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
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.)

Categories
Equipment Planning & Logistics

Do I Really Need Ortliebs? A Buyer’s Guide To Panniers For Cycle Tours & Expeditions

Last updated in November 2020.

One day in 1884, Thomas Stevens left California on a penny farthing and, carrying a bag of gold and a pistol rolled up in a blanket, became the first man in recorded history to cycle round the world.

Today, we bicycle travellers tend to leave precious metals and firearms at home, instead packing a bewildering array of other, more practical equipment.

That’s because we expect to enjoy seeing the world by bicycle, rather than bribing and bullying our way around as Stevens often did. The equipment available today – ultralight tents, portable camping stoves, specialised bicycle tools, and a whole lot more – makes life on the road not just tolerable but sometimes even fun!

To carry all this gear, most of us will be riding a touring bike carrying a set of panniers – the traditional luggage of cycle tourists for more than a century.

A scene every experienced rider will be familiar with: rebuilding bikes and attaching panniers in the arrivals hall of a faraway international airport.

This article is all about how to choose a set of panniers that’ll fit your budget, your style of touring, and the equipment and supplies you’re carrying with you.

It’s based not just on my own 14 years of cycle touring experience but that of countless veteran riders who I’ve cycled alongside and interrogated about their own gear setups, with the goal of creating the most balanced pannier buying guide possible (no pun intended).

Alongside the detailed listings of the best panniers on the market right now, I’ll include direct links to manufacturers’ webpages and buying links for retailers in Europe and North America (affiliate links are identified with an asterisk; click here to read my full affiliate policy).

But I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge, so let’s start by laying out the basics about panniers for cycle touring before we dive into the details.

What Exactly Are Bicycle Panniers?

Touring panniers needn’t be a fashion accessory, but now Brooks have entered the market they’re starting to become one.

Panniers are purpose-made bags designed to be hung off the sides of a bicycle or motorbike (or, originally, slung over a pack animal). They are almost always designed to be used in pairs, for what I hope are obvious reasons of balance and stability.

Do I Need Two Or Four Panniers (Or Something Else)?

Literally a ‘classic’ setup – two pairs of Ortlieb Classic panniers on front and rear racks.

The traditional setup for long-distance cycle touring is four panniers – a small pair at the front and a larger pair at the rear – plus a handlebar bag and a few other bits.

This is simply because, when you make a list of everything you’d need for a transcontinental or round-the-world ride, buy it all, and try to fit it onto a bike – it usually fills four panniers.

If you can live with the compromises of packing light, a single pair of rear panniers can suffice for fair-weather road trips of many months.

Two rear panniers can easily suffice for undemanding trips, such a summer ride in the developed world with bike shops and campsites aplenty.

You might also make two rear panniers work in the longer term with a more minimal approach to packing, especially as camping equipment grows ever lighter and more packable. You’ll often see more experienced riders taking this approach, because they’ve spent a long time learning what they don’t need.

Combining bikepacking bags with a small pair of panniers is a good way to achieve a nimble and versatile road touring setup.

Increasingly you’ll also see a hybrid approach, with panniers supplemented by bikepacking luggage. The panniers can be removed and stored temporarily for shorter side trips on dirt roads, allowing more flexibility over the traditional setup.

In any case, you’ll rarely see panniers used exclusively as a means of storing belongings and supplies. They’re almost always used alongside rack-top drybags, baskets, bar-bags, backpacks, or other more easily accessible bags which don’t require dismounting and unpacking everything just to find one commonly-used item.

I am yet to meet a more fully-loaded cycle touring couple than Katya and Mirko.

Sometimes, in very special cases such as deep winter, desert crossings, or other extremely remote rides, or just because you want to bring your guitar and jewellery-making kit, you might consider a trailer instead of (or as well as) panniers, which is a topic I’ve covered elsewhere.

How Do Cycle Touring Panniers Vary In Design?

There are as many ways to utilise a rear carrier rack as there are cycle tourists!

Bicycle panniers for cycle touring (as opposed to panniers for, say, grocery shopping) come in a variety of sizes, colours and materials, and are generally labelled as ‘front’ or ‘rear’. They usually (though not always) are sold in pairs, sometimes with differences between left and right, and sometimes without.

Front panniers tend to be smaller, and for good reason: whatever weight you’re carrying on the front wheel will feed directly into the steering and handling of your bike. Lighter is therefore better, particularly on rough roads.

A typical front pannier might have a 10–15 litre capacity (ie: 20–30 litres per pair). Larger panniers at the front would also be at risk of hitting the down-tube of the bike (or even the ground) when turning sharply, or interfering with disc brakes.

Rear panniers tend to have about twice the capacity; anything from 20–30 litres each (ie: 40–60 litres per pair). Tandem panniers can be even bigger.

As mentioned above, a single pair of rear panniers might suffice for even the longest trips if packed thoughtfully with lightweight gear.

What Kind Of Pannier Rack Attachment Systems Are There?

Brooks’ high-end panniers use tried and tested Ortlieb mounting hardware.

A variety of attachment systems exist, but they almost all make use of a pair of hooked clips attached the back of each pannier, allowing them to be hung from the rack tubing, plus some kind of adjustable retaining tab on the back of each pannier to hook around the rack tubing and stop them swinging about.

Although pairs of panniers can be identical out of the box, setting up the attachments to fit your racks will usually result in them being configured as ‘left’ and ‘right’ panniers from that point forward.

Riding the Zagros Mountains of Iran with two pairs of all-in-one panniers we borrowed from an Iranian cyclist in Esfahan.

You’ll occasionally see a pair of panniers attached together with a strip of fabric between them, the whole of which is then slung over the rack.

As a general rule, don’t buy these unless it’s the only thing you can get, as this style is far less durable and versatile than individual panniers and rack mounts.

What Materials Are Panniers Made From?

In terms of design and construction material, there are two main categories of pannier: fully waterproof and semi- or non-waterproof.

