Traffic Safety for Bikepackers

By Alissa Bell: pedal-powered freedom seeker, 20k+ miles of bikepacking and touring on 6 continents

At the risk of being a downer, today I want to talk about something really important: traffic safety. As bikepackers our affinity for lesser-traveled backroads and trails is already a great starting point for a safe trip. If there are no cars, they can’t hit us.

But bikepack long enough and eventually you’ll experience it: a narrow two lane highway streaming with RVs on a summer Sunday afternoon, or the busy downtown strip of a resupply town at rush hour. It may only be a few miles, but those miles can feel like all of eternity as you hug the white line and white-knuckle your handlebars.

Tragically, bikepackers have been killed by motorists while out doing this thing we love. It’s very rare and I consider bikepacking a safe enough activity, statistically speaking, even though I’m pretty risk-averse. But it does happen, and when I’m out there on my bike sometimes the risk feels all too real.

So this post is about the things I do in an effort to avoid motor vehicle collisions: high-visibility gear, riding techniques, and more. Before getting sucked into bikepacking I was road touring, usually on other continents, and I’ve experienced my share of close calls on a bike. It was the stress of motor vehicles during my bike ride across the US, even on a relatively low-traffic route, that led me to bikepacking and the relative relaxation of unpaved roads. And still, it seems like every bikepacking route has at least a few miles of sketchy highway.

I want to be really clear about something: let’s not blame the victims! It’s always the driver’s job to avoid hitting a cyclist. But we’re all humans and not everyone is good at their job all the time. I don’t want bet my life on a stranger’s skills or attentiveness. I know I can’t control everything and I take a risk just by being out there, but here’s what I do to try and minimize that risk.

One part of my strategy: keep a neon yellow vest on my body or bike.

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Wear High-Visibility Gear

I sometimes hear cyclists say things like “I’m visible, I’m wearing a red shirt.” They think they’re visible just because they don’t blend into the surroundings. My goal is more ambitious: be unmissable! I want the person who is distracted by their phone, or has the sun in their eyes through a dirty windshield, to see me out of the corner of their eye from far away.

To be visible on the road I use a system of lights, clothing, and accessories. They don’t add much to my overall gear weight and can be used separately or together. On a car-free trail I probably use none, and on a busy narrow highway I have them all going at once.

Bright shirt: I’m a huge fan of merino wool shirts for bikepacking (see My Bikepacking Clothes) and I do my best to choose a garishly bright color that stands out from the landscape I’ll be riding in.

High-vis wind vest: I love the affordable and very lightweight REI Co-op Link Cycling Wind Vest. It adds a nice amount of warmth and windbreak in the cold, and when unzipped I don’t overheat even on hot days. If it’s not on my body it’s probably strapped to the top of my seat bag or handlebar bag, where it still adds a flash of color.

Flashing red tail light: Whether on my seat bag, seat stay, helmet, or seat post, when riding with cars I like knowing that my rear blinker is back there flashing its little heart out on my behalf. My favorite battery-powered model has been discontinued but the Planet Bike Superflash is a reliable classic. Turn it off when not needed to save battery, and if using a rechargeable model be sure to keep it charged. For folks with dynamo hubs I highly recommend the kLite Qube.

Wearing my bright cycling vest and red tail light on a farm road in Central California

High-vis yield triangle: When it’s much too hot for a high-vis vest (even the mesh kind) or I’ll be doing a lot of road riding, this little triangle is on my seat bag or pannier. When riding with a partner who’s also using it, I’ve been impressed by how eye-catching it is from far away. It’s always the first part of their bike I can see when approaching.

Reflective yield symbol for added visibility

Reflective tape: When I rode the Bike Nonstop US endurance event, the organizer required us to plaster our bikes with reflective tape to help us be seen while riding at night. I’ve carried this technique forward to all my other trips, especially if it’s a racing situation where I plan to ride long hours after dark. I put GearAid reflective tape on my spokes, rims, pedals, and cranks — all the moving parts. At night in approaching headlights I am lit up like a Christmas tree. I often feel safer riding at night than during the day thanks to the combo of this tape and my bright lights.

