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?

Equipment On The Road

8 Simple Winter Camping Tricks To Stay Safe & Warm

It snowed/sleeted briefly yesterday morning, and that might well be the only snow we get this year; therefore I feel justified in publishing this post on techniques to stay warm when camping when it’s absolutely bloody freezing.

Follow the tips below, and you too can expect to get at least two or three hours’ sleep per night on an ill-advised last-minute bicycle journey to the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter with totally inappropriate equipment…

* * *

1. Know Your Gear (Or Take More Of It)

If you’re trying to minimise your baggage for winter camping, the key is becoming extremely familiar with how your gear performs in a range of conditions and temperatures.

But if you’re not sure how your existing equipment is going to work out, the safest strategy is to add more of it. Double up your sleeping bag, putting one inside the other. Stick a foam roll-mat or two underneath your inflatable mattress. Then, as you start to understand what works and what doesn’t, you can refine your gear selection to match the conditions.

Entering Lapland

2. Know Your Body (Or Play It Safe)

Some people sleep warm. Other sleep cold. Fitness, experience, age, gender, amount of body fat and other factors all contribute to the range of comfort levels experienced by different people using exactly the same gear. If you aren’t used to winter camping and don’t yet know where you fit into this, the same advice goes: bring extra gear and refine your kit list as you gain experience. It’s better to have brought along too many layers than not enough.

Chilly campsite near Rena

3. Wear The Right Kind Of Clothes

That cotton T‑shirt you wear at night while summer camping? It’ll ruin you in winter. Wear baselayers made of an appropriate material such as merino wool, bamboo, or insulating synthetics, with a close-fitting mid-layer on top. Add a woollen or fleece hat and neckwarmer. Pack a pair of thick woollen socks specifically for sleeping in and make sure you keep them dry. Only wear thick insulating layers if there’s enough space inside your sleeping bag without compressing the filling and inadvertently reducing its performance.

Breakfast time

4. Go To Bed Warm

In winter, warmth originates from within, and any insulation from a sleeping bag or clothing is merely concerned with keeping it there. It’s pointless bedding down if you’re already freezing, so get warm by doing star-jumps before going to bed or performing sit-ups or press-ups in your sleeping bag.

White road

5. Eat Late

The body needs fuel to generate heat, so eat a hot meal immediately before sleeping, and make the meal a fatty one, as fat is metabolised more slowly than carbohydrate and will last for longer as you sleep. Take extra rations of cheese or olive oil. (Cheese has the added bonus of giving you really vivid dreams.)


6. Get The Most Out Of Your Sleeping Bag

The insulating layer in sleeping bags functions by trapping air, so achieve maximum ‘loft’ by shaking air into a sleeping bag before bedtime. With down sleeping bags, do this with the bag upside down so the filling is encouraged to accumulate in the upper sections of the bag where the insulation is most needed. As mentioned in point 3, make sure that the bulk of any extra clothes isn’t having the effect of compressing the bag’s filling; performance might be improved by actually removing the thicker layers. Avoid using down bags inside narrow bivvy bags for exactly the same reason — better draping the bivvy bag on top.

Spruce-lined backroads

7. Add More Layers Outside

Get one of those thin metallic survival blankets and drape it over the torso area of your sleeping bag. If you don’t have one, do the same with your waterproof jacket or anything else that would add another layer on top of you without squashing the air out of your sleeping bag’s insulating layer.

Above the treeline

8. Keep Your Sleeping Gear Dry

Protect down sleeping bags from getting wet at all costs, as this will reduce their insulating effect to near zero. Avoid breathing into the sleeping bag while sleeping, no matter how tempting, as it introduces moisture from within which will then condense in the insulating layer. For the same reason, squash all the air out of your bag as soon as you get up in order to expel body moisture, and dry out your bag fastidiously on a daily basis whenever you get the chance.

Floating forest

Winter camping can be utterly miserable. I began that journey north from Oslo getting everything wrong. I ended up damp and shivering at around zero degrees in a very expensive mountaineering sleeping bag supposedly rated for comfort at ‑25°C. The first week of that journey was one of the most miserable weeks of my life.

