Now is probably not the best time to be setting off on a globetrotting bike trip.
But as we’ve all discovered over the last few months, upheavals can create the ideal conditions for change – including changing the way you think.
Amid much uncertainty and, yes, real hardship and trauma, this year has brought with it a priceless opportunity to reimagine the paths we’ve been travelling through life, and to redirect those elements of our futures we can control towards newly-reconsidered destinations.
That’s why – even if your departure date remains to-be-confirmed, and even if the places you’re thinking of going are closer to home – I would argue that there is no better time to be planning your big dream bicycle-mounted adventure.
And if you’ve been sitting on such a dream for some time, it’s likely it has recently resurfaced with a new sense of urgency.
So why not start laying the groundwork right now? Why not get some of those big decisions made, those big questions answered, those big obstacles overcome?
I am willing to bet that you have, over the last few months, overcome a challenge you never imagined you’d have to face, or solved a problem you previously considered unsolvable. Whether financial, existential, philosophical, or spiritual; the details don’t matter. What matters is that you have experienced the necessity of thinking in a way you’ve never had to think before.
Your mind is primed for doing it again – but this time for something you’ve chosen to do.
What is happening right now should be a source of empowerment; a reminder – if you needed it – that we are all more resourceful and adaptable than the routines of our former lives might have suggested.
It should be a lesson that whatever rationalisations or excuses or pain points have been standing in the way of that dream can be overcome, so long as you make doing so a condition of necessity.
The easiest way to achieve that necessity is to commit. Make a promise to yourself. Ignore those tropes about publicising your goals and having an audience hold you to account. Social media parted ways with reality a long time ago. This should be a deal you make quietly with your soul.
There has never been a better time to do so.
Because you’ve finally remembered that the best time is always now.
For the last few weeks I’ve been putting the finishing touches to a project I’ve been working on for many years – and with so many of us in isolation and looking for things to do, the timing could not be better!
Yes, that’s right – the story of my award-winning documentary Janapar: Love on a Bike has finally been adapted for video game format!
Mixing both role-playing and action genres, Janapar: The Game will take you on a failed journey around the world by bicycle, teaching you tough lessons about life and love in the process.
You’ll start Level 1 by riding your bicycle around the rolling country lanes of the English Midlands, in search of the answers to a series of existential questions. Every answer you find scores you valuable Enlightenment Points, depending on how well it supports your conviction that you should just burn all your bridges and hit the road forever.
Once you’ve collected enough Enlightenment Points, you’ll be able to upgrade your bicycle and advance to Level 2! Your objective will be to pedal across Europe to Istanbul before winter arrives. But life on the road isn’t that simple – you’ll face a series of obstacles, including fixing mechanical problems on the roadside against the clock, being distracted by beautiful women in every city you pass through, and winning childish arguments with your riding partners via a series of Monkey Island-style multiple-choice questions.
The difficulty really ramps up in Level 3, where you will be fighting to keep your Morale-O-Meter above zero in the face of rain and snow, steep hills, vicious dogs, and the complete breakdown of your relationship with your riding partner. Every Turkish tea shop you reach will replenish your Morale-O-Meter to 100% – but you can get up to 200% in bonus morale by convincing the tea-shop owner that you’re too poor to pay your bill!
In Level 4, you’ll be presented with your biggest challenge yet – overcoming lifelong social awkwardness in order to persuade a beautiful Armenian girl to join you on your big life-changing bicycle adventure. Don’t say the wrong thing, or else she’ll leave the bar and the game will be over!
Level 5 is another race against time to reach your girlfriend’s hometown of Tehran on your bicycle before your her Morale-O-Meter reaches zero and she goes back to the perfectly decent life she had before she met you. As every aspect of life on the road is revealed to be utterly shit, you’ll have to come up with ever-more-ingenious things to say to keep her going, before facing up against the first big boss of Janapar: The Game – the Angry Father-In-Law.
In Level 6 you’ll be back on your own, having lost your fight against the boss of Level 5. Your mission is to pedal into a constant sandy headwind for six months as you cross the Middle East and the Sahara Desert. As you do, you’ll have to negotiate corrupt traffic police, undercover Syrian intelligence agents, and a hellish wild-goose-chase from embassy to embassy to apply for visas, all the while accompanied by a voice in your head repeatedly asking ‘what the actual fuck are you doing here?’.
