There’s something magical about spending the night out alone, in the wilderness, with only your thoughts and your bike for company. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a fairly high internal barrier that keeps many people from loading up bikes with overnight gear and a bit of food to spend the night in some place unique: namely, Fear. Especially as a girl, it had been ingrained in my psyche to be afraid of everything: People, wild animals, and the boogieman. Fortunately, there are several ways to make bikepacking safer and more comfortable when solo, for both genders.
Being a girl, spending the night out in the wilderness alone wasn’t something that they taught me how to do in Girl Scouts. I’d love to say that I went into my first night out alone full of confidence, but that would be a lie. It was the first night during the Colorado Trail Race, I’d been slogging through rain, being terrified of thunder and lighting, for the past six hours, and when the time came to make camp and sleep, I slept well not because I felt confident in my abilities not to get eaten by a bear, but because I was too tired to care IF I got eaten by a bear. In fact, I half welcomed a bear to take me out of my state of misery. Of course, a bear didn’t eat me, the boogieman didn’t get me, and no one harassed me.
Here are some techniques I’ve picked up throughout my participation in the Tour Divide, Arizona Trail Race, Colorado Trail Race, and countless other non-competitive bikepacking expeditions that have made me feel safe in situations that would otherwise have been far outside of my comfort zone.
Basic Backcountry Rules
The number one rule for going out on solo expeditions is to tell someone where you’re going, when you expect to be back, and when to start worrying. Even if you don’t have an exact route planned out, a general area can greatly narrow down a search radius in case something does happen. If you’re racing, this is easy because you’re either going to be on a route, or on a side-detour to get some food.
While many of us go bikepacking to explore new places, staying in relatively familiar locations when going solo can help ensure you don’t get cliffed out, stuck in a slot canyon, and reduces the chances of you getting severely lost. Save those unexplored expeditions for when you have a partner. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go anywhere new, but take the time to do more extensive route planning to increase the chances of the route going smoothly.
If you’re going out for multiple days, check in with someone occasionally. This may make backcountry purists cringe, but this piece of advice is more for the peace-of-mind of your safety contact than for your well-being. If you’re going to give someone the responsibility of worrying about you, treat him or her well.
Consider using a SPOT tracker. Even if you don’t pay for the tracking feature, it can give everyone involved a little extra confidence.
When I was out on the Divide, I sported a pair of knee-high bright pink socks, and for the second half of the route, a pink Absolute Bikes jersey. As I was riding through certain areas, I regretted the decision. While it’s impossible to completely hide gender on a bike, wearing neutral colors can go a long way towards not waving the ‘I’m a girl and alone on the road’ flag. You have to remember that most cars that pass you will do so at a relatively high speed and won’t have the time to really discern who or what you are.
Don’t Fear The Dark
I used to be spooked by riding in the dark. During my first Colorado Trail Race, I found myself in the dark on a Wilderness area detour on some rural dirt roads south of Gunnison. I was certain that every set of headlights coming at me or from behind me belonged to rednecks in giant pickup trucks, and not soccer moms taking their kids to a sleepover. In some areas, the prior is definitely more likely than the latter, but the key is to remember that they’re having the same experience with you. They see a lonely light and probably don’t even know what it is, but if they do recognize it as a bike, they really don’t know if they’re dealing with a 6’3” bodybuilder or a 5’2” girl.
If you’re in a racing situation and have to ride in the dark, the early morning hours are generally safer than the late evening ones. I rarely feel safe riding on roads between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., but once 3 a.m. rolls around, I feel like I’m relatively safe. Generally speaking, there are less cars during this time and, especially as it gets closer to dawn, people are driving to work instead of driving home from the bars or a party.
Camp Far From Civilization
While many people feel safer camped near civilization, I’ve always felt better in the middle of nowhere. There are exceptions, such as designated campgrounds, or in my case, the rodeo grounds in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but if you can find a place with low enough traffic that you don’t see a car all night, you have minimal chances of being harassed. If you have the option, choose to camp off of the trail rather than the road. If you’re camping off a road, go some distance away, at least out of the radius of typical car lights so you’re not glaringly obvious, and if you’re worried about the location, stop after dark and start before the sun comes up and keep your headlight usage to a minimum. Remember that no one is actively looking specifically for you.
Nothing I’m about to say applies to Canada or Alaska, or anywhere with Polar bears.
For the most part, animals are more scared of you than you are of them. If they can hear you coming, they’ll get out of your way. The best things you can do are to make lots of noise (sing, talk to yourself, talk to the imaginary animals around you) and review what to do with encounters with specific animals: Make yourself look big, don’t look aggressive, etc. I was told to talk dirty to any bears I encountered. In theory, it keeps the fear out of your voice by injecting humor into the situation. I spent a good section of Montana and Idaho during the Tour Divide telling bears that it was sad that a big ol’ 800-pound grizzly was afraid of a little 130-pound Eszter. While I knew I was lying, I didn’t have any bear encounters.
For sleeping, keep all of your food in a single bag. If you have the energy, and properly-situated trees, string it up to keep animals out. If you don’t have the energy, just put it up in a tree a good distance from where you’re sleeping. If you’re not worried about animals, food bags make excellent pillows.
While I’ve never felt unsafe enough to carry pepper spray while riding, I’m sure that I’ll eventually encounter a situation where I’d feel better having it. Bear spray excellent to have if you’re in grizzly territory, but less so if you’re just dealing with black bears. I really wouldn’t advocate for anything more than that, though I’m sure many would argue with me on that point. When it comes down to it, if your in a situation where you’re on a bike and you’re dealing with someone with a vehicle, there’s not much you’re going to be able to do to tip the scales in your favor. Best to avoid confrontation all together.
Believe That Most People And Animals Are Good
I’ve spent well over a hundred days out bikepacking solo as a girl. I’ve gone across the country, I’ve navigated the Stagecoach 400 route through sacred Navajo lands, I’ve made it through Canada and Montana and seen bears, moose, coyotes, wolves, and elk. I’ve had a mouse chew through a base layer that I was wearing. I’ve met countless friendly people and have been buzzed by surprisingly few trucks. I think it’s key to remember that most people are good and would much rather help you than hurt you. This is especially true as a girl traveling solo. While bad things can happen, it’s only rational to remember that bad things can happen anywhere, and with a few precautions most issues can be avoided while out touring or racing on a bike.
So go and enjoy. Let someone know where you’re going, and appreciate all the cool places you can go on a bike.
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When Eszter Horanyi was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com