With spring around the corner I always feel a spike of excitement at the thought of going places by bike and camping out. If it stays as mild as it has been this will soon become a possibility for me again. Like most of you, I don’t have vast sums of money to spend on equipment, so the things I purchase have to be considered wisely. I have spent my life exploring the outdoors as a climber, paraglider pilot, mountain walker and mountain biker. Cycle touring came back into my life six years ago after many years away from cycling in any form and as soon as I started riding I wanted to go camping again.
During those previous lives I worked from time to time in the outdoor industry, a place where I hope I learned the difference between fashionable stuff and genuinely good equipment. Needless to say that there is now a piece of equipment for every occasion and it is sometimes hard to discern between choices. More to the point, equipment choices for separate trips could be entirely different, even though you are still taking a tent, cooker and some kind of mat to sleep upon.
Many of the items considered good back then are still considered as such today, but with modern advances in materials many are even better. Others are excellent if you can afford them but out of reach to many of us, even as a once in a life time purchase. I tend to buy the best I can afford but don’t accept that the most expensive is necessarily best. I have had extended periods where I have had to get the best from whatever I can get my hands on. I’ve personally met far too many people that fall into the ‘all the gear and no idea’ bracket (previously known as Godfrey Gearfreaks). These people have super-lightweight everything most of which is shiny and hardly used. Be aware of them as you begin to build your own cupboard of equipment as they often change things frequently and can be the source of bargain upgrades for you.
We used to have a joke at work: Poor-tex, (Gore-Tex) Guaranteed to make you poor. Now we all know Gore and its various fabrics to be excellent, but don’t believe everything you hear. The point is that you may gain advantage with their super-expensive, breathable jackets, but there are many that work really well and cost half as much. Note: I said really well and not just as well, there is a difference.
In my experience, ultra-lightweight and durability are often at opposite ends of the spectrum. You can now get a tent weighing just 800 grams. It is amazing and even more so as it has an inner tent too. Shelters of this ilk are designed for ultra-marathons and the like where grams matter. They are remarkably strong for the weight but fragile in every other way. Adding a half kilogram or a kilogram to your tent weight can increase durability exponentially.
Bivouac bag (Bivvy): Designed for occasional use, they sometimes have a small pole to raise the front end and should have a zip top with midge netting to keep biting insects at bay. They are ideal for overnight bike packing adventures where you stop, throw your mat out, unroll your bivouac sack, place your sleeping bag in it and fall asleep staring at the stars. A Bivvy bag will help to prevent losing heat through radiation and keep the wind and rain at bay. Breathable versions cause far less condensation than the likes of orange survival bags, although if its only one night it doesn’t necessarily matter too much in good summer conditions.
Biggest advantage: Tiny pack size and weight. Ideal for Bike Packing adventures. Throw it out and get in. Simple with a great sense of being ‘out there’.
Biggest disadvantage: Condensation. No structure. Can be claustrophobic.
Tarps: More versatile than a bivvy bag they can be used in a multitude of ways. Theycan give enough shelter for ultra-light trips and can also be used to extend the outdoor space of your tent. Used alone they can be, in my experience, drafty, cold and don’t provide any barrier to insects. Used for occasional night’s bike-packing they can be fun, giving a real sense of being outdoors. They can be hung on almost anything (your bike frame for example) with a little thought. They come without the claustrophobia of a bivvy bag. More elaborate types, in my opinion, cost too much and do too little to peak my interest.
Biggest advantage: cheap (when not designer made) simplicity. Can pitch almost anywhere. Give you the feeling of freedom and being ‘out there’.
Biggest disadvantage: Minimal shelter even in comparison to a bivvy bag.
