Traffic Safety for Bikepackers

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 start. 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 Sunday afternoon, or the busy downtown strip of a resupply town at rush hour. A few 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 even on some of our most well-known routes. It’s very rare and I consider bikepacking a safe enough activity, 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.

This post covers all the things I do, from gear to riding techniques to route planning, to hopefully make motor vehicle collisions less likely. To be clear, it’s always the driver’s job to avoid hitting a cyclist, regardless of what we’re wearing or doing. But we’re all only human, and I’ll take every advantage I can get out there.

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High-Visibility Clothing and Lights

In my opinion being “visible” isn’t enough. I want to 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 usually don’t use any, 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, without adding too much heat on climbs. If it’s not on my body it’s probably strapped to the top of my seat bag where it still adds a flash of color.

Bikepacker rides paved road with "share the road" sign ahead
Wearing my bright cycling vest and red tail light on a farm road in Central California

Flashing red tail light: When riding with cars I love 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. For folks with dynamo hubs I highly recommend the kLite Qube.

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.

cyclist on paved road with orange triangle on back of bike
High-vis triangle on my partner’s seat bag

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.

Bikepacker at night in finish line photo
Camera flash lighting up the reflective tape on my spokes and cranks at the finish like of Bones to Blue

Headlight: A flashing “be seen” front light during the day never hurts, especially on narrow roads or in dappled lighting.

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!

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’ve tried a number of handlebar mounted mirrors, but the only mirror I use now is the Bike Peddler helmet mirror (also mounts to glasses). Handlebar mounted mirrors always seem to interfere with my bike bags or hand positions, and on rough ground they vibrate too much to see anything.

Important tip: When biking (and in life, if you’ll allow the cheesy metaphor) don’t spend so much time looking in the rear view mirror that you miss what’s in front of your wheels.

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 mine. I believe in riding attentively, defensively, and also courteously. A few different aspects of this:

Take the lane when needed: Though it can feel uncomfortable, sometimes it’s actually safest to block the traffic lane until there’s a safe place to pass. Hugging the white line can tempt drivers to pass too closely in unsafe locations. In my opinion this is only a technique for lower-speed roads, not highways.

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 I try to 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.

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. Use high-vis gear and keep well to the right around curves.

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

Avoid High-Traffic Times

As every 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. Also weekend recreation traffic (big RVs and toy haulers) headed to the camping areas on Saturday and back home on Sunday.

If you have the flexibility, plan 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.

Adapting to Driving Styles 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 cars reign supreme. In many countries it’s normal for cars to share the road with bikes, scooters, pedestrians, and herds of animals, so 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 and 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!

Related: Bikepacking Abroad: Common Questions Answered

Riding with motorbikes in Hanoi
Riding with motorbikes in Hanoi

Choose Low-Traffic Routes

If you’re designing your own bikepacking route, 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.

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 other cyclists have ridden it and survived.

Side note: those 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.

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 few miles.

Worst-Case Scenario: Thumb a Ride

On almost all my long bike trips, especially international ones, I’ve used vehicles to bypass sections of sketchy road.

Sometimes this is planned in advance, like taking a bus along a section of crowded highway to resume my ride somewhere nicer. Sometimes it’s an emergency hitchhike from the side of the road where the crumbling shoulder finally disappeared.

Finding transportation is often not 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 the roadside diner to see who’s going my way.

My touring bike being loaded on the roof of a bus in Laos so I could skip riding an busy section of highway.

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 improve your safety and peace of mind.

More Bikepacking Resources

If you found this helpful, you might also like these:

Or visit the bikepacking section for lots more.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 20,000 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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