Why Tents Suck, And Some Alternative Ways To Camp On A Cycle Tour

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.

Camping in Suffolk, England

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 I wanted to feel that I was really in the place, senses alert, involved, exposed; not withdrawn inside a fabricated cocoon.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.

DSC_0376

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.

Camping on the Hungarian Great Plains

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!

Camping on the banks of the Nile

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.

Hennessy Hammock in the trees

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.)

Camping under the stormclouds in Mongolia

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?

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36 Responses to “Why Tents Suck, And Some Alternative Ways To Camp On A Cycle Tour”

  1. River MacLeod

    I strongly recommend a hammock for cycling in Central America, and I guess anywhere else tropical. It will keep you dry and bug free, which most tents will not in serious tropical rain, it is much easier to find somewhere to put it in the jungle, it will only be hot, not unbearably hot like a tent, and I find it much more comfortable than a bed.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Thanks for pointing out a specific hammock application. Do you recommend any particular model or make?

      Reply
      • River MacLeod

        Well I have a DD Frontline hammock, which is made by a Scottish company. It is significantly cheaper than hennesey. It is a more traditional design – a rectangle of material, rather than the special shape of the Hennesey. I prefer it because it can be used without the net if you don’t need it, which gives a better view and less heat, and you can see out more with the net too.

        I should write more about this on my blog, will do sometime…

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          Indeed – feel free to post here when you publish it! Thanks again!

          Reply
          • Trevor

            I did a 18 day tour of Costa Rica’s, Nicoya peninsula. I did in in January, so there was about a zero chance of rain.

            I slept in an ENO Double Nest hammock with the Guardian Bug net. I also used a 50 degree bag with PrimaLoft insulation. The hammock was very convenient for camping close to the beaches.

            The hammock has been my preferred way to camp for a very long time. When the temps are low I opt for a bivy sac and if the weather is looking sketchy, I might opt for a tent.

      • River MacLeod

        Hennesy is probably quicker to set up and take down if you use the attached tarp, but because it is so close you get little ventilation or view outside.

        Reply
    • River MacLeod

      I have now written more about advantages and disadvantages of hammocks for cycle touring on my blog: http://mm0hai.net/blog/2014/04/20/hammocks-for-cycle-touring.html

      Reply
  2. Anna Williams

    Yep, I’m an arachnophobe (have it bad!) and no way could I have slept in Borneo without my hammock and built in mosquito net. Never let any of the little beasts in! My sleeping bag has got a little damp in a bivvy bag. Do you think that was because of that particular bivvy bag or something that naturally happens during hotter weather?

    Reply
  3. Brent

    Backing River up, Hennessy’s are the easiest to set up and pack down the smallest in my opinion. And they are quite adaptable and can be used in ground applications with a few sticks and some experimentation.

    I use them in St. Lucia when shooting down there, and they hold up very well in the crazy 15 minute rain and wind storms, as well as being well ventilated for heat. even in Canada in winter, they work fine with some additional layers and I find stay cleaner in bad conditions better than tents.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4955876611467&l=f656000f57

    Reply
  4. Tae

    I’d recommend Eagles Nest Outfitter hammocks. They have a model, the Reactor, that has a slot in the bottom for your sleeping pad (it’ll flatten out and stiffen the hammock a hair as well as provide some insulation from the outside). They’ve also got a full selection of top and bottom insulators, mosquito nets, and rain covers, so you can quite literally hammock camp in any weather.

