Categories
Equipment

12 Crucial Qualities Of A Bicycle Traveller’s Perfect Tent

Interested in why bicycle travellers tend to prefer certain types of tent? Let’s explore in detail a few of the key criteria – I’ve identified twelve, to be precise – that might cause a cycle tourer or bikepacker to choose one tent over another in this overly crowded market.

The perfect tent, of course, does not exist, because there is no such thing as perfection! But if it did, it would probably…

1. Weigh as little as possible

The less weight you’re carrying, the nimbler and more enjoyable to ride your bike will be while you’re on it, and the more manageable it’ll be while you’re off it.

In the old days, tents were built of heavy canvas, wood and steel, and weighed as much as a bicycle. Modern tents, by contrast, are now absurdly light. 

The ideal touring tent would, therefore, weigh as little as possible when packed – particularly important for bikepackers.

The Terra Nova Starlite 2 tunnel tent manages to sleep two people in a compact, lightweight package.

2. Last as long as possible

The importance of durability increases in parallel with the length of your journey. Modern tents do have a limited lifespan and on an ultra-long tour can almost be considered a consumable item, most multi-year journeys involving a series of tents. 

Common points of failure include zip sliders wearing out, floors losing waterproofness, poles fatiguing and snapping under stress, and flysheets shrinking through prolonged UV exposure. 

Long-term riders especially therefore tend to choose tents whose durability has proven itself over time.

This Vaude Hogan UL 2P wedge tent has been through two sets of poles and zippers but is going strong.

3. Pitch anywhere

Especially when wild-camping, perfect pitching conditions can never be guaranteed. As well as this, a long tour may well incorporate a variety of environments.

The perfect tent would go up anywhere, regardless of the availability of flat, level ground, and with or without the ability to use pegs/stakes.

That is, rather simplistically, why cyclists tend to choose freestanding tents, in which the poles support the whole structure, or tents requiring minimal staking out.

Even a £20 tent from Tesco can satisfy many of a cyclist’s needs.

4. Blend into the background

Successful wild-camping is largely about avoiding detection. Part of this is having a tent that does not stick out like a sore thumb in a landscape.

The ideal tent, therefore, would exhibit chameleon-like properties, blending perfectly into the surroundings. Tents with green or neutral-coloured flysheets are therefore a good bet, while bright orange or yellow mountaineering tents are less than preferable in this regard.

Stealth-camping with neutral green tents in a park on the outskirts of Huntingdon.

5. Go up quickly

Once a suitable pitch has been found, the last thing a cycle traveller wants is to waste time pitching or tweaking an overly complicated tent, particularly in bad weather or when stealth-camping under cover of darkness.

This, again, is one of the reasons why cyclists tend to prefer freestanding tents with simple, ideally one-piece, pole structures, which are pitched in a few seconds, all stakes and guy lines being optional.

The 1‑berth MSR Hubba’s inner tent could barely be simpler to pitch.

6. Keep you dry in a monsoon

Any tent worth its salt will keep its occupants dry. The best tents will do so in a torrential downpour and on waterlogged ground, and many riders will have to anticipate such conditions. 

In practice, this means choosing a tent with an additional footprint to provide extra waterproofing to the floor, an adjustable fly sheet that can be cinched down closer to the ground to avoid splashback, and a good level of protection around the edges of the inner tent as well. It might also mean a footprint that extends to cover the space beneath the awning where your gear is being stowed.

The wedge design of the Vaude Hogan UL was adept at shedding water in even the heaviest of Mongolian thunderstorms.

7. Stand up in a hurricane

Extreme weather, by definition, is the exception rather than the norm. But the longer the trip, the higher the chances of being exposed to it. 

The ideal tent would take stormy weather in its stride, remaining firmly planted even whilst houses, pets and automobiles are being blown clean away.

So-called ‘geodesic’ and tunnel tents tend to do well in strong winds when properly pitched and oriented, while wedge-shaped tents are among the worst performers in this sense.

The tunnel design of the Terra Nova Starlite holds up well in high winds, even if a few more stakes and guylines are required.

8. Ventilate in all climates

Climate control is a perpetual concern for the camper. Condensation in particular can contribute far more to a soggy night’s sleep than rainfall itself.

The ideal tent would feature adjustable ventilation options for all circumstances, including plentiful mesh panels on the inner so it can be pitched alone in hot weather and allow a good breeze to come through.

Even the best-ventilated tent will never perform as well as a good camping hammock such as the Hennessy.

9. Provide a view when you want it

Tents are enclosed and often claustrophobic spaces designed to isolate and protect from the elements. But when the elements are at their most desirable, the ideal tent will provide a viewing platform from which to drink all that natural beauty up. 

This usually means choosing a tent with an awning that can be tied right back and a mesh panel on the inner door to look through, if not a full mesh inner tent.

Some tents provide better views than others, though it also depends on where you pitch them!

10. Give you privacy when you need it

Sometimes, after a long day on the road, all you’ll want to do is retreat to a save haven. The ideal tent will feel as secure, safe and impermeable as a padded cell. 

If you think it’ll be warm and dry enough to pitch only the inner tent without the rainfly, a full mesh inner will afford no privacy whatsoever. A tent with a combination of mesh and fabric panels, on the other hand, may strike a better balance.

The MSR Mutha Hubba HP strikes a good balance of visibility, ventilation and privacy for a couple on tour.

11. Allow room for all your luggage

Tents being necessarily restricted in size for practical reasons, it’s usually possible to bring some of your belongings inside, but often it’ll be necessary to leave at the very least your bicycle to brave the elements overnight. 

The ideal tent provides space for everything to be brought inside or stowed in the awning – perhaps even the bike.

Interior view of a folding bike and luggage inside the awning of an MSR Hubba 1-berth tent
Perhaps it’s cheating to use a folding bike, but even a minimal solo tent like the MSR Hubba can provide ample storage space in the awning.

12. Provide space to live

In a similar vein to the above, tents are more or less well designed for doing anything other than sleeping. 

The ideal tent will exhibit Tardis-like qualities, providing space to unpack, rearrange, work, play, get changed, entertain guests, repair bicycles and more, in addition to simply sleeping.

Even ultralight shelters like the Zpacks Duplex can provide a surprising amount of living space.

In reality, there is no single tent that ticks all of the above boxes. Choosing the right tent for your bike trip is about knowing what compromises you can safely make, and when you should stick to your guns.

Many of these compromises are common to a lot of riders, which is why a small handful of tents have emerged as long-time favourites among cycle tourers and bikepackers.

Anything I’ve missed? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

Categories
On The Road

20 Hard-Earned Survival Tips For Cycling In Winter

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”, Sir Ranulph Fiennes once said. I don’t imagine he got the idea after a winter bike ride, but the same holds true: there’s nothing stopping you pedalling through darkening days and sub-zero temperatures, as long as you dress for the occasion – and bear a few other key points in mind.

