Ah, the simplicity of mountain biking. Just hop on your bike and off you go, soaking up the freedom… Until something breaks or you fall off and you end up stuck out in the boonies with no way of getting back and no food. Oops.
If you’re riding any distance at all, you need to carry some basic essentials with you. In theory you can have a very basic kit for short rides, a slightly more extravagant one for longer rides and an impressively comprehensive one for proper long rides. In practice, sorting out what you need when is often too much bother and you end up with what we’ve got, a sort of middling kit that takes up permanent residence in your pack of choice and gets added to if circumstances demand it. And what’s in it? Best tip the thing out and have a look…
We’ll start with the thing that you’re actually carrying everything around in. This is entirely your choice. We favour hydration packs, but many people would rather put stuff like water and tools on the bike, with maybe a bumbag for spare clothes. Whatever suits you, really. If you flit merrily between different bikes, a hydration pack that you can just leave stuff in is a godsend. Conversely, if you always ride the same bike having a pump and tools attached to it makes them tricky to forget…
Whatever you choose, you need to be comfortable with it and it has to have enough space for what you need to carry. It’s worth having something that’s accessible without having to remove any packs or bags – being able to grab an energy bar or a multitool from a handily-located pocket is a real time-saver.
Probably the most essential of essentials, this. You’ve probably noticed that you get a bit sweaty when you’re riding, and a large part of that sweat is water escaping from your body. If you don’t top it up you’ll start performing about as well as your car with no water in the radiator. So if you don’t want to end up lying on the verge steaming, take plenty of fluids. Hydration pack or bottles, it’s up to you, just make sure you’ve got it.
If you’re only going out for an hour you shouldn’t need to eat anything, while if you’re out all day you’ll need to carry plenty of food. It’s always worth having some sort of emergency ration in there, though. We always seem to manage to have the odd left-over energy bar tucked away, although that’s more by luck than judgement – there’s usually a sizable quantity of empty wrappers too.
The fact that you’re going out on a bike suggests that you’d rather be riding than walking. So it’d be particularly foolish to end up walking and pushing a disabled bike. A few basic tools will fix, or at least mitigate, most mechanical maladies. 2,3,4,5 and 6mm Allen keys (and 8mm if that’s what holds your cranks on), screwdriver and chain tool are the essentials. Either assemble all the separate tools and wrap in a rag, or pick up one of the many and various multitools that are available.
Make sure you include any odd bits specific to your bike – a shock pump if you’ve got air forks or shock, Torx driver if you’ve got Torx-headed disc rotor bolts, spanners to fit any nuts, Hyperglide chain pins etc. And a couple of zipties are bound to come in handy…
Pump, tube(s), patch kit
The humble puncture is probably the most common mechanical, so make sure you have the means to fix it. The quickest way is to carry at least one spare tube and just swap them. On longer rides or rides in bigger groups take a couple – someone’s bound to get a flat and not have one. Take a patch kit in case you run out of tubes and a decent pump. Minipumps are all well and good, but we like to take the biggest pump that’ll fit in our packs – pumping tyres up with something the size of a fountain pen is liable to prove wearisome. And make sure your valves and pump are compatible – we like magic pumps that can deal with Presta or Schraeder valves, then we don’t have to think about it. Obviously the upshot of that is that we end up with one in one wheel and the other in the other, but still…
Your favourite local loop from your house is probably sufficiently familiar that a map and compass is unnecessary. But if you’re venturing further afield, exploring unfamiliar territory or even following a route from a magazine or guide book, you’ll need at the very least a map (and the ability to read it) and ideally a compass as well. Make sure the map’s of the right bit of the country (sounds obvious, but the other week we found ourselves riding around Wales with an OS map of Sheffield…). Technogeeks or trail-logging obsessives will have a GPS tucked away somewhere, too, but it’s some way off being essential.
Some change for payphones should be a permanent resident of your bag. And depending on route, you’ll probably want sufficient funds to permit the purchase of tea and cakes, a pub lunch etc. UK banknotes aren’t that resilient, so you may wish to carry money in some sort of waterproof container.
Bit of a contentious one this, and given the patchy nature of mobile coverage in upland areas quite possibly useless. But given how little carrying they take, we can’t really see any terribly good reason not to drop a phone (preferably a fairly robust one, or one in a waterproof housing) into our packs, just in case. Don’t leave it switched on, though, and don’t make any calls from the top of the hill or we’ll disown you…
If you’re packing this little lot you should be able to extract yourself from most situations. But if something very dramatic happens and you find yourself stuck, a survival bag or space blanket could save your life. A bag is best, you can get right inside it and they’re usually mountain rescue-friendly orange, but foil blankets are a lot more compact and lightweight – the foil blanket lives in the pack all the time, supplemented by a survival bag on big rides.
First aid kit
Some people carry very comprehensive first aid kits on rides, on the off-chance that they might have to extract a tooth or carry out a fellside appendectomy. But like maps and compasses, there’s not a lot of point carrying stuff that you don’t know how to use. We tend to keep things simple, with some antiseptic wipes and a selection of plasters and bandages. Most injuries are minor enough that a quick clean out is all that’s required. You may wish to supplement your first aid kit with insect repellent, water purifying tablets and medication for any pre-existing conditions – asthma inhalers and the like.
Bit of seasonal variance here. At one extreme, if it’s so cold and wet that you’re already wearing everything you own, you probably won’t be carrying anything else. If you’re heading out for a quick local hour in clear blue skies you might not want to take anything beyond what you’re wearing either. But weather in the hills can change suddenly and even if it doesn’t, the valleys are always warmer than the tops. At the very least take a lightweight windproof shell, preferably one that’s at least showerproof too. You may also wish to pack a thin fleece, pair of tights, armwarmers, hat and so on.