Tips for bike touring safely

“Isn’t it dangerous?”  We hear those words all the time and, frankly, I’m always a bit confused when I hear them.  Dangerous in what way?  What should we be afraid of?

Yes, what we are doing is dangerous.  We could be hit by a car, bitten by rattlesnakes, die of food poisoning, or slip in the bathtub and hit our head – but then, all those things could happen back in Boise, Idaho too.  Is there a greater chance of them happening down in South America?  No, I don’t think so.

I find it ironic that we traveled 9300 miles in 2006-07 and nothing happened.  No incidents at all – unless you count the time Davy slipped on an orange while playing tag in the plaza in a small town in Mexico and sprained his wrist.  We spent twelve months cycling around the USA and Mexico and were perfectly fine – but within two months of arriving back home to Boise we had two potentially life-threatening incidents.

John and I were taking a class at our local university and went on a field trip to visit extinct volcanoes in the desert south of town.  We had asked permission from our instructor to take the boys, so they were running around in the desert while we enjoyed the lecture from our professor.  And then we heard Davy yelling, “Daddy!  Daryl’s trapped by rattlesnakes!”

Sure enough, Daryl was standing – frozen – on a boulder with two rattlesnakes a few inches away.  Fortunately, John was able to carefully lift Daryl up and carry him to safety, but we considered ourselves very fortunate that he wasn’t bitten.

A few weeks later, I was riding my bike home from school when a car hit me.  I crashed to the ground and lay sprawled out in the middle of the road.  By the time the ambulance arrived, I was up and walking and knew I was OK – had pretty serious road rash on my arm and leg, but that’s about it.  Nevertheless, we knew it could have been a lot worse.

So I come back to where I was before – yes, something can happen on the road, but something can happen at home too.  So far we’ve pedaled nearly 23,000 miles as a family in over three years on the road and have experienced two dangerous events while traveling – an encounter with a rogue bear who exhibited very un-bear-like behavior, and a collision with a car in Albuquerque.   Fortunately, nothing serious happened either time.

Have we just been lucky?  I don’t think so.  I think our experiences are what one could reasonably expect to happen while on a journey like ours.  From talking with other cycle tourists who have traveled in all parts of the world, what we have experienced is the norm.  If someone does have a serious accident or is robbed at gunpoint or kidnapped I would say they were unlucky.

I think it is important to remember that every one of the towns we pass through is home to somebody.  People live in those towns and raise their children – and they feel it is perfectly safe.  Why should Tegucigalpa be safe for Claudia and not for us?  Juan feels secure in Bogota; why shouldn’t we?  Are we really any safer in Boise, Idaho than we are in any other town?

What I think these concerns come down to is the fear of the unknown.  As one friend put it, there is something intimidating about facing the boogieman – and if you don’t even know who the boogieman is or where he hides, he’s even more scary.  I feel fortunate that we’ve learned the boogieman isn’t out to get us regardless of which country we happen to be in – that frees us up to travel the world without fear.  In fact, we’ve found people throughout the world to be kind, generous, giving people who will go out of their way to help us out – why should we fear them?

That being said, we take many precautions to do our best to ensure that nothing bad happens.  We can’t, by any means, totally prevent bad things happening to us, but we can minimize the chances by taking certain precautions.

Practice safe, defensive riding techniques

  • Wear helmets and have mirrors on bikes so we know what’s coming behind us
  • Be highly visible – we have brightly colored bags on our bikes and wear bright shirts
  • Ride with traffic, never against it
  • Ride in the road, not on sidewalks (they have too many obstacles for safe biking)
  • Slow down at all intersections and be prepared to stop.  Make sure we have eye contact with drivers
  • Never ride at night unless we have plenty of lights (we carry blinkies for those rare times when we need to ride in the dark)
  • Choose roads with minimal traffic (not always possible, but we try to choose back roads when we have the choice)

Avoid areas known for guerilla activity or other security risks

  • So far, this has never happened, but if there was an area known for kidnapping we would avoid it.
  • We sought out a police escort when passing through areas known for robbery
  • Be aware of changing conditions and be ready to respond.  An example of that is Colombia – it is now very, very safe to travel in, but people still have the idea that it is dangerous.  The reverse could also be true if there is a sudden government change or some other event occurs.

