Slipping on a pair of any 'ole dirt bike tires may get you rolling but if you're looking for speed, handling, cornering, great starts, quality jumps, flying through whoops and well, winning, then a bit of research is involved.
In many respects, your dirt bike tires offer a secret formula to winning and it's up to you to find it. Simply assuming as long as you've got fresh rubber on your bike with solid knobbing that you're good to go couldn't be further from the truth. Matching the right dirt bike tires to the riding terrain is key for optimum performance.
You must also keep in mind a rider's druthers. Every track condition creates its own tire preference which includes an ideal tire air pressure and perhaps, most important, what the rider wants. As a general rule, a soft terrain tire is manufactured for use in soft terrain and the same goes with intermediate and hard terrain tires. But if the rider prefers, for example, a tire made for harder terrain in loamy soil and performs better on race day then it's a no-brainer.
Understanding the difference between a hard terrain tire versus a soft terrain tire is the first step in choosing the right tire for your dirt bike. Reducing trial and error is not only cost effective but gets you on top of the podium faster.
Soft Terrain Dirt Bike Tires
A dirt bike tire made for soft terrain riding is, ironically, manufactured using a hard compound with a focus on the treading. Soft terrain like sand, loam, and muddy conditions requires bite and the traction and knob spacing on soft terrain tires differentiates it from a hard terrain tire.
The tread pattern on a soft terrain dirt bike tire is designed to achieve maximum traction in soft soil conditions. Wider spaced knobs help "scoop" the soft terrain and propel you forward. (For an extreme example, think of a smaller version of sand or paddle tires.) The harder compound built into a soft terrain tires prevents the lugs or knobs from tearing away thanks to the deeper grooving and more wear and tear.
A close-up of a soft terrain tire
Check out this Artrax TG4 tire. It's a soft to intermediate tire with a wider "scoop" to the tread spacing which allows mud and dirt to break free instead of packing up leaving you without traction.
Intermediate Terrain Dirt Bike Tires
The intermediate terrain tire sits, of course, between the soft and hard terrain tire. For unknown track conditions, most trail riding, the weekend warrior or the dirt bike riding enthusiast, intermediate tires are the go-to. They work well across the board but when it comes to racing won't give you an edge if others are matching the best tire to the terrain.
At any rate, you'll find the right conditions for an intermediate tire usually on Supercross and Arenacross tracks which are considered fine-groomed and not tightly packed. (You'll also hear the term "blue-grooved" which describes dirt packed so tight it becomes glossy and slick and actually turns a shade of blue from the tires.) On Motocross tracks where the dirt is considered "perfect" (Washougal National is one) meaning well-groomed, watered just right and outdoor temperatures keep the soil from becoming blue-grooved, you'll find intermediate dirt bike tires beat just about any other tire available.
A close-up of an intermediate terrain tire
Intermediate terrain tire tread is closer than a soft terrain tire because the track condition offers a natural stick and the compound used to manufacture the tire gives durability and helps prevent dirt pack. The Dunlop MX52 and the Bridgestone X40 are common intermediate dirt tires that excel in all conditions.
Hard Terrain Dirt Bike Tires
Never say never, but it is unlikely you'll ride a Motocross or Supercross track with hard terrain. That being the case, a hard terrain dirt bike tire is mostly for trail riding and probably those paths that take you out on the dry desert floor, in the hills or mountains. Think of it this way, if you can more or less bounce a ball on the ground you've got hard terrain.
Hard terrain dirt bike tires offer a stiffer carcass and an extremely durable compound that can weather the tough ground that is likely littered with jagged rocks, jutting roots, sharp sticks and even water holes filled with unseen boulders. A hard terrain tire is most common in off-roading (depending on the ground conditions) and enduro. But even in the cases of off-road riding where you might get mud pits and other sandy areas, you still need to factor in the shrapnel you'll ride over that a soft terrain tire can't resist. An intermediate to hard terrain dirt bike tire like the Maxxiss Maxxcross Desert IT gives you the traction needed when the ground gets loose but durable enough to fend off debris build-up between the lugs.
A close-up of a hard terrain tire
The tread on a hard terrain tire is much closer together and it's all about traction. With less natural grip from the ground that comes with soft terrain you need all the ground adhesion possible.
In some cases, an all-out hard terrain tire, like the Perelli Scorpion, which is made with a softer compound, tighter tread and sharper lug edges, allows riders to glide over hard pack without loss of traction. Riders who compete in trials or enjoy navigating those tight and little-room-for-error hillside trails should like the Michelin Competition Trials tire which offers unmatched grip and knob surface area. Check out the difference in tread pattern. No chance of self-cleaning in soft and sticky conditions so don't bother riding these even on intermediate terrain.
This is as hard terrain as it gets
Your best approach at finding the right tire is through trial and error. Like everything else in dirt bike riding, it all comes down to rider preference. The faster approach is to skip the hard terrain tires if you're a Moto rider and if you're all trails then try an intermediate to hard terrain tire first. Experiment with air pressure and if you're still having trouble or not getting the expected results move to the more unconventional methods and experiment with different tires.
For more information on dirt bike tires check out: