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ATV vs. Dirt Bike: Which is Better for Riding Trails?

Dirt bikes and ATV’s or All-Terrain Vehicles, are the quintessential vehicles for having fun on an off-road trail. Their small size affords them a versatility to cover a wide range of trail types and allows you to go places that are just not suitable for an off-road truck.

That being said, how do you choose which vehicle, a dirt bike of an ATV, would be the better selection for your trail riding adventures?

ATVs and Dirt Bikes both have pros and cons, and advantages over each other in certain circumstances, when it comes to trail riding.

We will go over a few points comparing the two to help you decide which one will be more suitable for you and the type of off-roading you will be doing.

Safety

ATV safety has received a lot of media attention, and it is a topic that is hotly debated in off-roading circles. Research has shown that dirt bike riders have more accidents than ATV riders, but the concerning statistic is that ATV accidents are more serious. ATV accidents not only result in more severe injuries but also result in more deaths than dirt bike accidents.

The research shows that the risk of serious injury or death in an ATV accident is pretty much double that of a dirt bike!

At first glance, you would think this goes against logic! I mean, it is easier to fall off two wheels than four! That point is exactly why there are more dirt bike accidents, but what is the reason for the higher severity of ATV crashes?

Several reasons may contribute to the seemingly incongruent severity of ATV accidents over dirt bikes.

  • A false sense of security. The fact that an ATV has four wheels, making the vehicle seem more stable and the riding position is comfortable, may lull the rider into a feeling that less can go wrong. This mindset may encourage the rider to push the machine beyond its capabilities and take unnecessary chances with rough terrain.
  • The weight of the all-terrain vehicle. ATV’s weigh significantly more than dirt bikes. In fact, they weigh close to 3 times the weight of a dirt bike. This additional weight is significant in the event of an accident. The first consequence of the weight is that the vehicle has more inertia, so it is harder to stop. The second significance is in the event of a rollover and the machine landing on top of you. The average 600-pound weight has a significant crushing force, or the potential to trap the rider underwater. It will often require two people to lift the ATV off a trapped rider. A dirt bike can usually be pushed off by the rider himself.

If you’re considering buying a beginner off-road vehicle for your kids and wondering whether an ATV or dirt bike would be the better option, check out my article on ATV vs Dirt Bike: Which Is Better (And Safer) For Kids?

Cost

A tight budget in terms of purchasing an off-road vehicle for some trail riding fun may be a point of concern. A trail bike will be the vehicle of choice if you are watching your pennies in this regard!

The difference in price is significant enough to make you think twice when choosing between the two vehicles. The purchase price of an ATV can cost you up to $1000 more than that of a dirt bike.

The cost difference is not only limited to the purchase price. The maintenance costs of an ATV are substantially more than that of a dirt bike. This higher cost is not only the engine maintenance cost but also the replacement of consumables. As an example of this, compare the cost of replacing 4 ATV tires to that of replacing two dirt bike tires.

Learning Curve

From the aspect of learning to ride, the ATV has the edge over the dirt bike. Rough terrain is easier to handle when you are on four wheels as opposed to two. You can concentrate more on navigating the terrain without having to focus on keeping the vehicle upright and balanced at the same time.

The easier learning curve on ATV’s is often the main reason kids are started out on them as opposed to dirt bikes. The concerning factor here though, is the safety record of the ATV. This is of particular importance when you consider the lack of fear that kids sometimes display when taking on dangerous activities.

So while a dirt bike may be harder to master, it is definitely the safer option, particularly when looking to get your kids started in off-road sports.

Functionality

Many outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the challenge of multi-day off-road trails. This involves overnighting in the outdoors while riding trails during the day. The nature of this activity requires you to take some equipment along for your night time camping needs.

The supplies that you should consider taking along would be sleeping gear, a tent or bivvy, cooking equipment, food, water, and fuel for your vehicle.

While transporting all this gear on a dirt bike is possible, it is definitely easier and more comfortable wit an ATV.

ATV’s have the capacity for the fitting of additional gear such as a winch, which may come n useful in situations such as removing fallen trees from the trail. The additional weight of the ATV and the torque of the motor also make it more suited to this type of task than a dirt bike.

Where dirt bikes have the advantage over the ATV is on a narrow trail. Trails that are as narrow as a footpath are still traversable with a dirt bike. An ATV, however, may be too wide to fit on such a trail and, therefore, less functional for this type of trail riding.

Comfort

The common riding position on an ATV is different from that of a dirt bike. When riding an ATV, you spend a lot of time in a sitting position. As a result, ATV manufacturers have designed the seats with a level of comfort that is missing from most dirt bike seats.

The comfort level of the seat on a dirt bike is less of a consideration by manufacturers since the riding position for the majority of the time on a dirt bike is standing.

This makes the ATV the more comfortable choice, particularly for longer trails, or multi-day trail riding.

Speed

If you are a speed freak and your idea of fun it to ride with the throttle as wide open as possible most of the time, then a dirt bike is for you! Dirt bikes leave ATVs in the dust, so to speak when it comes to speed. Dirt bike riders will also tell you that the associated adrenalin rush of the dirt bike also far outstrips that of an ATV!

