All riders should understand how dirt bike suspension works. And what’s even more important, is to know how to tune and maintain the suspension. This way, you can get the best out of your riding.
Riding single track can be almost unbearable with a bad suspension setup. Whereas a well tuned suspension setup that matches your personal riding style can improve your riding performance and take your skills to the next level.
The importance of the suspension is overlooked way too often just because riders think that it is something they are not able to adjust by themselves. So in this article, we will guide you with few easy steps how to set up your suspension for single track, trail riding and enduro.
In this post, you will learn:
- The basics of dirt bike suspension setup
- Rear shock
- Front forks
- Dirt bike suspension tuning
- Rider weight
- Riding style and trail type
- How to adjust dirt bike suspension settings
- Tuning the front fork
- Tuning the rear shock
- Frequently asked questions about suspension setup
- Troubleshooting settings
- Example tuning settings for different riding conditions
- Hard-pack to intermediate conditions
- Sandy or muddy conditions
- Rocks and roots
- Suspension maintenance
- and much more!
The Basics of Dirt Bike Suspension Setup
The motorcycle suspension basically consists of two things: the spring (or sometimes air bags in air forks) and the damping. They both are essential suspension components, but relatively useless without each other.
The spring holds the weight of the rider and the motorcycle and absorbs impacts from the ground when you are riding. The movement of the spring is then slowed down by the damping in two different ways. This way, it doesn’t just keep bouncing up and down.
The compression damping slows down the compression of the spring as it squeezes together. Whereas the rebound damping slows down how fast the spring returns to its original dimension.
Most modern suspension systems have adjustments available for the spring and both the compression and rebound damping. Once you get the balance right between these factors, your dirt bike will be easier to handle and more comfortable to ride.
At the rear, most shocks have an external spring on a single centrally mounted shock absorber that is usually actuated through a linkage system or attached directly to the topside of the swing arm.
Damping is located inside the structure and often there is an external reservoir to the damping system.
The rear shock has rebound and compression settings and also high/low speed adjustments.
At the front, the front forks have both springs and damping systems held internally within each fork leg. Some models have compression on one of the fork legs and rebound on the other. Some forks have both and are adjusted from the up and the bottom of the forks.
The front forks have separate rebound and compression settings. In addition, some forks also have a spring preload. In air forks, the air pressure can be adjusted much like the spring preload.
The rebound and compression settings have clickers or an air pump setup, whereas the spring preloads are usually rotations on the top of the fork.
Make sure to also read our article on how to adjust front fork height and why. You will learn all about how adjusting the front fork height can help with your riding and more importantly—how to do it in just 15 minutes!
Dirt Bike Suspension Tuning
Correctly set suspension settings increases rider performance. Furthermore, an incorrectly set suspension settings will make riding difficult, sometimes unsafe and will wear out the rider quicker.
Dirt bike suspension tuning is not that difficult once you understand few basic principles. Using a notebook to record favorite settings is a must for difference trails and locations and it helps to start off with close enough suspension settings.
The main factors affecting the dirt bike suspension tuning are your weight and your riding style—especially how aggressive and skilled rider you are. In addition, there are all kind of factors to take into account from terrain to weather conditions.
The best way to get your suspension dialed in, is to find a setting that is roughly right for most of the conditions you ride in and your riding style. Then use clickers to adjust things slightly to match the conditions and terrain on the riding day.
Most stock suspension components are set up for a rider weighing around 170 to 180 pounds on average. If you are outside this range, it is going to be harder to get the setup right.
For heavier or lighter riders, you need to change the springs to match your riding weight. The spring rate is stamped on the side of the rear spring. Also, front forks usually have the spring rate listed in the user manual. Changing to the correct spring rates will greatly improve performance.
And if you are within the weight range, the settings might still not be correct for you or for the specific trail. You always need to check the suspension setup and adjust accordingly whether your bike is brand new or second-hand.
Riding Style and Trail Type
There is no shortcut to a perfect suspension setup, such as taking your forks and shock to a specialist who configures the suspension settings for you. Typically, they are able to set the correct spring rates for your weight and achieve a general tuning setup to start with. However, fine-tuning is always needed for each rider and trail type.
In other words, sending the suspension to a shop will give you roughly correct settings to start with but you need to tweak the settings each time to match the riding conditions.