Riding off-road in northern Mongolia with an Extrawheel Voyager single-wheel trailer and two large pairs of panniers.

Fully waterproof panniers are usually made of laminated fabric with sealed seams, often using the same ‘roll-top’ closure system found in drybags for paddlesports. As with any waterproof gear, you should always pack a simple repair kit – a length of Gaffa Tape at the very least, or perhaps a roll of Tenacious Tape.

Non-waterproof panniers are usually made of canvas and have backpack-style lids with zips or buckles, and have some degree of water resistance and/or a waterproof plate on the rear to protect against road spray. The repair kit you should pack for this type of pannier is a heavy-duty needle and thread.

(As for which type is better, we’ll come to that later on, as it’s not a simple answer.)

Some people get hung up on the colour of the material. There’s an argument that black waterproof panniers in sunny climates will heat your belongings more than white ones. Conversely, some people think high-visibility panniers are better for safety.

Personally, I don’t believe there’s much practical difference. If it’s hot, it’s hot, and you – the rider – should always be more visible than your panniers. From my point of view, feel free to choose whatever colour panniers you like, and make a hi-viz vest the first thing you put in them.

This is a ‘concept’ bike I saw at Eurovelo 2014. Almost nobody would actually choose to ride something like this.

In short, there’s a lot of variety out there. There are, however, a few specific makes and models of bicycle pannier that have proven themselves over many decades on very long and demanding tours.

We’ll start, however, by looking at basic, budget-friendly panniers, and work our way up to durable and hard-wearing panniers capable of withstanding years of constant daily use.


No-Budget Panniers For Cycle Touring

Somewhere in Cornwall at the start of my #FreeLEJOG money-free ride to Scotland, with a scrapyard bike and a donated pair of panniers.

For the most ultra-low-budget of trips, you are very welcome to stop reading this article, take whatever cheap or free second-hand panniers you can find on eBay*, Freecycle, Gumtree, or get donated or lent to you, add a basic sewing kit, a roll of Gaffa Tape, some cable ties and a few plastic carrier bags, and leave.

I did this in 2013, wrote a detailed article about it, then cycled the length of England to prove they worked.

Panniers can be made at home using cheap plastic cool-boxes and some basic hardware. Photo © Jamie Bowlby-Whiting

If you’re good at DIY, consider making your own panniers.

Rectangular buckets with lids are available from hardware stores and pet shops and can be converted into panniers with a few commonly available fixings. Cool-boxes have travelled across continents in the same way (see photo above). The REI blog has a lengthy and useful post on making your own DIY bucket panniers*.


Cheap Panniers For Cycle Touring

Light summer touring in Europe is perfectly possible with a pair of cheap and simple canvas panniers from Halfords.

When it comes to cheap panniers at the bottom end of the market, a trip to any mainstream bike shop or outdoor retailer (eg: Go Outdoors or Decathlon in the UK, REI in the USA, or MEC in Canada) will demonstrate the endless options in this category.

None can really be said to be better or worse than any other, due to the lack of substantial documentary evidence besides customer reviews (which should always be taken with a pinch of salt).

To help you choose reasonably durable cheap panniers, and keep them on the road as long as possible, here are a few tips:

  • Cheap panniers are often aimed at commuters and shoppers, rather than cycle tourists, so see if you can find something that at least claims to be designed for touring use.
  • Avoid anything that relies on zips for closure of the main compartment, as cheap zips are liable to break. Go for something with straps and buckles/clips instead.
  • Avoid cheap and flimsy ‘waterproof’ material in favour of real fabric, then waterproof everything inside the panniers with carrier bags or drybags as necessary.
  • Consider buying or making waterproof pannier covers, which are essentially giant elasticated shower caps; they’ll get you to the next shelter (especially when paired with an effective mudguard to stop road-spray soaking the bags from behind).
  • Finally, pack a sewing kit, Gaffa Tape, and cable ties. I know I’m repeating myself, the point being that you can save a lot of money and solve a lot of problems with a pragmatic attitude.

Recognisable budget brands in the UK and Europe include Altura, Topeak, and B’Twin (Decathlon’s in-house cycling brand).

What you’re looking for at this end of the spectrum is a capacity that matches your packing needs, compatibility with your racks, and as few things to go wrong as possible.

All-in-one pannier pairs are probably the last thing you should choose for a tour – unless it’s literally all you can get.

Of course, if it’s a simple question of what you can beg, borrow or steal, anything is better than nothing!


Mid-Range Panniers For Cycle Touring

There are a few mid-range models of pannier that don’t quite meet the criteria for high-end expedition panniers but have nevertheless been shown to cope well with some very long and arduous bicycle journeys. Here I’ll list a few of the best known examples, as well as introducing a couple of lesser known brands that show promise in this category.

Crosso Dry (Poland, £55/£60 front/rear)

A pair of Crosso Dry 30-litre front panniers mounted on the rear rack of a Kona Sutra touring bike.

Crosso is a Polish company which has been manufacturing panniers commercially since 2006. If you’re based in Europe and can find a retailer, they make for a good option in the mid range, being considerably cheaper than the big-brand panniers. They’re quite basic in terms of design and materials, but in many ways this is a good thing, and they will serve you well if you look after them. (I’ve had a pair for 9 years which I’m still happily using after a few repairs.)

The waterproof Dry panniers come in front/universal and rear pairs with a capacity of 30 and 60 litres per pair respectively, with roll-top closures and welded seams, and a choice of 10 colours.

Full Crosso touring luggage on an island-hopping ride through southern Thailand.

The standard attachment system features two fixed steel hooks at the top, with an inverted hook on an elasticated strap at the bottom to secure the pannier in place. Once you get used to the system it is very easy to mount and dismount the panniers, and it’s surprisingly stable.

Not all racks have a lower horizontal rail to attach the bottom hook, so there is also the more expensive Click option, using traditional-style fixtures from German company Rixen+Kaul (who make the popular and widespread KlickFix system). These might be a better choice for extremely long journeys as the fixtures are replaceable.