It all comes down to your requirements for a day’s adventure on an off-road trail. If your main purpose is an adrenalin-pumping fast ride where the scenery is just a blur, go for a dirt bike. For a more sedate pace and a more comfortable ride, an ATV should be your choice.

Notwithstanding the obvious speed advantage of a dirt bike, an ATV can still get the adrenalin going! They have enough of a turn of speed to catch your breath and provide a thrilling ride, but it is just more intense with a dirt bike!

Stability

Stability could be considered a feature with ATV’s. Two-wheeled vehicles, by their very nature of only having two wheels, are unstable and require the rider to provide balance. This makes the ATV with its four-wheel configuration a much more stable vehicle.

The superior stability of the ATV makes it easier to ride. This makes them the vehicle of choice for learning off-road riding. Learning to ride trails on an ATV will definitely result in fewer bumps and bruises compared to a bike. This gives ATV’s a distinct advantage over dirt bikes. This is especially true when the terrain gets really rough!

While ATV’s are more stable than dirt bikes, it needs to be mentioned that rollovers are a very real danger with ATV’s. Rollovers occur when traversing tight corners too fast, tackling steep inclines, or when the front end lifts up as in a wheelie. These situations are dangerous with an ATV, as the machine can end up on top of the rider, pinning him to the ground, and causing serious crush injuries.

Versatility

Versatility is not normally a deciding factor when looking at purchasing an off-road trail vehicle. It is, however, a point that needs to be raised in favor of the ATV.

While a dirt bike can pretty much only be used as a dirt bike, an ATV has many additional functions it can perform. It can be used as a utility vehicle, such as dragging logs, winching other vehicles out of the mud, or even pull a trailer.

It shows great versatility in getting the family and their gear to that remote mountain cottage for a weekend breakaway! Their advantage in versatility over the dirt bike largely stems from their superior stability and carrying capacity. The capability of being able to pull a small trailer greatly increases their potential for cargo carrying capacity.

ATV’s can also operate quite happily at walking speed, where dirt bikes would quickly overheat and need a cooling-off period.

An ATV is a better vehicle for carrying passengers. Most dirt bikes are not engineered for carrying two people, so the ATV has a distinct advantage in this area.

These versatile features make the ATV the ideal choice if you are looking for a vehicle that can have a multi-purpose role in your lifestyle! The versatility may even be a factor that will justify the more expensive purchase price of an ATV!

Transporting

An aspect of off-road trail riding that sometimes escapes the attention of potential buyers is the question of getting your vehicle to the trail. Some people are lucky enough to have a trail they can ride right outside their back door. For the rest of us, however, we need to load up our off-road vehicles and drive to the trails we want to ride.

This brings up a logistical issue in the choice between an ATV and a dirt bike, particularly if there is more than one rider in the family!

Most pickup trucks will be able to fit more than one dirt bike on the back. In fact, the number is more like up to 3 that can fit comfortably in the load bin! If you need to transport an ATV in the same way, you will only be able to get one on board, and that probably with a bit of a squeeze!

If you want to read more about fitting a dirt bike into different size cars and whether that’s even possible, check out my article on it here.

You may think a trailer will be the solution to your problem, but it is an additional expense and will essentially only allow you to carry two ATV’s, one on the back of the truck and one on the trailer.

Trailers can be an expensive purchase and may cause you to rethink your choice of buying an ATV.

Fuel Efficiency

Due to their greater mass, ATV’s have larger engines to move their comparative bulk at speed. Dirt bikes, in comparison, have much smaller engines and lighter frames and wheels.

The additional weight and bigger engines of the ATV make them much less fuel-efficient than an off-road bike. This high fuel use adds to the overall cost of maintaining and riding an ATV compared to a dirt bike.

If fuel efficiency does not rank high on your list of considerations in purchasing your off-road vehicle, then an ATV is an option. But, if you want to keep your overall off-roading costs as low as possible, you need to consider a dirt bike as your off-road vehicle of choice.

The Choice Is Yours

We trust that we have achieved our goal with this article, which was to give you some points to ponder when contemplating the purchase of an ATV or dirt bike for your off-road trail riding!

The points we have discussed should all be factored into your thinking when considering the pros and cons of each of these awesome off-road vehicles. While considering all these points is necessary, the overriding factor in making a decision that matches most of your needs and is not a purchase that you will regret. Usually, the one that makes the most sense is the right choice!

On the other hand, if owning one of these vehicles has always been a childhood dream, then throw out the rule book and make your dream come true!

Conclusion

As I just mentioned now, and considering all of the above points, the choice is ultimately yours as both ATVs and Dirt Bikes have pros and cons that could sway you in either direction depending on your preferences and specific requirements.

That being said, whichever one you end up choosing for your trail riding adventures, be sure to stay safe, have fun, and check in here at our blog every now and again for more ways in which we can be of help if you need to find out anything about ATVs, Dirt Bikes and everything else off-roading.

Happy trail riding!

Louis Pretorius

As an amateur off-road enthusiast, I have always been drawn to outdoor adventure. I have decided to share all of my learning experiences with you as I dig a little deeper into my new-found passion and wonderful world of off-roading. My mission is to create the Ultimate Off-roading space on the internet in the process. Stay safe and happy Off-Roading!

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