That being said, the basic principle is to set the suspension for each riding spot and conditions, each and every time. It really only takes few minutes and is easy.
When adjusting the dirt bike suspension, we recommend keeping notes on your suspension clicker setup for different riding spots. The more comfortable you get with adjusting the suspension, the more you will start noticing the different feedback and how the riding feels like.
How to Adjust Dirt Bike Suspension Settings
This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something we may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon Affiliate we earn from qualifying purchases.
Adjusting dirt bike suspension is really quite easy and definitely something you should learn to do.
We recommend carrying a multi tool or a small set of required tools in your hydration backpack. This makes quick adjustments to the suspension very easy at trail side. This way, you can quickly adjust the clickers to your liking and continue having a great riding experience.
This portable Leatherman multi tool is golden. It is small enough product to throw into your backpack for easy, trail side use. You can adjust the flat head clickers as well as the high speed compression nut on the rear shock with the pliers included. Here’s our favorite:
Next, we will explain how to adjust and fine-tune suspension settings. Additionally we cover common scenarios and frequently asked questions and troubleshooting the suspension setup. Let’s get started.
General Dirt Bike Suspension Principles
There are few concepts that will make suspension set up easier:
- Firstly, you should make sure the front and rear springs are set for your total riding weight. This means the spring rate is correct for your weight with gear on. There is really no way around this.
- Secondly, the sag is correctly set.
- You understand how clickers and high speed settings work.
Additionally, you should keep the suspension settings relatively balanced between the front forks and the rear shock.
Also, you should know that one or two clicks on the clickers will make a noticeable difference. And, the neutral position is a great starting setting; and it basically means setting the clickers to the middle within the available range. Furthermore, clicks are counted from fully closed position outwards.
Next, let’s look at the front forks and how to tune them.
Tuning the Front Fork
Front forks have a separate rebound and compression adjustment. Some forks will have a spring preload adjustment or in air forks, an air bladder.
Tuning the fork happens through these adjustments, mostly by using the clicker setup on the top and/or bottom of each fork leg. There are usually around 20-30 clicks between the slowest and fastest settings.
The compression adjustment tunes the speed in which the suspension oil travels through the shim stack and valving, when the fork is pushed in or compressing. The rebound tunes the movement speed when the fork leg is extending.
Typically, when you turn the clickers in clockwise, or in, it slows the fork movement.
In most front forks, to set the suspension to a neutral setting, you can close the clickers completely and count how many clicks you can open until fully open. Then set the clicker to the middle setting. For example, if you count 30 clicks total from close to fully open, set the clicker to 15 clicks from closed position.
Tuning the Rear Shock
To rear shock has similar clicker setup as well as high speed settings you can tune. Similarly to front forks, the dirt bike suspension adjustments affect how quickly the rear wheel is able to move up and down.
The top of the shock typically has a high speed adjustment nut, the compression clicker and the bottom has a clicker for setting the rebound speed.
The first thing you need to do is to set the sag. The sag affects how the rear sits under the riders weight and also the overall suspension travel, height and stability. Again, there is really nothing more important than having the correct sag.
The clicker setup works similarly to the front forks. Additionally, there is a high speed setting that can be separately tuned to slow or speed up the rear shock movement in higher speeds.
To begin, set the clickers and high speed nut to neutral settings. Calculate the maximum clicks and set the clickers to the middle. For example with a 30 clicks total from closed to fully open, you should set the clicker to 15. Set the high speed to middle, which is usually 1.5 turns from fully closed position.
That’s all you need to know. Next, let’s start changing the settings!
Frequently Asked Questions about Dirt Bike Suspension Setup
You can adjust the dirt bike suspension to your weight by setting the sag on the rear shock, adjusting the rebound and compression settings on the front forks and rear shock. Stock suspension springs are set for rider weighing around 170lbs. For heavier or lighter riders, you need to change the front fork and rear shock springs to match your total weight with gear on and then readjust clickers.
Too soft suspension causes bottoming out. To test if your suspension is too soft, place a zip tie into the front fork leg, about two inches from the bottom. Ride a test loop and check how low the zip tie is being pushed. If there is less than 1 inch space at the bottom of the fork, you are too soft. Adjust compression clicker 2 steps at a time until you have about 1.5″ travel left.
