When you think about it, there aren’t really that many types of pavement…but there are a LOT of different types of off-road terrain! To get the right rubber on your ride, check out our Off-Road Tires Buyer’s Guide, and see what goes into making tires for every different kind of terrain you can ride.
One of the reasons that we all love off-road riding so much is that it gives us so many riding options. From hauling across the desert to sloshing around through the mud, there’s a different type of terrain to play in for every one of your moods.
But all those different terrains also means there’s a different type of tire made specifically to get maximum traction on each different one. Check out our guide to figure out exactly what kind of tires you need for where you plan to ride before you buy!
An easy way to categorize different types of terrain is Hard, Intermediate, and Soft terrain, and each type of tire has compound and tread characteristics that make it optimal for each one.
A tire made to be ridden in hard-packed or rocky terrains, such as the Dunlop MX71 GeoMax Motorcycle Tire, will usually have a denser tread, and the knobs will be shorter and closer together to give you better traction and edge gripping on harder surfaces. This allows the tires to get better traction on firmer surfaces. The rubber compound or tire carcass will often be softer and more flexible as well, to provide additional grip on hard surfaces.
Just as the name implies, intermediate terrain tires are for covering ground not as firm as hard-packed trails, yet not as soft as mud and loose dirt or sand. The knobs are taller and closer together than in a soft terrain tire, yet not as short or dense as in a hard terrain one. These tires are good for going back and forth between hard and soft terrains, and if you don’t really know what specific type of terrain you will be on, an intermediate tire like the Maxxis Maxxcross-IT M7305 will be a good choice.
Soft terrain tires are slightly more complicated, because these tires are often bought with specific front and specific back tires. The tires for soft-terrain riding, such as the Bridgestone Motocross M204 Motorcycle Tire, will have more spread out knobs that will allow for sand and mud to evacuate from the tread faster.
These tires will typically also have knobs on the edges of the tire, which allow it to grip in soft ground all the way through turns, and often have a harder compound or carcass to keep the tire stiff as it scoops its way through soft dirt or mud. Rear tires will often have a “paddle” style appearance to propel the bike through soft terrain, and front tires often have a “spiky” appearance to really dig into corners for controlled steering.
Some rear tires specifically for sand are made “paddle” style rather than having a tread, allowing you to dig through soft ground rather than just trying to ride on top of it by scooping the sand away to propel your bike forward. These are great for soft, sandy areas like the dunes, but definitely not appropriate for any other type of terrain.
Dual sport tires can get a little bit more complicated, since you’ll be trying to find a tire that gives you the best ride not only for off-road riding, but for the street riding you’ll be doing to get to the trails as well.
Not just any off-road tire can be used on a dual sport bike. If you’ll be doing any street riding, you’ll have to have a tire that is also street legal. From there, you’ll need to decide how much street riding you’ll be doing compared to how much off-road riding, as dual-sport tires are usually made for certain on/off-road ratios, such as 60% street/40% off-road, or vice versa.
If you’ll only be using your dual-sport motorcycle to ride the streets to get to the off-road trails and intend to ride mostly off-road, get a tire like these Pirelli MT 21 Motorcycle Tires, which will give you the best handling off-road but still allow you to cruise the streets.
If you’re not sure what your street to off-road ratio will be, it’s probably best just to stick with a 50/50 tire initially, and track how much you end up riding on each so that you’ll know for your next set of tires.
Replacing Off-Road Tires
With off-road motorcycle tires you never want to get your tread to get very low. When riding in the dirt, you need your tires to grip to the shifting soil, which requires a deep tread. Letting your tread get too low will increase your chances of tire failure due to the rough use they get. If you’re missing knobs or they’re rounded down to little nubs, you’re already overdue!
You’ll also want to replace your tires if the rubber has seen some serious abuse. Some tires have a tendency to chunk and wear differently. If your tires just look trashed or there are no wear grooves in the center lugs, it’s time to get some new ones.
