Which shelter setup is best for bikepacking: tent or hammock and tarp? The eternal debate. It’s an open-ended question with no definite answer. There are many shelter options available for bikepackers and each one has its pros and cons.
The right shelter for you will depend on what type of trip you are taking, weather conditions, terrain and more. Though there are options like bivy bags or just sleeping with a good old’ sleeping bag and tarp, the two we will be focusing on today are the classic tent and hammock and tarp. These two options continuously rank highest among bikepackers for shelter choice.
When traveling by bike, there are additional factors that need to be considered compared to regular camping. You will not have a car to carry everything around, so the weight and bulkiness will be extremely important in your choice of shelter. Although each person will have a personal preference and opinion regarding this, there are some key things to consider when choosing the appropriate option for you.
Making the right choice
The main factors to consider when choosing your shelter are as follows:
- Gear Storage and Inside Space – Where can you store your bike, clothing and equipment and how much space do you have for yourself?
- Weight and Bulkiness – How much does the shelter and its components weigh? How much space does it take up in your bag?
- Where You Can Set Up – Which locations are appropriate to setup this shelter? Where are you unable to setup the shelter?
- Setup Time – How long does it take to pitch up your camp? How easy/hard is it to setup and take down?
- Protection from Outside Conditions – How does this shelter type stand up again the conditions? Does it protect against bad weather? Does it keep you warm? How does it fare against bugs and other critters?
- Comfort – Can you sleep comfortably in this shelter? Do you wake-up feeling well-rested?
There are additional factors that will influence the above. The location and weather can change your requirements. For example, if you’re bikepacking in a desert, there will likely be no trees to hang a hammock.
On the other side of the spectrum, if you’re bikepacking in rocky and mountainous conditions, there will be limited flat land to pitch a tent. Both options have their owns strengths and weaknesses depending on the nature of the trip, but the most important thing is to be prepared for the element you will face and make sure to properly plan ahead.
Below we will dive into the pros and cons of each type of shelter for bikepacking: tent or hammock and tarp.
When you think of a hammock, the first image that comes to mind may be something you’ve seen on Instagram, with the happy camper relaxing and gently swinging in the sunshine. While this may not necessarily be the best representation of what you can expect, it is still a very popular and great option for bikepacking. It is a very versatile option with many different upgrades available based on your budget and needs.
Storage and space
In terms of gear storage and inside space, the hammock offers little. It will not have any areas to store your equipment and the space inside is limited to yourself and your body. Some people will even say that the hammock can be slightly claustrophobic. There are options available though. If you bring a large enough tarp you may have the space to tuck your equipment underneath it.
This can be very useful if you get some unexpected rain and will keep everything from getting wet. Some hammock brands do offer upgraded rain fly options that are large enough for this purpose, but they will come at a price. Still, it can be worth it to be prepared and keep everything dry for the next day of riding. Be aware as well that a larger fly will come with larger weight.
Another downside of the limited inside space is that your sleeping bag will typically get squished up underneath you. This will render the insulation properties less effective. With the lack of inside space, if you do get caught in some bad weather there will be no place to chill and hang out until the rain passes.
The next point we are going to touch on is the weight and bulkiness of the hammock. This is one area where the hammock typically excels compared to a tent. Unfortunately, the lighter weight you go, the higher the price tag. That being said, you have no poles to carry and the weight of the hammock can be distributed easily between panniers and saddlebags. In a heavier setup you can expect up to 4lbs of weight, but that is at the higher end of the spectrum.
This is an especially good option if you are bikepacking solo and need to carry all your own equipment. It will also pack up smaller and more compact than a tent so will take up less space in your bags. If you go the cheaper route and use a classic tarp this will increase the bulkiness.
So, if you’ve got the budget for it, a specialized rainfly if the way to go and will decrease weight and bulk. If you are using an insulating pad, this will add additional weight, but as hammocks tend to be chillier than tents, it’s necessary to the kit. We will touch more on this in the comfort section.
Next, we will talk about choosing a location to setup. As we mentioned before, if you’re in the middle of a desert, it can make setup a bit more different. You will need to find somewhere with trees, ideally about 10’-12’ apart. If this is not possible, you can always use longer straps.
Make sure you are prepared for the type of trees that you will likely be around so you can be stocked up with the appropriate size straps. You don’t want to get caught in a redwood forest with small straps that won’t fit around the trees. You may also run into areas where the trees are too weak to support the weight of a hammock, so it’s a good idea to be aware of this in advance.
A huge bonus of the hammock is that you won’t need to find flat ground to set it up and is particularity great for uneven and sloping land. You also will not need to stake down a hammock and therefore if the ground is rocky or muddy you will not run into any issues here.
Also, if the ground is wet, hammocks will hugely benefit as you will not need to worry about condensation. You will have more pitching options with a hammock which can allow for more privacy than larger campsite areas.
If there aren’t any trees in the area you will just need to use your imagination. Look around for anything you can string it up to. You will just need two attachment points that are a good distance apart. If you have at least one tree you can hang the other end from boulders or a fence.