Carradice CarraDry (UK, £55/£85 front/rear)

Carradice’s CarraDry panniers are waterproof, feature a generous capacity (58 litres per pair at the rear) and are very good value for money. They share a mounting system with the heavy duty Super C expedition panniers (below).

Though they can’t be described as 100% watertight, with a lidded drawstring closure system rather than a roll-top drybag-style closure, they’re made of a similar laminated synthetic waterproof fabric as the other panniers in this section, with welded seams and waterproof zips, which will still keep out the heaviest rain. Like other Carradice products, they feature outer pockets as well as the main compartment.

The CarraDry might be a good choice if you’re looking for a high quality pair of waterproof panniers (and you don’t plan on floating them across deep rivers), but your budget can’t quite stretch to the top-end Ortliebs.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller City (Global, €85/€95 front/rear)

The City series of Ortlieb panniers is a budget version of the Classic/Plus series usually chosen for touring (see below). The City is marketed to commuters, but in reality they are more or less the same as the higher end Ortliebs in terms of shape, capacity, waterproofing and construction materials, made slightly lighter and quite a bit cheaper by a couple of missing features.

So what do you lose by saving some cash? Aside from the limited choice of colours, the main downgrade is to the full roll-top closure. Instead, the buckles attach to clips on the sides of the pannier, and there’s no extra cinch strap over the top. This is a less flexible setup with a variable sized load, one less element of security for the contents.

There is also no shoulder strap or inner pocket, though neither of those are hugely important for touring. The rack attachment system is the slightly older QuickLock1 mechanism, previously used on Classic/Plus panniers which are still going strong after decades – again, not a huge issue.

On the plus side, all of this reduces the overall weight; 760g per pannier for the City as opposed to 950g for the Classic. And, as mentioned, it reduces the price too.

In my opinion, the extra versatility and feature set of the Classic/Plus panniers is probably worth the extra money if you’re already looking at panniers of this kind of quality. If you’re commuting with a pair of City panniers already and thinking about a tour, however, you’ll get on absolutely fine with them.

Alpkit Tolari (£70/£80/£90 24/40/60l pairs)

Relatively new on the UK scene is the waterproof Tolari pannier range from direct retailer Alpkit. If the quality of the rest of their products is anything to go by, they’ll prove durable and well-made, which is why I’ve included them here, but it’s important to say that they are as-yet untested on multi-year expeditions.

Available in three sizes (12/20/30 litres per pannier) in a single graphite colour and sold individually, they’ll probably be of most interest to brand loyalists, being about the same price as the Ortlieb City panniers whose reputation will likely win more buyers.

  • Buy Alpkit Tolari panniers direct from Alpkit in the UK, with worldwide shipping also available.

MEC World Tour (CAD $180/200 front/rear)

Canadian outdoor equipment retail cooperative MEC has been outfitting adventurers since 1971. Their World Tour bicycle panniers, available in 20- and 30-litre capacities for front and rear use, are a solid and reasonably-priced mid-range option.

Simply designed with one main compartment plus a small front pocket, the panniers are water-resistant, although not fully waterproof – MEC does offer optional rain covers if you want more protection from the elements, as well as a wide selection of dry bags for the contents.

The widely-used Rixen and Kaul hook mounting system is easy to work with and compatible with almost all racks and carriers, and the designers have also incorporated extra gear loops on top of the pannier – useful for strapping on extra bits that you might pick up on the road.

If you’re based in or starting a tour from Canada, the MEC World Tour pannier is a decent option if you want something simple, durable and very functional without putting a huge dent in your bank balance.


The All-Time Best Expedition Panniers For Cycle Touring

Here we’re going to look in detail at panniers that have at least a decade (often two or more) of proven and documented reputation as being suitable for long-haul rides. I’m talking multi-year, round-the-world odysseys with a single set of bags. That kind of ‘long-haul’.

A full set of Ortlieb Plus panniers mounted on a Ridgeback Panorama touring bike, ready for a round-the-world adventure. Photo © Tim Moss / TheNextChallenge.org

As you might expect, the biggest concern at this end of the market is durability. Panniers take a lot of abuse, and not just the bag material – it’s also where fabric and rack mounts meet that forces will be concentrated over thousands of miles of bumpy roads.

Holes in canvas can be repaired with a sewing kit, and waterproof material can be patched with Aquaseal, Tenacious Tape, Gaffa Tape, even puncture patches, all of which are part of a more general gear first-aid kit. Broken attachment systems are harder problems to solve. Buying top-quality panniers from a tried-and-tested brand will largely – though never entirely – negate this risk.

The same pannier-buying considerations apply to expedition panniers as they do to budget ones. Are they compatible with the racks on your bike? And are they appropriately sized for the gear you’ll be carrying, plus food space?

Four large Crosso panniers, a cargo trailer and a giant dry-bag were needed to carry the gear necessary for a deep winter expedition into northern Lapland.

As mentioned at the start of this article, many of today’s bicycle travellers could get away with two large rear panniers, a varying rack-top bundle and a bar-bag. Packing for a round-the-world ride traditionally calls for four panniers – a smaller pair of panniers at the front and a larger pair at the rear – because any trip years in length will inevitably require flexibility.

You’re unlikely to know exactly what your capacity requirements are until you’ve got your gear laid out in front of you, but as a rule it’s better to distribute weight evenly and have a little extra space than to be overloading your bags and having an unbalanced bike.

Remember that – regardless of ‘official’ capacity rating – most roll-top or buckle-lidded panniers will cinch down or expand a certain amount to accommodate what’s inside.

A very typical luggage setup for a long-haul touring cyclist, consisting of two small panniers at the front, two large panniers at the rear, a bar-bag, and a rack-mounted drysack.

OK! Let’s look at the all-time best expedition panniers available today that have accumulated the most miles around the world on tours of every length, location and level of challenge. (All the RRPs I’ve listed below are per pair.)


