How to use your bike to make a shelter
How to use your bike to make a shelter
Making a simple A frame tarp using trees for support is a relatively straight-forward exercise and there are lots of online guides out there with tips on more exotic tarp set ups.
While it’s nearly always preferable (and easier) to use what nature offers you in the form of trees and rock formations, convenient spots aren’t always possible to find especially if you’re in an unfamiliar part of the world.
Lightweight backpackers can use trekking poles to solve this conundrum. That’s not necessarily a sensible solution if bikepacking where space is a premium.
Convenient spots aren’t always possible to find especially if you’re in an unfamiliar part of the world.
Sam Jones, Cycling UK
One option is to carry your own poles, or alternatively use your bike.
If you’re determined to leave the tent behind and use a light weight tarp, then with a bit of knowhow, some pegs, paracord (or bungees), a tarp and of course your bike then you should never be left without a roof over your head in the outdoors.
In the video above, we've demonstrated two simple ways to use your bike to set up a free-standing tarp that all bikepackers should have in their repertoire. If you'd like to share other methods with us, please put your suggestions in the comment section below.
They can both be set up by one person – though of course like many things a little help from a pal will make the process much easier.
Double wheeled shelter
This is an easy shelter to set up. Its profile is low, which means as well as being better in inclement weather it’s also less likely to be spotted by others if you’re wild camping.
However, its low profile does mean it can be more difficult to enter and exit, and cooking will most likely have to be done outside.
Remove both wheels from the bike and gently set aside the frame, with the drive side up. Then lay out your tarp and peg the two outer corners on the long side.
By pegging one long side down first, you’ll find it much easier to set up your shelter.
Position both wheels along the intended ridgeline in the centre of the tarp and attach guy ropes to the central eyelets of your tarp. Then secure the first wheel to the ground and repeat the process with the second.
While you’ll sacrifice a little height, you’ll find by passing your guy rope around the rim and tyre (see image) you can achieve better tension rather than using the wheel as a simple pole – and also you’ll avoid getting mud inside your tarp.
Peg out the other long side and adjust the tension of any pegs that need it and admire your shelter.
Single wheel shelter
This shelter has a higher profile than the double wheel shelter, which means more space within. Also it uses the frame as a main part of the shelter, which means you don’t have to worry about leaving bits of your bike stranded outside.
The higher ridge also means it’s safer to cook inside the tarp if the weather is poor outside – though if using a spirit burner and it’s windy, you might still want to cook outside of your shelter.
There’s also some flexibility with this shelter to increase space and airflow by using your front wheel as an extra post.
Remove the front wheel from the bike, and rest the fork on the ground pointing into the wind. Use paracord or bungees to temporarily fix your bike frame into a stable upright position.
Temporarily fixing the cord to your saddle is a convenient spot – but really anywhere towards the rear end of your bike should work.
Spread your tarp over your bike frame and use some paracord to secure the centre eyelet to your bike so the tarp rests halfway over your saddle.
Extend the tarp and peg down the two furthest corners.
Move the paracord (or bungees) attached to the bike to the corners of the tarp and use those as guy ropes to tension the tarp, and then adjust the tension in any pegs as necessary.
Step 5 (optional)
If it’s not too windy, and you’d like a bit more space and ventilation, follow step 2 of the double wheeled shelter and use your front wheel as an extra post to create a much more spacious abode.
You can learn more practical bikepacking skills on Cycling UK’s Mountain Bike Leader: Expedition Module
Why tarp over tent?
To tarp or to tent? For me really it is weather dependent – if on a long trip with a risk of bad weather, I take a tent – but lose space and gain weight. However, for short trips with a couple of nights out, a bivi bag and / or tarp is my first choice.
Tarps are cheap and lightweight compared to tents. They are quick to set up, take down and much less obtrusive – perfect for a spot of stealth camping.
And that’s the beauty of bikepacking – it goes hand in hand with wild camping, Together these are perfect ways to explore the wilderness lying in your backyard or beyond.
With your bivi or tarp, you’re a part of the nightscape – it’s a different experience to the luxury of a tent where you’re trapped from the outside by nylon walls and zips.
For your first time out, keep an eye on the weather forecast for a dry night and head somewhere local you have scoped out before, ideally away from popular dog walking spots. It doesn’t need to be an epic adventure the first time – those will come later.
The important thing is just to get out there and give it a go!
What kit do I need?
Assuming you've got the camping essentials of a sleeping bag and sleeping mat, if you're just dipping your toe in to tarp camping, your outlay does not need to be too much.
For several years, I have used a £10 tarp I bought from Mountain Warehouse and then pilfered pegs (at least six) and spare guy ropes from tents. I also frequently use the bungees I nearly always have with me when out for a multi-day ride.
Buying from new, I estimate you would probably have change from £20 for a simple lightweight overnight shelter.
To put that in perspective, you'll be paying at least three to four times that for a backpacking tent which you might struggle to fit into a pannier.
There are also more lightweight camping specific tarps, with fittings that make more complicated tarp setups possible. It's worth investing in one of these once you know tarp camping is for you - as they're not cheap. I've one from Alpkit, which is great and not too costly.
- Tarp - aim for something at least 2.4m long by 1.8m
- Pegs - six to eight
- Paracord - buy a length of around 20m, which should be more than enough to work with no matter your situation
- Alternatively to paracord you'll want two guy lines
- Lightweight ground sheet