Single pole hoop tents: These range from a tent with a hoop at the front to those like the Hilleberg Akto and Wild Countries Zephros with a central hoop. Those with a hoop at the front tend to flap in rough conditions. They are effectively a huge step up from a bivvy bag, usually having headroom and a sloping front porch for storage which is useful. Tents with a central hoop and side entrance are all the rage, perhaps because they are light, you can get in and out easily and gear storage options are maximised. Some, like those mentioned, have small, built-in poles that hold the flysheet ends up, helping to create room for air to circulate and more vertical foot space. This is important as condensation in these tiny tents can be extreme. This design is also fragile, so take care how and where you pitch it. It might be nice on the clifftop in the evening, but what about that storm you didn’t see coming in?
Single pole tents also need pegging out and while this might seem obvious it isn’t always possible. Also, if the wind shifts ninety degrees you have to de-camp and start again in order to keep your tent from breaking. The two tents mentioned above are similar in design but miles apart in terms of cost. The Hilleberg is nearly £500 and the Wild Country just £150. I have used both in similar conditions and find little difference in performance. In some ways I prefer the design of the cheaper one. Don’t be fooled into thinking the cheaper one to be as well made or durable, which on inspection it blatantly isn’t, it is a perfectly good tent that will last most people several seasons.
The difference in cost is down to the advanced materials used by Hilleberg, MSR, Vau De, Terra Nova et al, things like Siliconized nylon (stronger, lighter, more UV resistant, less water absorbent), Dyneema guy lines (lighter and stronger for any given thickness) and advanced pole technology (better strength for weight and better durability). Prices are comparable between manufacturers of high end tents: Terra Nova, MSR, The North Face, to name a few.
The biggest advantage is space for weight. Easy pitching.
Biggest disadvantage:Too hot in warm weather. Fragility. Cooking with side entrance in the rain. (I use a bungee to create a mini porch and cook with a Trangia most of the time. I wouldn’t entertain this with gas or petrol stoves. Need pegging out.
Twin pole tents: Tents with two poles tend to be either hoop tents where the poles run in an arc across either end of the tent or dome tents where the poles cross over in the centre. Twin hoop tents like Hilleberg’s Nallo give excellent space for weight and good stability through excellent design. Cheaper versions can flap in a cross-winds and manufacturers like Vango use internal tape tensioning structures to stop this happening. These type of tents are often extended with a third pole (Nallo GT, Jack Wolfskin) to give a storage areas almost big enough to store a bike in and handy to cook in (with great care) in a storm.
Dome tents give excellent headroom but with only two poles they tend to act like jellyfish in a storm when the going gets rough. They also tend to pitch inner first, which I’m sure you can imagine, can be a challenge in wet weather. I have to add that you do get used to pitching your tent and I’ve never been troubled by this over many years of ownership of inner first pitching tents.
After getting beaten half to death by the poles of their dome tent while I slumbered quietly in my mountain tent without a clue many years ago, my friends went out and bought something a little more rugged the next day. Once erected dome tents can be picked up and moved without striking camp. I place pop-up tents in this bracket as it’s the nearest to them in structural terms.
Adding an additional, short, transverse ridge pole: Vau De Campo can increase stability enormously.
The biggest advantage is cost and space for weight. Start at Tesco/Asda and work up. If you know the limits and stay within them, you get a lot of tent space for your pound. If it’s really rough, you stay in a B and B and if it breaks you go and buy a new one
Biggest disadvantage: Lack of stability (not as applicable to modern tunnel tents). Need pegging out.
Three pole, self-supporting, semi geodesic tent.
These usually comprise of two poles that run front to back, crossing over along the way. A third pole raises the front to form a porch and adds strength by crossing the other to poles. Terra Nova Voyager and The North Face Tadpole are classic in this range being light and strong for windy conditions and to a degree in snowfall where the tent structure bears the brunt (see four pole tents) Only the porch has to be pegged out along with a few elastics to stop it blowing away when you are not in it. A word of warning: I’ve had hours of fun watching people put poles in these tents and then place them down, only for the wind to blow them away like giant tumble weeds. Place the poles in and then peg a corner or two or throw your gear inside, always.
Advantages are: stability and space. Disadvantages: More poles equal more weight, more to go wrong and can feel awkward to get in and out of, especially as you age, when the alternative of falling out sideways is a perfect if a little ungainly way of greeting the world each morning, hopefully as other campers sleep.