If you don’t have either available, there is always the option to put the hammock on the ground and just put up the fly. The fly doesn’t have to support any weight and therefore can even be attached to your bike on one side and a shrug on the other. This is not ideal of course as you will be laying on the ground, but if you have a sleeping pad and bag it can still be an option for you if you’re in a bind. The hammock can be slightly more versatile then a tent in this respect.
Setting up camp
Let’s touch on the ease of setup/pack down. The hammock can beat the tent in this category, once you know what you’re doing. You will need to make sure that the straps for your hammock are strung up at approximately a 30º angle.
One quick and easy way to do this is to use your hand as a guide. Point your thumb up and your first finger out horizontally and then line up the tips of the fingers with the strap. This should give you a perfect angle. If you can’t find trees that are the perfect distance apart (10’ – 12’) you may have to do a bit of fiddling with the straps, which can take some extra time.
If the trees are farther apart, you will have to position the straps up higher on the trees. Again, make sure to do your research as to what trees you will encounter in the area. This way you can bring proper size straps that will fit around the trees and not run into more problems than necessary.
You don’t have a bunch of poles to content with and many hammocks come with an easy pack option. One great option is from Hennessy, which is called the SnakeSkin, and it is exactly what it sounds like. It essential just slips over the whole hammock, from one side of the ridge line to the other. This creates a nicely packed tube and is super quick for setup and pack up.
Protection from the elements
Now no matter how much you plan ahead; mother nature is the only one who knows what you will face while bikepacking. It is a good ideal to prepare for anything. The hammock has some decent features when it comes to sheltering you from certain elements, and not so much for others.
Let’s talk pros first. As the hammock is off the ground, you will not have to deal with condensation, and it has great air flow. The downside of this is that this airflow will also sap the heat from your body. This can be combated with an insulating pad and some of the hammocks even have sleeve to put this pad in.
Combine a pad with an emergency blanket and it will take the edge off the cold night. You can also use quilts on top and below you to keep warm, although this will be heavier than a traditional sleeping bag. Regardless of what you use, the hammock will still always be a lot colder than a tent. If you are biking in warm weather, then the hammock will hold up great as you will not need to worry about freezing overnight. Condensation makes you feel wet and gross, so this is a huge benefit of the hammock. Many places that are popular for bikepacking are also popular for bugs. You do not want to wake up covered in bites and unless you have proper netting, this can be a problem with the hammock.
Most stock hammocks do not come with netting. You can buy some netting or makes some yourself and hang it from your hammocks ridgeline. We recommend opting for a hammock that comes with specialized mosquito netting included as it is fitted to your hammock. For rain, you will need to make sure to attach your rain fly or tarp properly so you will not have any leaks. We recommend attaching it to its own line and making sure to tie it down well so that it doesn’t move in the wind as your hammock swings around.
Lastly, lets talk about comfort. Since you are bikepacking, the last thing you want is to wake up feeling sore and tight. Many are concerned about choosing a hammock as they think the only way you can sleep in on your back. This is not totally accurate. Once you get the hang of it, you can sleep quite comfortably in a hammock.
The trick is to lay diagonally. If your whole body is in the center your body will naturally take on a banana bend, which is not the best sleeping position. With a little shifting, you can place your head on one corner and your legs on the opposite. This diagonal form will actually cause the hammock to level out, not totally flat, but flat enough.
This position will allow you to easily flip onto your sides, which is the most comfortable position for most people to sleep in. The hard ground can cause discomfort for side sleepers, so this is one area the hammock excels. If your hammock has double lining you can also slide a sleeping pad in there to add additional comfort. Unfortunately, due to the hammocks shape, your sleeping bag may bunch up a bit, which is a tad uncomfortable and will not allow it to insulate you properly.
If you’re looking for our top pick, we would recommend the hammock from Hennessey. Their SuperShelter system is one of the most superior options on the market and they include rainfly and mosquito netting. You can also upgrade to the Monsoon rainfly to get wider range of coverage. They run cheaper than tents as well, with one available for every budget.
Let’s talk tents. Tents are the more traditional and practical option for bikepackers. Again, like the hammock, there are pros and cons to this option dependent on your specific needs. Let’s dive into it and break down the factors involved when choosing a tent for your bikepacking needs.
Firstly, we have gear storage and inside space. The tent is a much better option in this category. Although most tents that are portable size will not have room to store your bike, they will have the space for your other gear. Your clothes, food and equipment can remain nice and dry inside the tent. This is a huge benefit as wet gear will make you very uncomfortable on a trip.
With the addition of a large tarp, you can also have some coverage for your bike. If the weather takes a turn for the worse, you’ve got a space where you can lounge and wait out the storm. You can stretch out inside the tent, which is especially great for bikepacking as you don’t want to get squished up and sore.
