[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Choosing a Tent for Bicycle Camping
Looks at all the important factors in a bike traveler's choice of tent but leaves the final decision to the cyclist.

Is it possible to find an appropriate tent for bicycle camping? What characteristics should be considered? What features of a bicycle touring tent are the most important? Why is quality important? What length of tent pole can be carried on a bicycle? Of what importance is the size of the cyclo-touring tent? What is a reasonable tent weight for bicycle touring? What are the different kinds of tents, and how is their design important? What are the space requirements within a tent for on a long cycling trip? What is a double-wall tent? What are the advantages of a separate tent fly?


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Choosing a Tent

There is a wide variety and a good selection of tents available. Most people will be able to find several that meet their expectations. However, those who have not used tents much before or those who have used them for other purposes might have problems selecting the appropriate tent for bicycle camping.

What features are most important? I would judge these features most important, but they are not given in order of importance: tent material and quality of tent, length of poles, size of the packed tent, weight of the tent, type of tent, space inside the tent, and whether the tent requires a fly or not.

Quality and Material of the Tent

First, it's easy to find poorly made, often heavy, tents of a poor design that will leak and come apart easily. Such a tent might be made of inferior material as well. Some tents are not waterproof yet are sold without waterproof fly sheets. A poor-quality tent is not worth purchasing. Excellent tents can be purchased for as little as $100, the cost of two or three nights in a motel. Remember that this tent has to keep you dry and comfortable at night, even during a storm. For those with very little money, I would suggest examining any discount store tent thoroughly. As an alternative for areas and seasons with few insects, a tarp tent could be used.

Length of the Poles

Second, the length of the poles is important when carrying them on a bike. If the poles are short enough, they can fit within your bags. If they are as long as 24", they will have to be fastened to the bicycle's top bar, where they will be in the way, and even 24" will be too long for many people. I prefer poles that are 12" to 16" in length. Take a ruler and measure your bike and panniers and decide where you want to carry your poles and figure out how long they must be.

Tent Size

Third, the size of the packed tent is important. Think here about where you are going to place the tent on the bike. If the tent, sleeping bag, and a mattress are placed on the rear carrier, as I frequently see, they all have to fit comfortably and tie down tightly. Or if the tent is to go in a pannier bag, then it has to be small enough to do so.

Tent Weight

Fourth, the weight of the tent is an important consideration. The weight is affected by the number of poles, the design of the tent, and whether the tent is of single-wall or double-wall design. The weight of the tent is also going to affect its packing size and the size inside the tent. I think the kind of trip that you are planning also may also be important. For example, if you plan to camp out only occasionally, why not carry the smallest size tent possible? For one person, there are tents as small as a pound and a half, or for two people there are tents of three pounds. However, if you are going to be traveling for extended periods of time, perhaps including rainy days or cold days as well, then a larger tent is justified. I don't think that a four-pound tent for one person or a six-pound tent for two should be considered too heavy if they provide the room you need. Even heavier tents can also make sense, but they shouldn't be bought without good justification. When I say "good justification," I don't mean that you have to please me; please your own self; just be sure that you will be happy. Not all the weight that goes into a tent is necessarily going to be of any value to you. Extra strength bottoms, heavy material, and an excess of poles all add to the weight, and while there are good reasons for these features, they might not be of any benefit to you. Likewise, double-walled tents are heavier for the same interior space, so think about this feature. Some people consider an extra ground tarp a necessity, even though it adds a pound of weight or more. I have never owned one. I would never pitch my tent on a spot that could significantly damage the bottom, although I get occasional tiny holes. A cheap thin plastic sheet would keep the bottom of your tent clean and dry just as well, although I've never used one of those either.

