Part 1 – Background & Our First Outing
Let’s start by saying that we’re not experienced campers, we’re not even really outdoor types but we have always been seduced by the ‘call of the wild’ and the romanticism of sleeping under the stars being at one with nature in an idyll of serenity.
But, of course, all of that belies the reality of physical discomfort, cold noses and a noisy dawn alarm call.
Down in the South of France at the end of August 2002, we tried it in a naturist resort. We bought the kit and we flew down there in a rented aircraft. We both had a pilot’s licence, so what could be more perfect than to fly yourself down to be naked on the Mediterranean and commune with nature?
Our first mistake was a poor appropriation of funds. We had enough money to rent an aircraft that guzzled fuel faster than an American Muscle Car from the 70s, we had enough money to pay for enough techno-gadgetry in the aircraft to navigate the Space Shuttle to Alderaan and back, but when it came to the camping gear, funds were oddly limited.
A cheap tent, cheap sleeping mats (air beds) and cheap sleeping bags are not the best ingredients if you’re looking for a recipe of comfort.
And so it was on the first night; as a large chap, I bounced around on my air bed like a kangaroo in a bouncy castle, except that I muttered and cursed with every bounce as the shiny surface of the sleeping bag seemed to develop a negative drag co-efficient when in contact with my sleeping surface and I was propelled sideways onto the hard deck regularly and without dignity.
Our other big mistake was not checking the weather. Strange for a couple of pilots that are necessarily climatologically obsessed; and I can’t remember why we weren’t on top of it but I’m guessing now that it was a logical separation between the tech heavy world of aviation and the zen-like zone of nature and naturism.
The Mediterranean is a fantastic and exciting place in late summer. We have sat in many restaurants and hotel rooms watching the truly glorious spectacle of nature’s electric light show that comes from expansive thunderstorms borne from superheated terrain during the day and an active sky.
Fantastic from a restaurant window on the beach, less so from a tent, and even much more less so from OUR tent.
From the comfort of a warm and dry vantage point, you’re aware of the rain but not really cognisant of the true volume or weight of it. Our pitifully feeble canvas roof was. As were we. For such a feeble piece of material it put on a brave fight for a very long time but when it finally let go, we weren’t there to see it. We had long gone.
About 5am we were first aware that something was badly wrong. Our tent was ‘old school’. Nothing like the tents of today with an integral floor that rises 4-6″ all around to protect you from the elements. Nope, this was a cartoon tent. Think of a groundsheet just pinned to the floor and a canvas cover, what we would call a tarp today, just erected over the top as cover.
Got the picture?
Now picture the implications of a Mediterranean weather onslaught that formed a small wadi-like river that had a course through the middle of our pitch. After some time we had managed to become accustomed to the noise and the rain, it was our wedding anniversary and there was alcohol involved, but Siubhan was first aware of a strange floating sensation. Not dreamy floaty, but just the small occasional shifts of position as the pouring water would lift her air bed and immediately put it down 1cm or so later.
She screamed, I woke, I screamed and now we both awake; half-pissed, half-hungover and still half-asleep but trying to quickly assess the situation. Our first thought was the tech, mainly the handheld aviation radio and the airband scanner but it was too late, they were under about 2″ of water. Everything was now wet. Really wet. The grass under the tent seemed to have vanished and I remember clearly looking at the unpleasant brown semi-mud, water flow and thinking, fuck!
We climbed out of our sodden sleeping bags and by the time we had crawled out of the tent, our naked bodies were covered head-to-toe in mud. It must have been quite a sight watching the birth canal of our tent disgorge two monsters at 5am, caked in their mud placenta.
So it was understandable that our elderly lady neighbour, sporting just a pair rainbow wellingtons underneath a very impressive garden of pubic hair that seemed to start at the knees (it’s an image burned into my sub-conscious for the incongruity of the wellingtons), was now frozen in her task of bringing in her washing and, as we stood up and made eye contact, she simple uttered, “Ohh-La-La”. Yes, the French really do say that. In the continuing rain, she offered us the use of her, now empty, washing line to drape our sleeping bags and some clothing in the hope that the rain would wash some of the mud off before the sun would come out later and dry something. We were pitifully grateful.
