Winter Homelessness: Conclusion

It’s easy.

It’s easy in my part of the world, with my lifestyle and activities. I’m in South-East England, which has a mild, temperate Winter with temperatures ranging from -5 to +15°C. Perhaps more depressing are the short Winter days only seven hours long, leaving seventeen hours of cold darkness. So what made it so easy for me? I’ll give you three tips…

A row of daffodils in the little front garden of an old red-bricked terraced house
Spring is definitely here – time to reflect on my first Winter of homelessness

1. Working full time. By far the most important. This filled the dark days with interest and new people to meet. It also meant I was indoors for most of the day. I got many perks such as an unlimited supply of hot tea and coffee, a place to charge my smartphone, occasionally food, sometimes even the kind offer of a hot shower or a place to sleep for the night.

Working is also a free ticket to making new friends, meeting new girls, and generally creating a social life out of nothing to fill up any spare time and keep me sane. Most of my friends have been made by either going to work or attending a course. They’re good friends.

What if I can’t find work? Well I’m homeless so my expenses are really, really small – just food basically. So any job, however poorly paid, is enough. It’s important to note that the money is not always as important as the other benefits. What?! Going to work, but not for money? Capitalism would have you believe otherwise. If you’re homeless you don’t need much money at all, half a day’s work per week is enough to survive, so why work any more? Any more money just seems meaningless. Not so. Think about all the benefits I’ve just mentioned. And what’s wrong with working just to help people? And how about making some savings? Every little helps.

What if I can’t find any job, not even a rubbish one? The answer is even easier: I head south. A long way south, until it’s warm all Winter. Malta? Sicily? Why not? I can get from Dover to Calais for a tenner, then cycle the rest of the way for free, passing endless scenic countryside on the way. The only thing that kept me here this Winter was my work, and that’s a choice that I made.

Many people who complain about being homeless in the Winter know this, but they choose to stay anyway even though they’re unemployed. Why? The government gives them financial benefits, and in this country people give them money when they beg.

The Greater London Authority’s Combined Homelessness and Information Network catalogues rough sleepers and tries to help them improve their situation. According to their data 53% of London’s rough sleepers are alcohol abusers, and 49% drug abusers. That leaves only 8% of rough sleepers who actually spend their money on more useful things. So many homeless people spend their state benefits to buy drugs that they’re addicted too, and don’t travel because they wouldn’t know where else to buy them.

Others are just not brave enough to go abroad. Still others are lazy and don’t want to work in any job, in any country. They are selfish and would rather rely on innocent, hard-working tax payers.

I know, I have met these people and they told me so.

But you and I, dear reader, know better, so when Winter grips Britannia and good work is not forthcoming, we shall betray our fair Isle for a hot sunny beach somewhere, until the Springtime. Who would pay for accommodation somewhere where the minimum temperature at night is plus twenty degrees Celsius? Not me – I’ll take the beach and the stars thanks.

2. Living in towns and cities ensures that there will always be shelter from the worst of the Winter weather. By shelter I mean bridges, porches, covered car parks, or quite often just a wall facing the same way that the wind is blowing. There can also be other perks like free hot showers, drinking water, and public conveniences if you know where to look. And of course paid conveniences like gyms and swimming pools or boat clubs. If you’re working and earning money, why not invest a small fraction of it in your health and fitness, have fun, and get another hot shower as a reward? I move around too much so I use these facilities on a pay-as-you-go basis, but if you’re homeless and always staying in the same area then getting a gym membership would make your life really easy. Just walk in and have a hot shower any time you want.

If you’re a student, I envy you with erm.. great envy. Super-discounted gym memberships… sports clubs with free showers… so many cool bars and libraries to hang out in until late… if only I had realised that homelessness was so easy when I was a student, I wouldn’t have walked away from university with such a mountain of debt.

3. Waterproofs and insulation. Modern technology has made this easy with ultralight, waterproof and breathable fabrics. I would go as far as to say that the easiest part of Winter homelessness is sleeping outside. If it’s colder, use more insulation. I slept comfortably down to -5, but I’m sure with better insulation I’d be ok in even lower temperatures. I saw one expedition sleeping bag rated comfortable down to -32°C! It was very puffy.

You must trust your logic. If you eat well your body will give off heat constantly at somewhere around 100 watts when you’re resting. If you’re naked when the temperature is freezing you’ll loose your body heat at a rate much higher than 100 watts, and after many hours you will die. Logic says that if you can trap your body heat with insulation so well that you loose less than 100 watts, you’ll get warmer and warmer by the minute. Of course this is just common sense to you my smart readers, but you know I was lacking in faith. Because having been brought up in centrally heated homes where warmth is constantly applied from outside the body, I had never had to trust in my body’s heat generating capabilities before I became homeless. It was a step of faith, but faith in logic.

