On The Road

How To Stay Safe & Secure On A Cycle Tour Of Any Length

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.

Local interest in my bike

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.

Roadside mechanics

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.

Not a sign your mother wants to see

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.

Beehive maintenance

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.

View of Alcatraz

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 happy couple

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.

Desert camping in Syria

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.

Campground lightshow

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?

Books & Reading Planning & Logistics Product Launches

Just Released – A Brand New Edition Of The Best Adventure Cycle Tour Planning Guide On The Planet

The very first edition of Trailblazer’s Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, compiled by veteran bicycle traveller Stephen Lord, didn’t just help me plan my first big journey; it actually inspired that ride’s very conception.

ACTH Front CoverI can barely believe that that guide has just seen the publication of its third edition. Have I really been doing this for that many years?!

Now with Neil and Harriet Pike (of Pikes On Bikes fame) at the helm, the new edition has been totally revised and updated in light of the changing nature of what’s possible on a bicycle, given a map of the world and a limitless imagination.

It’s still packed full of pre-trip planning advice, as well as the guide’s great strength, which has always been the comprehensive worldwide route planning guide.

They’ve very kindly allowed me to reproduce here my own contribution to the third edition of the guide – a new section dedicated to cycle touring in the little-visited nation of Armenia:

Armenia is sometimes perceived as an unnecessarily mountainous alternative to Azerbaijan when it comes to getting from Georgia to Iran, but it’s actually a worthy cycling destination in its own right. Visas on arrival for most nationalities, stunning mountain landscapes, numerous scenic detours, a rich and tumultuous national heritage, and some of the best-preserved Soviet architecture around are all reasons you might choose to pay this little Caucasian republic a visit.

Routes through the country are more varied in the north, with multiple crossing points from Georgia and several options from there onwards. Maps indicate that stunning road via Noyemberian crosses Azeri territory; with the border conflict a stalemate for decades it’s rarely a problem to travel this route, though you’d be well advised not to venture into no-mans-land. The land borders between Armenia and both Azerbaijan and Turkey remain firmly shut, so overland routes are only possible between Georgian and Iran, whatever your maps may suggest.

Up-and-coming Yerevan is worth a visit; the Genocide Museum sheds lights on the country’s historical woes. As well as possessing a small handful of bike shops and mechanics, it’s also a reliable pick-up point for Iranian visas. If you don’t want to lose an entire kilometre in altitude, however, you can bypass the city on a scenic route via the eastern shore of Lake Sevan, and maybe spot an old Silk Road caravanserai or two on the way over from Martuni to Yeghegnadzor.

The route south to the Iranian border is fairly non-negotiable; only one through route crosses this formidable territory. It’s shared with the trickle of goods traffic to and from Iran, as well as bus services between Yerevan and Tabriz/Tehran, so there are hitching opportunities if the climbs get too much. Expect to tackle five extremely long and challenging mountain passes, the biggest of which is a non-stop ascent from 700m to over 2,500m in altitude.

Detours are usually worth taking; the minor roads are often in a state of disrepair, but they’re much quieter, and as usual it’s here that the memorable and unexpected of Armenia is to be found: lush mountainside forests, naturally-carbonated mineral water springs and thermal baths, ancient monasteries perched on the most unlikely of precipices, and a rural welcome as warm as any you’ll find in the Middle East.

If you’ve time, a side trip to the Mountainous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh in the local language) will unearth an isolated, time-warped version of Armenia proper; a de facto independent nation unacknowledged on any maps other than Armenia’s own. Decades of fruitless territorial bickering have resulted in a stunning mountain landscape left to flourish with little in the way of modern development, and people even warmer and more receptive to tourists than those in Armenia itself. Watch where you camp; minefields do still exist and are marked as such.

Visas for Karabakh are easily procured at the country’s sole embassy on Nairi Zaryan Street in Yerevan. Having any evidence of a visit to Karabakh in your passport will exclude you entirely from entry to Azerbaijan. Don’t be tempted to try any route in or out of Karabakh other than the prescribed one between Goris and Stepanakert; at least not unless you fancy looking down the barrel of an Azeri-wielded Kalashnikov.

In terms of national and international transport, Yerevan is now well-served by budget airlines from Europe, Dubai and various Russian airports. Minibus services – mashrutkas – can usually be persuaded to carry bicycles, running all over the nation from a variety of bus depots in Yerevan, as well as to neighbouring capital cities. The sleeper train between Tbilisi and Yerevan is an experience all of its own, and relatively easy to wangle a bicycle onto too.

Get your copy of the 3rd edition of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook from*.

Upcoming Events

Get A Year’s Supply Of Vicarious Adventure This Month At The Adventure Travel Film Festival

Two of my favourite human beings of all time are Austin Vince and Lois Price, who have not only released some of the the best DIY travel films and books ever, but also live on a Dutch barge, which to my mind immediately puts them right up there with the very best that leftfield British society has to offer.