    Reply
  5. will

    Interesting take and I too love that sense of really being with the elements but I’m not a complete convert, I cycled lands end to john o’groats in a very circuitous and leisurely way about 4 years ago. I decided on a tent and although it was heavier than the alternatives I feel I made the right choice. The advantages for me were: at the end of the day I could set it up quickly without trying to find trees etc to string things from, it rained a lot (summer of 08) and I really appreciated keeping dry from sideways wind and having a built in ground sheet to get my body and kit off the damp, there were times when being able to have a lie in and have that privacy were also really valuable. For the record, on short trips or when I’m doing impromptu camp outs (of which I do quite a lot throughout the year) I nearly always choose a straight gore tex bivvy bag if it looks clear or a tarp if looking damp but I still feel I made the right decision on that bike trip- I think there was one clear night when I just slept under it to keep off the dew and it kind of worked although a bit of condensation and another night when it was dry but midgy so I just set up the inner bit and slept in that-so there was a degree of flexibility around it. I am contemplating a big trip in Asia in a couple of years time and again I think a tent will win for its versatility especially as I think locals will be curious and sometimes I will want to escape- also scorpions and the like shit me up!

    Reply
  6. Cliff

    In 1980 (I was 21), I rode from New York to lake Okeechobee in Florida, and then to Louisiana. I was glad to have some relief from the huge Mosquitos that my low tent offered. Would love to try a hammock now. Thanks for this chronical of your adventures, as it stirred up many wonderful memories of my solo 60 day journey, that Autumn.

    Reply
  7. Dan

    I slept out the other weekend in the woods in a hammock, to which most people I told thought I was bonkers, it being kind of wintery now! It was a small para-cord hammock with my own arrangement of straps etc. I wore 7 layers of clothing and had a good sleeping bag. Interestingly, my lower body was just a base layer and trousers and I got cold there. The solution was to double fold my mat and put that under, which was kind of amusing, trying to arrange it all and lie down without falling out or losing the mat! This worked very well. I have realised that with a quality down sleeping bag, if it’s under compression and against a cold surface, the ground, or cold air, the cold will come through. Hence the importance of some kind of sleeping mat. My para-cord hammock was very restrictive, as well as me being toggled up in my bag, but despite this I managed to get about 6/7 hours sleep, pretty amazing! I now have my eye on a Hennessy Hammock and am trying to justify the expense. I did see a vid once about making a hammock from parachute silk, very light, strong and packs down nice and small I would imagine. The only thing that puts me off about sleeping outside, more in a hot climate, are the bugs and insects. I recently cycled and wild camped in Spain and a guy I was travelling with slept out under the stars and told me one morning about seeing a spider as big as his fist, sitting on his bag, eugh, that soooo puts me off, lol. In which case the stripped down hubba can be a good choice.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Nice to hear your story!

      It’s true that a down bag only works when the filling can expand and create ‘loft’. This is one of the ways in which a too-tight bivvy bag can actually make a sleeping bag less effective…

      Many of the Hennessys have built-in bug nets and bite-proof fabric on the underside; they’re generally designed for insect proofing as forests and jungles attract them.

      Reply
  8. Gerald

    There are many different kinds of camping hammocks.Check out http://www.hammockforums.net to get an education in them.

    Reply
  9. Andy Colburn

    Do they make tents with mosquito nets? I want to sleep outside in the northern u.s. when I’m at my cabin but the mosquitos are incessant.

    Reply
  10. Are Bivi Bags Better Than Tents For Cycle Touring?

    […] Some alternatives to tents – from my friend and cycling veteran Tom Allen […]

    Reply
  11. Wim

    My first bike trips in Western Europe were without a tent. First I could not afford a good tent and later I could not find a good light weight tent. I packed my duffel bag in a sheet of plastic, about 2 x 3 m. With dry nights, I would sleep in just my sleeping bag. When rain was to be expected. I tied a nylon line between two trees and made a sort of triangle of the plastic sheet. The ends stayed open so it was airy. Later I bought a tent but whenever possible I slept without.

    Reply
  12. Oliver

    Hi Tom, thanks for all your hints and sharing your wealth of experience. I am presently putting together all my gear and I intend to leave for a one year journey next spring. I have just ordered a Hennessy hammock (camouflage for stealth camping). Surprisingly there are no VAT or any import duties to be paid in Europe as Hennessy delivers from a warehouse in the UK.