Ortlieb Cycle Touring Panniers

Let’s get this out of the way: the single most interesting thing about Ortlieb’s range of roll-top waterproof panniers is that they’re the most popular of all the panniers being used on world-ranging tours.

Indeed, in a highly unscientific Twitter survey I conducted while first researching this article, about ⅔ of respondents used Ortliebs.

Seeing everyone using them attracts more people to buy them, and then claim that they’re the “only choice” despite never having used anything else. And so the inertia continues.

Of course, about ⅓ of respondents didn’t use Ortliebs, yet somehow were still perfectly happy.

So: do you really need Ortliebs?

Well, there’s no doubt that they make very good panniers. They’re about the right size for most users. They’re available in a choice of colours. They’re compatible with most touring racks. They’re durable (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring a repair kit), and come with a 5‑year warranty. And they’re in the same price range as most of the other expedition panniers in this list.

In short: the price is competitive and they’re proven to work. You certainly don’t need them, but they’re highly unlikely to disappoint you.

(By the way, second-hand Ortlieb panniers are prime for being snapped up for cheap in early spring, because they’re the kind of thing people buy in January when resolving to start cycling to work and a few weeks later sell barely-used on eBay. Take advantage*.)

Ortlieb panniers come in several varieties. Let’s look at those of most interest to bicycle travellers.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller Plus (Global, €125/€145)

A classic combo: Ortlieb Back-Roller Plus rear panniers mounted on a Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike.

If there was a Standard Issue Cycle-Round-The-World Kit (now there’s an idea), it would probably include a pair of Ortlieb Sport-Roller Plus (formerly known as Front-Roller Plus) panniers at the front and a pair of Ortlieb Back-Roller Plus at the rear of the bike, all in matching his-and-hers colours.

At 25 litres per pair for the Sport-Rollers and 40 litres per pair for the Back-Rollers, they’re slightly smaller in rated capacity than other panniers in this list. As with all roll-top panniers, however, you can make fewer rolls when closing them to create more space.

The buckles at the top can either be clipped together, as with a regular drybag, or clipped into a carry strap which then secures to the front of the pannier via a retaining tab near the bottom edge. For additional peace of mind when overloaded, another short strap can be fastened over the top of the closed pannier.

Other useful features include a small handle attached to the rack mounting points for easy attachment and removal of the pannier to the rack, and a removable pouch attached to the backing plate on the inside of the pannier for flat items such as travel documents and diaries.

The current version of the Plus panniers makes use of the QuickLock2.1 attachment system, which is an updated version of Ortlieb’s original system with broader compatibility with the range of racks on the market today (this includes the popular Tubus racks, if you’re wondering). With this system, the hooks are locked in place by sprung retainers, which are released when you pull up on the grab handle for easy removal. Inserts are supplied for different rack tubing diameters to ensure a secure, rattle-free fit.

What distinguishes the Plus series from the Classic series (see below) is the fabric used in their construction: a high-grade Cordura-branded nylon weave which is laminated on the inside. This makes the outer surface almost as abrasion-resistant as a canvas pannier, while remaining waterproof due to the laminated inner. As weave is less dense than laminate, the Plus is therefore slightly lighter than the Classic; 840g per rear pannier as compared to 950g.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller Classic (Global, €110/€130)

A full set of well-worn Ortlieb Classic panniers, having made it from the UK to Thailand.

Slightly heavier, cheaper and less abrasion-resistant, going for the wipe-clean Ortlieb Sport-Roller Classic and Back-Roller Classic will save you a few days’ food budget whilst still giving you the sleep-easy feeling of ‘having Ortliebs’. As noted above, the fabric used in construction is a lighter and slightly more basic double-laminated polyester. Besides this, every other aspect is the same.

(It’s worth noting that I have never heard of anyone buying the Classics and then later wishing they’d bought the Pluses. Apart from that guy in the comments. There’s always one.)

Ortlieb ‘Pro’ Variants

The Ortlieb Sport-Roller and Back-Roller Plus/Classic panniers above are available in a further variation: Pro.

What makes them ‘professional’? They’re bigger. Instead of 40 litres per pair, you get a whopping 70 litres of capacity.

Can your rack handle that amount of weight? Does your bike have enough heel clearance? Do you need an extra 30 litres of pannier space? 

Truth is, the people who’d benefit most from these panniers would be tandem riders (which is who they’re made for), and perhaps people biking in deep winter. The rest of us can just strap a 30-litre drybag to the rear rack and only fill it when necessary.


Carradice Super C (UK, £95/£120 front/rear)

A pair of Carradice Super C rear panniers soaking up the dust in the Sudanese Sahara.

Carradice’s Super C range is a classic line of British hand-made bags and panniers, the designs changing little in decades. (I’ve had a pair of the rear panniers hanging off my own touring bike for 12 years and counting.)

Stitched from heavy-duty waxed ‘cotton duck’ canvas of the type used for military kit and old-school tents, they’re far more resistant to abrasion than waterproof panniers with laminated fabrics or even synthetic canvas. You’ll hear stories of pairs of Super Cs being used for upwards of 30 years, by which time Ortliebs will be straining your tea, so if it’s pure longevity you’re after, they’re some of the best panniers going.

The front (or ‘universal’) panniers have a capacity of 28 litres per pair and, aside from the removable fixtures, are symmetrical in design, with one large main compartment and a small outside pocket in which I might be tempted to store a few snacks. The rear panniers have a capacity of 54 litres per pair, with an outside pocket at the rear. Both sizes have buckled lids with adjustable straps, in addition to a drawstring for the main compartment.

Carradice’s attachment system, based on two self-locking hooks along the top inside edge of the bag and with a retaining tab on the rear, has proven its durability on many a round-the-world tour. The fixtures are very adjustable, making them compatible with a wide variety of racks (adapters are available for rack tubing thicker than 13mm), and enabling them to be shifted back a long way for heel clearance. These fixtures are removable – always a good idea when transporting the panniers on planes, trains and buses.