Level 7 is an action-packed rollercoaster of a ride across the highlands of Ethiopia. In each mountain village, you’ll get a special speed boost power-up if you find a way through without being seen – a tough challenge for a white bloke on a bicycle. But if you don’t, you’ll get pelted with rocks by huge gangs of barefooted children. Don’t get brain damage!
Level 8 is a mystery-solving level, in which you have to find a way to cross the Gulf of Aden without simply getting on a short-haul flight like everyone else. Which Arabian dhow captain will take you across these pirated waters for the least amount of money? How will you survive the nights when you’re too tight-fisted to pay for a hotel room? Only one way to find out!
In Level 9, your mission is simple: cross the entire southern Arabian peninsular in high summer while avoiding the outbreak of civil war in Yemen, dying of dehydration in the Empty Quarter, or your bicycle breaking catastrophically in the middle of the Omani desert. Replenish your Morale-O-Meter by finding air-conditioned petrol stations with fridges full of ice-cold orange Mirinda. Earn bonus points for convincing the owner to let you stay the whole day!
In the final level of Janapar: The Game you’ll face your toughest adversary yet – the Iranian secret police! You’ve arrived in the middle of a massive political demonstration and they’re convinced you’re a British spy. Answer one question incorrectly and both you and your father-in-law will be thrown in jail and the game will be over – but get through the interrogation successfully and they’ll give you a cup of tea and send you off to be reunited with your girlfriend, with whom you’ll live happily ever after. You win!
The end credits feature loveable scenes of you and your girlfriend cycling back across Europe to your parents’ house in England, before those existential questions show up once more – and the whole game starts all over again.
I love hammock camping on bike trips. It’s convenient, comfortable, and a lot easier to find a pitch than people tend to think.
Rather than hammock camping in general, which I’ve written about in the past along with other alternative sleeping systems, in this piece I will be taking a closer look at my own camping hammock of choice: the Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle Zip.
Since mid-2013 I’ve been using this hammock regularly on bike trips and hikes (as well as at basecamps and festivals), so it’s definitely due a thorough writeup.
Shall we begin?
The Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle: In Brief
The Deep Jungle camping hammock, designed by North American hammock specialist Tom Hennessy and available under the Hennessy Hammock brand, is among the most versatile, weatherproof and full-featured models in the company’s range.
In spite of its serious-sounding name, it’s highly suited to the variable conditions found in temperate zones, as well as the tropics.
Optional extras extend its versatility yet further, and, as with all outdoor gear, knowing how to get the best out of it will make your time with the Deep Jungle all the more enjoyable. (Keep reading for few of my own pro tips.)
The Long View on the Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle
Over many years of using the Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle in a range of environments (mainly from Europe through to West Asia), I’ve always been most impressed by two things: the quality of the manufacturing, and a deeply thoughtful design which really maximises the rig’s versatility.
Professional-grade camping hammocks are the kind of product for which sheer quality – not competitive pricing or sales volume or clever marketing – is the key to long-term success, as customers in such a tiny, specialised niche tend to be quite vocal when they come across good gear that works well.
As I write, it’s exactly 20 years since the first Hennessy Hammock went on sale. Given they essentially sell a single product, the fact that they’re still around is a strong indicator that Hennessy hammocks are more than fit for purpose.
An In-Depth Tour of the Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle
The body of the Deep Jungle hammock is a double-layered sling of lightweight, mosquito-proof 30D nylon. Over the top is a permanently-attached insect mesh. This unzips fully along one side to allow entry and exit, as well as for the mesh to be fully folded back.
When rigged, a ridge-line of taut paracord allows the sling below to slacken while suspending the mesh above you, creating the floating cocoon shape with which users of gathered-end hammocks will be familiar. The big difference lies in that the ridge-line ensures an identically-shaped rig every time – something few other hammocks can boast, and a genuine plus point for the Hennessy system, given the relatively long learning curve inherent to hammock camping.
