What do you do when you’re lost in the woods ?

Recently, I helped out with a search and rescue of a fellow motorcycle rider in a remote area. The rider who had been lost, is a expert off road rider and outdoor enthusiast. He co-owns a cabin right next to the off road riding area in a national fores he rides in and is very familiar with the area, including many of the “off-trail” (unmarked) trails.

The rider went up to the cabin and went riding, met up with a friend, parted ways and was last seen returning to his cabin on the trail system. A few days later, friends and family were not able to get a hold of him and notified the authorities, who checked the cabin and found everything locked up, his truck (he used to drive up to the cabin) was still there, but the motorcycle he was riding still gone.

Unfortunately, the search didn’t start until almost a week after he was last seen in the area and the rider has a medical condition (diabetes). The area is very rugged and consists of many trails that are on the side of a ridge with steep drop offs and dense vegetation. There are also several “expert” level trails, which would be hard for many search and rescue (SAR) members to navigate. There are over 100 miles of marked trails in the area. In addition, the area has unknown trails and roads that are not marked on the trail maps or current USGS maps. Finally, there are illegal marijuana growing plots that are guarded by armed thugs who are known to shoot off warning shots if you come to close.

He usually carries a supply of insulin when he is outdoors, as well as water, and presumably some emergency supplies. His bike would have a range of 50 miles or so; it was unknown if he carried extra fuel. He was also carrying a smart phone, he uses to record his rides (both motorcycle and mountain bike) and he was in good physical condition.

The agencies SAR teams focused on trail systems near the last point he was seen, and included airborne search by helicopter and coast guard search and rescue assets. Volunteers, friends and family scoured the rest of the trail systems as best as possible, walking several of the high consequence trails.

At the time of writing (14 days since last seen), he has not been found and his chances are not very good at this point. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is not uncommon near where I live and many outdoor enthusiasts are lost.

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, what can you do to protect yourself from getting yourself in this kind of predicament, other than abstinence ? Here are some things which will likely reduce the chances of becoming another statistic, when you’re hurt or lost by yourself.

  1. Take a buddy. If at all possible, always ride/hike with a buddy you can trust, who can get help if needed.
  2. Let people know of your plans. Be as precise as possible. E.g. “I will be riding trails x,y and z in this area and my goal for the day is to practice this particular technical obstacle. I plan to be back by this time.”. Also, let them know who to contact who is familiar with your abilities and the area you plan to be in, as well as agencies in that area (Sheriff, Ranger Station, etc…).
  3. Leave a note on your vehicle, including emergency contact information and where/when you will be hiking/riding. This will help the local authorities and rangers who patrol the staging/trail heads know who is out there. Check in with the ranger station, if that makes sense for your area/locale. Some areas require wilderness permits to access areas, which help the authorities keep track of who is out there.
  4. Carry a card on yourself with emergency contact information, and ID bracelets/dog tags which notify of any medical conditions. Mark all your gear/clothes with your name in permanent marker, etc… This way if you lose gear, it will be a clue for the searchers and search dogs. We found several items of clothing on and near the trails, and weren’t sure if they belonged to the lost rider or not.
  5. Stay on marked trails as best as you can. The reason is three fold. One, it’s better for the environment to only wear specific trails that can be properly maintained and checked. It reduces the impact to an area. Secondly, if you go off trail you may wander onto someone’s illegal pot field/meth lab and risk exposing yourself to the criminal element. Finally, if you’re off trail, it will make it that much harder to find you.
  6. Carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) or similar device in addition to your cell phone. Cell phone have limited battery life and do not work well in remote/rugged terrain. If you have a cell phone, your should text/SMS a message with your location. Even if the cell phone does not have a signal, it will queue the message until it gets  chance to send it. If you are mobile, try to move to a location that has cell phone reception, if it is safe to do so. Usually elevated areas have a better view of cell towers, especially if the area is facing a major highway/interstate. Text/SMS message can be sent with intermittent coverage. There are several flavors of beacons. In an emergency, they send a message with you GPS coordinates to a satellite which than forwards it to dispatch center, who then dispatches a local emergency response team. In order for the beacon to work, you need a clear sky view. Some models also have a check-in feature, which allow you to send non-emergency type messages. Some can be tracked on a website and will send a message if you haven’t moved for a while. I like the 406 MHz type PLBs. It also uses satellites to send the initial message, but transmits at higher power and will work even if it does not get a reliable GPS fix. Also, many emergency response agencies have radio direction finders that can be used to locate the beacon locally. It’s the same system used off-shore and in planes. 406 MHz PLBs  usually have a shelf live of 10 years, and will transmit for 24 or 48hrs. Any beacon is better than cell phone and a cell phone is better than nothing.
  7. If it is safe and especially if  you’re injured stay put. It is difficult to find people when they move around, especially if they are lost. If you can, find a clear spot which makes it easier to locate you from the air. Make some sort of marker on the ground which breaks the look of the natural terrain. Things like crosses, triangles, are unnatural and easier to locate from the air. You can use gear, clothing, rocks, etc… If there is no risk of setting a brush fire, you can make a signal fire when you hear planes in the area flying a search pattern. Also, stand up and wave your hands when you see an airplane searching. If you are near a road, stay by the road.
  8. Take a back country first-aid or first-responder class. Self administer first aid to life threatening injuries. If you are bleeding, stop the bleeding. If you think you have a spinal injury, try not to move. Hydrate and keep warm to prevent shock.
  9. Most of all Don’t panic ! Unless you have life threatening injuries or are in a dangerous location, you will be fine. A normal person can go for 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. The only possible concern might be shelter if the weather is cold or you’re wet. Hypothermia can set in quickly, especially if you are wet. Relax, rest, ration your water and food.

