9 Mountain Bike Road Trip Mistakes—and How to Avoid Them

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Because the freedom of the open road is a little more complicated when bikes are involved

A road trip with your mountain bike can easily be the highlight of your year—exploring new trails, experiencing a new place and doing it all with your best riding buddies. What could go wrong? Well, based on my experience, quite a few things. Luckily (for you), after spending the last three years living in a van and traveling with my bike full-time, I’ve made the full gamut of possible mistakes (plus a couple seemingly impossible ones) and learned some valuable lessons.

Here are nine classic mistakes, and tips on how to avoid them to ensure your next bike trip is full of singletrack, smiles and high-fives.

1. Planning an Overly Ambitious Schedule and then Sticking to it Relentlessly

You want to cover as much distance as possible so you can ride ALL the trails. Ambition is great and all, but if you build too much driving and too many logistics into your itinerary, you might miss out on the best parts of road tripping with your buddies: enjoying a cold one at the trailhead post-ride or staying up as late swapping stories around the campfire. Okay, maybe the riding is actually the best part, but after a big day on the bike, a 6 a.m. wake-up call to drive to the next destination might be asking a bit much of the crew.

How to Avoid: Build in some leisure time. A ride-free afternoon to hit up the local swimming hole or stroll through a nearby town can go a long way toward keeping morale high. And even with a lighter schedule, make sure you’re staying flexible and open to some spontaneity. Don’t be the person dragging everyone off to the next spot when there's an unexpected trail to explore or a surreal sunset to pause and enjoy.

2. Being Ill-Prepared to Deal with Mechanicals

If you’re a serious enough rider to plan a trip around mountain biking, you probably have the basics covered: You can fix a flat, change a broken shifter cable and sort out other minor hiccups. But over the course of your much-anticipated trip, a lot can—and in my experience, will—go wrong. Add a big crew to the mix and the odds that something a little more important gets broken go up substantially. There’s nothing worse than shelling out big money for a component you have lying around your garage just so that you can finish your trip. Worse yet, certain parts that are specific to your bike, like derailleur hangers, can be hard if not impossible to find—a potentially trip-ending problem.

How to Avoid: Bring whatever spare parts you have available and can easily fit in your car. Having backups on hand can not only save you some money—you'll also avoid wasting time searching for a bike shop that has what you need. Consider traveling with the following parts in tow:

  • An extra derailleur hanger (these are cheap but specific to your bike and can leave you high and dry if the local shop doesn't carry your brand)
  • A chain
  • A shifter cable
  • A spare tire or two

Extra Credit: If you have a second bike that's not making the trip, and its wheels are compatible with the one that is coming, a backup set of hoops is never a bad idea, especially if you have a history of smashing rocks at high speed.

3. Forgetting to Prep Your Vehicle

Imagine your car breaks down en route to that epic ride. Or it gets stuck in deep sand at the trailhead. Or you kill the battery by blasting pump up music to start your ride and there are no other cars within a 10-mile radius. Or maybe you lock the keys inside during all the kerfuffle of getting ready to ride. All of these are very plausible scenarios that have either happened to me, or to people I know, and they can really put a damper on your ride plans.

How to Avoid: If you have to be towed from somewhere extra inconvenient, say 10 miles up a dirt road into a National Forest, you're going to pay a hefty price. To (hopefully) avoid that costly tow, have a hide-a-key stashed somewhere on your car, and an emergency kit with things like a recovery strap and an external battery charger (like these, starting at around $60 bucks). These simple and fairly inexpensive measures can really save the day.

4. Relying on Out-Of-Date Maps (and Not Seeking Out Local Beta)

This mistake can have results ranging from bummer—missing out on sweet new trails that aren’t on your old map—to catastrophic—accidentally discovering three hours into a ride that a forest fire wiped out the trail you were planning on taking to complete your loop, bushwhacking for five hours and having to fill up your hydration pack in a stream to avoid severe dehydration. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything.

How to Avoid: Take advantage of MTB Project, REI's community-built trail resource for mountain bikers. Use the website ahead of time to get a lay of the land, see how other riders have ranked trails and find out about possible closures and current conditions. Then, download MTB Project's free mobile app (iOS/Android) for easy on-trail navigation and beta—even when you’re out of cell service. Even if you think the internet has answered all your trail-related questions, it's always a good idea to pop into a local bike shop and get the beta from real live human beings. Hey, maybe you’ll even get invited on a shop ride and the locals will show you the goodies!