Yet winter camping can also be one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences of all, made all the better by having learned how to survive outside in such conditions. By the time I reached Swedish Lapland a month later — where the temperatures at night were usually approaching ‑30°C — I was able to pass the night in comfort in my spare sleeping bag — a cheap Chinese knock-off I’d bought in Tehran one time and which contained less than half the amount of filling.

And if there’s a message to be had from this, it’s probably that it’s better to leave before you’re ready than not to leave at all. You’ll figure the rest out on the road.

Any more tips for successful winter camping? Please do share them in the comments section for future reference.

On The Road Philosophy Of Travel

The Deeply Misunderstood Nature Of On-The-Road Hospitality

During a recent post-film Q&A, someone stood up and said:

“You said you received a lot of hospitality wherever you went, and that people were always happy to give you food and shelter, even those with very little to give.”

So far so good.

“But didn’t you feel like you were just taking advantage of people the whole time?”

Oh. A loaded question. Got you. Thank you very much for asking, madam. 

Guest Posts On The Road

5 Keys To Relationship Preservation As A Couple On A Cycle Tour

Today’s guest post is from Simon Thompson, who I nagged to share his experiences of travelling with a significant other. He’s generously entertained my whim and turned in an extremely useful rundown of survival tips for intrepid couples. Take it away, Simon!

Prior to our ‘big trip’, my girlfriend Ruth and I lived in different cities. And, because of my job, when we weren’t living in different cities we lived on different continents. Ours was a weekend relationship punctuated with several three or four month periods of complete separation. By the time we left for our five-month bike trip through South America, we had been going out for three years, but had never spent longer than two weeks together.

What’s more, Ruth didn’t own a touring bike until a few days before departure. She hadn’t biked much since childhood, and we’d only had a couple of short weekend tours together in preparation.

However, we survived. The trip was amazing, and we hope it’s the first of many to come.

For other couples with differing abilities, differing expectations, and differing tolerances, here are the five key lessons we learned on the road:

1. Keep it flexible
We planned nothing beyond the first couple of weeks, and tried to take a wardrobe that would allow us to become backpackers if cycle touring didn’t work out. Knowing nothing about the future let us take our time over the present and made the whole thing less imposing. 

2. Accept differences
I can’t speak Spanish, and am a very lazy cook. Ruth can’t read a map without becoming a bit nauseous, and doesn’t know her bottom bracket from her elbow. It took us a while to realize it, but when we each played to our strengths and ignored the resultant guilt of not working on our weaknesses, we actually had everything covered.

3. Be open
In the early days I hoarded worries and concerns, not wanting to bring them up in case they soured the experience. Ruth always weedled them out of me, and it felt so much better for them to be out in the open. When there were inevitable interpersonal meltdowns (usually when the weather turned and we were hungry), we tried to not dwell on them and make sure we didn’t hold back and were open about everything.

4. Be realistic
Don’t expect constant romance. Before the trip we had visions of sitting outside our tent and watching the stars, and being bowled over by a wave of romance. In reality, by the time we set up camp we were usually exhausted, frequently stinky, and invariably freezing. We wolfed down our dinner and were usually asleep before 9. To keep the magic alive, we indulged on occasion with bike-free breaks in nice hotels.

5. Make it comfortable
I think my most important contribution to the trip was making a huge down quilt. This, along with a double sleeve for our sleeping mats, made our tent comfortable, cozy, and warm. With Ruth turning an otherwise mundane meal into something more savoury (usually thanks to plenty of chorizo and whiskey) we always knew that wherever we were and however tired we might be, we could set up camp and it would be a pleasant experience for us both. This gave us much more freedom than if camping had represented a last resort.

Our tour, though a relatively short and luxurious one compared to others that often appear on this blog, taught us some harsh lessons, and made each of us confront some uncomfortable truths. But we came through the experience with some amazing memories and a relationship that is stronger and better founded as a result. And these things learnt in foreign lands may well prove most useful when facing challenges a little closer to home…

On The Road Philosophy Of Travel

Why It’s Friendliness, Not Defensiveness, That’ll Keep You Safe On The Road

If there’s one question that I can guarantee will come up in a post-film Q&A, it’s the one about safety.

“Didn’t you ever feel threatened by people?”, someone will ask me of my 32-country bike trip. “What was the most dangerous situation you had to deal with?”