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Photo: Tobias Supertramp

We rarely intend to rely on our skills. We expect everything will go smoothly on our 2-3 hour ride or quick overnight trip in the backcountry. But when things don’t go as planned, you will need some key skills in order to survive.

You’ll notice I’ve left out building a fire or creating a shelter from this list. Those are the obvious skills that everyone knows… or should know. But several of the skills mentioned in this article are required long before you will need to create a fire or shelter, and may even keep you from getting to that critical place of emergency.

If you don’t already have these 9 skills in your toolbox, be sure to start practicing them now, before you need them:

Thinking Clearly in High-Stress Situations

A mechanical during a sunset or while lost can create quite a few frustrations and emotions. Don’t let these impact your decision making. Photo: Joe Stiller, while bikepacking the Maah Daah Hey

This may be the most important skill you can teach yourself. It may be perceived as a personal trait, but everyone can develop it intentionally. Clear-headedness plays a roll in any instance — whether you are lost, injured, helping someone else, etc. To be able to see the reality of what is happening, respond accordingly with emotions aside, and knowing what to do, is crucial to survival.

For example: when you are a first responder to an emergency, a million emotions and thoughts are surging through your body. You feel helpless, but at the same time are the only one available to help that person in front of you. It can be easy to freeze up and break down. Fight it. Remember what is most important, keep focused, and think smart to get that person to safety. You’ll have plenty of time to dwell on those emotions later when you’re back home, warm and dry.

Having a positive attitude, perseverance to never give up, and a mindset that allows you to think clearly in stressful situations will be the greatest attribute you can have in the backcountry.

Trust Your Gut and Make the Hard Call

This is similar to the above approach but on a slightly different note. Imagine you put forth a bunch of effort in planning and getting to the trailhead early in the morning. You embark on an epic route you’ve been looking forward to doing for months or years. The entire day takes way longer than expected. From downfall to snowfields to dangerous river crossings and mechanicals, you are only halfway through the route, and certainly past the turn around point. You have an hour and a half until the sun sets, but you come to an intersection. This trail takes you down a drainage, leading to roads you could take back to your car. Do you take it? Or have you been so determined to complete the route that you will finish no matter what it takes or how much night riding you have to do?

This is the hard call and it presents itself in numerous scenarios — this is just one example. Having the wisdom to make that choice may not come naturally, especially to those of us who have our minds set on a specific goal. But your safety and the safety of anyone else with you depends on it. The call you make depends on your expertise and preparation. Once you make the call, you commit to it — no second guessing.

Planning and Preparation

If the terrain you’re riding requires significant hike-a-bikes, that 20-mile ride is going to take a lot longer. Plan for this ahead of time with the appropriate gear. Photo: Ross Bell

We’ve all done it — jumped on our bikes, overestimated the number of miles or the effort involved in a ride, thought we had enough food and water, didn’t look at the weather, and got slammed by a storm without proper gear, etc. It’s easy to do.

Slow down, study the route, count the miles, picture each mile — how much you’re eating and drinking. Don’t forget about the grunt factor — 30 miles in the midwest is much different than 30 miles in the Utah desert. Pushing your bike takes up time… valuable daylight. Throw a headlamp in your pack, even if you doubt you’ll use it. Imagine scenarios, what you might need, and be prepared.

Note: This is not an excuse to bring everything and pack your fears, especially for overnight trips — no need to bring the kitchen sink. Pack smart, not heavy — it’s a balance.

Communicating Reliably

Sound has an interesting way of being distorted in the woods. Think back to times when you’ve hollered for a friend. Did they hear you? If you heard their shout return, where did it come from and how loud was it?

Dense woods in this exact location along the Arizona Trail created quite the panic when a friend and I were separated and couldn’t hear each other.

Numerous times I’ve used loud hooting and hollering as I’m descending to communicate with a riding partner: “Are you okay and still with me?” This is a good practice and furthermore, it alerts wildlife or even other trail users you may not know are in front of you. However, dense woods soak up sounds like a sponge and several times, when I know I’ve been “wooting” my loudest (and hearing the echoes return), I’ve had friends claim to not hear me at all. I have been in situations where a shout from a friend was bouncing off of canyon walls and coming back to me from the complete opposite direction that they were in, causing quite a confusing and scary situation.

This is important to keep in mind if you are ever relying on your voice to get help — a whistle is better to use, but sound is still not the most reliable tool.

Route Finding and Navigation

You can find complete articles and resources on this topic here on Singletracks, but simply put, topographic maps are a necessity in the backcountry. Whether you’re using your phone, GPS device, or a paper map, you have to know how to read it.

