To help you choose a tent, think about the following points:
- What kind of trip: a few weeks, a few months, more than a year… If you go for a short time, a cheap tent won’t have the time to be damaged. For a long trip, prefer tough materials and comfortable dimensions. You can sleep in a small tent for two weeks but bumping into each other during two years can transform a restful night into a nightmare. A tent that starts leaking 3 months after the beginning of a trip add delays: you loose time looking for a new one, or even get someone to send you a new one and it adds on cost.
- Will you use the tent every day or only a few times a week/month (if you sleep mostly in hostels)
- Do you tend to rough camp or sleep in paying camp sites, or even ask people to sleep in their garden? Rough camping is hard on groundsheets. Think about the colour of the tent. Mountain tents are wind-resistant but unfortunately usually orange or red, which makes them very visible. Prefer a green or kaki tent. We put black tape on the reflectors of the tent to avoid being visible in the night.
- How many people and how much luggage? Many tents have a narrow inner tent (1.20 m). If this is the case, make sure the vestibules are big enough otherwise the space will be very cramped.
Dimensions of our tent: inner tent: 2.20m x 1.60m; vestibules: 2.20m x 0.70m (triangular shape) and 2.20m x 1 m (trapeze shape). The inner tent is very comfortable but the vestibules are a bit small.
A two-entrance tent is better ventilated and is also more convenient if you are a couple (faster to pack when each of you has a door). But we saw a lot of cyclists with a one entrance door and they were fine.
If you travel by yourself, remember to get a tent you can setup without help.
- What climate: sunny with rain from time to time, very windy, cold, very hot and dry, rainy… If you are in doubt and your trip takes you through diverse climates, a 4-season tent is a good choice. Same motto as for the sleeping bag: if it is too warm, you can open it and if it is cold, you are warm! When it rains, you will need more space to remove your wet clothes without wetting the inner tent and to put these wet clothes somewhere. When you compare tents, remember to check the data for water resistance (mm) for floor and flysheet.
- Weight of the tent: lightweight tents use light fabrics and alloys and the diameter of the poles is smaller. Whatever the tent makers say, lighter often means weaker. If you only use your tent a few weeks a year, this is fine. If on the other hand, you leave for a year or more, reconsider… For two persons, a tent between 3 and 4 kg is not extravagant.
What often breaks first on a tent: the zips. The zips of our tent started being capricious only after two years, a rather good score. We saw a Vaude Hogan XT (a very good tent for wind and volume) which zip of the inner tent broke after only a few months of use. Don’t write off a tent because of weak zips though, you can always change them for strong ones before going on your trip.
Maintaining the zips: Friedel and Andrew (TravellingTwo) explain here how to keep the zips in good working condition (following advice of Hilleberg). Brush the zips regularly with a toothbrush to remove the sand and dust. If the zip doesn’t work, the first step is to change the metallic piece that brings the two parts of the zip together (something you can do yourself). If the teeth of the zip are damaged, you need to change the whole zip.
We left with a tunnel tent (Helsport Fjelheimen Camp 3) because we read that it was strong against the wind. Three months into our trip we realised we had other criteria, just as important. We noticed a tunnel tent does perform well in the wind as long the wind doesn’t turn! This type of tent might be better for regions with not so much wind (or constant direction wind!) and for a spacious vestibule. We also thought the outer sheet should be setup first to protect the luggage in case of rain. Actually, once you know your tent, it is setup very quickly.
In Istanbul (July 2008), we sent home our tent and bought a Marmot Nusku 3P which we are very pleased with: strong fabric and poles, semi-geodesic structure which doesn’t move even in strong wind (tested in Patagonia!).
Other tents have apperared in the past few years: semi-geodesic tents or geodesic with a tunnel shape (Vaude Hogan XT, Mountain Equipment Dragonfly 2XT…). They perform well in the wind and have a spacious vestibule. But they often have only one entrance.
Criteria that matter to us:
- Self-standing: useful to pitch on rocky or even concrete grounds.
Be careful! A self-standing tent should still be pitched with pegs. We once pitched on a quiet evening and didn’t put the guylines … we got woken up by strong winds!
- Two entrances: to pack and unpack without bumping into each other and for a good ventilation.
- Geodesic or semi-geodesic: the Marmot Nusku has 3 intertwined poles and a flattened shape. By strong wind, it doesn’t move contrary to our old tunnel tent that was vibrating and noisy.
- Strong materials: who cares about an extra kg, we want a tent that will last several years (the Marmot Nusku weighs almost 4 kg).
- Only regret: the vestibules are a bit small. It is difficult to cook or remove wet clothes when it is raining. Maybe next time, we get its big sister, the Marmot Asgard 3P.
We put two footprints under the tent to cover the area (inner tent + vestibules). It keeps the floor of the tent in good condition and avoid the panniers to get dirty on muddy grounds. The bikes sleep outside, close to the tent, under the tarp, to protect from the rain and from curious people (the tarp makes noise when it moves). We also sometimes put an alarm that is triggered by movement.
Pegs: we tried several types before finding some strong ones: straight with a star section (3 branches, Marmot) and for very hard grounds, MSR pegs that look like big nails. The worse were the pegs with a thread, they were bent after a few times.
Wet tent: if you pack your tent wet in the morning, remember to separate the inner tent and the flysheet. Otherwise, when you unpack at night, the inner tent will be wet too.
Clean your tent regularly: the fabric of our tent shrinks with dust and dry weather. A wipe with a sponge and it is soft again.
Clothes line: install it inside the tent. Wet socks, table cloth, towel … will dry during the night.
Down or synthetic?
+ Light, and not too bulky.
- Dries slowly once wet, expensive.
The opposite of down! Heavier and more bulky than down for an equivalent temperature but cheaper.
As a sleeping bag spends its days in a waterproof bag and its nights in a tent, it should never get wet, so we left with two sleeping bags in goose down, Rab 600. A few weeks in the trip, Sylvie’s bag went under a train and we bought a Valandré Blue 600. The outer fabric seems more resistant and most of all, the bag is guaranteed by Valandré. All in all, we are both happy of our sleeping bags.
If you go for a long trip, it might be a good idea to take a sleeping bag slightly warmer than you would have chosen initially. Over time, the down looses its puffiness (and so its warmth power) as it is often stored tight in a bag.
Remember to take your sleeping bags out in the sun from time to time. They get their puffiness back and smell better.
A silk liner keeps your bag clean and gives you a few additional degrees of heat.
There are many brands you can choose from. We have a Thermarest Regular 3.8. We also saw some cyclists with inflatable mattresses from Exped. We think it is better to take a full size mattress (and not a ¾) for the comfort and the insulation from the ground (protects from the cold).
Deflate your mattress! Don’t keep your mattress inflated in the tent or outside in the tent, the fabric comesunstuck and creates big bubbles. Open the valve in the morning if your mattress is having a rest day in the tent.