Self-confessed tent-nerd Stephen Lord has owned fourteen tents in his time, and still has three, of which his favourite is the Sierra Designs Stretch Dome, a four-season tent identical in style to the first ever tent he bought in 1983, the Sierra Designs Domicile. This article is adapted from a his forthcoming book, the Adventure Cycling Handbook, to be published early in 2006 by Trailblazer.
Following his submission are some comments from other cyclists about tents they are using.
Your choice of tent is one of the most important equipment decisions you have to make. A strong tent will stand you in good stead, but be prepared to pay upwards of £200/300 Euros or about $300 in the United States.Yes, you can get nice tents for less, certainly in the USA, but in this case we are talking about paying full retail for comparison's sake.
A cheaper tent may well stand you in good stead for many short summer trips, but the purpose of this article is to focus on tents which will last longer and in tougher conditions. I have seen plenty of cheap tents destroyed in a moment by strong winds, or leaking, tearing, splitting, broken poles etc.
Look at two person tents even if you are travelling solo; you’re going to spend a lot of time in your tent and you will need space in the tent for doing chores as well as for comfort. And who knows, you might have guests! There are some nice solo tents available which have large vestibules, alleviating the claustrophobia unless you have to zip everything up at night, but generally, they are not flexible or comfortable tents and ventilation can be difficult. If you are travelling as a couple you ought to think of a two to three person size and make sure the tent has a large vestibule for all your gear and for cooking in and enough space that you don’t fight!
Expect the weight to be 2.5-3kg including everything. It is not worth paying extra or giving up space or strength for the sub-two kilo tent; leave these to hard-core backpackers. An exception is if you are only looking for a one-person tent - take a look at Hilleberg's Akto if you can. If you are ordering a tent from the internet, check the weight figures carefully first; manufacturers' figures are often used by mail-order shops without checking and needless to say, manufacturers are often optimistic. You may learn a lot more from a visit to a specialist shop, fishing scales in hand.
Aluminium poles are the standard in good tents. Think about where you want to go on this and future trips. If you are definitely headed for mountains, consider a four-season tent; otherwise three-season tents are fine for the job and the better ones have been used by bikers going through the Himalayas.
As a rule, tents tend to be designed for the weather in the countries where they are made. European tents generally work well in the rain and cold weather, American tents ventilate well in hot weather and are often designed to stand up to strong winds. The better New Zealand tents have excellent rain protection and work well in the mountains. Top brands from the USA are The North Face, Sierra Designs, Marmot, and Mountain Hardwear. They all make some excellent four season and three+season tents with three or four poles. Four season tents usually have steep roofs to shed snow and often have four poles to support a snowfall, and they typically have two doors to facilitate escape if you wake up to your front door covered by a snowdrift.
Sierra Designs Meteor Light by the river Danube. A great tent for summer weather with huge doors and vestibules and big for 2 people. Much heavier than the maker's published weight and not so great in the rain, but because the waterproof coating is on the inside, the outside of the tent can be painted with acrylic paint, as this painting of Mt. Kailash in Tibet shows.
Click to enlarge.
If this sounds like overkill for your type of travel, look at the stronger three season models, which may be more comfortable in terms of a high-volume shape and larger doors. If you can, choose a drab, natural coloured tent, which will draw less attention than a bright coloured mountain tent.
High quality European names are Vaude and Salewa of Germany, very expensive Hilleberg of Sweden, and Terra-Nova of the UK. Terra-nova’s Voyager tent is one of the most popular among those bikers who have either deep pockets or generous sponsors. Its virtues are extreme strength and wind-resistance, extra length for tall people and a good vestibule to cook in. Terra-Nova’s new Laserlarge tents are worth a look, but they are made of thinner material - take care on a long trip. Vaude tents are affordable, good all-rounders which are usually a natural shade of green. Salewa makes some classic mountain tents, strong and compact in design. Hilleberg is best known for its tunnel tents and are highly rated by their owners. The Nallo GT, for light weight and a large vestibule to cook in and store gear has been mentioned by numerous cycle-tourers, but it retails for 640 Euros! Hillebergs use a very thin nylon coated with silicone. They are more of a cold weather tent than a hot weather tent. New Zealand’s MacPac makes some of the best tents in the world. Their tents have extremely thick groundsheets and all their trekking tents perform well in high winds. The polyester flysheets don’t sag when they get wet. Their Minaret tent is a classic two person mountain tent, though a bicycle touring couple ought to go for the larger Olympus.
