Under the Tarp

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


BIKEPACKER is written by Jill Homer, deputy editor for Adventure Cyclist magazine.


Robin Brodsky March 8, 2014, 7:14 PM

I've used both a tent and a tarp. Unless it's all back country which for me on a bike is not so much, then a tarp is great! Even then it can be difficult if my bicycle is part of the structure of the tarp, to set up camp and then go for an evening ride. When ycle touring the front country or even in rural areas where I might be using a campground or a cyclist friendly yard, I prefer the privacy that a tent offers. Not to mention buggzzzzz... There are some very light weight and small tents out there these days and the technology just keeps getting better. Just a thought.

alang February 23, 2011, 5:58 PM

bug netting is a must have, if there are bugs.

i like using a tent footprint. they can be had for about $5 in my town and come in different shapes with built-in attachment points. they are small enough that i bring and extra for sleeping on.

Cellarrat February 23, 2011, 4:24 PM

I really do like the setup even can work in Blowing rain if setup properly.... Bug netting can be rigged as well for not allot of money or wight if headed where it is buggy...


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