Camera flash lighting up the reflective tape on my spokes and cranks at the finish like of Bones to Blue

Headlight: I’ll be honest, I’m not the best about running a headlight during the day if it’s battery powered. I do run my kLite Ultra on low when using a dynamo hub, because why not. However, in certain riding conditions (narrow roads and poor lighting) I do think a headlight is smart and helpful.

Science suggests that drivers are especially sensitive to contrast, motion, and things that look like humans. So you can get some extra benefit from high-visibility items by wearing them in places that are moving or highlight your human shape: feet or ankles and helmet, for example.

Use a Rear View Mirror

It’s possible I’ve gotten a little too attached to my helmet mirror. Sometimes when hiking — not with my bike — I catch myself glancing up to the left with an impulse to see the trail behind me! Maybe we should wear rear view mirrors all the time?

Joking aside, I believe a rear view mirror is one of the best safety accessories a cyclist can have. Sure, the cars approaching from behind are supposed to slow down and safely move over to pass us, so it shouldn’t matter if we see them. But on several occasions I’ve removed myself from the road when a driver didn’t appear to be slowing down, and I have my mirror to thank. I’m sure the driver of that huge rented RV didn’t want to run me over, he probably just misjudged how long it would take to slow from 80 mph to 10 mph. And I don’t want to be in front of him when he figures out his mistake!

I’ve tried a number of handlebar mounted mirrors, but the only mirror I use now is the Bike Peddler on the visor of my helmet. Handlebar mounted mirrors always seem to interfere with my bike bags or brake and shift positions, or not be compatible with either flat or drop bars (I bikepack with both). On rough gravel they shake loose or vibrate so much that I can’t see anything. The helmet-mounted mirror solves these problems.

Important tip: When biking (and in life, if you’ll allow the metaphor!) don’t spend so much time looking in the rear view mirror that you miss what’s in front of your wheels. One of my most dangerous crashes, on the shoulder of a busy highway, was caused by this mistake. It takes a little getting used to, but with practice you’ll learn how to most effectively use a mirror.

Helmet mirror in action on a paved section of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

Ride Defensively but Courteously

Opinions differ here, and this is just mine, but I believe in riding attentively, defensively, and also courteously. A few different aspects of this:

Take the lane when needed: I’ve come a long way from my “gutter bunny” days as a beginner cyclist. You’ll hear road riders talk about this a lot, and it’s true: sometimes it’s safest to completely block the traffic lane. By hugging the white line you tempt drivers to pass you too closely in unsafe locations. You can help them understand when it’s safe to pass by controlling the traffic lane until you reach a good spot.

But don’t be a jerk about it: If I want drivers to treat me well, I figure I should treat them well too. I expect them to wait patiently in order to pass me, but not forever. I never ride side-by-side with a partner when cars are around, and if someone’s stuck behind me and can’t get around I will pull over in a safe place and let them by.

Also don’t be stupid about it: Aggressively taking the lane may work a cycling-friendly area, but there are places in the US where many drivers never see cyclists on the road and don’t know we have a legal right to be there. In these places if traffic is heavy I will ride the sidewalk, walk the shoulder, whatever it takes. Two lane roads with no shoulder and fast traffic in both directions are the worst.

Pay attention on gravel roads: There’s a temptation to relax on low-traffic gravel roads, but sometimes the “gravel superhighways” — usually a road to a popular recreation area on public land, or maybe an active logging route — are sketchy too. People drive too fast and don’t expect to see cyclists there. I keep my mirror and high-vis gear on for these and make sure to keep well to the right around any blind curve.

Just because a road is unpaved doesn’t mean you can ignore traffic.

Avoid High-Traffic Times

As every car commuter knows, traffic gets worse at certain times of day. The most common pattern is weekday “rush hour.” But in the rural areas where bikepackers often find ourselves, there can be other traffic patterns that make a normally quiet road nearly unrideable. Two examples: shift changes (in areas where everyone works at the local factory / mine / power plant / etc) and weekend recreation traffic (tons of RVs headed to the camping areas on Saturday and back home on Sunday).

