If one challenge plagues bikepackers more than any other, it’s bulk. While it’s common for backpackers to strive for the absolute lightest gear possible, bikepackers, especially those who ride smaller bikes, face the reality that bikepacking bags have a very finite volume. And while having ultralight gear certainly helps a loaded bike behave with more agility, if you have an overstuffed seat bag buzzing on the rear tire, a bulky backpack weighing on your butt, or too much gear strapped to the front end of the bike, that’s a lot of fun taken out of the experience.
Among the bulkiest items bikepackers often carry is the sleep kit – sleeping bag, pad, and shelter. Here, we’ll look at a few of the many options for shelters and why bikepackers might opt for one over another. These include everything from a minimalist bivy sack or tarp to floorless mids, tarp tents, and more conventional double-wall tents.
The most basic shelter solution is to simply skip the shelter altogether – head out on your trip when there’s a bluebird weather forecast and biting bugs aren’t likely to be a problem. In some parts of the world, this is a legitimately reasonable approach – I’ve used it countless times in the Desert Southwest for trips a few days in length. Alternatively, if there’s a slight chance of rain, carrying something like a simple rectangular tarp or a bivy sack can be a great option. The SilPoly tarps from UGQ ($130+ and made to order in Michigan), for example, weigh just 14 ounces, pack down to the size of a can of soda, and will easily keep two people dry in a heavy downpour if pitched well. I carried one for 3 weeks last summer and never used it once, but I was relieved to know I had it buried in my seat bag every time I saw afternoon thunderstorms building. If carrying a tarp, ample cord for guy lines, a working knowledge of how to tie a truckers hitch, a few stakes, and a campsite with at least a tree or fence post will all come in handy.
Bivies can be a great option for a solo traveler or for pairing with a tarp or floorless shelter in buggy places. Ultralight bivies like the FK Bivy from Ultimate Directions (8 ounces, $180) are water resistant and will keep the bugs at bay, but they’re useless on their own in the rain. And many legitimately waterproof bivies are notably bulkier and develop a moderate amount of condensation on the inside (both on the bivy and on the sleeping bag itself), particularly on cold nights. I’ve carried the Montbell Breeze Dry-Tec U.L. sleeping bag cover (6 ounces, $125) on countless trips, and although it’s not particularly comfortable to sleep in in the rain and it lacks any sort of bug mesh, it compresses to the size of a soda can and is surprisingly waterproof. A bit more glamorous than a bivy is the FK Tarp from Ultimate Directions (14 oz, $200) that can be pitched over a bike’s handlebar instead of poles. Crawling inside once pitched is a bit awkward, and you might feel like you’re nuzzling with your bike’s front wheel all night, but the shelter will indeed keep one person, or perhaps even 1.5 people, protected from a passing storm or two. You’ll likely sleep better in there than in a bivy, and the FK Tarp packs down as small as one, anyway.
The next step up from tarps and bivies are tarp tents and mids – floorless single-walled shelters that require a pole of some sort and provide significant protection from adverse weather and can usually stand up to gusty winds. However, bugs can find their way around the edges, so a headnet can be helpful to carry along in some places, and in other areas, a bug mesh insert may be needed to maintain sanity. I also once awoke to everything in a mid covered in large slugs that had slid in overnight. Really. Tarp tents have become quite popular among backpackers since trekking poles can be used instead of also carrying tent poles. But most bikepackers don’t carry trekking poles, so some sort of pole is still needed. And packing a ground sheet or some Tyvek is important for keeping your gear dry when on soggy ground. I’ve spent considerable time in a few different mids and tarp tents – the Black Diamond Beta Light (24 ounces w/o poles, $220), the Nemo Apollo (27 ounces w/ pole, $250), and the Hyperlight UltaMid 2 (18 ounces, w/o pole $715).
The Beta Light is a spacious two-pole design that has stood up to nearly a decade of serious use all over the globe for me. It packs down to the size of a 1-L water bottle, and when paired with a set of slim carbon fiber poles from ZPacks that break down in foot-long segments and weigh just a couple ounces, this setup is tough to beat. Just don’t plan on getting too cuddly inside with those two poles planted in the middle of the shelter. The Nemo Apollo is a single-pole mid that claims to sleep 3, but sleeping more than two people in there would be a serious challenge. It’s a bit bulkier than the Beta Light (50% larger than a 1-L water bottle), and the hefty pole is still 19” long when collapsed, making it a bit awkward to pack on a bike. But the Apollo has kept me dry through numerous stormy nights, though its stability has had me a little nervous when it gets gusty. Finally, the Hyperlight UltaMid 2 is the no-holds-barred ultralight shelter – legitimately roomy enough for 3 people, tall enough that you can sit up comfortably without leaning on the wall, vented at the top, and hand-crafted in Maine. Made of Dyneema composite (formerly known as cuben fiber), the shelter doesn’t stretch when wet or absorb any water, and it can be guyed out to withstand heavy winds. The primary disadvantages to Dyneema are its price and its bulk – despite being so light, it is more than 50 percent larger than a 1-L water bottle when packed. Dyneema does get more compressible with use, however. Both the Beta Light and the UltaMid 2 also have separate inner bug tents available, and both at least double the bulk of the shelter when packed; there is also a floorless mesh insert available for the UltaMid 2 that’s considerably more compact when stuffed.
And then there are full-blown tents. Tents generally will offer better protection from rain and snow, keep bugs and crawly critters completely out, and feel a lot homier. But all that comes with a notable increase in both bulk and weight. Ultralight options made of surprisingly thin fabric like the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 (41 oz, $350) and the Nemo Hornet (41 oz, $360—we’re also really big fans of the Hornet Elite) pack down to about the size of 2 1-L water bottles plus a bundle of long aluminum pole sections. The Fly Creek series can also be set up without the tent body, offering a tarp-tent style shelter should you ever want to leave the body behind, and a new bikepacking-specific option in several models from Big Agnes includes shorter, more packable pole sections. However, when it comes to livability, the Fly Creek is very small for two people and two full-sized sleeping pads; the Hornet offers notably more space.
Shelter options are virtually endless, and fortunately for bikepackers, quite a few of these options pack down to reasonable sizes that allow us to carry more than just a tent in any one bike bag. The shelter style you choose will depend on your preference for coziness (full tents usually win out here), absolute minimal bulk (tarps or bivies take the cake here), some level of compromise (perhaps a floorless shelter), and the weather and critter and bug concerns.