Friday, 7 September 2012



Sleeping out under the stars is easy and fun, but getting a night's comfortable, dry sleep in the outdoors with minimal equipment whilst it's chucking rain down depends on the right kit and practised skills. So, here's a run through the pros and cons – though mostly pros – of bivouac/bivvy/bivy bags. I'll make the next post about hammock camping, as they both have a lot in common.

A bivvy bag is the epitome of minimalist, simple and inexpensive kit. It's right up there (or should that be down there) with the hammock as the easiest and most satisfying way to sleep outdoors in all climates, seasons and landscapes. The experience of lightweight camping - of just walking off with a small pack to spend a night or a week or a month outdoors - is...well, just more outdoorsy. Using minimal sleeping kit is one of the keys to slow adventuring, though the experience is far more pleasant if you mostly stay warm and dry. Though if, whilst you're learning how to do it right, you get things wrong and end up wet and cold, then that just adds to the fun. And it'll either encourage you to learn more technique or it'll send you back to a tent or hostel or B&B for a safer, surer, but far less-satisfying night's sleep.

The key to simplicity – in life as much as travelling - is to have less kit on your back and more ideas and skills in your mind. 

A bivvy bag is commendably simple; a waterproof bag for bivouacing in when sleeping outside without a tent. It can be as simple as a plastic bag big enough to pull over your sleeping bag, though being non-breathable this means that perspiration can't escape which provides its own damp problems. But plenty of people, including me, started bivouacing with a plastic bag. But there is better: for comfort and durability a good bivvy bag will be made from breathable material, either all over, or on the top surface only with a fully waterproof bottom acting as a groundsheet. Seams will be taped, and the bag will usually be tapered, swelling up to a hood or mouth big enough to cover some of your kit and allow room to at least read or eat whilst lying down. The hood or the mouth should have some kind of cunning overlap or closing system that will keep rain from running into the bag. Refinements can include a hooped pole that holds the mouth of the bag clear of your head and shoulders so you've almost got a mini-tent, (hey, careful now; too many refinements and it WILL be a tent).

One addition that can add huge amounts of flexibility and comfort to bivvy camping is carrying a tarpaulin, (tarp), that can be set up as a simple shelter over the top of the bag and your kit and allow you room to sit up, and even cook in relative ease, despite rain or bad weather. Setting up a tarp over a bivvy bag is one of those techniques that needs plenty of practise, so perfect the process on one- or two-night, good-weather trips rather than trying it out for the first time on a week long wilderness trip in hills lashed by squalls and rain. 

Ponchos – government surplus military are cheap but heavy, whilst custom-designed lightweight camping ponchos cost more – if they have eyelets or loops on the hems can be dual purpose (always good in minimal camping), working well as both rain-gear and as a tarp. Either improvise pegs on site or carry a few lightweight skewers, as well as strong cord, and/or light shock cord for pegging out.

Like many slow adventure techniques, bivvy bag camping follows the Pareto Principle, that suggests that a surprising number of activities in life break down into a 20:80 ratio. You know, that thing about 20% effort producing 80% result, and so forth?

In bivvy camping, especially if using a tarp, about 20% of your success - measured in comfort and enjoyment - should come from the kit you've got with you and the other 80% from skills and experience you've picked up along the way. 

Bits of kit don't get better the more you use them, but skills do. And that's rewarding. 

It's certainly more rewarding than buying some over-complex, one-function, designed-to-a-fault piece of equipment, that turns the whole Pareto Principle around so you've got 80% of your success reliant on the creativity and functionality that someone else has built into... say...a tent, whilst leaving little room for your own inventiveness and imagination to make it work better.

In other words, let's show tents the door. A tent is fine if you're going to set up camp somewhere for several days at a time, and are arriving by car (or by kayak in a pinch). They're arguably fine if someone else is prepared to carry the tent in, and then put it up, and take it down again at the end and carry it back out. Maybe you'd need a tent if you were at a festival? But then wouldn't you just stay up all night, every night, with a bottle of wine and dance to the music and kip a bit during the day?

I had a tent when I was about twelve, but never really got the point of sleeping 'out' if one was going to sleep inside something. My earliest travels – four months of winter and spring walking and hitching across Europe – were with a plastic 'survival' bag, an orange, glorified rubbish bag, for shelter. It taught me a lot, especially about the persipiration/condensation drawbacks of sleeping and simmering in a plastic bag; a technique, you'll note, used in sous vide cooking. 

