My wife and I have been camping regularly ever since we both started in the Scouts and the Guides. We have used regular campsites and in our back packing and mountaineering days have wild camped in various remote and mountainous areas, therefore camping techniques come naturally to us. For anyone new to camping these tips might just help those first few cycle camping trips be that bit more comfortable and enjoyable.
Perhaps some of these tips might seem like common sense, however having seen some people camping it makes me wonder!
1. Choosing a tent
Making the right choice of tent can be important to successful and enjoyable camping, however tents like all gear is very much a personal thing so make up your own mind as to what you require from a tent. Here are a few tips from our own experience that might help when making your choice:
- There are many types of tent design but they all tend to be derivatives of four basic principles, tunnels, domes, geodesic and ridge all have there advantages and disadvantages.
Type of Tent Advantages Disadvantages Hooped Tunnel Large living area for the weight, designs can easily accommodate large vestibules for storage and cooking in bad weather. Tend to be pitched outer first with the tent hung inside, so very easy to put up. Not quite as strong as the Geodesic designs, but many are used for 4 season camping and depending on the fabrics/poles used and the guying system, can still be very strong and stable in high winds. Dome Can give you a large living area with plenty of height with reasonable vestibules for storage. Tend to be pitched outer first with the tent hung inside, so very easy to put up. Tend not to be as strong and stable in high winds due to their higher profile, but good for valley camping. Geodesic Very strong shape that can spill the wind and if designed well with good materials and poles can be virtually bomb proof! Inner pitching first can mean that the inner can get wet when pitching in heavy rain. Due to the geodesic shape the vestibules tend to be small and so some designs can lack storage areas. Ridge Strong shape that can spill the wind and with 'A' frame rather than single pole and good guying can withstand most that is thrown at it. Due to the ridge design the living area isn't as big as tunnels or geodesics and the vestibules tend to be small and so lack storage areas.
- When making your choice consider carefully where you will be cycletouring, do you really need a tent designed for high mountain situations? We currently use a Hilleberg Nallo 3 GT for cycletouring which weighs less than our Terra Nova Quasar. When we are cycletouring we are mainly using lowland campsites and thus prefer the Nallo over the Quasar as it gives us far more room for the weight carried. Certainly if we were to go mountaineering in the Scottish hills we would without hesitation take the Quasar as it has a smaller footprint, its geodesic design is inherently stronger than the Nallo's hoop tunnel design and we would happily sacrifice the room and weight for a stronger tent that we know from experience can withstand Scottish mountain weather.
- Consider the size of the awning, is there enough storage space for all your panniers and gear, you don't want to have to leave them on your bikes.
- Look at the collapsed pole size when selecting your tent, as smaller sized poles are easier to pack and carry on a bike.
- Most modern tents use synthetic materials which are extremely waterproof, this is great to keep out the rain but it also means that any perspiration, steam from the stoves and water vapour from the ground in a large vestibule will condensate on the outer. To minimize this tent designers put in vents, therefore make sure that these are well positioned, strong and capable of being closed off in bad weather.
- Make sure that it has a good full sized outer fly sheet, some cheaper tents have little or no fly sheet that protects the doors of the inner tent in bad weather.
- If you are on a tight budget go for the best quality that you can afford, a good tent makes the difference when it comes to an enjoyable camping experience. There are so many tents out on there on the market these days and it's difficult to compare them as manufacturers use different names for the fabrics and materials that they use. The old saying "You get what you pay for" is to a certain extent true with tents, as those priced at the lower end achieve this price through a compromise in the quality of construction and in the materials used. I have seen some cheap tents where guying points have ripped out through poor stitching, buckles breaking through the use of cheap mouldings and poles breaking in strong winds due to the use of weaker glass fibre poles which don't flex as well as good quality aluminium poles.
- When making your choice look for a manufacturer that gives a life time or at least a 5 year guarantee for their products.
- Make sure you known how to put
your tent up! The amount of people we see struggling
to put up new tents that they obviously have never
put up before and it always seems to be raining or
blowing a gale! Have a practice pitch in the back
garden before you go to familiarise yourself with
how it goes together. Some geodesic tents have poles
that are different lengths, put a bit of coloured
tape on them so that it is easier to distinguish them.
- Don't camp in a hollow, as if it
rains you will end up pitched in a puddle! Look for
signs that the ground might be boggy, might not be
well drained or might potentially flood, e.g. the
bottom of slopes against stone walls or near to streams.