Tent Design

Fifth, the design of the tent is also an important consideration. It's not so simple that one kind of tent is bad and another is good; they all have advantages and disadvantage. We can discard one design right away, however. The stand-up tent is too heavy for bicycle camping. A second design, or lack of design, the tarp tent, can only be used in places with few crawling or biting insects and with trees to tie it to. If your camping sites meet these characteristics, and if you like sleeping in the open, it's very cheap and lightweight. The pup or A-frame tent is a very simple design that is usually found in inferior tents. Before the introduction of waterproof tent fabrics, this kind of tent was necessary. The weakness of the design is that the walls tend to sag in, and the internal space is not very human-shaped, giving too little headroom and too much floor room. This kind of tent should at least include some extra ties to pull the walls outward. The dome tent looks like an igloo. This tent design is good at creating space for the head and shoulders but sometimes lacks enough space for long legs. This tent also generally requires more poles than others. The hoop tent, instead of using straight or triangular poles, uses hoops at either end, with usually the foot end much smaller than the head end. This tent, in my opinion, is a very good compromise between the dome and the A-frame tent, with the greatest amount of room where it is most needed. These are not the only designs possible. The designers have really gone to a great deal of trouble to create some odd designs which offer various advantages, such as extra ventilation, more interior space or headroom, or better year-round abilities. It's impossible to categorize many of these tents. A feature of many designs is that the tent does not need stakes. This feature makes the tent heavier, as the stakes are replaced with an extra pole. Self-standing tents probably became popular due to the brick-hard lawns and gravel pads common in campgrounds (one person told me she always pitched her self-standing tent on top of the picnic table!). Stakes add little weight. The best are the wire-like stakes, as they weight less, take up less space that the fatter, plastic stakes, and can be placed in the ground with the bare hands, on most woodland soils. On hard ground, I tie long cords to rocks and trees rather than using the stakes.

Space within the Tent

Sixth, if you can, before purchasing a tent, try it out to check the interior room. Otherwise, be sure to get the inside measurements and measure to see if that is enough room for you. Use some chairs, cord, and sheets to make a "tent" of that size in your home. Some important questions are: Can you stretch, sit up, change clothes, find a comfortable reading position, and place some of your gear with you inside your tent? I wouldn't buy any tent where I couldn't do all of these things, although less room might be acceptable on a short trip. If two or three people are going to share the tent, these questions become much more important.

Tent Flies

Seventh, do you want a tent with a fly or without a fly, in other words a single-wall or double wall-tent? Don't buy a double-wall tent without a fly (they are sometimes sold this way). The difference between the tents is this: the single-wall tent is made of waterproof panels; the double-wall is made without waterproof panels and uses a rainfly to shed any rainfall instead. The single-wall is much lighter for the same volume, pitches easier, packs quicker and into a smaller space. On the other hand, it must be designed with good ventilation (mine has vents on all four sides) or it will be hot, clammy, and possibly even dangerous. In rainy weather, the single-wall tent will be wet on the inside from condensation. Because of the ventilation and moisture problems, this tent can not be recommended for cold and/or rainy weather. In addition, if it is pitched in a field on a humid night (most summer nights in the East), it is likely to be wet in the morning, inside and out, with dew. So, if you intend to camp in campgrounds in Eastern States with a single-wall tent, you should find a place under some trees or plan to spend half an hour every day drying it out. (Never pack a wet tent and forget about it! It would be wet inside, often smelly, and it could possibly rot). If I have to camp in a field, I pack the wet tent and wait for the sun to come out; then I spread it out while I rest. However, the owner of a double-walled tent does not get off scot-free, as the rainfly can get wet from the dew. And after a good rain, both tent owners will have some drying to do. There are also a number of designs that try to capture the best characteristics of both kinds of tents. One expensive trick is to use Gore-Tex panels. Another trick is to use mosquito netting for the inner panels, which lowers the weight, increases the ventilation, provides another option for a hot, dry night, but also makes the tent a little less suitable for cold or rainy weather.

There is no perfect tent for every situation, and an incorrect choice is not going to make or break the trip. However, an appropriate tent will make the trip more enjoyable.

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