Here is a review of some PLBs.

My motorcycle doesn’t start/run, what should I check ?

We have all been there before. The bike ran before you put it away the last time, and now it won’t start, or it runs very poorly. Motorcycles (unless electric) use combustion engines which work on very basic principles. They need air and fuel and a way to ignite it after it becomes compressed. Let’s start with the simple stuff.

If your bike has electric start and it will not turn over, check the charge on your battery  with a voltmeter. If you know it’s low, you might want to charge the battery first. If the battery won’t hold a charge, you should replace it. If you’re sure that the battery is charged and the electric starter just clicks, then the motor might be frozen. This could be due to a more serious problem than we will cover in this post.

OK, so now the motor will turn over either with the electric starter or with the kick starter, but it still won’t fire. Fuel in almost all cases on motorcycles consists of gasoline. Most bikes will run on pump gas, there are a few bikes which will run on race gasoline. We’ll assume you know what you have. If you are running pump gas, and the bike has been standing longer than a few months, you may want to replace it with fresh gas. Modern pump gas has a relatively short shelf life and will attract moisture causing it to be less effective. So as a rule of thumb, if it’s older than a couple of months, drain the fuel and replace it with fresh gasoline.

Next, if you have a carburetor and not a fuel injection system, you will want to make sure that you drain any bad fuel from the carburetor. Make sure the fuel switch on the tank is in the off position. Most carburetors will have a small screw at the bottom of the float bowl to drain the fuel, some carburetors only have a largish plug/screw at the bottom of the float bowl. Place some kind of pan under the bike to catch the fuel and then open the drain screw/plug and let the fuel drain out. Close up the drain and turn the fuel on and try starting your bike again.

If it didn’t start, you might want to open the drain screw/plug again to make sure fresh fuel has made it into the carburetor when you tried to start it. If here is no fresh fuel in the float bowl, then then you might have a clogged fuel line, or petcock, or fuel filter. Many street legal bikes have a vacuum operated petcock. This petcock will only open when there is engine manifold vacuum, like when it runs or you are trying to start it. Sometimes the vacuum line can be leaky or get clogged. Check and possibly replace te vacuum line. The diaphram in the petcock can be torn, in which case it will not operate. Some of these petcocks have a “Prime” or “Resrve” position that by-passes the vacuum operated function. Try that position. If the petcock will not operate, it needs to be replaced.

We’re sure the fuel is getting into the carburetor, but we’re not sure it’s making it into the cylinder. Take out the spark plug and see if it as some fuel on it, or it smells like fuel. If it’s dry, then the carburetor is not atomizing the fuel into the air. Old fuel that has water in it, will produce by-products that can clog up small jets and passages in the carburetor. Most likely one or more of the jets and/or passages is clogged and you will need to remove the carburetor and have it cleaned/rebuild by someone who has experience in this. You can try doing this yourself, but you should obtain instructions and/or a parts diagram of the carburetor. Many bike die because someone inexperienced will have tried to rebuild/clean a carburetor and not reassemble it correctly, lose parts, etc… Older carburetors tend to be simpler and your success rate will be higher. Modern carburetors can very complex.

If you have fuel injection, you will have skipped the instructions for draining the fuel bowl, and checking the fuel lines/petcock. You should listen for the fuel pump when you turn on the power. If you do not hear the fuel pump, check the fuse(s) for the fuel pump and the ECU. Then remove the spark plug and if it’s dry, fuel is not getting into the cylinder.  If you are adventurous, you can obtain the service manual for your bike and find out how to read out diagnostic codes from the ECU and look up what they mean. Often times, it will narrow down the problem to a sensor that can be replaced.