Topographic maps are made of contour lines. Each line represents an elevation and always remains at that elevation. The thick lines are called index lines. Somewhere along these lines will be the elevation printed on the map. This, along with the map’s scale, will help you determine how many feet are between each contour line. The concentration of the contour lines indicates the steepness of the terrain — the further apart, the more gradual, and the closer together, the steeper they are.

See Also
By Alec Cervenka
 

Interacting with Wildlife Safely

From rattlesnakes to cougars, from bears to moose, wildlife is often present where we want to ride our bikes. Respecting wildlife and remembering that it is their home that we’re simply passing through is important. You should be well-versed in the local wildlife and know how to respond in an encounter. The most important thing to remember is that they want nothing to do with you just like you don’t want anything to do with them. Here are some universal rules that apply to most, if not all, wild animals that you’ll encounter.

  1. Give them space
  2. Non-predatory animals can be just as dangerous if not more than predators (elk, moose, etc.)
  3. Mommas with young are especially aggressive

Using and Carrying Bear Spray

Wild places mean wild animals. Bears can and still do roam in the majority of the states within the contiguous USA. For this reason, I highly recommend carrying bear spray. However, having it simply isn’t enough. If it’s stashed away in the depths of your backpack, it won’t do you any good. Keep it accessible, easy to reach and use in a split second — because that’s how quickly you’ll need it.

I observed bear spray being carried this way on the trail once: two zip ties and no thought given to how to access it when it’s needed.

Using bear spray isn’t complicated. Remove the safety, hold at a hip’s height, push the trigger. Bear spray will fire 25-35 feet, so the bear needs to be close. Don’t worry about wind direction, etc. Just protect yourself from the bear.

Finding and Filtering Water

We never plan on drinking that water, but when you have to it’s nice to drink it clean… without the risk of diarrhea.

Yes, you absolutely should bring a water filter. If you’re going deep into the backcountry, be prepared to drink all the water you brought and then some — especially on big day rides of 20-30 miles in the mountains (or more).

Adding snow to water can extend it until you get to another water source. This is particularly helpful in high alpine environments where water may not be present.

Water filters are small enough now that you’ll hardly notice them. Two great options are the Sawyer Mini and the MSR TrailShot.

Layering

Bring layers you can swap out as conditions and weather changes. Also bring a means of carrying them (backpack, frame bag, etc.). Rider: Dave Wonderly. Photo: Erik Proano.

I know you look cool with a cotton flannel, and maybe you can still wear that over everything else, but synthetics and wool are much better. Why? Because when they get wet, they continue insulating and dry faster than cotton. Cotton gets heavy and holds moisture, which can instigate hypothermia in instances where you’re stranded or unable to move. This is where the phrase “cotton kills” comes from.

In addition, pack a wind and/or rain jacket. Bring one that when packed is the size of your palm — you’ll forget it’s there until you need it.

Administering First Aid

First aid is never easy in a stressful situation. Of course, having a first aid kit is a huge benefit, but knowing how to use it and being capable during an emergency is even more important. It’s a great idea to take some wilderness first aid courses and stay up on your certificates.

Leave No Trace

This may not be a skill directly saving your life, but it is crucial to preserving the pristine environment that we all love to explore and enjoy. It’s important to tread lightly, minimize impact, leave what you find, and perhaps leave the environment better than you found it.

Bottom Line: Prevent the Need to Rely on Skills

Rider: Greg Heil. Photo: Mike Harris.

With appropriate preparation, planning, and gear, you can prevent many catastrophes from ever taking place. Bringing lights, a water filter, extra layers appropriate for the weather, and knowledge of the terrain you’re going to be riding through will go a long way. These are the skills that are relevant, not just in an emergency, but on any ride in the backcountry that you’ll embark on.

Your Turn: What experiences have you had in the backcountry where you had to practice these skills? Is there a particular skill you have found useful in your travels?

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# Comments

  • stumpyfsr

    Great article. One skill I had to use more then once is starting a fire in the rain. Since everything is wet I had to split branches and use dry inner parts to start a fire and dry myself.

    • Aaron Couch

      Ah! Using the interior of branches to start a fire would definitely be a needed skill. I’ve used dead branches off trees when the wood on the ground was wet but never had to use the inside wood to start the fire. Were these experiences while on an intended overnight trip or a day trip that took a downturn? Thanks for sharing!

    • stumpyfsr

      First time I had to do this was on 10-day trip on Boundary Waters. Was raining three days in a row and not much good dry wood around.
      Luckily havnt been on a day trips that went wrong yet

    • Aaron Couch

      Interesting info! Thanks for sharing. Did not actually know what caused the pink snow, although I dug down past the top layers into “cleaner” snow. I’ll have to do more research on this to see if that is actually any safer. Appreciate you sharing this!

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