Sofiane Sehili; Bikepacking the Silk Road31/10/2017 Read more
Header Image Paolo Ciaberta
‘I heard about the Warm Showers network from a person I met while I was riding across the United States,’ says Jack Turner, a bike tourer of many years, echoing a statement that has no doubt left the lips of many a two-wheeled traveler since the birth of Warm Showers in 1993.
The network, which Turner has gone on to become a voluntary board member of, is ‘a free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists,’ and run entirely on a noncommercial basis. Since discovering it on that particular cross-country ride, back when, as he recalls, ‘it was just a file that had about a 100 names on it,’ Turner says that the network has now exploded into a close-knit community of almost 85,000 cycle tourists. ‘And our membership is continuing to grow,’ he adds. ‘Bicycle touring is getting bigger, and so are we.’
But while the number of people being introduced to Warm Showers might be growing, the primary goal of Turner and the rest of the community; to cultivate a free hospitality exchange for touring cyclists, remains as constant as ever. ‘Our focus is simply on arriving and leaving a host on a bicycle,’ he explains, and while there are certain core values and unwritten rules that must be respected by its members, the meaning of this ‘hospitality exchange’ can also be quite open to interpretation.
Most commonly it will be in the form of a host welcoming a travelling cyclist into their home for the night and offering a safe place to sleep, but an exchange can manifest itself in any number of ways; Advice sought in forum discussions online; two strangers sharing a drink after arranging to meet via the platform; a reliable address – something absent from most long-distance cycle tourist’s list of possessions – provided in trust by a host, to which an urgent package can be sent.
‘I did once even hear of a couple getting married after meeting as a host and guest on Warm Showers,’ adds Turner.
To join the community, all that is required is to create a profile on the website detailing some basic information and a brief description about yourself. Once signed up, you will generally either play the part of the host or the guest in the hospitality exchange, depending on whether you’re on tour and in need of a place to stay, or at home and available to host someone else.
After perusing Warm Showers’ worldwide host map and identifying a possible host, a polite message introducing yourself and your tour is all that is required to begin an exchange. With the new website, a calendar-based booking platform is expected to be introduced too, making the process of a request a lot more like a hotel reservation site, but for now it remains a very personal affair. A few days later, having arrived at your host’s refuge in a bedraggled, road-weary state, the physical comforts of the experience become blessings of previously unimaginable worth. Regardless of whether your host is able to offer a patch of land on which to pitch a tent, a bed in which to sprawl an aching body, or a working washing machine with which to wash some smelly kit, such hospitality and comfort is always appreciated.
Even if the traveler doesn’t require a place to stay, they will surely find a little prior knowledge about an area they intend on visiting useful, be it advice concerning wild camping, public amenities, food, water, language, or else. Warm Showers hosts, being both local and familiar with the needs of cycle tourists, can provide these valuable answers. What’s more, as most find when they become hosts themselves, they will only be too eager to help.
Image James Robertson
From a psychological perspective too, even the nearby presence – if not always acquaintance – of a Warm Showers host, can provide a sense of security, comfort, and familiarity for cycle tourists, who’s constantly changing environments aren’t always the easiest to adjust to. As the network continues to grow, there is an increasingly likely possibility that wherever you are in the world, a fellow Warm Showers member could be close by, and this knowledge has the ability to make it a much less intimidating place.
So what about the other half of the exchange – the host – what do they get out of it?
‘One of the complaints I get from hosts is that they do not get enough requests for hosting,’ says Turner, highlighting that there must be something to be gained from their perspective. ‘We have a number of hosts today that do not tour themselves but just enjoy the company and stories of touring cyclists,’ he explains.
Indeed, many members have no intention of loading their possessions onto a bike and setting off into the wild, but will jump at the chance to host someone who is doing just that, while in return the guest might consider cooking their host dinner, buying them some fruit, a beer, or regaling stories from the road. Of course, for all of these non-touring hosts, there are equal numbers who are themselves experienced cycle tourists too, and after having been on the receiving end of other people’s hospitality around the world, would naturally like to ‘pay it forward’, and give back to the Warm Showers community.
Image James Robertson
A final, cherished commonality between both host and guest, which strangers from different countries and cultural backgrounds automatically achieve when they interact, is the breaking down of barriers and building of universal connections. This is something that those who choose to travel by bike understand only too well, and will surely appreciate even more than a bed – or indeed a warm shower.
From London to Los Angeles and Japan to Djibouti, Warm Showers hosts are all over the world, waiting to start exchanges with the countless cycle tourists that might otherwise be anonymously and unknowingly riding past their front doors.
‘Our focus is simply on arriving and leaving a host on a bicycle,’ were Turner’s words. And thanks to his, and every other member’s work, this goal is being realised by more people, in more towns, villages, and cities across the world, every day. So before you next pack up your bike and set off for a corner of the world that you’ve yet to discover, consider signing up to Warm Showers first. There might just be someone there only to willing to greet you.