What to do if You Get Lost Mountain Biking

Posted by  Manny   

Most of us at one time or another have found ourselves lost in the woods. It often happens when we are just getting into the sport and are unfamiliar with the trail systems. However, it can also happen to the more experienced adventurous rider, who regularly explores new trails and terrains. This can be a scary situation–especially if you’re by yourself.

I’ll share one personal experience before I give you some best practices and tips that can help you navigate if you do get lost. One early fall day I decided to go for a long casual ride in a park I visited a couple of times before but was still not that familiar with. It was a weekday afternoon and all my riding buddies were at work so I decided to go it alone. I downloaded a map of the park onto my cell phone and hit the trailhead around 3:30 p.m., which I estimated would give me around 3 hours of daylight to do some exploring.

The park encompassed a very large mountainous area and after two-and-a-half  hours of riding I was not only exhausted but completely lost. Panic and fear started to set in when I realized that daylight was starting to fade and I had no cell phone reception or clue as to my location. My dominant thought was the potential of getting attacked by some wild animal in the middle of the night and someone finding my half eaten carcass next to my full suspension bike days later. As I struggled to find my way back, night fell and there was no moon light. I had never experienced such darkness outdoors before. It was not only impossible to ride my bike but very difficult to see where I was walking.

So what does one do in a situation like this? What I did was to backtrack using my cell phone as a night light. I eventually came upon a state park trail marker and followed it in the direction I had seen the sun set, which I knew was in the direction of my car. This strategy lead me to a familiar trail, which gave me a better understanding of my location on the map. When I got back to my car at around 9 p.m. I ran into a Park Police cruiser, who was looking into finding another reported lost hiker. It turned out I wasn’t the only one lost that night.

As you can see what began as a casual ride turned scary quickly. It’s therefore always best to be prepared for anything, including the potential of getting lost.

What you should do and have before you hit any trail.

1) Always try and ride with a buddy.
-It’s not always possible to ride with someone but if the option is available it’s always a good idea especially if that person knows the park well.

2) If you are riding alone it’s best to do it early in the day.
-Riding late in the afternoon can put you in a compromising position if you run out of daylight.

3) Let someone know about your ride.
-Tell someone you know, which park you will be riding and for how long.
-If possible give them a copy or the link to the park map.

4) Have your cell phone with you.
-Have a fully charged cell phone with you. It might not get reception if you are riding in a remote location but you never know. It can also be used as a source of light.

5) Have a map or GPS.
-Always have a map with you either on your phone or hard copy.
-If possible have a fully charged GPS loaded with tracks of the park trails.

6) Have the essential bike tools.
-Make sure you have everything you need to fix common bike issues that can occur on the trail. (Flat, Broken chain, etc.)

7) Have water and snacks.
-Always carry plenty of water and some energy bars or snacks with you.

8) Know where you parked.
-Always know the location of the parking lot in relation to the direction of the trails (Did you park to the North, South, East or West of the trails).
-Know in which direction the sun will be setting so you can have some sense of the direction your car is located.

9) Stay on the marked trails.
-Always try to stay on the marked trails and when you come across an intersection confirm your location on the map.

10) Every so often look back.
-It’s a good idea to look back at the trail so if you have to backtrack it will look familiar.

Things you can do to find your way out if you get lost.

1) Always backtrack.
-If you are lost the best solution is to backtrack and get back to the last familiar spot on the trail or map.

2) Follow the fire road.
-If you manage to find a fire road stay on it and follow it in the general direction of your car.

3) Look for official park signage or trail markings.
-Try to find park signage since this can give you some idea of your location on the map.
-Look to find a marked trail intersection because this will give you a clue of your location on the map.

4) Notify someone if possible.
-If you can’t find your way back, attempt to notify someone of your situation via cell phone.
-If you do manage to contact someone, let them know you are lost and arrange to check back with them at a specific time (usually an hour) to give them an update. Remember to conserve your cell phone battery by turning it off.

5) Look and listen for others on the trail.
-Pay attention, look and listen for other riders or hikers who might be on the trail.

6) Stay on the trail.
-You should never leave the trail to cut across the woods.


Lover of mountain bikes, cinematography, and life.


  1.   Mar 01, 2011, 6:42 AM

    Oh, I’d love to get lost while mountain biking!!! 🙂

    Not sure if I can do that here – perhaps elsewhere (USA, Asia).

    Saw the “127 Hours” movie – telling someone where you go is one of the smartest things you can do as a solo hiker (or even smarter if you don’t go in the back-country alone).

    •   Mar 02, 2011, 9:27 PM

      Thanks Constantin,

      I’ve not watch “127 Hours” yet but I read and loved the book. You’re right about telling someone…it’s a lesson I’ll never forget.

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