Two Strokes Versus Four: Confessions of a Woods Racer

I got a text from a buddy a few weeks ago: “so… 2-stroke or 4-stroke?”

My short reply: “two-stroke for off-road-only riding; four-stroke if there’s pavement involved.”

Afterward, the conversation evolved into a much deeper philosophical discussion about the right bike for the right job for the right person.

The genesis behind my buddy’s question was suspicion that I prefer two-strokes for dirt riding, coupled with the knowledge that I recently sold my Husky two-stroke and kept my 350 four-stroke. His confusion was well-founded, considering my recent commentary about the KTM 350, along with my public praise of modern enduro two-strokes.

I want to talk about why I sold my Husky, but first I want to offer a few words about two-strokes versus four. I recognize this topic has been covered ad nauseam. Yet, the question lingers. With few exceptions, I find most content on this topic compares smokers against strokers in motocross. While that’s relevant, it plays to the strengths of modern four-strokes. Inversely, if we’re talking about hard enduro, 4-bangers are the minority of the population. If you’re new to dirt bikes, or just debating your next off-road motorcycle, I’ll try to offer a differing perspective, especially regarding recreational riding or cross-country racing here on the east coast.

Two Stroke


  • Stall resistance
  • Explosive power
  • Runs cooler
  • More agile (less reciprocating mass)


  • Vibration
  • More wheelspin
  • Less stable at high speed
  • Narrower power band

Subjective Traits

  • Simplified maintenance
  • Little to no engine braking
  • Limited range (premix)
  • Typically carbureted

Four Stroke


  • Wide tractable power band
  • Highspeed stability
  • Less vibration
  • Longer range (fuel efficiency, no pre-mixing)


  • Stalling/flameouts (high compression)
  • More involved maintenance
  • More overheating risk
  • “Feels” heavier at low speeds

Subjective Traits

  • Fuel-injection
  • Engine braking
  • Emissions

Before delving into the details, I need to offer context to the discussion. In this case, I’m debating modern, high-performance off-road machines. There are docile four-stroke off-road motorcycles on the market like the KLX230R and the CRF250f. Those bikes are trail bikes with “de-tuned” engines, supple, limited, suspension, extra heft, and very affordable price tags. At this stage, there are very few two-stroke “trail bikes” on the market; motorcycles like the KDX200 really don’t exist anymore (on dealer floors). By and large, most off-road motorcycles are developed for racing applications but have been purchased by leisure riders, but that’s a story for a different day.

In 2021 I raced my Husqvarna TE250 two-stroke and my KTM 350 XCf-w four-stroke bikes in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. My takeaway from these experiences has been that two strokes excel in tight singletrack, large obstacles when the pace is slower, and resist overheating in severe conditions. Inversely, the four-stroke shines in the mud, on hill climbs, and prolonged periods at constant RPMs, like connecting trails with paved roads.

Per the bulleted list above, with fewer reciprocating parts, the two-stroke “dips” between the trees with less effort. That makes “steering with your feet” easier and coupled with low compression “stall resistance”, tight single-track trails and low-speed obstacles are nowhere nearly as taxing. KTM’s 350 four-banger balances big bore toque with quarter-liter liveliness; which makes it a formidable weapon in the woods. At the same time, there’s nothing worse than flubbing a clutch pull, and having an engine flame-out (stall) just as you’re cresting a big log.

For folks that don’t already know, the two-stroke has a “power stroke” every time the piston gets back to the top of the stroke, which means a two-stroke (as the name would suggest) puts power to the ground “twice as often” as a four-stroke. This characteristic is what makes the two-stroke power band so narrow, feel “peaky”, and tends to invite excessive wheelspin in novice hands. The four-stroke powerband is wider, making it more predictable, but requires more displacement to make equal horsepower to a two-stroke.

When the Kentucky clay is getting showered by spring storms, poor form on a two-stroke feels like wrestling a greased pig up the bluegrass foothills. The two-stroke is much happier to “tip” left and right as you desperately clutch your way up the sloppy hillside as the rear wheel spins up. All those rotating parts in the modern 4-stroke create more centrifugal force that makes the bike stand up proud as it accelerates. “Tipping resistance” combined with that wider powerband can make those sloppy hill climbs a less eventful experience.

Countless articles dedicated to dirtbike maintenance are readily available on the interwebs. Despite this, I feel like many still believe that two-strokes require more maintenance than a four-stroke engine. I retort, “by what metric?” Checks per hour, dollars per service, or number of consumable parts? Two-strokes have fewer moving parts and fewer consumables (shims, oil filters, cam cover gaskets). Both two-strokes and four strokes need pistons replaced, albeit, by the pre-scribed frequency, the two-stroke more often. However, without valves, the two-stroke piston swap is easier. Four-stroke engines have valve trains and engine “timing” one must be cognizant about when removing engine innards. Two-strokes do consume oil with each tank of gas but need transmission oil changed less frequently as a result. Most modern 4-stroke owner manuals prescribe oil changes every 15 engine hours and valve checks or adjustments every 30. The smoker manual says to change the transmission oil every 30 hours and ride. Two-stroke expansion pipes (headers) take a lot of abuse, but a two-stroke full exhaust system is almost half of a comparable four-stroke system. Needless to say, if either bike is well maintained and ridden for leisure, the cost of ownership is likely equal. That said, in the event of a major engine overhaul by a professional mechanic, the two-stroke will save you a few bills.

