Equipment Planning & Logistics

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

Last updated on November 25, 2023. As with much outdoor and cycling gear, retailers are still struggling to keep up with demand for cycle touring panniers, so some of the items linked to in this article may be temporarily out of stock.

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

Today’s cycle tourists, of course, pack much more gear than that. That’s because we want to enjoy seeing the world, rather than bribing and bullying our way through our bike tours as Stevens did. 

To carry all the cycle touring equipment commonly used today – ultralight tents, camping stoves & cookware, clothes, toolkits, and other core kit-list items – most bike tourers attach panniers to their touring bikes. 

Indeed, the humble bicycle pannier has been the traditional luggage of cycle tourists for more than a century. (Even dirt-road bikepackers are finally starting to catch on!)

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 match your budget, your style of cycle touring (or bikepacking, if you prefer), and the equipment and supplies you’ll be carrying with you.

It’s based not just on my own 16 years of bike 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 well-balanced cycle touring pannier buying guide possible (no pun intended). Not a single AI chatbot was used to write it.

Within the listings of the best touring 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. 

(If you prefer to skip the newbie questions, you can also go straight to the pannier listings.)

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.

I am reliably informed by several readers in the comments section that the name ‘pannier’ originates from a French word meaning ‘bread basket’. So now you know.

Do I Need Two Or Four Panniers For Cycle Touring?

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.

For lighter-weight bike tours, two panniers (either front or rear) can offer sufficient capacity. Many short summer rides close to home, with lots of bike shops, resupply stops and other facilities on your route, would fit this category.

You might also use two panniers on longer rides with a minimal approach to packing, especially as camping equipment grows ever lighter. You’ll often see more experienced riders taking this approach, because they’ve spent a long time learning what they don’t need to pack.

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 a pair of small front or rear panniers supplemented by frame bags, seat packs and cockpit pouches. Panniers can then be removed for side trips off the beaten track, 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, handlebar bags, backpacks, or other more easily accessible bags which don’t require you to stop and unpack 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 just because you want to bring your guitar and jewellery-making kit, you might consider a trailer instead of (or as well as) panniers. This is a topic I’ve covered in detail elsewhere.

How Do Cycle Touring Panniers Vary In Design?

There are as many ways to use a rear carrier rack and panniers 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 marketed separately as ‘front’ or ‘rear’. They are usually (though not always) sold in pairs, sometimes with physical 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 directly affect the steering and handling of your bike. Lighter loads at the front mean more manoeuvrability.

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; around 20–30 litres each (ie: 40–60 litres per pair). Tandem panniers can be even bigger.

Most pannier manufacturers make complementary front and rear pairs of the same model. As mentioned above, however, a 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 today, but they almost all make use of a pair of hooked clips attached the top of the back face of each pannier, allowing them to be hung from the upper horizontal rack tubing, plus some kind of adjustable retaining tab on the back of each pannier to hook around the lower, vertical or diagonal sections of 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 (often aka: “water resistant”).

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 (or sometimes “water-resistant”) panniers are usually made of heavy canvas, with backpack-style lids with zips or buckles, and have some degree of water resistance and/or a waterproof backing 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.)

Some people get hung up on the colour of the material. There’s an argument that using black waterproof panniers in sunny climates will result in your belongings being well and truly cooked. Conversely, some people think high-visibility panniers are better for safety, although panniers of all colours are adorned with the same reflective patches.

Personally, I don’t believe there’s much practical difference. If it’s really that hot, lighter colours will be of limited benefit, and you – the rider – should always be more visible than your panniers. My advice is 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.

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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 with no money to prove the theory.

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 (or getting good at DIY).

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*.

One reader even emailed me a video he’d made about how to make a pair of panniers out of a discarded pair of jeans. Get creative!

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, because who exactly are these customers anyway?).

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 thicker canvas, then waterproof everything inside the panniers with plastic 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 Elops (Decathlon’s in-house bike luggage brand, which includes the Ortlieb-esque roll-top waterproof panniers pictured below).

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.

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 (in combination with frame luggage).

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.

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. (I’ve had a pair of the rear ones for 12 years, which I’m still happily using after a few repairs.)

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)

UK-based 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 very durable 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, and/or you want to support this long-running British maker.

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

The City series of Ortlieb panniers is a cheaper, simplified version of the Classic/Plus series usually chosen for touring (see below). 

The Ortlieb City range is marketed to commuters, but in reality they are 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 most significant thing you lose is full roll-top closure. Instead, the top buckles attach to clips on the sides of the pannier, and there’s no extra cinch strap over the top (although you can add one afterwards). This is a less flexible setup with a variable sized load, and less waterproof in the case of a pannier being completely submerged.

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 a rear Ortlieb City as opposed to 950g for a rear Ortlieb 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 Toliari (UK, £100/£120 24/40l pairs)

Relatively new on the British pannier scene (whoop!) is the waterproof Toliari pannier range from the certified B‑corporation and 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 relatively untested on really massive multi-year expeditions.

Available in two sizes (12/20 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, especially outside the UK.

Having said all that, Alpkit’s social and environmental credentials are pretty hard to beat.

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

MEC World Tour (CA$240/260 20/30l pairs)

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 /

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 my deep winter expedition into northern Lapland in 2011.

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 of many 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)

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 panniers at the rear of the bike, all in matching his-and-hers / his-and-his / hers-and-hers / theirs-and-theirs 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)

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 “pro”? 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 big drybag to the rear rack and only fill it when necessary.

Carradice Super C (UK, £99/£130 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 various touring bikes for 15 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 (EU/UK/Canada, €147/€158 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, CA$525 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 range of waterproof panniers, which are of the simpler roll-top design and come in three different sizes. More like Ortliebs, basically.

Bonus: The Great Cycle Touring Pannier Waterproofing Debate

There are lots of noisy opinions on the internet about pannier waterproofing. Discovering this ‘debate’ can be worrying for people who are spending several 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 debate 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.

The time a pannier detached itself and floated off downstream during a river crossing in northern Mongolia. We’ve all been there.

Here’s my take.