Get to know the types of plants that like damp wet
boggy conditions such as the rushes of the Juncus
genus and avoid pitching on ground that contains them.
- Check the surface that you are
pitching on to see that there are no sharp objects
or stones hidden in the grass that might puncture
your ground sheet or make for an uncomfortable surface
to sleep on. We actually use a ground sheet protector,
which is designed to take the wear & tear that
could so easily damage a ground sheet. There are some
people who probably might think this is extra weight,
but after our experiences in West Papua we wouldn't
be without one. Have a look here
to see what happened!
- Avoid pitching on steep sloping
ground, as at night you'll end up slipping downhill
and end up on top of each other! Having said that
a very slight slope can help with drainage and it's
advisable not to sleep with your head down hill as
you may end up with a head ache due to the increased
- Pitching under trees can give you
good shade from the sun, but can be a pain when it
rains, as after the rain has stopped the trees will
continue to drip.
- Keep a eye on the weather and if
its looks like a storm is brewing, then pitching in
the lee of a wall or hedge will give you some shelter
from the prevailing winds. Obviously if the winds
are very strong don't pitch too close to trees!
- Depending on the shape of your
tent, try and pitch your tent with it's narrow end
into the wind, as the shape should produce less resistance
to the wind.
- If it is very windy while you are
pitching, make sure that someone is holding on to
the tent or hold it down with some pegs so that it
doesn't blow away. I was with some D of E Award kids once who
had erected the inner of a geodesic tent, but had
not pegged it down. As they were picking up the outer
to put it on, a large gust of wind picked up the inner
and it went up like a kite. We eventually found it
3 miles down the valley snagged on a barbed wire fence, luckily for them it wasn't damaged!
- Tent stuff sacks can also easily
blow away, make sure they are weighed down with something
or put them in your pocket while you are pitching.
- A well pitched tent with a good
tight outer will shed the rain better and not flap
so much in the wind. Remember that modern synthetic
fabrics stretch slightly when wet and damp, so the
tent that was nice and tight in the sun will go slack
in the wet. The opposite principle applies to canvas
tents whose outers shrink when they get wet.
When pegging out guy-lines the pegs should be placed in the ground at a rough angle of 90º to the line of the guy-line for most effective anchorage and perhaps angled slightly back from this to make sure that the guy-line doesn't slip up the peg. The depth that you place the peg will depend on the firmness of the ground.
For some unknown reason people seem to think tent pegs have to be hammered in to the ground, many a time we have been woken up by people arriving late at night and hammering their pegs into grass that we have pushed ours into earlier. I can only think of one occasion that we had to resort to the help of a rock and that was on the Dreki campsite in Iceland and there there is no top soil just hard cinder ash.
All hammering does is to guarantee that you will bend and damage your pegs. Only the large ash wooden pegs that we used to have in the scouts to put up large canvas ridge tents or the thick steel pegs are designed to be hammered in with a mallet. Unfortunately not all campsites have a nice depth of soil and quite often there are stones underneath. If you start hammering your pegs in they will merely hit the stones and bend. If you push your pegs in with your hand you will feel if it hits a stone and a slight repositioning or a slight change in angle can usually miss the stone altogether. If the ground is quite hard to push in with your hand then a gentle pressure with the sole of your boot will push it home, but should you feel too much resistance stop and reposition the peg or you will indeed bend it.
Count those pegs!
I would be a rich man if I had a pound for all the tent pegs that I have found on campsites, most of these were still in the ground and we are not always talking about the cheap wire pegs as some are quite often light weight alloy and titanium pegs from expensive tents. To us a tent peg is an integral part of the tent, we know exactly how many pegs we carry and religiously count them up as we pack the tent.
Unless you are using an older style canvas or cotton tent most modern tents that use synthetic fabrics suffer from condensation. If the temperature of the moist air inside the tent is warmer than the temperature of the air outside then the moisture inside will condense on the inside of the outer skin of the tent as it cools, this is generally what happens overnight as the temperatures drop.
If you had a single skin tent then the condensation would run down the inside of the tent and wet your ground sheet and if you touched the sides you would also get wet. Most modern tents get over this problem by being double skinned. They have an inner tent made from a fabric that is breathable and lets water vapour out and a outer skin or fly sheet which is waterproof. Any condensation that forms on the outer fly sheet isn't generally a problem as it usually runs down the inside of the tent and drips off the bottom of the fly sheet away from the inner tent.
