Mountain bikers often take for granted the fact that we’ll return safe and sane from our jaunts into the backcountry—even those that take us twenty miles or more from the nearest town or main road. I think we get this false sense of security from the fact that long distances can easily be covered on a bike in a matter of a few hours, as opposed to hiking or backpacking where the time involved reinforces the reality of the seclusion and distance from help should some unforeseen event occur. The truth is, the further you get from your car, a road or a town, the greater the likelihood you’ll end up spending the night in the woods if a serious injury or breakdown occurs. Traveling with the appropriate gear, however, greatly reduces not only the discomfort and danger inherent in an unplanned-for night in the woods, but also the chances of that ever happening in the first place.
There are, of course, vastly divergent philosophies regarding just how prepared for the unforeseen one should be when venturing into the wilds. When I go mountain biking, I tend to be well prepared. My level of preparedness is directly proportional to the distance from civilization I will be, as well as the likelihood of encountering low overnight temperatures and/or precipitation. Wet and cold conditions can lead to hypothermia, and hypothermia is the greatest real danger one faces in a temperate zone wilderness.
My checklist of emergency equipment and supplies includes:
- A warm fleece sweater and beanie
- A water-proof, packable jacket and pants
- Bicycle repair kit
- Emergency kit
- First-aid kit
- Map & compass
- Extra food
- Water filter/pump
On a short trip near town in the summertime, I might only take a patch kit & tire pump. For a longer ride in the winter, I take everything on the list.
In addition to the gear I pack with me, I carefully consider what kind of clothing I wear when I go. There’s a saying among hikers and mountaineers: “Cotton kills!” Cotton, although very comfortable, is one of the hardest fabrics to dry out once it gets wet. As noted above, hypothermia is hands down the greatest threat to one’s safety in the wilderness of the temperate zones; that includes most of the continental United States. The last thing you want when the sun is going down and the temperature is dropping is to find yourself wearing wet cotton clothing. Fortunately for us, there is now a wide variety of comfortable, fast-drying, moisture-wicking fabrics available at prices to fit almost any budget.
One of the items on the list above that few mountain bikers carry is a water filter/pump. Next to hypothermia, dehydration is probably the second greatest threat to a person stuck in the wilderness. In a true emergency, if I had no alternative, I would drink water from nearly any source. Barring such circumstances, however, I’ll never again take so much as a sip from the clearest mountain stream. Several years ago I became violently ill from drinking what appeared to be clean, fresh water. The truth is that even the most pristine looking creek may be contaminated upstream with an animal carcass, feces, or other pollutant. Giardia and Cryptosporidium are the two leading illness-inducing microorganisms present in the water supplies of the US and Canada. Fortunately, these are easily removed from drinking water using any of the readily available filter/pumps on the market.
In terms of preparedness there is no substitute for knowing what to do in case of an emergency. All the gear in the world won’t help you unless you know how to use it properly. Before travelling any significant distance from help in the wilderness, educate yourself on emergency and survival techniques.
Undoubtedly there are people out there reading this who think all this preparedness is overkill. I am the first to admit that I have seldom had to use the emergency gear I pack with me on my outings, and that it is somewhat of a burden to lug it around with me. However, the times I have had to use my water filter, or put on my water-proof layer due to an unexpected downpour have made it all worthwhile. Besides, 10 million Boy Scouts couldn’t possibly be wrong every time they recite their motto: “Be prepared.” Could they?