Some people find the gathered-end style a little claustrophobic, but all of the Hennessy models differ in another way from standard gathered-end hammocks in that they’re asymmetrical.
The result is that you will find yourself lying on a diagonal to the ridge-line, with your head slightly to the left and your feet slightly to the right (from the point of view of the user).
This has two noticeable effects. Firstly, it creates more living space in the sling. Secondly, it allows you to lie more or less flat, with your hips resting on the taut centreline of the sling and your extremities out in the slacker side areas. From this position you can easily pull down the edges of the mesh and see out, further reducing any feeling of claustrophobia.
Importantly, when fully zipped up, the hammock as a whole is claimed to be impermeable to the biting insects generally associated with a forest environment. I’ve found this to be true in practice, too.
Thick paracord is used for the two 3m-long suspending ropes, which, together with the webbing straps you’ll wrap around the trees or posts, allows for ample adjustment for the many different situations in which hammocks tend to be rigged.
(If you’re not used to ultralight hammocks, you’ll no doubt be nervous as you lower yourself into the sling for the first time, but those cords can support more than half a tonne, and the webbing straps are made of the same stuff as car seatbelts. Fear not!)
The standard rainfly supplied with the Deep Jungle is a slightly skewed diamond-shaped sheet of lightweight silicone-coated nylon with a taped seam down the middle. The corners of the longer diagonal of the rainfly clip onto two sliding anchors which are knotted to the suspending ropes, just beyond each gathered end of the sling. By sliding these anchors you can precisely tension the rainfly each time you rig the hammock.
Across the shorter diagonal, the corners of the fly are designed to be tied off with guy-lines to suitable anchors (branches, ground stakes, etc), creating a doublet of triangular awnings sloping down and away from each side of the hammock.
The asymmetry of the fly is deliberate: once you lie down diagonally, you’ll see how the shape provides more coverage for your head and feet (it also makes it easier to enter and exit). The guy-lines are several metres long, allowing a lot of flexibility in finding anchor points for the rainfly.
All of this stuffs into a compact, breathable drawstring sack, which comes emblazoned with setup instructions – particularly useful while you’re still new to the system.
Options When Ordering the Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle
When you order the Deep Jungle, you’ll have the option to choose from a variety of rainflies, including the larger Hex model which, as the name suggests, sports six anchor points instead of four. As well as the silicone-coated nylon version of the Hex, you can also choose from a range of cheaper, heavier and tougher 70D polyester rainflies in a variety of colours.
If you’re expecting really wet weather, or you’re not concerned about minimising weight and pack size and would prefer a more substantial awning under which to stow all of your gear (and your bike), you might opt for one of the Hex rainflies.
At the other end of the scale, you can upgrade to a ‘hyperlight’ 20D silnylon version of the standard rainfly and shave a few grams more off the complete package.
The standard 42-inch (107cm) webbing straps can be swapped out for longer 72-inch (183cm) or 96-inch (244cm) straps at no extra cost. I originally got the regular straps, and on a fair few occasions I’ve been wishing I had the longer ones. Unless you really need to save weight – in which case you can compensate by a certain amount with clever rigging – I would suggest going with at least the 72-inch straps, which will allow more flexibility in terms of tree-trunk diameter and spacing. For full flexibility, get the 96-inch straps (and wrap them a couple of extra times if you need them to be shorter).
The optional insulation system for the Deep Jungle is essentially a reflective sheet of bubble-wrap designed to be inserted between the two bottom layers of fabric and held there with a couple of elasticated snap hooks and grommets.
It makes considerably more difference to your comfort than you might imagine – if you’ve ever slept on the ground without a camping mat, you’ll be aware of how much body heat is lost to the surface you’re sleeping on, and the same is true with hammocks and the cold air below. For anything other than the hottest climates, I would highly recommend adding one to your order, or using your own camping mat (see below for some tips on this).
Finally, if you’re particularly tall and/or heavy – the standard Deep Jungle is rated for users up to 180cm/6′ tall and 115kg/250lbs in weight – consider the XL model, which is rated for users up to 213cm/7′ and 136kg/300lbs.
