Chapter 6: Where To Sleep
Hostels are the mainstay of backpackers. Tourists with more cash to spend will splurge on hotels. Where does a bike tourist go? Just about anywhere.
Here are some of the options for pedal-powered travellers, starting with the ones we rely on most frequently:
Camping in the middle of nowhere. Photo by Tom Allen.
I carried all my camping supplies with me (tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, et cetera) so that I could camp in some of the most beautiful places in the world like the World’s Highest Monastery near Mt. Everest Base Camp; and many kind strangers hosted me in their yard, often treating me to a home cooked meal. –Scott Stoll
1. Wild Camping – Put your tent up in a field, behind some trees or alongside a river. Camping in nature – outside of the confines of traditional campgrounds – offers total flexibility, costs nothing and is wonderfully tranquil.
In many parts of the world, where tourism isn’t yet common, wild camping may be your only option and is a great way to really get a feel for a country’s natural beauty.
Nothing is perfect though. First you have to find your ideal spot. It should be out of sight of people and roads and preferably free of any garbage or graffiti that might indicate a local hangout.
Don’t be afraid to haul your bike over fields or through a stand of trees to find a good spot, far from the road.
Avoid roadside rest stops at all costs. They may seem like easy places to sleep but they tend to be noisy (with vehicles pulling in all through the night) and are often filled with litter. It’s better to search a little longer and find a truly nice place to spend the night.
If you’re new to wild camping, it’s natural to have some fears in the beginning. You may worry about the police coming to move you on or nighttime trouble from strangers or animals. The more you camp out, the more you’ll realise how peaceful wild camping generally is, as long as you follow the golden rules.
- Stay as hidden as possible. Use landscape features such as forests to camouflage your location. Don’t get a yellow tent!
- Respect private property. Don’t climb over fences, ignore ‘no trespassing’ signs or drag your bike through the middle of a cultivated field.
In our hundreds of nights spent camping wild around the world, we have never been bothered by anyone approaching our tent at night. Quite the opposite. We were rarely spotted and when we were people were generally curious and friendly.
Shepherds in the Middle East were especially hospitable. Their eyes were accustomed to the landscape and they could easily pick out our tent, even when we thought we were well hidden. They would inevitably come to say hello.
These first encounters often resulted in an offer to let us sleep in their homes (they couldn’t believe we would be warm enough in a tent), or a return visit a few hours later with gifts of fresh bread and homemade yogurt.
2. Campgrounds – A warm shower and a place to lay your head at a budget price. Sounds great, right?
At their best, campgrounds are indeed a haven for the passing bike tourist but some cater better than others to the needs of a cyclist.
In the developed world, steer clear of the swankiest privately-run campsites that are more like holiday parks than a place for a cyclist to spend the night. Such places tend to prefer big-spending RVs and charge $25-35 U.S. for what is often a pathetic piece of unshaded grass. Some will even turn cyclists away because they simple don’t cater for tenters.
What you’re really looking for is a small campground with reasonable prices and a dedicated, grassy spots for tents. Ideally, you’ll even find that use of a kitchen or lounge area is included. These more charming campgrounds are sometimes categorised as ‘nature campsites’ or ‘camping on the farm’ and you can find whole networks of them in a particular country or region.
Campgrounds run by municipalities and national governments also tend to be a safe bet. In general, they make the most of their natural surroundings and are less prone to late-night parties or the drone of generators that plague more commercial sites.
The further off the beaten path you go, the more rustic the campgrounds become. These primitive spots are often very scenic and tranquil, so we think it’s worth putting up with the pit toilets!
3. With Friends – Everyone you meet on a bike tour is a potential new friend. You’ll be amazed by how many people are interested in your trip, especially in countries where cycling isn’t so common. Many of these people are also willing to let you stay for a night.
Sometimes they’ll invite you home on their own. Other times they’ll volunteer after you ask about a good place to pitch your tent for a night, or they’ll help you find an appropriate spot.
In addition to finding places serendipitously, with people you bump into while travelling, you can also arrange a night with a new friend. This can be done via many websites but we recommend two in particular: WarmShowers (exclusively for bicycle tourists) and Couchsurfing (open to anyone).
If you make friends with the restaurant staff, ask to pitch your tent behind the building or even to lay your sleeping mat out on the floor after the restaurant is closed. Photo by TravellingTwo.
4. Unconventional Options – Camping doesn’t have to mean sneaking off into the woods or going to an official campground.
We have dozed behind churches, in schoolyards and beside official buildings like police and fire stations. We’ve also laid our sleeping mats out in the common areas of mosques and monasteries, on the floors of factories, in restaurants and under the disco ball of a Greek bar – after the owner graciously treated us to drinks and homemade pizza.
You can even camp for free in many of America’s local parks. Just ask at the town hall and beware of sprinklers set to come on in the early hours of the morning!
Most of these options work best in small close-knit villages and involve private land, so ask permission if at all possible. If you can’t find the person responsible for a building, ask the neighbours. In small communities, they’ll know who to contact or will just give you permission directly.
When you can’t spot anywhere immediately obvious, ask the locals if they know of a safe place where you can put a tent for the night. The wording is critical here. Don’t ask for a place to camp, or they may assume you want to stay for several days. Make sure they understand you’re just passing through and that you’re on a budget, so you can’t afford to go to the hotel just down the road.