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

Trail riding is a great way to share an adventurous day with friends and family, but having the right vehicle for the job is very important. So which would be the better option for trail riding, an ATV or a dirt bike, and why?

ATVs are generally better for trail riding compared to dirk bikes. ATVs are more flexible and versatile, easier to use, more balanced, more comfortable, and safer when it comes to trail riding.

Now that I’ve made a bold statement, hopefully without offending anyone right out of the gates, let’s dive into the question a bit deeper and explore the fundamental differences between the two and why the one is the clear winner when it comes to trail riding.

There are massive differences between an ATV and a dirt bike, beyond the obvious that one has four wheels and the other has two. The differences between the two vehicles extend beyond the number of wheels to where they are used, how they can be used, and the varying amounts of engine power are all important factors to consider when choosing which one is right for the job.

For the sake of making the question slightly easier to understand, I’m not going to focus too much on the world of sports, cause those vehicles are in a league all of their own, and when you are ready to enter that realm, you already know the answer you’re looking for. I will instead be focusing on the more relaxed side of things, the ATVs and Dirt Bikes that you can find at a family gathering or on a farm.

These are the ones you should be looking to use when exploring the world around you, where you go through a forest with a few buddies or exploring to see something wild and grand, all without leaving a trace that you or your friends were there.

I’ll be examining the differences between the two off-road vehicles when used on certain terrain and why ATVs are preferred when trailing compared to dirt bikes, which is perfect for going fast and having fun in the dirt.

The slower-paced explorer

When you are going through unfamiliar territory then you will find yourself looking for something that allows you to stop and look at your map. While dirt bikes can be fitted with all kinds of navigational equipment, their fast pace may be perfect to reach point B from A, but this hinders your viewing pleasure.

ATVs have the obvious four wheels, giving you the opportunity to easily view your surroundings, letting you easily navigate through wooded areas or open fields. Dirt bikes require almost constant movement, meaning you won’t be able to take a look at the surroundings when trail riding. This is where all ATVs shine with their ability to easily and comfortably explore the world without shutting it out entirely.

ATVs have the same engine sizes as dirt bikes, going down to 50cc engines, these usually being quad bikes. With ATVs requiring slightly less skill than dirt bikes to ride, younger riders can be trusted to drive themselves, creating the perfect atmosphere where families or larger groups of friends can all enjoy a trail without feeling left out.

ATVs allow for the opportunity to explore in more ways than just flying past what is around you and almost losing control around tight corners. This is the point where we can start moving to dirt bikes, the more aggressive, skilled-based way of doing a trail.

The adrenaline-fueled option

I once got on a small 70cc dirt bike and was allowed to go full speed down a sandy road where I lived, nothing too exciting unless you remember that I was only 12 and this was the first time I had been on a bike. Armed with only a helmet, I spent several summers going up and down that road at the fastest possible speed, giving me the chance to realize something quite important.

Dirt bikes are quite fun, but they leave little chance for mistakes to be made, requiring a bit of skill that can only be learned by falling down a few times. This is where the problem of using a dirt bike for trail riding comes in. When you are familiar with the trail and you trust your bike, that you will have more fun.

However, this is the reason that trail riding with dirt bikes is a problem, owing to the speed and skill required to use a dirt bike can be almost impossible to do a relaxed trail run. When you have your own small farm, or you live close to a bit of nature, then you can easily learn what the trails are like. When you are riding with a bike then you are moving fast, keeping balance, and knowing where to go is the most important thing you must do.

This makes for an adrenaline-fueled rush of speed that requires you to already know where you’re going and exactly what you’re doing. If you’ve ever been on a trail ride, then you will know that this is much less than ideal and has a few obvious problems.

The dangers of Trail Riding

There are many things that are lovely about nature, the fresh air, the adventures, and the fun times to be had. However, remember that you’re in a vehicle then you will need to control where you’re going and you need to know what you’re doing. Trail riding brings the danger of losing control of your vehicle, creating a difficult situation where speed and power are not the best answer.

Trail riding involves driving through woods, sandy beaches, or over open plains. This means that you can see some of the best places on earth, where animals are wild, the grass is always green and many, many adventures are to be had. There are trails that take you through the wilds of the world, challenging you with more than just beauty, but along with these adventures comes a few challenges

When you are trail riding you must be careful of sudden turns, unmarked dangers, and sudden changes in terrain that will cause you to lose control.

The turns that make you

Trail riding almost always involves going through places where few others have been, usually, this would mean only going where the path has gone narrow or overgrown. However, when you have an ATV or dirt bike your desire to explore may be increased. When you’re on the unfamiliar path you will find yourself looking to get a short burst of adrenaline.

This is where the most obvious danger comes from, when you are going around seeing the wild side of the world, you can be distracted. This is the point where you see the real advantage of an ATV vs a dirt bike. Owing to their easier to understand controls, ATVs are better at handling sudden turns. Having four wheels that stop your vehicle from losing control means that you will be able to control them around turns as well.

