7 Ways to Carry A Tent While Bikepacking

When it comes to dialing in the perfect bikepacking setup, figuring out where to pack the tent is one of the trickiest parts. Panniers and rack make it easier, but with a rackless bikepacking bag setup there’s no obvious place to bungee a tent. You’re limited to a seat bag, frame bag, handlebar bag, and maybe (but ideally not) a small backpack.

Unfortunately a bulky tent, with awkwardly long poles, may not fit in any of those places. Even a svelte lightweight solo tent with shorter bikepacking-length poles, like my personal favorite, can still be too big for any of your bikepacking bags. What to do?

One of the many fun things about bikepacking is that there’s no one right way to do it. There are as many packing methods as there are combinations of riders, bikes, routes, and gear lists. Packing for bikepacking is a puzzle, and an invitation to get creative.

Yet sometimes we need a little inspiration, or at least the comfort of knowing that someone somewhere has tried this before. I’ve tried many different ways of packing my tent (and everything else) on my bike during many thousands of miles of bikepacking and touring on various types of bikes. In this post I offer you everything I know about how to carry a tent on a bike, from the obvious to the innovative.

When you buy through affiliate links in this post, I may earn a small commission. Thanks for your support! I always offer unbiased opinions based on real experience from the road and trail. Learn more.

Do You Need a Special Tent for Bikepacking?

Maybe you already have a tent sitting in your garage. Do you actually need to run out and buy a brand new tent specifically for bikepacking? The short answer is no, but there are a few things to consider. Before getting into the details of how to carry your tent on your bike, here’s a quick overview of important considerations when choosing a tent for bikepacking.

The Tent You Already Have?

If you haven’t bikepacked much before but have an old backpacking tent sitting around, I’d encourage you to just get out there with the tent you have. After one or two short trips you’ll have a much better sense of what you need and like.

If you’re worried it’s too big or heavy, that’s what the rest of this post is for! Keep reading to learn how you can carry a big or bulky tent on your bike.

Lightweight Backpacking Tents Can Work

With the backpacking industry being much larger and more mature than the bikepacking industry, most bikepackers “borrow” our gear from the backpacking world. Lucky for us, the backpacking industry has been fine-tuning compact and lightweight shelters for a long time, and many of them are excellent.

One secret of the lightweight backpacking world is that much of the best and lightest gear isn’t found at REI or other big stores. For an entry point into this world, including a list of well-regarded brands and their websites, check out my post on lightweight backpacking tips.

Important point for bikepackers: many lightweight backpacking shelters are so lightweight because they’re designed to be pitched with trekking poles, thus the poles aren’t counted in the tent weight. This is very clever if you’re a hiker, but if you’re a bikepacker it means you’ll need to carry trekking poles or buy additional poles as a substitute.

Related: Best Lightweight Solo Tents by Price vs. Weight

Freestanding Tents for Bikepacking

Bikepackers are more likely than hikers to find ourselves pitching a tent on a hard surface: parking lot, inside a church or classroom, someone’s patio or front porch. This is especially true if you intend to bikepack or bicycle tour internationally, but I’ve also found it to be a factor at home in the US.

Therefore, I recommend that bike travelers consider freestanding tent designs, especially if you plan on longer trips in more populated areas. These can be pitched without the need for stakes or tie-out points. They tend to be slightly heavier than their stake-dependent counterparts, but oh-so-worth-it in my opinion.

The popular Copper Spur from Big Agnes is freestanding. So is my personal favorite, the Big Sky Soul.

Bikepacking-Specific Shelters

Big Agnes is the first brand I know of to release a bikepacking-specific line of tents. As mentioned above, two of their most popular models come in “bikepack” models with 12 inch folding poles to fit between drop handlebars. This does make the packing puzzle a bit easier to solve, though as the rest of this post is dedicated to explaining, it’s far from essential.

In 2020 my favorite solo tent, the Big Sky Soul, was released in a bikepacking-specific version with shorter poles as well! It’s awesome to see gear manufacturers getting on board with the bikepacking boom.

The bikepacking version of the Big Sky Soul 1p tent is only 12 inches long, a convenient size and shape for carrying on a bike.

Read more: Bikepacking Tents: What to Look For + Top Picks

Now that you have your tent, let’s go through the different ways to carry it on your bike. Having this in the back of your mind will be helpful whether choosing a new tent or making your current one work.

Two Straps + Your Handlebars

Bikepacking doesn’t have to be all about the fancy gear. To prove it, let’s start with the simplest and most budget-friendly option of all: two straps. Simply wrap each strap around one side of the handlebars, secure the tent to the bars, and voila! You’re well on your way to a bikepacking setup.

This $4 set of straps will work just fine; it’s what you see in the picture below. If you’re looking to invest in your bikepacking future, spring for a pair of these stretchy Voile straps which are a bit easier to work with and more versatile.

tent strapped to handlebars of mountain bike at beach
A Tarptent Double Rainbow strapped to my handlebars during a beachfront Taco Bell lunch break, long before I had any clue what “bikepacking” was (the rest of my gear was in a backpack).