I learned all this the hard way when I spent a memorable February cycling and camping my way through Norway and Sweden, across the Arctic Circle and into Lapland (click here to watch the 2‑minute short film on Vimeo). After a very steep learning curve, it proved to be a magical experience, and one I constantly refer to when encouraging others to give winter cycling a try.

Rejoice, then, in the fact that you do not need to go to such extreme lengths as I did to enjoy yourself on two wheels this winter. Here’s how to survive the season:

1. Layer Up

Inappropriate clothing will leave you shivering, sweaty, or both. While you can simply crank up the pace to stay warm in autumn, winter requires a different approach. Combine warm yet wicking long-sleeve baselayers – ideally merino – with breathable microfleece midlayers, windproof shell jackets, and insulated winter tights. Versatility is key.

2. Vent Moisture

The harder you ride, the more you’ll sweat, and if sweat accumulates in your clothing at sub-zero temperatures you will literally freeze in your saddle. Good quality breathable and wicking clothing can only do so much, so ensure that your windproof outer layer has plentiful venting options, such as a full-length front zip, armpit zips and adjustable cuffs.

3. Drop Your Pace

You can reduce sweat build-up in another way: by slowing down. If you’re used to a nippy fair-weather pace, it’s often tough to change your habits, but the last thing you want is moisture freezing in the fibres of your clothing. Use the winter as an excuse to take longer, slower rides and work on endurance.

4. Control Exertion

Exertion and moisture isn’t just about pace, and other factors are amplified in winter when the equilibrium is more delicate. Pay attention to gradients, speed and windchill, sunlight and shade, cold sinks at the bottom of valleys, and time of day; all of which will affect your body temperature. Anticipate and adjust your exertion and layering appropriately.

5. Protect Extremities

Fingers and toes are vulnerable to cold with little blood flow. Prevent the worst by wearing ‘two-fingered’ mitts, woollen socks and neoprene overboots. If it’s really Arctic, wear plastic bags between liner socks and thick socks (I’m not joking), and consider ‘pogies’ for your handlebars. Your ears and neck are superconductors, so wear a beanie and a neck gaiter. Male riders shouldn’t forget that ‘other’ extremity – a spare glove or sock works well…

6. Winterize Your Bike

Clean and lube your drivetrain after every ride – particularly if you’re riding after the gritting trucks have been out, as salty road-spray will eat it for breakfast. Use a synthetic winter lubricant. Treat any exposed steel with anti-rust spray. Make sure cables are well-sealed and uncontaminated. You don’t want brake cables freezing up on icy roads.

7. Break Out The Winter Accessories

Mudguards may be unfashionable but they’ll keep your drivetrain and backside untarnished while you’re riding in slush or on salted roads. Consider thermal wraps for your water bottles, or bring Thermos flasks instead – or, if it’s stupidly cold, wear a Camelbak under your outer layer. A nice warm saddle cover might feel like a good idea after your first couple of sub-zero rides, too.

8. Don’t Slip (Or Sink)

Drop your tyre pressure for better traction in slush or on wet roads. Skinny tyres often cut through slush and snow better than fatter tyres and make better contact with the tarmac. If it’s truly iced up, however fit studded tyres, which work extremely well, as I discovered in Sweden while riding across a frozen lake. On the other hand, if there’s deep snow outside your window, high-volume tyres float best. (That’s why fatbikes were invented.)

9. Don’t Stop (For Long)

It’s easy to forget that the colder the air temperature, the more rapidly that hard-earned body heat will be sucked away from you. Keep rest breaks short, and never stop at the top of a long, shaded descent! Watch out for ice patches when dismounting, too – your studded tyres may not slip, but you yourself may end up a sprawling pile of limbs if you’re not careful.

10. Protect Your Lungs

In seriously cold conditions, a neck-warmer serves an important dual function as a membrane through which to breathe and protect your lungs from cold, dry air, which can cause respiratory problems and even nosebleeds in the unprepared.

11. Protect Your Eyes

A white snowy landscape under direct sunlight will divert far more UV rays towards your eyeballs than even the brightest of summer days. Protect your eyes appropriately with wraparound sunglasses with UVA/UVB filtered lenses. Some consider orange tinted lenses to help with contrast in snowy environments. Extreme cold may even call for goggles over glasses.

12. Understand Sunlight

Particularly further north, you’ll notice that the sun hangs lower in the sky as a result of Earth’s tilted axis. When planning a ride, consider where the sun is going to be at different times of day. You don’t want to be pedalling into a setting sun at rush hour, for example, when both your and other drivers’ abilities to see what’s ahead is seriously impaired.

13. Understand Moonlight

A full moon above a snow-covered landscape at night is a thing to behold, and the glow is quite enough to ride by. This is one of the greatest draws of the otherwise faintly ludicrous idea of winter night-riding: you will see familiar landscapes quite literally in a whole new light, one that is quite magical. Don’t forget lights for visibility of course; on which note…

14. Get Lit Up

Winter days mean a higher likelihood you’ll need lights to see and be seen – whether because the sunlight is weaker, or because there’s a chance you’ll misjudge the short daylight hours and be caught out in the dark. When choosing, remember that lithium batteries don’t like cold weather. Consider an inexpensive set of backup lights, and always check everything’s fully charged before you set out.

15. Get Fuelled Up

Your body will burn more calories to keep your core warm, as well to keep your legs spinning. This, of course, means eating ever bigger slices of cake during your breaks. If you take snacks with you, keep them in an inside pocket so they don’t harden or freeze. Finally, don’t forget to hydrate – even if cold water is the last thing you feel like drinking, you still need it.

16. Avoid The Verge

Otherwise rideable hard shoulders become a frozen mess of slush and debris in winter, meaning you’ll do well to stay further away from the edge of the road than you might be used to. It’s better to force motorists to give you a wide berth than to put yourself in a dangerous position, so don’t be afraid to take the lane – as many drivers will expect you to do in winter anyway.

17. Revisit Old Routes

Blankets of snow and the long shadows of winter give even the most familiar landscape a magical shroud, and you can’t beat a good ride to make the most of it. Not only that, but the roads will be much quieter than you’re used to as the fair weather cyclists stick to their turbo trainers – and you’ll discover new places to stop that really come into their own in wintertime.

18. Explore New Routes

Of course, there’s nothing to reinvigorate the senses than exploring somewhere new, and again, given the right preparation, your bike can take you places nobody else would think to ride or drive on the coldest and snowiest of winter’s days – even more so on icy roads with spiked tyres.

19. Camp Out!

I’m aware this will convince very few, but I really don’t think cycle touring is restricted to fair weather any more than road riding is. Wait for a clear, fine night; throw an extra-thick sleeping bag, a couple of woolly hats and a hip-flask of single malt into your panniers; then ride up to that excellent look-out point and bivvy out under the stars – better with company, of course.

20. Endure The Cold, Enjoy The Warmth

Above all, go forth and pedal in the knowledge that even if your water bottles do freeze solid, your toes go numb, and you make most of your descents on your backside rather than in the saddle, you’ll never be far away from a hot shower, a cup of tea and a massive slice of cake – which will all be that much more satisfying for the misery you endured while earning them.

