How dangerous is family bike touring?

I’m never quite sure how to respond to the whole “danger” issue of bike touring. Although the vast majority of people understand that traveling on bike is not inherently any more dangerous than biking to school in your own city, not everyone sees that.  Biking is one of those activities that appears outrageously dangerous to some people, although the reality is rarely as bad as their fears make it out to be.

Nancy with Daryl on a tagalong

For those you who are new to my blog, I am speaking about the danger issue from a unique vantage point as a mother of twin boys who has now spent a total of four years on the road cycling 27,000 miles through fifteen countries – with my husband and children. In 2006/07, when our sons were in third grade, we cycled 9300 miles around the US and Mexico. In June 2008 we left the shores of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska on bicycles and spent the next three years cycling 17,300 miles to the southern tip of Argentina.

What we did, and what quite a few other families are doing, is both safe and beneficial for our children.

Is there a chance something could happen? You bet! But one of my most vivid memories is that of an ambulance screaming by our house and stopping at the house a block away – a six-year-old boy had slipped in the bathtub, hit his head, and died. We hear stories all the time of people being injured or killed in car accidents – and yet we think we’re protected by the pile of metal and glass surrounding us.

tandem wth tagalong

I often tell the story about how we spent an entire year cycling the US and Mexico and had no problems at all – and then three weeks after we got home to Boise, Idaho, my son came face-to-face with TWO rattlesnakes just a few miles south of our home while climbing an extinct volcano. A few weeks later, I was hit by a car for the only time in my life a mere 4.5 miles from our house.

Life is full of dangers, and we have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

Children need to feel loved. They need to feel secure. They need to know Mom and Dad are there for them. We love our children dearly – so much so that we were willing to spend 24/7 with them rather than dropping them off at daycare for someone else to raise. Not only were we willing to do that, we wanted it. Our children know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are loved. They were safe and secure in the knowledge that Mom and Dad were there for them – all the time, not just part time.

Near Carlsbad Caverns

I’ve tried really, really hard to figure out where the whole “danger” thing comes in, but I’ll openly admit I don’t really get it. I’m not sure at what point people think we cross the line and enter into a very dangerous situation where we’re endangering our children’s lives and well-being. I hope you, dear reader, can help me find THE POINT where people feel a bike journey changes from being a nice, wholesome family bike ride into a horribly risky adventure.

For those who feel we’ve flirted with our children’s lives, I’ve got a whole continuum below and would really appreciate it if you could let me know at what point you feel we turn the corner, so to speak. I am honestly curious and have no clue at what point it becomes dangerous or detrimental to the children – please don’t take this as an attack or being sarcastic or whatever – I honestly want to know.

My family cycled 17,000 miles in 1000 days when we cycled from Alaska to Argentina – that comes to an average of 17 miles/day, so that’s the amount I’ll use here. We happen to be from Boise, Idaho, so I use Boise here. We could very easily substitute Toronto or London or any other city.

