There are some riders who don’t camp, but most overlanders will spend a lot of time living in a tent. But which tent? It wasn’t that long ago there wasn’t a lot of choices. Small, lightweight backpacking tents or large, expedition style tents. Or, of course, the ones that combined the lightweight materials of the backpacker tent with the interior size and space of the expedition tent – and then charged a premium for what was, basically, a car tent.
But the adventure and overland motorcycle market has taken off in the last few years, and as a result there are now tents targeted our demographic. Since all those other tents are still around, all that’s really happened is that there are now more choices in tents, rather than less. I know, many of you might want to limit your choices to just the tents thats market themselves for motorcyclists, but hear me out before you buy.
Tents are one of the three things you need to be comfortable camping (the other two are your sleeping bag and sleeping pad, I’ll get into those later). Of the three, it’s probably the one you can spend the least amount of money on.
I’ll write that again. It’s probably the one you can spend the least amount of money on.
The main purpose of the tent is to provide weather protection – wind, rain, sun, and snow. Most tents, regardless of cost, can manage this right out of the box. It’s true there are specialized winter tents, but those are bulky and heavy, and unless you are planning to spend a lot of time riding in arctic conditions, you can’t need it.
So, if just about any old tent will provide shelter, how do you know which tent to buy? There are some features that make a tent good for overlanding, and any tent you buy should have.
Free Standing – There will be a lot of places in the world where you can camp, but won’t be able to tie to things or put stakes in the ground, so any tent should be able to stand on it’s own. There are many overlanders who are traveling with non-freestanding tents, but even those tents usually require very little in the way of staking. And, yes, I travel with a hammock – and there have been places where I wanted to set up but couldn’t. I always found somewhere, but that isn’t the same and being where I wanted to be.
Sturdy Floor – A lot of modern backpacking tents have footprints available. This is mainly due to weight savings on the tent body by using a lightweight material for the floor – which doesn’t provide enough protection from sharp things or moisture from the ground. Personally, I’d rather have the extra weight and lose the footprint, but some tents also allow you to use the footprint and mosquito netting or light rain fly alone – and I can see how that might be nice – but I’d rather not have to worry about things poking through the bottom of the tent and deflating my pad, or water seeping in.
A Vestibule – I know, hammocks don’t really have vestibules either. What I mean when I write “vestibule” is a protected area outside of the tent. This is somewhere for you to store things out of the weather, but not inside (like boots, for example). This goes a long way to keeping the tent clean, which will also keep the rest of your gear clean.
Other Things To Consider
Interior Size – I mean the size rating for the tent – one man, two man, etc. If you are the sort who likes to bring things into the tent (riding gear, helmet, some luggage for clothes and such), then you need to add somewhere between half a person and a full person to the tent size. For example, if you are traveling solo, you might want a two man tent. If you are with someone else (and sharing a tent), then a three man tent might be okay, unless you both tent to bring in a lot of gear. Then you will want a four man.
Bivvies – These are small, one person tents. Many don’t have any sort of interior support and essentially make a sleeping bag weather proof. They are very small, very light, and backpackers and some bicyclists love them. I don’t think they are that great, since you are on the ground rather than hanging, but otherwise have all the disadvantages of a hammock. There isn’t room for gear, there isn’t much room to move around. If you are staying somewhere for a few days, you aren’t going to be that comfortable.
Packed Size – Tents are meant to be wet, so there isn’t much need to make sure they fit inside your luggage – though you will have to make sure it doesn’t get stored wet for any length of time or it will develop mildew (which both bad for the tent and hard to get rid of). Even knowing this, you don’t need to invest a lot of weight or space to the tent – just make sure the one you use meets your needs.
For most of my first 10 years swinging around North America on trips lasting three weeks to two months, I used a $35 Walmart tent. When I stopped using it, it was still waterproof, but the floor (made of a heavy tarp material) was starting to get some holes. When I retired that tent, I used everything from lightweight backpacking tents to large adventure tents (the one with the garage), before settling on hammocks. You don’t need, and shouldn’t, spend too much on a tent when a less expensive one will do the things you need (which is what I say about just about every piece of gear), so take the time and think about what you really need before buying.