Anything I’ve missed? Add your best winter cycling tips in the comments!

Categories
Philosophy Of Travel Planning & Logistics

There Is No Better Time To Be Planning Your Next Dream Cycling Adventure

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?

Why not commit to beginning your journey to the starting line?

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.

Categories
Equipment Planning & Logistics

What’s The Best Camping Mattress Or Sleeping Pad For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?

Last updated in June 2020.

It’s time to deep-dive into another frequently-asked question about equipment for cycle touring and bikepacking – the thorny topic of how to choose a camping mattress (as we call them in the UK) or sleeping pad (as our American friends prefer).

We’ll be looking specifically at which camping mattresses or sleeping pads are ‘best’ for cycle touring and bikepacking trips – and how the definition of ‘best’ might differ depending on personal preferences and the details of your planned ride.

I’ll guide you through this topic by combining advice from my 14 years of bicycle travel experience with a list of currently recommended camping mattresses for cycle touring and bikepacking.

What I won’t do is bore you with spreadsheets and tables comparing R‑values, cm² of floor space covered, decibels of noise emitted when you turn over in the night, etc. The advice here is based on real reports and recommendations from real riders in the real world, not scientists in laboratories. 

I also won’t be recommending anything new and unproven. Only tried-and-tested camping mattresses will be making it onto this list, because on a cycle tour or bike trip, reliability matters.

Are you sitting (or lying) comfortably? Then I’ll begin…


Camping Mattresses for Cycle Touring & Bikepacking – The Basics

Far from being an unnecessary luxury, a camping mattress is at least as important as a sleeping bag when camping on a bike trip.

This is because – as you’ll know if you’ve tried sleeping on bare ground – it’s where your warm body touches the cold ground that heat is most quickly lost.

Why doesn’t a sleeping bag stop this happening? Well, it’s the trapped air in the lining of a sleeping bag that keeps your body heat in. But a sleeping bag has the air squashed out when you lie down in it. A camping mattress solves this by providing a structure for the trapped air needed to insulate your body from the ground.

In other words, the main purpose of a camping mattress is to keep you warm.

Although comfort is often the first thing people think about when choosing a camping mattress, this is a secondary concern. No matter how soft and comfortable your sleeping surface feels, cold spots will wake you up if you’re not properly insulated – and then you won’t be able to sleep at all.

The 3 Types Of Camping Mattress You Need To Know About

Camping mattresses suitable for cycle touring and bikepacking are split into three categories: closed-cell foam (ie: a ‘roll-mat’), inflatable, and self-inflating.

Within each category you’ll find a range of options and styles of interest to the cyclist, from a simple slice of foam costing £5 all the way up to to luxurious padded air mattresses costing hundreds of pounds.

Most of the camping mattresses we’ll be looking at come from the hiking, trekking and backpacking departments of outdoor stores, which is where the needs of bicycle travellers overlap with those of more lucrative markets.

How much luggage space you have will be big a deciding factor in what category of mattress you choose.

For bikepackers trying to reduce gear volume, ultralight inflatable mats or minimalist self-inflating mattresses will stow in a seat pack or handlebar roll.

If you’re off on a fully-loaded tour, however, a bulky closed-cell foam mat or thick self-inflating mattress will sit happily on top of your rear rack.

The other big deciding factor in what category of mattress you choose is which type is most comfortable for your specific sleeping habits.

Some people can unroll a thin piece of foam on rocky ground and sleep the whole night through. Others need a thick layer of of air cushioning beneath them to get the same good night’s sleep. And yet others sleep better on a thinner ‘self-inflating’ mat with a foam structure (I’m in this latter category).

If you want to get a good night’s sleep, night after night, you need to know which of the three categories of camping mattress will best give it to you.

Think about the last time you went mattress shopping for your home. Did you search the web for reviews and then order one online? Of course not! You probably went to a mattress store and spent some time lying down on a few different products in your budget range to see if they suited your preferences for softness, size, etc.

If you take one piece of advice from this article, make it this one: if you’re buying a camping mattress for the first time, head on down to your nearest camping store and actually lie down on some demonstration models before you spend a penny.

Once you’ve understood which type of camping mattress feels right for you, then you can start thinking about things like your budget, luggage space, the climate you’re riding in, and all the other factors, before scouring the web for the best deal on your preferred option.

A Note On The Limited Usefulness Of R‑Values & Temperature Ratings

Camping mattress and sleeping pad manufacturers will almost always quote something called the “R‑value”. This is a measure of insulating power taken from the construction industry, and has mostly replaced the temperature rating as the standard measure of insulation for a camping mattress. A higher number means more insulating power. You’ll find recommended temperatures for “comfort” are often quoted too.

There are three important things you need to know about these numbers.

The first thing is that they are calculated in highly controlled laboratory campsites in which brand new high-quality tents have been perfectly pitched in perfect conditions.

This campsite does not exist in the real world. 

The second thing is that temperature ratings will be based on a user of average size, weight and metabolism, wearing a full set of thermal underwear, who is sleeping in the above-mentioned laboratory campsite.

This user also does not exist in the real world.

The third thing to know is that because, physiologically speaking, males tend to sleep warmer than females, manufacturers often base temperature figures on a male user to make them sound more generous (you’ll usually find this stated explicitly if you dig deep enough into the small print).

We all know that both males and females go camping.

How, then, to interpret R‑values and temperature ratings when choosing a camping mattress for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip?

Firstly, know what R‑values mean in the context of a bike trip. For much of the temperate zone, appropriate seasonal ranges are roughly the same as the actual R‑value ratings. In other words, a mattress with an R‑value of 1 would be appropriate most 1‑season uses, ie: summer, whereas a mattress with an R‑value of 4 would see you through most 4‑season uses, ie: temperate-zone winters.

This is your starting point.

Next, think about your own sleeping habits. Do you sleep hot or cold? Are you the one who wakes up sweating and throws off the blankets in the middle of the night, or the one who’s still shivering even when snuggled up with woolly hat and a hot water bottle?

Thinking about this will help you decide whether to interpret a recommended temperature rating generously or conservatively, and whether to go for a higher or lower R‑value than the average for your intended use.

If you happen to be biologically female in the unfortunately male-dominated world of outdoor pursuits, consider that manufacturers such as Therm-a-Rest who make “women’s specific” models tend to increase R‑values by roughly 30% over the “regular” models.

Unless you know you sleep hot, I’d therefore advise female riders to consider mattresses with a minimum R‑value of 2 for summer, 4 for 3‑season, and 5 for all-season use.

Finally, consider the worst-case scenario for your upcoming trip, given where you’re planning to go and when. If, on the coldest possible night at the highest possible altitude on your route, you followed every tip in this article about staying warmer when camping in winter, would you probably survive on a camping mattress with the R‑value you’re considering?

Thinking about this will do two things. It will help you avoid “overkill” – in other words, buying a mattress far more highly insulated (and expensive) than you actually need. It will also help you identify possible situations in which a mattress with a higher rating might actually be a good idea.

