International Bicycle Safety Guide
Bicycles are the top form of transit around the world, and for good reason: they’re relatively inexpensive to acquire and maintain, they don’t pollute, and they keep their users healthy. You don’t even need to own one! Bike share programs are on the rise globally, making them accessible to everyone.
World travellers benefit from not needing to worry about renting a vehicle or having an international driver’s license and insurance. Instead, they can focus on a more immersive, full-contact experience of their destination.
This increased exposure does require that riders be careful, taking precautions to remain safe in their surroundings. Below you’ll find recommendations on what to bring with you so you can make the most of your ride, as well as some regional-specific tips to help make your trip easy and fulfilling – no matter where you travel.
Personal Safety Gear and Accessories to Carry With You
Between scenic paths in the countryside and jam-packed urban streets, you’ll likely experience a wide range of environments on your bike. Smart cyclists make sure they can get by, even when seemingly stranded in the middle of nowhere. Here are some items you want to make sure you bring:
- ID - Whether you’re making a quick trip to the corner store or riding on a remote mountain trail, you want to make sure you have a way to identify yourself. Even though you don’t need a license to ride a bike, you are still subject to traffic laws and ticketing – including bicycle DWIs in some areas. The safest choice of ID to carry with you internationally is your passport. Be very protective of it, and familiarize yourself with common passport scams. It is good practice to carry a photo copy of your passport in case it gets stolen.
- Credit card, traveler’s checks, or other form of secure payment - Carrying cash is generally considered to be a poor choice, since it makes you an easy target for theft with little you can do to protect yourself should something happen. Many tout credit cards as being the safest form of payment to carry, since most have zero-liability policies in case they get lost or stolen. Many cards don’t charge a foreign transaction fee when used abroad. Traveler’s checks – which are now packaged as prepaid credit cards, sometimes even with chip-and-PIN features – can be replaced within 24 hours if they are lost or stolen.
- Bike helmet - If you are renting/borrowing a bike, check with your provider to see if you can rent a helmet. Many cities around the world are now requiring bikers to wear a helmet, so you should check the laws in your destination. Even if it’s not the law, you should still wear protection since you will be riding on completely unfamiliar terrain as well as likely distracted by the novel sights. If you cannot borrow a helmet, make sure you either pack one in your luggage or else buy one when you get to your destination.
- Cell phone - In case of an emergency, you’ll want to have your cell phone on you. Before you set out, save the number for the local police and emergency services. Make sure your phone is fully charged; consider bringing a back-up battery or even charger.
- Camera - Many phones come with a built-in camera, so make sure it’s functional or else bring one. Not only will you want to take pictures to remember your trip, but in case something happens – such as you encounter a strange plant or animal, or get into some sort of accident – you’ll want to have a way to document it for later reference. Bonus points if you can capture video (hello, GoPro!). That said, always ask before you take a picture of local people.
- Translation device - Ask Siri or Cortana for help translating on your iPhone or Android phone, consult with any number of translation apps available online, use Google Translate, or refer to a designated translation device (and make sure it’s fully charged!). Make sure you have a way to speak to the local natives in case something happens.
- Water bottle or canteen - This might not be absolutely necessary on a quick city trip, but it’s definitely essential for nature rides of any length. Newer stainless steel models keep your water cold for as long as a day while still being lightweight.
- First aid kit – Even a skinned knee can quickly turn nasty if not tended to quickly! Some of the most common bike injuries are minor cuts and scrapes, as well as bug bites or rashes. Always carry bandages, ibuprofen, duct tape, Benadryl (for stings and allergic reactions), and safety pins with you in your first aid kit, just in case. A common injury on mountain bike rides is a broken clavicle, which you can identify when you feel pain upon touching a lump that appeared on your collarbone after a fall; if this happens to you, move your bike to safety, then fasten your shirt over your elbow using a safety pin, bending your elbow at a right angle. Use your phone to get help before you aggravate the injury further. Whatever the injury, make sure the first thing you do is pull off the road to get to safety.
Safety Rules By Region
The Americas (North and South)
With a range of cities and natural wonders to explore, North and South America are full of awesome bike experiences. Since most people speak English or Spanish (and often both), bike travelers can feel a bit more at ease.
- The League of American cyclists has compiled a fabulous resource that explains US state biking laws – including helmet rules and traffic laws –while also ranking the states in terms of their bike friendliness. In turn, 8 out of 10 Canadian provinces require bike helmets for everyone. In both countries, bikes must stick to the right side of the road (a growing number of bike lanes are appearing, which are found on the right side of the road; when these exist, cyclists must ride in them) and remain in single file.