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.

Canvas panniers looking good on a piece of freshly-laid asphalt in the Sudanese Sahara.

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, thus getting you more likes on Instagram.

The extra ‘pannier admin’ involves putting your gear into drybags inside the pannier (good ones are made by SealLine, 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).

Mongolian river crossing, take two – this time with the panniers removed from the rack!

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 a bike, tent, stove and cooking pot and hit the road!

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 →


What’s The Best Cycle Touring & Bikepacking Tent? (2023 Edition)

Last updated on November 20, 2023 with some recent revisions to MSR’s tent offerings.

This is a general introduction to tent choice for the touring cyclist or bikepacker, along with a range of example tents at various price points, written by a real human being. (Hi!)

But before we get to the good stuff, there’s something important you need to know:

Probably the biggest challenge in choosing the right tent for your cycle tour or bikepacking trip is that there’s no special category of tents for cyclists.

If you’ve already spent some time researching, you’ll have noticed that most tents seem to be designed and marketed for hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, and general outdoor pursuits, as opposed to cycle tours and bikepacking trips specifically.

This is a crowded arena, too. You’ll find ultralight through to heavy-duty tents, freestanding domes next to tunnels and teepees, tents with ventilation and bug-mesh or with snow cowls and snow stakes, double-wall and single-wall tents, tents with or without awnings or footprints, floorless tarp shelters alongside family-sized monsters you can stand up in – and at prices from next to nothing up to hundreds (even thousands) of pounds or dollars. Where do you even start?

A soggy selection of the tents present at the 2019 UK Cycle Touring Festival.

And why the industry bias towards people with cars and backpacks rather than bicycles? Simple: the market is much, much bigger. It’s all about profit margins. In spite of the rise of bikepacking, bicycle travellers still sit on the margins, and are lucky if they get more than a quick mention in the newly-revised product descriptions (which is more about marketing and less about tent design anyway).

The truth is that you’ll be lucky to find a tent designed specifically with cycle tourers and bikepackers in mind. 

Given that, it’s natural to look to the rider community for recommendations when choosing a tent for cycle touring or bikepacking – which I’m guessing is how you arrived at this post.

Well – welcome! That’s exactly what this article is all about: sifting through the tent industry’s offerings to help you identify which tents have found favour among cycle tourers and bikepackers.

(It is not a puff piece for tents whose manufacturers have paid me to say nice things about their products, or bribed me with lots of freebies. I’ll leave that to the “professional” cycle touring bloggers with the undeclared interests.)

Inspect the camps of larger groups of riders and you’ll start to see common themes emerging in tent choice and design.

But before we get bogged down with what other riders think is the best tent, here’s another important thing to remember:

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

So before you go any deeper into researching the best tent for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip, take a moment to ask yourself:

  • Are you hunting for a cheap tent for a short overnight bike adventure close to home, or investing in a long-lasting tent for a transcontinental or round-the-world tour?
  • Are you a heavyweight tourer who likes plenty of living space and room for luggage, a minimalist ultralight bikepacker, or somewhere in between?
  • Do you have racks and panniers to take bulky and heavy loads, or are you bikepacking with frame luggage, handlebar harnesses and fork cages alone?
  • Do you plan on staying mostly at nice campsites with perfect tent pitches, or wild camping in the woods with your own stove and cookware?
  • Are you planning a fair-weather ride in good weather, or will you encounter winter temperatures, strong winds, high altitudes, or other extreme conditions?

As I mentioned, there are a few tried-and-tested tents for cycling and camping 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’ve asked yourself the questions above.

If you haven’t answered them, now’s the time to do so. And if you’re struggling to find clear answers, I’ve written introductions to the what, where, when, who and how of adventure cycle touring and bikepacking to help you do so.

In 2014, for example, I rode the length of England without no money whatsoever, sleeping in a Tesco Value 2‑berth tent I got from a household recycling centre. It was best tent for that cycle tour because it was available and because it was free. A couple of years previously I pedalled off-road through a stormy Mongolian springtime with a stormproof German tent costing hundreds of Euros. And before that, my wife and I shared a spacious 3‑person freestanding tent as we traversed the campgrounds of Europe. You get the picture.

Okay. Got a clear idea of what kind of bike trip you’re going on? Great! Read on…

Wild-camping on the Outer Mongolian steppe with two Vaude Hogan UL wedge tents.

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

I’ve spent a long time (too long, probably) looking at cyclists’ tent-buying trends over the last 16 years or so I’ve been exploring the world on two wheels.

And I can tell you with confidence that the most popular kind of cycle touring or bikepacking tent for a solo rider is a freestanding, double-walled, 2‑berth, 3‑season tent in an inconspicuous shade of green, weighing 1–2kg (2–4 pounds), striking a balance between comfort, durability and weight, strapping neatly to a rear rack or a handlebar harness, with room inside for the rider and the most valuable bits of their luggage, and room in the awning for the rest. (The bike itself can stay outside.)

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

And for a solo ultralight rider, it’s the 1‑berth model.

By the way, if you you asked me to pick just one range of tents that ticks all of these boxes, it would be MSR’s Hubba Hubba range, which is available in 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth models.

(Click here to skip down to the full details, photos, and manufacturer links for the MSR Hubba Hubba range).

I’ve used and abused many tents in the Hubba Hubba range over the years, including a 2014 2‑berth Hubba Hubba NX, a 2012 1‑berth Hubba, and a 2010 3‑berth Mutha Hubba HP. They’re heavily patched-up with seam seal and repair tape, but I still use all of them regularly (see the photos above).

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

The morning view from my Terra Nova Starlite 2 (listed below) while leading a group traverse of the Armenian backcountry in 2019.

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

Before we start listing the best cycle touring and bikepacking tents, it’s important to explain how the priorities for cyclists differ from, say, long-distance hikers, and how that might affect your choice of tent.

The first big difference is that packed weight and volume is usually less important for cyclists.

On a bike trip, you have a two wheeled, pedal-powered vehicle to carry your gear, rather than shouldering the burden yourself. This means – generally speaking – that you can consider slightly bigger, heavier tents that will allow you to live more comfortably, fare better in bad weather, last longer, and possibly cost less too.

