Surviving being stranded : Lessons from the desert.

I wanted to catalog the various lessons, and thoughts I’ve had after the last trip. This includes preparation and readiness for stuff to not go as you planned during a pandemic, pushing the edges of safety, and what to do when it all falls apart in the middle of nowhere on a motorcycle (or really any mode of transportation). I’ve heard a number of people now question how they would handle these kind of trips if they had issues, so I think this could be valuable to share.

I’ve been an Sr Instructor/Trip Leader for a Colorado based outdoors organization years now and a lot of what we teach in that class is preparation for stuff to not go as planned, how to not make things worse by panic, and how to stay alive when it all is going wrong. I was in a pretty clear head space when stuff went wrong, but that was mostly because I planned ahead of time and knew I was mostly safe, and it was just logistics. But I still made some errors that cost me time, and put me at more risk than I should have.

Preparation during a pandemic – nothing can be assumed.

For the most part the motorcycle aspect of traveling is not much different during a pandemic, but the planning general is. My motorcycle has an effective range in most situations of 180 miles (more than likely 220, but I am not pushing it to fumes). So when planning long 400+ mile days, balancing stopping for fuel and getting to where you want to go is an art and running the numbers. The bike also requires premium gas, which in the middle of the desert is… not assured. Things to consider:

  • Is that gas station on the map open?
  • Do they have 91+ octane fuel?
  • How far is it to my next stop?
  • Do I need water/food at this stop?
  • What is my backup if the gas station is closed?

An example of one of the exercises I did in graphic format was this (for the day I broke down). The Stop Signs were where I confirmed there was fuel available (with still some element of risk, as its a pandemic and shit closes all the time), the yellow was where there was possible fuel. I would stop at the yellow stops if it turned out fuel was available. The Dead End sign is where my trip ended. Also because it is a pandemic there was no telling if the actual convenience stores would be open at some of these stops.

In this situation, the first box there was fuel and a nice gas station at the yellow box. So I stopped and loaded up, I stopped at the point between the boxes as well at the 2nd stop sign from the left. This is where stuff goes a bit awry for what I did. At that second stop sign from the left, I didn’t pick up more water, I had 2L at that point on me (1 on the bike one in the pack).

There was no gas available at either of the yellow squares in the second box. All the stations had closed in the last 6 months, or the fuel they had was agriculture grade low end fuel or diesel only.

So, on that long 2-3 hour ride in the hot afternoon sun, I drank 1.5L and then broke down. Fuel wasn’t the concern at that point (I was 140miles into the tank and was going to push close to 180 or so by the time I got to the gas station) but water was.

Mistake: By not picking up more water at the last fuel stop, I left myself with very very little water by the time I broke down.

Lesson Learned: Always be ready to break down, and carry enough supplies for the situation you may encounter, over packing is better than under packing. Complacency left me thirsty on the side of the road into the night.


Weighing risks, rewards, and how complacency creeps in as a trip gets further under your belt.

Looking at the trip odometer and seeing you’ve done 1400 miles of trouble free, relatively safe, and well planned travel gives you an instant sense of comfort. Comfort does breed complacency. I mean, I only had 600 -700 miles of riding left on the trip, and back into more familiar territory after this leg.

I was in the last 100 miles of the day, just trying to push through before the sun goes down, so do I spend another 10 minutes at a gas station? Do I pick up that snack or meal? Its a pandemic so there isn’t any sitting down to eat in a restaurant for the most part, but sitting outside snacking and taking time in a town, is it worth it?

Day 1 of the trip I stopped about 4 or 5 times in 360 miles, keeping filled on gas, taking breaks to stretch and eat some good foods on the way. By day 4, besides for stopping at Meteor Crater, I stopped 2 times in 340+ miles at that point. Pushing further, faster, and trying to keep things tighter and tighter.

As complacency creeps in, your exposure to risk goes up and up. That is OK as long as you have plans to get you out of a jam, and cover for that risk exposure.


Pre Planning and Preparing for it all to go wrong.

A first key part of any trip I do (in a car, backpacking, motorcycle, etc…) is to know where I am going. What is there? What are the risks? What is the Terrain? Is there cell coverage? (assume none in most cases), Nearest city?, Nearest Hospital?