Rigging & Usage: Getting the Most Out Of the Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle
Rather than regurgitate the process, I will offer some ‘pro tips’ from personal experience to help cycle tourers and bikepackers get the most out of using the Deep Jungle.
Tips for Packing & Preparation
Firstly, when preparing for your trip, there are a few things I’d suggest you add to your packing list – and to your skill set:
In case of a lack of suitable anchors for the rainfly and/or side elastics, I would suggest carrying at least two lightweight ground stakes. You can use your bike as one of the anchors too – I sometimes lie mine on the ground and tie one guy-line off to the frame or rear rack – but if it’s very windy or gusty it’s better to have a secure ground stake than something that might get dislodged and slacken your rainfly in a storm.
Learning how to tie a suitable slide-and-grip knot will make adjustment of the rainfly a cinch (no pun intended), as well as making you feel like a proper bushcraft pro. The rainfly fabric tends to slacken a little when it gets wet, and you won’t always get it shedding water perfectly until you’ve built up some experience, so adjustability comes in useful throughout the duration of a pitch, not just at the time of initial setup.
The Deep Jungle is supplied with a couple of plastic snap hooks and a hanging mesh pocket for storing bits and bobs inside the hammock, but I find a couple of suitably-rated carabiners come in useful for hanging panniers, shoes, etc, from the suspension ropes beneath the ends of the rainfly, especially when the ground is wet.
Tips for Insulation
The Hennessy Double Bubble insulation mat is extremely light but does add a fair bit of bulk. It’s also far from comfortable when used as a ground mat.
If you want a more versatile (and more packable) system, you might prefer to experiment with modifying a regular inflatable sleeping pad for use with the hammock instead. On this topic:
The optimal solution is to permanently affix two elasticated snap hooks to your sleeping pad in the same configuration as the Double Bubble, perhaps making use of the fabric patches and adhesive supplied with your pad’s puncture repair kit. (As a reminder, these hooks attach to grommets between the two layers of the hammock sling, ensuring your mat doesn’t slide around during the night.)
I’ve had best results with lower-profile ‘self-inflating’ mats which have a little foam in the core, as they provide more insulation when slightly under-inflated. Doing this allows the pad to wrap around you better when you’re lying in the hammock.
Wider pads also work better than regular-width pads for the same reason. Conversely, narrow and minimal ultralight mats are next to useless.
Needless to say, expect a little trial and error with all of this!
Tips for Rigging
When rigging the hammock, and especially if you’re new to hammock camping, here are a few points to bear in mind:
Think carefully about height. Too low and you won’t be able to stash your bike and gear beneath the rig, you’ll have less flexibility in finding guy-line anchors for the rainfly, and it’ll be harder to enter/exit. Too high and you won’t be able to reach your shoes in the morning or fire up the stove you thought you’d left within reach.
There’s a steeper learning curve to hammock rigging than with tent pitching, as you get used to the shape the hammock takes when you’re lying in it, how much tension you should apply to the suspension ropes to compensate for when the hammock is loaded, and other such nuances. As with all such skills, best to practice before you need it!
If you want to feel less enclosed, and suitable anchors are available, you can rig the rainfly guy-line higher on the zip side of the hammock to allow a better view. Make sure the roof is still slanted, though, so that if it does rain unexpectedly the fly will still shed water rather than collecting it.
In dry weather you might be tempted not to bother with the rainfly. However, remember that sleeping under a tree canopy means that leaves, seeds, insects and other things are likely to gently fall on you throughout the night. The rainfly is therefore for protection from solids as well as liquids!
Conversely, in wet weather, it’s better to steepen the sides of the rainfly. Not only will there be less chance of water pooling but you’ll also have more side protection (from wind, wind-blown rain, and water splashing up from the ground). It’s a bit trickier to enter and exit the hammock, but far less inconvenient than not being able to sleep because you’re wet!
Tips for Usage
When you’ve rigged the hammock and have your camp set up, I’d offer the following tips for getting the most out of the system:
When entering or exiting the hammock, resist the temptation to only partially unzip the door. Instead, unzip the whole way, as instructed. There’s a good reason for this: you’ll put a huge strain on the zip slider during entry and exit if you don’t. If you want the hammock to last, get into the habit of fully unzipping it each time.