- Road shoulders in Central America make the roads far friendlier than cyclists first expect! Tourism by bike is certainly encouraged by the fact that you don’t need to worry about visas ahead of time. Americans, Canadians, and Europeans can easily obtain visas on the border. Mountain biking tours and other adventures are on the rise in the Americas, and with that come better maintained trails and supportive cyclist communities.
- Altitude sickness is a common ailment that afflicts unsuspecting bike riders, particularly in the diverse terrains of the Americas. The best thing to do is heed what your body is trying to tell you. Stop your ride and give yourself a chance to get acclimated to your new environment if you need to. Never go mountain biking alone!
- Press coverage recently has focused on growing numbers of Latin Americans ditching their cars for bikes, and celebrities like David Byrne have become advocates as they’ve shared their bike travel adventures. Buenos Aires and Mexico City have been on the forefront of developing bike lanes to protect cyclists, constructing concrete barriers to keep them safe. Colombia and Chile are leading in lane construction, building hundreds of miles of bike lanes per year.
- The biggest issues facing cyclists in Central and South America is bike theft and crime.
- Local Chilean engineering students have focused their efforts on developing theft-proof bikes. Be sure to bring a good bike lock with you, and learn the proper way to lock up your bike.
- Always research your destinations ahead of time. Map out your journey, and be sure to check crime and safety reports from local police as well as the news. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of drug trafficking and organized crime in Latin America, so make sure you
The European Union has been pushing hard on an initiative to make bicycles a transportation alternative that fits right in alongside cars, but this takes time to implement in all member countries since bike lanes and laws need to be established. However, the biggest difference about bicycles in Europe is not in the infrastructure for them, but in the culture: while in many parts of the world bikes are primarily considered to be a mode of recreation, in Europe they are esteemed as mass transportation. Automobile drivers respect bikes as much as their fellow cars and trucks, and that promotes greater safety.
- Biking in cities like Stockholm, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bruges, Munich, Salzburg, and Florence is particularly safe due to a long history of bike acceptance. Here, biking is faster than walking – giving you more time to explore the city – and keeps you in complete control of your time, as opposed to having to wait on public transportation. Cities like Rome are still working to catch up.
- Most cities in Europe now have some sort of bike sharing open to the public, where you use some sort of chip card – that sometimes needs to be purchased at a newsstand or bus station – to rent bikes by the hour from stations distributed across the city. Be sure to check out your destination’s bike share options in advance, and also consider downloading the free app that most of them offer to help with payment and station locators. It’s usually a safe bet to assume that if you’re near a train station, there will be a bike share on hand. Even in less urban areas, bike rental shops can be found all throughout the mountains and major rivers, where the best countryside riding can be found.
- Bike helmets are currently mandatory in Malta, and in non-urban areas of Spain. Helmets for children under 16 are required in Sweden, Slovenia, and the Czech republic. Public discussion on the helpfulness of helmets continues in Europe, as many argue that helmets encourage a false sense of security and contribute to more reckless bike behaviors that endanger the cyclist more.
- Review the EU’s traffic rules for cyclists. Make sure you stick to the right-hand side of the road (the left if you’re in the UK or Ireland). Bikes are required to adhere to cycle lanes and tracks, and may not use motorways; sidewalks are an option only when pushing a bike along. Germany and Scandinavian countries have been implementing cyclist-only streets, though if these are unsuitable a cyclist is still allowed to share the road with cars.
- Bike tours are extremely popular in Europe, and a great way to get an insiders’ scoop on what life is like in your destination – from Paris through Berlin - in addition to seeing the sights. E-bikes are another alternative that might help you recruit friends and family who might be on the fence about joining you!
With plenty of Western coverage of the poor air quality and overcrowding in China’s cities, a very public turn to accommodating cyclists has certainly proven beneficial to travelers, with the introduction of massive bike share systems. This is not an entirely new effort in a country whose party in power heavily subsidized the bike industry, to promote a form of transportation that would let them save on infrastructural repairs. China is not alone; the Wall Street Journal has referred to Asia as “a hub for bikes.”
- Hong Kong has the most stringent bike laws in Asia, and a very strong biking community as a result. There, a bike is considered a vehicle, and is required to stop at the request of a police or traffic officer as well as in the event of an accident (or else it’s a “hit and run”), as well as always carry a form of identification. Where designated bike paths exist, bikes are not allowed on the road. Biking under the influence results in a fine the first time, and imprisonment for up to three months for repeat offenses. Children under 11 are not allowed to ride by themselves.
- Country parks do not permit bikes to be ridden or pushed through. The only exception to this rule is for individuals carrying a special cycling permit.
