How to use your bike to make a shelter

How to use your bike to make a shelter

Ditch the poles on your next bikepacking trip, and just use your bike. Cycling UK’s Sam Jones outlines two ways you can use your bike to set up an overnight shelter using just a tarp, paracord and pegs.

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.


A man setting up a simple A-frame tarp between two trees
Sam sets up a simple A-frame tarp between two trees. Photo Rob Spanring

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


A shelter set up using a tarp and two bicycle wheels
The double wheeled tarp is simple to set up and low profile. Photo Rob Spanring

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.

Step 1

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.

Step 2


A bike wheel is used as a pole for a tarp.
Pass the guy rope around your wheel to create an effective pole. Photo Rob Spanring

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.

Step 3

Peg out the other long side and adjust the tension of any pegs that need it and admire your shelter.

Single wheel shelter


A tarp set up using a bike frame
The Single Wheeled Shelter. Photo Rob Spanring

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.

Step 1


A bicycle is fixed in an upright position using two bungee cords.
Use paracord or bungees to temporarily fix your bike the frame into a stable upright position. Photo Rob Spanring

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.

Step 2

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.

Step 3


A man spreads his tarp over his bike before pegging it down
Once you've fixed your tarp to the bike, extend it over the frame and peg it out. Photo Rob Spanring

Extend the tarp and peg down the two furthest corners.

Step 4


Bungee cords being used to tension a tarp.
Move the paracord or bungees from the bike to the tarp to create tension. Photo Rob Spanring

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)


A single wheeled shelter is opened up by using the front wheel as a pole
To get more ventilation and space, you can use your front wheel as a pole. Photo Rob Spanring

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.


A man in his tarp
Sam is always happy in his tarp. Photo Rob Spanring

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?


A tarp, paracord, pegs and bungees
A tarp, paracord, pegs and bungees - all you need for a shelter. Photo Rob Spanring

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. 

Essentials

  • 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

Luxuries

  • Lightweight ground sheet 
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