It seems that most people who are homeless that complain about cold just haven’t done their research. For example you’ll see many with a sleeping bag, but no mattress to insulate them from the ground, which is often more important. More often they do know this but would rather spend their money on drugs and alcohol. Alcohol will numb you to the cold for one night; a good sleeping mat will keep you warm all Winter. Therefore it is worth more than a month’s supply of alcohol.

I awake by the river on the snow

No doubt there are more options to make Winter homelessness more pleasant. This Winter I chose to work full time, buy insulation and just rough it here in England. But I’ve a cheeky plan for next Winter..

I’m flying to Buenos Aires before Christmas and staying there until March. It’ll be mid-Summer there. I’m against flying for environmental reasons, but I haven’t been there for more than ten years and this could be my last chance to see my relatives again. My Grandma’s 96 years old, and my uncles and auntie in their seventies and in ill health. I will have to offset my carbon emissions and make one last exception.. well I’ve already bought the ticket so I’m going. At least it’s a direct flight, which is not quite so polluting. In any case, although I do think jetting around the world is a selfish activity, I actually really enjoy the whole experience – from the remarkable feat of engineering, to the surreal airport atmosphere, to looking out the window at 30,000 feet. This could be my last ever flight so I intend to enjoy it.

Now apart from travelling to a warmer country, or gritting one’s teeth and just roughing it, what other options are there? Before the Winter I had just hoped that I could sleep rough until the end of Autumn, then pay rent or hostel it for the three coldest months. That is a great option – only pay for what you need, then in the Spring you’re free again!

Here’s another idea: go somewhere colder! Spend the whole Winter season in a ski resort, in paid accommodation with a nice warm fire and hot showers. Many young Brits do this and work part time while they’re there. Still others just save during the other months to ensure that their Winter season is just one long party. It seems so obvious – be homeless for the three warmer seasons in England and work and save everything, then have a great time all Winter in the Alps somewhere. In fact I know a place where doing this could work out cheaper than renting a room in London:

Me sitting down at a viewpoint 3000 meters above sea level in Les Arcs Ski Resort, Mont Blanc is clearly visible above the clouds in the background
Top of Les Arcs, France – Mont Blanc is that craggy hill in the background. Check out for heaps of fun and very reasonable prices.

The last option that springs to mind for a single young man like me is to find a lovely young lady who has a flat to herself and just wants a giant teddy-bear to keep her warm in the Winter. If the relationship is approached with all honesty, a mutually beneficial arrangement can result. Many girls are quite mature in this respect, I have met them. And I give off a lot of body heat.

There’s absolutely no way I could have planned the last year, and yet somehow, I’m still homeless, and still absolutely fine. I’m learning to take each day as it comes, and not think too much about where I’ll sleep until I actually feel like sleeping, then having a quick look around.

looking under a dual-carriageway fly-over bridge

Something always crops up. In fact right now I’ve got a lovely house all to myself in central Oxford. A very generous Green Party candidate sympathised with my lifestyle and gave me her keys while she went abroad for a month. Fancy that!

There are those who go on camping trips for several days in the wilderness in sub-zero temperatures and claim to really enjoy it. I have a long way to go to reach, if I ever reach, that level of experience (or madness). But for the time being, I’m over the moon, because having enjoyed my first Winter of homelessness, I’m now confident that I will never need to pay rent ever again for the rest of my life.

View of the river Thames at sunset from Chelsea Bridge, London

My path to enlightenment

I’m having another go at cutting down on gear, making it lighter, and trying to find the most convenient way to carry it both on my bike and while walking around.

There are plenty of web pages detailing other cyclists’ ultralight set-ups, perhaps one of the more prominent is that of Igor Kovse. He carries less stuff than me even when camping and cycling around the Indian Himalayas! The photo below he describes as a “heavyweight” setup. It’s his bike in the Himalayas. And no, he doesn’t wear a backpack. Where’s all his stuff??!

a road bike with a small bag atop the rear rack, two water bottles, and a couple more very small bags attached to the frame/handlebars.

There are those who scorn the whole ‘ultralight’ movement, stating that carrying more weight can only make you stronger. I was of a similar belief as a teenager – as a young piano tuning apprentice I had a trailer behind my bike with a massive aluminium case full of every tool for every conceivable piano problem. There were many that I never used. When I walked into a house with it some clients said I looked like a hit-man! But one day it was taken, along with a thousand pounds’ worth of specialist tools. I still have the trailer though:

a small black bicycle trailer

Trailers and other appendages take away some of the agility and versatility of a bicycle, for example when lifting the bike over an obstacle, or wading through a ford with the bike on your shoulder, or at the tight constrictions designed to stop motorcycles from using a bridleway. My next briefcase conveniently slotted onto the rack on my bike. It looked very smart, but the case itself weighed at least two kilos.

