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Interview :: Heike Pirngruber, Solo Overlander

Heike, a German national who considers herself a global citizen, has been traveling solo around the world for the past nine years, first on her bicycle and then, more recently, walking with a pushcart and her adopted Mexican dog, Butch.

Heike first found herself cycling from Germany to Australia in 2013 after leaving her job as a camera operator for a well-known broadcasting company in Germany, and she hasn’t stopped since. Heike has cycled solo to over 59 countries across the globe, to extreme places such as West Africa and Madagascar, accomplishments in themselves. Although this has been a challenging lifestyle, which most of us would find near impossible, for Heike, this daring adventure has been a journey of self-development to overcome her fears and accomplish the unimaginable while continuously setting more ambitious goals.

Traveling solo demands strength and an ability to be self-reliant. Despite her preference for traveling alone, Heike loves the company of other people, another reason why she chose to ride a bicycle instead of driving around the world. She gets to experience every country and person face-to-face, experiencing how people live and integrating herself into the community, sharing meals, and taking the time to learn about the different cultures. The slow pace of bicycle travel offers opportunities that may sometimes be lacking when traveling swiftly through a country by vehicle.

Walking or cycling around the world is not for everyone and may be difficult to understand; opinions are often divided between fear and delight as a response to Heike’s on-the-road lifestyle. Women who travel solo around the world belong to an exclusive club and can be a lonely but gratifying way to travel, as Heike is quick to share. Heike’s steadfast belief that the world is good, and her willingness to travel independent of support reinforces our optimism. After reading this life-changing interview, we are confident that you will be inspired and perhaps far less apprehensive about traveling to new and remote destinations.

Tell us about yourself.

I am Heike Pirngruber, a German solo female traveling the world continuously since 2013. For the first six years of my journey, I rode a bicycle, crossed more than 50 countries, and covered about 47,000 miles during those wonderful years of my life.

Shortly before the pandemic hit the world, I changed to walking. Initially, I wanted to walk the length of South America but got stuck in a very strict lockdown in Colombia for 10 weeks.

Having had the chance to escape to the United States, I thru-hiked the Colorado Trail and the Arizona Trail. I also walked across Washington, Oregon, and parts of Baja, California, in Mexico.

In the meantime, I adopted Butch, an Australian Cattle dog in Mexico, and Butch and I are back to bicycling/dog packing the planet.

How did you begin traveling, and when did you decide that the overland lifestyle would be a large part of your future?

Being fortunate enough to have grown up in a free country with a powerful passport and a very open-minded family, I could explore the planet from an early age.

By the time I turned 40, I was tired of my life as a camerawoman and needed a change and decided to cycle off into the sunset with no end in sight.

I have been to 101 countries and visited 59 of them by bike.

What inspires you to travel?

As a kid, my room wasn’t decorated with pop stars or actors but with world maps, making me dream of foreign places. In all these years on the road, my curiosity hasn’t vanished, and I am still keen on going to the areas I haven’t explored yet. Life is too short to spend it somewhere you don’t enjoy or like.

What is your life philosophy?

The less you own, the more freedom you have.

What are your favorite overland destinations so far?

Many. In general, I love open skies and remote places, and the desert is my favorite terrain.

I love cultures and try to avoid cities and overpopulated areas. As a cyclist, I avoid traffic as best as I can and stick to gravel roads as often as possible.

I love Morocco, the American West, Central Asia, the Himalayas, Northern Vietnam, Baja California, Australia, Western China, Bolivia and Peru, Oman, and Iran.

How has traveling changed you?

I somehow lost my roots, which can be seen as negative, and I am a foreigner in my own country now.

On the positive side, I gained confidence and learn daily. I don’t judge but listen. I observe and think more than I used to. [I’ve] made a lot of friends but also lost a few.

The list could go on forever. I have never regretted exploring the world so intensely, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. I love my life.

How do you afford to travel?

I own a blog, pushbikegirl.com, that I put a lot of love and effort into. Being a pro photographer, I also sell articles to magazines from time to time. All in all, I live thriftily—the less you spend, the more you can travel.

Travel dreams and goals?

I still have 95 countries on my list to tour; then, I will have stepped on every piece of soil this world has to offer. But I am not one of those people who spend only a day in a country, just for the sake of it. I usually try to explore as much of the country as possible to get an idea of what it is like. In other words, I will be busy discovering new places or returning to countries I have loved for the rest of my life. There is so much to see.

What has surprised you the most about overland travel?

The media often gives us the wrong picture. There are wonderful people everywhere. The world is an amazing place full of beautiful human beings. No matter if they are rich or poor, regardless of their religion or gender. There are exceptions, but bad apples are rare.