One design which works well for bikers is the tunnel tent such as the MacPac tents. These are especially sturdy if you pitch them lengthways into the wind. They also go up and come down quickly which is useful in high winds and rain, especially as the inner tent usually remains attached to the flysheet. You pack your panniers while inside the tent and jump out at the last minute to take down and pack the tent. The only disadvantage to tunnel tents is that they are not freestanding and must be pegged out to stand. People who take tunnel tents on long trips tend to grumble a bit when they pass through really high country and cannot get their tent pegs into rocky ground. Be inventive, take extra nylon cord to lengthen the guylines so you can reach far enough to find some soft ground or tie your guylines around rocks. Take extra tent pegs and a variety if possible for hard ground and soft ground. If your tent comes with pegs that bend easily, replace them all before you go.
It is common nowadays to see figures given for the hydrostatic head of a flysheet or floor of a tent and this has become a useful measure for comparing the degree of water resistance of tents. The hydrostatic head figure gives the maximum vertical height of a column of water to which the fabric is waterproof, ie. The water pressure that the fabric can withstand. A tent floor of 10,000mm, ie water-resistant to a 10m high column of water, is as strong as you are likely to find. Flysheets are obviously thinner than groundsheets, and 6-7000mm is a strong flysheet while 3000mm is adequate. Rolf Hilleberg, owner of Hilleberg, the tentmaker, warns that this test is not always performed to independent standards and buyers still need to be cautious in using these figures. Tents with thinner flysheets will still be waterproof, but the stronger the storm and the longer it lasts, the more likely they are to let water through. Over the tent’s lifetime, as the coating wears off and the nylon breaks down due to UV damage, lightweight tents will let in water sooner. It’s fine to buy a cheap tent for summer camping for a few weeks a year in Europe, but for a long expedition, a better quality tent, perhaps a little heavier, will last much longer.
Avoid ultra-light tents as there is usually a loss of strength and long-term durability, besides a much higher price. A recent long-term test of tents against ultraviolet light revealed that some of the most expensive and lightest tents fared the worst. Polyester flysheets generally held up better against UV damage but it was clear that the thicker flysheets did best of all and this is why the weight savings of tents below 2.5kg are not worth the extra expense, as you are giving up strength and long term durability.
There are a couple of tents designed with bikers in mind with vestibules large enough to accommodate two bikes. Covering your bike at night is a luxury rather than a necessity but these are high quality tents. Vaude’s Monolith is 3.8m long, weighs 4.4kg, and is a comfortable place to spend a rest day. MSR of the USA makes the Velo, a smaller tent of similar weight, but it is freestanding, although the vestibule must be pegged down. Terra-Nova’s Laser Large 2 also has a very large vestibule, which the makers claim will fit two bikes. All these tents are 3 season tents and have a large amount of fairly thin nylon in relation to just a few poles. Not recommended for windy places or mountain travel.
Whichever tent you choose, use an extra groundsheet underneath. It keeps mud off your tent and takes the beating your tent would otherwise receive. It reduces condensation under the tent floor so that when you pack up, your tent will be fairly dry underneath while the groundsheet will be damp on the side facing the ground. It's not necessary to buy the custom-fitted groundsheet made by the tent maker, they are expensive for what they are, and blue polythene tarps serve just as well and cost next to nothing.
If all this sounds like too much expense and a blow to the budget, go with what you already have, but if you are using a cheap tent, be more cautious choosing a campsite, avoiding open spaces, hills and beaches and sticking to campgrounds or woods where you can find a sheltered spot. You will meet lots of travellers with cheap and cheerful tents - we met a Japanese biker travelling down the Pacific Coast of the USA on a bike for which he paid $20 and a tent which cost 75 cents. It had no poles, so he had to find trees to tie the guylines to, but most important of all, it did not stop him making his trip. A German biker we met in New Zealand had a one pole tent, basically waterproof but he had to accept the odd blow-down every now and then, and sometimes had to spend a few hours drying things out. He told us he never worried, because he only spent the equivalent of €100 on the tent and felt he had nothing to lose.
Be sure to carry some SeamGrip in your repair kit. This urethane based glue is excellent for sealing seams on your tent. Most decent tents come with the seams already sealed (to prevent rain coming in through the stitching) but if you tent is not sealed, apply a thin bead of SeamGrip to the side of the tent which is not coated with the durable water repellent (DWR) coating, as glue will not stick easily to this side. SeamGrip makes excellent repairs, using either a repair kit or any piece of thin nylon or polyester, preferably matching the original material. The large tube will seal the seams of a tent, but this glue dries out quickly once opened and ages even if unused, so the small tubes, though more expensive, might be best for a road trip.