  1. One Saturday afternoon we take off as a family and ride 17 miles around Boise. Is that a wholesome family activity or over the top where we risked life or limb?
  2. We enjoyed that so much, we decide to make it a weekly thing. Every Saturday we head out for a 17-mile ride around Boise. Now are we risking too much?
  3. We need a bit more exercise, so decide to ride 17 miles three times per week. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday we take off and ride around Boise. We sometimes make a loop, sometimes an out-and-back, but never stray farther than 8.5 miles from our house. Risky? Or OK?
  4. It’s so much fun, we decide to do it every day. We’re still keeping it close to home, but we head out to cycle 17 miles every day. Are we now flirting with our lives?
  5. It was raining one day, so decided to skip our ride. Tomorrow we do 34 miles to make up the miles. Is it dangerous now?
  6. We get a bit tired of the roads around Boise, so we load the bikes on the car and drive for an hour, then get the bikes out and ride our 17 miles. Dangerous or no?
  7. Grandma wants us to visit her in Connecticut, so we load the car and head east. We still want to ride our bikes, so we take the bikes with us and head out for a morning 17-mile ride from wherever we are, then load the bikes to drive a few hundred miles. While in Connecticut we still ride those 17 miles, but now they are out of Grandma’s house. Is this risky now?
  8. Gas prices are really high, and we happen to have plenty of time, so we decide to skip the driving parts and just ride our bikes to Grandma’s house. We still do our 17 miles each day, but we just don’t bother driving to a new place – we bike there instead. Now have we crossed the line?
  9. Oops – we turned left instead of right and head into another country. Is this the point where it turns into that really, really risky venture?
  10. A good friend lives in Mexico, so we load our bikes on a plane and fly down to visit her. We stay with her for a month and take daily 17-mile rides out of her house. Dangerous yet?
  11. Another friend lives 17 miles from the first friend, so we ride from Friend A’s house to Friend B’s.
  12. It takes us three days of riding 17 miles per day to get to Friend C’s house. Is that where the danger comes in?
  13. It takes 10 days to get to another friend’s house. Is that too much?
  14. 30 days?
  15. What if we ditched the bikes altogether and traveled by bus? Would that be risking life and limb?
  16. Or on a boat?

I think you get the idea here – at what point does a bike journey change from being a nice, wholesome family activity to being outrageously risky?

By getting this out in the open I hope we can understand each others’ perspectives a bit better. Thank you for taking the time to help us all understand each other better!

*****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

family in Colombia

 

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

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.

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26 Responses to How dangerous is family bike touring?

  1. Fredrik May 19, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    What a nice way to defuse the danger issue. If I were to ask a question about the danger of bike travel, I suppose my interest – and the phrasing – would be about cycling conditions, especially in other countries.
    First of all, that would be a question about road culture in general – and anyone who’s travelled beyond their border/comfort zone, has probably had some hairy motoring experiences. Overnight bus rides in India certainly tests your nerves, at least the first time.
    The other part of my “danger” question would be what countries are best – and worst – for cycling.
    So while I don’t think cycling is inherently dangerous, the relative risks of various cycling experiences could make for an interesting topic.

    I’ll try to catch the next posts about the dangers of travelling. But now, I’m off to experience the joy of travel. Armenia, here I come :-)

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  2. Mark May 20, 2011 at 7:18 am #

    Danger is perceived by the individual based on their own risk assessment, so it is quite likely you will never fully understand why some think your journeys may have been dangerous. As a cyclist and mountaineer, many people think what I do for fun is incredibly dangerous. I do not. I am very cautious and take only calculated risks, knowing exactly what a bad move might cost me. In following your blog, it seems that you all have made very wise choices to prevent getting into dangerous situations, particularly when traveling with police and motorcycle escorts through the US-Mexico border zone and in select cities with known risks like Panama City. The only way to eliminate risk is to do nothing, but we can certainly minimize risk, and thus danger, by making wise choices…you all certainly did that.

    There’s also a perceived danger, particulary among US residents, of traveling in Latin and South American countries. This is obviously fueled by media coverage of extreme events in these lands with no balance of coverage showing the wonderful, peace-loving people that are the norm in these countries, and most countries in the world. The experiences you’ve shared in your blog have even helped me abandon pre-conceived notions about select countries like Colombia as I have seen through your experiences the good in people…and that the Cali cartel doesn’t run the whole country as one might think after watching the evening news!

    Your family is blessed with the understanding of the goodness that is foundational in the vast majority of the world’s citizens, so you understood that the dangers you would face on your journey differed little from the dangers faced on a 17-mile ride around Boise. Hopefully over time more and more people will realize the same thing.

    Congrats on your amazing journey from AK to Ushuia and on finding “home” in Boise!