Long-distance thru-hikers in particular are often concerned with minimising their pack weight, and for that reason sometimes carry single-skin shelters held up by carbon-fibre trekking poles that weigh just a few hundred grams. Unless you’re hoping to win an endurance bikepacking race, you probably won’t be sharing this obsession. (But in case you are, there are suggestions below for ultralight tents for bikepacking too.)

A second difference is that cyclists often camp close to roads, as well as in the backcountry. 

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

Many hikers prefer to be as visible as possible in remote landscapes in case of needing assistance. Cyclists just as often want the opposite: to be able to wild camp (or stealth camp) undetected, close to civilisation when necessary. For that reason, the colour of the pitched tent often factors into the buying decision.

This is less of a concern for remote, off-road riding in wilderness areas where you’re going to be a long way from people. But because trips like this often involve road sections too, both cycle tourers and off-road bikepackers are served best by tents suited to both scenarios.

Most tents from UK maker Terra Nova, such as the Starlite 2 pictured here, come with inconspicuous dark green rain flys.

A third, possibly marginal difference is that hikers have the ability to pitch ultralight shelters which use trekking poles for structure. 

If you’re on a bike, then although some of these shelters may seem to offer a fabulously lightweight and packable solution for a bikepacking expedition, you’ll have to bring an additional set of poles to set them up. These poles will have no other use, which cancels out the weight savings. If reducing your luggage is really your top priority, consider using the bike itself to support a tarp shelter.

The Best Cycle Touring & Bikepacking Tents For 2023

To the listings!

The following tents are specifically recommended for cycle touring and bikepacking, and have been extensively road-tested by the community.

Models in this list come from a variety of manufacturers worldwide, so whether you’re reading this article in the UK or Europe, the USA or Canada, Australia, or elsewhere, there’ll probably be options here you can find locally, as well as online.

Some of these recommendations are inspired by my interviews with highly experienced riders who have spent countless miles and years road-testing these tents. Others are tents that frequently appear in trip reports and receive unanimously positive reviews from real-world users. The listings are fully updated to reflect the latest models and prices for the 2023 season.

We’ll start with low-budget tents for short and simple trips, move on to the most popular tents in the mid-range for general cycle touring and bikepacking service, and work our way up to the most durable lightweight tents for world-ranging rides of months or years.

To finish, we’ll looking at a few examples of specialist tents suited to the weight and pack size restrictions faced by ultralight bikepackers with minimal frame luggage (though this niche is not my usual focus).

For each tent, you’ll find links to manufacturer’s websites where you can get detailed, up-to-date specifications. Wherever possible, I’ve included links to online retailers in the UK, USA, Australia, and Canada 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. In fact, the tent you already have in the garage/basement/attic/storage unit might be perfectly adequate, as you don’t really need any of this fancy gear anyway.

But I can promise you the listing below represent the very best of what the global cycle touring and bikepacking community is using successfully today.

Wild Country Zephyros Compact 2 (UK, £230)

Wild Country is the budget marque of the premium British manufacturer Terra Nova. The 1.95kg Zephyros Compact 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 interior space for a reasonably low weight and with a single pole supporting a single-pitch structure. 

The “Compact” tag was added to the name in 2020, with the tent now featuring shorter pole sections for a more convenient 30×16cm packed shape for bikepacking luggage and small panniers.

There’s also a 1‑berth version which weighs in at 1.65kg, but in my opinion – especially given the small awning – the 300g you’d save isn’t worth the loss of interior storage space for your gear, unless minimising weight is your number one priority.

  • Exclusive to Tom’s Bike Trip readers: Get 20% off the Wild Country Zephyros Compact 2 on the Terra Nova website when you use the voucher code TOMA20 at checkout.
  • The Wild Country Zephyros Compact 2 is also available online or in-store in the UK from Go OutdoorsSnow + Rock and Cotswold Outdoor, or online-only from Amazon. Try for second-hand offers.
  • Wild Country is a British brand, so (especially post-Brexit) this tent is quite hard to find elsewhere in the world.

Alpkit Ordos 2 (UK, £235)

Direct retailer and manufacturer Alpkit have made a splash in the UK bikepacking and cycle touring scene with their Ordos ultralight 3‑season wedge tents. I used one on a traverse of the central highlands of Armenia, and I’d still be using it if it hadn’t later been trampled by a herd of cattle.

With 2- and 3‑berth models available and a choice of a red or green rainfly, the lightweight Ordos tents – just 1.4kg for the 2‑berth and 1.7kg for the 3‑berth in their most minimal configurations – are roomy, practical, well-ventilated, easy to pitch, and reasonably priced, doing best in warmer weather.

The classic wedge design echoes long-standing tents such as the Vaude Hogan UL (see below) and Big Agnes Seedhouse. It’s not quite freestanding but close enough for most real-world scenarios, requiring a minimum of four stakes for a good pitch.

Bikepackers will be interested to know that the most recent versions of the Ordos feature shorter-section collapsible poles, making the 42cm-long pack shape and size slightly more handlebar harness-friendly (though not as friendly as the Zephyros Compact above or the Starlite below).

  • Order the Alpkit Ordos 2 or Ordos 3 direct from Alpkit in the UK or with worldwide delivery.
  • Also try eBay for rare second-hand models.

REI Co-Op Quarter Dome SL 1/2/3 (USA, $330/350/400)

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.

REI is a well-known outdoor co-operative manufacturing a range of top-rated gear and selling it without the third-party mark-up, so you get a lot for your money. Sign up as a lifetime member of the co-op and you’ll also get 10% of your spend back in store credit at the end of each year, as well as free delivery and various other benefits.

Their ultralight, semi-freestanding Quarter Dome, available in 1‑berth (2lb 6oz / 1.1kg), 2‑berth (2lb 14oz / 1.5kg) and 3‑berth (4lb 9oz / 2.1kg) versions, was the most popular cycle touring tent among Stateside riders in my most recent survey of cycle touring and bikepacking tents. 

