February 23, 2011
On a mountain bike, space is often at a premium. One of the most effective places to cut both space and weight on a bicycle camping trip is your shelter. Even light solo tents usually weigh two to three pounds and take up quite a bit of space. Bivy sacks can feel claustrophobic and don't always provide the best protection from the weather. A great method is to use a SilNylon or polyethylene "tarp," rope, and stakes to construct a barrier from the elements.
Often touted by ultra-light backpackers as the ultimate shelters, "tarp tents" are lightweight, versatile, and simple. Most commercial tarp tents require trees, fence posts, or rigid objects such as poles to add shape to the tarp. Bikepackers don't carry hiking poles the way backpackers do, but the bike itself can make a great "pole" in a pinch. The above photo, taken by Dave Nice, shows the MSR E-Wing Solo Tent pitched in the Utah desert. The shelter, weighing in at a feathery six ounces, can pack down to the size of a soda can. Even with the guyline and stakes, it still weighs less than a pound.
Regular tarps also can be used by stretching the tarp over the wheels of the overturned bicycle and staking down the guylines tight on all sides, utilizing trees and rocks where available. Tarp shelters are all about creativity. A few extra ropes and stakes allow bikepackers to rig up a shelter that can withstand fairly severe conditions.
For do-it-yourselfers, the backpackinglight.com website offers detailed instructions for constructing your own tarp shelter out of a 3 mm polyethylene sheet (found at stores like Home Depot), rope, and stakes. Tarp shelters won't keep out bugs, but they do effectively block wind and rain, with the added bonus of gear storage space in an extremely lightweight package.
Photo by Dave Nice