Last month on my drive back to Georgia from Colorado I decided to make a detour to check out the IMBA Epic Syllamo trails in the Arkansas Ozarks. The riding was pretty amazing but this story isn’t about the trails–instead I want to tell you about my battle with extreme heat, dehydration, and a broken bike. I made a number of mistakes that day which I’ll point out along the way; I’ll also hit on the things that ultimately led to my rescue.

I arrived at the Syllamo trailhead at 11:30am after driving on back roads for six hours from a campground in Kansas. The temperature was already over 100 degrees with a heat index that was easily in the 110s thanks to the humidity. Despite the mid-day heat I decided to go for a quick ride anyway (mistake #1). There was no one at the trailhead and as it would turn out, I was probably the only one riding any of the trails that day. My plan was to ride for about an hour and a half to avoid spending too much time in the heat.I took a brief look at the trailhead map but didn’t really have a route in mind (mistake #2).

After about an hour of riding I found myself at the top of a mountain and my water was running low. I was having a great time and wasn’t quite ready to point my bike downhill toward the car so at an intersection with a second loop I decided to see what the next trail had to offer. Shortly thereafter I ran out of water but judging by my GPS I was sure the trail would loop back around soon and I’d be back and on my way down to the car (mistake #3). But the trail kept leading me farther away.

Finally, I decided it wasn’t wise to keep going and that I should just turn around and go back. I was pretty thirsty at this point and frustrated that I would have to backtrack. I snapped a photo at the overlook and pointed my bike back down the trail when I noticed my rear wheel was feeling squishy. It was a flat tire.

Now I was starting to get a little worried. I set the bike down and sat on the trail just staring for a few minutes. The sweat was pouring off me now that I was stopped and I felt so hot that I didn’t want to fix my tire. I started feeling nauseous and got a sudden desire to take all my clothes off and lay down in a small, rocky ditch beside the trail. After stripping off my helmet and gloves I came to my senses and realized I was not thinking clearly at all. My only thought was that I somehow needed to get away from the heat.

After taking several deep breaths I slowly began changing my tire; fortunately I had a pump and spare tube with me. What would normally take me less than 5 minutes was taking four times as long as I struggled to pump air into the tube. I’d put in 10 strokes, then stop to take a break. I was still lucid enough to know that I needed to get a lot of pressure into the tire to avoid another pinch flat and after what seemed like hundreds of pump strokes, I was finally satisfied.

Before getting back on the bike I pulled out my phone to take a look at a Google Map to see how far I was from the highway; I figured I’d try to get down there as quickly as possible and hitch a ride back to my car. From the overlook I had seen what appeared to be a river far below and from the map I could tell the river eventually intersected the highway. As a Boy Scout I learned that following a river downstream is often a good way to find civilization when you’re lost, though in this case I knew exactly where I was–I just needed to get out.

After riding just two switchbacks my replacement tube completely gave out, no doubt due to my sloppy tire change. Now I was starting to panic. In a flash I decided I needed to get down to the river where I could at least cool off and maybe fill up my water bottles. Of course drinking water directly from a stream is never a good idea but I figured it might buy me some time to get to my car before the bacteria got to work on my gut. I walked off the trail and into the woods, bike over my shoulders, down toward the stream (mistake #4).

I quickly reached a small tributary of the larger stream I had seen and the shallow puddles of warm, stagnant water felt pretty good on my feet and legs. Still, it was a hard slog and after just a few hundred yards I came to a 20-foot waterfall that forced me to abandon the stream bed. Trudging through the woods I found what appeared to be a path but later turned out to be the edge of a logging area. I decided following the stream wasn’t such a hot idea because if I collapsed here, no one would ever find me. I turned into the logged area, knowing I’d find a road used by the heavy equipment.

I eventually found a very rough fire break that shot straight up the mountain in the direction I needed to go. Even on a great day this would have been a hike-a-bike for me and I found myself struggling to walk more than a few paces at a time. Earlier in the day I saw a sign saying one of the bike trails was closed from 8a-6p on weekdays which led me to believe there might be loggers in the area at this time of day. I started ringing my bike bell in blasts of 3, the universal sign for distress. But I was all alone.

