Take the high road on introducing ATV and dirtbike riding to kids: safety always comes first and practice makes perfect.
As a family, we have always enjoyed the adventure sports of speed—skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, jet skiing, go-karting. So, when Kawasaki Motors Corp. offered an opportunity to test ride some of their new line of dirt bikes and ATVs (collectively known as OHVs, or Off-Highway Vehicles) in Montana, we jumped at the chance.
The venue was the spectacular 14,000-acre Bull Run Ranch in the hills west of Great Falls. That’s a lot of land, about 20 square miles worth of rolling hills leading down to tree-lined valleys, with mountain streams flowing into the Missouri River, in an area where the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery once camped. There are miles and miles of well-kept roads and trails leading through this extraordinary environment, which, over three wonderful days, we would traverse on a variety of vehicles.
Our hosts were the affable Joe Tripp and his lovely wife Leslie, who is part of the family which has owned the land for the past 60 years. Joe is a certified instructor for the Motorcycle Safety Institute, and was a calm, thorough teacher. (He has since relocated to become a Senior Editor for SPEEDtv.com.)
Getting the Family Started On OHVs
Both my wife and I had ridden motorcycles before, but we definitely needed a refresher in bike handling. Our son Regan (age 11) had never ridden a motorbike. None of us had experience on ATVs (the popular 4-wheeled all-terrain vehicles sometimes called quads).
In a grassy meadow by the ranch house, Joe carefully led us all through the learning curve, first on dirt bikes, then on the muscular Kawasaki ATVs. Joe likes to start kids (and adults) on dirt bikes (under 12 years on a 50 cubic centimeter (cc) model; under 16 years on a 90cc model) before letting beginners try ATVs, which have similar age/size restrictions. He recommends learning on the simpler vehicles to master gear changes and braking, and, most importantly, to learn respect for the dangers of the sport. My wife and I rode the 125cc bikes. Since there were no child-size ATVs at the ranch, our 90-pound son stayed on the dirt bike or in the Mule, Kawasaki’s industrial-strength, two-passenger, golf-cart-like utility vehicle, which he loved driving.
After we were comfortable on the bikes, and had surpassed Joe’s minimum standards for control and safety, he let us slowly test our chops, first in the driveways around the house and barns, then on the hard-packed dirt roads of the ranch. We then graduated to the thrilling Kawasaki 650 Brute Force ATVs which are powerful, stable, and well designed for the rugged Montana terrain. Regan happily followed along in the Mule, which never met a trail it couldn’t handle.
The Bull Run Ranch operation has now been taken over by another group of local folks interested in preserving access to the land and enabling OHV riding. However, due to astronomical liability insurance costs, as of 2009, the guest ranch operation only provides access—no ATV rentals, instruction or guidance. For more information, call Russ Ehnes (406/452-8815; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Understanding OHV Safety
Having regaled you with how much fun we had, I now feel compelled to advise you against attempting to ride ATVs and dirt bikes unless you can get instruction in their use. The sports of dirt bike and ATV riding have a significant potential for danger. The ATVs are the most deceptive because they seem easy to drive, the four-wheel configuration seems stable, and the steering involves bicycle-like handlebars.
However, if improperly operated, these machines carry a serious risk of injury or death. According to the All-Terrain Vehicle Safety Institute, almost 90 percent of youth ATV-related injury incidents occur when a youth is operating an adult-sized ATV (engine size greater than 90cc). Every child under the age of 16 should be supervised and should never be permitted to ride an adult-sized ATV.
Joe Tripp's Guidelines for Safe ATV Use:
· Suit up! Always wear a helmet, eye protection, long pants & shirt, and over-the-ankle boots. Dress for the crash, not the ride.
· Check it out! Perform a pre-ride inspection of your machine. Use the owner’s manual. If you will be riding in an unfamiliar place, obtain maps, regulations, and other pertinent information before you go.
· Prepare! Keep first aid, water, and repair supplies on your ATV at all times.
· Saddle up! Only ride an ATV that is right for your age, size, and maturity.
· Supervise! Children at all times, provide a controlled environment in which they can learn before allowing them out on their own.
· Slow down! ATV’s become less stable as speed increases and the chance of a serious accident is greatly increased.
· Park it! Never leave an ATV unattended unless it is in neutral with the parking brake set.
· Double Up! Only ride double on ATVs designed for it – besides, two machines are better than one – use the buddy system.
· Load it up! Avoid riding on public roads. If you have far to go, haul the ATV or take a trail and enjoy the ride!