The mesh inner can be pitched fully freestanding for warmer weather and stargazing, with the rainfly needing just a couple of (included) stakes.

Expect plentiful headroom, excellent build quality and one of the best warranties you’ll find in the outdoor equipment industry.

  • Buy the REI Co-Op Quarter Dome range online from in the USA.
  • Try for second-hand models of this popular range of tents.
  • Alternatively you can buy the Quarter Dome range in-store from any of REI’s 132 retail locations in the lower 48.

MEC Spark 2.0 1/2/3P (Canada, CA$375/475/575)

Looking for a tent for a cycle tour originating in Canada? The Spark 2.0 range of tents from Canadian gear retailer MEC comes in 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth versions at a very reasonable weight for the price – the solo 1‑berth version weighs just 1.34kg packed.

With a familiar looking freestanding dome-shaped design, the 2- and 3‑berth models each have two doors and two vestibules for easy access to extra storage for panniers and other luggage. All models feature a 3000mm waterproof, 30D polyester ripstop fly to protect you from the heaviest of North American springtime downpours. 

And because the Spark 2.0 range is designed, manufacturerd and sold direct by Canada’s largest gear retailer, each model also works out considerably cheaper than similar tents from better-known brands, and is covered by MEC’s ‘rock solid’ guarantee.

MSR Elixir 1–4 (Worldwide, £250–380 / US$320–490 / CA$350–635)

If saving 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 MSR Elixir range is a very good bet (click for Europe/USA/Canada official manufacturer webpages).

These tents have a very similar freestanding dome structure and a range of 1- to 4‑berth variants – similar to the much-loved Hubba Hubba range (see below) but for significantly lower prices. Why? They’re considerably heavier: 2.77kg compared to 1.76kg in the case of the 2‑berth Elixir versus the 2‑berth Hubba. That’s almost 60% heavier, although we’re still only talking the weight of a 1‑litre water bottle. For a fully-loaded rider carrying a tent on a rear rack, that’s a marginal difference, though the 51cm-long packed size will exclude it from many bikepacking handlebar harness setups.

Slightly more spacious than the Hubba Hubbas, and with a more complex pole structure, you can expect the Elixir tents to last even longer than their more expensive brethren. As such, they’d be an excellent choice for fully-loaded riders heading off on long-haul trips for whom maximum durability is key.

UK/European markets get a choice of green or grey rainfly while North Americans are, for unknown reasons, stuck with grey.

MSR Hubba Hubba 1/2/3P (Worldwide, £385/445/650 / $410/480/580)

In the long term, the MSR Hubba Hubba range (Europe/USA/Canada webpages) is possibly the all-time most recommended series of tents among the global community of cycle tourers and bikepackers, as mentioned in the introduction. As a result, it has spawned a thousand cheap and inferior imitations.

Riders love the generous headroom, the inner mesh pockets, the vast luggage awnings, and the low packed volume and weight.

The range features 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth models (all three of which are pictured above) and has been updated several times over the years as tent technology evolves. Today, the MSR Hubba Hubba range aims to strike that finest of balances between weight, comfort and durability. In other words, they’re neither the lightest, biggest, nor longest-lasting tents in this list, but you’re unlikely to find fault with the end result.

Since 2022, the North American models (pictured above) have come with a “Sahara” yellow-tan rainfly, replacing the light grey of previous “NX” iterations.

In Europe (where the range still goes by the old “NX” naming scheme), grey and green rainflys are still available. If you have a choice, I’d recommend green for more inconspicuous wild camping.

Most solo fully-loaded cycle tourers go for the 1.5kg, 2‑berth Hubba Hubba (known before 2022 as the Hubba Hubba NX), which may also suit those bikepacking in pairs. If I’m running out the door and don’t have time to choose the perfect tent from my stash, I’ll usually grab this one.

Couples with a full luggage setup tend to prefer the spacious 1.7kg 3‑berth Hubba Hubba (known before 2022 as the Mutha Hubba NX). This is my and my wife’s go-to tent when we ride together.

Ultralight solo bikepackers usually go for the 1‑berth Hubba Hubba (known before 2022 as the Hubba NX) with a minimum packed weight of 1.1kg. I took an older one of these down the US West Coast a few years back and wrote this review.

There has in the past been a 4‑berth variant called the Papa Hubba, but this is not part of the current range.

Expect MSR tents to last a good few 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, including inner-only and fly/footprint-only. If you do encounter difficulties, warranty repairs or exchanges can be requested from MSR’s service centres in WA, USA and Ireland.

Vaude Hogan UL (UK & Europe, £470/€500)

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 real high-quality tent. 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 very outdated original review here).

At 1.9kg it’s not the lightest tent in this list, nor is it truly freestanding, but it is extremely durable, waterproof, with a decent-sized porch and a nice natural shade of green available for the fly. 

As with other wedge-shaped tents, it’s a little more sensitive to side winds than tunnel or geodesic (aka: dome) tents, so you’ll do well to be mindful of wind direction when pitching.

Terra Nova Voyager (UK, £660)


A British design that’s been on the scene for decades, the semi-freestanding classic Voyager is a long-term favourite among round-the-world riders originating 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.

With a packed weight of 2.15kg, lightness is not the Voyager’s top design priority – but instead, you get top-class construction and weatherproofing, loads of liveability, and extreme durability for years (decades!) of riding.

The Voyager’s inner tent can be pitched fully freestanding, so in good weather you’ll also be able to take advantage of its part-mesh construction for ventilation and views of the night sky.

  • Buy the Terra Nova Voyager online in the UK direct from Terra Nova, with an exclusive 20% reader discount when you use the voucher code TOMA20 at checkout.
  • The Terra Nova Voyager is also available in-store or online in the UK from Cotswold Outdoor and Snow + Rock, or online only from and Amazon. Try for second-hand offers and deals.
  • As with their subsidiary brand Wild Country, Terra Nova tents are not easily found outside the UK.

