Shelter – tents, tarps and bivvy bags.
When we first started cycle-touring I chose a fairly large three-man tent as I was concerned that Joe might not enjoy the experience if our tent was too small. The Berghaus Peak 3.3 Pro tent which I bought for our French trip during the winter sales cost £189 had a weight of 2.9kg, which is not too bad weight-wise for the price. I now think of it as a fairly weighty bulky tent, but if you are using a trailer then it is quite a good cheap option (most tents this size and price are 4kg plus). It had aluminium poles which are much lighter than fibreglass. As you can see in this photo it had a very generous porch which was big enough to store our cycle trailer in as well as having space and roof height for safe (gas or meths) cooking inside during inclement weather. It pitched very easily, with just four pegs being required to hold it up. One problem we did have with it was that as the inner tent is mostly fabric with only a small area of mesh, it could be very hot to sleep in when we were in warm countries. It is quite good in that respect for the UK though!
When we travelled to Portugal I opted to leave the trailer at home and carry our gear in panniers instead. I also traded a lot of our other gear for lighter weight options and this included our tent. I found a Trekkertent Stealth 1.5 second hand on eBay for a bargain price of £150 including a carbon pole set. Normally this would have cost £220 for the tent and £68 for the poles. At around 900g in weight this tent offered a massive 2kg saving over our Berghaus tent, but the penalty was paid in the space and comfort it offered. To be fair, the Stealth 1.5 is really only meant for one large individual or one adult and their dog or something, but we found other aspects of the tent a challenge too. It was quite difficult to erect correctly as it required quite a lot of tension on the pegging out points. This in turn necessitated that these be in exactly the right position – something that is rarely possible in the real world where rocks, roots etc might get in the way of the placement of at least one peg. While this tent was a great introduction to lightweight tents it quickly became too small as Joe grew very rapidly during the year we owned it. I sold it for £135 I think. It is a good tent for short trips but on the sort of longer trip we were using it for, we found it a bit of a challenge.
The photo below shows the difference in bulk between the Trekker tent (left) and the Berghaus. The red thing in the middle of the photo is a Tunnocks Tea Cake for scale.
The following winter I went shopping for a replacement tent – something that would have the space of the Berghaus but the weight of the Trekkertent. I found it in the awesome MSR Carbon Reflex 3 (shown below). Weighing just 1.1kg with a pack size no bigger than the Trekker, the Carbon Reflex was a three-man tent with two porches and two doors plus a large amount of internal space and headroom – very important for getting dressed comfortably inside the tent. The kicker was the price – I paid £376 new for ours, which while being a lot of money, is actually very cheap for this tent. I think this model may have been discontinued now but can still be found online.
The Carbon Reflex without the top cover. As you can see there is plenty of head-room.
Alternatives to look for
DD Hamocks in Edinburgh sell lightweight tents, but most require a hiking pole to hold them up. You can get round this by purchasing a carbon pole but this adds to the cost and weight. The DD SuperLight Pyramid tent is very lightweight at 1.1kg for a 2 person tent and costs only £157 but this doesn’t include the cost (or weight) of a pole. You might be able to fit 2 adults and a child in one of these at a push.
Alpkit’s Ordos tents are a cheapish option which are light enough to be worthy of consideration by bikepackers – the Ordos 2 weighs 1.3kg and costs £225, while the Ordos 3 weighs 1.6kg and costs £265.
Other lightweight tent manufacturers to look for on eBay include Big Agnes, Terra Nova, MSR, Zpacks, Nemo, Exped and Nordisk. Searching for ‘silnylon tent’ might also help you find something lightweight.
Tarps and bivvy bags
For one person a tarp and bivvy bag combo can be a lighter weight option than a tent. We tried this briefly but while it was great to be able to look out at wildlife from our beds (here we were camped overlooking a loch and saw deer coming to drink in the evening), I found myself beset with worry that we would be eaten alive by ticks. We weren’t, but I worried anyway. The midges were also not much fun. The bivvy bags we are using in the photo below are Alpkit Hunka XL bags at £65. If you get a Hunka get the XL – that way your mat will fit inside which will keep it clean, away from sharp hazards and also keep you a lot warmer.
There are many ways to pitch a tarp – this guide from Alpkit is useful.
Because of my concerns about ticks and other bitey things I sold the Hunkas and replaced them with Borah Gear bivvy bags that have a mesh face/hood area. The mesh has a loop sewn in to allow you to attach a guy line to lift it away from your face. I get quite claustrophobic but I had no problems inside this bag. They were $95 from the US with about £18 added on for import duty if I can remember correctly. They are a lot lighter than our previous bivvy bags, weighing in at only 200g vs 490g for the Hunka XL and also pack a lot smaller.
We have been trying out an ultralightweight setup of using very small tarps to protect the head end only in combination with the Borah bags. Obviously this is not intended for long trips, just a few nights at the most. We haven’t had enough experience with it to say how it works yet, but will report back here once we do. In these photos the mesh loop of the bivvy bag is hung from our handlebars.