All riders should understand how the suspension of their dirt bike 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 on a dirt bike can be almost unbearable with a bad suspension setup. Whereas a suspension setup that matches your personal riding style can improve your riding 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 dirt bike suspension for trail riding and enduro.
The Basics of the Dirt Bike Suspension
Dirt bike suspension basically consists of two things: the spring (or sometimes air bags in air forks) and the damping. They both are essential to the dirt bike but relatively useless without each other.
The spring holds the weight of the dirt bike 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, the bike 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 dirt bikes 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.
Dirt Bike Rear Shocks
At the rear, most dirt bikes 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.
Dirt Bike Front Forks
At the front, most dirt bikes 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!
Setting the Dirt Bike Suspension for Trail Riding
Dirt bike suspension settings affect the riding and rider performance. Incorrectly set suspension settings will make riding difficult, sometimes unsafe and wear out the rider quicker.
It is important to get your suspension set up in order to make your dirt bike handle well. However, it is not a simple task and getting the suspension right is not something you can do at once. It will take time and patience but it will be all worth it at the end. 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 setup 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.
Most dirt bikes are set up for a rider weighing around 170 to 180 pounds on average. If you are greatly outside this range, it is going to be harder to get the setup right. And if you are within the range, the setting might still not be correct for you. You always need to check the suspension setup and adjust accordingly whether your bike is brand new or second-hand.
The best way to get your dirt bike suspension right is to find a setting that is roughly right for most of the conditions you ride in and your riding style. Then just adjust things slightly to match the conditions and terrain on the riding day.
There is no shortcut to a perfect suspension setup, such as taking your dirt bike to a specialist who configures the suspension settings for you. This might give you that roughly right setting 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.
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 bike feels.
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 dirt bike 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 your dirt bike 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 when the bike is on the center stand. You can see the spring rate stamped on 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.
General Guidelines for Different Conditions
Keep in mind that if your dirt bike 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 Trail 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 dirt bike to stay high 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 the dirt bike 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 dirt bike 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.
Adjusting the Dirt Bike Suspension Settings
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Set up your dirt bike suspension to a soft setting or if you have notes from a similar riding spot, apply those settings. Take a short warm up or a test run.
If the bike kicks the handlebars and feels like it’s deflecting off the obstacles when riding over bumps, obstacles 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.
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.
If 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.
Setting the 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. Here’s our favorite:
BikeMaster Multi Tool With Sockets (click to check the current price on MotoSport.com) – This portable BikeMaster multi tool is golden. It is small enough to throw into your backpack for easy, trail side use.
Maintaining your dirt bike suspension is important. Front forks require oil changes 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 your dirt bike 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. When you ride your dirt bike, 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 MotoSport.com) for a quick trail side fork bleeding. Just push the button, listen to the air escaping and then you’re good to go.
Setting the dirt bike suspension is something that will help you to get the best out of your riding.
What you need to do is to find a setting that fits your personal riding style and that is roughly right for most of the tracks you ride on. Then you can just adjust the settings slightly to match the conditions and terrain on the riding day.
Start with setting your dirt bike sag and then take your bike out on a trail and start experimenting. Keep notes on your suspension clicker setup for different riding spots so that you can use the same setting also the next time you ride there.
The more comfortable you get with adjusting your dirt bike suspension, the more you will start noticing the different feedback and how the bike feels. At worst it will make your bike easier to ride and at best it might make you a better rider.
Last updated: December 8, 2021