Therm-a-Rest have published a useful blog post explaining R‑values in more detail.


So What Are The Best Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking In Each Category?

Let’s get stuck in to the specific products that come highly recommended for cycle touring and bikepacking by people who are actually out there riding.

I’ll cover each of the three main types – closed-cell foam, inflatable, and self-inflating – in separate sections.

For each model, if there are multiple versions available (eg: different sizes, with or without extra insulation, ‘ultralight’ or ‘luxe’ versions, etc), I will describe the standard, medium-sized, regular thickness, non-ultralight model. You may then adjust your final buying decision based on whether you need any of the additional options.

As will all my gear round-up articles, I’ve included manufacturer and retailer links for the UK and USA where I can find them. 

Some of these are affiliate links and are marked with an asterisk (*) for transparency. I’ll earn a small commission if you buy through them, which helps me keep articles like this one free-to-read and ad-free.


The Best Closed-Cell Foam Camping Mats For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Simple, cheap, and usually preferred by riders on a tight budget, generic closed-cell foam mattresses, aka: roll-mats, satisfy the one essential criteria – insulation from the ground – and nothing else. 

With nothing to puncture or break, they’re actually a durable choice – as long as you keep them away from over-tightened bungee straps, corrosive substances, and the teeth of wild dogs.

Do not expect much luxury from most of these mats, but do expect to avoid being woken up by cold spots in all but winter conditions (in which case you can use two).

As well as at mainstream outdoor and camping stores such as Decathlon*; you can find these at supermarkets, gas stations, hardware stores, and so on, where they’re cheap and abundant.

If you’re on a tight budget, what’s ‘best’ is of course the same as what’s cheapest. Before buying anything new, look at charity shops, household recycling centres, skips, campsites’ lost-and-found departments, or find a fellow biker at the end of their trip using Warmshowers and swap their unwanted mattress for a night or two of hosting.

Check out this article for more advice on getting free or cheap equipment for a bike trip.

Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest (RRP $20/£20) & Z Lite (RRP $40)

If you’ve got a little more money and are looking for a specific model of closed-cell foam mat with a good reputation, the camping mattresses from Seattle-based Therm-a-Rest (part of Cascade Designs) are the ubiquitous choice.

The 400g RidgeRest (rolling) and 410g Z Lite (folding) closed-cell foam mattresses having proven their durability over decades – and they’re a lot more comfortable than they look. Many experienced riders still swear by them over anything inflatable.

There’s little to choose between the RidgeRest and Z Lite in terms of weight and insulation; the Z Lite is more compact when packed as there’s no “hole” through the middle (though it still won’t fit in a pannier), costs a little more, and is far more popular.

Both models have SOL or SOLite versions with a reflective coating on one side, which increases the amount of body heat reflected back up from the surface. Therm-a-Rest claim this increases its overall insulating power by 15%; extra warmth for no extra money makes it a popular upgrade. Riders do, however, report that this coating eventually starts to wear off over time (albeit a lot of time).

You’ll sometimes see bikepackers rolling up other camping items inside a RidgeRest and then harnessing the whole roll to their handlebars – a neat way to get around the limited space available with frame luggage.


The Best Inflatable Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

While there’s only so much you can do with a slice of foam, there’s a variety of styles, thicknesses and insulation types available among inflatable mattresses to accommodate differing sleeping preferences, body sizes, temperature ranges, and other needs.

Manufacturers have exploited these marginal differences to produce a bewildering array of options. At the time of writing, for example, popular Swiss brand Exped had no fewer than 116 different models in their range.

Why bother with anything inflatable other than your bike tyres? It’s one more thing to puncture. All inflatable and self-inflating camping mattresses are vulnerable to being pierced by thorns on that one night you’re not concentrating when pitching your tent. That’s why they’re all supplied with patch kits and glue (yes, you absolutely must bring it with you on your bike trip).

They’re also less durable than closed-cell foam mats due to the internal structure needed to turn pressurised air into a flat mattress shape, rather than a balloon. Use it every day and even the best inflatable mattress will eventually fail internally, resulting in that dreaded muffled ripping noise – always just as you’re getting ready to go to bed – and your mattress suddenly growing a giant balloon-like tumour.

A good reason many people do choose them is because they feel more comfortable to sleep on than closed-cell foam mats – indeed, for some, this might be the difference between a good night’s sleep and not being able to sleep at all.

Let’s look at the most popular inflatable camping mattresses and sleeping pads for cycle touring and bikepacking. All come recommended by riders with many years of real-world experience.

Alpkit Cloud Base (RRP £42)

The 415g Cloud Base from Alpkit is a lightweight, non-insulated mat designed to minimise pack space for a low price. Although the tapered foot end won’t please everyone, riders have positive things to say about the comfort provided by its 5cm of air cushioning.

Despite the 3‑year guarantee, durability can never be a priority for an ultralight mat at this price point, so consider it for casual and undemanding purposes such as short bikepacking trips rather than long-term expeditions.

Alpkit don’t provide an R‑value, but given the mat’s specifications you should consider it appropriate for 2–3‑season use, depending on how cold you sleep.

Klymit Static V (RRP £49/$55)

At 531g packed and with an R‑value of 1.3, Utah-based Klymit’s basic Static V model is heavier than other mattresses in this section, but it has a generous 6.4cm of loft, and a full-width foot end, making it a good choice for side-sleepers. 

Riders are particularly complimentary about the comfort provided by the V‑shaped air cells.

Durability is another strong point of this mat, as attested to by user reviews and also by the lifetime warranty, which few other mats in this category can boast.

It isn’t the lightest or most packable mattress in this section, but if you’re looking for a durable and comfortable summer inflatable sleeping pad, the Klymit Static V is a good choice.

The 680g Insulated Static V doubles the price and triples the insulating power, increasing the R‑value to 4.4 for all-season use.

Options include large, short, “lite”, “luxe”, double, hammock-specific; even “armoured” versions. Craziness.

Exped SynMat HL (RRP £150/$179)

Originally launched as the Exped HyperLite, the 365g SynMat HL from Exped was even lighter than the early versions of the XLite (see above) on its release, with none of the noise issues associated with the NeoAir range. Exped currently claim that this is ‘the world’s lightest mat at its warmth and comfort levels’.

With a generous 8cm of thickness and an insulated inner lining, riders rate this mat highly for comfort. Like other ultralight mats in this section, the heavily tapered design sacrifices versatility in favour of minimising weight and bulk: this mat is amazingly small and light when packed up.

The R‑value of 3.3 is a little lower than the XLite, its closest competitor, but still generous for 3‑season use. A few frosty nights would be perfectly tolerable on this for most.

Exped supply a carry sack and patch kit, and are following the trend for inflation sacks, which help combat the problems associated with moisture build-up inside inflatable camping mattresses.

The 430g Winter version increases the R‑value to 5.2, which Exped claim makes it ‘the lightest 4‑season sleeping mat on the planet’.

