Sunday, December 29, 2013

Picking a Tent for Motorcycle Camping

I have enjoyed motorcycle camping for many years, even though I have sometimes had troubles with tents.  Twice I have had a tent fall down on me during a rain storm, which might make you think that buying a waterproof tent comes second to buying a windproof tent.  But when you manage to finally get it together, camping is fun.

I must start with a clarification.  My definition of motorcycle camping is an activity done by a riding a 2 wheeled motorcycle to where I'm going while carrying all the stuff I need to sleep.  I do not bother to bring cooking appliances with me. If I cannot make a meal with firewood and food from a nearby grocery store, I will ride or walk to a nearby restaurant.  So I hope everything is clear now, and I can proceed with my explanation of what kind of tent to bring, assuming I already have figured out what kind of mattress and sleeping bag, and that I know how to pack everything.

Most tents have poles, and the poles break down into segments.  The length of the pole segments is what  determines how long the tent will be when packed, and so will also determine the size of bag I need to pack my camping gear. By way of explanation, I have already decided the most efficient way to carry sleeping accommodations on a bike, is to pack the tent, sleeping bags and mattresses in a duffel bag and strap it to the luggage rack or the passenger seat (if either is available).  Some people prefer to pack the poles separately, which gives them more freedom in jamming the tent in any old space.  I prefer to roll up the poles in the middle of the tent, where they are well protected and will not be lost.

As I read about tents, I come across this concept: A "Bomb Proof" tent.  Be assured, that no tent will survive a direct hit from a bomb.  But neither will a tent survive a tornado without some precautions. (Precaution number one, never camp in Kansas. People in Kansas, don't write  comments complaining about this, do something about those tornadoes then get back to me).    In the same vein, there is no perfect do-all tent.  What you must do is decide where you want to camp, and in what weather (and other) conditions.  Then get a tent that is the best balance of your conflicting requirements.  And then, go to where the conditions match your tent.

A tent design is always a trade off between different requirements.  A tent designed for winter conditions does not need to be waterproof, for example.  Neither does it need to have bug screens.  But it should have a very strong roof support, and probably also be fireproof in case anyone lights a fire inside for warmth.  Tents for "stealth" camping (i.e. free camping) should be subdued in colour, not gaudy oranges or yellows with glow in the dark ropes.

When I go camping, I hate being bitten by mosquitoes, so I always get a tent that seals up completely except for screen windows to let in air.  In fact I hate mosquitoes so much, that I also want my tent to be windproof, so I can set up out in the open, far from sheltering trees.  Preferably on an open beach area.  That's because I know mosquitoes don't like windy areas.

I don't need a tent so big that I can sit in it all day.  When I'm motorcycle camping, I spend most of my time outdoors.  So the tent only needs to be big enough for me and my wife to sleep in, and to be able to change clothes in.  I know can change clothes with about 110 cm of head room.  I don't need a tent that I can stand up or sit in a chair.  I also don't want something the size of a coffin where I can only lay down.  The headroom is very important, and everyone needs to make their own decision.  But the more headroom you have, the less wind resistant the tent is, and the heavier it needs to be.  Weight may not be as important for a motorcyclist as it is for a backpacker, but my luggage rack can only take so much weight.

Head room is an important consideration, but so is the floor plan.  A person needs to be able to stretch out straight.  Some people sleep on their sides with their arms stretched out.  You need to allow for this.  I have a "wide" mattress: 25" or about 60 cm.  I need the tent to be wider than the mattress so that I can sleep properly, because I cannot not fit my arms comfortably on the mattress.  I find that 160 cm is good enough for two people to sleep side by side without interfering with each other. Never mind those diagrams that "prove" two people can sleep with only 130 cm of space. I can't sleep like that.  And I also like extra space to put my stuff.  So normally, for me and my wife, we would need a 3 person tent. But one exception to that is the MEC Wanderer 2 tent, which I have, and it happens to be as big as other makers' three person tents.  There are exceptions to every rule, I guess.

In 2012, we took our tent out west and ended up in some extremely mosquito infested areas.  I almost wished I had a bigger tent so we could spend all our time inside it.  Once, it was so hot and buggy in the campsite, I simply went for a motorcycle ride, solving both problems at once.

Next summer, we are heading to Newfoundland with the same tent.  I am already searching for campsites next to the ocean and away from trees. Good thing our tent is not much bothered by wind, although it is fairly heavy.  But we will also probably have lots of rain, and that is another area our tent is quite good.  It has no fancy windows, but it has a simple streamlined shape, with aluminum poles and lots of guy wires.  It should hold up to steady 50 kph winds with rain if necessary.  In those conditions, we will not be bothered by too many bugs.  And that's how I like it.

Nice picture: I know it is not in Newfoundland.


  1. You insist that, 'I also don't want something the size of a coffin where I can only lay down.'

    Oddly enough, the only tent in my collection that's still in any kind of condition for outdoor use is my bivy sack - a survivor from my backpacking days.

    Not for claustrophobes or somnambulists, but bivy sacks do keep the biting flies and precipitation away, while taking up virtually no space or weight - more important in a backpack than on a motorcycle luggage rack.

    Same tent as last year ... good idea. 'Better the devil you know' ;-)

    1. Yes, the same tent as last year. I have had that tent since 2004. Today I added in all the extra lines and stakes the tent will accept. That adds up to 18 pegs and 10 lines, for essentially a free standing tent. Next year it will resemble Gulliver being tied down by Lilliputians.

  2. Awesome info! I was honestly just thinking about something similar to this other day so, it was almost weird when I ran across this. You would be surprised how many people simply have no idea when it comes to this kind of stuff. Anyway, thanks for getting this cool info out there.