One of the most important pieces of kit to get right for solo bike touring is your tent.
Get this right and you’ll be sleeping in comfort after each day in the saddle. Protected from the wind and cold, sheltered from the rain. But, get this wrong and… It takes me back to my days in the Scouts. Now, I’ve talked before about the sage advice from my Scout master on keeping warm by wearing lots of thin layers. Until now though I haven’t mentioned the tents we used to camp in.
If you were a Scout in the 80’s or earlier then you’ll be familiar with the traditional Scout Tent. These were ridge tents that had an upright pole at each end, with a pole connecting them at the top. Then, over the whole frame was thrown a thick canvas cover. Zippers? Nope. Sewn-in groundsheet? Nope.
Why am I telling you this? Well, for bike touring, these tents would be the polar opposite of what we’re looking for. They were heavy (very, very heavy). They were bulky. They weren’t particularly waterproof and they let water in at the bottom due to the lack of a groundsheet. About the only thing going for them was that it wouldn’t get too stuffy for the six unlucky scouts huddling inside as there were lots of places where the icy wind could blow straight through the tent.
I’ll talk in more detail about the key criteria that you need to consider when you’re choosing a tent for solo bike touring in a moment. I’ll also give you some recommendations for a few of my favorite bike touring tents. So, grab a brew, hunker down in your sleeping bag, and read on.
Choosing the best tent for solo bike touring
There are a vast number of different tents out there to choose from. All different shapes, sizes, colors, and configurations. How do you pick the right tent for your solo cycling adventures? Well, let’s take a look at the criteria that I think are the most important to consider when making your selection.
Tent size: 1 person or 2?
Read around on advice for choosing tents for bike tours and you’ll see that weight is one of the most important factors and picking lightweight kit is critical. You will often hear anecdotes of tough adventurers who have either sawn the end of their toothbrush to save an ounce or two. Or even used an old Aboriginal trick of brushing their teeth with the end of a chewed-up twig. Whilst this is sage advice, I for one know that I could lose at least a few ounces by cutting down on between-meal snacks. Any, anyway, my gums are a little delicate these days to be bashing them with a bit of tree.
My point is that, weight is important, but I’d rather compromise on something else rather than focus exclusively on pounds and ounces. Which brings us to the elephant in the corner of the tent: size. Specifically tent size.
For ultralight bikepacking trips the advice is generally to go with a one person tent. That’s great for trips like that as you won’t have much kit to stash in the tent next to you. However for bike touring, the likelihood is that you’ll have more gear and therefore need room inside the tent to keep it overnight.
I love one person tents, but there isn’t much space inside them for anything but you, your bag and your sleeping pad. So I think it’s worthwhile going up to a two person tent for solo bike tours as this gives extra room for your gear, plus space to get changed, spread out a little and get comfy.
This will undoubtedly add both weight, packed bulk, and cost to your tent purchase but I think it’s worthwhile. You’ll likely spend a lot of time in the tent so it’s important to make sure that it’s as comfy as possibly so that you can get the best night’s sleep possible.
Even with going “up a size” to a 2-person tent, it’s still possible to get one that’s a couple of pounds or even less. And that’s great because your tent can often be the heaviest part of your kit on a bike tour.
This is undoubtedly one of the areas that tent manufacturers focus on and you get exactly what you pay for. The higher the price and you’ll generally find that the tents are lighter. The lighter the tent the easier it will be to haul up those hills and over the miles. For me, cheap and heavy tents have only ever been a source of frustration and new swear words.
Small packed size
Allied to the weight of the tent is the size that it packs up to. Again, the higher the price tag the more likely it is that the tent will pack smaller. A smaller packed tent gives more room in your bags for other gear. It also allows you to carry the tent on your bike in places that a large tent just wouldn’t go. Many bikepackers, for example, lash their tents to the space in front of the handlebars. With a tent that packs up short then this is absolutely doable even on bikes with drop bars.
Tents that pack small also have another benefit in terms of their aerodynamicity. Simple put, the smaller the tent, the less drag it will cause as you’re cycling along. And, the less drag, the easier it will be to pedal.
A double-walled tent has an inner tent that is often made of mesh panels (to give good levels of ventilation) and an outer tent or fly sheet that provides wind/waterproofing and privacy.
Single-walled tents try and combine all of these features into one layer. They can be lighter and easier to put up, trouble is that they have a number of inherent disadvantages. Firstly, as any 1980s scout will tell you, touch or press against that layer and water will instantly start coming inside the tent soaking your gear. Secondly, the single sorta-waterproof layer, in order to give that waterproofness will have minimal (if any) ventilated areas and so the experience will be stuffy and moist. Not pleasant. Without a doubt, double-walled is the way to go.
There are two different varieties of tent structure: freestanding and non-freestanding. Freestanding tents, such as dome tents, have an internal pole structure that allows them to be erected without the need to stake them out. This can be useful where you’re campground has a hard surface or you’ve bent and twisted all your stakes. Non-freestanding tents, such as tunnel tents, require one or more stakes to be put into the ground in order to help keep the tent upright. These can sometimes be lighter tents as the pole structure is lighter in compensation. On balance though my preference is for freestanding tents as they’re easier to put up for the solo bike tourer.
Like I mentioned earlier, the only thing that those scout tents had going for them was the great ventilation. Thankfully there are plenty of modern tents that have lots of great features, along with good ventilation. This is really important because tents without are like sealed boxes and can get very stuffy very quickly. That stuffiness will lead to condensation forming on the inside walls of the tent and this will drip down onto you and your gear. Keeping your stuff dry when you’re bike touring is a constant battle and particularly so if you have a down sleeping bag or puffer jacket. I love down as it has great thermal properties but, once it gets wet, it loses those much faster than synthetic fillings do.
Look out for tents that have sewn-in mesh panels to allow a good through breeze and also zippered openings that you can unzip to allow extra air to circulate. Some tents have two doorways and these can be useful when the weather is very warm or you’re looking to air out the tent on a morning.
The right color
This might seem like an odd choice to include in the list, but it can be an important consideration.
Tents can be divided up into two categories: bright colors (yellow, orange, blue, etc) and earthy colors (dark green, muted brown, etc). Why is this important? Well, if you’ll be doing all you camping at recognized campsites, then you can pick whichever color you like. If you want to be able to be visible from a distance in poor weather, then choose one of the brighter colors. But, many bike campers like to spend the odd night wild camping in areas where they’d like to blend in and not be quite so noticeable. Maybe it’s not an official campsite. Maybe they don’t want to get any unwanted attention. For those situations then it’s useful to have a tent color that helps them disappear into their surroundings.
If you’re like me then there’s nothing more likely to take the shine of an otherwise awesome adventure than having a rubbish night’s sleep. Tent choice is a massive part of this. Get the right one and it will add to the experience. You’ll go to sleep cozy at night and wake up refreshed in the morning ready for another day’s exploring on the bike. Get the wrong one and, like a 1980’s Scout, you’ll be cramped, wet and miserable.
Solo bike touring is an amazing way to see the world. You just have to the right kit to make it happen.
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