Size options include wide and long-wide versions. If you’re camping as a couple, there’s a Duo version of both the regular and winter models, which is twice the width and a little heaver than two individual mats.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite (RRP £170/$185)

Ever the pioneers, Therm-a-Rest launched the NeoAir XLite as the lightest and most packable sleeping pad ever in its class. I used one on my 2012 ride down the U.S. Pacific Coast and wrote a detailed review (read it here).

This 340g ultralight mattress is still lighter, more packable and better insulated than most of the competition in this category, with 6.4cm of thickness and an R‑value of 4.2 – and the high price reflects this level of performance.

The tapered foot end saves weight but limits sleeping space; this isn’t a great choice for side-sleepers or those who toss and turn.

One criticism levelled at the XLite is its long-term durability. Several veteran riders have reported delamination after a few years. Though Therm-a-Rest are known for honouring their lifetime warranty, it’s possible unrealistic expectations are in play here, as inflatable mats will always eventually delaminate under prolonged and intensive use.

Also of concern is the now-infamous noise the XLite makes when you lie on it! Some have described it as like lying on a packet of crisps (that’s British for ‘potato chips’, dear Americans). Whether or not this will bother you or your neighbours in the night is something only you can know.

As well as the regular pad, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite comes in short, large, wide, and women’s specific (ie: warmer and shorter) versions. The current version includes an inflation sack as well as a carry sack and patch kit.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm (RRP £205/$215)

The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm has the same form as the XLite (see above) but with upgraded insulation for camping on snow while climbing mountains, a slight weight increase, and a whopping price tag.

Weighing 430g and with an R‑value of 6.9, the XTherm has become popular with riders expecting all-season conditions who want to keep things as fast and light as possible – and who have loads of money to spend.

The same crunchy-sounding criticism applies as the XLite, but you can always wear earplugs if this starts to disturb you.

There are fewer sizing options for the XTherm than the XLite; regular and large versions only.

Side-sleepers and others who prefer space to spread out will appreciate the popular, rectangular MAX version, which also comes in large and wide sizes.

Exped DownMat 9 (RRP £195/$230)

For the ultimate in all-season camping luxury, the 895g Exped DownMat 9 is a 9cm thick, down-filled, inflatable mattress with an astronomical R‑value of 7.8. Exped say this translates into comfort at ‑38ºC for an average user.

(I used a thinner DownMat 7 at ‑33ºC on a winter ride through Norway and Sweden – watch the short film here – and can personally attest that they’re bloody warm.)

It’s far heavier than the rest of the mats in this category, but still relatively light for its amazing insulating power.

The updated version includes an inflation sack, which is particularly welcome in winter when drawing deep lungfuls of frozen air before bedtime is the last thing you should be doing.

If you’re looking for uncompromising comfort on a journey involving deep winter conditions, there’s little better in this niche than the DownMat.

With a 5‑year warranty, you can expect to get many years of use out of this (and for Exped to honour their guarantee).

Options include thinner 5cm and 7cm versions with lower R‑values, long and wide sizes, and UL (ultralight) editions.


The Best Self-Inflating Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Self-inflating camping mattresses combine an inflatable shell with an open-cell foam filling to give you a mattress with a firm internal structure plus pressurised air for added comfort and insulation.

You squash the air out when you roll it up for storage, and when you unroll it and open the valve the foam will expand to its original shape – hence, ‘self-inflating’, usually to around 60–80% of its capacity, after which you top it up manually.

Many riders find these mats more closely resemble the feel of a ‘real’ mattress, which is probably the most common reason to choose one. They also take a little less effort to set up, and retain some insulating properties if punctured.

Because the filling adds a little weight and a lot of extra volume when packed, they generally aren’t for the ultra-minimalists.

Let’s take a look at the most highly-recommended self-inflating camping mattresses for bike trips. For riders neither on a super-tight budget nor needing to absolutely minimise pack space, this is probably the most popular type of camping mattress for cycle touring.

Forclaz Trek 500 (RRP £25)

Europe-based riders on a tight budget could do a lot worse than Decathlon’s take on the classic self-inflating hikers’ camping mattress, the Forclaz Trek 500.

At less than half the price of the big-brand competition below, it’s unrealistic to expect too much. At 820g it’s relatively heavy, and the 2.5cm of thickness may be on the thin side for some people, but the R‑value of 2.3 will give a good measure of 3‑season insulation.

There’s an XL version available for £5 extra. Decathlon provide a 2‑year guarantee and are very good at refunding or replacing faulty items in-store with no questions asked.

MEC Reactor 3.8 (RRP CAD $90)

Riders starting out from Canada and looking for a no-nonsense self inflating mat at an accessible price could do far worse than MEC’s in-house offering.

At 690g, and with 3.8mm of padding and an R‑value of 3.4, it’s the most packable mat in the Reactor range, similar on paper to the ProLite Plus (see below) – a great all-rounder for all kinds of adventures, from summer through mild winter conditions.

It’s lightweight and small enough to pack away in the pannier, and if you do get a puncture, MEC throw in a patch kit too. Women’s-specific and ‘junior’ versions are also available.

  • Buy the MEC Reactor 3.8 from the MEC website or from any of their stores across Canada.

Therm-A-Rest ProLite (RRP $95/£105) & ProLite Plus (RRP $105/£100)

Another long-time classic from Therm-a-Rest, the ProLite has been on the market for literally decades. In fact, Therm-a-Rest claim to have singlehandedly invented the self-inflating camping mattress with this product. 

The ProLite has an earned a cult following of veteran users who claim to still be using the same mattress they bought in the ‘90s. Durability and reliability is one of the key selling points here. If you want a lightweight 3‑season self-inflating mat that you just know will work, get the ProLite (and the lifetime guarantee that comes with it).

Over the years, Therm-a-Rest have refined the design to make it ever more lightweight and packable, and now claim the current 510g version to be the lightest and most compact camping mattress in its class.

With an R‑value of 2.4, 2.5cm of thickness and a gently tapered design, this is a streamlined yet high-performance self-inflating pad which will occupy minimal pack space for a mattress in this category.

The 650g ProLite Plus increases insulation and comfort for 140g of extra weight, with 3.8cm of thickness and an R‑value of 3.2. If you’re planning a long-term ride in varying temperatures and you’ve got the pack space for a little more comfort, the tiny extra amount spent on the Plus will very likely pay off.

As with other Therm-a-Rest mats, short, regular, large sizes and women’s specific versions of the ProLite and ProLite Plus are available.

Exped SIM Lite 3.8 M (RRP £97/$109)

Out of Exped’s bewildering range of camping mattresses, the 740g SIM Lite 3.8 M represents the classic, durable, lightweight, tour-friendly, self-inflating sleeping pad.

With 3.8cm of thickness and a generous 3‑season R‑value of 3.2, it’s comparable in performance and comfort to the ProLite Plus. The 90g of extra weight gets you a rectangular (as opposed to tapered) shape; better for side sleepers and those who have luggage space for a little more luxury.

