Bikepacking with a Tarp
Updated: May 27
I think the first time I slept under a tarp I was on a Scout canoeing expedition when I was about fourteen. On that occasion the tarp was made of two orange survival bags, gaffa taped together and strung between the trees forming a weather-proof shelter above our bundle of sleeping bags.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed a good number of nights away under some sort of rudimentary shelter, including the classic blue tarpaulin, army poncho, old groundsheets and a dining shelter canvas. For me, the simplicity of a tarp shelter invokes a feeling of being at one with nature but with the luxury of a roof over my head if the heavens open.
So last year, as an experiment to reduce the weight of my bikepacking gear, I thought I’d ditch the tent and see if a good old tarp could take its place.
In order for the tarp system to challenge my tent, it had to fulfil a couple of key criteria. I wanted a proper shelter over my head and something to protect me from the bugs. The idea wasn’t to go super light or ultra minimalist, but the set-up still needed to provide decent functionality and comfort for an overnight stay with space for me, my gear and somewhere to cook under if it was raining.
Also, the overall “shelter system” had to weigh less than a decent light-weight one person tent, say around 1kg, and cost significantly less as well.
This was my selection:
DD Hammocks Superlight Tarp S, 260g (305g), £45
Outdoor Research Bug Bivy, 365g, £115
Pegs, 135g, £15
Support poles (my bike)
It came out at approximately 800g and £175. Not bad for a first go and definitely a viable contender as a lighter-than-a-tent replacement.
DD Hammocks Superlight Tarp S (2.8m x 1.5m)
There are plenty of great tarps on the market and before I bought this one I was using a standard 3m x 3m version from the same manufacturer. In practice the larger version is probably better for two people and at 800g it’s nearly tent weight.
The Superlight version at 2.8m x 1.5m gives just about the right amount of coverage for one person and a minimal weight to boot. I attached eight Dyneema guy ropes to the key attachment points bringing the final weight to around 305g.
Outdoor Research Bug Bivy
With the shelter sorted I still needed the “anti-bug layer”. I already own a RAB Alpine Bivi bag which would have been the simple choice, however I wanted something I could seal up to keep the critters out but wouldn’t lead to condensation and a damp sleeping bag.
The OR Bug Bivy is rather like a standard hooped bivi but made out of a fine "No-See-Um" mesh. It allows air to circulate avoiding condensation (although it’s surprisingly wind resistant) and it’s mosquito proof. It has a hoop to keep the netting off your face and a polyamide waterproof base.
Four (gold) aluminium pegs came with the DD tarp (9 grams each) and I added a number of other lightweight aluminium pegs (red), made by Odoland, to make a set. This lot came in at 135g.
Unless you’re camping in the woods or next to some kind of structure, it’s difficult to rig a tarp to form a decent shelter without some kind of pole(s). I didn’t want to carry poles or chance on finding two fixed points two meters apart every time I camped, so I started to experiment with my bike being the tarp structure therefore doing away with a separate structural element.
Using a bike as the frame for the tarp certainly isn’t my idea, or even a new one. I remember reading a 1950’s bicycle touring book at my Nan’s house when I was a kid and seeing images of the bike being used as the shelter structure. There are even specialist tents which are designed with this philosophy in mind. A couple of hours of up to date research gave me some ideas to try out in the back garden before committing to a set up for a bikepacking trip. And it wasn't until I started experimenting with different layouts, did I understand the particular nuances of each one.
This one looked great, until...
...I realised I couldn't get in, and I only had about five feet of usable length.
Turning the bike sideways, allowed for better access but now only had four feet of useable length and the tarp wasn't taught enough.
I also tried a couple of permutations using the bike the right way up. This needed additional guys to hold the bike upright before tackling the tarp. With the front wheel off, but still the right way up, the bike was slightly more stable but was still prone to toppling so ultimately I ended up guying the bike out again. Inverting the bike made for a far more stable support structure. The width of the bars spread the load meaning the bike was pretty much stable without additional guy ropes and still allowed me to rig the tarp.
It does come with a downside though. With flat bars at anywhere from 650mm to 800mm wide they significantly ate into the sleeping space, unless I positioned the bike in a way that placed the bars outside. Drop bars would be far better as they are much narrower but at the sacrifice of stability.
I wanted to pitch the tarp low to the ground to block as much wind as possible and to avoid rain ingress. Again using a bike has its limitations as the ridge height is pretty much a fixed dimension according to the size of the bike. Adjusting the seat post up and down gave some height adjustability but not enough to make a significant difference.