Finally I begun to accept that there are advantages to carrying less weight. And now I’m fast becoming a ‘weight-weenie’ or ultralight fanatic. Why? Carry less weight and you can accelerate faster, climb hills faster, brake faster, lift your bike over stiles and fences, and all this with less effort and less risk of injury. Moving around with less effort means you have more energy for adventure, to go the extra mile, see more, do more. Not to mention when you park your bike and have to carry everything in your hands for a while.

And even if you really want to carry the extra weight, if make your essentials ultralight you can carry other luxuries, for example a pillow, extra water, fruitcake or beer to make up your desired load. After all, surely there’s a limit to the amount of weight that you can carry? Just try and climb the Breacon Beacons lugging a mobile home behind your push-bike.

Fast-forward to when I became homeless and started cycle touring. My idea of lightweight and minimalism was far removed from what it is today. I carried two 40 liter Ortlieb roller top pannier bags, so full that I could barely roll the top up, plus a thermos flask and a water bottle. I carried a one-man tent, sleeping bag, mattress, cooking stove, cooking pot and utensils, food, water, lots of clothes, a toolbox, a netbook and it’s charger, my phone and it’s charger, a multi tool, a wash bag, and the list goes on. Much of my gear like my 800g Terra Nova tent were already in the ultralight class but everything together amounted to two big heavy bags.

My bike with two overweight Ortlieb bags on the rear rack.

When I got off the bike to walk, lugging the two bags around was a real chore, and engaged both hands. All this weight on the back of the bike was not good, the axle snapped and had to be replaced a couple of times, and the rack broke. I knew I was supposed to balance the load by getting a front rack and panniers, but I hesitated – do I really need to have so much stuff? I determined to keep it all on the back and work at cutting it down until the load was acceptable without having to resort to a front rack.

The first thing I did was to find the lightest, most compact versions of all the stuff I already had. I exchanged a gigantic fleece pullover for a Rab Primaloft jacket, and insulated snowboarding trousers for Goretex Paclites and thermal long-Johns. And what is the ultralight obsession with toothbrushes? It was one of the first things I went for:

A picture of an arrow pointing downwards

I discovered that I could refill the tiny toothpaste tube by squeezing it in from a large toothpaste tube when ever I had access to one. If anyone knows where I can get one of those tiny finger-brushes to replace my toothbrush I’d be much obliged. Next up were my piano tuning tools:

Lots of tools with nice wooden handles in a plastic box with separators

A picture of an arrow pointing downwards

much less tools, smaller tools laid out on a green canvas

A picture of an arrow pointing downwards

My tools wrapped in the green canvas

I flattened the tip of the tuning lever so it could double as a lightweight hammer. It was only years of experience tuning and repairing pianos all over the place that enabled me to make my kit so small. And unlike some piano tuners who will only tune, I usually get my hands dirty and do all the repairs and adjustments that may need doing. The above tools get me through 95% of jobs – if I need anything extra in Oxford I can nip to the piano workshop; in London I have a secret… in a bag in another bag in a bush in a park there are some extra tools and lubricants for refill.

I also took a critical look at my puncture repair kit. I bought a Blackburn carbon fibre presta hand pump weighing only 50g. I exchanged an axle so that all were quick release and I could do away with the spanner. I noted that most components could be tightened with the 5mm Allen key so ditched all the others.

more bigger puncture repair kit and pump

A picture of an arrow pointing downwards

less smaller puncture repair kit and pump

Another compromise was to exchange my netbook computer and phone for one tablet smartphone. Also got an ultralight microfibre towel to replace my larger one.

Perhaps most importantly I came to realise that a tent was not necessary – in fact it was an inconvenience trying to find an inconspicuous site with soft ground where I could pitch it. For some reason sleeping rough in a tent seems to be more illegal than just sleeping rough. I’m not in the Scottish Highlands, I’m in the Thames Valley, a valley full of porches, pavilions, bridges, balconies – shelters of all shapes and sizes. I bought a waterproof bivvy bag (sleeping bag cover) instead, which only saved me 400g but saved a lot of bulk.

So these are just a few examples of how I cut the weight and bulk down. After all this, I could squeeze all my important stuff into one pannier bag. The other bag I secured to the bike with lots of zip-ties, painted black, then left it permanently on the bike even when I locked it up and left it on the high street. I kept all food and extra water supplies there, plus anything else that I considered unattractive to theives.

Fast-forward to last month, and I recently realised that I only bothered to get my stove out and brew something 2-3 times a week, and was all the hassle worth it? So I left my beloved wood-burning stove and titanium cooking equipment at my parents house, to see how I would fare without. I stopped carrying so much food around like the bag of oats, bag of rice, seasoning etc.