After having to bypass the thermostat on my 350 to get the fan running again during the 24-hour race this year, I want to point out the difference in heat management between the two engines. Both of my bikes are fitted with dual-radiators, but only the four-stroke has a stock fan. Despite the same intended use, the two-stroke didn’t come with a fan because they tend to run cooler. They will overheat, but it doesn’t take much movement to get them cooled off. The two-stroke is so much cooler that you can nearly touch the expansion pipe just after shutting the engine off. Inversely, the header pipe on my high-compression 350 is scalding within seconds of firing it up. This in itself isn’t a problem or necessarily an advantage to either machine, but it does make the 4-stroke more complicated and can be a liability if you’re riding a 4-stroke slow in harsh conditions or find yourself a long way from tools or spare parts.

Where and how you like to ride has a massive impact on “the best” bike for you. Do you like riding tracks and jumps? Do you ride “flowing” single track? Do you go to OHV parts and designated trails? Do you ride dry or muddy trails? Do you like riding through rock fields and crossing endless logs and ledges?

For me, I like slow difficult terrain and my local riding options are limited. The Dayton off-road terrain predominantly means riding wet clay, rocky creek beds, and over endless ash trees that have fallen over the years. I like soft suspension, explosive power for log jumping, and an engine that resists stalling and overheating. I don’t have kids, so I tend to ride more than the average motorcyclist in my demographic. I’m a cheapskate so I don’t like paying people to work on my bikes, meanwhile, I would rather ride than wrench, so less frequent “in-depth” maintenance is “better” from my perspective. I’m much more willing to sacrifice performance for maintenance simplicity than more casual riders.

Inversely, folks that spend time on more open trails, and prefer riding fast, maintained tracks with fewer obstacles may lean toward the four-stroke. Newer off-road riders would likely benefit from the more even, tractable power delivery of the four-stroke, which makes the bike feel more “planted” in slick conditions. It’s also important to note that most modern dirt bike manuals are written for race applications. Folks that casually trail ride their modern four-stroke bikes will find they don’t need to replace engine wear parts as frequently. If they keep air filters clean and avoid dusty conditions they’ll likely find their valves need less attention. A Four-stroke also has the benefit of being able to fill up at a local gas station (though it likely requires premium). Many modern two-strokes do have “oil injection”, but carburetors and “pre-mix” still rule the day with many two-stroke bikes. Having to carry pre-mix oil can be a pain, and many two-strokes don’t have the range of modern 4-stroke enduro bikes (my 350 can go 90 miles on the stock tank). Many 4-stroke dirt bikes are sold in street legal trims today. Plating a two-stroke is possible, but engine vibrations, logistics, and fussing with government agencies can make “dual-sport” riding a two-stroke more taxing.

So why did I sell my two-stroke?

In the summer of 2020 I bought my Husky from a friend. I spent the first winter in my new garage doing a “top-end” rebuild on it; a fresh piston and cleaned up the power valve, etc. Nothing indicated decreased performance, I just knew it had a lot of hours on it, it was cheap, and “something for me to do” during a tumultuous time at home. I bought a different set of front forks, had the shock serviced, replaced the linage “triangle”, and a host of other things in the two years I owned it. I raced the Husky for 2 seasons in Kentucky, and despite all the work I put into it, I continued to be disappointed with the suspension. The bike does not make the rider, however, I know “stiff” suspension when I feel it. Considering the time and cash I’d put into it, I was approaching the point I didn’t want to sink more money into having the suspension re-valved.

“That’s silly, it’s not that much money!” you say? You’re correct, it’s not. However, when you have a KTM 350 XCf-w parked right next to your two-stroke, and absolutely love that suspension, it seems like a silly expense. I had two dirt bikes, and the 350 made (almost) everything effortless, so I put the Husky on marketplace, and it disappeared in days. The 350 engine sounds like a bag of hammers, and despite being “tuned” to resist stalling at low speeds, it does flame out from time to time, which is irritating. However, all said and done, I’m still happy with my choice. Selling the Husky meant bringing home a proper Dual Sport, and long term I’m likely to look at replacing the 350 with something more like a YZ250X or 300 enduro. Per my previous comments, I prefer the way two-strokes make power off-road, effortlessly dart between the trees, and overall simplicity. The 350 is a killer dirt bike; for a four-stroke, it does a tremendous job in the grinding, gnarly slow stuff, so it’s a great bike for almost anyone and will certainly hang around for a while longer. Your Mileage May Vary.

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2 Responses to Two Strokes Versus Four: Confessions of a Woods Racer

  1. Dan says:

    Imagine following your Pal’s on their 2-stroke 185’s and 250’s, barreling down the railroad tracks in rural New England. Sadly, many of you whippersnappers will never know the sweet smell of Sunoco leaded 100 octane pre-mixed with Golden Spectro coming off those oil and soot covered Japanese pipes. I’ve petitioned Yankee Candle to replicate that smell, but they declined and stated “Thank you for the suggestion, but that is impossible”

    Liked by 1 person

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