What has surprised you the most about overland travel with a pet?

First and foremost, there are a lot of dogs in this world, and they can make life very difficult for us.

Unfortunately, when in Mexico, I could not position Butch in a safe spot when walking through towns and passing farms. We often found ourselves in stressful situations when entering other dogs’ territories with street dog gangs and guard dogs being aggressive. We eventually started to avoid people to avoid their aggressive dogs. As you can imagine, I am worried that Butch will be at risk, and I would like to avoid this at all costs. Also, Butch loves to play and interact with other friendly dogs, so it frustrates him when he gets attacked.

As I am traveling the planet to get to know others and to understand how they live and what they think, avoiding them isn’t something I enjoy much.

What challenges do you face on a day-to-day basis traveling with a pet?

Butch is the most expensive item I have ever owned. He is worth every penny, but most of my money seems to be spent on him. Not everyone loves dogs; some people are afraid of them, which isn’t always positive for us.

I found it less safe to pitch a tent in the wild because Butch is a herding dog and barks if something approaches us. I prefer to hide and not be seen, which is more challenging to realize with Butch.

Wildlife and livestock are a daily struggle when walking in remote areas, and his physical limitations forced me to slow down when he was still a puppy.

Getting dog food in small packages can also be a problem. He needs a lot of attention which takes away from my freedom which I was used to for so many years.

Restrictions and documents, flights, public transport, or hitching a ride—pretty much all aspects of traveling are much more complicated than without a dog.

He has issues with the heat, so we must carefully select where and when we visit certain places.

Anyway, it is all worth it. I love his company very much.

Any tips or tricks for traveling safely with a pet?

Train the dog well. Get the right breed that can withstand the physical challenges of an adventure.

How has the pandemic affected your journey?

Vets didn’t allow new clients in the US, so getting his shots and check-ups was difficult. We cannot just go wherever we like. It is difficult enough for a person but even more challenging with a pet in these exceptional times.

What challenges do you face daily as a woman traveling alone?

I don’t see many disadvantages as a solo woman, quite the contrary. People want to protect me and go way out of their way to help me. I often get invitations—I am sure way more than a solo man would get. I must be a little more careful than a man, but I’ve only had a few serious situations so far. No less or more than a solo man traveling the planet.

How have you been able to mitigate those challenges?

Fear happens in your mind and is often not reality. The longer you travel, the more you understand the dos and donts of traveling.

Use common sense. Of course, you shouldn’t camp in the middle of downtown Sao Paulo, nor should you dress promiscuously when cycling in Muslim countries.

Check the locals. See how women behave. What are they wearing? Are they walking through dark alleys at night? If they can do that, you can do it too. They know what is safe and what isn’t.

But having said that, people often think that their neighbor is the bad guy or that their neighboring country is dangerous.

Are there any community resources that you rely on?

I am a member of warmshowers.org, a community for long-distance cyclists where hosts can offer their homes to cyclists.

I am also a member of a few Facebook bicycle or hiking groups.

Are there any organizations that you support or promote while traveling?

Yes, I am collecting money for One Tree Planted. An NGO from Vermont is planting trees all over the planet to help fight climate change.

What guidance can you give to someone looking to travel solo?

Prepare yourself mentally so that the beginning might be easier and not so intimidating. The longer you are on the road, the easier it gets. There are many travelers out there who are facing the same fear and are looking for someone to talk to or travel with. You simply need to find them.

Start with an easy destination. The best would be your home country where you can speak the language and know the rules and customs. Once you feel more comfortable, cross the border and start your adventure into the unknown. You can do it—many others have done it before you.

Is there any specific gear you travel with?

The less you have, the better and lighter it is to travel. I have continuously been cycling and hiking the planet for nine years, and my gear selection has changed over the years. I carry less in summer and more in winter. I have replaced a lot of items by now. I keep learning and selecting new gear when things fall apart because of extensive use. Nothing lasts forever. My all-time favorites are my Hilleberg Soulo tent and Picogrill 85 hobo stove.

Any regrets?

Not many. I should have started earlier in life.

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Luisa Bell has always had a passion for travel, but she never imagined that she would travel the world, with her family, in a self-built Land Rover Defender camper. As the navigator, administrator, and penetrator of bureaucracy, she has led her family to over 65 countries on five continents. Luisa is the wife of Graeme, and their quarter-century together feels like a full century in overlander years. Her two kids and her dog are her pride and joy, and if she could travel with them indefinitely, she would. With a background in immigration law, she has the ability to make the impossible possible and has no plan of settling down or retiring her full-time traveler status. Follow her adventures at www.a2aexpedition.com