Imagine that you're on a road trip across Idaho with a couple friends. You swing through the Ketchum area to do a big backcountry ride traversing a series of high ridgelines. The MTB Project app tells you that this technical 26-mile ride should take about six hours. After finding the obscure trailhead, you all fill your packs with food and water for the day, grab your phone in case you need the map you downloaded, and start up the first long climb. The morning is beautiful, the blue and yellow lupine bloom is going off, and the trail is one of those seldom-traveled, grown-in tracks that leads directly into remote mountains.
This day could play out in any manner of ways. It might be epic in the best way possible—huge views, bluebird skies, stellar ridgeline singletrack with the world dropping off into deep valleys on both sides, wildflowers abound and an endless descent to wrap up the day. Or the ride could be epic in the another sense of the word—fraught with one challenge after another, the situation becoming increasingly concerning as progress is slower than expected due to deadfall from a recent wildfire. Evening approaches and storms seem to be moving in from the northwest. With a growing sense of urgency, your group hastily decides to take an unknown trail that looks like it might be a shortcut, but you're not entirely sure since your phone battery died. This other trail slopes precipitously and one of your friends crashes hard trying to ride the first short descent instead of hiking it. Dealing with the aftermath of the crash, you begin to worry your crew may not make it back to the trailhead before nightfall, and none of you packed lights. Scenarios like this are all too common—one or two things go wrong, a sense of feeling rushed leads to poor decision making and carelessness, resulting in a cascading sequence of events that make a bad situation worse.
We all anticipate big rides being filled with smiles, stoke and primo trails. But in reality, rides in the backcountry are unpredictable. We're at the mercy of changing weather conditions, it's easier to get disoriented or lost and dealing with a bad crash can be far more challenging than on front-country trail systems. It's easy to take all this for granted, but the potential consequences of a bad situation in the backcountry can easily become far more serious. These are some considerations to take on longer rides and recommended gear to carry, whether it's just for a big one-day adventure or a much longer bikepacking expedition. These recommendations come from years of experience on personal adventures, guiding groups of bikepackers, coaching a collegiate mountain-bike team, and a decade of competing in self-supported bikepacking races, but these are just that—recommendations. In the end, you're always responsible for your own safety and decision-making.
Do your homework and use sound judgement
One of the most proactive ways to be safe in the backcountry is to do your homework before your tires hit the dirt. Do some research about where you're going, the nature of the trails, the character of the terrain, the likely weather you'll encounter and other local risk factors. Check in with local riders, a bike shop, or a public lands office to inquire about the trails and current conditions. Plan a conservative itinerary so that you're not attempting to cover an unreasonable number of miles, and choose the route based on the abilities of your group as a collective whole rather than your own personal skills and desires. Finally, know the bail options for getting off your planned route should the need arise.
Beyond the planning, also pack for the conditions you anticipate encountering. There's a fine line between being ultralight and being underprepared, and it's all too common for backcountry travelers to skimp on gear in an effort to save weight or bulk, particularly warm and waterproof clothing. If there's any chance of rain, imagine yourself unexpectedly riding in wet conditions after the sun sets—would you have adequate clothing to keep yourself warm while riding? What about once you stop moving?
When you hit the trail, use sound judgement and risk management practices. Consider the consequences and risks of where you'll be riding compared to, say, your town's local trails. Pushing your limits on your favorite test pieces at home involves risk but when you're hours from the nearest road, the potential consequences of a bad crash that injures you or your bike rise exponentially.
Carry some basic emergency gear
A few ‘extra’ items added to your pack or bike bags can go a long way toward helping you deal with a tough situation. All combined, these items don't take up much space or add much weight and knowing you have them provides self-assurance that you're prepared for almost any situation you'll encounter.
• Extra food—a few hundred extra calories can make a big difference.
• GPS unit plus paper maps and knowledge of how to use both.
• First-aid kit with chlorine dioxide tablets for water treatment and a small lighter for starting a fire.
• At least one light with fresh batteries.
• SOL Emergency Bivvy—this is waterproof, weighs less than 4 ounces and packs to less than the size of a spare tube.
• Phone for calling for help if needed.
• SPOT device or similar if traveling where cell coverage is poor.
Anticipate needing first-aid supplies
I have two first-aid kits in my gear box at home—a minimalist one for day rides and a more extensive kit that I'll also grab for longer rides. The minimalist kit will allow one to temporarily deal with minor medical scenarios when professional medical attention can be reached within a few hours. The more extensive kit includes additional materials for managing wounds in scenarios where it might be a couple days to receive further medical assistance. This is the style of kit I'll bring on longer bikepacking trips in more remote areas. If you're looking for a pre-packaged kit that contains most of these items, check out the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight 0.5 or 0.7 and add a few items as needed.
Minimalist first-aid kit contents:
• Several sizes of bandages and coverings
• Antibiotic ointment
• Benadryl antihistamine for allergic reactions
• KT tape and duct tape for blister management or makeshift bandages
• Small multitool with knife, scissors, and pliers
• Small lighter
• Chlorine dioxide tablets for treating water
More extensive first-aid kit contents (includes everything in minimalist kit plus the following)
• Additional bandages and gauze
• A roll of athletic tape
• Wound closure strips and benzoin tincture for adhesion
• Antibacterial wipes and/or gentle soap
• Nitrile gloves for body fluid isolation
• Small syringe for wound irrigation (a small puncture in a bike water bottle can also work)
• Safety pin
A few additional items to consider: Pepto-Bismol and Imodium for gastrointestinal discomfort, epinephrine for anyone with potentially severe allergic reactions, and a tampon or two for wound management or in case anyone in your party unexpectedly requires one.
Further develop your backcountry skills
It sounds blatantly obvious to say, but during adventures in more remote places, you are responsible for your own safety and success. You need to be able to navigate and keep yourself from getting lost, and you are your own group's first responder should things go awry. Fortunately for us, there are some great options for developing additional skills for backcountry travel. Orienteering courses will teach you how to navigate the old-fashioned way, using topographic maps and a compass—this is helpful for reading maps and should your electronic navigation aids run out of juice, you're not hosed.
Wilderness first-aid or first-responder courses are offered by organizations like NOLS, SOLO and Wilderness Medical Associates. These courses are generally 3 to 7 days in length and cover medical scenarios that you could encounter: wound and injury management, heat and cold illnesses, CPR, knowing when you can safely manage a patient and when it's time to call in the cavalry for a rapid evacuation due to injury or illness. These are skills that make us all far more competent adventurers and I feel far more comfortable heading into the backcountry when I know that someone else in my party also has some of this training.
Ultimately, more disastrous adventures can certainly make for memorable stories, but the potential consequences of being underprepared can be nothing short of life-threatening. Fortunately, we can easily increase the likelihood of having positive experiences through the combination of carrying adequate gear, first-aid supplies, and having the breadth of knowledge and judgement to deal with a wide range of less-than-ideal scenarios. And with a bit of homework and pre-trip planning, we tip the scales heavily toward returning home with a grin and memories of an epic adventure.