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The Off-road Motorcycle Tire Buyer's Guide

>> Ashley Benson

One of the reasons that we all love off-road riding so much is that it gives us so many riding options. From MX racing to sloshing around through the mud, there's a different type of terrain to play in for every one of your moods. But this means that there's a different type of tire made specifically for each different type of ground that you'll be riding around on. With the three main categories being hard terrain, intermediate terrain and soft terrain, you'll want to know exactly how you'll be using your tires and what kind of tires you should have before buying any.

Hard Terrain

Each terrain tire type has certain characteristics that make it best for that type of riding. A tire that is made to be ridden in hard and rocky terrains such as the IRC iX05H Motorcycle Tires will be made of a specific rubber compound. This compound is typically a lot harder and more resistant and allows your tires to tear over sharp rocks and tough terrains without actually tearing, pinching or flat out failing. Hard terrain tires will typically have a denser tread as well. The knobs will be closer together and there won't typically be knobs towards the edges of the tire. This will give you better traction and edge gripping on harder surfaces.

Intermediate Terrain

Tires for intermediate terrain such as these IRC iX-90W Motorcycle Tires are just that: intermediate. They tend to have a medium compound and their tread is less dense than tires for a hard terrain and yet more dense than tires for soft terrains. These tires are good for both intermediate terrains as well as 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.

Soft Terrain

Soft terrain tires are slightly more complicated. These tires are often bought with specific front and specific back tires. The tires for soft-terrain riding, such as these Michelin S12XC Motorcycle Tires, 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. These knobs will allow your tire to grip in soft ground all the way through turns. The rear tires for soft terrain riding, particularly through sand, will have a much different look. These tires are often made in the "paddle" style rather than having a tread. Paddle tires will allow you to dig through soft ground rather than just trying to ride on top of it and will scoop the sand or mud away from your bike. Mixing these two types of tires will give you the best handing in super soft terrains.


No matter the terrain you might be tearing through, during a race you'll want your tires to stick through every tight turn. For this, tire manufacturers make a special racing tire compound for certain types of tires that many racers like to use in certain off-road races. This compound is made of a softer and sticker rubber that performs better during races. Unfortunately, because this rubber is softer it tends to wear out a lot faster than its non- racing counterparts. This compound is great for certain off-road races but isn't meant for typical off-road riding.

Dual Sport

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 for not only the off-road riding you'll be doing but for the street riding you'll be doing 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. If you'll be on them equally as much, you should get a tire that is made for 50% street and 50% off-road. 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 and track how much you ride both so that you'll know for your next set of tires.

The Replacements

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 more intense and rough use they get over street tires.

So changing an off-road tire is based a lot on personal feel. Sure, you can gauge how tired your tires are based on the visible wear of those precious knobbies. You never want to run them all the way down and can usually tell that your tires are in need of a switch out when the knobbies are fairly rounded off. But as they get more and more worn down, you'll probably notice that the grip of your tires is beginning to slip. Once your tires just don't seem to have that secure feel, it's time to invest in some new ones. Letting them get any worse may stretch out the dollar amount that you paid for them when you bought them, but riding on worn down tires that are beginning to slip will only make a crash inevitable and possibly cost you more in hospital bills. 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.

For a great video on how to change your tires watch this:

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 breaking in off-road tires is more like breaking the rider in to the feel of the new tires. Before you can ride like you know your tires, you need to get to know them. Take it slow for the first 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.

Reading the Sidewall

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. Unfortunately, these cave drawings can mean just about nothing to you if you don't speak the sidewall language. And since most of us who are just starting out need a little help learning this language, check out this chart for a little helping hand.

Rim Sizes

You'll also want 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 that allows for you to have a thicker tire. On the other hand, SX and MX bikes are more likely to have a 19" rim so that they can have a thinner tire. While having a little extra meat around the rim can give a rider a bit more traction, that extra weight can really weigh you down.


Each tire that you buy is typically going to be meant for a different type of terrain. This means that it not only is going to have a different tread and compound build, each tire is going to need to be inflated at a different level to suit the terrain. Your tire will have a PSI marking on the sidewall of the tire. This PSI, however, will be the maximum amount of pressure that you tire can handle. The actual PSI that you run your tire at will be based off of how much you and your bike weigh, how you ride and in what kind of terrain you ride. The heavier you and your bike are, the more air you'll need in your tire. Adjust accordingly but just don't go over the max PSI marking that is indicated on you tire.

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 and having a full and stiff tire will probably end with you face down in the mud. 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. Be sure to check your valve caps and stems. Often times, dirt and grime can get into them and cause 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. This gasket will ensure that you get a good seal and protect against dirt build-up and air leakage. And while a valve cap may seem like such a small thing, having the correct air pressure in your tire is a huge thing.

Rim Locks

The fact of the matter is simple: flats happen more often when you ride off-road. Luckily, there are a few things that you should know in case of a flat that well help you get back to the truck instead of spending the night out in the cold. For simple tube repairs, you can use a patch kit or slime. However, these should only be resorted to as a way to get you back home and not as a permanent fix. And if your tire tube suffers from a loss of air due to a puncture you'll still want your tire to stay happily connected to your rim. Without a rim or bead lock such as these Parts Unlimited Alloy Rim Locks, your rims will spin while your tires will stay in place and you'll get absolutely no where. So instead, lock those tires to your rim by tightly attaching a rim or bead lock. And while you'll want these locks to be pretty darn tight to keep its hold, be sure you don't tighten it so much that you damage your rim.

Maintenance and Storage

Tires need love too. Neglecting your tires will only shorten their life span. For instance, when storing your tires, make sure not to leave them out in direct sunlight. Sunlight can harden and age your tires more quickly and cause them to fail when they shouldn't. In order to save your tires and your money, store your tires in a dimly lit or dark place such as inside your garage or workshop.

You'll also want to keep your tires away from corrosive chemicals such as gasoline and oil as well. These chemicals will contaminate the rubber compound of your tires. To keep them from degrading the rubber, wipe off any oil or gasoline immediately with a clean rag. The same also goes for other corrosive chemicals such as harsh cleaners and dressings. Avoid cleaning with these and do not apply tire dressings such as Armor All, which will break down the rubber and remove ozone cracking and weather-checking resistance. If you show your tires just as much love as you show the rest of your bike, you can help to extend their life and keep them from failing on you in the middle of a ride.

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Thursday, February 2, 2012 8:51:13 PM
Ryan Nelson said:

Good info here! It will help when I wear out my DOT knobbies :) However you may want to make sure folks don't think nitrogen won't expand with heat... it most certainly will! The air we breathe is somewhere around 78% nitrogen, which is what we pump into our tires. is the web's largest powersports store with more than 8 million factory fresh motorcycle parts, apparel, accessories and more online, including motorcycle helmets, motorcycle boots, motorcycle gloves and more.