Hilleberg Nallo 2/3/GT (Sweden, £910+)


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 heavyweight 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 lighter 1.7kg Akto for soloists and bikepackers, and the freestanding and spacious 3.3kg Allak 2 for couples and heavyweight tourers. The Swedish brand of course makes excellent winter tents, with the 2.4kg Soulo standing out.

Ultralight Bikepacking Tents

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 thru-hiking circles because they’re the lightest and most packable shelters you can get.

The range of minimalist tents and shelters serving this niche has only grown with the rise of bikepacking, so consider this a sample of the kind of options you’ll find if you start digging deeper into this market. It is certainly not an exhaustive list: for that, you’ll have to visit a specialist bikepacking gear blog.

You’ll find some of the lighter tents from the list above – such as the Alpkit Ordos 2 or the MSR Hubba Hubba 1P – making their way onto bikepacking kit lists, possibly in stripped-down form.

Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo (USA, $260)

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.

Terra Nova Starlite (UK, £655)

Launched in 2018, the Terra Nova Starlite series, available in 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth options, was one of the first British tents specifically designed with bikepacking in mind. Aside from striking a great combination of weight and weather-resistance, the 2‑berth Starlite 2 weighs just 1.5kg and, thanks to a reduction in pole section length, has a packed length of just 29cm. This means it’ll fit easily into a small pannier, or strap to your handlebars using the stuff-sack’s integrated webbing loops.

Some might consider its non-freestanding tunnel 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.

  • Read my long-term review of the Starlite 2 here.
  • Get the Terra Nova Starlite 2 in the UK direct from Terra Nova, with a exclusive 20% discount when you use the voucher code TOMA20.
  • The Terra Nova Starlite 2 is also available online in the UK from Amazon,, and possibly elsewhere.
  • As previously noted, Terra Nova products are hard to find outside of the 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:

Yep, that’s a £20 tent from Tesco which I found at the local tip.

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

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

Bogged down in research for your next big bicycle adventure?

I wrote a book to help with that! How To Hit The Road is here to make planning a bike tour simple and achievable, no matter the length, duration or budget. Available as an ebook or paperback.


What’s The Best Camping Cookware For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?

This is a detailed introduction to choosing cooksets for cycle touring and bikepacking trips. From individual pots, pans, and mugs to full kits, I’ll cover the options for all budgets and requirements.

But first, some good news: when it comes to cycle touring cookware, ‘best’ does not necessarily mean ‘most expensive’.

Yes, a high quality camping stove is a sensible investment for a long cycle tour or bikepacking trip when reliability is paramount.

But that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on cookware – the collection of pots, pans, mugs, and other cooking equipment you use with that camping stove.

My dear wife Tenny, demonstrating that it’s okay to eat instant noodles straight out of the pot when you’re on a bike trip.

Stoves are often complex and highly engineered pieces of equipment. A metal pot is just a metal pot. Metal pots don’t leak, break, wear out, or explode in a ball of flame. They don’t need maintenance, spare parts, or repairs. They just need to be metal. And pot-shaped.

What this means is that you can – if it will help you save money for your ride – take whatever cookware you already have in your kitchen, pair it with your very expensive, ultra-reliable camping stove, and start pedalling. 

You don’t need the 5‑star-rated-on-Amazon, ultralight, all-in-one, folding, titanium, non-stick, lifetime-guaranteed, massively overpriced camping cookset your stove manufacturer would very much like you to buy. It won’t elevate your cookery skills, lower the boiling point of water, make instant noodles taste better, or improve your life in any measurable way.

So! Now we’ve put the role of cycle touring cookware firmly in perspective, let’s take a closer look at the type of cookware you might consider taking on your next overnight bike trip.

Cheap, simple and ultralight: a homemade beer-can stove boiling water in a tin mug.

What Makes Camping Cookware Different To Regular Cookware?

I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge of this subject. So, unlike AI-written blog posts created to put as many money-earning affiliate links in front of you as possible, I’d like to cover some of the basic principles first, starting with what actually defines cookware made specifically for the kind of camping you do on a bike trip.

The first thing to know about camping-specific cookware is that it is generally designed with the needs of hikers and backpackers in mind. This is by far the biggest market for such products. Hikers want their cookware to be light, packable, and compatible with the range of hiking/backpacking stoves they’re also likely to be carrying. 

We cycle tourers and backpackers don’t have the luxury of an industry making cookware specifically for us. But, just like backpackers, we also have a limited amount of luggage space, and we also want to be able to camp and cook in a self-sufficient manner. 

So it’s the hiking and backpacking department of your favourite outdoor retailer – as opposed to, say, the car-camping or caravanning department – in which you should be looking.

In terms of design, the most obvious difference when you pick up a piece of camping cookware and compare it to domestic cookware is the weight. 

Heavy-based pots distribute and retain heat better and so, under normal circumstances, are usually favoured by chefs. Our priorities differ; we’re trying to minimise pack weight to have a better time cycle touring or bikepacking, so we’re willing to compromise.

For this reason, most lightweight backcountry camping cookware is made of aluminium (or, in North America, aluminum), which is less dense and therefore lighter for the same pot size and thickness than steel or copper. Thin grades of metal are typically used, sacrificing heat distribution to save weight.

An entry-level aluminium cookset from Decathlon being used over an MSR DragonFly stove in Swedish Lapland.

Uncoated (ie: bare) aluminium is commonly used in the simplest of camping cooksets, including no-fuss military mess kits, and can take plenty of abuse being used over open fires and being scoured with sand and gravel from nearby streams. Bare aluminium is relatively soft, however, and the vibrations of a moving bicycle can – over time – cause surfaces to rub against each other, creating a greyish metallic paste that gets everywhere and is of little nutritional value.

Higher-grade camping cookware often has a protective hard-anodised coating – basically a dissolved, oxidised and hardened layer of aluminium on top of the base metal – which is more durable, has better nonstick properties, is less reactive to acidic foods, and is easier to clean. It isn’t indestructible; too many sand-scouring sessions will eventually tarnish even the best coatings, and it isn’t recommended for use over open fires.