Dirt bikes can turn faster, meaning you can have an extreme adventure, however, if you are unprepared and entirely in a foreign environment then you won’t be able to take a turn in the same way. This leads into the next problem with dirt bikes, when you take a wrong turn you won’t be able to stop and navigate as easily.

ATVs can stop without needing support to stand up, it may seem simple and easy, but this makes a big difference. ATVs have more space to pack maps; stick GPS devices on, and generally lets you accessorize a little better. When you take a wrong turn then you can navigate your way back to where you need to be, seeing as you’re doing a trail ride you will find yourself in unfamiliar territory.

However, there is one area where dirt bikes shine, when you encounter dangers that you aren’t sure of.

Unmarked Dangers to your riding pleasure

Bears, mountain lions, wild dogs, or even wild pigs are dangerous animals to encounter while you’re driving around the underbrush. Encountering these in an ATV with a clear path to escape may seem easy but, unfortunately, you won’t always have a clear route to escape. This is where the dirt bike has a chance to shine because a wheeled 200cc dirt bike can blast through a forest in much the same way as Luke Skywalker on a forest moon of Endor.

Dirt bikes can move relatively much faster than most other vehicles in rough terrain, this is thanks to their obvious maneuverability using only two wheels. When you need to run away from something large and maybe a little too wild then the dirt bike will be able to get you to safety slightly faster. I know this since I’ve had the unfortunate instances where I had to use the small 50cc dirt bike to get away from truly angry dogs.

While ATVs may have been the perfect way to not get lost, when it comes to turning around or dodging past things that look dangerous, they are less effective. Dirt bikes have shown that they are easily capable of doing just that, the extreme sports where people jump crazy heights and distances is clear evidence.

This is where the advantage of using a dirt bike almost ends, I’ll touch on a few more later, but they are few and far between.

How terrain affects your driving

Have you ever driven a dirt bike through something that is not dirt, it’s not a fun time. While dirt bikes are great with dirt roads or slightly muddy roads, they become almost a nightmare when the road gets difficult.

This is owing to dirt bikes needing speed to stay balanced and limiting their speed means that you will fall over. Unfortunately, when you are going through deep sandy roads, water clogged mud roads and dense forests traveling at lower speeds to keep balanced are almost impossible. This is why you need to be tall enough and strong enough to pick up a dirt bike when you ride it. Being able to pick up your bike once you inevitably fall is important.

ATVs don’t have this problem, they’re more comfortable and you can explore areas that would be hard or difficult to reach without ever getting tired. ATVs, quad bikes, or more advanced all-terrain vehicles are capable of completing trail rides without requiring too much physical exercise from the rider. Larger ATVs let you share your vehicle with friends, letting you easily go two and two on a vehicle.

When you need to travel over large sandy areas, through wet muddy plains or through forests with lots of underbrush you will experience a more relaxed time with ATVs. You may need to use some skill not to get stuck, but with larger engines and more in a group, the chance of staying suck is a lot less. This is one of the true advantages of using an ATV for trail riding, you can do more with more people.

Why ATVs are better for trail riding

When the negatives of trail riding and everything else is considered you can easily see why ATVs are the superior choice for trail riding. Each version ATVs is capable of supporting several people, usually two or more, which means you won’t need to buy as many as you would with a bike. Unlike dirt bikes, ATVs are still easy to control even with more people on them.

ATVs are more adaptable as well, while dirt bikes are limited to roads that allow them to move fast, ATVs can easily travel at slower speeds, crossing terrain that would be too rough or too remote for other vehicles. I’ve found that ATVs allow for younger members of the family to enjoy a smaller trail, whereas dirt bikes make it almost impossible for children to enjoy.

When it comes to larger ATVs, the 400cc models and above give you more control of the vehicles at lower speeds than a dirt bike as well. When I rode around using 450cc quad bikes, I found myself crossing over and through small rivers that I would never cross using the dirt bikes I had at my disposal. Now, there are still dangers to ATVs, but they have a smaller learning curve and the ways that you can be hurt are a lot more predictable.

To answer the question about which one is definitively better for trail riders, the answer is ATVs. Their flexibility and versatility mean that they are easily able to traverse more trails and do those trails without ever having to spend hours learning how to control a bike or what to do when your bike eventually falls over.


Whether you’re out for a fun day with family and friends or simply just need to get away and clear your head for an afternoon, trail riding is one of those fun adventures that makes us feel more alive, while enjoying the beautiful sites and sounds of nature.

Having the right vehicle for the job is an important element in the fun that we will have while riding trails and so it is important to choose right. If you were wondering whether an ATV or a dirt bike would be best for trail riding, I’m glad I could’ve helped you find the answer you were looking for.

Until next time… Happy trailing!

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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