With a couple of items now hanging on the line, we departed the campsite and arrived at the aptly-named Hotel Eve shortly before 6am. Still filthy but, with what could possibly be described as the best use of a credit card ever recorded, we got a room. We showered, we slept, we cuddled and then we went back to the war zone.
Half of our stuff got cleaned and packed away, the other half went in the bin that we passed on the way back to the Hotel where we enjoyed the rest of our week.
Part 2 – Optimism Overtakes Experience
Fast forward 16 years to 2018 and some would say that it has taken 16 years to overcome that trauma before trying the outdoor life again but more would probably question the sanity of someone willing to repeat such a trauma that they can remember in such fine detail 16 years later.
But success rarely comes at first attempt and the ADAPT cycle here is just a structure put to the age-old method for success of mixing learning from your mistakes with perseverance.
So, here we go again!
It’s now 2018 and we’ve taken some time out to tour around the world on our bikes and that, inevitably, will involve sleeping outside at some point. Confucius had a saying1
“When you have a visitor you cannot refuse, welcome them with open arms”
1 I don’t know whether Confucius said this or not, but many cultures have similar proverbs
And so, we head into Chapter 2 of our Outdoor Life with both enthusiasm and optimism.
But, we are also older & wiser and we recognise that if this is to be successful that we need to approach it differently. Firstly, let’s look at what would make our camping life successful:
- We must be warm – we both hate being cold!
- We must be comfortable and be able to sleep well
- It must be (relatively) hassle free with minimal tedium of chores
- We must be able to carry it all on the bikes!
A keen eye will notice that “it must be cheap” is missing. Cost is always important but, on this pass, it is secondary. We will spend as little as possible, but as much as is needed.
So let’s look at that last bullet-point first; when you are self-propelled, weight is always going to be a factor; but we subscribe to most of this article in Cycling About – How Much Does Bike and Gear Weight Actually Slow You Down? For us, comfort trumps speed, or even daily distance.
So that means the 850g Helinox One Chairs are coming!
Along with a few other things.
Along with the comfort level, “Hassle Free” is also an important one for us as we’re occasionally prone to take the easy option, especially when tired and it can be reasonably anticipated that when we’re weary at the end of a day’s ride that we might opt for a hotel in preference of a campsite if we “can’t be bothered” with a labour-intensive task of setting up camp. We’re never going to completely negate that option, nor do we want to, but a relatively simple camp set-up should move the dial a little and make us a little more predisposed to sleeping with the stars.
We chose this list of camping gear with a blend of necessity and value for money. We accept though that we will have got something wrong and may well end up buying a replacement, but that is probably a more cost-effective approach than going all ‘Gucci’ from the outset:
As the main component of our camping kit we gave this a lot of thought. Firstly, we are both tall (think 6 foot each) and we like a little elbow room, so the usual 2-man tent was never going to work for us. 3-man was our entry point. I won’t bore you with all the details but we also wanted a 3-season tent to be able to cope with the occasional Mediterranean thunderstorm and that means that MSR was always going to make the shortlist. And when it came down to the VERY shortlist it was a choice between the MSR Elixir 3 and the MSR Mutha Hubba
The real world differences between them were very few and it really came down to weight and price and we went with the excellent, but slightly cheaper, Elixir 3 in green just on the outside chance that we’ll be wild camping.
But even the 3 person tent wasn’t going to be enough space for 8 panniers, 2 handlebar bags and the top sacks, so we needed an extension and there was only one real option, the MSR Gear Shed
It’s pretty simple really once you get your head around how it connects to the main tent. It’s worth watching the YouTube video before you attempt your first erection.
