Hostels are the mainstay of backpackers. Travellers with more cash to spend will splurge on hotels. Where does a bike tourist go? Just about anywhere, in our experience.
We’ve spent nights in fields, behind schools, in mosques and monasteries, on the floor of a Turkish factory, under the disco ball of a Greek bar, in huts used to shade Asian farmers from the midday shade and alongside nomad tents in the high mountains of Central Asia.
Stumbling on these more unusual sleeping spots is one of the things we enjoy about bike touring (great memories are built on nights like these), although there’s often something to be said for the convenience of the more traditional campground or hotel.
Here’s our round-up of all the places you might sleep on a bike tour – starting with our favourite way to spend the night, wild camping. Why not add your suggestions and thoughts in the comments below?
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, far from the ringing of a mobile phone or blaring televisions. 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, out of sight of people and roads and, preferably, free of any unsightly garbage or graffiti that might indicate a local hangout or party spot. 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 dirty and noisy roadside rest stops unless you have no other option.
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 trouble in the middle of the night 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 of staying as hidden as possible (don’t get a yellow tent!) and respecting anything that indicates private property like fences, signs and cultivated fields. We have never been bothered by anyone approaching our tent at night, though shepherds in the Middle East often came to invite us home or offer us treats like fresh bread. Read more about wild camping
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 America, watch out for the swankier privately-run campsites. They may be sparkling clean but they prefer big-spending RVs (some will even turn cyclists away) and charge $25-35 for what is often a pathetic piece of unshaded grass.
Things are better in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, where prices are generally lower and there tends to be a dedicated and decent spot for tents. Sometimes use of a kitchen or lounge area is even included. In less touristy areas, like the Middle East, you’ll still find campgrounds but expect a rustic experience and go prepared to bargain down the price.
Your best option though, where it exists, is a publicly run campground. Operated by municipalities and national governments, they tend to make the most of their natural surroundings and seem less prone to late night parties or the drone of generators that plagues more commercial sites. They also often offer a special price for bike tourists and are less likely to be overbooked in peak summer season.
With New Friends
Everyone you meet is a potential new friend and many are willing to let you stay for a night. To arrange a night with a new friend, start by checking out sites where people offer free accommodation to passing travellers. Of the many such sites on the web, two stand out: WarmShowers – only for bike tourists – and Couchsurfing, with its worldwide network of members. Read more about hospitality clubs
We have dozed behind churches, in schoolyards and beside official buildings like police and fire stations. We’ve also laid our mats out in the common areas of mosques and monasteries and enjoyed free camping in 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!
Since most of these options involve private land, always ask permission if at all possible. If you can’t find the person responsible for a building, ask the neighbours. In small communities (and these options work best in villages), they’ll know who to contact or will just give you permission directly.
When you can’t spot anywhere immediately obvious, just ask the locals if they know of a safe place where you can put a tent for the night. Farmers are often open to this idea and they have acres of land to spare. 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.
Sometimes you just need a break from the tent and the cheapest way to do this is with a bed in a hostel. Prices start around $10 for a space in a dorm (bring earplugs to drone out the sound of snoring roommates) to around $50 for a private double room – near the cost of a budget hotel. For your money, you get not only a bed but also a shared common area to lounge in and usually kitchen access. Like campgrounds, quality varies widely. The furnishings can be tatty and you may need to supply your own bedding. Hostels can also fill up quickly during the summer so call ahead if you want to be sure of securing a place for the night.
Nothing will blow your budget more quickly than a few nights in a hotel but they’ll be worth every penny if you’re sick or have been riding all day through terrible weather. Hotels become much more affordable if you can split the cost with friends. In cheaper parts of the world like Thailand or India, even bike tourists on a modest budget will be able to regularly splurge on hotels because rooms can always be found for just a few dollars. Whenever you take a hotel, make sure there’s a safe place to keep your bike – either in a locked storage area or directly in your room. Never leave your bike on the street outside overnight.