If you’re in a relatively bug-free spot and want to use the hammock for sitting or lounging, it’s possible to unzip and pull the mesh all the way back over the ridgeline. In this configuration you can sit on the perpendicular of the sling, either cross-legged or with your legs hanging over. There’s full back support in this position and it’s an excellent way to relax, meditate, cook, read, write blog posts about hammocks, or do whatever it is you like to do when you’re not cycling or sleeping.
Tips for Worst-Case Scenarios
In the situation every hammock camper seems to dread – being unable to find two suitable trees or poles – here’s my advice with the Deep Jungle:
Using your bike as an upright support can allow you to rig the system as a makeshift tarp shelter. First, attach the rainfly to the suspending ropes. Next, stand the (unloaded) bike at the head end of the hammock, then pass the suspending rope over the top tube and stake it out on the far side of the bike. Finally, stake out the suspending rope at the foot end, followed by the sides of the rainfly. Ta-da – instant tarp and bivvy!
If your bike doesn’t have a stand, you can clove-hitch the suspending rope to the frame before you stake it out.
Alternatively, flip your bike upside down and stand it on its handlebars for stability (remembering to protect your expensive Brooks saddle from whatever’s on the ground).
Again, learning a slide-and-grip knot for the ropes and guy-lines will make such a rig infinitely easier to adjust.
Place your sleeping pad or insulation sheet directly on the ground to protect the delicate hammock fabric. A space blanket* works in a pinch.
If you think this might be a regular-case scenario, rather than a worst-case one, it might be better to bring a waterproof bivvy bag and a length of paracord instead, then use the tarp alone for a shelter – or, of course, to reconsider whether a hammock is appropriate in the first place if there are that few trees around!
The Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle: In Summary
Camping hammocks seem to have become somewhat en vogue in recent years, with most of the usual big outdoor brands now selling them. Most seem to be designed for casual use at best, and none, in my opinion, come close to the balance struck by the Hennessy between lightweight portability, adaptability to a huge range of conditions, and proven durability over time.
The Deep Jungle model in particular is one of the most versatile hammocks in the range, and that versatility can be extended further with the options available when you’re ordering it, by developing your rigging skills, and by knowing how to get the best out of a product with a relatively long learning curve.
In short, if you’re looking for a professional-grade camping hammock for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip that can deal with more or less any situation you could reasonably throw at it, you’ll find little more respected a hammock on offer than this.
Base pricing for Hennessy Hammock Deep Jungle Zip at the time of writing is USD $289.95 / GBP £249.95 / EUR €279.95 / CAD $339.95. You can order them direct from Hennessy’s UK, USA, EU and Canada websites, where you can access the full range of buying options and take advantage of seasonal discounts.
Full disclosure: Terra Nova sent me this tent on long-term loan for review on my blog. I agreed on the basis that I would return it after the testing period was over. I’ve received no payments or other benefits for this.
For the last 12 months I’ve been road-testing a relatively new tent from veteran British tent-maker Terra Nova. The Starlite range is aimed squarely at bikepackers and cycle tourists and comes in 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth options.
I’ve been using the 2‑berth version – the Starlite 2 – on all my cycling, hiking and road trips since April 2018, and with summer approaching fast, it’s about time for a detailed write-up after a year of thorough and varied testing. You tend to form a close relationship with your ‘mobile home’ on extended bike trips. So how did we get on?
The Terra Nova Starlite 2: In Context
British tent maker Terra Nova has a long track record of producing highly regarded, award-winning, ultralight tents. The Voyager, a heavy-duty all-rounder, has been a favourite among long-distance cycle tourists from the UK for over two decades. The 1‑berth Laser Comp was the first sub-1kg tent in its class when it launched 15 years ago and remains an ultralight backpackers’ classic today. So why launch something new?
Well, with the explosion of bikepacking, its associated packing style, and a trend towards touring with lighter loads, I think Terra Nova saw an opportunity for a tent tailored to this niche.