I say generally it isn't a problem but there are times when it is a nuisance:
- If it is windy or raining hard then the outer tent can spray the condensed water onto the inner tent and also wet the gear inside your awning.
- When getting in and out of the tent unless you are very careful you will get a wet back or it will drip down the back of your neck!
- In the morning even if the fly-sheet is dry on the outside it is probably wet on the inside. If you pack the tent away wet you you will end up carrying extra weight in water.
- If you pack the inner tent within the wet fly-sheet you will have a damp inner tent to crawl into when you get to your next campsite. You could avoid this by taking the inner tent out and packing it separately.
Personally we prefer to pack a dry tent as it is less weight to carry and getting into a damp tent at the end of a days cycling isn't the best. If the weather is good it is worth spending a bit of time drying the tent. If it is a warm sunny morning with a bit of wind and you open all the doors it will probably dry by the time you have finished breakfast and packed everything inside. You can speed things up by rubbing an absorbent towel over the inside to remove most of the moisture first.
How to reduce condensation
Most good tent designers recognise that condensation is problem and fit vents to help with air flow to help remove the condensation build up. The vents only work when there is a bit of a wind to move the air through the tent and therefore you will notice more condensation on still nights.
- Make sure that there is some air flow through the tent. This has two functions it helps to draw out moisture and also lowers the temperature differential between the inside and outside. The outflow of air is either through a top vent at the end or ends of the tent or by the gap between the fly-sheet and the ground, make sure this is not obstructed by long grass or rocks. If the vents don't give enough ventilation and it is a dry night you may wish to consider opening the doors a bit. The more ventilation you use the colder it may be in the tent, therefore you may need a warmer sleeping bag depending on the climatic conditions of where you are camping.
- Try and reduce the amount of moisture that is produced in the tent. You can't really prevent the moisture you produce by breathing but cooking in the awning and wet clothes will produce extra moisture.
- If you have a large awning then the ground itself may give off moisture and a awning footprint can help reduce this.
- It well worth using a closed cell or self inflating mat to insulate yourself from the cold ground while you are sleeping. We prefer the self inflating mats, such as the 'Thermarest' or 'Exped' type, as these tend to give a comfortable surface to sleep on as well as good insulation and with the chair kits that convert them into comfortable chairs they are certainly worth the extra weight.
- Go to bed warm, otherwise if you go to bed cold it will take you ages to warm up. If you are cold, warm yourself up with a hot drink or some hot food or perhaps take some gentle exercise. If you think it is going to be a cold night, it is better to go to bed with extra clothes on and take them off if you get too hot rather than the other way around.
- If you have a down sleeping bag, get it out of its stuff sack well before you go to bed. This will give it time to loft up and it will then be much warmer.
- A pillow certainly helps for a good nights sleep and there are some good little camping pillows about. An effective pillow is to take a pillow case (which doesn't weight much and is easy to wash) and stuff it with your spare clothes, fleeces etc..
- As mentioned in the equipment list, take a set of earplugs. It helps to cope with noisy neighbours, traffic noise or the local disco!
- On the grounds of safety, as far as possible always cook outside the tent. Stoves on lighting particularly petrol & paraffin can flare up if they haven't been preheated enough. If the weather is bad then sit in the shelter of the awning with the stove just outside within easy reach.
- Make sure that the stove is on a stable surface, you don't want the stove to fall over with a pan of boiling water on it!
- Stoves are much more efficient if they are shielded from the wind. We use a light weight aluminium sheet wind shield which came with our MSR stove.
- Make sure that you do your washing up in the evening and get rid of your rubbish, as the smell might attract nocturnal visitors, such as hedge-pigs or foxes.
- Keep food sealed to prevent ants and other insect life from munching on your food. We use one of our Ortlieb racpacs for food, the roll top closure makes them quite slug and ant proof! Make sure the lid of you milk carton is well closed, as slugs love milk!
Unfortunately we left this bag of jam doughnuts in the awning of our tent overnight. It seems we had nocturnal visitors, probably mice who obviously enjoyed them. It was our fault for not putting away in our food bag.
- Don't strain the hot water from pasta etc.. directly on to the ground as the heat will kill the grass, strain the water into something. We have an Ortlieb folding bucket which we put any waste water in. When we've finished the meal all the washing up goes into it and we then take it to the washing up point. The waste water can then be tipped out before adding clean for washing up.
