November 23, 2021 5 min read

As someone that has raced motocross and has built a motocross gear and accessory business, I get all kinds of questions. “Are motocross bikes and trail bikes the same thing?” is one that I get every so often so let’s explore some significant differences between these two bikes.

You only need to spend a little bit of time with both bikes. Paired with your own biking experiences, you can find some of the differences ranging from things like the following:

  • There is more shielding and bulk
  • Narrower gear ratios
  • Parts
  • Extras
  • The conditions for riding them

  • Below are those key differences and other things you need to know about these two different off-road bikes.

    Trail Bike

    Riding Conditions

    The first thing you’ll notice about these differences is that you’ll see motocross bikes everywhere. There is a massive supply of them because they’re quite cheap. Careful eyes will also notice these bikes have a lot of power and suspension as well.

    It’s almost like they’re built for trail riding - similar to trail bikes.

    But noticing these things and making those assumptions are dangerous because those parts contribute to how these bikes are meant to be driven. In the case of trail bikes, they have parts that are meant for trails. For motocross, it’s meant for track racing.

    Another way to look at it is that motocross is a branch of trail riding. While trail riding is taking a motorcycle - with knobby tires - off-road, motocross focuses on riding laps around tracks or circuits where the trails are specifically designed for them.


    Shields

    Just from that one difference, you can start to see other differences between these two bikes. Take for example shielding.

    With trail bikes, the manufacturers and trail bike companies know that these bikes will be going off into trails. Regardless of where you’re going, they know there is going to be debris, branches, and all kinds of other natural elements around you. As such, trail bikes have various shields to protect the rider.

    Trail bikes will have shields around the engine as well as parts called ‘bark busters’ that protect riders from trees and other elements.

    On the other hand, if you’re on a motocross bike, you’re not going to see little or any form of shielding. And why would you? You’re meant to be using these bikes to race. So they need to be as light as possible to keep the power to weight ratio competitive. And you have to be free to move around on them to maneuver over obstacles. 

    Trail Bike Skid Plate and accessory guards

    Narrower Gears

    From that same aspect, you can expect the gears to be narrower as well. Again, since motocross bikes are designed to be on tracks that could have sharper turns and twists than natural trails, you’ll need narrower gear ratios.

    Trail bikes on the other hand are used for longer stretches and distances so they have wider gear ratios.

    Motocross Riding

    Parts

    Another aspect is the various parts of these bikes and how they perform. Already, you can tell there’s going to be significant differences based solely on the conditions these bikes were meant to be driven. Here is how each of these parts are different.

    Exhaust

    When you get on one of these bikes to test them out, the first thing you’ll notice is the difference in noise levels. Trail bikes have reduced noise levels because these bikes are meant to be driven long distances.

    Sometimes it’s trails in the woods, but manufacturers anticipate some riders to have to drive on the highway or public streets to get to these trails or their destination. Since noise is something people are sensitive to, the exhaust is purposely softer due to this.

    With motocross bikes, you’ll find them louder because they’re meant to be driven in a track - a self-contained area. You can also see the exhaust system of these bikes as a testament of how powerful these bikes are.

    Motocross Exhaust

    Suspension

    Suspension is the biggest amongst the parts to tell you the difference between the two. As I mentioned before, looking at the suspension, you can get an idea of what type of bike it is.

    The reason for that is that trail bikes will have a softer suspension setup as they are meant for trails and long roads with no extreme jumps or obstacles. If a trail bike were to take the same kinds of jumps that motocross bikes were to take, they could potentially hurt the bike or the rider.

    On the other hand, motocross bikes are able to handle massive jumps and make quick turns at higher speeds. As such, the suspension is a lot stiffer.

    It’s around here where people notice suspension and ask me “Can you use a motocross bike for trails?” And the answer is yes and no. Motocross bikes can be adjusted for trail riding like trail bikes.

    However, you’ll have to have experience working on bikes since you’ll need to adjust the compression and rebound every time you go on trails with a motocross bike.

    Adjusting is necessary because the suspension actually affects the turning. A stiffer suspension can lead to stiff turning. Furthermore, small bumps, rocks, and roots will feel bigger on motocross bikes that don’t make these adjustments since those things will kick the bike around.

    This also answers the big question of can you use a motocross bike for enduro? No you really can’t. Another good comparison is comparing these two bikes to runners: trail bikes are like cross-country runners, they’re built for distance and not quick laps. Motocross bikes are therefore the sprinters of the group, where they offer a lot of speed and power, but in small areas.

    Extras

    The final aspect to look at is the extra attachments you can add to these bikes. As you can tell already, you can make some adjustments to your bike as you see fit. Making a motocross bike more suitable for trails is one such adjustment.

    Lighting

    However, what about adding lights to these bikes? Well in the case of motocross bikes, you’re very limited in that department. 

    Even though motocross bikes are powerful, all that power is being put into the engine and the speeds it can obtain. As such, you’ll find adding even things like lights take away from the bike’s performance.

    And that’s even upgrading your stator that allows more watts to be available.

    Trail bikes won’t run into these issues because they’re meant for longer rides. Adding extra lights isn’t that much of an issue.

    Trail Bike Lighting

    Larger Engines

    There is also the case with engines. With trail bikes, you can get larger fuel tanks if you want to extend your ride time. These engines can also add extra protection too.

    Motocross bikes don’t need these since they’re meant for short rides. Besides, motocross bike engines handle two gallons and under which is more than enough.

    Spark Arrestors

    This is a necessary extra if you’re using a trail bikes. Spark arrestors prevent sparks and excessive noise coming from the exhaust, which will also prevent you from getting fined in public parks. 

    With motocross bikes, you can use these as well but if you’re bringing it on tracks, the last thing you want is for your bike to have more backpressure and thus lose power.

    Trail-Friendly Parts

    Another notable difference is making the bikes more capable for trails. Trail bikes are already designed for trails so they’ll need very few modifications to hit the trails.

    However, with motocross bikes, the suggestions of modifications to these bikes can get expensive. 

    Some wise mods to do are things like switching the stock exhaust pipe, putting in flywheel weight, and getting a new rear sprocket. Whether you do these yourself or hire trained professionals, it’s best to consider whether getting a trail bikes at this point would be better than adjusting your motocross bike.

    Motocross

    Final Thoughts

    Despite the differences between these two bikes, both of them offer thrilling experiences in their own unique way. I would recommend trying both of them out whenever you get the chance to.


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