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  3. Randi May 20, 2011 at 8:00 am #

    I think what your family is doing is amazing! I love hearing about your stories and all of the amazing adventures you are able to do while as a family and on the road with bikes. If I had more knowledge and the guts to take off and do what you did, I would in a heartbeat. While I could gain the knowledge with some studying, I’m not sure I could get the ‘guts’ to up and leave my house and life. I’m a planner so not knowing is something that would be hard for me to face. That’s not to say that I don’t envy your ability to do just that. I’m sure there is some danger in your adventures, but I agree with you, you face no more danger than families whose children sit in the home all day watching television, playing video games with violence as key, eating crap food all day, in turn getting no exercise, becoming obese and spiriling downward. That is a danger, a real danger! Thanks again for sharing all of your adventures in your blog!

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  4. Jerald Byrd May 20, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Hello Nancy,

    Our family was wondering about your general living trip expenses. Perhaps this was discussed previously and we missed it.

    But could you share with us, by country, of the 15 you all passed through, which were the most expensive to the least to live in, or bike through. Things like food and hotels.

    Thanks again, Jerald

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  5. Val Joiner May 20, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    I’ll take the “danger” of biking any day over the danger of fast food and a sedentary lifestyle. Now that’s endangering your children’s lives and well-being. At what point have those critics crossed the line? How often are they hitting the drive-through? How much time are their kids spending glued to electronics? At what point is it ok to question their judgement as parents?

    Thanks for a great post and giving a voice to reason.

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  6. Justin May 20, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    I just got off the phone with my mother and she says, “I haven’t met one person who gets what your doing. They all think your nuts and you haven’t thought about it enough.”

    That is about right, isn’t it?

    I do get that is hard to see when you don’t have the information or experience. But this “fear” thing is driving me nuts. I never thought taking a bike ride would become irresponsible and dangerous.

    I think it all comes back to travel as a whole. We are scared of what we don’t know or understand. And HOME, assuming it’s treated you well, always feels pretty safe.

    It’s like that guy in high school who never left town. Comfort is hard to give up. But that doesn’t make the alternative “dangerous”.

    Flying in planes is the safest form of travel. And yet most are scared. Go figure.

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  7. Erin May 20, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    Out of curiosity, how often do people tell you you’re endangering your kids biking? And who is concerned?
    I was expecting to hear similar things about taking babies and young toddlers backpacking in remote Alaska wilderness for weeks at a time. And have been surprised to hear very little criticism along those lines. Trying to figure out if it’s a regional culture thing, or if people have different perceptions of biking vs hiking, etc…

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  8. Lisa May 20, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    I hear about adults & children being killed in car crashes all the time. 99% of the time the deceased were in cars, in seatbelts. The only times I can remember hearing about children being killed by a car were not on a bicycle, but standing at the side of a road, using a crosswalk or playing in their driveway. *Never* cycling with their parents. If that had ever happened, you can bet it would be front page news.

    Obviously, media coverage is not an accurate representation of safety, but I really do think serious accidents while cycling much rarer than people think. Honestly, there should be mandatory helmet laws for drivers & car passengers: I’m positive there are many more head injuries each year from being in cars than cycling.

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  9. nancy May 20, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    Thank you all. I do think the whole “fear of the unknown” issue is the main problem here, but I’m not sure how to best combat that.

    Erin – It doesn’t come up all that often, but is always unsettling when it does. The vast majority of people feel that what we are doing is great for kids – even if it’s not something they personally would want to do. However, those that are opposed to it can be very vociferous!

    I also think the “danger” issue is more prevalent than we think, but most people who feel that way know they are going against the grain so don’t say anything about it. I always appreciate it when someone does call me out for it as it allows the issue to be discussed.

    Jerald: I’ve written about the financial side of our journey in a series of articles. You can find them here: http://familyonbikes.org/resources/finances/afford.htm

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  10. Theresa May 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    I just don’t get it either. None of that sounds dangerous to me. None of it.

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  11. Friedel May 20, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    Danger isn’t easy to quantify. It depends on so many things. The conditions (traffic, weather), the experience of the riders, the condition of the bicycle… just to name a few. Your 17 mile ride is a breeze and very safe for experienced riders on quiet roads in good weather. It’s dangerous if it’s 17 miles on a highway in a snowstorm with a bike that’s falling apart. In general, however, assuming the cyclists are confident riders, the routes are well chosen and the bikes are in good shape, I’d say bike touring is far less dangerous than what people perceive it to be.