5. Ignoring the Weather Forecast

There’s no way to control the weather, of course, but some things are a pretty good bet. Moab in July will be hotter than the surface of the sun. Scotland in January will be cold and wet AF. Pretty much anything above 10,000 feet in the Rockies could spell trouble after mid-October or before mid-June. It (usually) rains a lot in the PNW. There's nothing worse than missing out on an area's bountiful trails because you picked the wrong time of year to visit or packed the wrong kit.

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How to Avoid: Plan, plan, plan ahead. MTB Project area pages feature monthly climate averages that can help you easily rule out locations based on predictable factors (check out Sedona, for example). Does your crew wilt in the heat or get really whiny whenever it rains? Take that into account. Beyond that, make sure you have some backup plans in place, in case snow in the mountains (or forest fires, or flooding, or whatever) ruins Plan A. And if you’re going somewhere notoriously cold, wet or otherwise inclement, make sure your whole squad has the gear they need to stay dry, warm and stoked.

6. Overestimating Your (or Your Friends') Fitness Level

You haven’t ridden all winter but you really want to do a spring Moab trip? You only have four days, but you just HAVE to ride the Whole Enchilada, Cap’n Ahab, Mag 7 and probably Slickrock as well, just cause? And you might as well hit up Grand Junction or Fruita en route. After all, YOLO. Here’s the thing, though: What’s the point of riding all those trails if you’re miserable (and all your friends want to kill you) by Day 3? Not pacing yourself (or taking into account your riding buddy’s fitness level) is a surefire way ruin the vibe of a good trip. You know what they say about too much of a good thing…

How to Avoid: If your fitness isn’t up for five solid days of pedaling, plan your road trip around bike parks or places with legendary shuttle rides, where you can take full advantage of gravity and give yourself an easier day. Or, refer back to Tip #1 and just be honest with yourself: Plan on taking some rest days where you hang out at the lake or check out the local downtown.

7. Underestimating How Much Water You Need

When you’re road tripping with your bike, your normal pre-ride routines will be a little out of sync, and it’s way too easy to end up at the trailhead ready to shred, but oops, your hydration pack is drier than the desert you were planning on exploring. Your cooler full of beer was a great idea, but it won't help you in this scenario.

How to Avoid: Pack a five gallon *emergency* jug of water in your trunk so you don’t have to think about water when you’re in get-to-the-trail mode. Five gallons will fill your packs several times (as well as refilling your water bottles a few times while you’re driving so you can avoid getting dehydrated during the long miles between rides). Keeping a good water filter on hand is also a great idea because you can take advantage of nearby streams or lakes unless, of course, you're really in the desert.

8. Running Out of Food on a Long Drive

A close cousin to mistake #7, not having a stash of road trip munchies can really kill your squad’s vibe. Trust me: You do not want to be stuck in the car with a crew of hangry mountain bikers. Sure, you could fuel your whole road trip on chicken nuggets and gas station snacks, but chances are everyone will be happier if you’ve got some healthy eats within arm’s reach.

How to Avoid: Just a few hours of food prep before your departure will make a world of difference. Some of my favorite easy-to-make car snacks include breakfast burritos, baked potatoes, rice cakes like these from Skratch Labs, and homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

9. Breaking Yourself on the First Day

A serious injury is a surefire to ruin a mountain bike road trip. We all know someone who broke their collarbone their first day in Whistler. The key is keeping that “someone” from being you. Many a mountain bike road trip has ended in tears because Jerry just couldn’t skip the drop everyone else was hitting. Don’t be Jerry.

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How to Avoid: Remember it’s a trip, not a race. The goal is to experience new places and trails, not be fastest down the hill. Know your limits (and know that now is maybe not the time to experiment). Invite friends who know their own boundaries—because, on the trail, their problems are yours, too. Riding with Jerry is all fun and games when you’re a five-minute drive from the ER, but he may not be the friend you want with you deep in the backcountry. If all else fails, make sure you've packed a quality first aid kit.

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