It wasn’t until recently hearing a friend’s struggles trying to find her way through a trail network on vacation when I realized how relatable and frustrating that role can be. However the role of ride navigator is delegated, it’s one that typically gets little credit, but still bears responsibility for every extra bit of effort that a wrong turn takes to correct.
Eventually anyone who mountain bikes will set out on an unfamiliar trail armed with a navigation tool, whether it’s a GPX file on a GPS device, a navigation app on their phone or a paper map. And, eventually, the attempt to navigate out into the wild and back to the trailhead will go wrong. In the best case scenario, you’ll only upset yourself and your safety won’t be at jeopardy. On the other end, you may have a group of hungry, thirsty, and sweaty friends relying on your decisions to make it back to the trailhead as safely as possible, while you try to keep a clear head.
I’ve done this several times now, but one of my most succinct examples is where my partner and I were separated from each other at dusk when I got ahead and took an unmarked turn. After about a half hour of riding up and down the trail, trying to find each other after sunset without a light, we found each other.
We were supposed to have one sustained descent back to the car, but were now completely off the path and there was too much climbing in another direction to consider returning to the original route. I pulled out my phone and tried to locate the fastest way – a straight line – back to our original path. After another 20 minutes of bicycle-bushwhacking and passing bear-marked trees, I realized how stupid this decision was. We turned around, marched off the mountain and back to the doubletrack to take the “long” way back to the car.
Finding a good route ahead of time can be challenging, especially if it’s one directional trail in particular you’re attempting to ride, that’s sitting in the middle of a bowl of trails. GPX files can be a chore to download, and they require a GPS device which not all riders have. That regularly leaves some people trying to determine a route by examining the topography, length and direction of a trail over an app or a paper map. Trying to make a decision on a hot day with sweaty friends leaning over your shoulder only makes the experience more vexing.
So here’s a reminder to be patient with the ride navigator and to work together to find the best way on the best trails. Navigating a ride can be a chore so buy your helms-person a beer at the end of the ride. And if they manage to get everyone along the route with no hiccups, buy them two.