I also left behind my 4 liter water bag. It was the only water container large enough to have a shower from, but I had only had a wild shower twice – I had jumped in the river much more frequently. With no stove there was no need for a thermos flask, so I decided to make do with only one bottle, a Buchsteiner protein shaker which is also handy for my weekly gym visit.

No water? No cooking?! This is not the Atacama desert, this is the Thames Valley. There are water taps and supermarkets everywhere, and bike shops for the more involved repairs. I propose a new class: Urban Cycle Touring. Anyway more about that another day, the point is that for several weeks now I’ve been much happier just buying a few rolls and cheese when I’m hungry, and drinking my fill of water whenever I’m near a tap, not carrying it around everywhere. Sometimes when visiting a friend or a generous client I get offered a cooked meal, and let me tell you, it always tastes amazing!

Of course a diet of bread and cheese may be lacking in nutrition slightly, that’s why I carry multi-vitamin pills, which are so convenient. Of course, they had to be made smaller too:

A pot of multivitamins, and next to it a small zip-lock plastic bag in which I put a handful of the vitamin pills to carry around.

A few more changes and I did away with one of the 40l pannier bags, the one secured to my bike. For a while I carried one pannier bag plus one big dry-bag, the big-dry bag was to allow my sleeping bag to loft properly, which had become an obsession since I went through the lengthy saga of washing and drying it. However when leaving the bike to walk somewhere I’d still have one hand occupied with the dry bag. I could kind of fix it to my backpack (the converted Ortlieb pannier) but it would dangle and knock against my legs. It was a fun ice-breaker at the local pub, but it became particularly annoying when I wanted to go for a long walk to relax and think. Here’s a photo of that setup:

large Orange dry-bag and yellow pannier bag on my bike on a canal bridge.

The next thing I did was to swap the Ortlieb bag for an ultralight backpack. So ultralight that it can hardly be called a backpack. It’s the Sea to Summit silnylon bag weighing just 65 grammes! Gotta love the Aussies. I jettisoned a few more things so as not to strain the poor thing. One example is that I’m now living without any towel at all – I find that apart from the coldest months of the year, I can normally get away with using one of my items of clothing to dry myself after showering. I saved myself over a kilogramme just by swapping bags – my rock-solid reliable Ortlieb waterproof bag including it’s backpack converter weigh about 1.2Kg. Here’s the Sea to Summit bag:

Me wearing the Sea to Summit silnylon bag

I don’t know much about silnylon, but I’m impressed – the other day I was out in a rain shower and my stuff stayed dry:

Some water droplets beaded and rolling off the silnylon

Finally this week I managed to fit everything into one of my Ortlieb pannier bags which I’m pretty chuffed about. Sleeping bag, bivvy bag, mattress, clothes, washbag, piano tuning tools, bike tools, phone charger… the convenience is that I can convert it into a backpack and walk off with all my stuff on my back:

Wearing my bright yellow Ortlieb pannier bag converted into a backpack

As you can see in the photo below, it makes for a slighly lop-sided load on my bike rack. But I’m not too fussed about that right now, the important thing is cutting down the weight and bulk – later I can experiment with centring the load with a seat-post rack or a frame bag.

bright yellow Ortlieb bag on the rack on my bike

Speaking of which, let me close this post by sharing my dream cycle touring set-up. Yes, for me this would be the ultimate stage of enlightenment: cycle touring Nirvana. Could I fit all my stuff into a frame bag? it seems highly unlikely, as frame bags have to be thin to allow enough clearance for the legs to pedal. There really isn’t much space in there, I would have to make drastic reductions to what I currently carry around.

But at each of the stages of enlightenment summarised above, I felt the same way. For example, I scratched my head for ages about fitting everything into one Ortlieb bag, thinking ‘this is crazy’ and ‘impossible’ but now the bag seems quite spacious. A frame bag would be the highest stage of enlightenment: it is without doubt the most efficient way to carry a load on a bike. The weight is low down and centred right between the wheels, and the bag does not increase windage at all. The following photos are not my bike:

A frame bag. It fills the biggest space in the middle of a bicycle frame.

I could do away with the rack altogether. The bag must hug the frame perfectly, therefore frame bags are usually custom-made to order for one bike at a time. There is a company here in the UK who will make them to fit your bike for about £150: Wildcat Gear.

This is a familiar set-up for BikePacking, which is essentially off-road cycle touring. Normally the frame bag is not enough and a couple more bags are added, but no racks:

bikepacker's bike

And so my path to enlightenment continues. It’s a spiritual journey, liberating myself of all the unnecessary material things in life, trying to get down to the real me. Who knows what future technology will enable us to do? My new smartphone is very small but I can use it to deal with emails, navigate using satellites, talk to people across the globe, and take photos. It’s amazing. Similar things are happening to camping and outdoor gear.

Surely I can’t fit everything I need into one frame bag? Have faith, piano tuner, have faith… where there’s a will there’s a way.