When it comes to bike gear, a tent is not exactly essential. For bikepacking, however, a good lightweight shelter is paramount, especially in the Rockies, where torrential rains, hail, and bugs make winging it impractical. But finding a good touring tent isn’t easy. The average two-person model often comes in at a quarter of your bike’s weight and is as unwieldy to carry as a freshly cut log.
Thankfully, I discovered the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV2 Platinum ($550) a couple years back. This thing is a miracle of engineering. The complete pack weight is 2.13 pounds, and you can drop that to 1.75 pounds if you’re willing to forgo the screens. That is astounding for a free-standing structure that covers two people. It also packs down small enough to fit inside most frame bags. I’ve used it a ton over the years and still marvel every time I set it up. But be warned: The floorplan is small. I only camp with someone I’m close to, as in my wife, or maybe my brother. It’s almost impossible to hang out in there during bad weather, and getting in and out, even in good weather, is kind of like yoga.
More recently, I came across the Topeak Bikamper, a one-man structure that’s perhaps the only tent out there marketed expressly to cyclists. The unique design forgoes poles, instead using your bike’s handlebars and front wheel to create the structure. It’s an ingenious setup, though it proved a little fiddly to erect. Breathability was limited, as well, and the weight, even without poles, was 2.93 pounds. That’s respectable, especially considering that the $259 price tag is less than half of the Big Agnes. For those on a budget who frequently ride solo, this would be a solid option. However, the footprint and interior space is still coffin-like, so it didn’t remedy my issues with the Fly Creek.
What I’m currently most excited about is the teepee-style Hyperlite UltaMid 2*. Built from Dyneema fabric, which is commonly used in boat sails for the combination of light weight and rip resistance (some may know it from its past iteration as Cuben Fiber), this floor-less structure shirks the conventional wisdom that says a tent can either be small and light or spacious and heavy. The tent, plus its center pole, and stakes (the latter two are sold separately) weigh just 1.75 pounds combined, the same as the Big Agnes, but you get 50 percent more space. To put that in perspective, each half has space for a sleeping bag and pad, plus sundry gear including stove and packs, which means it sleeps either two people comfortably or one person with a bike on the open side. One rainy night, we even squeezed four friends in for dinner and a game of cards, and getting in and out wasn’t a game of Twister.
The UltaMid is not free-standing, but it’s incredibly easy to put up: stake the four corners, then erect the pole in the nylon reinforced center cone. The recommended carbon fiber pole from Ruta Locura has eight inches of adjustment, which makes it easy get the pyramid taut, and it allows pitching the UltaMid either high off the ground for ventilation or totally flush with the earth for warmth. Once erected, simply add four more stakes at the guy points on the flat sides for additional floor space and stability. One great benefit of the system is the tent can be raised from within. That meant that one early afternoon on arrival at camp, when a New Mexico monsoon thunderstorm let loose a torrent of rain and hail, my wife and I stayed dry by putting ourselves and gear underneath the tarp and building it from beneath.
It is, for me, the finest backcountry shelter I’ve ever used, and it will easily replace three systems I already own, from a superlight bivy all the way up to a four-season mountaineering setup.
Hyperlite sells a Mesh Insert with no floor ($145) in case you’re traveling in a buggy region, but we opted for the Mesh Insert with waterproof floor ($395) for the added versatility and protection. I’ve used the UltaMid both solo and with the insert, and I like the simplicity without (just bring a plastic sheet for a ground cloth), especially in New Mexico and the desert Southwest, where bugs aren’t a big issue. Having said that, one stormy weekend when a summer squall turned into 18 hours of heavy rain, the floor was the only thing that kept us dry, and from possibly floating away. Even with the floored insert, the full pack weight bumps to just 3 pounds 1 ounce, which is incredibly light for such a big, durable structure.
Dyneema fabric is wild stuff, crinkly and translucent like crepe paper, but seriously tough and impervious. The seams are well sealed, which we tested during that stormy weekend when we stayed cozy and dry despite constant drizzle punctuated by major downpours. And while the material is gossamer, I was initially surprised by its bulk. The UltaMid packs to about the size of the complete Fly Creek, and that doubles if you add the insert. Part of the bulk comes from the major fabric reinforcements at the center cone, corners, and guy points, something I think is worth it. Though it hasn’t been cold enough yet, I’ve been told that the UltaMid is even burly enough for winter camping if you pile snow around the outside edges.
When packing, I was able to wrangle the complete tent including insert, my sleeping bag and pad, an Icebreaker 200-weight top and bottom, and a Patagonia Down Shirt into a Salsa EXP Dry Bag and onto the front of my bike. And the more I’ve used the UltaMid, the more it packs down, to the point where the UltaMid alone with stakes and pole now cradles nicely into a Salsa Anything Cage.
As you might have guessed, the UltaMid is spendy at $715, partly because it represents the highest performance tent you can buy, and partly because it’s 100 percent American made. After you add the pole ($110), eight stakes ($36), pole straps if you plan to use the tent with hiking poles ($12), and the optional waterproof insert ($395), you’re looking at a major investment of $1,250. Whether that is worth it will depend on how often you use the UltaMid, how frequently and deep into the backcountry you like to go, and how much time you spend inside it. For those on more of a budget, I’d recommend the Nemo Apollo ($300), which provides almost as much space, though it’s not nearly as tough or full-featured.
My wife and I spend a lot of time in the backcountry, so the cost for us is minimal relative to the benefits. I’ve used close to two dozen tents through the years, but I’ve never found one that approaches the UltaMid’s combination of great living space, huge durability, and ultimate lightweight. It is, for me, the finest backcountry shelter I’ve ever used, and it will easily replace three systems I already own, from a superlight bivy all the way up to a four-season mountaineering setup. And without question, it will grace my handlebars or seat bag on every bikepacking adventure going forward.
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Correction: *This name has been corrected.