What they are not is 100% watertight. Although the waxed canvas will keep any amount of rain out, it will eventually absorb water if fully immersed, and the lidded closure system will never be as watertight as a roll-top pannier, as discussed above.

Despite this, they are supremely durable receptacles for the (drybagged) gear you’ll keep inside, and I’ve never come across anyone who regretted buying them.

As an example of an ultra-durable canvas pannier, the Carradice Super Cs are certainly the best in the UK, with one of the longest heritages of any pannier on the market.


Vaude Aqua (Germany, £110/£120 front/rear)

Vaude’s full Aqua bicycle luggage line on display at Eurobike 2014.

Part of a bigger line of commuter and messenger bags, German manufacturer Vaude make the very nice 100% waterproof Aqua touring panniers in front and rear variants.

These are strikingly similar to the Ortlieb Classics (see above), and not just superficially: they are also made in Germany, also come with a 5‑year guarantee, also have a versatile one-handed attachment system, also have inside pockets and shoulder straps, and also have a (smaller) following of satisfied users who’ve taken them round the world by bicycle.

The biggest difference is that they’re slightly larger (despite being about the same weight), with a rated capacity of 28/48 litres front/rear compared to 25/40 for the Ortliebs.

If you’re concerned about your environmental impact (and obviously you should be), you might be interested in the fact that the Aqua panniers are ‘climate neutrally manufactured’, ie: all manufacturing and shipping emissions have been carbon offset, and are fully PVC and PFC free. Indeed, Vaude have put a great deal of emphasis on their green credentials in recent years.

Why don’t more people don’t buy them, then? Simple: they’re not Ortliebs.


Arkel GT-54 (Canada, CAD$470 rear)

Arkel are a small Canadian outfit established in 1988 whose panniers’ reputation (and price) exceeds even that of Ortliebs. Their top-end GT-54 classic touring panniers come from an entirely different line of thinking, full of pockets and sections and zips and straps and other finery – consider them the Rolls Royce to Ortlieb’s Land Rover.

There are plenty of riders out there who would claim that these panniers are, in fact, the very best in the world.

Slightly more affordable – and perhaps easier to get hold of if you’re based in Canada or the USA – is their Orca line of waterproof panniers, which are of the simpler roll-top design.


Still struggling to choose?

How To Hit The Road is here to take the pain out of researching and buying equipment for a long bicycle adventure, with contributions from over 50 veteran riders. Available now as a low-price ebook or print-on-demand paperback.

Click here to learn more →

Bonus: An extended aside on the Great Pannier Waterproofing Debate™️

There are lots of noisy opinions on the internet about pannier waterproofing. Discovering this ‘debate’ tends to worry people who are looking at spending two or three hundred pounds/euros/dollars on a full set of panniers, and planning to put a lot of stuff inside them that they really don’t want getting wet.

The question boils down to whether you should buy fully waterproof, roll-top, seam-sealed, drybag-style panniers and never worry about rain or river crossings ever again, or whether there’s any other type of pannier worth considering.

Although the 100%-waterproof option looks appealing, I haven’t met a long-term rider (ie: who’s spent years on the road) whose 100% waterproof panniers have stayed 100% waterproof.

This is nothing to do with quality. It’s because no piece of fabric can survive an unlimited amount being bashed into things, falling off the bike, being trodden on, tripped over, tied to sharp metal roof racks on buses and taxes, thrown into aircraft holds and pickup trucks, or ripped apart by hungry bears hunting for the smell of toothpaste (true story).

Some riders anticipate this and prepare for it by bringing a repair kit. Some don’t, and then criticise their expensive panniers for not being 100% waterproof. A lucky few somehow manage to avoid getting a single hole in their panniers, and claim this as evidence that they’ll be ‘bomb-proof’ for everyone else. They won’t.

If very heavy rain and wading through rivers is likely to be a regular feature of your trip, then drybag-style panniers and a patch kit is probably the better option. 

If you don’t mind a little extra ‘pannier admin’, however, there is another legitimate approach: waterproof what’s inside the pannier as and when you need to.

For a little extra effort, this approach will allow you to exploit the many advantages of breathable, canvas panniers:

  • Wet gear (and smelly gear) can be isolated from the remaining contents and allowed to dry during a day’s riding,
  • Fuel bottles and other potentially messy items can be prevented from contaminating other contents,
  • In hot weather, perishable food can be kept longer in a breathable pannier than inside a sealed drybag,
  • Canvas panniers are easier to repair with a needle and thread or by giving them to a local tailor or cobbler,
  • Top quality cotton canvas is, all else being equal, more abrasion-resistant than laminated synthetic fabric, and on a long tour this will bear the brunt of the punishment while the drybags inside remain protected.
  • Canvas looks cooler. The odd hole here and there will simply add to a pannier’s character.

The extra ‘pannier admin’ involves putting your gear into drybags inside the pannier (good ones are made by Seal Line, Exped, Sea to Summit, Alpkit and many other brands); either one large drybag used as a pannier liner, or lots of smaller ones for organisation and selective waterproofing (or a combination of the two).

Either approach will carry your gear and keep it dry if you know the strengths and weaknesses of each and have a packing routine to match.

I’ve used both types myself on long-term rides in all conditions, from a free pair of shopping panniers for a rainy spring ride through England to heavy-duty canvas bags across the Middle East and Africa to roll-top waterproof panniers and canvas bags together in Mongolia. Analysing which of these systems is ‘best’ is not something I feel the need to spend any more time discussing, because all of them can be made to work.

The truth is that most long-term riders use roll-top waterproof panniers – in particular, the Ortlieb ones mentioned above – because everyone else does. It’s a conformity thing. Non-conformists might prefer the tramp-like image engendered by dusty canvas. If you can’t decide, flip a coin.


Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty burned out from discussing the minutiae of bags with hooks on them. Time to grab whatever’s lying around and hit the road!

Categories
Equipment

What’s The Best Tent For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?

