Tips for Traveling, Cycling and Camping Safely as a Solo Woman
In 2008 at age 31, I took my single-woman self, my bicycle, my tent and my camping stove for a three month cycling journey through the USA. I had no problems. This is how I did it.
'Safe' and 'safely' are highly individual - what is an acceptable risk for one person, is completely unacceptable for another. Before I started my bike trip down the west coast of the United States, I had an endless number of people looking at me like I was crazy, saying I was crazy, or offering me various firearms for my protection. It was enough to make me second guess what I was doing. Would male truckers, enraged at my female insolence of biking on the road by myself attempt to run me over? Would thieves drive by me and then lie in wait ahead? In campgrounds, would I spend my nights wide-eyed in fear, listening for every noise, fearing some horror film moment? Perhaps. Nonetheless I was determined to at least try.
Precautions I took:
1. Communications. I had a cell phone. I sent texts every night to an online blog that my parents and friends were checking for updates. This was a good idea in principle, but invariably I would end up places with a dead cell phone / no reception, and cause large amounts of unnecessary anxiety for all involved. I was fine, I just couldn’t let anyone know, and parents being parents, assumed the worst. The cell phone is also useful for taking pictures of people. I didn't have to do this on my trip, but I sometimes do it while cycling around my city. If someone starts harassing me, I take a picture/video of them (or pretend to). This can also be escalating, but in public places it works like a charm.
2. Weapons. I do know people who pack a small handgun when they cycle. I am not a gun person and believe that if I had a gun, the first person it would be used on would be me. What I did bring was bear spray. Like mace, but approximately 100 times more powerful. While it is meant to dissuade Grizzlies, it would no doubt also work on humans. I rigged a little velcro and neoprene harness for it on my bike frame, and brought it into the tent with me at night - it was always within easy grabbing distance. I never used it.
3. Campgrounds. My plan was to always go to campgrounds – with rangers, families and all the other accruements of civilization that makes one feel safe. However, in reality, I was often in completely or near-deserted campgrounds. No rangers, just notes asking you to leave the money, or with rangers who drove through the campground at dusk to collect money, and then drove back to their homes 30 miles away. One of my scariest moments in a campground was when I set up my tent near a family reunion – only to be woken up at three in the morning by the sound of roaring trucks and drunken shouts – wondering if my tent and I were about to be run over by a 4x4. Sometimes campgrounds were simply not available. Leaving the Grand Canyon and heading towards Zion National park, there was no campground available for 130 miles. I ended up camping in the woods that night.
4. Campgrounds in cities. Avoid. I did not stay at a campground in a major city alone. I tried once, didn’t feel safe, spent the money for a cheap motel room instead. The campgrounds attract a lot of mentally ill people and there is no way of predicting what they might do. With my well used but expensive camping & cycling gear, I felt like a target for any desperate drug-addict.
5. Gear. You will rarely feel more vulnerable then when you are standing on the side of the road, your bike broken and your thumb out. But unless you are carrying around a toolbox of tools, spare parts, and mechanical no-how, this is probably going to happen to you at some point. Minimize the number of times it has to happen by having good gear. Know where the bike shops are on your route. Have basic repair gear and know how to use it. I always carried three spare inner tubes plus patches. I carried a ‘chainlink’ that could temporarily repair a broken chain. I had a bike mini-tool with allen keys for adjustments, and a spoke wrench. I had to hitchhike just once after a tire disintegrated. An overloaded VW van pulled up with a young family – everyone cheerfully made room for me and my bike, and we swapped travel experiences as we drove Highway 66 to the nearest bike store.
6. Weather. Be aware of the weather. Heatstroke is a real problem. As the temperature climbs you need to carry exponentially more water for each mile between refills. High winds are dangerous, as are lightening storms and heavy fog. The good news is everyone likes to talk about the weather, so wherever I stopped, I generally asked what was coming.
7. Good lights on your bike. Especially at the back. Reflectors and reflective clothing are good, but on heavy fog days, I always turned on my bright red ‘blinky’ and let it flash, warning speeding drivers of my presence ahead.
That was basically it. As I said, I had no real problems. I trusted my feelings, tried to never put myself into a situation I was uncomfortably with, and had the most amazing time experiencing the world on my own, and on my own terms. For all the scary people I didn’t meet, I met an incredible number of helpful, welcoming and warm individuals from all walks of life – people offering to share their stories & their campsites with me, feeding me, toasting me and my adventures. It was a challenging and fantastic experience. I met other cyclists too, of course. Single guys, guys towing their dogs, couples, sisters – but I only ever met one other solo female cyclist in the entire three months. She was going in the opposite direction than me, but we flagged each other down and stopped to chat. She was sixty years old and three weeks into her third solo bike tour – with no problems, “but at my age” she said, “I think I’m invisible”. I asked her – how many other women, cycling alone, have you seen?
“Just you,” she said.
What a shame, I thought.
It’s not as scary as you think, it’s a bigger adventure than you think.