There’s lots on the internet about extreme weather sleeping mats & bags and for a long time we were very tempted by the Thermarest All Season SV Sleeping Mat, but the negative reviews of the SV mechanism slightly put us off, but the determining factor was the cost of £130 each for this 4-season option against the £35 3-Season Forclaz Trek 700 XL from Decathlon.
The killer point was from someone else posting about a very long bike tour, that the Thermarest delaminated on them several times and, even though Thermarest have exceptional customer service that replaced the airbed every time, it was still a pain to have to wait at a location until the delivery. We opted to take a calculated risk on this £35 option and replace it as necessary around the world.
We took the same philosophy to Sleeping Bags and bought these 3-Season Forclaz 500 5º XL Trekking bags from Decathlon for £50 each.
Full disclosure is that we already had the super light 15º-20º version of the same bag, but the first night we tried them in 6º weather, we were a little cool. It would be an exaggeration to say we were cold, but we knew that it would be prudent to take the bag capability up a couple of notches.
Testing The Kit
It’s now early May in Oxfordshire, UK and we’ve just had a couple of unseasonably warm days so it was the perfect opportunity to put the kit up in the safe knowledge that there were no thunderstorms forecast and there was a warm house just 20 paces away.
Setting the tent up was pretty easy; so we took it down and set it up again in slow-time, carefully considering how and why all the components went together like that. We modified a couple of things on the second time around, such as flipping the footprint (groundsheet) over so that the plastic buckles were uppermost and then we didn’t have a small twist in each of the 4 corner straps. That was a very useful exercise.
The First Night
It went better than we thought it would. The tent was perfect and exceeded our expectations on space and warmth. We had a good feeling of space between us and from the side of the sleeping bags to the walls. Lying there, though, we could see how the space in the gear shed would be very advantageous as the space at our feet was limited and it would be a very crowded space indeed if we were to try to get the panniers in here.
For the first night we tried the 15º-20º sleeping bags that we mentioned above, and you see in this photo, but they were too light and we were a little cool at 3am.
Also, my sleeping pad was one that I had bought secondhand recently and it was uncomfortable because of the large chambers of air and it had a shiny surface that made my sleeping back slide about a lot. Although I slept quite well, I spent the night feeling that I was balanced on top of the sleeping pad about to slide off.
Everyday is a school day and we made a couple of other minor errors on our first night:
- We turned on a light inside the tent before we had got in and zipped up. This attracted every small, buzzy, nocturnal, biting and stinging critter known to man in through the gaping holes at either side of the tent and we spent the first hour decimating the insect population of North Oxfordshire
- We took a mug of tea each to the tent, as we would do normally to bed, and whilst there weren’t any issues, it was fraught with risk of infusing our sleeping bags with PG Tips’ finest. We resolved that all liquids were to be consumed outside of the sleeping area unless they were in a sealed bottle. I.e. the water bottles we carry on the bikes.
- The iPhones were fine in the space between the beds, but night-time is charging time so our power banks were also there with cables and it all got a bit tangled and when Siubhan is tired or just awoken, she can be a little short on understanding 🙄
- It’s VERY bright at 5am!
The Second Night
We hadn’t planned that we would do a second night in the garden, but we were so encouraged and enthused by the first night that we said that we would fix a couple of things and give it another go.
The first thing we did, after breakfast and a shower, was to dash down to Decathlon in Oxford and pick up the heavier sleeping bags, a couple of silk liners and the lower profile sleeping mat for me.
All of those were a huge success and a major step forward from the previous night; I think I slept for 7 hours solid! Siubhan also slept well, especially with judicious use of an Emirates Air eye mask.
To me they looked like a couple of medical plasma bags up there metaphorically keeping our communication channels alive.
But it worked well, and even better when we crossed the cables over so they didn’t lie down the length of our sleeping bags.
Simply put, “So Far, So Good. It was more comfortable and more successful than we had anticipated and we’re now chomping at the bit to get going on our big trip. We’re under no illusion that we won’t have got everything right, only a long tour can be the test of that, but hopefully we’ve mitigated some risks.