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10 years of bike touring experience (2010)
This guide will help you to determine what is the right cycle touring tent according to your needs. The perfect bike touring tent for anyone else may not be the best touring tent for you. When you are touring on your bicycle, it is more than likely that your tent will be your primary home. After a hard day of biking, you will need a good restful night.
A camping tent can be pricey but is certainly worth the money. While getting ready for a bike tour, there are three items I would recommend spending extra money on: your bicycle, your camping tent
and your panniers
– buying quality in these areas saves you tenfold in peace of mind.
So, unless you are planning to use your tent only for emergencies, or only for a one-time trip, I highly recommend that you buy a brand name and reliable tent.
See article: Why do I need a good tent? Which are the high quality brands?
There are hundreds of models and manufacturers out there and making a choice can be a daunting task. In reality, you will find that when you put together all the features you want for your tent according to your needs and preferences, you will end up with far fewer choices. The goal of this article is to give you a clear idea of what sleeping system best meets your needs.
The best way to pick up a tent is to prioritize the features you need it to have. This is the list of features you should consider when picking up the perfect tent for your bicycle journey; but remember, first make sure you are picking your tent from a reputable brand.
- SIZE: If you are planning a long journey, I would recommend taking a two-person tent for solo trips, and a large two or three-person tent for couples. The few extra ounces are worth it. The older you are the truer it is, and your back will thank you.
- WEIGHT: Just like snails do, you will carry your home with you, so you should pick a light one. Forget about the 20lb family tent! You will have to find a balance between comfort (space, features and durability) and weight. On one extreme you will find the solo traveler carrying a bivy, a hammock, a one-pole tent, a tarp-tent or even a simple tarp; on the other extreme you will find couples choosing a 3 person dome tent with a huge vestibule and all the optional features. Both extremes are perfectly fine, and depend on your individual preference. I personally prefer to go on a heavy side; I would rather carry the extra pound or two and gain comfort and space. However, I would not recommend carrying a tent over 4,5kg (9lb). In today’s market you can easily find a two-person tent with a huge vestibule weighing around 3.5 kg. See Terra Nova Laser Photon Elite (world record for the lightest tent) vs. Terra Nova Laser Space 2 (where you can actually stand up in the tent).
- COLOR: though this might seem like it doesn’t matter, it really can make a huge difference. Color is especially important when doing stealth camping which is very frequent on long distance tour. In this case you should focus on camouflaged or natural colors that will help you blend in with your surroundings. If visibility is important to you (ie. crowded campground, mountaineering), bright colors are widely available. Also keep in mind that darker color tent attract the sun more (can be good or not depending on the weather). The MSR Mo Room has a nice light color that can blend almost anywhere.
- FREE-STANDING: A tent that stands up without a need for stakes. Some would never buy anything other than a freestanding tent, while some don’t think it is an issue. Note: even on a FS tent the vestibule usually DOES need pegging (see tips and tricks below). A non-pegged Free-standing tent will most likely leak during a storm and does not have the best ventilation. I personally recommend a free standing tent especially if you are going on a long tour with a lot of camp out nights. You will encounter situations where the ground doesn’t allow you to use a stake (see situations below). FS and NFS have their own pros and cons (see below). The MSR Hubba Hubba 2-person is completely free-standing.
- VESTIBULE SIZE: I consider this to be a big priority. Knowing I was going to spend many nights and many rainy and/or resting days in my tent, I chose the largest vestibule possible. I purchased the MSR Velo, which is unfortunately no longer manufactured – but cyclocamping.com dug out some that are similar and even better for you! See Terra Nova Voyager XL huge vestibule
- Advantages of a large vestibule: store all your panniers and leave your muddy shoes in it and still have room to “hang out”. On rainy or windy days one can read comfortably, cook, do the dishes or even have a guest visit to play cards! Some of the largest vestibules allow you to store two bicycles and all of the panniers under the vestibule if you’re camping in a less than desirable area. In the MSR Velo we were able to leave two bicycles, fourteen bags (panniers, dry bags and handlebar bags) and I still had a bit of room to sit and cook! This extra space is a luxury and I was willing to carry the extra pound for it, some people travel with a just a tarp and manage fine. It’s a matter of personal choice.
- ABILITY TO PITCH THE FLY FIRST: See Wild Country Duolite Tourer. Some tents allow you to pitch the waterproof part (the top, also called the rainfly) first – keeping the inside part of the tent dry. This added advantage allows you the flexibility to just carry the fly (and leave the body at home) to save weight when you go on short, mild, and bug-free trips. However, the downside is that this type of tents prevents you from using the inner part of the tent without the fly. In hot and humid conditions, sleeping without the fly can be a bonus because of the improved air circulation. Plus it allows you to do star gazing, all of the advantages of sleeping in the open without the bugs - pretty nice believe me.
- USE FLY ONLY OR BODY ONLY: Some tents from Big Agnes allow you to pitch either the fly only or the inner part only, with or without the floor. See Emerald Mountain SL2 from Big Agnes
- THREE or FOUR-SEASON TENT: Usually bicycle travelers choose a three-season tent because they are lighter and breath better. Four-season tents are designed for mountaineering, can handle very cold weather, and have a reinforced structure that can support the weight of snow. Four-season tents have bright colors so they can be spotted from a distance. The Terra Nova Voyager XL is sold as a 4-season tent but has great ventilation options.
Tent Options and Variations
- TITANIUM PEGS: some good brands will have titanium stakes included with your tent. They are nice and strong. I strongly recommend the stronger aluminum star-shaped stakes like the Ground Hog from MSR or the Ultralight stakes from Coghlan's. I was literally able to go through rocks with them, and after hundreds of uses they work like new!