- This might seem obvious, but don't go into the inner tent with your shoes on. If you do, you will get dirt and mud in the inner tent and any stones that may be trapped in your cleats or tread could damage the groundsheet.
- Be tidy and organised within your tent and get into a routine. Have a usual place for every thing, that way it will be less of a mess and it is easier to find things in the dark.
- Have a torch in a regular place so that it can be found in the night. We have a micro LED torch permanently clipped on to a tag hanging from the top of the inner tent. It's so light weight, it just gets rolled up with the tent when we pack. (make sure that it has a plastic body and clip so there is nothing to rust and mark your tent inner should it get damp and make sure that it has a switch that cannot be easily turned on when it gets rolled up!)
- Keep the inner tent dry, when it is raining don't go in with wet waterproofs on. One advantage of the Hilleberg Nallo GT is that it has a very large outer awning vestibule which means that there is plenty of room to get in with waterproofs on and take them off, keeping ourselves and the inner tent dry. If you don't have a large awning and it is chucking it down, crouch down in the entrance and very quickly whip your waterproofs off and then get in.
- If you've had a bit of a wet day, try and dry out wet or damp waterproofs at the earliest opportunity. If you leave wet or even slightly damp waterproofs or clothing in your panniers they will begin to smell horrid and there is a good risk that they will become mildewed, particularly if it is warm. Mildew will leave black stains, which are difficult to remove even after washing.
In certain countries such as Finland, Norway and Sweden it is quite legal to wild camp. In Finland they have designated bivi spots where there will be some form of water supply such as a lake or stream, a fire place stocked with cut firewood and an earth closet toilet. My wife and I have wild camped several times on our cycle tours in Finland, Sweden and Norway .
All wild campers need to remember their responsibilities and try to minimise the impact that they might make on the environment they camp in. We want everyone to continue to experience the joys of unspoilt wilderness camping, so the message is quite simple:
'Leave no trace'
After you have left a site, no one should have any idea that you had been there.
Here are a few tips to help minimise that impact:
- Protect water supplies - don't wash up or bathe in streams, lakes or rivers, as they may well be a local water supply. Instead collect the water and move at least 50m away from the water to wash up or bathe, then dispose of the soapy water along way from the water source to give the earth a chance to filter it. We have a folding bucket made by Ortlieb which is very handy for washing and you can even get shower attachments for some water carriers.
- If you do use soap and detergents, try and take biodegradable versions.
- Don't light fires unless it is essential for your survival or there is a designated fire place, like in the bivi spots in Finland. Remember that fallen and dead wood is a potential habit for all manner of creatures that make up that ecosystem.
- If you use a stove think about where you place it to prevent scorching the plants underneath, if you can look to placing your stove on gravel, flat stones or bare earth.
- Some upland areas have very fragile ecosystems and have taken years to establish, therefore minimise the trample factor e.g. by using a water carrier so that you only make one trip to get water. Heat from a stoves hot pans and cups can easily scorch plants, use the stove on gravel or on a flat rock to minimise scorching.
Scorch marks left by previous campers
Stoves on rocks to prevent scorching vegetation
Take all your rubbish with you, if you smoke even cigarette ends, the filter tips can be very harmful to small animals and birds and they are extremely unsightly. Don't burn or bury your rubbish, even waste food, orange peel, apple cores etc., although these will biodegrade it can take quite some time and in the meantime wild animals may well be attracted to the smell and dig it up, making quite a mess! Make sure you have some poly bags and wire ties with you to put all your rubbish in so you can dispose of it responsibly when you get to civilisation.
If there is an earth closet then use it, you will probably find a pile of wood chipping's or similar material outside, so that you can cover up your business to prevent smells, flies and make it nicer for the next person.
Finish earth closet
If there is no earth closet then you will need to go at least 100m away from any water source and if there is a top layer of turf try and cut out a small square so that you can replace it afterwards and then dig a small hole about 6 - 9 inches deep(there is no need to dig any deeper as the bacteria needed to break it down are in the top 9 inches of soil) and then do your business. Any toilet paper can be burned in the hole (unless there is risk of fire), wet wipes, sanitary towels and tampons can take an age to break down and should ideally be bagged and taken out. Don't be tempted to be a lazy 'Rock crapper' i.e. the numpty who just lifts up a rock, does his/her business and places it back, it's not very pleasant when you trip over a rock to see a whirler starring back up at you!
It is possible to wild camp in the upland areas of Scotland. For some advice on wild camping in Scotland have a look at these links: