Mountain bikers often take for granted the fact that we’ll return safe and sane from our jaunts into the backcountryeven 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 youll 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
  • Headlamp

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. Theres 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 ones 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, Ill 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 wont 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 couldnt possibly be wrong every time they recite their motto: Be prepared. Could they?

# Comments

  • trek7k

    Good tips. There’s definitely a lot of gear on the list but if you’re riding with a group you can split up many of the items to share the load.

    On my hut-to-hut trip a couple years ago we brought all this and more. The water filter was invaluable and we even brought along extra tires, a chain, and even a spare derailleur. It’s easy to get complacent since you won’t use most of this stuff often but when you need it, it’s great to have it with you!

  • mtbdanny

    Good stuff, sure perhaps it can be seen as overkill but it is far better to have it and not need it then the opposite. Seems prety practical to me, nothing really adding much weight to a hydration pack from what I can tell. Packing extra gear correctly, meaning ensuring the weight is distributed as evenly as possible throughout the pack can help transfer the load and can reduce fatigue or any strain one may have from extra equipment. As you mentioned, you plan/pack for the particulars of whatever kind of ride you are heading out for.

    A couple of things I do which work for my situation in additon to extra gear/tools is that I’ll text my wife as soon as I’m about to hit the trail. I text her “hey I’ll be doing such and such trial, then head over to this trail, I’ll text you when I get back to the car. So if for some reason she does not get that text a couple hours later she at least knows what area I was supposed to be in. Of course there will be times when you venture off somewhere else but it’s just a small extra precaution I can take that could possibly help me out one day. I also ensure to have an ID card with me, my phone, and always have extra energy bars. Think I’ll look to pick up a small first aid kit to throw in my pack and like that water filter idea! Thanks for the tips

    • MarcS

      I agree. It’s super important to let people know where you’re going and when you expect to return. When backpacking or biking, I always tell my wife to alert the Sheriff’s office if I am 24 hours or more past my expected arrival time. I don’t want her to jump the gun, but I don’t want to spend too long in the woods if something really is wrong.


    Very good info. I need to make sure I have all my gear ready for one of my rides next week in CO. All the others I can get away with pretty minimal gear, but a first aid kit and a few other things need to be added to my kit for the one backcountry ride I have planned.

  • RoadWarrior

    Good info, something we need to be reminded of as our short springtime rides become epic summertime rides. I to have done some extended hike-a-bikes because I got complacent. Although what I carry depends on the ride, several things that never leave my pack are; Small first aid kit, flashlight, multi-tool, Leatherman CX, SPOT, and folding reading glasses.
    How about a write up on small water filters.

  • maddslacker

    Since cyclists are all about saving weight, what about carrying iodine tablets for water purification, rather than a filter?

  • trek7k

    Not a bad idea madd – water filter may be overkill for survival situations and iodine works just fine. But for multi-day trips I prefer a filter – at least it’s lighter than carrying all the necessary water.

  • Bubblehead10MM

    Looks like I’m going back to the drawing board. Depending on the outing It may be reasonable to carry more things, and I’ll think about what is necessary.
    BTW I’d like to see a post on first aid, particularly for those relatively minor scrapes and bruises that are inevitable on the trail.

  • RoadWarrior

    Have iodine tablets in my first aid kit, fortunately have not had to use them yet.


    In my experience, iodine tablets are not as bad as they are made out to be, and work quite well in an emergency.

  • barrygxnz

    Add: duct tape. No joke.
    Surgical gloves take up no space.
    Matches/firestarter flint.
    A couple of spare spokes in the seat tube.
    Chain links.

  • Ksyrium

    Good post. I carry an emergency blanket in place of so much clothing.
    Water tablets: Be sure to allow the proper time to kill Cryptosporidium (maybe 4 hours), that is where a water filter is a little better. I carry Nuun to cover the iodine taste.

  • brianW

    Some one mentioned matches, along with that should be a candle. use it to start an emergency fire, also wax shavings are a great to help get a fire going.

    Hiking I always carried two trash bags. Very easy to make into an emergency sleeping bag (stuff with leaves, etc.) Also can be made into a rain poncho if needed.

    But more important than any equipment is knowledge of what to do in an emergency, how to navigate, first aid, etc.

  • Jampa56

    Great article. I like the steripen over the pump/filter only because of bulk. Also I always bring a headlamp. Would you agree that an 800+ down filled vest is lighter and more compact than fleece? And, just a thought, wouldn’t a small sidearm be helpful in some locations? I am not a gun nut but this is zombie appreciation month.

  • MarcS

    According to the sources (medical and emergency preparedness) I have consulted, a good filter works better than the iodine pills and crystals. An added benefit is that it is much quicker, too. Nothing is needed to precipitate the iodine out of the water and/or cover up it’s taste either. As for the gun, we have black bears and cougars around here, but the meth-heads and their pitbull terriers are, in my opinion, a much greater threat. I carry the big knife as a last-ditch recourse to fend off large, wild animals. The possibility of a bona fide confrontation is very slight, but it makes me feel better anyway.

  • Bubblehead10MM

    I’ve also got the space blanket, In a colder season/area I may need a bigger pack or stay closer to truck. Stowing the extra layers is a challenge with small packs. +1 on safety text. I’ve been 20 miles out from the truck on an empty trail system, when it dawned on me that absolutely no one knew where I was or would miss me if I broke my leg and landed any where but the top of the hill where I’d have some bars. and the night would be ColD. 🙂

  • Bubblehead10MM

    +1 on Monster tape. I take and a few feet off and make a flat role to tuck in the camleback.

  • Spartan

    a kool-aid packet is good to pack with iodine tabs…helps kill the taste.. If you are going to go that route. For tape use a small roll of electrical tape. It packs better and is way more useful than duct tape…useful for taping up your broken bike parts or to immobilize an injured body part etc.. Also, a few chinese stars are good to pack in case you run into Ninjas on the trail..

  • mtbgreg1

    +1 for just a chemical water treatment instead of a filter. I use aquamira, and have backpacked for a week with that as my only form of water treatment.

  • jegard1.jg

    I always carry a boyscout fieldbook,it has everything you need to know about outdoor survival.

  • MarcS

    To save weight and space, you might think about photocopying the essential pages and laminating them in plastic. You can shrink the text considerably when copying. Places like Kinkos often have self-service laminating machines. Use the heavy-duty plastic and leave plenty around the edges. You can the punch a hole through one corner (plastic only) and bind them together with a key ring or zip-tie.

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