Due to the size and shape of my Bug Bivy, I elected to use the wheels to form part of the structure giving a nicely rounded roof shape at the ends. This worked well when employed on a single wheel but trying to form a shelter using both wheels removed from the bike (one at either end) required a feat of acrobatics to hold everything upright as I pegged it all out. I also avoided using the rear wheel whilst fitted to the bike as the tarp always rubbed on at least one drivetrain component and would have easily worn through the thin material.
I eventually opted for a setup where the bike forks formed the rear support and the front wheel formed the head end arch. For the rear I ran the ridge guy line over the drop outs on the front fork and guyed it out at an angle. I found this setup maximized the stability of the bike as the wide bars were directly underneath the rear guy. The front wheel then formed the front arched shape support via the ridge guy and two side guys.
I tried this setup on an overnighter with some mates last summer and it appeared to work really well. However when I used it again two months later on my three-day London to Brighton round trip, the flaws started to appear...
When you’re inside the bivi, all is well. The challenge was actually getting in and out when the floor was damp or the underside of the tarp was wet with condensation - both of which are very much factors of our British weather! Because the tarp was pitched low, mainly dictated by the height of the bike, I had to assume a kind of snake like manoeuvre to post myself in through the corner of the tarp whilst opening the Bug Bivy in order to sit down to take my muddy shoes off, all the time avoiding the underside of the wet roof. And if getting in was tricky, the reverse was even harder!
I considered a number of different options whilst cycling along the Brighton seafront the next day and decided to see if I could simply find a way of raising the head end sufficiently to give me a little extra height.
And this is exactly what I did courtesy of a picnic bench at the campsite on the second night. It allowed me to anchor the foot end to the bench, a fraction higher than normal, and use the front wheel still attached to the inverted bike to provide a higher front structure. And it worked well. There was just enough height to get in and out whilst taking off my muddy shoes.
Both the DD Hammocks Superlight S tarp and the Outdoor Research Bug Bivy work really well. The tarp is light, strong and waterproof and the Bug Bivy does a great job of keeping out the bugs whilst allowing for air circulation. I also like the internal straps inside the bivi which keep the sleeping mat in place.
A larger tarp would help by offering a greater scope for pitching variants. But with the increase in size come an increase in weight which takes it into the light weight tent category. Perhaps a larger tarp shared between two people would allow for a central bike support with sleeping either side under the angle?
I could have pitched the tarp bias to one side allowing better access along one length but this would have left the bivi quite exposed on one side.
I also found that mud and condensation didn't help when trying to pack everything away. I had been rolling my sleeping bag, sleeping mat, pillow and Bug Bivy up as one for ease of packing into my front bar bag for transport but this didn't work when the base of the bivi was wet.
There is something to be said for being able to pack your gear away inside a tent when it's raining outside, leaving only the wet tent to contend with. It's difficult to achieve this in a bivi setup. I ended up using benches and tables to pack my gear whilst waiting for my tarp and Bug Bivy base to semi dry.
I like the simplicity of rolling my sleeping kit up together in one bag but this only works when the base of the Bug Bivy is dry. So I’m in the process of making a Bug Bivy footprint, in a similar style to a tent footprint to protect the underside of the bivi and to also give me something extra to sit on when I'm under the tarp. This will allow me to pack up all my gear, whilst still under the shelter, leaving me with only a wet tarp and muddy footprint to deal with. These can easily be stowed in a separate bag away from my dry gear. However with this additional weight, say 200g, am I pushing the weight into realms of a light weight tent?
The other improvement would be to continue to try alternate layouts for the bike and tarp to gain a few extra inches head height.
So is there a place for bikepacking with a tarp?
Yes, I think so - for wild camping. I’ve wild camped in tents, under tarps and in bivi bags but I still feel slightly more comfortable under a “makeshift” tarp shelter than blatant tent if I’m somewhere I technically shouldn’t be. It’s also more flexible, I could just sleep in the Bug Bivy if I’m confident it won't rain or take shelter under the tarp for a few hours if it's chucking it down.
I also like the fact the bike is part of the structure making the bike less likely to be stolen (I think this is more of a psychological thing rather than reality though).
The biggest game changer for me would be the location I choose for my overnight stay. Camping in the woods and having two trees to suspend the tarp from, without the limitations of the bike, would allow me to vary the height of the tarp almost negating the access and egress issues mentioned previously.
Ultimately though, a tent is more secure, allows for greater comfort, is easier to set up and affords more privacy. And all for only an extra couple of hundred grams. For me, I would be happy with a one or two night tarp bikepacking trip with more of a wild camping bias. For something longer or based around public campsites I think I'd opt for a tent.
I'm going to give it another go soon, with the footprint, and see how it all works... Now if there was a way to suspend a Hennessy hammock from a bike, that could be the ultimate solution!
Here's a link to my Pinterest page with loads of tarp bikepacking ideas: