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Warm Showers and the growth of cycle touring hospitality

Alia Parker's picture
Carl and Tess Hattingh cycle touring Europe. Cycle Traveller

There is a humbling romanticism attached to the early days of cycle touring. These were the days before the internet, before satellite navigation, before mobile phones; the days of classic diamond-framed steel bikes, canvas tents, paper maps and cotton shirts. The way ahead couldn't be seen on Google Earth, it was unknown and truly adventurous.

But technology has not been the death of bicycle travel; if anything, it has fuelled it. Where once pedalling travellers moved about like passing ships in the night – romantic, but fleeting and disconnected – they now have the encouragement of a whole online community. The internet has allowed groups like Warm Showers – where cycle tourists offer each other free accommodation and support – to blossom, growing to almost 40,000 active members around the world, half of which are hosts.

Carl Hattingh and his wife Tess from Sydney chose to stay with Warm Showers hosts on three occasions on a recent four-month self-supported bike trip through Europe. He says they made the decision because they wanted to experience the local culture and learn more about the area they were visiting from the point of view of fellow cycle tourists.

Bicycle touring Switzerland. Photo by Carl Hattingh. Cycle Traveller“We stayed with a host in Geneva at the beginning of our Switzerland leg who inspired us to change our route to climb two of the Alpine passes in Switzerland, the Grimsel and Furka passes,” says Carl. “We had never considered cycling over any of the passes, believing them to be out of our reach. Those two days cycling are the two hardest days we had on our tour, but also the two best – by a long shot. Switzerland was a real highlight for us and we fell in love with the postcard perfect scenery.”

It was the couple's first bicycle tour and, having been hooked by the experience, they are now keen to become hosts themselves when they return to Sydney.

“One of our hosts went out of his way during the day to help us with something, and I asked how I could repay him or return the favour,” says Carl. “His response, which we'll never forget, was 'Just do the same. I don't want anything in return, but just do the same'. We found that very touching and inspiring, and I guess it neatly sums up the entire Warm Showers ethos and ideals.”

Humble beginnings

Warm Showers began in the United States in 1993 as an online list of hosts compiled by Terry Zmrhal and Geoff Cashman. In 1996, Roger Gravel assumed responsibility for updating the list and in 2005, web developer Randy Fay turned the list into a database-and-map enabled website, taking over as registrar when Roger retired in 2009.

“Randy took a list of about 1,000 people in 2005, turned it into a website that now has about 20,000 active hosts around the world,” says Louis Melini, a Warm Showers spokesperson from Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I have noticed an increase in cycle touring over the years,” he says, adding that Warm Showers has “absolutely” played a role in that growth. Between 1979-2009, Louis and his wife Julie hosted one or two bike travellers every two to three years, but that number has ballooned to 25 guests through Warm Showers since 2009 alone.

Louis Melini and cycle touring guest. Cycle Traveller“I think some people plan their tour around Warm Showers in order to get free lodging,” he says. “That was not meant to sound cynical, but Warm Showers has made the community of bike travel better. I use the word community because that is how I look at the people that bike tour.”

The easy to use interactive nature of the website – which allows cyclists to register their profile, search other users on an interactive map, send messages, post feedback about hosts and guests for others to read, and share experiences on the group's Facebook page – has been key to the success of the volunteer-run website. Prior to the internet, cycle touring databases were much smaller and less reliable.

“In the 70s and 80s communication was mostly by postcard if you were lucky, but usually a phone call,” says Louis, who was previously a member of the former Touring Cyclists Hospitality Directory started by John Mosley in the late 1970s. “I'm sure there were a number of missed connections. I know I received a couple of calls wondering if I was going to respond to the postcard that I never received.”

The Touring Cyclists Hospitality Directory was maintained by Mosley using a Rolodex and postcards sent to the listed every year or so to confirm their existence. At its height, this grassroots community grew to 800 members, fading away 30 years later as new groups evolved online.

The internet has made connecting with others easier, and as most touring cyclists will agree, it is the personal connections that really make a trip. As beautiful as scenery may be, it is the human interaction that imprints on us, the memorable characters, the unexpected acts of kindness. This is why groups like Warm Showers work – it might be facilitated via the internet, but the interactions are real and heartfelt; the encounters remind us of the goodness of humankind. Louis says the experience is rewarding for both guests and hosts.

“I had several people offer their homes during my 1975 across-USA tour that really had an effect on me,” he says. “I am still returning the favours. I, and my family, have become better people for it. We have been entertained by our cycle touring guests in ways that are priceless.”

More than a shower

Cycle touring Europe, Carl and Tess Hattingh. Cycle Traveller

For Sydney-based touring cyclist Elizabeth Cage, becoming a Warm Showers host was a means of learning more about travelling by bike while also building up the “karma bank” before taking off on her own tour. She has hosted cyclists on around 10 occasions and been a guest twice – all have been positive experiences.

“It's a great service and I'd recommend it to anyone,” she says. “On a tour in Victoria we stayed with two different hosts – one in a pounded-earth home and the other in a hay-bale home. Both were fascinating and the hosts really fantastic.”

Elizabeth says the key to a positive experience is being clear and upfront about what you are offering as a host and what you expect as a guest.

“Part of why hosts host is to enjoy the experience of meeting their guests and showing them hospitality, but every host is a little different in how they want to do that,” she says. “Maybe you'll go out to dinner. Maybe you'll share a meal at home. Maybe you'll stay up later than you planned having a few more glasses of wine than you normally would. Where we've heard of bad experiences its usually been around expectations not meshing.”

She says while gifts are not mandatory, a token of appreciation, like a bottle of wine, a cake or a home cooked meal, always goes down well.

“I love when our guests offer to cook,” she says. “There's nothing quite as pleasant as a home cooked meal, in your own home, not cooked by you.”

Her advice to others is to go with your instincts about people, whether as a host or a guest.

“Read their profiles, the reviews others have given them, look at their photos. Do not feel obligated to say 'yes' to anyone who doesn't sound like someone you'd like to host, but do reply to every request – it's much better to get a 'no' than no reply.”

Images from top: 1. Carl and Tess Hatting (centre) cycling through Europe. 2. Furka Pass, Switzerland. 3. Louis Melini and cycle touring guest Salva Rodriquez of Spain, traveling in his 9th year, October 2011. 4. Carl and Tess on tour. (Photos copyright of Carl Hattingh and Louis Melini.) 

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