All you ever wanted to know about Tent Pegs:
Commonly overlooked, because they come with your tent so you don‘t need to choose them, tent pegs are what holds your tent up in a storm and for a long trip, it‘s worth getting good ones. From left to right, the choice of tent pegs covers the cheapest on the left to the best pegs on the market on the right. If your tent came with pegs like the example on the far left, throw them in your recycling bin and get better ones, and give some thought to whether the tent itself is good enough for extended touring. The second and third pegs along are made from steel and aluminium respectively. They are both light, good for general use and the easiest to put in and take out by hand but will bend in hard ground and on a long trip you may have to straighten them once a week by bashing them with a stone.
The peg in the middle is made of tent pole aluminium and is the most expensive. It is excellent in soft or hard ground, but not quite as strong as it looks (notice the bend in this one). Hit this peg hard off-centre and it can snap instantly. The big plastic pegs, usually yellow, are a very good for soft ground, sand or snow and if they are damaged, they can be sharpened or filed back into shape. The large aluminium peg to the right is reasonably light for its size and is designed for sand or snow. Its blunt tip makes it a poor performer on hard ground.
Recommendation for hard-core campers:
The peg on the far right is far and away the strongest peg I have used. It is not hand-friendly and needs pushing in with a boot sole or stone and pulling out with another tent peg or a loop of nylon, but it will not bend or break and is excellent in hard and soft ground. The V shape provides rigidity and gives it a lot of stickiness in soft ground. This is the only type of peg I use on most trips, but beware: it is not friendly to bare feet either.
Submitted by Stephen Lord
"Just a couple of comments on tents. I use an inexpensive, sturdy tent by Coleman. In fact, I've decommissioned my 7x7 (veteran of 6 tours) and bought a 7x10. These tents are heavier; the 7x10 weighs about 8# (4Kg), but on a bike weight isn't as critical as it is in backpacking or boating. These tents are well designed and well made, and can be purchased for under US$60.
I bought the longer tent because I'm tall (6'4";/1.9M) and I want to avoid my head and feet touching the tent and getting wet. The 7X7 worked if I was alone, sleeping diagonally, but when my daughter was along the tent wasn't long enough.
For tent pegs, consider gutter spikes from a hardware store or lumber yard. They're light and sturdy.
Finally, I like freestanding tents. You don't need to carry a mallet for very secure staking, and a 2Kg tent plus a 1Kg mallet makes a 3Kg tent."
Submitted by Dale Oswald
"For many years I used an Eureka Autumn Wind for canoe/kayak touring and car camping. These are the same design as MEC Tarns with the Autumn Wind just a bit larger than the Tarn 2. Very comfortable for one, bearable short term for two. The shape is very efficient, with good floor area for the weight and height only where its needed. This tent stood up to winds on the south west coast of Newfoundland than trashed some "4-season" designs.
As I've aged, I've grown to dislike the single door/ front vestibule design. One is always having to turn around in the tent it seems. If the ground is sloping, one normally pitches with head end slightly higher. I found putting on my shoes and getting out while my feet were higher than my butt was a real struggle! This is especially true when still a bit stiff after first waking up in the morning.
Now my tent of choice for kayak tripping is a North Face Mountain 25. This thing is built like a tank. A door and vestibule at each end makes it very convenient. Its too heavy for solo bike touring though at about 9 lbs and is tight for two.
I've just purchased a Cabela's XPG-1 for solo bike trips. Despite the hunting and fishing store brand, it's a very well constructed tent, with vents through the fly, lots of mesh, bathtub floor, reflective guylines, etc. In some ways I wish it was less well constructed as they could have saved a bit of weight with lighter grade webbing, fewer buckles, etc. Even still it comes in at just a bit over 4 lbs. Backpacker magazine gave it a very good review in 2004 and it was a bargain at under US$100. The tent itself is fairly narrow but long enough to keep some gear above your head. The door and a vestibule as wide as the tent itself are on the side. This makes for easy entry and exit as well as good access to gear. I'm looking forward to trying it out!
A good tent with similar side door/vestibule advantages and roomy enough for two is the MEC Wanderer 2. Both people have a vestibule and entrance so it is very bearable even on a longer trip."
Submitted by Jim Belair
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