Oh yes, the point: they also run the Adventure Travel Film Festival, which for its 5th year will be relocating to Mill Hill school in north west London, making it a heck of a lot easier for more of us to get to.

It’s happening on the 14th-16th August. That’s the weekend after next!

I’ve attended the last two events, both as a filmmaker and as a punter, and can honestly say that it’s the best film festival I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to quite a few now. I’m totally gutted I can’t go this year.

The event’s success is due in a large part to the unquenchable energy, enthusiasm and comedy brought to proceedings by the organisers themselves. Allow me to demonstrate by encouraging you to click the big ‘play’ button on the trailer below:

Austin’s been in touch to let me know that a tiny handful of tickets are still available. Click here to get yours before they sell out. If you’re free next weekend, do consider going along – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

You can find out what films are playing, plus many more details about the event, on the festival’s website.

#freeLEJOG 2014 Articles & Essays

One Year On From #freeLEJOG, Here’s Some Thoughts From The Brink Of Departure

This piece was originally written for The Ride Journal, created to share personal stories from people obsessed in one way or another with bikes. You can download past issues for free from, and connect with the project on Facebook and Twitter.

The gates swing back with an affirmative bleep and I wheel my bike onto the platform. I hunt through the hordes of hurried commuters to scan the departure board. It’s a lonely old place, a railhead at rush hour; no talking, just mis-matching footfalls, heads down, like marching to prison or war, and I feel like the one man who’s leaping the ring-fence of riches for freedom through poverty.… oh — there it is: the 09:13 to Penzance.

I prop the bike up by a small branch of Café Ritazza, stuffed panniers pressed against coffee-stained graphics. One or two nine-to-fivers glance sideways; not at me, but at it. It’s a symbol of sweet liberation for those few sad split seconds on the morning commute; a sudden awareness of the boundless potential of two wheels and pedals carrying all of one’s worldly possessions… but no: let’s get back to the grind.

The crowds diminish, and soon the point of no return announces itself through hidden loudspeakers. The train sidles in, the engine goes past with a hiss and a diesel-fuelled growl; I join in the jostle to bagsy a bike space and depart for the far end of England. Each day a few dozen folk do this; there’s nothing strange there. It’s the manner that’s making me twitch: for I, in my infinite wisdom, have left every tie to the cruel world of money at home.

Yes; cash-free and card-free on Britain’s old end-to-end ride. Just another of Tom’s silly experiments, they’ll think, those few of my friends and my family who’re still in the loop. Shirking ‘real’ work again! Just how has he done it this long?

I’ve somehow become known for it: pedalling, peeling back layer after layer of fabric of places and people. This inventive mythology gives comfort and meaning as I struggle with the truth that to everyone else I’m a crazy young guy on a bike. Last time it was language learning in Persia; before that, an ill-advised trip to the Arctic. Mongolia; a mind-shift to riding through lands without roads, where I trundled by compass through yurt-studded steppes. And the biggest of all: that round-the-world ride, sidetracked quite drastically by the surprise intervention of love — now my wife!

She’s probably thinking the same, right now, as I sit watching Devon and Cornwall roll past from my seat at the end of the quiet coach. Why, just why, would a right-minded man leave his home and his loved one, tasked by himself to seek hardship and toil in a meaningless quest for obscure-sounding truths?

Catch me at a particularly reflective moment and I’d mutter something about simplicity in motion, the beauty of true self-sufficiency, the undeniable power of transformative personal journeys, the endless potential for using a bike trip to reimagine life in as many new ways as people on bike rides. I’d bang on about discovery; of self and society; of the dazzling way that spacetime and consciousness expand when each day on the road is a self-contained story — and one worth telling too. I’d evangelise an existence so diametrically opposed to ‘everyday life’, that thing so unremarkable it can be summed up in just two depressingly well-understood words.

Ask me right now, though. Just try it. I’ve nothing to say. I’m terrified; paralysed. I have set into motion a chain of events that will prove utterly fascinating in hindsight, but the train is approaching the end of the line, and all that I have in my once-useful pockets is a ticket back home from a very long way north on a date three weeks hence and until that day comes I must fend for myself, use all that I’ve learned, strip life back to basics and simply survive.

In the days that await, I’ll go hungry and suffer; get lost in the woods, eat food out of bins, make friends with hard workers and wasters and farmers and wannabe vagabonds en route up through England. I’ll work for my meals; I’ll work for the hell of it, no purpose but helping a person in need. I’ll lend a kind ear and be fed in return for my presence alone. I’ll ride… I’ll ride! I’ll ride this old bike, seeing all that it brings; I’ll soak up the sun on a hot summer’s day; I’ll soak up abuse and I’ll laugh at it later as sunset descends and I spend one more night — of countless since past — sleeping rough on the side of the road.

But right now — as I take the first downstroke — I am plunging into a world of unknowns, going too fast to stop.

It is not the first time. And nor will it be the last.

Want to find out what happened? Start reading the blog series on this no-money cycle touring experiment here.