Sometimes we have that elusive day off from all our responsibilities and a hankering to get away from it all with a ride on rarely used trails, but no buddy to play hooky with us. Riding alone in the backcountry is unquestionably riskier than riding with a friend. Any somewhat remote area where you’re unlikely to see other riders and hikers for hours at a time can be considered backcountry for our purposes and it’s safer to do those rides in a group, especially if you are getting a late start. A wreck or health problem that immobilizes you can become a life-or-death situation in the backcountry with no cell service and no one to call 911 for you. While you can’t eliminate the risk, you can reduce it and still enjoy some sweet single track and solitude. Just a few extra precautions can increase the likelihood of coming home in one piece.
- File your ride plan and resist the urge to deviate from it. Let a buddy and/or family member know where you’re planning to ride and when they should send out a search party if you haven’t returned. Do this even when you’re riding alone locally in very familiar areas that don’t get a lot of use. Stick to the plan if you don’t have cell coverage to report your revised plan. It may be tempting to follow that unmarked goat path, but will anyone know where to look if you crash? If you do have cell coverage, leave a trail of texted breadcrumbs. Text photos of trail markers and progress updates. It takes less battery life than leaving your GPS running and using an app like Find My Friend. Bring a map and, in the event the trail is washed out or blocked, navigate back to your planned route as quickly as possible.
- Check the weather forecast. If the weather is iffy, go to the gym or do a front-country ride instead. Stranded cyclists have died of heat and also of cold and wet. A small problem can quickly become life threatening when you add bad weather.
- Plan for problems. Have the equipment and skills to change a flat or re-inflate a tubeless tire and repair a broken chain. Bring more water, food, clothes, and sunscreen than you expect to need, and use them. Solo riding is no time to bust out your retro cotton T-shirt; use synthetics that wick sweat and dry quickly. You absolutely don’t want to bonk miles into the backcountry, so stay fed and hydrated. Take electrolyte supplements on sweaty days. Pack basic first aid and emergency supplies like iodine tablets, antiseptic wipes, bandages, a space blanket, whistle, signal mirror or personal locator beacon, waterproof matches, a headlamp or other light source, and the ever-useful duct tape. There are lightweight and ultra lightweight options for all this equipment. It easily fits in a hydration pack.
- Ride conservatively when you ride solo. Save learning your new technical skills for a ride with a buddy. If you’re in doubt about whether you can clean a rock garden, walk it. Better that than an involuntary dismount and yard sale when no one is around to assess your injuries. Concentrate on having a good time, getting some exercise, and enjoying the peace and quiet.
- If you get lost, stop. If you’ve lost your way, stop moving until you’re reoriented. Use your map, compass, and topography to orient yourself. If you’re unsure where you are, stay put. It’s far more difficult for rescuers to find you if you keep moving.
- Breathe. When things go wrong, take a deep breath. Slow down and think your way through the problem. Take a break before you get wiped out – concentration and balance are impacted by fatigue. Enjoy the view. People who respond to stressful situations by getting down to surviving survive. People who panic decrease their chances. So, no matter what goes wrong, breathe, stay fed and hydrated, and regulate your body temperature. If you can do those things, you can get out of trouble, or survive until someone can find you.
Remember, it’s safer to ride with a buddy and safer still to ride the backcountry with a group. If you’re going out solo, take extra time to prepare and be conservative. Come back safe so you can tell the tale!
Coach Kim Walsh is a USA Cycling Level 2 certified coach and skills instructor who has been mountain biking for more than 25 years. She is experienced in solo backcountry riding and recently had a near miss with a herd of angry javelinas who served as inspiration for this article. Kim works with road and mountain bike racers, those who wish to give racing a try, and new riders pursuing fitness goals.