OK, if your plug is wet, we need to check if your ignition is working. NOTE: DO NOT CHECK IF YOUR SPARK PLUG IS FIRING WITH THE SPARK PLUG REMOVED FROM THE ENGINE. Spark plugs ignite fuel/air mixtures and when the spark plug is removed, fuel/air mixture is pushed out the plug hole and the fumes can be ignited by the spark plug and catch your bike or yourself on fire. Get a new spark plug and install it. If this doesn’t fix it use the old spark plug, plug it into the ignition system and ground the outside of the spark plug by holding it against the engine. You should see a mild spark when you kick over / start the engine. If you see no spark, then try another spark plug, before replacing the spark plug cap, wire and coil in that order.

If you made it this far, the likely cause is a bad connection in your wiring harness/connectors causing the CDI not to function or the ignition coil. It’s unlikely that it’s the CDI unit itself, but they can fail as well. Some bikes use a separate ignition coil in the stator from the battery circuit to power the CDI. Using a DVM you should check the resistance of this coil and compare it the value that the service manual calls out. It should be more than zero Ohms and less than open, usually in the mid tens to hundreds of Ohm value. Replace coil, if necessary.

So, you have fuel and spark, now, there is one more thing to check. Compression is needed by a combustion engine to function properly. Use a compression tester to measure how much compression you have. These testers are be rented at a auto part store and comes with some adapters that are used to screw the tester into the spark plug hole. Follow the directions for your specific motorcycle to test the compression. If the compression is low, then you can check the valve clearance. If the clearance (or valve lash) is too tight, the valves may not close all the way and fuel/air mixture can leak out.

At this point, you have exhausted all the simple things that could be wrong. This is a good place to step back and take a break. Perhaps, get a buddy and go through all the checks again; maybe you missed something the first time through. When you get here, the most likely problem lies within the motor, things like rings or worn valves maybe the cause and require a partial or total rebuild of your motor. You may need to ask yourself whether it makes sense to rebuild the motor, financially. I.e. it may cost more than the bike is worth, especially if the bike is older, but not yet of vintage or collector status.






What motor oil should I use in my motorcycle ?

This is one of those questions that almost always degrades into a “my oil is better than your oil” discussion on most forums. My suggestion is to use whatever the manufacturer recommends in the manual. Why ? Because while the motorcycle is under warranty, the manufacturer is likely to refute any warranty claims where the motorcycle was not properly maintained. This includes oil changes with the recommended oil.

The manual will usually have an oil change interval they recommend and a viscosity and type as well as service classification and oil type they recommend. The service interval is not to be exceeded. You can change it more often than recommended, if you like, especially if using it in a commercial capacity.

Viscosity of the oil is  represented by a number like SAE 30 or 10W40. This describes how thick the oil is. Single viscosity oils have a single number, e.g. SAE 30 while multi-viscosity oils have two numbers, like 20W50. They indicate the viscosity when cold and when warm. Generally, thicker oil is called out for warmer climates and thinner oil for colder climates. In a pinch, it is OK to use a different viscosity as long as it’s close to the recommended viscosity, but this is not recommended for normal use. It’s also not recommended to mix oils with different viscosity, unless you have to.

The manual will call out a service classification. Service classifications are indicated with a two letter code, like SF or SG. These codes indicate how much detergents and additives they have added, mostly to meet emissions regulations. The higher the second letter, the newer the code is. It is normally OK to use a classification that is newer (higher letter), if the applicable classification cannot be found. However, it is best to check with the manufacturer/dealer to make sure. Classification codes that start with the letter S are for gasoline engines, normally found in motorcycles. Diesel engines use different classification codes that start with the letter C, e.g. CI-4. It is OK to use diesel engine motor oil if it also has the appropriate S classification.

Many motorcycles have wet clutches. Wet clutches are bathed in the same oil as the engine oil. You should not use engine oils that have special “low friction” modifiers, as they can interfere with the clutch function. This is usually called out in the manual as well.

Finally, sometimes the manufacturer will recommend a specific oil type. Basic motor oil is distilled from mineral oil. Synthetic motor oils are motor oils that are synthesized to have better consistency and better specifications, but are more expensive. There are also blended oils which have a mix of both as a compromise. In general, it is OK to use synthetic oils in place of mineral oils, but not the other way around when the manufacturer recommends synthetic oil.

While under warranty, document when you change your oil, with notations on the type of oil and oil filter used. It’s often best to have it changed at the dealership and save the receipt. It is always a good idea to keep documentation of oil changes and other maintenance events in any case.

While it is peace of mind to use more expensive name brand oils, it matters very little, as long as the oil you use meets the manufacturer’s recommendation.

It is rare to damage your engine if you use the recommended oil. Most engine failures are the results of misuse, or infrequent maintenance. For example, running the engine with low oil or coolant levels, or dirty air filters or too hot for periods of time.