Tents, Bags, and Bears

Tents, Bags, and Bears

I’m an old-school classic motorcyclist, and I have seen a lot of things come and go. While there are some game changers out there, it is still pretty hard to get my attention.

Touring gear is very different from what it was 30 years ago. The tents are different. The sleeping bags are different.

For backcountry and national park motorcycle touring, one piece of gear has really changed. New outdoor equipment has come out and virtually nobody in the motorcycling community even noticed. Yet those of us in places like northern California, Colorado, Montana, and Alaska did.

Read a variety of guidebooks or websites about hiking, trekking, touring, or camping in Alaska and the warnings are there. If you plan any kind of adventure up north, you must be prepared for bears.

In the lower 48 states, with Mount Lassen and Yosemite National Parks out in California as two examples, you can’t camp in the open unless you seal up your food in a certified bear canister. The problem has always been that these canisters have been way too big.

That has changed.

The Spirit and Bo Test

Enter Spirit and Bo. Apparently, if you are a bear, you can get a job with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

When the IGBC wanted to design more compact and lighter bear canisters, they contracted the female bear Spirit and the male Bo—for equal opportunity employment—to help with product development. They are a couple of grizzly bears who work for the USFS, which according to the rumors has them working on a 1099 in Montana or somewhere.

Another bear named Sam was also hired, but at the time of testing, he was supposedly on a fishing holiday in Alaska.

Spirit and Bo have the reputation of being the most clever, brutal, and determined grizzlies in North America. That’s why they are in detention, but the IGBC got them both a work release.

The rules are pretty simple. A bear canister under development must be able to withstand one full hour of grizzly contact. If the bear loses interest, they stop the clock.

In the world of grizzlies, Spirit and Bo are a kind of tag team—something like Houdini and Godzilla. If it can be opened by a bear, any bear, Spirit and Bo will figure out how to do it.

Larger canisters in the past have passed their test, but once filled with fish heads, peanut butter, and blueberries, the score for smaller canisters has been bears 1, canisters 0.

In just the last couple of years that has changed. Here are three options for carrying food into the backcountry that are small enough to pack somewhere on an adventure motorcycle. They have passed the Spirit and Bo crash test and, according to the manufacturers, are IGBC-approved.

BearVault BV425 Sprint Bear Canister

Counter Assault – Bear Keg

Bare Boxer

However, check with the USFS to see if the canister that you are interested in is actually approved for the area that you are going to. That is something that you will want to confirm.

Always follow the manufacturer’s directions for usage and the USFS guidelines for bear approval and safety for where you are going.

Perhaps there are those who might say a motorcycle adventure tourer would never need a bear canister. Nevertheless, as an Alaskan motorcyclist, I wouldn’t camp anywhere in Alaska without one. That would include downtown Anchorage.

Single-Wall Tents

Picking the right tent for a trip is a little trickier. The sticky part is matching the best tent for the best value for where you are going.

Manufacturing tents for outdoor use is an extremely competitive business. When you buy a tent, there isn’t a thread in it that was put there arbitrarily.

Considering that, here are some general things to keep in mind. Why buy too much tent and then strap it down on a motorcycle where space must be optimized?

They break tents down into seasons. Most of the tents you see in outdoor shops are three-season tents. It is code for several things.

A three-season tent will probably not be all that warm in the snow. That would need a four-season tent.

Don’t take it mountaineering or try it out in a wind tunnel—it’s not designed for that. In extremely high winds, three-season designs often make better sails than tents.

Moreover, most three-season tents are double-walled. There is a little bit of outdoor voodoo to this aspect.

Generally speaking, single-wall tents have just one layer of fabric. There is no rainfly, and more often than not these tents are made out of pretty technical materials. Single-wall tent fabric needs to be thicker, at least somewhat breathable, water-resistant, and—if it’s a mountaineering tent—able to take on the wind.

The outdoor industry often tends to avoid the term “waterproof.” Even a couple of Swiss watch companies that make very upscale watches for professional divers still list their underwater jewelry as “water resistant” to a maximum specific depth.

Single-wall tents tent to be more rugged, so designers often target the mountaineering market with these designs. Some experienced adventure motorcyclists prefer the single-wall type because putting up the tent is often very straightforward. There is one wall, one set of pegs, and no tent fly that you might have to sumo wrestle with in the wind.

Single-wall tents can be pricey, so unless the adventure motorcyclist plans on camping in the snow, there isn’t much need for the high-tech features that a single-wall tent will offer. However, generally speaking they are warmer, but if the fabric is not breathable, there might be some significant condensation on the ceiling that could provide a mild drizzle.

Double-Wall Tents

A typical single-wall tent is designed to be pitched in snow, above the tree line, and where there is more ice than mosquitoes. It is the three-season, double-wall tent that, at its core, is designed to mitigate heat and flying insects. Many of these designs have bug nets in their first layer, with a rainfly added on the top as the second layer once the tent is set up.