Thus, the Starlite series aims to strike a balance between the low weight of the Laser Comp and the liveability of the Voyager, paying specific attention to the packing considerations of the bikepacker while retaining the excellent all-weather performance this British tent maker is known for.
Have they succeeded? I think so – as long as you can live with the relatively fiddly process of pitching a tunnel tent. But whether or not you’ll buy one will also be a question of where and when you plan to use it. More on that later…
Out of the box, the appeal of the Starlite 2 to bikepackers is instantly clear. It’s short – the poles are just 29cm long when collapsed – and the storage bag is not a flimsy tube of ultralight fly material but a tough canvas sack with multiple rows of webbing loops.
In other words, it’s off-the-shelf ready to strap to your handlebars, hang off the back of your saddle, slide into a seatpack, or throw into a small pannier.
Pitching for the first time, I recognised the signature features of Terra Nova tents: the all-in-one pitching style, the underfloor reinforcement straps taking the strain off the floor material, the colour-coded poles and sleeves, and the wild-camping friendly colours of pine-needle green flysheet and bright yellow inner.
Working my way through the pitch, I was reassured by the clear attention to detail and the seemingly sturdy materials and build. It felt like a quality product. (And I’ve spent a lot of nights in a lot of tents!)
This is a somewhat specialised tent. As noted above, accepted wisdom in bikepacking and cycle touring circles is that freestanding tents are generally more versatile than tents that require staking out. As a tunnel tent, the Starlite is in the latter camp, requiring a minimum of 7 stakes to properly erect, and all 11 for the most robust pitch.
Terra Nova’s aim with the Starlite, however, is not maximum global versatility (that’s what the Voyager is for) but top performance for its intended type of user: bikepackers and ultralight cycle tourists from the UK.
As a rule of thumb, a tent’s design reflects its place of origin; thus British tents tend towards all-weather performance, prioritising waterproofing and stability in changeable weather and on soft, damp ground.
Happily, these design priorities remain relevant in many other temperate-zone locations you might consider for overseas touring.
If, on the other hand, you’re setting out across the tropics or the desert and want a freestanding mesh inner, the Starlite probably won’t be for you.
Tunnel tents can sometimes feel a little claustrophobic as there’s only so much headroom such a structure can offer, especially with the smallest models.
The Starlite 2 strikes a good balance in this respect. It offers more headspace than the ultra-minimal shelters favoured by some bikepackers, though it doesn’t quite compete with the cavernous Hubba Hubba NX (86cm vs 100cm of headroom, and one entrance/porch instead of two). It sounds like a small point, but it is nice to be able to sit upright inside your tent while you’re changing your clothes in the evening or pulling on layers in the morning. The Starlite 2 just manages this for me (I’m 5 foot 11).
The Starlite 2 has a generous porch (or awning) area for gear storage. If you buy the optional footprint (ie: floor protector), this will extend to cover the whole porch area. Because it has quite a long floor (220cm), there’s a little space for additional gear (or particularly tall people!) in the slightly tapered foot end too, even if both berths are occupied.
While the most minimally-minded of solo bikepackers will go straight for the 1‑berth version of the Starlite, I’ve always felt that taking a 2‑berth tent on solo trips pays off every night in comfort and convenience. I’ll notice this much more than the extra weight, because pedalling is just pedalling, but I want my camps to be a time to relax and enjoy.
Pitching The Starlite 2
I initially found the pitching process to be more fiddly than the various free-standing and wedge-shaped tents I’ve previously lived in. In my circumstances this would have been true of any tunnel tent, a design style in which the structure is provided as much by the stakes and guylines as by the poles.
After a few pitches, of course, it became second nature, and I feel the extra faffing at the end of the day is compensated for by the extra stability, weather resistance and reduced overall weight of the design.
In terms of venting, it’s possible to adjust the awning zippers to allow air in beneath a ribbed hood, or to roll up the door completely in fine weather, either way allowing the half-mesh door of the inner tent to breathe. At the foot end, another mesh panel and an external hooded vent allow a reasonable through-flow of air. I wouldn’t want to spend a whole day in a Starlite in the heat of summer, but I don’t expect many riders would have that in mind anyway.