Learning How To Ride Together
Proper instruction and careful handling are vital for safe riding. No one should attempt to operate a motorcycle or ATV without specialized training. No one should attempt o operate a motorcycle or ATV without specialized training. Courses are offered all over the country at sites sponsored by the ATV Safety Institute (800/887-2887) for ATVs and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (800/446-9227) for motorbikes.
If you or your kids want to ride motorbikes or ATVs, start near home. Take a beginner course near where you live and where rental equipment is available. Remember: size does matter with these machines, and there are smaller models built specifically for smaller bodies. Helmets and full-cover clothing are mandatory.
Your Off-Road Adventure Vacation
When you’re ready to take an OHV vacation, you will find several vendors around the country who rent these vehicles. Some will try to send you out with minimal instruction and safety training. Adults who have little or no prior training, however, should not go out without a guide.
One of the most popular areas for OHV riding is on the Oregon coast near Florence. There is a unique and dramatic dune structure that runs several miles inland and many miles along the coast. At Sand Dunes National Recreation Area, there are miles of ATV trails and several vendors who rent ATVs. My wife and I rode ATVs, while our son, Regan, then 12, was given his own mini-dune buggy, something like a large go-kart with a protective roll cage and governor/limiter on the engine to contain his speed. All of us wore helmets and goggles.
The dune area was full of other ATV riders; sight lines were limited and many riders in their late teens and early twenties were riding fast. Our family stayed together, and we imposed the ATV Safety Institute standard of safe riding. We had a truly great time, but we would never let a novice teenager ride unsupervised in this environment. (To read a full article on ATV riding at Sand Dunes National Recreation Area.
The South is big ATV country and the Durhamtown Off Road Park (706/486-4603) is an epicenter of Georgia ATV activity. Located about 75 miles southeast of Atlanta, Durhamtown offers ATV rentals for all ages (no limits), over 100 miles of trails, plus flat tracks, a Pee Wee Track ,and beginner trails. Safety equipment is recommended, mandatory for children, and is available for rent. If you want to settle in, there are cabins and stationery RVs available for rent. You can even rent Helmet Cams and Family Radio Systems for staying in touch on the trail. There are frequent races on the nine tracks, so you can see how the big boys do it.
Way out west on the California coast just south of San Luis Obispo, you'll find some serious ATV dune riding at Pismo Beach. Arnie's ATV Rentals (800/213-1590) offers a wide range of rentals for cruising the large expanse of beach and dunes (8.5×2.5 miles). Riding age starts at 6 (with appropriately sized vehicles), but children under 18 must, by California State Law, be accompanied by an adult with a Safety Certificate issued by California or another state. Most tourists will not have these, but an Oregon Safety certificate can be had by completing an online course. It takes about two hours and is a very good training exercise for the whole family in the safe use of these vehicles. To take this course, go to www.rideatvoregon.org, certificate valid for 30 days. The other alternative is take the whole family to a full class on riding, available nationwide through the ATV Safety Institute or 1/800/887-2887. Failing all of this, Artie's can provide a rider to escort you on the dunes, for a fee.
In southeastern Utah, you can go on guided tours through the Hurricane Sands wilderness on ATVs with ATV & Jeep Wilderness Tours (888/656-2887). Tours range from 2 to 6 hours and cost $105 to $250 per person, including equipment, helmets, and guides. Wilderness Tours is very cautious about untrained riders, particularly kids, and will only allow them to drive their own vehicles if they weigh 110 pounds, have prior training, and are at least 14. They do accommodate younger children as passengers on parental machines ($50/rider surcharge), or as drivers on a guide's ATV, for the full adult fee.
As with several sports (jet skis, zip lines, moped tours), ATVs are something unusual that might tempt you as a shore excursion on a Caribbean or Mexican cruise. An organized half-day tour is a relatively easy and cost-effective way to decide whether or not your family is interested in the sport, and they are widely available.
In Cozumel, Mexico for example, you must be 16 to ride solo with Cozumel Cruise Excursions on their ATV Jungle Tour. Royal Caribbean offers an ATV Four-Wheeling Adventure from Denali in Alaska with a minimum age of 16 as well, and requires a valid driver's license. Both are guided trips, with brief introductions to vehicle operation and safety, and safety gear provided.
Again, I cannot vouch for the quality of instruction or equipment, particularly because the Cozumel tour operators work outside of US safety regulations; use extreme caution on all of these rides. If you’re planning a cruise, explore these options before you go and do your homework – have all family members take an OHV beginner’s course locally if you can.
You can Google “ATV rentals” and find hundreds of listings. If approached with proper instruction and attention to safety, the rewards of riding OHVs — whether ATVs or dirt bikes — are substantial, and they offer an awesome family bonding opportunity.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.