Safety and security is a real concern for newcomers to cycle touring, particularly if you’re off on a long trip and are faced with the prospect of riding through ‘scary’ places.
It’s (usually) an even bigger concern for your friends and family.
So it’s doubly helpful to understand the realities of safety and security as they relate to bike touring. Everyone wants to put their mum’s mind at rest, right?
Instinct Is Your Friend
Firstly, know that intuition will play a large part in keeping yourself safe and secure.
We’ve evolved to survive – that’s why you’re still here – and some things are best left to the subconscious, rather than the rational mind. You’ll sometimes wander into a situation and simply get have a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right; at other times, you’ll know exactly what to do or how to respond without quite knowing why. And, with time and experience, you’ll learn that your gut is usually right.
But don’t confuse intuition with fear.
It’s natural to be afraid of unknowns and new situations, and as a new traveller there are going to be a lot of these coming your way. Fear is an emotional response to a real or imagined danger, disables rationality, and compels you to run away. Intuition, on the other hand, is a positive and focused feeling about what you should proactively do.
Modern life imposes structures on our experience which doesn’t tend to cultivate an awareness of the intuitive senses we’re all born with, but as you gain experience of a more free-form and unpredictable existence on the road, you’ll get to know your intuition a lot better. Confidence in your ability to deal with situations can even prevent them happening; appear vulnerable and you’re more likely to be treated as such.
Common sense, too, is key to keeping yourself and your stuff safe.
Don’t put your valuables at risk unnecessarily. Establish a routine for different scenarios to ensure that this doesn’t happen. For many cycle tourers, this is as simple as ensuring that
- their valuables are in their bar-bag and that it never leaves their sight under any circumstances while out on the road,
- they have a copy of their most important documents in another physical location, and
- they never leave their bike unattended in public without establishing who’s responsible for it first, be that a riding partner, a cafe owner, or a newly-made group of friends.
Safety With People
In cycling across more than 40 countries over the last 8 years I have never once encountered hostile aggression from another human being.
This doesn’t mean I’ve got lucky. I have met many other cycle travellers far more experienced than I am, and the story is always the same. You will hear of almost nothing but friendliness and welcome in the tales of two wheeled travellers. Sure, there’s the occasional minor disagreement. But that’s also true if you stay at home, especially if you live in a big city.
The general image of the foreigner as a target is a biased picture painted by the news media.
If you are travelling to sensitive regions with a high political agenda and an entourage of SUVs and bodyguards, then you will be well aware of the risks, and yes, you’ll make the headlines if you get unlucky.
But this does not describe any cycle tourist I have ever met. You have no high political agenda. You aren’t surrounded by broad-shouldered men with Ray-Bans and earpieces and sidearms. You don’t have an itinerary of sensitive locations, and you probably don’t hang out at 5-star international business hotels. You won’t even be allowed past checkpoints into sensitive regions. And so you are highly unlikely to ever make the headlines. (For any reason.)
Instead, you will be spending the majority of your time riding through endless quiet countryside where nothing ever happens. When you do show up around people, it’ll often be in small communities, and you will attract attention and curiosity.
By all means try to puff up and deflect it, but it would be much better, surely, to have local people on your side. Wouldn’t a small army of new friends be the best security possible? Wouldn’t the locals prefer this too, rather than have a hostile stranger in their midst?
Cultivate a habit of making friends, without reservation or hesitation, and the world will only conspire to help you.
As you get used to this, you will find yourself doing it automatically. You’ll be disarming folk with smiles alone. You’ll be left wondering why other foreign travellers are so suspicious and offish. You’ll wonder why you’re still carrying around that heavy chain and padlock when you feel so much more comfortable leaving your worldly possessions with a bunch of tea-drinking pensioners you just met outside a cafe.
When it comes to people, it’s friendliness, not defensiveness, that’ll keep you safe on the road.
Safety In Traffic
Conversely, the most dangerous situations I’ve ever been in on a bike tour involve massive trucks flying past inches from my face on highways with no hard shoulder.
This, again, is a sentiment you’ll hear repeated ad infinitum. Cycle touring is, in general, as safe as cycling on roads ever is, but motor traffic is by far the biggest threat to that safety.
There are many ways to minimise the risk when traffic is around.
First is to make yourself conspicuous, remembering that the main threat is from traffic coming up behind you on the same side of the road.
You’ll stick out like a sore thumb anyway if you’re fully-loaded, but ensure also that you’re riding in a position where drivers can see you in good time – either that, or stick to the hard shoulder, well away from the main flow of traffic. Ride defensively on bends and narrow roads and in slow-moving traffic if necessary, just as you would at home.
At night, when overcast, when riding through tunnels, and whenever else visibility is poor, use a red rear blinker at the minimum, and ensure the reflective patches on your panniers, tyres and clothing are all visible. Consider a high-visibility jacket or safety vest. Use your ears; don’t wear headphones.
In terms of safety equipment, helmets are bulky and annoying but you may decide it’s worth bringing one for heavy traffic and high-speed descents.