It’s hard to say how long it took me to climb the fire break but I eventually crossed over a section of trail I had ridden earlier in the day which buoyed my spirits a bit. Shortly thereafter I came to a clearing where a huge excavator was parked and I scanned the cab for any liquid I could drink. No luck. From here the fire break turned into a legitimate equipment corridor so I knew I was one step closer to civilization. Still, the road continued to climb and my progress was very slow. I got into a rhythm of walking 10 yards, stopping to sit, then continuing once I caught my breath.

After about half a mile I found myself at the top of a very short descent–more of a saddle really–and decided to try coasting down a bit on my flat tire, rim be damned. It was a struggle to get on the bike but once I was on I realized my chain had slipped and was wedged between the crank and the frame. The crank wouldn’t budge but it didn’t really matter–my decent on a flat tire fizzled before it even got started.

My mouth was perhaps the driest it’s ever felt–I fantasized about filling it with the chalky, dusty dirt on the road and sucking whatever moisture I could from it. My hot breath tasted disgusting–was this the stench of death? I had read countless survival stories about people getting to the point of drinking their own urine and the thought had always sickened me. Now I was imagining how refreshing urine would actually taste.

I was nearing the top of the mountain, far from any sources of water, and my progress continued to slow. Based on the confusion and nausea I had experienced earlier I knew I was in bad shape and was only getting worse. I still wasn’t on a marked road and I knew if I collapsed, no one would find me for days. It was time to call for rescue.

There have been a lot of stories lately about adventurers using GPS devices and cell phones to call for help at the slightest inconvenience on the trail and I knew I didn’t want to call unless it was my last hope. I pulled out my phone and saw that I had one bar–that was all I needed. I dialed 911. When the operator answered I could barely talk, my voice completely dried out from dehydration. I tried to explain that I wasn’t lost or injured but that I had run out of water, my bike was disabled, and I needed help.

After transferring me to a dispatcher, I attempted to give the man the GPS coordinates from my watch but somehow we weren’t using the same coordinate system. Instead he traced my cell phone and got a lock on my position and immediately dispatched firefighters to the area. The jeep road I was on was new so it wasn’t listed on any maps but I was close to a forest road where the firefighters could find me. The dispatcher suggested I was a quarter mile from the forest road and that I should keep heading toward it while he tracked me the whole way.

I eventually made it to the road and stayed on the line as I awaited the firefighters. I collapsed in the dirt, thankful that help was on the way. About 20 minutes into my call I could hear a fire siren coming up the mountain, getting louder and louder. Then, around the bend, came a late model Toyota Camry with a flashing red light stuck on top, the sweaty driver in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. The man hopped out of the car and handed me a bottle of water–sweet relief! In seconds I downed the water as he pulled a Powerade out of the trunk for me. I downed that too before a large pickup truck with two more volunteer firefighters pulled up the road.

After speaking with the guys and a brief physical once-over, I eased into the air conditioned truck while the men loaded my bike in the truck bed, the tire and tube now completely wrapped around my rear axle. I was feeling sick again, this time from drinking too much, too fast. We slowly drove down the dirt road toward the highway and I was shocked at how far I would have had to walk before I would have seen another car. At the pace I was walking it would have taken me until dark, if I was even able to stay moving that long. I had been on the trail four hours and had been walking for more than half that time, covering only a couple miles or so.

The firefighters dropped me off back at my car and asked if I needed medical attention. I declined–I was starting to feel better after getting some liquids back in my system. I couldn’t thank everyone enough and admitted I was embarrassed but they assured me there was nothing to be embarrassed about. Heat stroke is serious business.

Looking back, I definitely made a lot of mistakes on this ride:

  • Riding alone.
  • Riding in the middle of the day on one of the hottest days of the year with little to no heat training.
  • I didn’t have a map or even a vague idea about how long the trail was or how it was configured.
  • I wasn’t carrying enough water. I also should have had some water purification tablets with me.
  • I should have carried an extra tube and/or a patch kit. It would’ve been tough to make another repair but riding down would have been much faster.
  • It was a bad idea to leave the trail to find a shortcut.

Perhaps the smartest thing I did that day was to call 911–I generally have a hard time admitting I need help but this time I swallowed my pride and it was the right call. I’m also glad I turned around when I did–looking at the trailhead map I saw the trail kept going for miles in the wrong direction.