One thing I did notice during multi-day pitches – and this is fairly typical of ultralight fabrics – was the tendency of the flysheet to sag a little when wet and then to contract again when dry. On a couple of occasions when the tent was completely soaked, this resulted in some contact (and therefore dripping) between the inner and outer layers.
To combat this, the adjustable cinch straps by the pole attachment points allow the fly to be tightened or slackened, and together with the adjustable guylines I found I could easily tweak my pitch to compensate.
Only a prolonged period of real-world use can demonstrate how a product deals with being used over time and in the full range of conditions it’s designed for.
(That’s why I’ll never review a piece of gear unless I’ve used it on a long-term basis.)
Given that the Starlite is pitched (sorry) as a three-season tent, its priorities should be to keep the occupant(s) dry in a downpour and on sodden ground, while also venting condensation in cool, damp conditions, and allowing adequate air through on hot summer nights. This is actually quite a tall order.
I had a particularly good opportunity to test the Starlite’s performance in the extremes of weather during a week-long trail maintenance camp in the Greater Caucasus range of northern Georgia, where I had the tent pitched in the same spot for a week. The weather was typical of summers in this mountain region: hot, sunny days and cold nights (ie: big temperature gradients), with sudden and violent lightning storms rolling through almost every day.
Even when it felt like all the water and electricity in the known universe was being dumped upon our camp, the Starlite didn’t leak a drop. With a hydrostatic head rating of 5000/6000mm for the fly and floor fabric respectively, the waterproof materials here are – on paper – among the most heavy-duty of tents in this class (compare to 1200/3000mm for the Hubba NX range).
And it barely flinched during a particularly vicious hailstorm which literally punched holes in the flysheet of my friend’s ageing Marmot next door.
In short (and always assuming you choose a good site and pitch correctly), I’m pleased to report typical solid Terra Nova performance on the all-weather front.
Weight, Size & Packability
The Starlite touts itself as a bikepackers’ tent, and this seems to be mainly about portability when packed down. Terra Nova have achieved this by shortening the collapsible pole sections down to 29cm each and packing the result into a sack about the size and shape of a summer synthetic sleeping bag.
(It’s arguable that the increased number of pole sections introduces more potential points of failure. My experience is that aluminium poles fail either because of general fatigue over years of use, or because someone clumsy trips over or treads on them – not because a telescopic-section design is inherently weak.)
Having spent years strapping tents to the top of my rear rack, I’ve found the packed-down Starlite no longer occupies the role of that annoyingly unwieldy piece of luggage I have to find a home for, fitting into a small pannier as happily as on my handlebar harness or in my seatpack. This is actually really nice.
The Terra Nova Starlite 2 is a premium-quality 2‑berth tunnel tent which is generously liveable and will stand up to the worst temperate-zone weather you’d ever choose to ride through. It also happens to be extremely light and practically sized for the various ways you might pack it on a bikepacking rig.
At a list price of £595, it’s hardly cheap, and therefore it’s likely to be a purchase many will spend a long time pondering. Whether – when it comes to opening your wallet – the selling point of packability would tip the balance in the Starlite’s favour is for you to judge, but I will say that, after a year of road-testing, it’s made such a difference to my bikepacking routine that I’m surprisingly reluctant to send it back.
When visiting the UK earlier this year, I popped over to Oxford Bike Works to catch up with Richard Delacour and to check out a prototype of the new Expedition Disc touring bike he’s been working on.
This disc-equipped specification will be part of Richard’s custom-built bike lineup as of 2019, so I wanted to share some insights on what else makes this new touring bike different from the original Expedition and, perhaps more interestingly, why he decided to go down the disc brake route after years of steering clear of them (neither pun intended).
Why Put Disc Brakes On An Expedition Touring Bike?
First and foremost, lest riders of the original Expedition be alarmed, the Expedition Disc is not a replacement or an upgrade over the Expedition. It’s just a bike for a slightly different type of rider and tour.
Richard and I originally conceived Tom’s Expedition Bike, which became the Oxford Bike Works Expedition, as the ‘ultimate expedition touring bike’, in which simplicity and durability were paramount for a ride of months or years through the back of beyond. The original Expedition remains absolutely my go-to bike for this particular type of tour.