Simply strapping your tent to the handlebars works especially well if:

You have flat MTB-style handlebars. Most tent poles, with the exception of bikepacking-specific models, won’t fit between the sides of drop handlebars on bikes like the Salsa Fargo.

You have somewhere else to pack your sleeping bag, which is the other thing people often pack in their handlebar harness. Your saddle bag is a good place for the sleeping bag, but then you still need somewhere to put those warm layers… As I said, packing for bikepacking can be a puzzle.

Your tent is reasonably compact and lightweight. It’s reasonable to carry a few pounds on your handlebars without impacting steering too much, so most modern lightweight 1 and 2 person tents are no problem. But that vintage department store 3-person car camping tent? Maybe not.

Related: Bikepacking Handlebars: How to Choose

Handlebar Harness

A bikepacking handlebar harness is a contraption that mounts to the front of your handlebars and uses two straps to secure an item, usually something cylindrical like a stuff sack or dry bag, against the harness. It’s basically an upgraded version of the “two straps” solution above with the advantages of being more stable, durable, lifted away from cables and housing, and easier to pack and unpack.

An empty Revelate Designs Handlebar Harness

You often see handlebar harnesses holding a dry bag filled with soft fluffy stuff like a sleeping bag or clothing. Many harnesses even come with a removable dry bag for this purpose, but there’s no reason you can’t carry a tent here instead. And as we’ll get into in the next section, many harnesses can accommodate both at once.

The ideal circumstances for carrying a tent in a handlebar harness are similar to the basic straps method above: you’re running flat bars (or using short tent poles that fit between drops), you have another place to carry your sleeping bag, and your tent is relatively compact and light.

Revelate Designs Handlebar Harness holding a stuff sack

Integrated Handlebar Bag

This style of handlebar bag combines a dry bag and handlebar mount into one. It’s a bit less flexible because the bag is attached, so you can’t simply remove it and strap your tent there instead. However, if your tent happens to fit inside the handlebar bag then it’s also an excellent option for carrying your tent.

Popular all-in-one options are the Ortlieb Handlebar Bag, the Revelate Designs Sweetroll, or the budget-friendly RockBros (see my review here).

In addition to needing a good fit between tent and bag, the same conditions from above apply: works best with flat handlebars, a light tent, and space somewhere else to put your sleeping bag.

Example of a handlebar bag with the mount and bag integrated together

Double-Loaded Handlebar Bag / Harness

A handlebar harness or bag is prime cargo real estate for a stuffable item like your sleeping bag. If you don’t want to dedicate this space to your tent alone, look for a harness or bag that can hold more than one thing. There might be a second set of straps (like the Revelate Harness when using the Egress Pouch), an adjustable front flap (like the Revelate Sweetroll), or daisy chain webbing for you to fasten Voile straps through.

One downside of this method is that it’s not always stable, and it’s easy to overload your handlebars. If riding technical terrain too much weight will make bike handling harder. If you’re a small rider on a 29er bike (* raises hand *) you might have to watch out for tire rub if the load sags while riding.

Revelate Handlebar Harness and Egress Pouch, with tent (the green Big Sky stuff sack) strapped in between.

A major upside of this method is that your long tent poles can still fit on your handlebars even with drop bars. I’ve used this method to carry a tent on my Salsa Fargo for many thousands of miles, and it works because the tent is strapped out in front of the main dry bag. The dry bag sits between the drops while the tent sits out in front of them, with no width restrictions. If you have space above your tire the tent could also ride below the drops.

Bikepacking handlebar bag
Carrying wide tent poles on drop bars by strapping the tent to the front of the dry bag.
Handlebar bikepacking gear
Carrying a tent beneath the drops by strapping it to a sleeping bag in a dry sack using just the “two straps” method. Don’t let lack of a proper handlebar harness stop you from hitting the trails!

In / On Your Seat Bag

A larger seat bag may be an option for carrying a compact tent, especially if you remove it from its stuff sack and split it into pieces. Tent poles placed along the bottom of a seat bag can actually provide helpful support that keeps the bag from drooping onto your rear tire.

If your seat bag is already full, you can strap a small light tent to the top (use more than one strap – if it bounces off you’ll never see it again). This might be a bit too much weight back there for technical riding, but with a stable enough seat bag it’s doable for dirt and gravel roads.

Bikepacking in Idaho
Small shelter strapped to the top of a large seat bag

It’s not a common feature but I’ve even seen a seat bag with pockets that fit tent poles on the outside, the Olliepack:

Olliepack seat bag with 17" tent poles in pocket, secured by Voile strap
Swift Industries’ Olliapack seat bag has a mesh pocket underneath that can be used to carry tent poles.

Split It Up

Maybe you have a bulky tent and a bike with narrow drop bars, or full suspension, or a small frame and minimal tire clearance. Don’t give up hope! This is the method for you.

Most tents come in multiple parts. Maybe there’s a mesh inner and a separate rainfly, or a separate footprint. In almost all cases, the poles – the trickiest part to fit into oddly shaped bikepacking bags – are separate from the rest. So let’s take advantage of this.