If you have the flexibility, plan your riding to avoid these roads at the busiest times. If you find yourself stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time, consider pulling off and taking a snack break. Sometimes just waiting an hour makes all the difference, or at least gives you a chance to calm down and consider your options.

Adapt to New Driving Styles While Bikepacking Abroad

All my earliest bike travel miles were logged on other continents, so I’ve experienced a few of the world’s varied driving styles. Often the differences are positive compared to here in America, where drivers feel very entitled to our cars and unobstructed roadways. In many countries it’s normal for cars to share the road with bikes, scooters, pedestrians, herds of animals, etc. and a more cooperative attitude prevails.

In Vietnam I learned to ride with swarms of motorbikes through uncontrolled intersections. I quickly figured out that riding too tentatively — like actually yielding to others — was a good way to almost get hit by the riders behind me. The key was to merge smoothly and assertively into the stream of traffic, neither aggressive nor timid, just going with the flow.

In Kazakhstan driving was fairly similar to the US and cars were mostly courteous. But I noticed a strange habit of drivers merging left onto a busy road without checking their left mirror or looking out their left window. After a few close calls I made it a policy to never ride to the left of any merging or stopped cars.

In Sudan drivers were mostly courteous on the quiet roads, but in chaotic city traffic close passes were the norm. This was especially unnerving with buses and trucks, and I quickly learned to ride the shoulder and pull off when needed.

Those are just a few examples, and I’ve experienced only a tiny fraction of the world’s driving styles. It’s one of the charms of travel, like sampling the food or learning the language of your host country, except less fun and more deadly! My point is to pay attention in unfamiliar areas and don’t assume cars will behave as you’re used to.

Riding with motorbikes in Hanoi
Riding with motorbikes in Hanoi

Choose Low-Traffic Routes

If you’re designing your own bikepacking route, you may find yourself needing to pass through a populated area for resupply or use highways to connect some prized stretches of dirt and gravel. How can you know if a road will be safe to ride? Here are the tools I use to make my best guess:

Google Maps cycling layer: In areas where it’s supported, Google Maps will show you bike paths and streets with bike lanes. Komoot has a similar feature for its bike routing.

Heat maps from RideWithGPS and Strava: The RideWithGPS route planner and Strava global heat map show where other cyclists are riding, which is generally a good indication that a route is feasible. It doesn’t mean there will be no cars — I find road cyclists have a higher tolerance for narrow two lane roads than I do — but it does mean lots of other cyclists have ridden it and survived. Side note: these are also great tools for researching whether a road is public or private as you plan your route.

Google Street View: Where available, this feature of Google Maps lets you see the road from a driver’s perspective. You can see if there’s a shoulder and get a sense for traffic levels. Keep in mind that it’s just a snapshot in time and could have been a rare quiet moment on a normally busy road. It’s usually easy to tell if a road will be busy, but harder to know if it’ll be quiet.

Google Street View screenshot of US-20 in Oregon. To me this looks rideable but not pleasant. The shoulder is small and traffic looks heavy, so I wouldn’t want to be here for more than a couple miles.

Worst-Case Scenario: Get a Ride

On almost all my long bike trips, especially international ones, I’ve used a vehicle to bypass a section of sketchy road. Sometimes this was planned in advance — taking a bus over a crowded highway to resume my ride somewhere nicer — and sometimes it was an emergency hitchhike from the side of the road where the crumbling shoulder finally disappeared. It’s not always easy, but it’s better than being dead. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m dragging my bike along the shoulder, sitting there with my thumb out, or asking around in the roadside diner to see who’s going my way.

In Conclusion

There you have it, the precautions I take to improve my odds when bikepacking on busy roads. Please don’t let this post discourage you from going bikepacking! There are plenty of low-traffic routes and roads where you could ride forever without a close call. But if you do find yourself tackling a longer mixed route or dealing with a few miles of busier highway on your next ride, I hope these tips keep you safer and bring you peace of mind.

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 19,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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