There’s nothing better than getting away from it all for a few days. All you need is a bike a couple of panniers and some basic camping gear. It doesn’t need to cost a fortune either, and you could be on your way for less than the cost of a few nights in a decent B&B. For summer trips, a budget of around £200 should cover the essentials. Look at spending about half on the tent and the rest on a sleeping bag, camping mat and accessories. Apart from buying the best you can afford, the aim is to the keep weight down and minimise bulk.
There are a surprising number of small, lightweight tents to choose from. For the solo traveller a one-man tent may sound ideal, but these are often cramped with little or no room for additional storage. On the other hand, some two-man tents are not that much heavier or bigger when packed, so going-large may be a better option. As a rule of thumb, the packed tent should be no more than 45cm long and weigh less than 2.5kg. Also, look for tent that pitches outer-first so that sleeping compartment is protected from the elements if you’re putting the tent up in the rain.
The Vango Banshee 200 is one example of a tents that meets all these criteria. A couple of friends have them and other than lacking a bit of headroom there’s not much to criticise. My tent, a Gelert Solo, takes a more minimalist approach and has its limitations: it’s tiny inside and it pitches inner-first. Even so, I’m happy because it only cost 30 quid, weighs a kilo less than the Banshee and easily fits into a pannier.
Whilst tents keep you dry, sleeping bags keep you warm. To do this, they are filled with either down (duck or goose feathers) or synthetic fibres. Weight-for-weight, down-filled bags are more compact and warmer. On the other hand, synthetic bags are cheaper and easier to look after – machine-washable rather than dry clean only. There’s always the temptation to buy the smallest, lightest and cheapest sleeping bag, but a few teeth-chattering nights later you might be wishing that you’d spent more time looking at the specifications.
As a guideline, sleeping bags are rated in seasons, ranging from 1 season for balmy summer nights to 4 season for winter. Bags also have a ‘comfort’ rating showing the minimum temperature for a cosy night’s sleep. Even in August UK temperatures can drop below 10 degrees, so a 2 season bag is a sensible choice for summer use. My sleeping bag is just about adequate for 2 season use. To keep warm, I often have to wear clothes and I’ve just bought a liner so that I can give it a bit of a boost. The nearest modern equivalent (mine is out of production) is the Vango Ultralite 600, which has a ‘comfort’ rating of 5 degrees, weighs 1.2kg and sells for around £70.
There’s just enough left in the kitty to buy a camping mat. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can do without one, because it’s the one thing keeping your warm body insulated from the cold ground beneath. Self-inflating and inflatable mattresses work well. The usual rules apply, so shop around and you should be able to find something suitable that doesn’t take up much space and weighs less than a kilo. Whilst you’re at it, buy an inflatable pillow. It might break the budget, but you won’t regret it.
With the bed sorted, what about breakfast? Well, there’s always the nearest café, but for self-sufficiency you’ll need a camping stove, even if it’s only for boiling water. For convenience, a portable gas stove is hard to beat and there’s not much else to say, except that wider burners will help to prevent hot spots. Add a metal mug plus a saucepan, and you’re a away. For evening meals a disposable barbecue is another possibility, they’re bulky but they don’t weigh much, so there’s usually somewhere to stow them.
Now comes the tricky bit, packing everything onto the bike. Evenly distribute the weight and try to avoid top heaviness. Front panniers may help (I’ve never used them) but for a short trip they are overkill and if you find yourself running out of space take a hard look at your kit list. A good place for a tent is on top of the rear rack – I double-pack mine in a dry sack. I double-pack the sleeping bag as well and carry that in a handlebar harness. If you don’t already have panniers, a waterproof pair with a combined capacity of 40 litres or more will be sufficient. Ortlieb dominate the market but there are plenty of alternatives, and brands such as Crosso may offer more affordable options.
On a recent trip I was amazed at the variety of kit and how differently it was packed. No two outfits were alike but the result was the same – everything worked and we all had a good time. Although it’s easy to get carried away with ‘getting it right’ it proves that with just a little bit of thought choosing the right gear isn’t difficult. And if you’re really strapped for cash, a bargain-basement tent with a supermarket sleeping bag and a foam camping mat will always be better than nothing. Whatever route you take, with the unpredictability of the British climate there’s the ever-present risk of waking up cold, wet and miserable, but that’s half the fun – isn’t it?