Biggest advantage: Much better structural stability. More aero dynamic: the flysheet clips on and is held tightly meaning less noisy flapping.
Biggest disadvantage: Narrow entrances, weight if carrying it alone.
Four pole, self-supporting, geodesic tents: The most famous and much copied tents in this range are the Terra Nova Quasar/Ultra-Quasar. Originally made by Wild Country who later became Terra Nova and The North Face VE 25. These were THE mountain tent to have. Four poles that all cross each other give immense strength while maximising internal space. The near vertical walls and strong ceiling help snow to fall away rather than crush the tent. Its wind tunnel tested shape means you can be happy in winds of 90 plus mph, something I have personally experienced in the UK and France.
Small doors to help keep the snow out make entry and exit more difficult and condensation can be an issue with just a few centimetres separating the flysheet and inner tent. If you are planning a trip to Patagonia, another mountainous area or somewhere extremely windy (some coastal areas), these are the tents to have and you won’t begrudge one ounce of the 4 kg plus that they tend to weigh when that storm hits you, miles from anywhere. The near vertical sides also mean you can lean on the walls while sitting inside. My Original Wild Country Hyperspace pitched inner first, meaning it was easy to enjoy the stars on sultry summer nights when the flysheet wasn’t required. I should add that it was a rare occurrence that we trusted the weather enough to do this but special when we did.
For most uses these tents are overkill. Many choose to use something much lighter and take more care over where and when to use it. You can, and should consider, going away with whatever you have. Be sensible about it, particularly conditions and placement, and you can still enjoy camping. Once you learn a little more you can then decide what tent best suits your usage.
Biggest advantage: Immense strength, Aero dynamic, free standing,
Biggest disadvantage: narrow entrances, weight and cost (£700 plus)
My golden guidelines for tents are as follows:
- Always buy the best you can afford.
- Choose aluminium poles over glass-fibre every time. They are stronger, lighter and more durable.
- Never open the poles by whipping them. Open them section by section it will extend their life by years.
- Place a plastic sheet, or a footprint, under the groundsheet of the inner tent. This will add years to the life of the tent.
- Always choose rip-stop nylon/ polyester if you can afford it: It does what it says, appearing to have thousands of small squares in the cloth. A small tear won’t expand and is easily fixed with a patch.
- Ask about the hydrostatic head prior to purchase. This is the measure of how waterproof the material is. You want it to be 4000mm for the flysheet as a minimum and 10,000mm for the groundsheet, unless you use a plastic sheet as I advised in which case 5000mm is plenty.
- Replace steel pegs for quality aluminium ones. It’s a cheap upgrade.
- Learn about pitching you tent safely and thoughtfully so as to provide it with as much protection from the elements as you can. It will mean your tent will last better and provide a more secure shelter. Practise before you leave to avoid surprises like missing poles or too few, pegs.
- When travelling with another, always buy a tent one size too big or separate out. This is personal. I find a two person tent perfect on my own and a three/ four person tent perfect for two. You spend a lot of time with friends on adventures and you want to be still be friends on your return. Many happy miles can be had when you have personal space. I prefer my own tent to sharing a tent most of the time.
- Remember your tent is your only shelter before you go too light weight.
- Unless your tent is Siliconized nylon, check it has taped seams. This stops them leaking where they are sown together by covering the needle holes with tape. Siliconized nylon isn’t usually taped due to problems of getting it to stick. You may have to seal the seams yourself using a silicone sealant prior to use. Check with the manufacturer.
- If the shop staff seem clueless, they probably are. Go somewhere else.
This is a short overview only and isn’t meant as any kind of ‘how to’ guide. Other people’s opinions will vary from mine. This is a good thing. My thoughts are based on over fifty years of camping in a huge variety of conditions and environments, outside of the polar regions, using every type of tent available. There are many other tents: ridge tents, inflatable tents, tepee tents and more that I haven’t covered here as space is a premium. I hope this helps you a little in choosing your home from home.
Until next time…………………………