If you’re looking for a high-quality, comfortably-sized, medium-thickness, self-inflating mattress suitable for everything but deep winter conditions, this is well worth considering.

The UL (ultralight) version costs more, weighs less (580g), and is otherwise the same. Both come in LW (long-wide) and regular sizes.

Exped’s reputation for build quality and reliability is up there with Therm-a-Rest; their mats all come with a 5‑year guarantee.

Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. (RRP £120/$140)

Finally, I’ve included the 970g Comfort Plus S.I. from Australian gear manufacturer Sea To Summit as an example of a camping mattress on the luxurious end of the scale which is still light and packable enough to consider for a bike trip.

The whopping 8cm of thickness will fool you into thinking you’re in a real bed. The R‑value of 4.1 means you’ll stay warm even on frosty nights. Get the large rectangular version to spread out even more. Or get the 128cm-wide double version and bathe in luxury. Even if you’re alone.

The Comfort Plus S.I. (and comparable mattresses from other manufacturers) is for riders who seriously value a comfortable night’s sleep, and don’t mind carrying a little extra weight to get it.

  • Buy the Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. in the UK from Alpine Trek.
  • Buy the Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. in the USA from Backcountry.com or Moosejaw.
  • Buy the Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. in Canada from MEC.

Bonus: 14 Pro Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Your Camping Mattress

Once you’ve chosen your mat, there are a few clever ways to get the most out of it while cycle touring or bikepacking.

These are tips that take most people time and experience to discover, but I’ve listed a few here so you can leapfrog the learning process:

  1. If strapping a closed-cell foam mat to your bike, protect it from damage by using flat straps rather than regular bungee cords.
  2. Before setting up camp, lie down on top of your inner tent in the space you’re planning to put your mattress. If there are any rocks or other uncomfortable lumps underneath, now’s the time to find them.
  3. Always inspect your pitch closely for thorns to protect your inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress from punctures – particularly small ones, which are more difficult to find and repair.
  4. Particularly on long rides, you can protect an inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress by buying or making an additional protective groundsheet (aka: footprint) to go under your tent. Most tent manufacturers offer these as optional extras.
  5. If you’re using a self-inflating mat, unpack it and open the air intake valve upon arriving at camp. By the time you’ve finished pitching your tent, it will already be at 60–80% capacity.
  6. To get optimal comfort out of an inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress, inflate it fully, lie down on it in your usual sleeping position, then very slowly deflate it to your preferred softness.
  7. If you’re planning a very long trip with an inflatable or self-inflating mat, consider an inflation sack, which will prevent moisture from your breath building up inside the mattress, causing mould and mildew in the short term, and possible structural failure in the long term.
  8. Never fully inflate a mattress and then leave it in direct sunlight, as the heated air will expand and possibly damage the internal structure of your mat.
  9. If you find an inflatable mattress slowly deflating over the course of the night, you may have a slow puncture. Find it by inflating the mat, immersing it in a bathtub of water and looking for bubbles of escaping air.
  10. If no bathtub is available, drench it with a bucket of water mixed with washing-up liquid and look (and listen) for foaming bubbles.
  11. If you can’t find any punctures, check if a faulty valve is the cause of the air leak, using the same methods.
  12. If you’re stuck with a punctured inflatable mattress, gather dry grass, leaves, ferns and any other soft foliage into a big pile and pitch your tent on top of your “natural mattress”. You’ll need more than you think!
  13. As an additional measure, dig out that foil emergency blanket you packed and spread it out underneath your punctured mattress where your torso is going to be.
  14. Closed-cell foam mats make good protective under-layers for inflatables if you’re worried about punctures (and if you have the space), as well as adding extra insulation in cold weather.

Wow – that was a seriously long post! I think I need to go and lie down…

Categories
Equipment Technology

27 Incredibly Useful Free Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

While I firmly believe that your first bicycle adventure should be free from modern electronic devices, there are plenty of cycle tourists and bikepackers who pack a smartphone or tablet alongside their tent, stove and toolkit, and for good reason: they can come in bloody useful.

Smartphone technology moving as fast as it does, the app scene is constantly changing. This is my 2020 update of an article first published in 2012, detailing what in my opinion are the most useful free smartphone apps for the cycle tourist or bikepacker right now.

This is not another list of cycling navigation apps aiming to replace a GPS unit or a cycle computer. That list would be hundreds of entries long, and all the major cycling websites have published such articles in the competition for search engine traffic anyway. Where routing and navigation are concerned, I’ve chosen what I consider the top few apps right now, and the rest of the list is about apps for other aspects of life on two wheels than actually cycling.

I’ve included links to Android and iOS (iPhone/iPad) versions of each app wherever they exist, and broken the list down into eight handy categories covering navigation, weather, accommodation, transport, communication, photography, finance, and everything else.

Shall we begin?


Mapping, Route Planning & Navigation Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

There’s no single best app for cycle touring or bikepacking where mapping and navigation is concerned – and in any case, you may prefer paper maps, road signs, or just following your nose.

But if you do intend to use digital maps and possibly the navigation features that come with these apps, and you don’t already have a favourite that works for you, I would suggest trying a multi-pronged approach, playing to the strengths of each of the following apps and the coverage of the data that supports them, which tends to differ worldwide.

Unlike all those spam blog articles about cycling apps, I’ve actually used all of these apps on my own bike trips. Here’s my current pick of the bunch…


1. Google Maps (Android/iOS)

Google Maps is getting really good. Most of the world now features excellent mapping coverage, and the new vector maps are fast, detailed and attractive. If you’re hooked up with a data SIM card and you get good service throughout your ride, Google Maps may well do everything you need. In many places, bicycle-friendly routing is offered alongside directions for cars, and where it isn’t, using the walking directions will often offer you a low-traffic route between two places.

Many places allow you to download maps in the default style for offline use. But that’s about the limit of its offline functionality. It won’t cache the terrain view, which makes it difficult or impossible to estimate a route’s elevation profile if you don’t have a data connection. Nor can it store anything offline about points of interest other than their name. Routing also depends on being online – so while the base map may be cached, you’ll have to do your own navigation.

Pair Google Maps up with Street View if you want to explore places in VR before you get there. I only use this if I’m heading for a specific spot in a city, such as a Warmshowers host’s house, and want to visualise the location in advance.


2. Maps.Me (Android/iOS)

In the last couple of years, Maps.Me seems to have fought off masses of competition to become the go-to Google Maps alternative, and it’s easy to see why. It’s been focused specifically to fill the gaps left by Google in terms of offline mapping and routing, as well as representing the open data movement, and this is marketed as one of the app’s key features.

When you first start the app, you are prompted to download parts of the world region by region, starting with your current location. All of the app’s main functionality will then work offline, including bicycle-optimised routing. On my 2018 trip in Thailand, I used this feature daily and cross-referenced it with Google’s walking directions to plan most of my riding and find quiet, backroad routes across the country. You can also search offline for nearby points of interest such as cafes, grocery stores and lodgings.

