Long-distance bike touring necessarily involves finding a new place to sleep every night. Our own overnight experiences have included camping and hotel/motels, generally arranged in advance, but with the option to decide on a given day what we want to do. Our trips typically take place in the summer, and often involve hot and/or stormy days which might tip the decision towards a motel — sometimes you just need to get a good night’s sleep.
Another lodging option is to use the touring cyclist community to find a safe place to sleep. Warmshowers.org is probably the best-known platform (and largest at 185,000 users) in the biking community for connecting travelers and those willing to host them. WS is an international non-profit organization headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, and uses a mobile app (as well as a website) to enable bike tourists to identify willing hosts in a given area, and make contact and arrangements if it works out for the host.
My wife, Lisa Burke, and I have been members of Warmshowers since 2018 and, full disclosure, have never actually stayed with anyone in the network. We have, however, been the recipients of countless acts of kindness from strangers over the years during our bike travels, and in an effort to pay that kindness forward, we have hosted Warmshowers guests several times in the past couple of years. We have a four-bedroom house, close to the Mississippi River trail, and since there are only two of us at home now, we have plenty of room for guests.
This is a summary of our experiences as hosts.
First, we are not crazy about the Warmshowers name for several reasons, but I’ll offer this one: Who wants a warm shower? Wouldn’t you prefer a hot shower? It may be time for a rebrand by the organization, but for now, that is the name, and users have probably gotten used to it.
Although similar to couch-surfing networks, Warmshowers requires travelers to arrive at the host’s home by bicycle; other networks exist for travelers on road trips. The organization has recently instituted a charge to use the mobile app — a move that sparked some controversy. Other than that, the system is based on the free offer of some level of housing, ranging from camping in the backyard to staying in a room in the house and sharing meals with the family (and getting a shower, obviously).
The system requires a good deal of trust. After all, the transaction involves staying with or welcoming complete strangers in a private home overnight. The cyclist reaches out to potential hosts, and the host can accept or decline the request. The network requires participants to create profiles, which makes this a little easier. Our experience with cyclists reaching out has been mostly positive. We are able to read a bit about the cyclist, where they are going, where they’ve been and what kind of people they are. A review system for both the guests and the hosts makes us a little more sure of what kind of people they are.
Our guests have included Chad, who had originally entered the Trans Am Bike Race (the “premier” non-supported transcontinental bike race — in which riders cycle practically nonstop across the United States; in 2021, the winning time was 17 days, eight hours). Chad had dropped out of the grueling race after falling asleep on his bike and realizing he wasn’t really prepared for the event. He then took a more leisurely ride across the west and back to his home in Missouri. He stayed with us for a few days while getting to know the Twin Cities.
Lovisa, 22 and from Sweden, stayed with us on a very long bike tour of North America and Mexico. After an overnight in St. Paul, she was heading toward Vancouver, BC, and then south along the coast. (Besides using Warmshowers, Lovisa occasionally resorted to “wild camping” — setting her tent up anywhere.) We have followed her progress on Instagram and noted that she just reached the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.
David, originally from Switzerland and now living in California, stayed with us for several days before and after riding the Minnesota version of the Trans Am race (which David had also done) — the North Star Bicycle Race, with a course from St. Paul to the Canadian border in Grand Portage and back. David was a charming guy and clearly well trained for the race, which he not only won but also set a course record, completing the 640 miles in a time of 43 hours and some minutes.
Gavin and Roman contacted us when they wanted to ride from St. Paul back to their homes in Madison, Wisconsin. Lisa and I have done this trip a couple of times, and since they specifically asked for route advice, we gladly welcomed them. They were charming fellows, and we ended up spending the evening talking about both biking and literature (Roman is a poet).
We welcomed all these young people into our house and treated them as family —giving them the run of the house, access to anything in the refrigerator and inviting them to join us for meals. We gave them a secure place to store their bikes and, in David’s case, provided a bike stand so he could assemble and disassemble his bike (he checked it on an airplane for his flight to and from Los Angeles.)
What did we get in return? New friends, ideas and great stories! I think that is the main reward for participating in the Warmshowers experience. Hosts are bike travelers themselves and can answer questions from their guests, and there is an exchange of tales and advice on routes and gear. I’d also add that Lisa and I tend to “adopt” these young people, at least for a while, and wonder and worry a little (especially in Lovisa’s case) about their safety. It is nice to be able to follow their progress in some way. We have stayed in touch with several of our guests, and a few have invited us to join them when we are in their town (or country). We’d love to visit Switzerland!
Have people had bad experiences using this network? Occasionally, according to a Warmshowers forum where I’ve seen a couple of threads about less than positive interactions, particularly from solo female riders (and sometimes from hosts, as well). After studying the forums, I’d conclude that negative experiences are rare. Additionally, the review system allows travelers to alert others to a scary or negative experience.
Based on our experience, we would encourage participation in the Warmshowers community.