Now not all of those are done for every trip (Hospital/County/Towns and such for backpacking mostly), but this is all good info. Tools I use for this are:

  • Google Earth Pro
  • Google Maps
  • WikiMapia
  • Garmin Basecamp with Topo map sets.
  • and … just searching for info on an area.

So by the time I am in an area, I at least have a bit of situational awareness of what is around me… if I go north, what is up there? South? etc…

The road I broke down on, was one I was concerned about going into things, as I knew it was not actually on most maps. Knowing that going in helped me understand some of the confusion recovery companies would have.

Knowing where you will be, what will be around you, and what you will have with you is excellent preparation, but you also need to be ready for what happens when it does all go south.

Important Documentation:

Have key phone numbers, contacts, insurance information, vehicle registration, etc… handy and ready to go. You have roadside assistance? When you are on the side of the road is not the time to be investigating your insurance policy to see if you do and what the limitations are.

Paper, Pencil, and a Headlamp:

One KEY thing that I had with me that made things immensely easier, was a small mechanical pencil (I carry the same when I backpack, I keep this in my riding jacket), a pocket size waterproof field notes memo book, and a small rechargeable NightCore headlamp. As you can see in the first photo for this section, I used it to record phone numbers and names of tow companies, and keep track of important details.

I recorded my location in UTM coordinates (UTM is used by Search and Rescue organizations) and Lat/Lon for tow companies and our insurance company because where I was located was not on a road that most people could find.

I also (later) recorded down the distances/ and intersections between a major city and where I was so I would be able to instruct people how to get to me. I delayed on writing that down by accident and it caused some confusion for a tow company asking how to get to me.

Communications:

I have been a long time fan of carrying Personal Location Beacons and Satellite Messengers when in the back country or off the beaten path. Cell phones are largely unreliable, limited on battery, and cant be trusted in those areas. I used to carry an ACR SarLink PLB (a high power, milspec, beacon that when triggered gets relayed to the authorities directly to come get you in life threatening situations.).

Now I carry an Garmin InReach Mini (pictured above), which is a lower power, but 2 way full featured satellite messenger that lets family/friends track progress and I can msg people for assistance in non life threatening situations (and SOS button for life threatening ones).

I also have my mobile phone, which I try to keep charged on the bike.

First Aid Kit:

This is something you hope to never need, but I carry the same first aid kit for backpacking. It is a heavily modified/replaced kit over the years with just what I need and know how to use. In a nice high visibility water proof bag.

Tools:

My tool kit is finely curated based on what I reasonably know I may need on a ride. This is in a small Garmin GPS bag I’ve had over the years. At a high level for long trips I carry:

  • Zip Ties of various sizes
  • Gorilla Tape
  • Electrical Tape
  • small roll of double sided VHB tape
  • Multipliers (with needle nose and pliers tips)
  • Metric Flip out Hex Wrenches that covers most of the sizes on the bike.
  • Specialty tools for any accessories (example: Tools to replace the battery or remove the TPMS sensors)
  • A few small box wrenches for specific bolts I know I may need access to.
  • Rubber gloves.
  • Tire puncture mushroom plugs/tool kit
  • 12V air pump (stored under the rider seat on the bike)
  • JB Weld – I didn’t have any this trip but will in the future.

I only carry what I think I could need, or effect repairs on the roadside. I’ve had to replace a broken footpeg in the past on a bike in the middle of nowhere and did it due to having the right tools for the job.


OK, Shit hit the fan, what now?

First STOP – Assess the situation – are you OK? Are you in immediate danger? In my case if I was in either of those, I hit the SOS button and let the emergency responders do their job and get to work. If its life/death, that is THE answer. If you have cell service, call 911, a Satellite device, push SOS, etc…

Ironically, if you are OK and not in immediate danger, this becomes more complex as you need to handle the logistics as best you can and try to not turn this into a life/death situation.

Second – You are OK, and not in any critical danger, but you are stuck far away from anything and need help. You need to quickly put together your resources, figure out where you are, figure out all the details someone would need to know.