Stuff the separate fabric pieces wherever they go best. Maybe the main body of your tent fits fine in your handlebar bag as long as you put the rain fly and poles somewhere else. If you’re sharing a tent with another rider, this is a great way to share the load.

How my husband and I split up our 3-person tent while riding the Great Divide

As for those pesky tent poles:

  • Tall people can sometimes fit poles in their frame bag.
  • Try the bottom of your seat bag – helps prevent sagging too!
  • Strap them to your top tube if they fit.
  • If not, try the down tube,
  • Or even the side of your seat tube.
  • If the bundle is too thick, split them up in two different places.

Secure the poles with velcro straps or a pair of short Voile straps. The latter are easy to cinch down and the rubber will help keep the poles from slipping. If you’re really looking for luxury (and want to protect your poles from rough conditions), Tarptent makes a pole pouch designed specifically for this purpose. You could also always make your own.

Tarptent’s PolePouch (image credit: Tarptent)

Strapped to a Rear Rack

Though I’ve focused on rackless bikepacking setups because they pose a bigger packing challenge, there’s no rule against bikepacking with a rear rack. In fact, sometimes it’s helpful or even necessary (see Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags). If you’re a small rider tackling a remote trip with long food and water carries, for example, a rear rack might be your only option.

Strapping a tent to a rear rack is usually easy and straightforward. I recommend a couple of sturdy Voile straps. Voile even makes adjustable rack straps which are nice for variable-size loads, but personally I find the regular straps easier to use.

Related: Old Man Mountain Divide Rack – Detailed Review

Big Agnes Copper Spur tent strapped to a rear rack while bikepacking in Kyrgyzstan, where long food and water carries made a rack more practical than a seat bag.

Forget The Tent

I know this isn’t what you were looking for, but a discussion of bikepacking tents wouldn’t be complete without mentioning an increasingly popular alternative: going without one.

In bikepacking as well as lightweight backpacking, more people are turning to tarp shelters in order to save weight while staying protected from the elements. Tarps frequently pitch with the help of trekking poles, but there are even some crazy things like this starting to pop up as bikepacking grows in popularity.

And then, there’s the bivy sack. As some of the lightest waterproof shelters available and definitely the quickest to set up, bivy sacks are standard kit in endurance bikepack racing. For relaxed riding some people find them cramped, are bothered by the condensation they collect, or simply prefer the privacy and comfort of a larger shelter.

Woman in bivy sack drinking coffee on bikepacking trip

For relatively clear weather and summer rides, I’m currently loving my super-lightweight water-resistant bug bivy, paired with a simple lightweight tarp or SOL emergency bivy in case of unexpected rain. But when camping in places with lots of people around, or when stormy weather is expected, I still prefer my lightweight tent.

More Bikepacking Resources

If you’re wondering where to pack your tent, chances are good you might also find these helpful:

Or visit the bikepacking section for lots more!

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 19,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

Shop Bikepacking Resources

Excited to try bikepacking but need help getting started? The Bikepacking Trip Planner Workbook can help you take the next step.

Bike resources in your inbox?

There’s more where this came from! Sign up here for occasional emails full of inspiration and information about bikepacking and bicycle touring.

Town Day Checklist!

Sign up to receive the free downloadable bikepacking town day checklist to help with your resupply stops:

    You’ll also receive occasional emails with other bikepacking and touring resources. I think you’ll like them, but you can unsubscribe at any time.

    Share the Adventure

    If you found this article helpful, please consider sharing so more people can benefit from it:

    Pin For Later

    Pictures of bikepacking rigs with text: where should you carry your tent while bikepacking?

    8 thoughts on “7 Ways to Carry A Tent While Bikepacking”

    1. Love seeing the posts and what gear works for you. I live in Redwood City, and am quite familiar with the locations in your read. Thanks !!

    2. Tent poles…find an old inner tube, or something similar …I had used a piece of old piece of a yoga mat before but inner tube works better… and slip them into that, fold over the ends and secure with elastic bands, then lash to your top tube/down tube. Shouldn’t rattle much.

    3. Copper Spur UL 2 Bike Packing vs. Copper Spur UL 3 or 4 with two strap method.

      Which one is the way to go? I have a hardtail mtb with a flat handlebar. Thanks. I initially expect one of my kids to follow for the bikepacking trip but eventually more as they age, which is why 3 or 4 person tent I am considering to buy.

      • I think that decision depends entirely on how much space you need. If you need the 3 or 4 person tent, you can adapt your setup to carry it. Two adults in a 2 person tent is a tight fit but doable. When I bikepack for a long time with my husband we like a 3 person tent for the extra space.

        • Thank you for the response. We went for 3 person one. Yeah 1 adult with 2 kids with all gears in the tent were very tight. I cannot imagine doing it with 2 person tent. Two strap method worked for me! Again, thank you!


    Leave a Comment

    Item added to cart.
    0 items - $0.00