The day I became “that guy” you see on the news…

I’ve often seen news reports on TV about someone who got caught out on a bush walk and ended up needing to be rescued by helicopter, sometimes after days in the bush. I now have a new appreciation for how it is all too easy to end up in that type of situation, even if you think you’re adequately prepared. I wanted to share my experience so that other MTBers might think through their own circumstances and perhaps avoid the mistakes I made in a recent ride.

I ride in the Blue Mountains area—so typically along fire trails in bushland. I’d read about an track that was “well sign-posted”. For an average rider, the “mostly single-track” loop would take about 45 mins to complete a circuit. And you’re never too far from the car should you get into trouble. I’ve ridden the Oaks, McMahon’s Lookout, Wombat (VIC) and Quarry Road fire trail near the recently opened MTB track at Hornsby. Suffice to say, I figured that I had sufficient experience to tackle the course unassisted.

I arrived at the trail head and started down through the fire trail and true to the description I came across a small section of sign-posted single track, only to emerge at another fire trail with no signposts. I rode out and back a few kms along the firetrail and eventually found some single track a bit further on. Excited to get into a bit of single track (finally) I followed some other riders along for a period, before they pulled over at the next, un-signposted, juncture. They seemed like they weren’t sure which way to go either, so I decided to press on, picking what looked like an interesting path. The maps I had used to evaluate the trail indicated a simple loop, so I assumed, incorrectly it turns out, that the trail would loop back and I’d be on my way back to the car before long.

After one or two further un-signposted junctures, I found the single track looking was more like walking track… then more like water trail (i.e. the remnants of a creek or water run-off channel). Before long, any sense of “track” had completely disappeared.

Thinking I had my bearings, and convincing myself that I could see a walking track a bit further down the hill, I set off across some light scrubland. Before long I’d lost all sense of the trail I had left. I’d stopped RunKeeper by this point and had scant mobile reception so was finding it difficult to determine my bearings and location.

I kept walking, (thankfully) found some decent mobile phone reception, and using Google Maps on my iPhone determined the direction of my entry point to the reserve in which the trail was located. I started off in that direction only to find a creek that I didn’t remember crossing, and that the terrain was becoming increasingly difficult to traverse, especially with a mountain bike in tow. After a few more minutes of this, I had to concede that I was lost, with no sense of where my original trail had left off and where I was heading.

So I called 000 for assistance. My iPhone GPS co-ordinates proved less than helpful, but about 3 hours later, after dark, two Police rescue personnel were standing in front of me, after receiving some helicopter support. I feel terrible that I caused such a fuss and the resources that were mobilised to find me.

I’m not a person to take the risks of mountain biking lightly. I’ve read many articles highlighting the value of preparation. I had decked out my hydration pack with a first aid kit and bike repair tools. I ensured that I had a fully-charged phone, that I’d told my partner and friends where I was heading. But even with this, I found myself terribly under-prepared.

Mostly, I was totally sideswiped by how much of a mess I ended up in for what should have been a totally innocuous ride—what was supposed to be a quick and easy 45 minute circuit. I would feel less embarrassed if I was attempting a multi-day ride through a forest or something. I think this demonstrates that even a seeming simple ride can go wrong all too easily.

Experienced riders may scoff or write-off my experience as me being a dumb-ass, or not taking the dangers seriously and being ill-prepared. And in hindsight I can think of a hundred things I would/should/could have done differently. But in the moment, when panic starts to set in (even a light panic really degrades your ability to think clearly, I discovered), all of that was pretty meaningless.

My hope in sharing this sorry (and embarrassing) tale is in the hope that others can learn from my mistakes. While I was waiting for the Police to arrive—and having done some serious reflecting since—I’ve had plenty of time to think about what I’d do differently, and what I need to do in future. The Police also had some tips and advice to share on the drive back to the trail head.

From that, here’s what I would suggest:

Pause, breathe, and retrace

If you find yourself “off the beaten track”, stop and retrace your steps to your last known good area of track, rather than trying to press forward, even if you think you know where you need to go. If you’re tracking your ride using a tool like RunKeeper (and you have adequate reception) use that to help you work out where you need to go to get back to the track you left.

A phone is not enough

The GPS co-ordinates reported by my phone were way off. Google Maps simply put me in a “sea of green”, with no indication of trail locations. I expected that being in an area with reasonable reception I’d be ok with just the phone, but this clearly isn’t the case. (And friends have highlighted that I was lucky to get reception in that area.) That said, I was able to call the Police, communicate with friends (via SMS), use my flashlight app as a signalling device. I will be packing a battery extender (like the Mophie juice pack) for future trips, as my battery hit 20% capacity just as the Police arrived.

Ensure your emergency kit is well stocked

My standard emergency kit was totally inadequate. I didn’t have a thermal blanket. I didn’t have salt or matches/lighter to fend off leaches. I didn’t have my wet weather jacket (which I lamented when it started to rain, thankfully only briefly). I didn’t have a mirror for signalling. I didn’t have a torch. The list goes on… I was going on a short 45 min circuit and never imagined I’d need such things—but I would have benefited from them all.

I’d recommend chatting to a mountaineering store for advice, and adapting as required for your circumstances. I’ve since done so and received great advice a number of options that will be finding their way into my standard pack before I tackle a new trail.

Do new trails with a buddy

Make your first ride of a new course or trail with a riding buddy that knows the area and the terrain. Connect with a local club, or online forum (e.g. in my case SydneyCyclist, local riding groups like BMORC etc.). Having an experienced riding buddy can help make the process much more enjoyable, and safe. I’ve just recently benefited from this riding some lovely, local single-track and receiving useful advice from local riders.

Get a beacon

You can get a free “hire” emergency beacon from the Police before a ride, where you can also register (unfortunately only by fax or in-person) where you’re heading in case something untoward happens. I’ve chosen to purchase an InReach beacon (the Spot is another, cheaper, option) from my local mountaineering store (and signed up for the ongoing service). These commercial units enable SMS messaging even when your phone is out of range, as well as being more accurate and enabling an “SOS” signal to be sent. The InReach also supports a smartphone-based mapping application that uses the GPS from the unit for positioning (and provides more detailed maps). While these are an expensive addition to your kit, considering the value of one of these units vs. a dropper post or that you-beaut saddle/sunglasses/etc. in an emergency situation (as I had occasion to do while I waited for the rescue party)… well, I think you get the picture.

What’s in my pack

For what it’s worth, my pack now includes:

  • First aid kit
  • Spare tube
  • Tire repair kit
  • Tire levers
  • CO2 pump canister and adaptor
  • Allen key multi-tool
  • Leatherman (pliers, knife etc.)
  • Spare brake pads
  • Sunscreen
  • Duct tape
  • Salt
  • Waterproof matches, fire starters and a lighter (in a waterproof pack)
  • Thermal blanket/bag
  • Mirror (for signalling)
  • Emergency GPS beacon
  • Micro-size high-power/long life LED light
  • Spare batteries (for beacon + LED light)
  • Battery extender for phone

All of this fits snuggly into a CamelBak and is quite reasonable in terms of weight. This all might seem like overkill to some, but as I hope my experience demonstrates, it is worth the little bit of extra prep + weight for peace of mind.

I’d be interested in what others think of these suggestions and any other tips that might be beneficial.