Cookware with a non-stick coating may appeal to your inner chef, but avoid all but that which has been well and truly road-tested (see the listings below for some good examples); otherwise expect to find bits of black stuff floating around in your food after a couple of weeks of use.

A typical setup for today’s trendy ultralight bikepacker, consisting of a lidded titanium cooking mug over a tiny gas burner.

Ultralight titanium cookware is growing in popularity, especially among bikepackers. It’s lighter, tougher, and significantly more expensive than aluminium. Usually uncoated, it stands up to a lot of the abuse that would wear out a more delicate cookset.

Camping pots, pans and mugs have either folding or detachable handles (aka: lifters or grippers) for portability. For the same reason, an all-in-one cookset consisting of several items will often be designed to pack into itself like a Russian doll. Any remaining space can then be stuffed with cleaning supplies, instant coffee sachets, crushed packets of instant noodles… you get the idea. 

Experienced riders sometimes break down these kits and carry only the subset of the items that they actually use, using the remaining space for storage. How will you know for yourself? By going for a test-ride and finding out!

Not exactly cooking: brewing Turkish coffee over a top-mounted canister gas burner.

But Will You Really Be Cooking?

If you’re riding alone and your meals are going to be simple, there’s little point taking more gear than you need. Eating directly out of a cooking pot or mug is perfectly acceptable when you’re wild-camping and nobody’s looking. A separate, insulated mug is useful for hot drinks and leftover boiled water, especially on cold mornings. The simplest solo cooksets typically consist of little more than these two items.

Remember that your appetite will reach hitherto unimaginable proportions, and that the capacity of a ‘2‑person’ cookset may be appropriate for one hungry cyclist. Some ultralight solo riders get away with a single titanium mug and use it for everything, but may find themselves cooking two (or more) servings at the end of a long day.

Two stoves, three pots, a fresh chicken and a full range of spices went into this impromptu curry night somewhere in Oregon.

On longer trips with two or more people, the evening meal can be quite a social occasion, and the carrying capacity of a group allows for a more extensive kitchen. Some such groups take one massive pot and share it around until all involved are stuffed. Others discover the joys of ‘proper’ on-the-road cookery further down the road and thereafter ride with a full blown catering operation in their bags.

This is the time to figure out your priorities and plan your equipment needs accordingly. Perhaps one simple pot and a high-powered gas burner makes the most sense. Perhaps two ‘simmer stoves’, a five-piece nonstick cookset and a portable titanium pizza oven are going to better satisfy your culinary ambitions. Maybe, like most of us, you sit somewhere in the middle.

And the best way to know what you’ll actually need is to go for a shorter bike trip, experience a few days in the life of your future self, and make a note of what you used, what you didn’t, and what you wished you’d brought, then adjust your kit list accordingly.

This simple exercise will answer more of your questions about planning and preparing for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip than any amount of blog-reading ever will.

Riding through Central Europe with a Kelly Kettle, burning dry twigs to boil water for coffee and noodles.

The Best Camping Cooksets For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Basic principles covered – check! Let’s now go through some of the most popular and reliable cooksets, pots, pans, and other cookware for cycle touring and bikepacking, from low-budget options to the very top of the line, and from ultra-minimal to pro-chef gourmet.

As well as globally-available brands, I’ll list a variety of popular regional options for readers in the UK, USA and Canada. Affiliate links are marked with an asterisk (*); read my full policy here.

Again: this is not a list of stuff I found when I googled “best cycle touring cookware” for my new AI-generated spam blog full of affiliate links.

I’m not a robot. I’ve been riding the world and writing this blog for 15 years. I’ve known hundreds of other riders around the globe and have met thousands more on the road. So this post represents what cycle tourists and bikepackers are using in real life, not which company has the most effective influencer marketing campaign or paid for the most fake 5‑star reviews on Amazon.


Cheap & Basic Pots & Mugs For Boiling Water On A Bike Trip

If you’re trying to save every last penny or cent, simply grab the smallest metal pot or mug you can find at the nearest charity shop/thrift store/yard sale, or whatever people are giving away on Freecycle in your local area, or whatever your parents hoarded somewhere in case it one day becomes useful, or whatever you can swipe from your own kitchen without the landlord noticing. Pair it with a homemade beer can stove and you’re ready to go. You can stop reading and start riding now. Have fun!

(See this article for more tips on sourcing free gear.)

A very expensive MSR WhisperLite Universal stove paired with a cheap saucepan from someone’s mum’s kitchen.

For cheap but durable cooking pots, a good place to start is with military mess tins, aka: mess kits.

Two-piece rectangular mess tins like this have been used by people cooking outdoors for over 80 years.

In the UK, the British Army issue kit since 1937 has been a pair of rectangular aluminium mess tins with folding handles which fit inside each other and pack down as a storage box (which, with a depth of 6cm, will fit nicely into a full-size frame bag). Usually used to heat ration packs and boil water for a brew, the kit is designed for a type of solid-fuel stove commonly known as the hexi or Esbit, but will work fine on any camping burner. You’ll find them on eBay for less than £10.

Elsewhere in the world you’ll find similar military-issue mess kits (for my first big ride I used a set of Czech army cooking pots off eBay), as well as plenty of imitation military gear. Stick to original equipment if you can.

Elsewhere in the category of cheap camping cookware, it’s easy to find entry-level backpacking and hiking kits at big outdoor retailers and from mainstream global brands. Expect such cooksets to be lighter, flimsier, and possibly more colourful than the military kits. Avoid clever-sounding gimmicks and features, and look for simple offerings with as little to go wrong as possible.

As simple as it gets – two nested and lidded aluminium pots, plus a detatchable pot lifter/grabber, for under £10.

In the UK and Europe (and increasingly beyond), Decathlon make and sell a basic stainless steel cookset for £10, which at just over 1 litre is about the right capacity for a hungry solo cyclist. It’s made of very thin metal and will doubtless burn anything but water, but it’ll get you through your first bike tour.

At Go Outdoors, among all the cheap and cheerful car-camping gear you’ll find a no-frills backpacking aluminium cookset under the Eurohike brand, as well as a military-style mess kit from Hi Gear, each for less than £10.

