The 10 Essentials of Backcountry Travel

NAVIGATION – Map, compass, and GPS system

I don’t judge people when they require Search & Rescue’s assistance; I’m just a bike crash away from needing a wheeled stretcher out of the backcountry. However I blink twice when people call 911 to report they are lost. A modern smartphone is a full featured GPS that works without service. Pick an app that allows map downloads and download the surrounding areas for your route. You never know when you’ll have to bail from your adventure and seek out the closest gas station.

Regardless of what navigation tools you use, know how to use them before you head out.


SUN PROTECTION – Sunglasses, sunscreen, and hat

A dermatologist from Breckenridge alerted me to the high incidence of skin cancer in Colorado. At 12,000 ft and a latitude south of Rome, the sun burns strong here. A sun hoodie goes a long way to minimizing the use of greasy and eye-burning sunscreen. Sport some Pit Vipers and a mullet for even more SPF and rad factor.


INSULATION – Jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, and thermal underwear

While a puffy down jacket is nice for camp while enjoying the sunset and sipping hot chocolate, the current generation of synthetic insulation keeps you warm in the most horrific of storms. 


ILLUMINATION – Flashlight, lanterns, and headlamp

While headlamps are standard overnight gear, these lights can be even more critical for day trips where you are not carrying overnight gear. If you are caught out in the dark, you make your way out. Even if you are stranded, rescuers can spot a headlamp from miles away.



Commercially available first aid kits provide a good start to addressing both small and large emergencies. Supplement the kit with smart additions. Split potential scenarios into small (blisters) and large (bike crashes).


A pair of friends from Denver were tackling the Ellingwood Ridge of La Plata Peak. The Class 3 route features steep scrambles up and down loose, crumbly granite. While this route is only moderately popular, many people have fallen and become injured on the route. The route is an all-day affair that requires smart route finding and steady feet and hands. One of the climbers broke a handhold and tumbled a few feet to a small ledge. During the fall, he caught his arm on a sharp rock. The cut went to the artery and he started to rapidly losing blood. Luckily his friend was carrying a powder that can instantly stop bleeding just by pouring it on. The bleeding stopped and the climber was able to hike all the way back to the trailhead. 


FIRE – Matches, lighter and fire starters

The Bow Tie Logo Lighter is a perfect tool to stash away to ignite a fire for warmth or signal rescue. Even during the daytime, the smell of smoke can alert rescuers to your location. 


A group of friends from Michigan had decided to tackle the 14,000 ft Mt Columbia in the middle of winter. On the coldest day of the year, they put on snowshoes and headed up the snow covered trail. The trail was well defined through the trees but once it leaves the treeline, the path devolves into individual foot tracks that scatter across the open alpine area. Around 3pm, the friends realized they wouldn’t make it to the summit before dark so they decided to turn around.


The group headed directly downhill and headed down the wrong drainage. (Hint: Get your GPS skills nailed down.) They tangled up in fallen trees and the thick bushes and deep snow made progress slow. Heading downhill doesn’t always bring you to civilization. The sun went down and temps dropped to -5° F. 


Around this time, a friend alerted Search and Rescue about the overdue hikers. We sent out a helicopter for a nightime flyover.


The men realized that they would have to spend the night out and wait for daylight. Without a tent, hypothermia and frostbite are a real risk. They piled spruce branches on the snow and lit a fire. By the time the helicopter flew over, they built the fire up to a car sized melted hole in the ground. Not only did the fire ward off cold injury, the light was unmissable by the pilot with their night vision goggles. And so the pilot radioed their location and we got the men back to their hotel before daybreak. 



REPAIR KIT AND TOOLS – Duct tape, knife, screwdriver, bike repair parts

A broken bike is a sad way to end a ride. My secondary small Snack Pack mounted next to my seat post is perfect for carrying a spare tube, multitool, and chain lube. It keeps my actual snacks separated from my greasy tools. 



Bonking on a ride sucks. So load up your snack pack with tasty bars. 


HYDRATION – Water and water treatment supplies

Running out of water sucks too. Having to bike miles without water sucks even more. A local emergency room doctor told me that he sees an equal amount of dehydration cases as water intoxication (drinking too much water.) Listen to your body and bring some salty snacks. Waterbottles


EMERGENCY SHELTER – Tent, space blanket, tarp, and bivy

Getting lost, equipment breakdowns, and injuries can turn a basic day trip into an unexpected overnighter. Even a large contractor garbage bag will work as a basic shelter to crawl into during a sudden downpour. Look out for certain trees such as a Blue Spruce that provide natural shelter directly next to the trunk. 

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