Moving on to the weight and bulkiness category. Tents tend to be a lot bulkier and heavier than the hammock. If you are biking with someone else, and have a 2-man tent, you can split the weight evenly between the two of you. On a solo trip, it will be a lot harder to fit all the components on one bike. If you consider sleeping pads and sleeping bags as well, this adds up quickly.
As a comparison to the hammock, the combined weight of the tent and your sleeping gear would be about the same as two hammocks. Therefore, it is a viable option if you’ve got a partner, but not so much solo. That being said, there are light-weight options.
As with the hammock, the lighter the weight, the higher the price tag. If you’ve got the budget, then it’s worth it to opt for this choice because of its other added benefits. Where bulkiness is concerned, you’ve got more components to content with, and things like tent poles, do not pack up small. You will need to have a saddle bag or pannier can fit them, which is not so easy to find. Another plus is due to a tents better heat retention, you will not need heavy quilts, so you may save some weight in this area.
Setting up camp
Setting up camp is the next factor. Where the hammock excels, the tent fails, and vice versa. Tents can be set up without any trees, or structures needed to aid. You have everything you need to set up your tent anywhere you like. Places like grassland and desert are great for a tent as the ground tends to be relatively flat and tree-less.
If you are unsure if there will be proper trees to sling up a hammock, then opting for a tent is the better option. Although, as we stated above you can always lay out your hammock on the ground if necessary. If you go for a two-man tent, they don’t take up much space so you will likely be able to find somewhere you can pitch it up.
Issues will arise if you’ve got terrain with really hard or soft ground. If the land is rocky you will be unable to get the tent stakes in. If the ground is too soft or sandy, the stakes will come right out. To pitch your tent properly it is quite essential it’s staked down accurately. If the terrain is sloped, it will not be appropriate to pitch a tent.
Another downfall is wet ground. If the ground is wet or muddy, you will not only face dirty gear in the morning, but also wake up to a lot of condensation on the inside of your tent.
Once you’ve found an appropriate spot, now comes the setup. Setting up a tent can be a long and tedious process. Fumbling with multiple components takes time and packing it up can take just as long compared to the ease of the hammock. Although, there are increasingly more options available for quick set-up tents, if you’re prepared to pay for the ease.
Protection from the elements
So how does the tent protect you from the elements? Well, it does so much better than the hammock. As a bikepacker, you want to wake up refreshed, well-rested and bug-bite free. The tent offers much better protection from many situations you may face on your adventure.
Firstly, the weather. Maybe you’ll get sun on your trip, maybe rain, but you want to be prepared for either. Tents offer proven protection from the rain and there are many options available for extra protection. As well, as previously mentioned, you have the space to also keep your gear out of the rain. If bad weather hits, a tent will be your safe haven. Another element you will contend with is the cold. A tent will keep your body heat in, and although you will face condensation because of this, at least you won’t be kept awake all night shivering! You will not receive the 360-degree air flow that the hammock gets and therefore stay warmer.
Bugs love bikepackers. Bikepackers do not love bugs. Tents provide a haven, free of pesky mosquitos and other critters. They all have bug netting built in, and with a sealed entrance, you will not need to worry about them sneaking in anywhere like you would with a hammock.
There may be other creepy crawlers around like spiders or snakes, but the tent will keep those away as well. Not to mention bigger creatures wandering around the forest. While the tent may not ward off bears, it just feels somehow more protected than an open hammock.
Finally, we get to the arguably most important factor, comfort. Tents and hammocks are comfortable for different reasons. The tent will offer the space you need to really stretch out. With the aid of a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, you can sleep quite comfortably in a tent. Again, it will provide much more warmth than the hammock.
If you are on the right kind of land, you won’t necessarily run into any problems. If the terrain is quite hard, it may be more uncomfortable for side sleepers to be laying that way as the ground has no give. An insulating pad is essential in our book as it offers at least a bit of a cushion between yourself and the hard ground.
Another discomfort in the tent is the condensation. Unfortunately, you just can’t get away from it. If the weather is decent, you can leave the tent open a bit to get some air flow it (make sure there’s a bug netting!) but you will still have some condensation to deal with, which can make the mornings a bit sticky and damp.
Price and tent recommendations
In regards to price, tents do tend on the more expensive side, especially if you are wanting to go for a lightweight option. The tent we would recommend would be one from Big Agnes. Their UL1 model is super-lightweight, even lighter than many hammock setups and it one of the easiest to setup that we’ve come across. It is on the smaller side though. You could also go for the UL2 if you need some additional space, like if you’re a group of 2.
Bikepacking can be super rewarding and a great way to explore different locations. Having the proper shelter setup is a key way to increase ease and comfortability in your experience. Both the tent and the hammock have many positive features and of course come with a few negatives as well. Which one you choose will be totally dependent on your situation and conditions you will face on your excursion.
Also, your budget plays an important role and personal preference. So, make sure to plan ahead, be prepared for anything and gear up. We hope that this guide has been helpful in breaking down the options for you and will help you choose the best and most appropriate piece of equipment for your bikepacking journey. So which shelter will you choose when you go bikepacking: tent or hammock and tarp?