Get Un-Lost: What To Do When You Get Lost While Bikepacking

We’ve all been there on a tour, race or adventure. You’re happily pedalling along and suddenly the road disappears. You’re somewhere you’ve never ridden before, you don’t speak the language and there’s nobody for miles around anyway. You’re lost and you need to get un-lost.

Reading time:
A cycle path washed away by a river

If you get lost, you will need to get un-lost

-Mike Hall / Transcontinental Race pre-briefing

No matter how good the mapping resources you use to create your route are or the amount of time you spend planning, it’s almost inevitable that at some point there will be a problem with your route. Roadworks, forestry work, road closures or simply a road that looked well-trafficked and turns out to be an impassable, overgrown mess. Panic sets in as your stomach sinks and you realise you’re lost and the only person that’s going to help you is, well, you.

The first thing to do when the dread descends is take a moment to calm down and take stock. The more often you get lost, the easier it becomes to stay calm. Force yourself to take a sip from a bidon, maybe have a snack. Examine your surrounding and determine just how lost you are. If your bike’s working fine and you have plenty of supplies, then you’re not lost. You got here, so you can get out – you’ll lose some time if you retrace your steps, but you’re in no immediate danger and can afford to take your time.

If your bike’s damaged, you’re on your last inner tube or you’re running low on supplies, then solving that is your priority. There’s no use finding a way back to civilization that takes longer than your supplies will last or will get you stuck in the middle of nowhere with an unusable bike. You might have to deviate from your original plan and divert to the nearest town or water source.

A cyclist pauses by the side of the road to take stock

Getting un-lost generally starts long before things start going wrong. You did download offline maps before you set out, right? You made sure you had adequate supplies for a full day’s riding and acquainted yourself with your route so you’ve got a fairly good idea of how far you are from civilization. If you’ve planned and prepared adequately, then you should be able to get a map out while you drink or have a snack and quickly come up with a sensible plan.

That plan might be as simple as rolling back to the last crossroads and taking a diversion or you might need to retrace to a parallel road, heading in approximately the right direction until you’re able to get back on track. If you’re racing, your focus will be minimizing how big your detour is and finding the flattest, fastest road heading in the right direction. If you’re touring, then you might prefer to get back on track – maybe there’s somewhere you wanted to visit further along the route or the most obvious detour knocks significant distance off your route and you’d like a longer day.

A cyclist rides through the remote backcountry

What about when it goes really wrong? You’ve lost or can’t use your maps. Or followed a trail that gradually disappeared and you can’t even find it to follow it back the way you came. It was misty on top of the mountain and you accidentally followed a path that’s turned into a downhill mountain bike run and you can’t head back the way you came. You’ve been cornered by shepherd dogs on a remote mountain path, with no obvious way around.

These are all things that have happened to members of the Apidura team, who’ve survived to tell the tale. In most cases, common sense and remaining calm will see you through. The most important thing is to remove yourself from any danger and find a safe place to calmly assess your options. If the trail has suddenly disappeared, then simply dismounting and looking around the local area might lead you to finding the way through. If aggressive animals are barring your way, stand behind your bike and slowly back away until they’re out of sight. If you’re injured, find somewhere comfortable to sit or lie down and take stock of your injuries.

In situations where you’re truly lost, focus on survival rather than staying on-route. If it’s cold and getting dark but there’s a mountain hut nearby, then prioritise getting comfortable and warm inside so you can get un-lost in the morning. If there’s a deep river to cross, but it’s a warm day and civilization is just on the other side, find the shallowest crossing point possible rather than rushing in. If you’re lost in rough terrain, embrace the hike-a-bike and know that every step you take brings you closer to being un-lost. If you can’t walk far, focus on reaching a bigger trail that’s likely to have more people on it, rather than doggedly aiming for your destination and hoping for the best.

A lost cyclist hikes down a mountainside with her bike

As with most things in life, prevention and preparation are the strongest tools you have. Plan ahead for things that might go wrong – that might mean creating a couple of route variations or writing down the names on towns you’ll pass through or near and thinking about which parts of your route will be remote so you can stock up on supplies before heading off. If you’re heading somewhere you don’t speak the language, it’s also worth having some key phrases written down. It’s rare in the modern world that you’ll ever be so far from civilization that you can’t reach another person, but if you’re worried, carry a satellite tracker with an S.O.S function and make sure someone is keeping an eye on your progress. If you’re heading into the backcountry, consider carrying a whistle or another means of attracting attention to yourself from a distance.

Once you’ve gotten yourself lost and un-lost a few times, you’ll realise that your comfort zone is far bigger than you ever knew and be able to plan less as remaining calm and rational becomes second nature. It might even be worth getting yourself lost before your big trip or race – head somewhere you’ve never been before, switch off the GPS and see how you get on!