Yes. Lowering kits are available and they can lower the dirt bike from quarter of an inch to few inches. Lowering does affect ground clearance and suspension travel, but correctly tuned will improve riding for shorter riders.
The suspensions is the most important performance part in any dirt bike. The suspension affects handling, traction, braking, stability, and steering among other things. Correctly tuned suspension will greatly improve riding performance.
Make the suspension softer by adjusting the front fork compression and rear shock high speed compression settings. Check sag and spring rates for correct match to rider overall weight.
So how do I find the correct settings for any trail, single track or enduro?
Let’s begin by setting the suspension settings to neutral position or if you have notes from a similar riding spot, apply those settings. Take a short warm up or a test run.
Next, lets tune out the unwanted rider feedback.
- Front deflection or harsh rider feedback: The front kicks the handlebars and feels like it’s deflecting off obstacles when riding over bumps, rocks, roots or similar:
- Open the rebound setting two clicks to make suspension react quicker on the front forks.
- Open the compression setting two clicks to make the forks softer and to remove the hard-hit feeling on the handlebars.
- Retest and adjust two more clicks softer until deflection is eliminated.
- If the deflection isn’t improving, check spring rate and preload. Also, worn out wheel bearing may cause similar symptoms. Read more on how to replace a worn out wheel bearing.
- Front is diving: When the front of the dirt bike feels like it’s diving down especially when cornering or dropping off obstacles:
- Close the compression clickers one to two clicks on the forks until the front stays higher.
- Adjust more spring preload or increase spring rate.
- Rear wheel kicks: When the bike kicks too much up when going over logs, rocks or roots with higher speed (second gear and up):
- Open a quarter turn on the rear shock high-speed setting. This will make the rear kick less and feel more stable.
- You can also soften the slow speed compression setting after another test run to see if that further increases stability.
- Rear feels soggy: when the rear feels too low or soft:
- set correct sag
- check spring rate to your weight
- increase low speed compression on the rear shock. You may also increase the high speed compression if this happens in faster speeds or in drops.
Adjusting Your Dirt Bike Sag
The very first thing you need to do when setting the dirt bike suspension is to set the sag.
The sag is the amount the suspension compresses under the weight of the bike alone (static or free sag) and under the weight of the rider sitting on the bike with full gear on (total sag). This is the foundation for all other adjustments.
Basically, setting the sag will enable the rear shock to work on the ideal range it was designed for. It’s important to use the shock travel as much as possible without bottoming out or riding too high or low on the shock movement range. Most modern dirt bikes call for about 100 to 110mm (about 4 inches) of sag.
Setting the sag is easy and it can be done without any prior maintenance experience. Here you can find our simple instructions on how to set your dirt bike sag.
If you are not able to set the sag, the reason usually is that your total weight (you and your full riding gear) is lower or higher than the rear shock spring rate. New bikes come with a spring ideal for a rider weighing around 170 pounds and it has a fairly small range.
You can find your current spring rate by rotating the spring around. You can see the spring rate stamped on the side of the spring.
Another thing to consider is the spring age. If you have an older dirt bike and you cannot set the sag correctly, the spring may be worn out and needing a replacement.
In case you do need a new, heavier or lighter spring, there are multiple options out there to choose from. The rear shock spring is fairly inexpensive part so we recommend getting a new one. If you consider a used spring, check the age or hours before buying.
Example Tuning Settings for Different Riding Conditions
Keep in mind that if your suspension is too soft you will use a lot of energy just maintaining direction and control. So, when setting the suspension, aim for plush instead of soft. Soft is often hard to control and harsh, whereas plush is smooth and controlled. The goal is to maximize control and comfort.
Think about the entire section of the trail you are going to be riding on or the average conditions of the trail. Take your skills as a rider into consideration and then select the setting that will give you the best overall characteristics.
In off road riding, you will come across a wide range of conditions so you need to aim for the middle ground with the suspension setting. Otherwise, your dirt bike suspension will be very good in some sections and average or even poor in others.
If you are a beginner rider, we recommend setting the suspension softer than usual for trail riding. Learn more about our recommended suspension setup for beginners in our article about the best dirt bike setup for beginners.
Hard-pack to Intermediate Conditions
Start with a softer suspension.