Three,season, double-wall tents are generally cooler and more affordable. The double-wall category is also where good deals for good quality can be found. There is no standard design, but the industry seems to be settling on a rectangular, domed tent for two people, with each person sometimes having their own door on either side.

That is an extremely popular design, so the competition to make the best one is intense.

A fair warning: buying a tent is like getting married. Once you pick out the one you want, you are going to be stuck with it for a while.

Many adventure motorcyclists use a one-person design, but with leathers, saddlebags, and supplies, it can get crowded in there pretty quickly. There are two-person tents, yet the best option is to visit a store that has tents all set up so you can actually sit inside it and see if it fits your needs. Three-season designs are cool in the summer, handle rain reasonably well, and are designed with mosquito management in mind.

Something that is handy to know when comparing price, quality, and function of different tents and other fabrics is the “D.” What does the “D” mean?

“D” is short for denier, and it stands for a unit of measurement related to a linear mass of density of fibers. Sounds rather technical doesn’t it?

Originally, the measurement was used for the weight of a single strand of silk that was nine kilometers long. It equals 1 gram, and the word comes directly from the name of a French coin, a denier. However, that name stems from the Roman denarius, so there is another thing we came blame on the Romans.

Since one denier weighs one gram per 9,000 meters,  200D nylon weighs half of what 400D nylon does. Heavier deniers are stronger and, if you look at them under a microscope, they are thicker. They also cost more.

There are a lot of things to consider before purchasing a tent. Where is this tent going? How small do you need this tent to compress, and how long do you want your tent to last? Tents are not just made out of nylon. There are polyester and other materials out there, too. They are different materials, and it is prudent to do a little homework if you plan on sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere.

Hyke & Byke, YOSEMITE 2 Person Backpacking Tent

The North Face Storm Breaker 2 Person
Backpacking Tent

Marmot Tungsten 2 Person Backpacking Tent

Once the tent is set up and your food has frustrated the local wildlife, the last major event (hopefully) will be getting a good night’s sleep. Generally, sleeping bags are essential gear, but picking one out is more complicated than many might think.

The first decision is choosing between synthetic or down. With all variables considered, the choice isn’t necessarily straightforward.

Synthetic bags tend to be less expensive, but they often pack down to the size of a small depth charge. Notwithstanding that, they tend to be easier to dry out, so a synthetic sleeping bag can generally manage a water incident better than a down bag.

However, it is generally agreed across the outdoor industry that down bags will provide more warmth per weight than their synthetic rivals. Yet, get one thoroughly wet and you might have to check into a hotel to completely dry it.

Picking one instead of the other can be a tough call. Price, expected rain fall, and space are serious factors when choosing a sleeping bag for adventure touring.

Today’s synthetic sleeping bags are better than they have ever been, but they are still relatively bulky when put in a stuff sack next to a fully compressed down bag. Down bags, though, are not created equal. There is something called fill weight.

That is a grade of down filling or, if you prefer, how much goose you are paying for per square inch. To make it simple, they take a tube and fill it with a specific amount of down and then put a weight on top of it for one minute. Then, the manufacturer measures the percentage of down that gets compressed.

If the down in the tube compresses to about 65%, then that is about 650 fill weight. If the contents compress down to about 80%, then that is about an 800 fill weight, and so on.

It is just the general idea. Furthermore, not all 800 or even 900 fill weight downs are exactly the same from manufacturer to manufacturer.

On one end of the scale, the manufacturer pays little attention to what happened to the goose. On the other end of the market, down can be sourced from very specialized companies that only source down from geese that have dropped their feathers.

In other words, the vendor has workers who wait, and in some cases even follow a goose around and collect only the feathers that are dropped naturally. Those are the Ferraris of feathers.

Another thing to keep in mind is temperature rating. Temperature ratings on sleeping bags don’t necessarily reference the same standards or testing conditions, depending on the manufacturer.

One company’s lower limit rating might indicate the maximum comfort level, while another manufacturer’s lowest rating might be the lowest temperature in which the bag will keep you from freezing. Read the fine print.

Also, be careful if the manufacturer does not list numbers for the size of the bag under maximum compression. Check those compression numbers, because you might be buying a hippopotamus.

In all things related to keeping you warm and dry while camping, remember that the most informed consumer is the happiest camper. Here are some good purpose-designed bags that aren’t your grandfather’s sleeping bag.

Hyke & Byke Quandary 15°F Ultralight 650FP Down Sleeping Bag

NEMO Disco 30 Sleeping Bag

Marmot Never Summer Sleeping Bag

Today’s adventure motorcycle touring is a brave new world. With the right size bear canister, maybe some bear spray, a solid tent, and the right sleeping bag as a foundation, you can go pretty much anywhere the roads and trails will permit you to go in North America.

I toured Alaska at a time when bear canisters just didn’t fit on motorcycles, so I kept my travels to main roads and mostly rode during daylight hours. Had I had today’s canister technology and other safety gear, I could have gone anywhere.