I’m eternally grateful to the firefighters and 911 operators in Stone County, AR who saved me that day by responding so quickly and professionally. Hopefully my story will help others avoid serious injury on the trail this summer and in the future.

This is a long article so I left out several details but feel free to ask me anything in the comments section.

# Comments

  • uekiya

    It happens to the best Jeff. Thanks for the story and glad you are OK.

  • Jampa56

    Jeff, thank you for having the courage to share this experience. I am no expert but your after action report and analysis seems accurate. It seems that whenever I have read or encountered reports of Wilderness/adventure Debacles there is a cascading or snowball effect that results in serious injury or death. Often, as you point out, the cumulative effect of small poor decisions by normally intelligent ,rational people can lead to disaster. I am glad you made it back.

  • dgaddis

    Dang dude. Seriously glad you made it out, and thanks for sharing. This could easily happen to any of us.

  • limetownjack

    Awesome write up. You don’t realize how important water is until the first time run out xx miles from your vehicle. Worst feeling in the world.

  • zephxiii

    Thanks for posting this, it’s important as it keeps up aware of the trouble we can get in with heat exhaustion/stroke.

  • maddslacker

    @jeff, do you feel like you also had heat stroke in addition to being dehydrated?

  • jeff

    Yeah, I suspect I was in the early stages of heat stroke heat exhaustion when I was changing my first flat tire (confusion, nausea, rapid breathing, a little dizziness). That was when I really started getting worried–I’ve been pretty dehydrated before (to the point of cramping/nausea) but heat stroke is no joke.

    Edit: The symptoms for heat stroke and heat exhaustion are pretty much the same but heat exhaustion comes first. So instead of saying “early stages of heat stroke” I should’ve said heat exhaustion.

  • will8250

    Glad you’re alright. That could have turned very bad, very quickly. Glad you kept your wits about you as well.

    Had a heat exhausted coworker working 1/4 to 1/2 mile away from his vehicle guess which was his vehicle was in the middle of a desert in the summer… he guessed right but…

  • joeblob

    Dang dude, that reminds me of the time i was hiking through Blue John in Utah… While descending a slot canyon, a suspended boulder became dislodged and pinned my arm against the canyon wall. To make a long story short, i had to break/cut my arm off after 6 days and then hike out. Man was I thirsty 🙂

  • RunandBike0519

    Jeff, I’m glad you’re okay and made it out in one piece. I rode there last summer and became pretty lost a few times and ended up hiking out on rough hiking trail I found. I hope you found the springs nearby to cool off afterwards.

  • Bubblehead10MM

    Two is one and one is none. I’m a little obsessive, but another tube and some CO2 could be a life saver, or just save the days riding from turning into a long walk. Come to think of it some H2O purifier might need to go in my pack. I’d been thinking filter, but putting it off for when I get to planing a more epic ride. I’ll dig out tablets b4 next ride. tinny and weigh almost nothing.

  • skibum

    As foolish as you may feel, you’re not alone. I had a similar experience as I tried to do a 50 miler (alone) on the Maah Daah Hey trail in the North Dakota badlands on a 98 degree day. I went through a 100oz camelbak and two 24 oz water bottles and was bone dry when I was still 2 hrs from the trailhead. I had all the same symptoms-what I didn’t have was a cell phone or GPS. And there’s not a single tree along the route–fully exposed to the blazing sun the entire time. I got so dizzy/disoriented, I couldn’t ride the bike–ended up leaning on it and walking (very slowly) for the last 8 miles. by the time I got to the car, I was a total mess. Many lessons learned that day.

  • delphinide

    A great article Jeff. I have ridden both the Syllamo and the Womble at noonish in July and it is a foolish endeavor. Both times my ride was cut short due to the heat, and once my friend (also named Jeff) had heat exhaustion and we had to be rescued by a local rider we serendipitously met just a few minutes before starting the Womble (and for some reason exchanged numbers). Both of those trails are no joke in the heat, and haven ridden trails in Florida and Georgia for the past 7 years, you suffered the perfect storm of misadventure. I would also add, that on ANY ride, you should also have the following: derailleur hanger, chaintool and quick-link, benadryl (anaphylaxis), and extra gel you never touch except emergency (hypoglycemia), and chlorine tablets (faster, tastier, safer than iodine). These items are so small but can save your bacon.