Last updated in November 2020.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in choosing the right tent for your cycle tour or bikepacking expedition is the immense range of options you’ll find out there. Ultralight tents, freestanding tents, 3‑season or 4‑season tents, double wall or single wall, with or without awnings or footprints – and at prices from next to nothing up to hundreds (even thousands) of pounds or dollars. Which of these tents is right for you?

When you’re a newcomer, it’s natural to look for recommendations when choosing a tent for cycle touring or bikepacking. But before you get bogged down with what other people think is the best tent (which always seems to be the one they bought or were given by a sponsor), here’s one important thing to remember:

‘Best’ means nothing outside the context of your bike trip. Every ride is different.

So before you go any further, take a moment to ask yourself:

  • Are you looking for a long-lasting tent for a transcontinental trip, or something simple for a short summer adventure?
  • Are you a couple who like plenty of living space and room for your luggage, or a minimal solo rider?
  • Do you have racks and panniers to take bulky and heavy loads, or are you bikepacking with ultralight gear?
  • Do you plan on staying at nice campsites, or wild camping in the woods after dark?
  • Are you planning a fair-weather ride, or will all-season and/or winter use be involved?

There are a few tried-and-tested tents for cycling adventures that have proven themselves on a massive range of journeys.

But if you want to delve any deeper, you’ll find there’s no real ‘best tent for cycle touring or bikepacking’ until you know the answers to the basic questions above.

If you haven’t asked them of yourself, now’s the time to do so. Perhaps read my posts on the what, where, when, who and how of cycle touring. Then come back to this article.

Know what kind of bike trip you’re going on now? Great! Read on…

What Types Of Tents Are Good For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?

I’ve spent a long time – too long, probably – looking at the trends over the years. 

And I can tell you that the most popular kind of cycle touring or bikepacking tent for one rider is generally a freestanding, double-walled, 2‑berth, 3‑season tent in an inconspicuous shade of green, weighing 1–2.5kg (2–6 pounds), and strapping nicely to a rear rack or a handlebar harness, with room inside for the rider and the most important bits of their luggage.

For a couple, it’s generally the 3‑berth model of the same tent.

And for a solo bikepacker, it’s generally the 1‑berth model.

If you were short of time and you asked me to pick just one tent that ticks all of these boxes, it would be the 2‑berth MSR Hubba Hubba NX. (Click here to scroll to the full details and photos).

I’ve used and abused many tents in the MSR Hubba range over the years, including a 2014 two-berth Hubba Hubba NX, a 2012 one-berth Hubba, and a 2010 three-berth Mutha Hubba HP. (I still own and use all of them.)

If you don’t have any super-specialised requirements and you’re looking for a top-quality tent you can simply grab and ride out the door with, the MSR Hubba NX range is what I’d recommend.

How Do Tents For Cyclists Differ From Tents For Hikers & Backpackers?

Before we get into cycle touring and bikepacking tent listings, for the benefit of readers coming from a hiking/backpacking background I feel it’s important to explain how the priorities for cyclists differ slightly from walkers.

The biggest difference is that packed weight and volume is (usually) less of an issue for cyclists.

On a bike tour, you have a vehicle to carry your gear, rather than shouldering the burden yourself. This means – generally speaking – that you can safely consider slightly bigger, heavier tents that will allow you to live more comfortably, fare better in bad weather, last longer, and probably be cheaper to buy.

Long-distance thru-hikers in particular are concerned with minimising their loads. Unless you’re an ultralight bikepacker, you probably won’t be sharing that concern. (But in case you are, there are several suggestions below for ultralight tents for bikepacking too.)

A second difference is that cyclists tend to camp close to roads, not on backcountry trails. 

This brings with it totally different priorities when it comes to visibility.

Many hikers prefer to be as visible as possible in a mountain landscape in case of needing assistance. Cyclists, on the other hand, typically want the opposite: to be able to wild camp undetected, close to civilisation.


The Best Cycle Touring & Bikepacking Tents In 2020

OK, theory lessons over – let’s get down to business! 

The following listings represent a collection of tents specifically recommended for travelling by bicycle by experienced riders over countless miles and many years of road-testing, fully updated to reflect the latest models and prices.

We’ll start with low-budget tents for short and simple trips, visit some of the most popular all-rounder tents in the mid-range, and work our way up to uber-tents for people on worldwide bike tours of months or years.

We’ll also look at a few specialist tents suited to the weight and pack size restrictions faced by off-road bikepackers with frame luggage alone.

For each tent, you’ll find links to manufacturer’s websites where you can get detailed, up-to-date specifications. I’ve also included links to worldwide online retailers offering the best deals I can find (affiliate links are marked with an asterisk; you can find out more about my affiliate policy here).

These are not the only tents that’ll do the job.

But I can tell you from 14 years of experience that they represent the very best of what the riders of the world are out there using today.


Vango Banshee Pro 200/300 (UK, RRP £155/185)

Vango’s Banshee Pro range of 3‑season tents is a step up in quality and features, coming in a good shade of green for wild-camping and providing ample living and storage space while remaining on the lightweight side of things. Two- and three-berth versions are available under the 200 and 300 model names. The 200 is ideal for a soloist at 2.39kg, and the 300 at 2.82kg is good for a couple.

(The same naming scheme is used for other tents in Vango’s range, of which the Soul is also recommended as a budget option and the Mirage at the higher end.)

Being a British brand, Vango is very well represented in the UK, both on the high street and online, though their tents my be harder to find elsewhere.

The RRP for the Banshee Pro 200 is £155, and you’ll be able to find them cheaper online from outlets such as Go Outdoors and Amazon*. The 300, with an RRP of £185, can also be found at Amazon* and Go Outdoors.

As an alternative, the Coshee range by Wild Country (see below) is similar in design, name and price point.