Eat healthy food and maintain sanitary conditions

  • It can be hard to be very clean in remote areas, but we do our best to keep hands and food clean.  We aren’t fanatical about cleanliness, however – a certain amount of germs makes us stronger
  • Drink bottled water or otherwise make sure water is safe to drink

Watch the bikes at all times and choose camping spots carefully

  • Never leave the bikes unattended unless they are safely locked up in a hotel
  • Look for camping spots where we either have permission from the landowner or we pull off the road to a hidden spot where nobody knows we are there
  • While passing through cities known for theft, we use extra straps on our gear to make it harder to get off the bikes
  • When passing through dicey areas, we stay in a tight pack and pass through quickly without stopping

Will these precautions preclude something happening?  Absolutely not.  But we feel the risks we face while on the road are similar to what we would deal with if we lived at home in Boise, Idaho.  And out here, we’re having a lot more fun!
*****This article is part of a series of articles on the dangers of travel.

How dangerous is family bike touring?

Life doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee

Risk Assessment – A personal decision

Isn’t bike touring dangerous?

Acceptable level of risk

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

This entry was posted in 14 Bolivia, Nancy, Preparation and tagged , , , , , , by Nancy Sathre-Vogel. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

5 thoughts on “Tips for bike touring safely

  1. I completely agree with you! This summer I rode from my home in Olympia, WA down the coast to the CA/Mexico border. All my non-cyclist friends seemed to think I was embarking on a dangerous trip. My own father wanted to give me a gun to carry (I declined, saying I could see the headlines, “Woman Shot From Her Own Panniers”). I, too, found that people were nothing but friendly and generous. I think this misconception of danger comes from what people hear about from the media. No one ever reports on how many cyclists never have problems. That doesn’t make the news. Only the tragedies are reported. That is not to minimize what may have happened to that person, but put it into perspective. I also believe a life without some risk is not truly a life. I will continue to use common sense, ride as safely as I can and enjoy the journey!

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  2. To quote myself (we had this discussion over at salon.com, remember?

    “The point is that there is a certain level of danger, and it’s both here and there. There are regions to avoid, and regions you can move about freely…

    I moved in Cairo, Egypt, in a feeling of relative safety – four months later an extremist bomb blew up a hotel lobby I had sat in. I walk to the tram stop across the road everyday – a year ago a child was killed there not minding the apporaching tram while I was walking by with my own child at my hand. I would still go to Egypt again, and of course I still go to my tram station. I, too, have places I would not go – my own city’s old town pub area on a Friday night, for example, or New York. Why not New York? Not because of experience of my own, but because that’s what I saw in the movies…

    As of today, the Vogels keep to the right side of the road, whatever you say, they’ve proven it in the past two years, they are proving it in this very minute. What tomorrow may bring, tomorrow will show. Jürgen Chrobog, former German ambassador to the US and long-time expert in hostage exchange negotiation, got himself taken hostage on a 2005 holiday in Jemen, complete with his entire family.”

    I stick to that, and you are putting it accurately. You are doing fince, and there’s a fair chance it will stay like this.

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  3. Great post! I get asked about the danger of road cycling frequently. The same folks who ask m of cycling is dangerous are the same folks who stay at home, watching TV on the weekends rather than doing something. I believe road cycling is safer than staying at home watching TV, the danger to you psyche and health are much worse for the couch taters! Thanks for the post! Blue sky and safe rides.

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  4. For some reason this post reminded me of the movie, “An American Werewolf in London”, in it the American hikers were warned to not wander onto the moors and to stay on the road. Well, they didn’t which is the reason for the movie.

    It sounds like if the locals told you to stay away from a certain area you would. Which is good because it would be the locals who would know where the bad parts of town are.

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