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by Dennis Coello

Deciding what to take when pedaling trails in remote regions is a balancing act. Leaning too much to the side of ultimate safety means taking everything you could possibly need to fix your mountain bike or yourself in case of breakdown, foul weather, grizzly attack, etc. You’ll feel like you’re pedaling a keelboat from the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Leaning too far to the side of weight reduction means taking very little gear, which results in faster riding and more fun in the saddle – more like paddling a pirogue, canoe or kayak than a keelboat. However, if you run into trouble, you might have to face a long and disagreeable hike back to the car, an unplanned night in the wilds, going hungry or possibly hypothermia* or worse.

That may sound far-fetched. But good mountain-biking trails are chosen precisely because they are off the beaten track. So you shouldn’t count on someone happening by – or a cell phone – to pull you through.

Here are some mountain-biking safety tips.

Short Trips
Even if you only plan to ride a few fast miles away from the car for some exercise, don’t ride far into the wilds with just what you would pack on your workout route or two-wheeled commute at home.

Consider adding this equipment:
A first-aid kit
A multi-tool
A spare gear/brake cable
A patch kit (in case of more than one puncture)
A stocking cap and leggings
Some rain gear

Half- or All-Day Rides in Remote Areas

For places where the trail is less traveled and quickly turns to mud gumbo in the rain, think in terms of what you would need in order to spend a night in the wilderness. These items might include:

• Food – Plan on taking the amount of food you would want if your day-ride were doubled, and then add a little more.

• Shelter – For a day-ride that might become an overnight or for a single night out, consider sacrificing comfort in camp for greater pleasure in the saddle, since what you take for shelter is the single greatest weight-increasing element of all your gear. Shave whole pounds by taking a bivy sack instead of a tent and by foregoing the ground pad entirely (you can fashion your own by gathering leaves, dried weeds and grasses and/or evergreen boughs). Sleep in your stocking cap, warm fleece pullover and a pair of tights instead of a sleeping bag. You’ll be surprised by how much heat you can create inside a one-person emergency bivy when dressed like this. You might not be very comfortable, and you might wake up from the cold. But it isn’t total comfort that you should be striving for when enduring an unexpected night in the wilds. Be happy to have spent a bearable night and to have avoided hypothermia. (Consider donning your windbreaker or rain gear if you do get cold, though if these aren’t breathable, you can get clammy and even colder as a result.)

If you were heading out on a multi-day backcountry tour, you would probably pack the standard items for a comfortable camp: sleeping bag (with enough insulation to keep you warm in the cool, night air), ground pad (to insulate you from the cold ground and also to provide a degree of softness for comfort) and a lightweight tent (to protect you from rain or snow and from the bugs that can make for a miserable night of little sleep as well as for the added warmth from body heat).

• Flashlight – Keep it small and light, with back-up batteries and

• spare bulb.

• Sunscreen – Remember that you can burn even on cloudy days.

• Insect repellent – A bottle of repellent adds a few ounces, and you can certainly leave it home and endure some bites. However, repellent can make the trail a lot more comfortable than it was for the Lewis and Clark expedition. One of the party wrote, “...the Musquitors Ticks & Knats verry troublesom.”

• Maps and compass – Seeing on a map where you started and where you’ve been makes the return a lot easier. A compass will help you decide which road to take when you’re confused at a junction.

• Water (or the ability to purify the water you find) – Lewis and Clark were so amazed at the dryness of the air in today’s Montana that Lewis, while in the Breaks country, did a test. He set out a teaspoonful of water to see how long it would take to evaporate. The spoon was bone dry within 36 hours. Try that at home in San Diego, Chicago, Atlanta, New York or other greener, wetter locations. It could take days. The point is that even in a more humid environment, a human body working hard in the sun at 90 degrees Fahrenheit requires a whopping nine to 10 quarts of water replenishment every 2
4 hours. That’s two-and-a-half gallons! Pack accordingly.

Have fun. And be safe.

* Hypothermia is a lowering of the internal body core temperature, and it’s most often associated with prolonged exposure to cold and moisture. It’s aggravated by physical exhaustion and hunger. Hypothermia can be a killer, even at temperatures far above freezing. In short, don’t get chilled in the wilds. If you do, have what you need to get warm.Biography of Dennis Coello

Dennis Coello, author of 13 books on bicycling and the acquisitions/content editor of over 50 more, pedaled the length of the Lewis and Clark trail on thin tires back in 1979 and has mountain biked it many times since. A professional photographer for two decades, he has shot throughout North America and in some 30 countries overseas.

Go to Dennis Coello’s Web site – – for more of his travel and cycling photos.

Dennis also works as staff photographer for Austin-Lehman Adventures, which uses his photos on its Web site (