It isn’t without its flaws. It depends on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) database to generate its maps, which makes it susceptible to coverage issues in less-visited regions, although not necessarily any more so than Google (and the same is true for other OSM-dependent apps).

My biggest gripe is that the map does not display any topographical data (contours, hillshading, elevation colour coding). This is partly compensated by a elevation profile generated along with the cycling and walking routes, without which I would struggle to recommend it.


3. BackCountry Navigator (Android only)

I’d also keep BackCountry Navigator installed if there are going to be any significant hills along the way. BCN features no routing or sat-nav style navigation features, being more oriented towards GPS users on foot in the backcountry, but the ability to download a variety of basemaps, including the OpenCycleMap and Thunderforest Outdoor styles, makes it invaluable for remote or mountainous rides.

Backcountry Navigator will also allow you to load in GPS tracks in various formats and overlay them on the basemap, as well as keeping a tracklog of your movements if you so desire.

  • Download BackCountry Navigator for: Android

4. ViewRanger (Android/iOS)

A previous version of this article recommended Wikitude as a very early example of an augmented reality (AR) app, in which you could point a compatible device’s camera at the landscape around you and the app put labels on what you were looking at. I would suggest ViewRanger as a more up-to-date alternative; specifically its Skyline feature which, as the name suggests, will attempt to label features of the landscape such as mountain peaks and lakes, place names, and other prominent waypoints.

Viewranger provides similar mapping functionality to Backcountry Navigator but for iOS too, and with the addition of a community feature that allows you to see what routes other users have uploaded in a given area. In popular regions, this might unearth some attractive routes that you may not otherwise have spotted when planning your ride.

Premium map packs that you can’t get for free (such as digital versions of the UK Ordnance Survey series) are available too at additional cost.


5. Soviet Military Maps (Android)

In places where OSM, Google and paper map coverage is sketchy, my fallback for many years has been the good old Soviet military maps, which, yes, were last updated during the Cold War, but cover the entire world at the 1:100–200K scales and offer a fantastic level of topographical detail. The paid version allows you to download them for offline use.

In some really off-grid parts of the world, these are still the best maps you can get. (I wish I’d known about these before I went to Mongolia…)

  • Download Soviet Military Maps Free for: Android
  • Download Soviet Military Maps Pro for: Android

6. Ride with GPS (Android/iOS)

Ride with GPS is perhaps the most cycle computer-esque of all the apps listed in this section, finding favour in the long distance cycling community, particularly bikepackers – indeed, Bikepacking.com use it as their preferred platform for delivering routes.

If you’re keen to track, analyse and share your rides, Ride with GPS is as good a place as any to do so. (See also Komoot below.)


7. komoot (Android/iOS)

komoot (with a small ‘k’) has one of the most powerful routing algorithms of any of the apps in this list. Rather than hosting a database of user-submitted routes, komoot uses OpenStreetMap data to calculate an optimal route (via any number of points) for road cycling, touring, or mountain biking.

It has some nice social features, too, which encourage you to record and share the best of your discoveries. Users can submit highlights that show up on future route plans if the community rates them highly enough. Read my full write-up of komoot here. This is my personal favourite of all the apps in this category when I’m exploring new places.


Weather Apps For Cycle Touring

It’s good practice to check the weather outlook before setting off on a ride. In circumstances when a change of weather would bring about greater risks, it’s critical for a safe and enjoyable ride. These apps will help with that:


8. Windy (Android/iOS)

I’ve tuned into the finer details of the weather in recent years as a result of spending too much time in the mountains, and this has spilled over into cycle touring. In terms of sheer quantity and range of data, nothing I’m aware of beats Windy, which visualises almost every weather factor you could ask for on an interactive map.

If you’re into making your own forecasts or want an in-depth perspective on what you’re seeing and experiencing, give Windy a data connection and it will give you pretty much all the information you could wish for.


9. Yr.no (Android/iOS)

Alternatively if you just want a local forecast at a useful level of detail for the outdoorsperson, the Norwegian weather agency’s official app seems still to be the most cited option.


Accommodation Apps For Cycle Touring

When you’re ready for a night off, here’s a few apps that might make finding a bed (or campsite) that much easier:


10. iOverlander (Android/iOS)

Mainly aimed at motorised travellers, iOverlander’s app is still of relevance to the cyclist, mainly because it’s the closest thing to a ‘wild camping app’ in existence. It’s a user-generated global database of points of interest – including vehicle- and bike-friendly hostels, campsites and wild camping sites (as well as Land Rover mechanics!) – with a very active community behind it. It’s volunteer-run, so consider a donation if you find it useful.


11. Booking.com (Android/iOS)

Booking.com* features the widest range of hotels and guesthouses in many parts of the world. Be aware, however, of the tactics this app will use to make you feel like you have to book right now or the universe will implode.

Know also that they charge accommodation providers a lot – if you want to support small businesses over massive corporations, it might be better to do your research here but then walk in and pay cash.

They aren’t always the cheapest: in South East Asia, for example, the Singapore-based Agoda is often a better bet.


12. Hostelworld (Android/iOS)

Low-budget hostels are underrepresented at Booking.com (perhaps because they can’t afford the fees), but Hostelworld steps in to fill this niche. Especially in the West, you’ll find way more cheap beds here than through the usual booking sites.

(I previously recommended HostelBookers, but with the app not updated for over two years and with ratings sliding down the charts, I can feel a shutdown coming soon.)


13. AirBnb (Android/iOS)

Though it’s by no means the quirky and inexpensive alternative it used to be, AirBnb is still worth checking out, particularly if you want your own self-catering apartment for a few days off, or if you like the B&B experience as it used to be (i.e. an actual person hosts you in their home and cooks you breakfast).

Sign up through this referral link* to get £25 in credit towards your first stay, then install the app to search for options and make your bookings.


14. WarmShowers (Android/iOS)

The original cycle touring hospitality exchange platform might not have taken off quite like Couchsurfing did post-buyout, but it didn’t really need to (and many would argue it was for the best anyway). The much-improved current version of the WarmShowers app makes searching for willing hosts that much easier, with an interface that’s arguably better and more user-friendly than the website itself. The map search function is particularly useful.

While the distribution of hosts is not exactly even in a global sense, it’s always worth looking at the map to see who’s about on any given route. I’ll continue flying the flag for WarmShowers for as long as it exists and I’m still riding my bicycle, just because I love the spirit of it.


15. Couchsurfing (Android/iOS)

Where WarmShowers hosts have not yet reached, Couchsurfing is still there with its however-many-million users, and if you can be bothered to wade through the oceans of inactive profiles and unresponsive hosts you might still find someone cool to stay with. The lack of a map search is a woeful omission, but most other aspects of the app interface are fine.

Personally, I use CS more now to meet travellers and locals for a drink and a wander in a new city than to find a host, for which I either use WarmShowers (see above) or – now I’ve been on the road a few years – ask around my networks and usually end up finding a friend of a friend to stay with.

If you do use it to find a host, make sure they know you’re showing up on a rather expensive bicycle and that you probably won’t want to leave it locked to the fence outside!


