I’ve been asked recently of what options there are when one goes on these long cycling trips. I thought it would be a good thing to summarise the main strategies, options and a few good kit suggestions that I personally like.
There are different ways to approach long distance cycling and sleeping.
Main options are:
- Sleeping in a hostel / hotel / B&B
- Camping in a tent
- A combination of the first and second or third
Hostel / Hotel / B&B
You get to carry a lot less stuff, which makes the trip easier on the body and you will be faster.
You also get a nice shower and potentially a meal included, which can make a huge difference to your moral on a bad day.
It’s a really good way to start riding longer distances if you haven’t camped before and you want to get into this type of travel.
This is a very good option for shorter rides 2-3 days. Or in places where accommodation is very cheap.
It is the most expensive option long-term, especially in the western world.
You don’t spend the time in nature, which is partly maybe why you are doing this. As such you can miss on great experiences such as star gazing, etc.
It can be less flexible. For example, if it’s 23h and you’ve just rolled into a town, you feel like you can keep going, but you don’t have other sleeping options. You will have to stay there regardless of what’s best for your trip. You might also be limited to the working hours of the establishments and also not likely will be able to get a room half-way through the day (for example in hot climates where it might be better to cycle through the night).
It takes more planning. If you’re good at planning your route, can trust your times and where you will be when, then this might be less of a problem. But if you’re less experienced, this is yet another thing you need to plan very well and it can become very difficult depending on where you’re travelling.
The above will depend on where you are travelling, but are a good start.
Camping in a tent
The tent provides more protection over a bivvy bag in bad weather, it also adds more warmth. It’s a good option for rainy or cold weather.
You can put all your gear inside and keep it also dry or repair it in bad weather.
It’s a good option for more than one person as you can share the load and then it increases the benefits of being two or more.
It’s a cheap option and if you combine it with a campsite (that has showers/toilets/kitchen), you will not far off from being indoors.
It’s a very good option on long and slow trips, like touring a country and taking your time. Then the weight and setup won’t be much of a consideration, but the added comfort and space will be.
The tent is generally speaking the heaviest option (around 1kg for a solo tent). But depending on the specific tent/bivvy comparison, the two can be similar weights or marginally different. For example a super lightweight tent can go down to 400g whereas a bivvy can be up to 800g. It depends on your choices and budget.
It is slow to set up compared to a bivvy, especially if you are not experienced or the weather is bad.
It takes more space in your bags/ on your bike. Including the tent poles which can be tricky to fit on the bike and then remove/put back on.
It’s hard to have a quick nap as it takes so long to setup and put back together.
The main parts of this setup will include any or a combination of the below:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping bag liner
- Sleeping mat
- Bivvy (yes, it can be added here as well for extra warmth and protecting sleeping kit from condensation or water drips – definitely a big extra).
See below for recommendations.
A good bivvy can be very lightweight (265/250g) or also fairly heavy (500-800g). That makes it more likely for you to take with you and also not get in the way of your speed.
Very quick to set up and put back together. You can keep your sleeping bag inside the bivvy and then it’s the case of just taking it out and getting in it.
It can take very minimal space in your bags/ on your bike depending on which one you go for.
A very good emergency shelter even if you just have the bivvy and go for the hotels/B&Bs option.
It is a pretty stealthy way of sleeping. You can hide it pretty much anywhere, have your nap and leave. This is more difficult in a tent.
It is a good option for a solo rider (doesn’t hurt more than one too) that wants to go fast and cover greater distance.
In bad weather, you can combine the bivvy with extra protection by sleeping in a bus shelter or under a roof of a house or the entrance of a church.
A lot of flexibility of when and where you sleep. In the late arrival example, you can enter the town at 23h, have some food, and roll out getting some more distance in. Then you can just put the bivvy and sleep for a few hours. Wake up and go with no worries about booking in, leaving, etc.
Sleeping in a bivvy outdoors can make you feel much more connected with your surroundings and nature.
Equally, it can be a daunting thing to bivvy for someone that hasn’t done it. It can make you feel exposed and vulnerable.
It is less protective than a tent when it comes to cold and wet, depending on which ones you go for. But it will also bring the bad weather right to your face (literally).
Depending on the model, but even then, there might not be enough space for all your gear to go inside and be kept dry.
Less privacy and comfort to do repairs or wait out bad weather. This can be a pro in some cases, because it forces you to get up and get going sooner and if distance and time are your main concerns that can be a good thing.
- Bivvy bag
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping bag liner
- Sleeping mat
A combination of the first and second or third
A combination of the above is actually what most people will go for. Even if you tour for long time and distance, having a bed and a shower is critical from time to time, especially in bad weather.
Particularly, when you are bivvying it’s worth to use the strengths of the setup in good weather and make progress, but when things turn gnarly to sleep indoors and recover well for the day ahead.
Please take this section with a pinch of salt. I am not looking to update it after it is written, but at the moment of writing these are some items that I would consider good for my own needs and hence am listing them here.
There are a lot of really great options when it comes to tents, depending on your requirements and budget. But here are the ones I would consider for myself:
- Coleman Cobra 2 person tent – For two people, it is very cheap and under 2kgs. I’ve used it solo in Iceland and it was pretty bomb proof.
- MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent (both solo and 2 person versions) – I’ve not owned this one, but I’ve been near others that had it. It is very spacious, you have more head room and is at a very good weight. Great for hot climates too.
- Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 (or 2) person tent – This is an under 1kg (one person), 3 season bulletproof tent. I own it and if I need a tent on my own, I’d go for this one. It packs really small too.
There are bivvy bags that can be almost as a tent, with head room and more features, but if I go for a bivvy I normally want something light and compact. So based on that I have these options:
- AlpKit Hunka XL bivvy bag – This is a bit heavy at around 450g, but it’s bulletproof. I have no doubts it can last a beating as I’ve had it for a while. Don’t get the non XL version unless you are a smaller person as a lot of people complain it is too small.
- AlpKit Kloke ultralight bivvy bag – This is a new addition from AlpKit. It is just 265g and fully waterproof (not all are). I like the zip idea as it makes it easy to close in when you need to rather than to pull strings.
It is worth to note that this can be an article on its own. Do you go with down or with synthetic, do you use a quilt or a half sleeping bag?
I personally would go for down as it has a longer life and is much much lighter and packs down small. Nowadays with hydrophobic treatment it can be very resilient to wet weather too (but you should keep it dry in general regardless of the materials).
Some good options that are like are:
- Alpkit’s down sleeping bags – As a brand AlpKit are amazing and they always have great products. Their bags are not the lightest, but you get a lot for such value and amazing quality.
- Cumulus’ down quilts – I personally own the quilt 350 and it is great. VERY warm, packs tiny and is very light. Too warm for the summer though.
- Cumulus’ down sleeping bags
Sleeping bag liner:
Sleeping bag liners add an extra layer of warmth and also make your sleeping bag last longer. But they are definitely not a necessity. I think they can be good for the summer when you might not need that much warmth or combine them with a sleeping bag for the really cold nights.
- Rab silk mummy sleeping bag liner – I have this one and it’s pretty small and light.
- There are other options out there too.
Sleeping mats are an invaluable piece of your equipment. They add much to the comfort and also warmth. In fact, when you buy a down quilt, the main way it works is by combining with a good sleeping mat that insulates your back. The idea is that when you lie on your back, a sleeping bag compresses and loses it’s insulation properties. That’s where the sleeping mat comes in place.
Mats can be either foam or inflatable.
I personally love foam mats but most of the time I don’t have the space to take them, although their weight is comparable to that of the inflatable ones if not lighter. They are also bulletproof and very easy to just take out and lay down. Done.
Inflatable mats pack much smaller and in some cases provide more insulation to a foam mat (not always). But they are more expensive.
- Thermarest NeoAir XTherm – This is my go-to mat for insulation and comfort, especially very cold weather (when I combine it with the down quilt above).
- Klymit Inertia X Frame – Ok, this might look too much, but it is very lightweight and I really love this mat for the summer. I am a side sleeper and find it super comfortable. It also takes only 2-3 blows to inflate.
- Klymit Inertia X Lite – I don’t own this, but if weight is your main concern, then you are unlikely to beat this one at 159g.
This is another controversial item. I normally put my head on anything. Recently I slept on my helmet and my gloves on top. But if you need extra comfort I have tried this very lightweight option and I think it’s a good compromise (but there are other alternatives):
After all this talk, what do I use? I have two setups – one for the summer and one for the colder months and I can combine parts of each depending on what I think will be appropriate.
Cold weather – 3 season setup
This setup has the warm and comfortable Thermarest NeoAir XTherm, Cumulus 350 Quilt, the AlpKit Hunka XL Bivvy or the Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 (more likely). I would also take a sleeping liner for extra warmth and potentially a pillow.
I am pretty certain Ii can sleep in this setup down the -5 / -7 degrees with the tent and not be cold.
Warm weather – summer setup
Particularly this setup was developed for the Transcontinental race 2019 where weight and size were critical.
I will use the Klymit Inertia X Frame sleeping mat from above. I will take the rab silk sleeping bag liner for a cold night or a hot day.
For this I’ve also taken a half sleeping bag (235g) from OMM and I plan to combine that with the ghost whisperer down jacket. The idea is that the down jacket can be used on its own on cold nights when doing something off the bike, but can be combined with the sleeping bag for the overnight sleep. Also if I end up only sleeping in hotels, the weight of the sleeping bag won’t drag me down. This approach is because I am not experienced enough to know whether hotels or bivvying will be best for me for that race.
Finally, the bivvy bag will be the super lightweight AlpKit Kloke ultralight bivvy bag.
I’ve also tested this setup already in some pretty cold conditions at the All Points North this year and managed to sleep ok-ish at around 10 degrees with all my clothes on inside the bivvy bag. Not bad.
It is worth mentioning that I’ve done a fair amount of camping (not so much cycling). Not as much as others, but the systems and kits above are based on my experience from being a scout to exploring places as an adult.
Some of the items mentioned above are pretty expensive and I haven’t bought them overnight. They are the result of a lot of research and consideration of my needs and goals and careful and yearly investment to acquire them and then test what works and what doesn’t. It is worth mentioning that I’ve started with items that all together costed no more than £50 and have build up to these by proving I do need the extra edge they provide.
Finally, I hope this overview helps and if you have any specific questions or want a review on a particular item please do not hesitate to ask in the comments.