Slightly higher up the budget scale, Alpkit make the AliPots hard-anodised 2‑person cookset for £30, which won’t break the bank and will suit a couple or pair (or can be split up for a solo rider). The folding handles are slightly flimsy and you’ll eventually melt their rubberised coatings by accident, but that’s a criticism common to similar cooksets from other brands.

Individual pots and pans from the Trangia cookset range can be purchased very affordably, with either bare aluminium or hard-anodised finishes. It’s worth mentioning that if you’re planning on using the Trangia stove system anyway, the all-in-one kits will probably work out better value, and you’ll be sure that all the bits will fit together when packed – see the following section for recommendations. 

Trangia products can be ordered worldwide direct from Trangia, and in the UK are available on the high street from Go Outdoors or Millets, as well as online from Amazon. Having been so popular for so long, second-hand Trangia cooksets can readily be found on eBay. The brand isn’t officially distributed in the USA but you can still find their products on Amazon.

For bikepackers looking to minimise weight and pack size but on a low budget, a single-wall metal mug can fit nicely in a frame bag or cockpit pouch and allow you to boil water on a stove or campfire for instant meals and hot drinks (don’t burn your lips!). Look for something with at least 500ml (18oz) capacity; a lid will speed up your boils and keep the contents hot for longer. 

Affordable options in this category include this hard-anodised aluminium mug/bowl from Go Outdoors in the UK and a classic stainless steel mug from GSI Outdoors’s Glacier range in the USA (Amazon/REI).

Durable & Versatile Camping Cookware For Long-Haul Bike Trips

Thin, bare metal cooking pots – especially when used with tiny gas burners – diffuse heat poorly and therefore tend to suffer from ‘hot spots’. This can restrict your cookery ambitions to things that can be boiled, with a lot of stirring to avoid food sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning.

But with hard-anodised aluminium or titanium cookware, and perhaps a really good non-stick pan – plus a carefully-chosen camping stove with an adjustable flame – your culinary options open up considerably.

An MSR Quick Solo pot on the boil somewhere in the Patagonian wilderness.

If you’re a keen cook, you may have already decided that you’re happy to invest in premium cookware. But if you are unaccustomed to the feeling of having cycled for eight hours while hauling half your bodyweight in luggage over mountains on bumpy roads, it is very easy to romanticise the end-of-day camping experience.

In reality, dinner on a bike tour tends to involve shovelling an alarming amount of calories down your throat with no concern for what it tastes like, let alone what equipment you used to prepare it. 

This is yet another reason why it’s worth heading off on an overnight test ride in advance of departing on a big trip.

All of the premium camping stove manufacturers sell high quality cooksets to match the stoves themselves, but you’ll pay a premium for your brand loyalty. Affordable options from other makers can also achieve the same thing. In any case, let’s have a look at the most highly-rated options in this broad category.

Premium Camping Cookware For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

A titanium mug is hard-wearing enough to be placed over embers – just remember to put on your riding gloves before picking it up!

Titanium single-wall cooking mugs are becoming more popular and affordable thanks to the bikepacking boom, being lighter and more resistant to denting and oxidisation, and fitting nicely in a cockpit bag – but the prices can still be double or more that of the basic steel or aluminium equivalent. As with so many types of outdoor gear, you pay more to carry less.

Good options in the UK include Alpkit’s MyTiMug range (I use the 98g/650ml version pictured above) and Snow Peak’s Trek range of lidded titanium cooking mugs, which come in 136g/700ml (direct / Amazon) and 175g/900ml (direct / Amazon) capacities and are designed to house a stove and gas canister. Snow Peak products are also well distributed in the USA, including the aforementioned Trek 700 (REI / Amazon) and Trek 900 (REI / Amazon) titanium mugs.

You’ll find tons of similar-looking no-brand or fake-brand products at big online retailers such as Amazon and eBay. Always remember: a metal pot is just a metal pot. Look for at least 600ml (21oz) capacity to ensure you can cook a decent portion of food – this is also roughly what a typical dehydrated meal requires – and a lid for more efficient boils.

Moving on to ‘real’ pots and pans, MSR’s Quick Solo cookset was a favourite among solo riders (including me) until it was replaced by the Trail Lite Solo, which appears almost identical but is yet to be road-tested in the long term. 

Thankfully, the upsized Quick 2 cookset (Alpine Trek / REI / MEC / Amazon) lives on and remains highly recommended for couples and pairs. The set includes two insulated mugs, two sensibly-sized (1.5- and 2.5‑litre) hard-anodised pots with strainer lids and detachable handles, and two deep plates, all colour-coded for separation. The Quick 2 cookset has been in production for decades and continues to win awards for its tried-and-tested design and proven durability.

From Swedish manufacturer Primus, look for the LiTech range of hard-anodised aluminium pot sets, which come in 1.3- and 2.3‑litre sizes for soloists and pairs/groups respectively, again with a useful strainer lid and a detachable pot gripper. The non-stick frying pan from this range, bought separately, is one of the few whose durability and long-lasting non-stickiness have been proven on long haul rides.

Finally, and also hailing from Sweden, long-running stove makers Trangia also make hard-anodised pots and pans, both with and without a non-stick coating. Their products are broadly split into two counterintiutively-named ranges based on capacity: the 27 series is designed for soloists, and the 25 series for pair/group use. 

A common criticism levelled at Trangia cooksets is their weight and bulk, but with a decades-long track record their durability is a big selling point for riders looking at months or years on the road.

A bewildering array of combination sets is available, or you can choose individual items. The classic example is the DofE-recommended 27–1 UL set for 1–2 people (pictured above), which consists of two pots, a frying pan/lid, a pot gripper, and the stove and windshield assembly itself, all made of ultralight bare aluminium.

Solo minimalist bikepackers should consider the ultralight Mini Trangia cookset (Amazon / Millets / REI / MEC), originally designed for adventure racers, which consists of a single 800ml pot with detachable handle, a non-stick frying pan which doubles as a lid, the spirit burner itself, and a windshield. It all packs down into a 67mm-deep unit weighing just 350g, and you can fry an omelette on it. Pretty neat.