Travel & Transport Apps For Cycle Touring

Sometimes – oftentimes – you need to take a plane, train or bus to get yourself and your bike from A to B before or after you ride it. That’s where the following apps may come in handy.


16. Kayak (Android/iOS)

When it comes to searching for and booking flights, I tend to default to Kayak, mainly for its extensive filtering capabilities, as well as because it usually turns up the cheapest tickets, especially if your dates are flexible.

Of particular interest to the cycle tourist is the ability to filter by airline, which as we all know can make a huge difference at the check-in desk depending on the baggage policy of the carrier in question (a topic for another article, perhaps).

Kayak is mainly just a search aggregator – you have to click through and book elsewhere, though they have started selling tickets direct now too.


17. TripIt (Android/iOS)

Allow TripIt access to your inbox and it will pull in confirmation emails for flights, hotels and what have you and spit out a simplified, offline-accessible itinerary with all the details you’re likely to need while you’re in transit.


Communications Apps For Cycle Touring

You’ll be wanting to communicate while you’re on the road, both to the people you meet and to the people back home. Guess what? There’s an app for that…


18. Signal / WhatsApp / Viber / Telegram (Android/iOS)

I’ve listed four phone number-based instant messaging apps here because, at the time of writing, three of them predominate depending on what country you’re in, and one of them won’t sell your data (Signal).

If you’re heading round the world on a bike and you plan to communicate with locals as you go, as well as friends and family back home, best install all of them.

Such is the competitive nature of this market that other apps are likely to replace those listed in future years.


Google Translate (Android/iOS)

Yes, I’m listing Google Translate as a communications app, but for real-life face to face communication with people who don’t speak your language.

It won’t be long before you’re both wearing earpieces and receiving simultaneous translations as you converse freely in your native tongues, but while we’re waiting for that to happen, Translate does allow you to download offline translation dictionaries for a huge number of languages, and the accuracy is only improving.

Rotate your phone to landscape orientation and the word or phrase you’ve translated will be enlarged to fullscreen, allowing you to brandish it at a roadside noodle stand while trying to order a stir-fry with ‘no onions’ in it.


Finance Apps For Cycle Touring

Here are a few selections on the financial end of things, which may ease your pedal-powered wheelings (sorry, couldn’t resist) and dealings:


19. XE Currency (Android/iOS)

Based on the highly popular xe.com currency exchange website, the XE Currency app will allow you to choose a handful of currencies and convert between them all at the latest mid-market rates.

I mainly find this useful to ensure I’m not getting ripped off by money-changers, but also to watch for spikes in conversion rates that may affect my travel budget (other Brits abroad may remember 23rd June 2016 particularly well).


20. Toshl (Android/iOS)

My travels of late have tended to involve a slightly more complicated financial picture than the ‘spend as little as possible, preferably nothing’ approach of my earlier cycle tours. To track and visualise what I’m spending, I use an expense tracking app called Toshl, into which I spend a few minutes each day putting my expenses.

For someone who was more or less financially illiterate, this has shed a remarkable amount of light on the actual flow of funds through my travel activities and, in turn, helped me adapt my ways to better fit my means.

If keeping track of travel money is a source of stress for you, I would highly recommend starting to use a simple tracking app such as Toshl as the first step towards a remedy. It can also simply produce an interesting summary of the financial aspect of your journeys, which I’m planning to demonstrate in a future article.


21. Starling (Android/iOS) [UK only]

The UK’s newest fee-free overseas spending debit card provider, Starling Bank, relies on this app to communicate with its customers. Though technically not just an app but also a bank account, I’m including it here because of its particular relevance to the bicycle traveller looking to keep their overseas card withdrawal and spending fees down.

Here’s a full write-up of my experience with Starling if you’re keen to read more.

  • Download the Starling app and sign up for an account here.

Photography Apps For Cycle Touring

Most new smartphones come with absurdly good cameras, sensors, processing algorithms and editing software built-in, so I no longer consider any third party app truly essential in the photography department. Keeping your photos backed up is another story, however…


22. Google Photos (Android/iOS)

My main reason for including Google Photos here is for its automatic backup feature, which upon detecting a WiFi connection will upload in the background all the photos you’ve taken since the last backup, storing them in your combined Google Drive / Photos account.

In its free incarnation, this will store 15GB of your original resolution photos and an unlimited number of compressed but nevertheless high quality versions of the same (you can choose which in the app settings). You can pay to upgrade to a 100GB or 1TB capacity account if you need it.

Plug a card reader into your phone or otherwise connect with a compatible ‘proper’ camera, copy the images over, and it’ll do the same thing. Really this is about safeguarding your images, rather than photography per se (and you do care about having backups, don’t you?).


23. Dropbox (Android / iOS)

If everything being Google-oriented isn’t your bag, the Dropbox app will perform exactly the same backup function via its Camera Uploads feature, though I find Google’s web interface and in-app editing features more appealing. Again, free and paid options differ mainly in terms of the amount of storage you get.


Other Apps For Cycle Touring

Finally, I’ve come across many other useful apps that just don’t quite fit into any of the other categories. Here are a few:


24. AccuBattery (Android)

AccuBattery will give you detailed stats on your phone’s power consumption, including estimates of how long it’ll currently last with the current fleet of running apps; useful when you don’t know where the next charging opportunity is going to be. It’ll also prompt you to disconnect your charger at a level that’ll reduce battery wear and help prolong its life.


25. Sky Map (Android)

I’ll probably never learn the constellations unless I actually need to navigate by them, but the Sky Map app is great fun when you’re lying out under a starry sky and you want to identify what you’re looking at. It’s also great for picking out other celestial bodies when they’re visible to the naked eye.


26. AnkiDroid / AnkiMobile (Android/iOS)

The apps accompanying the open-source flashcard platform Anki allow you to memorise things effectively on the go via the proven learning technique of spaced repetition. I find it particularly useful for language learning, memorising words, phrases, alphabets, and the like. The open platform gives you access to shared, community-created ‘decks’ of cards covering most such topics.

The Android app is free; the iOS equivalent is paid and the revenue supports the broader Anki project.

  • Download AnkiDroid for: Android
  • Download AnkiMobile for: iOS

27. A Trusted VPN App

Ride for long enough and you’ll inevitably reach a country where some website or app or service you rely on has been blocked by the government. Pre-empt this by installing a VPN (virtual private network) app and setting it up in advance.

What these services essentially do is make it look like you’re accessing the internet from somewhere else, encrypting your data in such a way that your actual whereabouts is untraceable.

There are thousands of free VPN apps out there, most of which are full of malware and security holes and whose developers are out to sell your browsing data to the highest bidder. Avoid those and choose one of the recommendations audited by a trusted site with a reputation worth losing. I haven’t included any specific recommendations here as they change so frequently, but TechRadar have an updated list for 2019.


That’s it for 2020’s cycle touring and bikepacking app selections! Any I’ve missed that you’d consider particularly useful to the adventurous rider?

(And just to reiterate: for your first trip, leave all this stuff behind.)