If you are out Mountain Biking there is a chance you will hurt yourself badly enough that you can’t walk out or move and will need to be rescued. In some areas like Deschutes County, the Search and Rescue has a special mountain bike unit. Special mountain bike rescue unit or not, there will likely be a search and rescue team in your area. They often coordinate with many different agencies in a rescue.
So how do you initiate search and rescue if you need urgent medical attention or are just lost? in order to be found for what ever reason it helps to know where you are. Unless you are very familiar with the area you are riding in you should have a map and A. know how to read one and B. keep track of where you are on the map.This is not an inborn skill and if you have trouble reading maps take a class on the subject or travel with someone who can read one. A GPS unit will help for sure if you know how to use one and the batteries are charged up and you are not in steep terrain or tall trees and...... Again there are usually classes from local adult education programs on GPS use.
The most obvious way to initiate a search would be to call 911 from a cell phone if you have cell phone reception but often times this is not the case on mountain bike trails. If you are with a group they could obviously ride out until they would have cell phone reception. A cell phone will work even better if you have a modern cell phone that is GPS enabled. Depending on the career and the technology they have in service where you happen to be, some older phones can be located without having built in GPS capability. The process is similar to satellite triangulation only it uses cell towers instead. You can check the capabilities of your phone either by checking the properties of your phone directly or by doing an online search. Your cell phone service provider should know about the cell phone location capabilities in your area but getting in touch with someone who actually knows this information is problematical.
Did you know that 911 call centers and the cell phone companies are required by FCC regulations to accept 911 calls from any cell phone regardless if it has a current service plan? So as long as it is charged up you can use any cell phone to make 911 calls. Obviously a gps enabled phone would be preferable. So one possible strategy would be to try to find the smallest phone possible without a service plan but with a charger for emergency calls.
Another method to initiate a search is with a Personal Rescue Beacon. These devices send messages to search and rescue via satellite and should work in most locations. However they may have the same sort of limitations that a GPS device would have in steep canyons or dense tree canopy. The prices and sizes on these units have come down dramatically in the last couple of years making them both affordable and small and light enough to conveniently carry all the time. Some PLBs require a yearly service fee but you can also send I am ok email messages that can be viewed on a web map. Many of these companies also sell supplemental rescue insurance. Warning: not all sales staff in outdoor shops are well informed on these units even if they sell them. Some even confuse PLBs with avalanche transceivers which is a totally different animal. Before you go into any local outdoor shop it is recommended that you do a little online reading about makes and models. Some common manufactures are ACR, McMurdo and Spot
If you have a gps unit the coordinates of your location might be helpful if given to your riding companions to give to search and rescue. Also most search and rescue personal have someone involved who knows the area real well and if you can describe land marks they often will know exactly where you are based on your description. So as always in an outdoor setting it is a good idea to constantly be taking mental snap shots of unusual or easily identified land marks. Delorme now makes a unit in conjunction with the Spot Satellite service allows you to send text messages. This might be a good feature to be able to communicate with if you were in trouble.
One issue with search and rescue is that they often use USGS quad maps when searching. These maps are frequently in a datum (NAD27) that is different than the ones used in cell phones or default settings on GPS units (WGS84). Do not worry about this, unless you happened to change the datum settings of the GPS unit from the default and are aware of what you did. (the datum is a theoretical mathematical model of the shape of a smoothed earth) They can or should be able to deal with this issue. It is a simple matter of changing the datum on their unit to match yours, entering your coordinates and then changing the datum to whatever map they are using. They can then give the coordinates in their preferred datum to the rest of their team. They should not be expecting victims to be fiddling with gps settings or expecting the general public to be setting their datum to some archaic datum used on old USGS paper maps for every day use.
It is not the intention of this page to offer a comprehensive guide to mountain bike safety. Most of the search and rescue outfits would no doubt like it if you did as much as possible to avoid needing to be rescued in the first place. There are many manuals on how to survive in the outdoors. Use common sense, in 80 degree weather you are probably better off with a first aid kit and a repair kit than a rain jacket and a space blanket even if you spend the night out. In October and November matches and a rain jacket might save your life. One big advantage of mountain biking over other outdoor sports is that you are probably going to be on a trail and in popular areas someone will probably come along. So unless you are critically injured your odds of surviving are probably pretty good. This is obviously an important topic not to be giving out misinformation, so if you have any comments pass them on.