The Disc, on the other hand, was born out of a growing demand Richard was experiencing for a bike that would suit a rider who also had a lot of long-distance riding in mind, but perhaps over a series of shorter, more adventurous trips. They might also be considering throwing some dirt-road touring into the mix, and could therefore feel comfortable with a little more mechanical complexity in exchange for better braking performance in specific situations.
Given the changing priorities of many of today’s bicycle travellers, therefore, it made sense to tailor a bike to better suit this growing community of riders.
The Durability Of Disc Brakes On Long-Distance Cycle Tours
As longer-term readers might remember, part the rationale for sticking with rim brakes on the Expedition was the relative lack of proven durability and reliability of any particular model of disc brake on ultra long-distance tours in the developing world.
The picture today is different: cable-actuated disc brake technology has come of age. Models such as the Avid BB7, Hayes CX and TRP Spyre have been showing up on the spec sheets of disc-equipped world tourers from the big commercial manufacturers for several years, with few significant issues reported, and spares are a lot easier to find as a result of the increased global availability of high-end bikes and parts.
Some riders will no doubt chime in here to say that they’ve been running discs for much longer than that. I too was touring on hydraulic discs – of all things – as far back as 2007, perhaps ill-advisedly (though I still use that same set of brakes on my bikepacking rig today).
But that’s the point: these disc brakes have proven themselves over enough time and miles for even the most conservative bike designers to now consider specifying them on flagship touring models like the Expedition Disc – the TRP Spyres, in this case.
There’s also the option for early adopters to try out the rather amazing-sounding Juin Tech R1cable-actuated hydraulic calipers that have recently found huge favour with the cyclocross community.
With discs, the tolerances involved mean that they tend to rub on occasion, especially when the frame flexes under stress. The rotors can be rather vulnerable, especially when the bike is disassembled for transportation (fixing a bent rotor is almost impossible). It’s also true that, in the majority of regular touring scenarios, they don’t actually offer significantly improved braking over rim brakes. Let’s not forget that rim brake-equipped bikes have been taking people round the planet for over a century.
But I see the ever-increasing popularity and accessibility of shorter, more adventurous tours off the beaten track as a good reason to offer them. A set of properly set-up and bedded-in disc brakes offer significantly better modulation, slightly more power, and generally better performance in the mud and wet. I’m also much more confident in the durability of the components and the availability of spare parts than I was just a few years ago.
Disc-Specific Frames & Forks For Touring Bikes
Disc brakes do, of course, call for a frame and fork that are built for the job. This isn’t just about having bolts in the right places. Because the position of the brake calipers is much closer to the axles, the act of braking exerts a stronger rotational force on the wheel attachment points of frame. So it’s not just a case of welding new disc brake mounts onto a frameset that was designed for rim brakes.
To that end, the new Oxford Bike Works Expedition Disc frames will be individually fillet-brazed from Reynolds 525 and 631 chromoly tubing by a UK-based master frame-builder.
To keep prices from soaring (as tends to happen with made-to-measure framesets), they’ll be batch-produced in Richard’s already-popular range of four sizes, so he can continue to offer value for money while at the same time customising and fitting each bike to order (which was what impressed me most about his approach in the first place). The frames themselves will continue to come with the same 10-year warranty as before.
While both the 26-inch and 700c frame geometries will be essentially the same as those of the Expedition, the stiffer disc mount-equipped fork and rear triangle will make for an ever-so-slightly less springy ride, as is the case with disc-specific frames in general (though if you can accurately tell the difference in a double-blind test I will personally mail you an extra-large Snickers as a prize).
Three frame colours are available: the ever-popular red gloss, a new semi-matt khaki green, and anthracite grey. Custom colours and decals have proved surprisingly popular on the Expedition – maybe because if you’re buying a bike for life, you might as well really make it your own – and so this will continue to be an optional extra.
A final reminder that each of Richard’s bikes is fitted in-person to each customer’s size and body shape and built to their preferences, so if there’s anything you don’t like or you have any special request, you can just ask him, and – if it’s possible – it shall be done.