Wild Country Zephyros 2 (UK, RRP £200)

Wild Country is the budget marque of the premium British manufacturer Terra Nova. The 1.85kg Zephyros 2 takes more than a little inspiration from Hilleberg’s Akto, a favourite high-end tent for minimalists since it was popularised by TV outdoorsman Ray Mears. It requires staking out at each end, but you get a lot of space for a reasonably low weight and with a single pole supporting a single-pitch structure. Not a lot of awning space, though.

You can get the Zephyros direct from the Terra Nova website at the RRP of £200. AmazonSnow + Rock and Cotswold Outdoor all have it cheaper at the time of update.


Alpkit Ordos 2/3 (UK, RRP £270/310)

Britain’s favourite direct outdoor gear retailer Alpkit has made a splash in the bikepacking and cycle touring scene as well as with the mountaineers and climbers, with the Ordos 2 and Ordos 3 tents now almost as popular as MSR’s Hubba series (see below). I used one myself on a traverse of the central highlands of Armenia.

With 2- and 3‑berth models available and a choice of a red or green fly, these ultralight tents – just 1.3kg for the 2‑berth and 1.6kg for the 3‑berth – are roomy, practical, well-ventilated, easy to pitch, and reasonably priced, with the wedge design echoing the long-standing Vaude Hogan (see below) and Big Agnes Seedhouse. Not quite freestanding but close enough for almost all real-world purposes, they do well in warmer weather.

As with all ultralight tents, longevity is not a design priority, and I would be surprised to see these last more than a season without noticeable wear and tear.

Order the Ordos 2 (RRP £270) or Ordos 3 (RRP £310) direct from Alpkit in the UK. As with all their gear, buying direct from their website or one of their stores is the only way to get it.


REI Quarter Dome 1/2 (USA, RRP $299/349)

If your tour is beginning in the States and you need a new set of camping gear, you’d do well to head to the nearest branch of REI when you arrive. This well-known outdoor co-op manufactures a range of top-rated gear and sells it without the third-party mark-up, so you get a lot for your money.

Their freestanding Quarter Dome SL range, available in 1‑berth (1.3kg) and 2‑berth (1.7kg) versions, was the most popular cycle touring tent range among Stateside riders in my latest community poll.

The one-berth Quarter Dome SL 1 is available from REI.com or from any of their 132 retail stores in the USA, as is the two-berth Quarter Dome SL 2.

If you’re on a tight budget, don’t mind a little extra weight, and still want the REI brand assurance and warranty, check out the heavier yet significantly cheaper Half Dome 2 Plus.


MEC Spark 2.0 1/2 (Canada, RRP CAD$ 320/420)

Looking for a suitable tent for a bike trip originating in Canada? Look no further than the Spark 2.0 dome tent from Canadian gear co-operative MEC.

The 1.75kg 2‑berth version of the Spark will house you and your partner, or just you if you want a bit of space, at a very reasonable weight for the price. A 1‑berth model is also available for minimal soloists, and a 3‑berth model for couples who like plenty of space.

With two doors and two vestibules for easy access and extra storage, the 3000mm waterproof, 30D polyester ripstop fly will protect you from the most obnoxious of North American springtime downpours. And because the Spark 2.0 is designed in-house by Canada’s largest gear co-op, it also works out considerably cheaper than similar-looking tents from better-known brands, and is covered by MEC’s famous ‘rock solid’ guarantee.

Get the MEC Spark 2.0 1‑, 2- or 3‑berth tent online from the MEC website or from any of their 22 retail stores across Canada.


MSR Hubba NX 1P / Hubba Hubba NX 2P / Mutha Hubba NX 3P (Worldwide, £385/445/650 / $380/450/550)

The 2‑berth MSR Hubba Hubba NX freestanding tent with the grey rainfly option.

The MSR Hubba NX series (click for the Europe/US & Canada versions of MSR’s site) is possibly the all-time most respected series of tents among global cycle tourers and bikepackers, as mentioned in the introduction.

The range, which features 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth models, has been updated continuously over the last couple of decades as tent technology evolves, and today strikes a near-perfect balance between weight and durability. The North American models all come with a grey rainfly, but in Europe green rainfly versions are also available (and I’d recommend this for more inconspucious wild camping).

Many solo fully-loaded cycle tourers and lightweight bikepacking pairs/couples go for the 1.7kg two-berth Hubba Hubba NX for ample living space and a double entrance awning.

Couples with a full luggage setup tend to prefer the spacious 2.3kg three-berth Mutha Hubba NX.

Ultralight solo bikepackers usually go for the 1‑berth Hubba NX with a minimum packed weight of 1.1kg.

Expect MSR tents to last many years if well looked-after, with top-quality weatherproofing, well-designed ventilation, superb build quality, and super-easy setup, with a variety of pitching options for different climates. Riders love the generous headroom, the inner mesh pockets, the vast luggage awnings, and the low packed volume and weight.

msr_hubbahubbahp_fly_door_open_eu_l
The EU (green) version of the MSR Hubba Hubba NX is perfect for wild camping.

In the UK, the RRP for the 2‑berth MSR Hubba Hubba NX is £445. The cheapest I can find it is at Amazon, Alpine Trek, Go Outdoors, Elite Mountain Supplies and UltralightOutdoorGear.co.uk.

In the USA you can order them at the full $450 RRP from the MSR website, or slightly cheaper from Amazon*, but the best value option is usually REI, who stock the full range in-store and online, including the 1‑berth Hubba, 2‑berth Hubba Hubba and 3‑berth Mutha Hubba. Remember that adding membership to your cart at the same time will get you around 10% of the tent price back as a dividend later on – and that much of the other gear you need can probably be found here too.

In Canada, you can find the full MSR Hubba range in-store and online at MEC, and of course on Amazon.


MSR Elixir 1/2/3 (Worldwide, £215/265/320 / $200/250/300)

The MSR Elixir 2 is a heavier and cheaper but equally durable alternative to the Hubba Hubba NX.

