bike more effectively. The bike will also be able to bounce up and down over rocks and ruts without affecting your position or throwing you off balance. When standing you have essentially lowered the center of gravity of the bike making it easier to manipulate.

Practice Practice Practice

There really isn’t more to it. There is a reason some riders have an easy time through terrain that others call nearly impossible. It rarely has anything to do with the bike or their level of daring, it has everything to do with their experience. Practice riding outside of your comfort zone and you will become a better rider. Remember to always where proper protection.

So get out onto the loose terrain and start practicing.


By ef

Hey, I'm Evan and this is one of my motorcycle sites. You can find more about me on my homepage, or visit me on Google Plus: +Evan Fell


  1. I hear ya! Too many people buy a bike on a whim and end up on loose sand or gravel and dump a bike because they do not know what to do. I rode dirt bikes for nearly 20 years before I got my first road bike. Honda 1976 CB 900F. I now ride a 1300cc Yamaha Venture and taking a 890lb top heavy bike onto gravel or even a sandy off ramp is an experience.

    I really wish that the morotcycle safety classes forced new riders to ride in sand and on sand/gravel over pavement so they know what to do and how it feels when your front wheel starts slipping.

    Thanks for an awesome blog! your carb cleaning post will get a friend back on 2 wheels this spring.


  2. Thanks for the comments! I completely agree about the MSF training. All new riders in my opinion should start in the dirt. When riding off-road you learn so much more about the limits of a motorcycle and how to handle potentially dangerous situations. Whenever someone asks me what bike they should get as their first – I am quick to recommend an air cooled dual sport bike.


  3. hmmm interesting info. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on bikes….it really helps people like me who know virtually nothing. The more I browse your site and your pics…I’m reconsidering my first bike purchase. An air cooled dual sport bike…huh? So are those off road bikes only?…I want something I can go exploring with and get dirty with….but I also want something I can drive to work on…and daily commute or whatever. Would you still recomend the dual sport? All I want to do is ride,and take pictures of different places…I think that would make me very happy right now. Sorry, I’m asking so many questions. Just think you are the right person to ask.


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