    Reply
  13. Oliver

    Since camping is mostly prohibited anywhere in Europe why not go stealth camping? A wealth of experience can be found here: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/?doc_id=1385

    Reply
  14. Oliver

    My planned journey is around Europe and I have estimated one year for this. I have a hennessy hammock which I am convinced wil be my preferred shelter. But especially in the south trees/poles may become scarce and hence I have decided to buy a tent as a back up (although I am not sure yet if I will take it. But in any case it is a great piece of equipment: http://litefighter.com/product/litefighter-1-shelter-system/ It is absolutely great and versatile. Just as the hennessy hammock I own. I tested both in our environment and both “tools” are great. But at the end I think it is a matter of personal taste and how much gear one is willing to carry.

    Reply
  15. Oliver

    And by the way since my aim is to go for stealth camping I have the hennessy hammock with a multicam cover. And the tent obviously is also the multicam version. Multicam is pratically invisibly in whatever nature environment. Amazing invention.

    Reply
  16. Benen

    I’ve used a Hennessy Hammock for years, admittedly for hiking, not bike touring. My mates always make fun of me as I head for a distant stand of trees at the end of the day but I have slung it between rocks at the top of a mountain, between 4×4’s in the desert and a variety of treeless places elsewhere. Admittedly a couple of times I have woken up on the ground because the low shrubs I was tied to couldn’t take the weight. That said, I wouldn’t be without it. Am getting into bikepacking now and am still resisting getting a tent. Great website, cheers for all the info.

    Reply
  17. Alexander Lopez

    Jon Anderson, singer of Yes, carries a tent everytime he has to go on tour for that exact reason: to have a place that looks the same in every place of the world once he is inside. That way, he says, he can be at a familiar place and relax before a concert.

    Reply
  18. Blair

    Been using a hammock for all my sleep needs for over a year… Indoors and out! My hip,
    back, knee problems are now much relieved. Can’t ever see going back to a
    tent and/or ground sleeping ever again. Now crooked ground, rocky ground, slopes, wet
    ground, bugs/critters etc are never a problem.

    One of my favorite “how to use a hammock sites” is this:
    http://theultimatehang.com
    (knots, tarps, gear, etc for the hammocker’s among us)

    He has an amazing “hammock hang calculator” is here:
    http://theultimatehang.com/hammock-hang-calculator/
    In case you can’t figure out how to get a good hang (angles, height, etc) …

    The question I hear over and over is what do you do when there are no
    trees or other verticals to attach to? Or only just one? Check out this
    high-tech UK solution:

    This article has lots of “free standing” DIY solutions that should allow
    for a new way of looking at hammock hanging…
    http://sectionhiker.com/portable-hammock-stands-for-camping-by-derek-hansen/
    (plus there is a lot of YouTube videos on the subject)

    Enjoy! And thanks for a great site with lots of touring inspiration!
    (From a long time cyclist, lover of life and committed non-conformist ;> )

    PS – I have no financial affiliation with the links above whatsoever… just found
    them really helpful for hammock related info… hope you do too! Safe travels to all!

    Reply
  19. neil

    just wondering which are those European countries that have banned camping in the wild. They deserve to be shown the error of their ways. Happy camping.

    Reply
  20. Alexander Lopez

    Another reason to avoid tents: Their coatings release petrochemicals that pollute the tiny enviroment inside, exposing their occupants to substances that may harm the developing brain, impair sperm development, and impair thyroid function.

    http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/air-your-camping-tent-full-flame-retardants-unless-you-buy-moonlight.html

    Reply
    • Oliver

      Hello Alexander,

      In my opinion you will always find something. In your clothes, in the water, in your food in your shoes … whenever you buy functional stuff there is a catch. So dont buy anything or sleep naked under the open sky … or buy heavy without any coating. .. but then you will probably complain about the weight. And when it comes to fire retardent coating wait until some people die in their tents from fire and see how much complaints will pop up because of the missing coating … Moreover you say “may harm”, but you could also say “may not harm”.

      Reply

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