If you have plenty of traction and the dirt is dry but not slick, you will likely ride faster and need to increase dampening to avoid bottoming out.
If the front feels like its deflecting, soften the front one or two clicker settings until the deflection is eliminated. The front should feel plush without bottoming out.
A softer suspension will kick less in bigger obstacles or on hard terrain. This is especially noticeable with the rear suspension. If the rear kicks or feels unstable, change the high-speed settings softer.
Sandy or Muddy Conditions
Sandy and most muddy conditions are usually hiding many incorrect suspension settings. In these conditions, you need to try out different settings and compromises to find a setup that works well for you.
Bumps and edges tend to be worn out, rounded and rutted and this usually calls for a more stiffer suspension setup. You want the suspension to stay high on the travel and not dive in too much into the ruts.
If you are uncertain, try adding more compression and rebound for both the rear and the front. Compare and readjust 1 to 2 clicks at a time.
Soft suspension in these conditions can cause the dirt bike to bounce, especially if the rear is too soft. You can usually feel the too soft suspension when the rear tire is not tracking straight and riding feels unstable, especially in whoops.
Rocks and Roots
A rocky or ledgy terrain or trails with roots call for a softer setup. You want the suspension to be able to absorb the obstacles without harsh feedback on the handlebars or without the rear tire kicking.
Start with a softer side suspension and gradually soften the clickers until the front end feels plush and stable at normal riding speeds. Find a sweet spot between where the dirt bike is able to smoothly go over the rocks, roots and other harsh obstacles and where the front end is not bottoming out on braking and cornering.
The rear shock will also need to be matched and set up on the softer side. When hitting the obstacles, the rear needs to rebound fast enough to bring the tire back on the ground and be soft enough not to kick the rear too much.
A sure sign of a too stiff front end setup is when the front tire is deflecting off of rocks and other obstacles and you feel like the front is not stable. This means that you need to soften the forks, especially the rebound.
If the rear shock is too stiff or slow, the rocks and roots will kick the rear up and it keeps hitting you. This can be dangerous at high speeds and quickly wears you down. Try opening the high-speed compression setting on the shock a quarter turn at a time until the feeling goes away.
Maintaining your dirt bike suspension is important. Front forks require rebuilding and inspections usually every 40 hours in normal conditions. Whereas rear shocks usually have a maintenance interval in the range of 70 to 100 hours.
This all depends on your riding style, but generally speaking suspension maintenance has a huge impact on every aspect of riding performance. It is also a safety issue when riding at high speeds.
Periodic maintenance between oil changes include cleaning and washing the fork dust seals and cleaning the sand and debris from the dust and oil seals. This will prevent any leaks and wear in the seals that can cause messy oil leaks.
Another important thing you need to do is to bleed the air out of the front forks each time you ride. Over time, small amounts of air are pressurized on the top of the fork leg above the oil level. This air space is an important part in the fork design. Changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature changes and air leaks all affect the amount of air in the forks.
So, remember to bleed the air out of the forks before starting the ride day. The small screw on top of the fork is an air bleed screw. Carefully screw it open and let the air out.
Speed bleeders are great for bleeding the forks quickly with a push of a button. We recommend installing Motion Pro Speed Bleeders (click to check the current price on Amazon.com) for a quick trail side fork bleeding. Just push the button, listen to the air escaping and then you’re good to go.
Properly setting up your dirt bike suspension can significantly enhance your riding experience and performance. To achieve the best results, you should tune the suspension to your personal riding style and the terrain you usually ride on. Minor adjustments to the settings can be made on the day of riding to match the current conditions.
It is recommended that you keep track of the suspension clicker setup for different riding locations to quickly replicate the ideal setting. As you become more familiar with adjusting your dirt bike suspension, you will start to notice how the bike feels and the various feedback it provides. By finding the perfect suspension setup, your bike will be easier to ride, and you may even improve as a rider.
- Setting up dirt bike handlebars for trail riding
- How to align dirt bike forks – aka twisted forks
- How to clean leaking fork seals on a dirt bike
- What are fork bleeders and why you need them?
- How to rebuild dirt bike forks: a complete guide
- 4 Tips for choosing the perfect dirt bike seat and seat covers
Last updated: March 10, 2023