Once you’ve slapped on a new set, there really isn’t too much of a break in period. A new set of off-road tires can be toast in just 100 miles, so there’s not so much of a “break-in period” as there is just the rider getting used to the feel of the new tires. Take it slow for a while so that you don’t overestimate the traction that they’ll give you. Once you feel comfortable with the new tires, you’re good to go.
Buying Off-Road Tires
When it’s time to get some new tires, knowing what tires you currently have can really help the process along. The best way to do this is to simply look at the sidewall of your tire. For a translation of all the unusual codes you’ll find there, check out this chart for a little helping hand.
You’ll also need to know what size your rims are before you snag a new set of tires. Depending on the kind of bike you have, and the riding you do, different rim sizes are used to give you varying thicknesses of your tire. Most off-road and dual sport bikes use an 18″ rim which allows you to use a thicker, heavier, more durable tire on the trails. On the other hand, Motocross and Supercross bikes often have a 19″ rim so that they can run a thinner tire. While having a little extra meat around the rim can give a rider a bit more traction, the extra weight can weigh you down, so there is always a trade-off.
The amount of inflation that you will want in your tire will vary depending on how hard or soft the terrain you will be riding in is. The harder and higher speed the terrain is, the more air you’ll want in your tire. A full and stiff tire will help you avoid pinching your tire tubes and bending your rims. Typically, 18 pounds is a good pressure to be at in these terrains.
With a softer terrain, you’ll find that having this much pressure in your tire will only take away from the amount of traction your tire gives you. Instead, let a little air out of the tires and bring your pressure down to 11 to 15 pounds depending on how soft the terrain is.
It’s never a bad idea to just experiment with your tire pressure to find the best level of inflation for your riding. Just be sure to make small adjustments and also remember that your tire’s pressure will be affected by altitude. If you happen to be riding up a mountain, pack a pump to make any adjustments.
In any terrain it is important to check your tire pressure often. We love using this Motion Pro Professional Tire Pressure Gauge. If you notice that you’re losing PSI in a tire rather often and a lot faster in one than the other, you’ll want to check that tire for cracks and leaks.
When cleaning your bike, clean the stems, cores and caps of your valves to ensure a tight seal. It’s also a good idea to keep the factory valve caps on your bike. While there may be snazzy looking valve caps, the factory caps will have the proper rubber gasket to ensure that you get a good seal and protect against dirt build-up and air leakage.
Hard Terrain Off-Road Tires
Made for riding through hard-packed dirt and trails, these tires are for getting maximum traction on firmer ground.
What to look for:
- Shorter, more densely packed knobs
- Rounder profile for more tire contact with firm ground
Intermediate Terrain Off-Road Tires
These tires are good for going back and forth between hard and soft terrains. If you don’t really know what specific type of terrain you will always be on, an intermediate tire will be a good choice.
What to look for:
- Knobs that are taller and closer together than in a soft terrain tire, yet not as short or dense as in a hard terrain one
- Medium carcass for sufficient sidewall flex without sacrificing durability
Soft Terrain Off-Road Tires
Tires for soft-terrain riding will have more spread out knobs to allow for sand and mud to evacuate from the tread faster. They tend to have a more distinct appearance between the front and rear tires; the rear will have a “paddle” like appearance to propel through the soft stuff, while the front has a “spiky” appearance to corner and hold a line in loose terrain.
What to look for:
- Widely spaced, taller knobs for hooking up in soft terrain
- Paddle-like appearance on rear tire, spiky appearance on front
- Harder carcass to hold shape
Dual Sport Tires
Dual Sport tires need to balance off-road performance and grip with on-road comfort and stability, along with being street legal of course. Depending on what ratio of on-road to off-road riding you’ll plan to do, dual sport tires can be more or less dirt oriented, but all of them can pull double duty.
What to look for:
- Fast rolling, stable tread pattern down the center for highway riding
- Hard-terrain like outer edges for grip around corners off-road
- Harder carcass to retain shape on- and off-road
What’s your off-road or dual sport tire of choice, and why?