Stephen Lord, author of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, has this guide to choosing the right tent for your cycle tour of France.
A bicycle lets you spend every day outside; carry a tent and you’re spending your nights in the great outdoors as well. Camping brings with it a feeling of independence round the clock for your entire trip – or 24/7 as they used to say in the office, but that was long ago...
The advantage of bicycle travel is that you can carry enough not merely to survive, but to live comfortably out of what’s strapped to the back of your bike. Tents are light enough nowadays that you can choose something quite luxurious to make camping a much more comfortable experience, and the more comfortable you can travel, the longer you’ll want to stay on the road.
First, make sure you’ve got plenty of space in your tent. Space to move around, sit up to get dressed or cook, space for occasional dinner guests when you meet other cyclists and, of course, space for your panniers.
For a solo traveller, a small two-person tent has that flexibility. One-person tents are all about saving weight and are designed for sleeping in only, besides which you’ll find it hard to make room for your panniers. If you’re travelling with a friend, it’s better to take a tent each rather than share. Two-person tents get pretty cramped with two people in them, and unless you’re a happy couple, you’ll be craving privacy within hours, if not minutes.
A couple cycling together should look at larger two-person tents, or ideally a three-person tent: you have to be pretty neat and tidy to get along sharing a tent at all, so the larger the better. Look at tents with either one huge door at the front or, better still, one door on each side. That way you won’t have to crawl over each other to get out and you can both have your own space for storage. The front-door style of tent is better suited to bad weather and high mountains as it’s stronger and lets in less bad weather, but for lowland and summer cycling, side doors are generally larger and slightly easier to get in and out of.
How to choose from a crowded market
There has been a revolution in tents the last few years. As with everything else, the cheap end has mushroomed and you often see pop-up tents, the kind you practically throw into the air that expand in two seconds, at every campsite. These might be fun at festivals but aren’t good enough for serious camping, most of them not meeting the minimum standard for waterproofness nor having adequate ventilation or internal space. Forget these tents and go to a good camping shop to see what’s on offer.
Here are a selection of tents on the market at the time of writing (2012) – it is intended as guidance only, so cross-check them against the latest models on the market as new versions are generally released each year.
Expect to pay a couple of hundred pounds or euros for a good quality tent. For that you’ll get good, brand-name aluminium poles and taped seams - that’s where the rain tends to get in. The revolution in backpacking tents is in the use of extremely lightweight materials, especially in tents from American companies like The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, MSR, Marmot and newcomers like Big Agnes.
There are plenty of great designs out there. I’d look at The North Face Rock 22 as a great value two-person, two-door tent weighing around 2.5kg. A shade lighter is the MSR Hubba Hubba, which shaves grams by using a single pre-connected pole. Its slightly more vertical sides give it a larger interior. These tents are 1 metre high at the highest point in the tent, just enough for most people to sit up in. A bargain-priced alternative in the same style but a little heavier would be Vango’s Halo 200 and Halo 300 (for three people).
Lightweight comes at a cost, not just a usually higher price but a little less rain resistance. This might seem academic but if it rains hard enough for long enough, the difference will tell. The standard for a garment or tent to be called waterproof is a measure known as hydrostatic head, where 1000mm h/h is the minimum. These US tents all come in at around 1500mm, a little delicate but good for months of dry camping, though perhaps not what you would choose if setting off round the world.
Generally, the better tents for bad weather come from countries with bad weather. New Zealand’s MacPac makes a similar two-person side-door design to the tents noted above, but in a stronger, if smaller package, the Macrolight. Vaude tents from Germany make good mid-range tents that use thicker and stronger nylon, giving water resistance to 3000mm h/h and the floor of the tent to an impressive 10,000mm h/h. Vaude’s small tents such as the several variations of Hogan Ultralight are popular with solo bike tourers. They are freestanding and quite sturdy designs with reasonable headroom for only 1.5kg.
Another feature well worth considering is the ability to pitch the tent with the flysheet already attached. This saves time and it’s far easier to pitch or strike the tent in high winds. Having the fly on keeps the inside of the tent dry if you have to pitch in the rain (and there’s a hint: most times you can wait till it stops) or take the tent down. MacPacs all have this feature, plus the option of pitching the tent without the fly on in dry climates.
This type of tent is usually a tunnel tent, the two hoop design that is not freestanding and must be pegged out. That’s not a big deal in Europe where you camp on soft ground, but it’s a consideration if you ever camp in rocky places - or head further afield to tropical places where you actually pitch the tent in a guest house room to keep away bed bugs and mozzies. If headed anywhere that hot, you should look at a tent that has an all-mesh inner.
The top end of the market
It’s worth considering the high end of the backpacking tent world, which is dominated by Swedish maker Hilleberg. If you can stretch to paying £500 or more for a tent, you won’t regret buying a Hilleberg. Simple designs that minimise stitching and maximise ventilation, these tents are very dry and comfortable inside and made from the most expensive and functional materials; even the inner tent is practically waterproof while remaining breathable. Hillebergs need only a few pegs to set up, though when fully pegged out, they are as strong as any tent in a storm. All models are designed to pitch inner and outer together. If you want the look but don’t have the budget, the Vango Halo costs a third the price, comes in similar colours, but weighs a bit more, at 4kg for the three-person model.
Where to buy camping equipment for cycling
Cyclocamping.com is an online camping store run by a Franco-American couple with 10 years' touring experience. It has an excellent range of bike accessories and spares, plus a full range of camping kit, and products are field-tested. They offer worldwide delivery.
REI is a US-based eco-sensitive clothing and camping store that also stocks a diverse range of bikes.
Camping World is one of the UK's largest camping retailers. Their prices are usually very competitive and they offer free UK delivery, as well as delivery worldwide for a surcharge.