When the only hotel in town doubles as a brothel and wild camping options are unappealing, what’s a tired cyclist to do? Ask for help. At least that’s what we do. It’s not mooching, rather what Willie Weir refers to as Initiating Kindness.
Here are a few places we’ve found a peaceful (and free!) night’s sleep.
Wander in to almost any small-town church and you’ll find someone to help you out with a safe place to sleep for the night. We camp outside churches, we sometimes roll out our sleeping bags right inside the sanctuary and we’re often invited home to stay with the pastor and his family. We’ve stayed at many churches all through Africa, Mexico, Eastern Europe, Central and South America and even the USA.
Again, schools are one of the first places we stop if we’re stuck in a small town. Often we can roll the bikes right into a classroom and set up camp. This is much better than squeezing into a cramped hotel room next door to a rowdy bar. Even if all staff has gone home for the day, we often find the night watchman has no problem with letting us stay as long as we hit the road early the next day.
We have only been turned down once at a mosque. We all know Muslims take their hospitality very seriously, so you can count on the imam to find you an empty room where you can spend the night. It would be unusual for a Muslim to let you camp outside as this is viewed as sub-standard hospitality. You’ll surely be invited for dinner and your host may even insist you stick around for a few days.
We’ve found many lovely camping spots out back behind a roadside restaurant.
In less developed countries, remote border posts are often a good camping option. The officials are generally bored out of their minds and only too happy to have guests for the evening. Facilities vary. On the Paraguay-Bolivia border we had hot showers, excellent cooking facilities and an internet connection. On the Cameroon-Nigeria border, the officer in charge begged for a contribution to the ‘generator fund’.
I know they get a bad rap, but all in all police aren’t too bad around the world. Even in corrupt Venezuela, the police welcomed us with ice-cold soft drinks and their assurance that we’d be safe for the night.
An excellent option in Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Lots of grassy areas for camping, free showers and WiFi access.
The TransAmerica route across the USA is famous for all the fire stations who open up their doors to passing cyclists. Firemen in Mexico, Central and South America are also known to be hospitable towards cyclists.
Random People who appear kind, helpful or intelligent.
If you’re really desperate, try asking any small town shopkeeper or random person on the street. Just explain that you’re a cyclist from XYZ country and that you’re looking for a safe place to sleep.
You’ll be amazed at how many people end up helping. You might end up with anything from an empty storeroom where you can rest for the night to the keys to a comfortable guesthouse just for you. Take a chance.
Contact your Embassy
Obviously this is not a last-minute option. If you need to spend time in a capital city and can’t find a host through Couchsurfing or Warm Showers, you can always hit up your fellow countrymen for hospitality. The French Embassy found hosts for us in Panama and Tanzania. We simply sent an email explaining our situation and, lo and behold, some kind expats stepped in to help us out.
We’ve slept at rural health centers in Bolivia, Egypt, Cameroon and Mozambique. In remote areas, the doctor in charge is usually thrilled to chat with a foreigner.
We’ve actually never tried this, but many cyclists enquire at the local bike shop if somebody’s got a backyard where they might camp. Apparently, this method works well.
Yeah, duh, you’re thinking. No, I don’t mean check into a hotel and pay for a room that’s beyond your budget. Just ask if you can camp out back. Works surprisingly well and often you’re able to use shower facilities. If you get extremely lucky, a kind hotel owner might just offer you a room for the night.
City parks serve as camping spots for cyclists in many small towns throughout America. It’s probably best to ask permission at the general store or police station if there is one. Camping in the park is also common in Argentina.
My favorite camping spots are at farms. It’s quiet, you often have access to a shower and frequently you’re invited in to share a meal with the family. Farmers get lonely and are usually more than happy to have a little company for the evening.
Casa de Ciclistas
More free, no-strings-attached hospitality. More than 2.5 million members worldwide and still growing. We’ve used couchsurfing more than 100 times. Great way to meet locals, enjoy the comforts of a soft bed, home-cooked meals and fast internet connections. The ultimate way to keep your touring budget under control.
The obvious choice for cyclists. Fellow cyclists around the world offering free hospitality to cyclists on tour.