  • abegold

    When I was younger as a landscaper I never drank enough water. Used to have a recurring dream of standing at a water fountain taking a drink and it having no effect. I was worn out after work on every hot day. Basically dehydrated myself for years.

  • mtbgreg1

    Dude I’m so glad that you made it out of there in one piece! That sounds like the most miserable ride imaginable.

    So did you look at your GPS track after you got back? Any idea how many miles you ended up covering before your mechanical issues, and then afterwards?

  • jeff

    Looking at the GPS track I only rode about 9 miles in 1:45 before turning around so I was taking it pretty easy. After that it took me 1.5 hours to walk less than 2 miles.

  • mtbgreg1

    Wow that’s insane!! I can’t imagine what kind of hell that was

  • Trunkmonkey

    Were you charged anything for the dispatch? Obviously money shouldn’t be a concern in a life-threatening situation but I’ve heard of multi-thousand dollar horror stories for a 15 minute ride in an ambulance (usually private ambulance services in urban areas).

    • jeff

      Great question! I’ve heard stories about this happening in a lot of situations and honestly it was on my mind as I considered whether to call. I wasn’t charged anything and I’m not sure if this is because they used volunteer firefighters to respond or if is just this county’s policy not to charge. If an ambulance had responded I imagine I would’ve paid for that (mainly b/c my health insurance sucks).

      I hope the volunteer firefighters at least got reimbursed for their gas mileage and the four bottles of water they gave me. I thought about offering them money but figured that would be tacky.

  • eastwood

    Great write up. Great lessons for us all to consider on each and every ride. Sounds like great coordination between dispatch and responders – they don’t get enough credit for all they do. Glad you are ok!!

  • mtbikerchick

    Holy CRAP! That is scary stuff Jeff! Still, like others have said, you’re not alone. I remember in college biking back in the middle of nowhere, running out of water on a hot day and barely making it back to campus. I’m just glad you called 911 when you did. It’s a good reminder to us all to be extra prepared when we’re in unfamiliar territory or when it’s super hot.

  • JPMcInturff

    Great story identifying the mistakes. I recently decided to go road riding in 100 degree heat just north of Chattanooga and realized about 1 hour into the ride this was not a good idea. A first for me, I called for pick-up at the bottom of the mountain instead of going up it. I am glad I had my cell phone.

  • delphinide

    By the way the clinical definition of heat stroke is a rectal temp of 106…hopefully no one bothered to check 🙂 It sounds like you had severe heat exhaustion, but FYI you are more prone to get it subsequent times after experiencing it once. No one knows why, but we think it has to do with thermoregulatory mechanisms in your brainstem…so please take more water than you expect on any hot ride you do. One more thing I forgot to mention as a ‘must have’, especially on your local trails….a SAR (search and rescue) card that can be purchased at local outdoor shops. For example, in Denver you can buy a SAR card for $11 that is good for 5 years that basically exempts you from costly rescue fees if someone needs to come save your butt in the backcountry. It’s basically a donation to the local volunteer SAR teams that acts as an insurance card…but for the cost you can’t go wrong.

  • motofix

    Glad you decided you really needed help.

    I’m a rescue diver and so is my wife, we were riding Lair o the Bear trail in CO last summer on a hot day. We had started our ride first thing to be sure to beat the heat. As we were on our way back along a nice river, we came across two women siting in the middle of the trail. As we got closer one started yelling for help. The other woman was elderly and was unconscious. Fortunately we had some training to deal with the situation, we first called for help and then started to work. We got her revived and feeling better, as we stayed with them till a park ranger came by and took over. It still surprises me that after she came to, she wanted to walk back to their car but we wouldn’t let them. After talking to them a bit we found the normal few mistakes that led to this point. Primarily, out of shape, out of water and continuing to go further, starting at the hottest time of the day, and no way to get help. It is a scary thing when you see someone limp and non responsive. I’m thankful we came along when we did.

    All my friends think I’m nuts for having such a heavy pack but I’m thankful I have it and haven’t had to use some of the things I carry for my self. I have seen my share of bad things on the trail and would like to make sure they don’t happen to me.

    It’s ironic you posted this as I just came from looking at water filters for my pack, I carry treatment tablets but wanted to make it so I didn’t have to carry so much water on those 30-50 mile rides.

  • trnsprt

    Great story! It can happen to ANYONE. Even pros. Thanks for sharing.

