Author Topic: Tarp camping for bicycle travel  (Read 209 times)

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Offline davidbonn

Tarp camping for bicycle travel
« on: May 19, 2024, 01:03:46 pm »
I'll admit it, I'm eccentric and opinionated.

These last twenty-odd years I have almost exclusively camped with tarps.  And on the average they have worked superbly for me in a wide variety of often hideous conditions.  That includes extremely foul weather and downright miserably buggy conditions.

Some of the advantages that keep me camping with tarps are:

  • Tarp setups can be extremely light.  For a one-person configuration it is reasonable that total shelter weight will be less than 24 ounces.  If you are hard core about it you can cut that almost in half.  And along with that lighter weight there is less bulk which means less room taken up by shelter in your bike bags.
  • By the insane standards of modern outdoor gear, tarps are quite reasonably priced.  You can get yourself a spiffy, lightweight, bug and storm-proof one-person shelter for about $250.  If you shop around and are a bit creative you can get a rough-and-ready setup that will work great for about $100 less.
  • Tarps have variable geometry.  You can set the same tarp up different ways to adapt to different conditions.  You might pitch the tarp low and wide when faced with windy and stormy conditions, and you can pitch the same tarp high and venty when things are humid and buggy.
    Also, you can vary what goes inside the tarp as well.  From a simple ground sheet to an elaborate bug shelter depending on conditions.
  • On the average, you will stay dryer with a well-pitched tarp over most any tent.  Whatever you lose in storm-proofness in a tarp you gain far more from the additional ventilation.
  • Tarps are very roomy.  In terms of ounces (and dollars) per square foot of space they have a very favorable ratio compared to tents.  That means in stormy weather you can pack and unpack all of your gear under the tarp and keep it there.  And because of the excellent ventilation you can often dry out soggy gear under the tarp.
  • Tarps do not require poles and many of the interior accessories do not have zippers.  Both of which are major failure points on even the best tent.
  • You can see out while inside.

Of course, it isn't all fluffy bunnies, unicorns, and rainbows here in Tarp World.  There are some complications and challenges that you might have along the way.

  • Tarps require a certain amount of practice to get great results.  Since there isn't a Tarp School you'll need to learn that through experience and experimentation.  Keep in mind that not all experiments will be successful.
  • You'll need to be fussier with site selection and orientation than you'd typically need to be with a tent.
  • It takes a while to develop the "eye" and the three-dimensional visualization skills needed to see how your tarp will fit into a certain site.
  • If you're the kind of person who comes into camp two hours after sunset and sets up camp in the pitch dark, you probably won't be very happy with a tarp.
  • Some sites, in particular sites with very hard ground and sites without suitable features to hang a ridgeline, are poor choices for tarp camping.
  • You have much less privacy in a tarp.  This might or might not matter to you.
  • Tarps made with modern lightweight fabrics need to be pitched properly and securely.  A tarp loosely pitched and flapping in a strong wind can rip itself to pieces in seconds.  Staking out side pullouts can help keep a firm and taught pitch.

Basically, you can consider tarps a great example of where you can trade weight with skill.

There are two basic flavors to consider.  Rectangular tarps are just that, rectangular pieces of waterproof fabric with tie-outs.  They offer quite a bit of flexibility in their setup and a lower cost, on average.  An 8x10 tarp is enormous for one person and quite comfortably roomy for two.  A 10x12 tarp is luxurious accomodations for two people.

A good example of a rectangular silnylon tarp at a reasonable price:

There are also A-frame tarps.  Typically they use a catenary cut and are tapered.  They are somewhat more expensive and somewhat lighter than a straight-up rectangular tarp.  You also lose some flexibility because you can really only pitch them in an a-frame.  On the other hand they tend to be easier to get into a secure and taught pitch and require fewer stakes to do so.

A good example of an A-frame tarp:

I don't typically carry poles.  In practice I can almost always rig the ridgelines to trees, and if trees aren't available or aren't in the right places I can improvise by attaching one end or the other to a goodsized shrubbery, stringing it over a boulder, or using a picnic table.  In a pinch you can even use your bike (best to run the ridgeline through the saddle rails).

Typically I'll bring eight stakes.  That's enough for the ridgeline, four corners, and two side pull outs.  I'll rarely need all eight stakes for a given pitch.

It is a good idea to take three or four pieces of extra cord in six or eight foot lengths that you can use to extend the ridgeline.  Also have a few extra loops of cord around two feet long for side pullouts if you need them.  You can get away with very light cord for side pullouts, I often use 80-pound test kite string.

So what goes inside the tarp?

In some conditions, all you'll need is a ground sheet.  You can easily and cheaply make one from a piece of Tyvek.  While not particularly durable, Tyvek will still last months and is easily replaceable while on journey.

I often use a basic bivy sack, especially in cooler and not-very-buggy conditions.  This inexpensive model from Oware is representative of what you should be looking for (note the top is not waterproof so this bivy isn't really suitable for use on its own):

If you are concerned about insects and other multi-legged small game, you can carry a somewhat heavier and more expensive bug shelter and feel secure and less chewed upon while you slumber.  Some representative examples:

Note that with the Sea To Summit shelter you'll want a ground sheet.