Just as useful as protective headwear, in this bicycle traveller’s opinion, is a rear-view mirror that’ll enable you to see what’s coming up behind you well in advance and without wobbling all over the road. Mirrors that attach to handlebars, to helmets and even to sunglasses are available. Make sure it can easily switch sides if you’re travelling through countries who drive on different sides of the road.
Safety In Cities
The game changes somewhat in big, anonymous cities.
You’re one of a crowd, less on an oddity, and those around you have too much going on to notice. You don’t have the luxury of instant friendships and reliably trustworthy strangers, so you’ll need to keep a closer eye on your belongings, particularly in tourist hotspots.
A good tip for cities is to find a cafe, buy a tea or coffee, make friends with the owner and leave your bike there while you run your errands. If in doubt, ask local police or security guards if there’s anywhere safe you can leave your bike temporarily.
In general, cities are where you’ll need to be more guarded. Luckily, cycle touring generally only involves stopping in cities if you’re planning to stay overnight, in which case you should have a safe place to stow your gear by default.
Bike Security In Public Places
Most of us are used to locking up our bikes in public and leaving them there for hours or even overnight. The natural assumption follows that a bike lock is an essential feature of a touring cyclist’s kit list.
And it would be nice to think that the usual approach to bike security would work when you roll into a new town or city for the evening.
But there’s one obvious difference.
A touring bike usually has two or four panniers attached to it. And no bike lock is going to prevent them from being taken off or opened up and the contents removed.
So you’re always going to have to take your panniers off and find a safe place to keep them indoors overnight – in which case, the bike itself might as well come indoors as well, which makes a bike lock all but redundant.
(The majority of bike tourers will insist that the bike comes into a hotel room with them, or at least into the building or courtyard.)
A bicycle lock might come in useful if, for example, you decide to take your unloaded bike for a day-ride, or if you stay in accommodation where you’re unable to bring the bike into your room. But most tourers would still agree that a heavy Kryptonite shackle lock is overkill. You’re probably not cycle touring around central London or downtown New York, so a simple lightweight chain will suffice.
If you’re paranoid, there are plenty of other tricks to detract potential thieves for a few minutes when, for example, dashing into a grocery to stock up on food:
- Put your bike into top gear,
- Slip the chain off the front chainring,
- Use elastic bands or hair ties to engage the brake levers,
- Fit a quick-release seatpost clamp and take the saddle with you,
- Disconnect the brakes at the calipers. (Just remember to reconnect them before you ride off!)
Safety & Security While Wild Camping
Another frequently-asked question concerns safety while camping. Wild camping (a.k.a. stealth camping) is covered in another article, but the security of you and your belongings when sleeping outdoors is worth mentioning here too.
If you have chosen your site wisely and you are confident that you will not be found, the same applies to your bike and gear – if nobody would realistically find you, then nobody will find your stuff either.
Intuition comes into play again here: you may feel comfortable on one night to leave your loaded bike outside, unlocked, with just your valuable in your tent; but on another night, you might want to bring your panniers in with you too, and lock the bike to an inanimate object.
Experience helps too, and your natural disposition towards caution will likely affect things, but the fundamental factor over which you have control is your choice of campsite. If there are people around, and you’ve sneaked into a tight spot for a few hours’ kip, you might be more cautious than if you’ve camped in a forest in the middle of nowhere.
Your choice of tent gives you options, too. A bigger tent has more room for luggage. Some tourers go as far as bringing a tent with space for the bicycle itself in the awning, but there are other ways to secure your bike, or at least alert you to any security threat, whether that’s tying a bungee from your tent to the bike’s wheel, or balancing cooking pots on top of it to raise the alarm if moved. (This last trick once alerted me to a bear nosing around my camp.)
At the very least, approach the security of your valuables while camping in the same way you would during the day, by keeping them next to you at all times.
How To Keep Your Money Safe
You’ll sometimes hear stories of people packing a “mugger” wallet full of expired cards and random currency. It’s a bit like packing a bullet-proof vest in case of random gunfire. There are plenty of more sensible, practical ways to ensure the security of your finances on the road. Let’s look at some of them.
Keep your cash and cards close. Some travellers use money belts; the bar-bag is usually a more appropriate place for a cycle tourist. Keep it with you at all times.
If you’re on a domestic tour, limit the amount of cash you’re carrying to a day or two, or consider credit card touring. Credit cards have better safeguards in place than debit cards in case of fraud or theft.
On an international tour, you’re more likely to want to carry more cash to avoid paying over the odds in foreign exchange fees.
In this case, it’s good practice to keep just a day or two’s funds in your wallet or bar-bag, stashing the remainder in the bottom of a pannier or somewhere else physically removed from your spending money. The more different places your cash is divided up between, the less at stake if one bag goes missing.
Long-term tourers often carry some ‘emergency’ cash, usually in US dollars, which remains the de facto global currency, and will hide it in all manner of inventive places, inside the seat tube being the most commonly-cited.
And all bicycle travellers, wherever and for however long they are travelling, can increase peace of mind by carrying an emergency credit card in defence of the unexpected. Keep a note of the international contact numbers for all of your card issuers, both on paper and in secure digital form.
What are your biggest safety and security concerns when touring? How do you deal with them?