Will I die if I go cycle touring?
Will I be run over, or murdered as I’m sleeping in my tent? Will I be attacked, robbed and possibly beaten? Is cycle touring dangerous? Let me start answering those questions by asking you how you define dangerous. Some things are obvious: walking up to a pride of hungry lions is undoubtedly dangerous, as is touching exposed and live electrical cables. Walking across a tightrope over the Niagara falls is dangerous.
The real risks
Now, let’s look at the less obvious things, and some of these may surprise you. For starters, as anything that can kill you is certainly dangerous, we’ll start by looking at your biggest risks of death, assuming you don’t try to pet hungry wild lions, you steer clear of electrical cables and you’ll never go on a tightrope.
Thing is, I bet you use stairs every day, and you think nothing of it, but did you know that in 2020 alone, in the UK 700 people died from falling on stairs? Life gets way more dangerous than that, when looking at the data from the Office For National Statistics: 5 207 people died in 2020 from “Other unspecified falls”, 122 people died from falling off their beds, 75 died from “Falling from, out of or through buildings”. There were 15 people who died after “Contact with hot tap-water”, 8 died after “Contact with other mammals” (which excludes dogs), 3 died from “Contact with dog”, 2 died due to “Fall due to snow or ice” and 1 died from exposure to sunlight – yes, in the UK.
Now I ask you, are you terrified of falling when just walking? Are you terrified of falling from your bed? Do you hide from sunlight, in your best Dracula impression? Of course not!
Some of those scary figures we can explain: the vast majority of people who died from falls, and almost all who died after falling from a bed, were very old and frail, and that statistic alone should underline how much more careful all of us should be around old people.
Stairs are far more dangerous
In 2020, 141 cyclists were killed on the UK’s roads, which given how low the percentage of cyclists are across the whole population, is worryingly high. However, practically five times more people were killed from falls on stairs, across all age groups, yet you’re not even slightly concerned about taking the stairs. A further 1 460 people were killed in car crashes, yet you don’t think twice before getting in a car, despite that being more than ten times the number of cyclists killed. It really helps to put things into perspective, doesn’t it?
Cycle touring in the UK is very safe, and your biggest risks will probably be to avoid getting bitten by horse flies. In some UK cities – London and Birmingham – there are occasional incidents of gangs targeting cyclists, to steal high-value bikes, so yes, that can be a risk, but it’s a risk that you can control, mainly by avoiding large cities, or riding in a group.
Sadly, it’s a damning indictment of our society that as a man I can pedal off through unknown (to me) areas, without a care, even at night, while women usually can’t afford to be so cavalier about it. If you’re a woman, that is a real risk, and one that I expect you will be painfully aware of. The easiest way to mitigate that risk is to go cycle touring in a group, but that does mean that you won’t get the solitude that so often can be one of the best parts of cycle touring.
We all get stuck in our own comfort zones, and it’s little wonder so many people will find it unnerving to sleep in a tent pitched on the edge of some farmer’s field. However, when you get over that initial often serious anxiety about wild-camping, you learn to enjoy it. It is for exactly this reason that I offer guided wild-camping experiences, so people can overcome their initial anxiety in a safe, legal and supportive environment.
Don’t have a cow
There are some sensible tips I can give you, to help you stay safer when cycle touring. For starters, go read those stats above again. The “Contact with other mammals” one, specifically, because it refers mainly to the most dangerous animal in the UK: cows. Cows are usually docile, but they’re far bigger, heavier and stronger than you. Never mess with cows! You don’t have to, well, cower in fear, but usually you’ll be better off with a fence between you and them. And even if the cows were friendly, farmers tend to be (quite understandably) significantly less-than-friendly towards people who they feel might be messing with their livestock.
If there’s a bull in the field, just stay very far away!
A very good rule-of-thumb is to never camp in fields with closed gates, or with livestock in. It’s a far better option to pitch your tent on the uncultivated edge of field with crops growing in it, but ensure you stay out of the crops.
If you encounter a dog off the lead, the temptation will be to try and outpace it. If you can easily do so, then go for it, but remember a laden touring bike is not as nimble as a road bike. If you cannot outpace the dog, get off your bike, keeping the bike between you and the dog at all times. Most dogs will lose interest once you’re off the bike.
Dehydration and heat stroke are real risks, even in the UK, and you need to be aware of the risks, and crucially, the warning signs that I’ve posted about before. Please do yourself the favour and go read that.
I have other posts you should go read, too, starting with Security While Cycle Touring. When you’ve read that, also have a look at steps you can take to keep the thieves at bay. Finally, never overlook the importance of digital security!
Between all of those, you should have enough know-how to keep yourself and your kit safe while cycle touring.