Non-Stick Camping Cookware For Gourmet On-The-Road Cookery

Right at the top end of the camping cookware market are offerings such as those from US-based camping cookware specialist GSI Outdoors. Their Pinnacle fry pan (Amazon / / has been singled out as the go-to long-lasting non-stick camping frying pan for gourmet chefs on bikes. The aforementioned Primus LiTech non-stick frying pan comes with similar accolades.

No non-stick coating will last forever, no matter how durable or expensive. Years down the line it’ll be those bruised and beaten aluminium mess tins that are still serving up noodles as happily as they were on day one. You can prolong the lives of coated pots with a simple routine of protecting the inner surfaces when packed by stuffing them with cleaning cloths and making sure nothing rattles.

Bonus: A Short Rant About Camping Utensils & Accessories

You do not need a titanium spork.

You don’t need folding cutlery. You don’t need a miniature silicone chopping board, a branded 1‑shot moka pot, or any of the other bolt-on gimmicks that get sold alongside stoves and cookware to double the value of your shopping cart.

For most, a spoon and fork from your cutlery drawer will be all you need. If you’re concerned about non-stick cookware, grab a wooden spoon as well.

Get a simple, good-quality knife to prepare food, to eat with, and for other camp-craft activities, and learn how to sharpen it properly. A so-called Swiss army knife or a multi-tool such as a Leatherman or Gerber may seem like the perfect solution but the folding mechanism will end up full of cheese. A classic choice here is the much-copied and ubiquitous Opinel range, hailing from the French Alps and in production since 1890. The No.8 (Amazon / / MEC), with an 8cm-long blade, is the original and most popular size – I’ve personally been using this knife for over a decade.

Do you need plates? Bowls? Plastic champagne flutes? Maybe – if your cooking style (and whim) demands it. I’ve travelled with riders whose mobile kitchens dominated their luggage, and for whom dinner was a two- or three-hour celebration of bush cookery and subsequent feasting.

My advice? Don’t spend any serious money on this stuff unless you absolutely know this is the way you do things. Especially if you’re alone, it’s far more likely that after a few weeks on the road you’ll be slurping noodles out of an upcycled food can with a tyre lever, having long since stopped caring about anything other than calories.

British cyclist cooks Indonesian noodles in Egyptian desert over American stove next to German tent in accidental multicultural bonanza

A few more hot tips from experience:

  • Find a small, airtight container such as a film canister and top it up with salt whenever you have the opportunity, as you’ll need more salt in your diet to replace what you sweat out during the day,
  • A larger, lidded, airtight ‘Tupperware’ container will serve you well as a leftover food container, spare plate/bowl, draining board, chopping board, and a whole host of other uses, ticking that all-important ‘versatile’ box which your titanium spork does not,
  • Rinse out one of those free hotel shampoo/shower gel bottles, fill it with washing-up liquid, cut a standard abrasive dish sponge in half, and put both in a Ziploc bag to create a handy washing-up kit,
  • One tough (ie: non-ultralight) drybag can be very useful for packing away damp, greasy, soot-covered cookware in the rain and keeping it isolated from the rest of your gear, and
  • A touring cyclist can never have too many plastic carrier bags – in fact, you may find you become quite the connoisseur.

In general, the cooking/eating/cleaning scenario is either one for which you already know exactly how you like to do things (from experience), or for which you very quickly discover what does and doesn’t work for you (through experience). It’s difficult to design a routine in advance if you are not familiar with the circumstances in which you’ll be operating. 

Luckily it’s also unnecessary – basic cooking and cleaning supplies will be found wherever you’ll find settlements, which on a road trip will be a daily occurrence.

By the time you reach anywhere remote enough that there aren’t any settlements (if that ever happens), you’ll have had plenty of time to whittle your routine down to a fine art.

Let’s eat!

Equipment Planning & Logistics

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

Last updated on January 27, 2023 with updated retailer links.

A view of a landscape at sunrise, taken from just inside the door of a tent while sitting on a camping mattress.

It’s time to deep-dive into another thorny topic (no pun intended) for budding cycle tourers and bikepackers: how to choose a camping mattress, or, as my North American friends would call it, a sleeping pad.

We’ll be looking 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 combine advice from my 15 years of bike touring experience with a list of camping mattresses for cycle touring and bikepacking recommended by the riding community today.

By the way, this is not another AI-written, search-engine-optimised spam blog.

This is a personal long-term labour of love, and it’s here to help you hit the road, not make me money in my sleep.

For that reason, while gear listings like this are always popular, I’d much rather you also read posts like How To Cycle Round The World In 3 Easy Steps, Planning A Really Long Bike Trip? Ask Yourself These 7 Critical Questions First, and whatever else resonates with you from the half-a-million words of free advice I’ve linked to from here.

But for now, let’s get back to camping mattresses for bicycle travellers. 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 also affect what type 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 deciding factor is your own sleeping preferences.

Some people can unroll a thin piece of foam on rocky ground and sleep the whole night through. Others, especially side-sleepers, need a thick layer 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.

So head on down to your nearest camping store and actually lie down on some of the options before you spend any money.

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.

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, as opposed to what cheap piece of crap has the most paid-for 5‑star reviews on Amazon this week.

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, USA and Canada 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 won’t make me rich but will help me keep articles like this one free-to-read and ad-free.

The Best Closed-Cell Foam Camping Mats & Sleeping Pads

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 Mats & Sleeping Pads 

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 are positive 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 below) 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 double 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 that 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. Pack earplugs anyway.

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 rather eye-watering 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 above. 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 or Moosejaw.
  • Buy the Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. in Canada from MEC.

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 #1: What Does The “R‑Value” Mean?

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 laboratories 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.

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, you need to know what R‑values mean in the context of a bike trip. For much of the temperate zone, the R‑value rating of a given product roughly matches the number of seasons you could use it in. 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 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 add 1 to your target R‑value, ie: 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.

Bonus #2: 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…


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.