- Japan passed the 2015 Road Traffic law to address the growing problem of reckless cyclists who ignored traffic lights and signs, failed to stop at intersections, rode around with failing breaks, and even biked while drunk. Notably, Japan also enforces safety regulations prohibiting cyclists from using mobile phone, wearing headphones, or carrying an umbrella while riding.
- Southeast Asia has emerged as a haven of sorts for bike riders due to the courteous drivers and peaceful roads. That said, secondary roads in Laos and Cambodia may be difficult to navigate during the rainy season due to mud; be sure to keep a watchful eye over the weather forecast, and map your route in advance. The highways in Malaysia – especially those connected to Kuala Lumpur – are extremely dangerous for cyclists due to the crazy traffic patterns, and should be avoided at all costs.
- On the other hand, secondary roads – denoted by a 4-digit number - in Thailand are the most peaceful, while even the main highways are friendly with their wide shoulders leaving plenty of room for bikes. The only exception is travel into Bangkok, where it’s easier to carry your bike into on a train; once you’re in, the pace is quick but safe for bikes.
The key to traveling through Africa is to plan your trip well in advance, mapping out your route carefully as well as packing extra supplies, to make sure you can handle the terrain, weather, and culture shock.
- The most difficult part of bike travel in Africa is handling the extreme conditions. Check the weather conditions to make sure that rain did not make the roads on your route impassable; while you won’t have to struggle much with traffic here, the roads are not as robust or well-maintained as in other parts of the world. The roads in Central Africa are notorious, especially in the Republic of Congo.
- Another reason to plan out your route is to make sure you have the appropriate visas to travel from country to country, with West African countries being notoriously difficult. Instead of getting the visa at the border, you need to visit the appropriate embassies and pay entry fees.
- Some regions of Africa are best avoided, including Somalia, Chad, and the Central Africa Republic, which are still recuperating post-genocide. Some parts of South Africa are potentially dangerous; many travelers report feeling extremely unsafe in low-income areas that are highly prone to crime, as well due to bandits who will watch you enter town, then rob you on your way out. Do your best to be street smart.
- Be sure to stock up on water before your trip to help you handle the extreme heat. Though cities have water supplies you can use to refill, the pumps in rural parts are often broken or locked (to reduce waste), so you need to make sure you are prepared well in advance. Special tablets and drops are worth considering to make sue you can always purify water on-the-go.
- Avid cyclists here recommend bringing more spare tools and parts than you usually would consider bringing. Towns can be very far apart, with limited resources, and the brutal terrain can really wear down your bike in unpredictable ways.
- Camping gear is a good idea, since cyclists in Africa frequently spend a night sleeping out in the desert. There are few organized campsites outside of Morocco, but it is totally acceptable to pitch a tent in a village or just off the road.
- Villagers in Africa are known for being extremely curious about visitors, so be prepared to be surrounded by dozens of people as you enter a new town.
Bicycle sales down under have exceeded car sales for over a decade, supporting the popularity of bikes for commuting as well as recreation. In fact, the only UCI Tour to take place in the southern hemisphere is hosted by Australia! That said, there is extensive controversy over how well supported cyclists really are, with some famous foreigners speaking out – including one famous Danish cyclist Thomas Andersen, who’s biked around the world and yet claimed Sydney as the “world’s worst place for cyclists,” due to how aggressive motorists are towards cyclists.
The inspiring part of this tale? It’s spurred action from local activists to push for better protection and awareness regarding bike safety.
- Queensland has recently passed aggressive laws for motorists passing cyclists, with the Split Rule requiring a meter’s worth of distance in a 60km/h or less speed zone, and at least 1.5 meters where the speed limit is greater than 60km/h. There is a public campaign to encourage bicyclists to wear cameras and record offenses, then report them to the police in order to make sure the law is followed.
- The people behind Safe Cycling Australia offer some great templates they’ve used to report bike incidents to the local police or government agencies, giving you a good idea of what sorts of details to keep an eye out for. The cycling community is united to monitor road conditions and make sure that the law becomes second nature to everyone sharing the roads, so that safety may prevail.
- Australia and New Zealand are one of few countries in the world with nationwide helmet laws. You must make sure to sport a helmet that meets the Standard, or else be stuck with hefty fines.
- You are also required by law to have a bell or similar, functional device.
- Cyclists have a lot of freedom regarding where they can ride, other than sidewalks. Individuals older than 12 can only ride on footpaths in Queensland, Tasmania, ACT and NT, but you must stay on the leftmost side possible and always yield to pedestrians.