The tent is one of the mainstays of adventure bicycle travel. It was the revolutionary idea of taking my own accommodation with me that largely fuelled my decision to travel under my own steam on two wheels. A good tent will provide shelter in a broad variety of climates and weather conditions for many years.
But it wasn’t long after I began my first journey that I realised something:
I really disliked actually sleeping in a tent.
To all intents (pun not intended) and purposes, sleeping in a tent is the same as sleeping indoors. It is a retreat from the natural world to a place of manmade isolation, shelter and perceived safety. With the door of my tent zipped up I could quite literally be anywhere (anywhere small, cramped and sweaty, at least). For some, that was the main attraction. For me, it became the biggest drawback. I wanted to feel that I was really in the place, senses alert, involved, exposed; not withdrawn inside a fabricated cocoon.
Soon I realised that there were numerous alternatives to sleeping in a tent. I’d brought a bivvy bag and poncho along and made a habit of using them whenever the opportunity arose. And, as summer in Europe wandered on and my eye for a good spot grew better trained, these opportunities grew more and more regular.
As a result, my strongest memories of overnighting on my first continental crossing road involve sleeping literally under the stars, waking in the pre-dawn blue beside the glow of a still-smouldering campfire, and giving silent thanks for the joy of being outside in nature.
A friend who briefly joined our adventure simply slept on a tarpaulin in a cheap sleeping bag. No bivvy bag, no mattress, no nothing. Nobody had told her she ‘needed’ these things. As it turned out, she didn’t.
The rewards of bivvying continued to be revealed as autumn replaced summer. No longer did I bother packing my gear away in the morning; I simply rolled up the bivvy-bag with the mattress, sleeping bag and liner still inside it, like a Swiss Roll, and strapped it to the back of the bike. At the same time I became less picky still about where I slept, and the increasing number of nights spent in building sites, bus stops, tramps’ hovels and on rooftops were made all the more efficient by being able to retrieve and unfurl a complete sleeping system in ten seconds flat!
In the Middle East, with nights proving reliably dry, I took to sleeping outside and abandoned even the bivvy bag, whose main function as a water-resistant and breathable cover was no longer required. Instead I hung a basic mosquito net from the handlebars of my bike, lay the mattress beneath it on a thin ground sheet, and fell asleep in my clothes – waking only in the early hours to drag my sleeping bag from its stuff-sack to protect against the encroaching chill.
More recently on a recumbent bike tour I took with me an ultralight hammock, taking the ground out of the equation altogether. Initially concerned about how comfortable I would be, how it would influence my chronic lower back pain, and how I’d find suitable spots in which to rig it, I deliberately made it my only option for sleeping in order to find out. It turns out that the process of finding a hammock-rigging spot is no more or less onerous than that of finding a suitable wild-camping spot for a tent – it’s just that the criteria are slightly different. By the third night I was sleeping like a baby. (If you’re interested, it’s a Hennessy Hammock, which I’ll be testing more thoroughly on a longer upcoming trip.)
For flexibility on longer trips I still carry a tent when weight and space is not at an absolute premium. It’s a tent I’ve deliberately chosen to be as un-tent-like as possible; pitched in its most stripped-down configuration little more than a free-standing mosquito net.
Sleeping rough is not always comfortable. It’s frequently challenging and hard on the nerves. And more often than not it involves battling hard-won instincts that kick in once the sun goes down in new and unknown places.
But given the choice I’d rather sleep on bare earth or in lush long grass than within the feeble shelter of a tent. To do so – and to be rewarded with a blanket of dew and a perfect dawn from the comfort of your bed – is one of the greatest joys of these slightly pointless adventures.
Next time you’re camping out, why not try shunning the tent for a change?