How to Repair Your Bike in the Backcountry

What to bring, and how to keep your bike working

Photos: Kurt Refsnider

The steep trail guides you along a narrow bedrock bench, tires skittering on the loose pebbles. Your grin shows just how stoked you are to be descending into remote country after spending all afternoon laboring to reach the high pass that’s now disappearing rapidly behind. To your right, the slope plummets down toward old mine workings on the valley floor a thousand feet below, but your eyes are focused on the seldom-traveled trail, working hard to make out the sharp limestone cobbles that hide beneath the willow branches that are now slapping at your hands. And then that dreaded sound…

PSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

You skid to a stop and listen to the silence. Just like that, the rear tire is completely flat and oozing sealant. Chunky limestone and bike tires often don’t get along particularly well, and this time, the tire–even with its stout casing–wound up on the losing side of the playground scuffle.

A few curse words are muttered. You get off the bike and toss it down in the bushes and look around, assessing this unfortunate situation. You’re two days into a three-day trip. You’re probably the only person in this particular valley, and the closest town is the one where you got breakfast 30 miles back. But you’ve got your repair kit buried in your pack, and somewhere in there is hopefully what you need to get your tire stitched up and ready to continue through the last 50 miles back to your car.


The technological marvels that are modern bicycles are surprisingly durable considering what most of us put them through. But strap on some bikepacking bags, load ‘em up and beat your bike up day after day on rugged trails, and odds are that something is going to come apart sooner rather than later. If Murphy has his way, it’ll happen many miles from the nearest trailhead.

In an ideal world, we’d all be regular MacGyvers, able to fix any problem with some cord, a sturdy stick, and a pocket knife. Those same three items could probably catch us food for a week. Alas, those aren’t common talents. Fortunately, with some mechanical skills, a couple tools and some key spare parts and repair items, you can fix the most common types of bike malfunctions encountered in the backcountry.

My repair kit is the product of years of encountering almost every imaginable type of bike problem while on the trail. I try to be well prepared without carrying an excessively large repair kit. Here’s what I bring on much every extended ride:

Kurt’s Repair Kit

• A multi-tool (with chain breaker) that both fits and reaches every bolt on my bike
• A small multi-tool with a knife, file and pliers.
• Small tire pump
• Small shock pump (the Topeak Micro Shock is my favoriate)
• 1-2 tubes depending on the length of the trip
• Tire lever
• Tire plugs
• Small roll of Gorilla tape
• 2 thick needles and upholstery thread
• Spare valve stem
• Presta valve adapter (good for re-seating tubeless tires at gas stations)
• 10+ glueless patches (these don’t really stick if the temperature is <40 °F) • 2 Park self-adhesive tire boots
• A small tube of superglue
• 1-2 pairs of spare brake pads
• 5+ thick zip ties
• 2 meters of parachute cord
• 2-3 quick links and an extra bit of chain
• Spare derailleur hanger
• Spare pivot bolts (for suspension frames)
• Spare brake caliper bolts (these rattle out occasionally)
• A few other miscellaneous bolts specific to my bike
• Spare cleat and mounting bolts
• Spare derailleur pulley and shift cable (for long trips)
• RockShox Enduro Collar if running a dropper post (no one wants to ever have to ride on a dropper post that won’t stay up)
• Chain lube, cleaning brush and rag
• 2 spare spokes with nipples (taped to seatstay)
• Optional: Small bottle of tire sealant (for long trips only)
• Optional: Surly Singleator (the most reliable singlespeed conversion method for recovering from a destroyed derailleur)

This repair kit has sufficed for virtually every problem I’ve encountered on the trail over the past five years, even when leading groups of bikepackers on older bikes of questionable reliability. There is always the possibility of anything from broken frames to blown fork seals to cracked BB spindles, but I cross my fingers and hope luck is on my side and such unrepairable issues don’t surface.

Keeping tires inflated is the greatest challenge for most riders. For bikepackers, the added gear weight and often rougher trails seem to result in sidewall slices being frustratingly common. Sturdy tires with reinforced sidewalls (WTB TCS Tough, Terrene Tough, or Maxxis EXO casings) are the choice for many bikepackers, especially in places like Arizona where everything seems to be out to destroy tires. But even the heaviest of casings still may meet their maker, so knowing how to repair sliced sidewalls is a great skill to have.

Small sidewall slices may only require a boot and a tube to get rolling again (just remember to check your tire for thorns and cactus spines if you’ve been running tubeless). But any slices over a centimeter in length may need more work. Luckily, some basic sewing skills can solve this problem.

I’ve seen sidewalls sliced from the side knobs all the way to the bead get stitched up and hold superbly for 50 or more miles of riding. I’ve personally ridden a tire with a 2-centimeter-long stitched-up slice for more than 1000 miles, tubeless. And I’ve even seen a sliced tire stitched tightly with a curved needle without popping the bead air up tubeless and hold for another 200 miles of riding!

Here’s the process–it’s pretty simple.

10 Steps to a Reliable Sidewall Slice Fix.

1. Pop the bead on the sliced side of the tire off the rim (unless you have a curved needle, ample patience, and some serious sewing talent).
2. Clean the inside of the tire off as well as possible. The cleaner the better.
3. Stick an adhesive tire boot over the injury, assuming you pulled the tire part way off the rim. In the absence of a boot, I’ve also used a piece of Tyvek from a ground sheet.
4. Find your sturdy needle and upholstery thread, the thickest stuff most sewing stores stock.
5. Begin stitching up the slice just beyond the end of the cut, sewing through the sidewall and the boot. You’ll likely need to use some pliers to help push and pull the needle through the tire. If possible, start the first stitch from the inside of the tire so that the knot tying the first couple stitches together is on the inside of the tire.
6. Keep the stitches close together and at least a couple millimeters from the edge of the slice. Pull the thread as tightly as you can to bring the edges of the slice together.
7. Stitch past the end of the slice before tying off the thread.
8. If you like, cut off the excess boot material if it’s not sticking well.
9. If you have superglue, slather it over the threads on the outside of the tire. This protect the threads from abrasion and can help get the tire back to tubeless.
10. Decide if you want to install a tube or try to get the tire to reseat tubeless. If trying the latter, you’ll need ample sealant and a decent mini-pump (or maybe something bigger). But this certainly can be done.

With this knowledge and a relatively small repair kit, you hopefully will be able to keep your pedals spinning and tires inflated after pretty much any reasonably common mechanical problem.

More Bikepacking Instructionals

The Best Bikepacking Bike Is the One You Own. Here’s How to Set It Up

Choosing a Shelter for Bikepacking

In It for the Long Haul: How to Prepare for a Bikepacking Race