- ONE-POLE TENT: these are some of the lightest options you will find. They perform very well in strong winds and have good ventilation. A downside is that you will need an appropriate site, as they require a lot of pegging. See Marmot Haven 2P
- FOOTPRINT: This is essential. By protecting the tents floor you insure years of increased use.. The Achilles heel of your tent is the floor.. Get a footprint so it can take the scratches, wear, punctures and other damage. It is much cheaper to replace than your tent. A tarp is cheaper, but it’s bulkier, heavier, doesn’t breath as well, and won’t match the size of your tent
- SINGLE-WALL TENT: They are extremely light, compact, easy to pitch, and quite durable if manufactured by a well-known brand (warning: cheap one-season tents are usually single wall). The main complain people seem to have about these tents is the poor ventilation and the tendency to have condensation problems. The condensation builds up inside of the tent, so they perform poorly in colder temperatures. I would not recommend this type of tent in subfreezing temperature. But they could be a great option if you plan a journey in warm and dry weather, or if you plan to use the tent only for emergencies.
- ALL-MESH BODY: Some inner parts (or body) are entirely or mostly made of mesh. It increases ventilation considerably and reduces weight tremendously. An all-mesh body is fantastic for stargazing when you don’t setup the fly. This is ideal for warmer climates, but it is not recommended for warming up in on cold nights. See Kelty tents.
- DOUBLE LAYER DOOR: Most of the tents that have an all-fabric body usually have a double layer door. You can roll up the fabric leaving you with just a mesh door to increase ventilation during warm nights.
- VERTICAL WALL: Some new tent designs have a side-wall that is almost vertical and can dramatically increase the inner space of the tent. The downside is that the tent won't stand as well against strong winds.
- CLOSABLE VENTS: another feature that allow you to increase ventilation when needed.
- CEILING LOOPS & CEILING MESH POCKET: The mesh-pocket is also a great option as it lies flat a few inches from the ceiling and allows you to store your clothing. Great to hang a flashlight, wet socks and sweaty bike shorts to dry (it's nice to have dry and warm underwear in the morning!), or you can store anything you need handy. See Tent Accessories
- POLE SLEEVES vs. POLE CLIPS: pole sleeves make a more stable tent in wind, but it is slower to pitch (unless if the sleeve is a one unique long sleeve) and decreases airflow. Pole clips allow an easier and faster setup, enable greater ventilation, but makes for a less stable tent.
- INSIDE POCKETS: Great for storing items you want handy or safe by being close to you (Mp3 player, headlamp, wallet etc.)
- HUBS: More recently manufacturers use more metal pole junctures called hubs. They allow three poles of differing length to join, cutting down the poles weight and adding sturdiness to the structure (only true in well designed tents).
- REFLECTORS: Some tents have reflectors on the fly, which can be helpful when you camp where vehicles might drive in the middle of the night (open field, roadside etc.). The downside is that these reflectors can rat you out from miles away.
- OPTIONAL VESTIBULE: Some tents have a detachable vestibule so you have the option to leave it at home when needed (on shorter or warmer trip for example). See Emerald Mountain SL2 from Big Agnes
What makes a tent durable and reliable
- THE POLES: strong aluminum poles > 8mm in diameter. Carbon fiber poles are extremely strong for half the weight of aluminum poles but are extremely expensive and are usually used in serious mountaineering expedition.
- THE FABRIC: All brand name tents are made of synthetic, usually Ripstop polyester, the best material you can find, and each manufacturer will have its own formula and will give it a proprietary name. The way manufacturers give the specs for their tent make it very difficult to compare but as a rule of thumb, the heavier the tent is (for the same space), the stronger the fabric will be, and the longer the tent will stay waterproof over time. This is due to the waterproof coating:
- WATERPROOF COATING (usually polyurethane or silicon): Each manufacturer has their own way to make a tent waterproof, UV resistant and at the same time breathable. The waterproofness of the material will be rated in mm and this is a spec you want to look for: Numbers go between 800 mm and 10,000 mm. The number refers to a water column height in millimeters. For example, 1500 mm means that the fabric will withstand a 1500mm (5') column of water for more than one minute before a single drop might appear through the fabric. More details here: Understand the waterproof coating (in mm) on tents fabrics
- GOOD VENTILATION: This is extremely important. A good tent has a design allowing the air to circulate through it, thus preventing condensation of the water you exhale inside the tent. This makes a huge difference especially in cold weather. The tent should offer features like closable vents and mesh doors to allow you to regulate the air circulation (see feature above).
- THE SEAM: Good tents will have nice and strong seam. But whatever manufacturers do, seams seem to always be the weakest part of the tent, after the floor, especially on the fly; and overtime the tent will start to leak (it will still take several years of hard usage for good tent). The good news is that we know the trick to prevent your tent from leaking (see below tips & tricks)!
- THE ZIPPERS: anyone who bought a cheap tent knows this: sooner or later the zipper will break and there is nothing you can do once it occurs (you might fix it by squeezing back the zipper with a pair of pliers, but it will last only for a few nights). The part along the zipper is where the tent will endure the most stress, so serious tents will have good triple or quadruple seam sewing with an extra layer of strong material along the zip, and the zip itself will be bulky and strong.
Tips & tricks when using your tent
How to make your tent last many years longer?
Free standing tent (geodesic) VS. Non-free standing tent (tunnel)
Why do I need a good tent? Which are the best brands on the market?
Understanding waterproof coatings/ratings (in mm) on tents fabrics