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  12. Leah May 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

    I have only just come across your blog and this is really the only post I’ve read. (I think I read a few other posts a long time ago but am not really sure). I think there’s really only 3 (and 1 less so) circumstances that would make bike riding dangerous; 1) On heavily trafficked roads where there’s a lot of traffic doing high speeds; 2) In very bad weather; 3) the geography and condition of the road/trail/track you are cycling. There’s a path in Bolivia that is considered the most dangerous road in the world for a reason. People cycle down it for a thrill and many die. 4) (the “less so” point) – If the person is too young or inexperienced to make sensible judgments (obviously this danger is not as applicable for you because you are adults riding *with* children). However, these are all regardless of where you are, how far you are riding, or (for the most part) the age of the person.

    Travel is dangerous in some instances and so then, logically, cycling in such instances would also be dangerous – places with serious civil unrest, out-of-control crime, etc – but that’s not the cycling that’s dangerous.

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  13. Leah May 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    Oh, as an addendum to my point #3 – re; geography etc, riding over big deserts or stretches of road with very few resources along the way carries more danger than riding in other places, or even than driving in such locations. If your car breaks down you still have the shelter of the car. I think these instances are a rarity though, and if you are prepared, the danger is lessened significantly.

    These are all specific things that might make biking dangerous in specific circumstances though. In normal circumstances I don’t see bike riding being any more dangerous than any other travel.

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  14. Cheap Flights to Lagos May 27, 2011 at 6:52 am #

    that’s better way to defuse the dangerous issue.

    so it’s great post.
    thank you very much for the awesome post.

    [Reply]

  15. The_Super_unGnome February 11, 2012 at 12:01 am #

    I have had to discuss this topic with my parents and my in-laws within the past 2 weeks. We discussed many of the things you brought up but it would have been nice to have stumbled upon your blog sooner. You would have been a good reference.

    I will be reading more about your family while we start our first tour.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

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    Nancy Reply:

    @The_Super_unGnome,
    People tend to get freaked out, but when you ask for specifics, they don’t know what they’re freaking out about. Just be ready to address their fears when they come out and move on. You’ll love your time on the road!

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  16. Matilda December 11, 2013 at 5:26 am #

    Great post. Thank you! It has made me recognise and address some of my own (unfounded) fears about cycling. Our young family love being on our Dutch cargo bike in Perth Australia, and I often get frowned at for having my 3 and 1 year old with me and my very able 5 year old cycling on her own in front of our bike. I hadn’t realised how much tension I was holding on to for our weekly rides. I’m letting fear go and embracing the freedom of the bike. Viva la velo!

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Matilda, Biking is a great family activity! Sure, there is a chance that something could happen, but there’s a chance of that no matter what you do. In the end, it’s all about getting out there and enjoying the ride.

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  17. Dave Jackson August 14, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    The point at which it becomes dangerous is if/when you choose motorway/freeway style roads with cars and lorries passing close at 60-70mph. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to think it dangerous if you hadn’t asked the question. Like you say lots of people are killed surrounded by a ton of metal every year. If some disease was responsible for as many deaths it would be declared an emergency by the World Health Organisation. Cycling in cities like London which I do several times a year, is I am sure far more dangerous. Even given the deaths of cyclists, statistically it is far more likely to prolong the life of yourself and your children so carry on with what you enjoy and carry on spreading the message!

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    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Dave Jackson, We ended up on our share of freeways throughout the years. Although they weren’t pleasant, I wouldn’t call them dangerous – for the most part. In the USA, freeways tend to have very wide shoulders – like 2 meters or more. Even though the cars are going fast, we could be quite a ways from them.

    The worst part of riding on freeways was all the flat tires caused by tiny wires from retreads. That was miserable.

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