  • trnsprt

    FYI my wife is a volunteer in rural VA for a local Rescue Squad. No charge. If the County Squad shows up you or your insurance foots the bill. I had no idea until she started working for a volunteer op. Some people call county dispatch via a local number (not 911) and ask for the volunteer squad and if they aren’t available refuse to request service and will not dial 911!!!!

  • Jared13

    Very glad to hear everything worked out, Jeff.

    Out of curiosity, how much water/sports drink did you have with you?

    Instead of offering the individual firefighters cash, I’m betting the fire dept would be happy to take a donation (or a huge plate of cookies…ok, maybe that second one is just me.)

  • ngilbert

    Glad you made it out okay. I had a similar encounter with heat exhaustion several years ago in Idaho, just when I first started to mountain bike. In my case, I overestimated my own abilities and the accuracy of my maps and seriously underestimated the trail difficulty and the effect of the outside temperature on my body. I eventually took a “shortcut” and tried to hike-a-bike to the top of a mountain; ended up leaving my bike on the mountain side and walking back to the car. When I think of all the other things that could have gone wrong–broken bike, broken arm or collar bone, heat stroke–I feel fortunate to have made it out with nothing worse than sore feet, a dry mouth, and a humbled ego. It’s a tough way to learn a lesson but I’m very careful now about when and where I ride.

  • joetutt

    Wow! Glad you’re OK and thank God for our volunteers! This story is a great eye opener. Thanks for sharing.

  • maineskiaddict

    Glad you are alright and that things turned out for the best. It can truly happen to the best of us. I am sure you have helped give others some guidance when preparing for their next ride.

  • Bwpaulk

    Based on the photo it looks like you were on Jacks Branch Loop, 14 miles with 1300′ of elv. change. Your photo is about the halfway point (overlooking the river). Went there last year in May and seriously bonked at that very point. Was with friends and still had H20 but could barely turn the cranks over by the time I got back to the car. It was only in the 80s but the humidity is brutal. Syllamo is big and bad ass and very remote. We rode for 3 days and never saw another rider on the trails. Maps and details trial descriptions are available online via the US Forest Service Southern Region, Syalmore Ranger District. Don’t start your ride without one.

  • jeff

    @Jared13, admittedly I didn’t start out with enough water–just two water bottles, maybe 60 ounces tops. In that kind of heat I probably needed 3 water bottles–per hour!

    @Bwpaulk: I found the USFS map you mentioned and you’re exactly right–I was on Jacks Branch at about the halfway point. It looks like there’s another trailhead not too far from that spot but it’s probably good I didn’t aim for that since it looks like the trailhead isn’t anywhere near a paved road.

  • Fitch

    Jeff, thank you so much for posting this. As was said, “it can happen to anyone, even the pros.” Seeing you have this experience reminds me of a few things I should do, most notably adding water purification tablets to my bag. I keep a big bag and a lot of water, but this is a very important tale and I sent it to several friends.


    1.) Did you let anyone know where and when you were riding? As if to say “if you don’t hear from me at 4pm, start worrying?”

    2.) I’ve had one or two heat exhaustion moments, and normally feel awful for the next +/- 12 hours… but feel GREAT the next day. What did the next day feel like?

    3.) Did your wife beat the crap out of you when you got home for this? 🙂

    • jeff

      @Fitch: Yes, my wife knew vaguely where I was riding (name of the trail system and the state… but she was in Atlanta at the time). She was expecting me home later that evening so it would have taken her some time and effort to figure out who to call to track me down.

      I felt pretty exhausted for the next 24 hours and was definitely more sensitive to the heat for several days. It also took me a couple days to get rehydrated–my piss was sweet tea colored even 24 hours later despite drinking gallons of water and sports drinks.

      I guess my wife didn’t really get upset because (in her mind) I didn’t do anything COMPLETELY stupid. Since I started out with water, a phone, spare parts, and a reasonable plan… she was just glad I made it back safely in the end.

    • jeff

      Thanks stillfat, I heard recently about the fishing license including SAR insurance and this confirms it. Also, it’s important to note that SAR insurance has nothing to do with medical insurance–that’s still up to the individual. In a rescue situation you don’t have much (if any) control over who responds so it’s a good idea to have both types of insurance.

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