How to Navigate and Stay Safe out on the Trail

Being prepared is the absolute best way of dealing with the unexpected out on the trail. 

Here are our five top tips to minimise the risk of getting lost or needing help on the trail, especially for remote backcountry rides.

  1. Plan your route and take a map
  2. Let someone know your intentions
  3. Bring a fully charged mobile phone (and a PLB) and a contact number to call for help
  4. Check the weather before you leave
  5. Take bike tools & learn how to use them and take more food, water & clothing than you think you will need

I’d far rather get home safe and sound after an epic ride carrying too much stuff than be stuck out on a trail wishing I had caried that one other thing I needed.

Mobile phone
The tool I use more often than anything else when trying to navigate a trail is my mobile and the TrailForks App. The TrailForks App provides GPS aided navigation, with downloadable offline maps and one of the largest trail databases in the world.

I have a TrailForks Pro account, but they offer plenty of functionality for the free version too. Aside from navigating your way along a trail, it is a great tool for finding new routes and trails in a region too.

Some of the standard apps such as Apple or Google maps are good too.

If I’m not sure of cell phone reception along the route, I’ll download an image or PDF version of a map or take a photo of a map board that I can refer back to if I get lost.

Most New Zealand Cycle Trails website have downloadable maps that you can print and take with you. Otherwise, shuttle and bike hireage businesses generally offer trail maps for the routes they serve, these guys are often the best source of knowledge about what to lookout for along the trail too. Make sure you take a look at your map and understand what you see before you leave.

Alternatively, for back country DoC trails you may want to purchase a Land and Information New Zealand (LINZ) Topo50 maps. These are available from most DoC offices.

If you haven’t read our post about trail grading and signage, then check this out to familiarise yourself with what you are likely to encounter out on the trail.

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
A PLB is a great investment if you head out to remote back country trails with limited or no mobile phone reception. 

They work by transmitting your location details via satellite to emergency response teams and they work virtually anywhere on earth. A PLB costs around $500 NZD and they have a limited life of around 5 years to guarantee the battery life. Expensive but when you need help, these could literally be your lifeline.  These should only be used in life threatening situations.

MacPac NZ hires PLB’s for a reasonable price too if you’d rather not spend so much money.

What to do if you get lost?
The number 1 rule is, don’t panic. People tend to make bad decisions when they panic.

If you are on a busy trail, just wait and ask for directions. From my experience, cyclists love to help other cyclists in need.

If you can’t ask for help, back track to the last trail marker and check for directions from there. If it still isn’t obvious then continue on out the way you came, follow the trail markers and keep an eye out for cell phone reception in case you need to call for directions. Take a note of your GPS coordinates on your phone to provide your location over the phone.

If you are in a valley, see if there is an easy way up to the top of the nearest hill to find to see if you can get cell phone reception and provide some orientation.

If neither is possible, stay calm and stay put on the trail. If you’ve let someone know your intentions, they will eventually try and find you, and the logical place to try and find you will be along the trail itself. Or, someone else may eventually come across you on the trail. Either way, it should only be a matter of time so make yourself comfortable, keep warm and wait it out.

The Mountain Safety Council New Zealand has a wealth of great information about keeping safe in the outdoors.

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