If weight is not of utmost importance, and you’re looking to save money, but you still want a quality tent from a reputable brand, the heavier and slightly more spacious MSR Elixir range (EU/USA* webpage) has a very similar freestanding dome design and range of sizes, including 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth models, for significantly lower prices compared to the Hubba equivalents. While more basic, you can expect these tents to last at least as long as their more expensive brethren.

In the UK you can find the Elixir range at Amazon*, Snow + Rock (2/3), Cotswold Outdoor (2/3) and Elite Mountain Supplies. As always, don’t forget to search eBay* for second-hand or clearance bargains to save yet more money.

In the USA, as well as the MSR online store*, check retailers such as REI*, Outdoorplay* and of course Amazon* for the MSR Elixir tents.

In Canada, MEC carry most models in the Elixir range, as do Amazon.


Vaude Hogan UL (Germany, RRP £430)

Another tent that has stood the test of time, German brand Vaude’s classic Hogan UL 2‑berth tent was, back in 2007, my first decent tent of any kind. I rode across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Mongolia with it for four years, so I guess you could say I’ve put it through its paces (read my original review here). Then my brother inherited it and subjected it to another few years of abuse. It’s still standing 14 years on.

It’s not the lightest, nor is it truly freestanding, but it is extremely durable, waterproof, and stable in bad weather, with a decent-sized porch and a nice natural shade of green available for the fly, and it’s pretty portable at 1.9kg.

It’s available direct from Vaude in some markets, but you can get it cheaper in the UK from Amazon*, or from Bergzeit.de in its native Germany.

In Canada, try Amazon.


Terra Nova Voyager (UK, RRP £600)

terra-nova-voyager

A British design that’s been doing the rounds for decades, the freestanding classic Voyager is likely the long-term favourite among round-the-world tourers from the UK, in part because Terra Nova don’t feel the need to change the design of or discontinue perfectly good tents at random (like certain other manufacturers seem to do), allowing the tent to build up a second-to-none reputation.

Weighing in at 2.2kg, top-class construction, weatherproofing, liveability and extreme durability is the order of the day here.

They’re expensive – £600 direct from Terra Nova, or a bit less from Amazon*, Cotswold Outdoor* or UltralightOutdoorGear.co.uk* – but you get what you pay for.


Hilleberg Nallo 2/3/GT (Sweden, RRP £765–970)

hilleberg-nallo-2

The most lusted after (and expensive) tents for long-haul trips for which durability is the key consideration are undoubtedly those in the Nallo range from Swedish tentmakers Hilleberg.

They’re not the most lightweight, nor the best choice for hot climates, but they do have an unmatched reputation for quality and longevity. Hilleberg have long resisted following the trend for ever lighter and more flimsy materials: these tents are among the most tried and tested in the world and will last – literally – for decades.

The Nallo 2 (2.4kg) is recommended for solo tourers, with the Nallo 3 GT (3.1kg) delivering luxury on-the-road living for couples and their luggage.

Other Hilleberg tents often seen on the road include the minimalist 1.7kg Akto for soloists and bikepackers (see the Wild Country Zephyros above) and, for couples, the freestanding and spacious 3.3kg Allak 2. The Swedish brand predictably makes excellent winter tents, with the 2.4kg Soulo standing out.

In the UK, the Hilleberg Nallo 2 is available from many of the high-street chains, including Ellis Brigham*, Tiso and Cotswold Outdoor*. Online they’re hard to find and rarely discounted, though I’ve found them recently on UltralightOutdoorGear.co.uk and AlpineTrek.co.uk*.

In the USA, Moosejaw.com* sell all of Hilleberg’s tents, including the Nallo 2*.


Best Ultralight Bikepacking Tents For 2020

The following tents are included in this list as examples of shelters that have either been developed with bikepacking in mind or crossed over from backpacking and thru-hiking circles – in any case, tents that have found favour in the bikepacking community.

You’ll also find some of the lighter tents from the list above – such as the Gelert Track 1, the Alpkit Ordos, the MSR Hubba NX, and the Hilleberg Akto – making their way onto bikepacking kit lists, possibly in stripped-down form.


Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo (USA, RRP $200)

Weighing just 680g (that’s the same as a full, standard-sized cycling water bottle), the single-pole, single-wall Lunar Solo relies on being staked out and requires you to supply your own pole (it’s designed to be used with a trekking pole). It’s never going to be as comfortable as a double-wall tent with a geodesic structure – but if you’re OK with that, it’s difficult to imagine a more minimal shelter that isn’t a bivvy bag.

It is by no means the only such shelter on offer – check out MSR’s Thru-Hiker Mesh House 1 to see a big-brand attempt at the same kind of thing (although without the flysheet).

Get the Lunar Solo direct from Six Moon Designs in the USA, or from Ultralight Outdoor Gear in the UK.


Terra Nova Starlite (UK, RRP £595)

New in 2018, the Terra Nova Starlite series, available in 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth options, was one of the first British tent ranges designed specifically for bikepacking. Aside from striking a great combination of weight and weather-resistance, the 2‑berth Starlite 2 weighs just 1.5kg and has a packed length of 29cm, meaning it’ll fit easily into a pannier or strap to your handlebars using the stuff-sack’s integrated webbing loops.

Some might consider its non-freestanding design a negative, but in the type of climate and terrain it’s designed for, staking it out really shouldn’t be a problem if you choose your pitch accordingly. Once up, it’s as roomy as you’d expect from a tunnel tent and very stable. That the optional footprint extends to cover the awning floor is a nice bonus. Not cheap, though.

Read my full long-term review of the Starlite 2 here. As with all of Terra Nova’s tents, you can order it direct (RRP £595). It’s well-distributed in the UK; online stockists include Wiggle*, Amazon* and AlpineTrek.co.uk*.


More Tents For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

If that’s not enough of a selection, try the following, which have also been recommended by readers of this blog:

I have also happily toured with a Tesco Value tent I rescued from the local household recycling centre, because remember: you don’t actually need any of this stuff.


Which tent(s) have you successfully used on tours or bikepacking trips? Let us know in the comments.

Still struggling to choose?

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