If you’ve been tuning into the Expedition Portal bikepacking series, you’ll know we’ve covered everything from how to select a bike to which snacks to keep in your jersey pockets. One of the more critical components to a successful trip is bringing along a shelter appropriate for your travels. The options are endless, but knowing which system is best for you can get confusing.
The perfect shelter is elusive as the demands on it are many. It must pack down into a tiny bundle. The weight must be minimal if not ethereally light. It needs to fend off the worst weather assaults, and it would be great if the habitat it created was a cozy place to dwell in the off-bike hours. These are lofty targets for any shelter, and to save you endless hours of searching, the perfect solution does not exist. As it is in life, so to it is with shelters––everything is a compromise. The best way to select a shelter is to outline your priorities. For a bikepacker prone to push limits, and perhaps fold in a bit of racing, packed size and weight will be paramount. For the causal backcountry traveler, livable space and comfort will be desirable attributes, even with the slight weight penalty. Taking into account the types of weather conditions you will encounter is also a key qualifier. In a nutshell, shelters best suited to bikepacking can be broken down into three categories: tents, tarps, and bivy sacks. It’s also fair to say the lines between each category is getting blurred.
A full blown tent will create the most agreeable space for not just sleeping, but sitting out storms, chilling out with a book, and simply enjoying camp life with maximum comfort. The trade off is the large packed size, extra weight, and for those trying to maximize mileage per day, the setup and take down time is a consideration. For ultra-distance bikepack racing, I would never use a tent as it’s only going to be used for five hours and the setup doesn’t justify it. One of the things to keep in mind when deciding if a tent is for you is figuring out where to put the poles while in transit.
Some of my personal favorites tents are:
The bivy sack is a fan favorite with the bikepacking community, but it does come with a brutal paradox. Bivy sacks are very capable of fending off the ugliest weather imaginable, but because they’re so cramped (think body bag) the only time you’ll really want to crawl into it is when you have to. I’ve spent as many as 36 hours in a bivy and it was not a pleasant experience. Strange as it sounds, if I anticipated really ugly weather, I’ll take a tent. I reserve the bivy for good weather jaunts when foul weather is unexpected. Selecting your bivy must also be done with great care. Some bivy sacks like the Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy are almost as heavy and bulky as a tent, but with none of the benefits. Cheaper bivy sacks will be made with low quality fabrics that will either leak, not breath well, or both. There are also a number of bivy sacks on the market with simple pole structures designed to keep the fabric off your face and body. Some of these are pretty slick, but again, you have to be careful to not buy something with the bulk of a tent. Here are my parting words on the use of the bivy sack: Should your day be filled with rain, even with the best rain gear available, you’ll be as wet as a drowned rat before long. If it’s still raining by the time you want to camp, there is positively no way you’ll get out of wet duds and into a dry bivy and sleeping bag without getting those pieces soaking wet as well. Your best bet…keep on trucking. I’ve ridden through many a dark and rainy night instead of trying to wiggle into a dry bivy, because it just doesn’t work.
I’ve had positive luck with the bivy sacks below:
When I look back on 30 plus years of traveling in the backcountry, some of my most challenging nights have involved a tarp. If you really get hammered by wind and blowing rain, a tarp is going to make for a long, long night. There are a lot of staunch tarp-o-philes out there, I’m just not one of them, so take the following with a grain of salt. Tarps can present a number of challenges. For one, they can consume a bit of time to set up. Many newer tarps are also designed to use trekking poles for supports. Bikepackers don’t carry trekking poles. Tarps also don’t solve the problem of what to sleep on. We’ll delve into the world of sleeping pads later, but most pads don’t like being plopped right on raw ground, so most tarps will need a ground sheet. My biggest gripe is again with the lack of walls or a floor. If it really rains, water will eventually find you. Plus, they afford no respite from bugs, require a lot of real estate to pitch, and…. I’m all ready worn out by just talking about it. This isn’t to say they don’t work, I just think anyone who bikepacks for long will quickly tire of the tarp and start searching for alternatives. I will say, the best way to use a tarp is with a hammock, but I’m not fully convinced the hammock is the ideal bikepack solution either. Again, we’ll save that one for another day.
Good tarp options:
Everyone has their favorite solutions. For racing, I like the MSR AC Bivy. At one pound, it’s a roomy bivy and packs down to the size of a bike bottle. Most importantly, it fends off weather and breaths well enough I’m not a soaked mess by morning. For trips where speed is not of the essence and comfort a more integral concern, I have not found anything better than the Nemo Equipment GoGo LE. Call it a tiny tent or a cavernous bivy sack, it is my favorite shelter system. It pitches in under three minutes, uses air beams in lieu of poles (pure genius) and it has more useful features than most tents. If you bikepack, you should look into a GoGo LE.
The most important thing when choosing your shelter is to be honest with your needs and wants. Evaluate how you travel, where you travel, and establish your priorities accordingly. Although I did mention some riders will want more comfort than others, don’t get carried away. Remember the golden rule of bikepacking: Every ounce counts.