Five Tips for Solo Mountain Biking

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By Erica Tingey — Solo excursions into the backcountry can be appealing to mountain bikers for many reasons. Some riders seek head-clearing solitude, some people decompress better unaccompanied, and others may have tight schedules with inflexible riding windows. While solo riding can be a transcendental experience, we won’t sugarcoat the obvious: the risks associated with mountain biking increase significantly if you’re riding alone.

Photo John navigating a rock face near Catherine’s Pass, Alta, Utah. Photo by Dave Iltis

If you crash, become lost, have mechanical issues, encounter unexpected weather, or become ill or injured, your chances of returning home safely in a timely manner are better if you’re traveling with friends who can help administer first aid, go for help, or help set up emergency shelters. While riding with friends is generally safer, many mountain bikers choose to ride solo either occasionally or frequently. Below are five tips for riding alone that will increase the safety factor of your adventure!

1. Choose a conservative trail

The mountain community is exceptionally helpful and supportive. Consider well-trafficked trails where you’re likely to see many other users so that if you run into trouble, other bikers or hikers will be able to help you if needed. If possible, find a trail that has good cell phone coverage for the entire length.

In addition, choose a route that is within your comfort level with regard to distance and difficulty. Utilize trails that you are well acquainted with. New, technical trails are best explored with a coach or friends, before you attempt on your own solo excursion.

2. Tell somebody your plan

Let a roommate, friend, or family member know where you’re going, when you expect to return, and at what point they should come looking for you or call Search and Rescue if you don’t arrive when expected. Many mobile apps can help you keep friends updated (see below). As a last resort, when you roll up to the trailhead, don’t have service and forgot to inform anyone of your plans, simply write on a spare piece of paper where you are headed and stick it on your dash visible to the outside.

3. Take navigation

I have often extolled the value of apps like Trailforks, Strava, and Alltrails that allow you to see your location on downloaded maps in real-time; however, they are only as good as your cell phone’s battery. Paper copies of maps—especially if you’re not familiar with a new trail or deep in the backcountry— are always a good idea, and can be kept dry in Zip-lock freezer bags.

4. Travel with a GPS

One of the most important ways to increase your safety on any outdoor adventure is to have a plan for calling for help. Chances are good that your watch and/or smartphone has a built-in GPS. Apps like Strava and Garmin can share your location with select contacts. Alltrails Pro subscribers can set up “Lifeline” contacts who can track your location, and receive pre-formatted status updates as text messages as well as alerts (with your last-known GPS coordinates ) if you don’t finish by your planned time. You can purchase a satellite communicator that can send texts when you don’t have phone service for added security.

5. Be prepared

Riding prepared to handle misadventures is always a worthy goal, but is more critical when you’re alone and can’t count on friends to have the supplies you may have forgotten. Be sure to take adequate layers, hydration, fuel, bike tools, emergency items, and a first-aid kit. I highly recommend you know basic bike mechanics as you start to ride alone. Don’t venture on a 20 mile, lightly trafficked trail if you are unfamiliar with changing a flat tire. If you live in bear country we don’t recommend riding alone, but if you do take bear spray, make noise and slow your speeds around blind corners.

As with so many aspects of mountain biking, the decision to ride solo should be made after carefully weighing risks with benefits. If you do venture out alone, take some extra time to prepare and as always, have a blast!

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