  • Assess your communications – No cell signal, no satellite messenger? This gets a LOT more complex, at that point you are at the whim of walking to a point of cell service, or the kindness of people driving by. (really if you are at that point, when you get cell service, calling a non emergency number for the local sheriff is probably the best plan.) If I had no cell service, I would be working over 140 character text messages over the InReach with a family member or friend to get rescued over that service. That is far less expedient, but it would have worked. I had 3G cell service where I was that did cut out now and then, but in the end worked OK.
  • Assess your resources – Water, Food, Clothing. Can you survive for the next 8 hours in hot sun? What about overnight? What if it storms? Figure out your safety limits so when you contact people you know what will work and what wont. Set your boundaries and when you would need to pull the figurative “eject lever” and get emergency services to come get you.
  • Assess your financial situation in terms of knowing the boundaries for a wrecker company to come get you. Do they need cash only? Do you have access to the resources required? This is something you should be ready for before any trip, to know what your access to funds is in these kinds of situations. Its good to be in a position when talking to tow companies where your limit is or timelines.
  • Write down your location to the best of your ability, coordinates, addresses, roads, distances, etc… If you have offline maps or have internet service document exactly where you are and how people from the nearest city would get to you. Clarity is very important.
  • Prioritize your next steps, what order do you sort steps, everyone will have a different situation?
    1. Contact Assistance/Family
    2. Contact Tow / Insurance / Roadside Assistance companies
    3. Change into clothes or gear for the long haul (Protect from cold/heat)?
    4. Safe your area/environment?
    5. Eat something – Stress can burn through sugars fast and leave you light headed or less sharp. Caffeine/Sugar is probably a good call if you are trying to keep on point in a time of higher focus/stress.
  • Keep an organized log of who you called, the results, and what is in work. There will probably be multiple things happening at the same time. This is where writing notes down is incredibly important. This will also lower your stress, you don’t need to keep running in circles worrying about if you did or didn’t do something.

Pandemic considerations

Now… you have a Tow company coming to get you. You need a place to stay potentially? You get to ride in the cab of a truck with a stranger? All these things are stuff we have all avoided for the most part through 2020. Carry a mask, I had a bunch of them with me. I even had one N95 mask in a case for real sketchy situations. Protect yourself in the long game, and be sure to keep aware of what you touch, where you go, and what you do, and proximity to rando strangers.

This adds a nice little extra helping of stress onto an already stressful situation, but just do your best and keep aware of what you are doing. If its between sitting on the side of the road until the pandemic is over, or just getting into a truck… wear a mask and use best effort.


Keep communications flowing, but also have some patience when needed.

Not everything will move at light speed in these situations. I spent 5 hours on the road side, 4 of that just waiting to get confirmation of someone coming to get me, working with insurance, etc… There is an element of patience, but be sure to be crystal clear on the importance of what is happening especially if you are low on supplies, or could be in danger in time.

If tow companies are working to find a driver/truck, if insurance is working, calling or hitting them every minute could actually delay your assistance.


Keep Calm – Focus on the next step.

Panic may get you killed. That is the rule. You panic, and your chance of a timely rescue/recovery, or surviving a dangerous situation drops exponentially. Panic can cause you to miss opportunities, miss dangers, and put yourself in a far worse situation than you were initially in.

Follow your process, keep things organized, keep things surgical. Don’t worry about things already done, the next step is all that matters.

Example: When I felt oil on my boot, or when my foot peg broke off my bike years ago, I stopped the bike, turned off the engine, and looked at the situation. In the case of the foot peg, I sat down for a few minutes to look at my options. For the oil pan, I knew my ride was 100% over in the first seconds of seeing the oil. Nothing to worry about at that point for repairing the bike or getting under way, it was just over. Time to move onto the next step. No panic, no emotion, you can work on that later. Keep clear headed, and focused on what you can fix or protect what you still have.


Use your downtime to look at what happens after you are rescued.

Need a Hotel? Need transportation? etc… spend your down time and waiting to work on those steps, so you are ready to go when the opportunity presents itself.

I used my time to figure out if I was going to leave the bike in ABQ to get repaired, or haul it home? Do I rent a car? do I rent a truck and haul the bike? OK… I rent a truck, how do I get the bike in and out of the truck? OK I need ramps, and straps. etc… Get a plan together and refine it as events transpire to stay one step ahead of the situation.

Planning ahead of the events will dramatically lower the stress because you are in control.


Note what worked and what didn’t after

Just like this blog post – look at what happened and what you did right, and what you did that didn’t help. Where did your planning work? Where did it miss? Refine your process based on these events and learn/grow from it.


This is essentially my lessons learned, refreshed while on the side of the road. Hopefully this helps build some kind of structure/planning into your routine if you choose to go on adventures regardless of the mode of transportation.

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