When i started doing months' long trips by bikes, hitching and on foot across Europe, Africa and India I just took a sleeping bag and a waterproof poncho; those trips showed how little i needed to sleep out. 

Though for a thousand mile, month-long, late-spring cycle trip around Iceland's ring road, in 1988, when i knew i'd be sleeping out every night, and expected it to rain a lot, I bought a Phoenix bivvy bag made from Gortex and with a hooped pole to hold the hood up. It wasn't quite a tent but was just big enough to read or make a sandwich in, and even change clothes out of the wet (my pessimistic expectations about the weather were accurate; it rained on 24 nights out of the thirty. The Phoenix bag was the best of both worlds; I still have and use it on occasion, though often don't bother taking the hooped pole. Sleeping in persistent rain, high winds and cold in a bivvy bag on a trip where I was also cycling up to a hundred miles a day taught me a lot about picking a good site, about being prepared to keep going to find that good site, and how to make the best of a night when i hadn't found a good site. Mostly that trip taught me that I need never carry a tent for any trip.

Though, actually, i did carry a tent – an ultra simple, strong and iconic Saunders Jetpacker – for my thousand mile sea-kayak trip around Ireland's coast in 2007. As I suspected, it was comfortable to have something roomy-ish to sit out days of high winds and torrential rain on storm-beaten cliffs and islands, but fairly early on in the trip I stopped using the inner tent and just erected the outer fly as a quick-to-pitch tarp. In truth I could have done the whole three month paddle with no more than a bivvy bag and a tarpaulin and been happy enough.

So, here's the gen – as I see it - on bivvy bags, based on experience gained using different models over several decades. In that time I've slept out in every climate and wilderness situation and used them on all kinds of slow adventures from weeks' long Patagonian, Mexican, and Central Asian horse trips, extended walks across Spain, England and Ireland, lightweight bike tours all over the place, kayak trips down some of Europe's longest rivers and a variety of odd jaunts, including roller-skating the length of the Netherlands.

I can remember only two really miserable nights using a bivvy bag amidst hundreds of comfortable nights. One was on a four-day walk in the Cevenne, in miserable unseasonal weather. Or perhaps not unseasonal weather; the Cevenne is where Robert Louis Stevenson prodded the unfortunate Modestine over hills and through forests, and he wrote about a night caught out in storming rain. He also, arguably, described the first 'modern' bivvy bag, his self-designed sheepskin and waterproof canvas sleeping sack, which though admirable in many ways required at least a donkey to carry it. Anyway, a century later, it was summer and Christina and i weren't carrying much in the way of rain kit or warm clothing, nor anything very sophisticated for sleeping in. But i did have my bivvy bag. Christina only had a sleeping bag and a thin groundsheet. We camped in a chestnut wood and slept until we were woken by torrential rain at three in the morning. In truth i could have continued dozing happily in the bivvy bag, but Christina was soaked and cold in minutes. So, we tried fitting both of us into the bivvy bag. That didn't work. Then I offered to swap her the bag for the ground sheet but it was too late for that, and she determined to walk the eight miles to the nearest village, so getting warm on the way whilst hoping for shelter at the end. This - for her - was an admirable strategy, but only chivalry forced me out of the warm, dry bag to face several hours of rain-sloshed walking by her side. The moral of this story is that if you travel with someone else you're only as strong as who ever has the least adequate kit. Or maybe it's, however dry the night starts off rig your groundsheet-tarp anyway, because once it starts raining it'll be too late.

Whereas my biggest bivvying error was on a triathlon length of Ireland. Travelling super light, in autumn, i left Malin Head on a hired bicycle and cycled a third the length of Ireland, the hopped into a borrowed canoe and set off down the Shannon which conveniently runs north-south for almost exactly a third of the country's length. The last stretch was a run-jog down to the end of the Mizen Head. I was getting a bit tired by the legging-it stage and as darkness fell one night I threw my bivvy bag into a dip out of the chill wind, climbed in and fell into deep sleep. I woke in pitch dark to the slapping sound of huge rain drops. It had obviously been raining for some time. The hollow was full of water and the bivvy bag was half-floating, like a semi-inflated rubber dinghy, but also half-filling with water that had poured in through the partly-zipped mouth. I was in danger of drowning. And then having climbed out, with all my clothes and sleeping bag wet, i was in danger of dying of hypothermia. The solution, as it had been for Christina, was to pull on my wet clothes, bundle up my gear and hit the road. It probably meant that i did the full 300 miles length of Ireland half a day faster than i might have otherwise done. 

So, the pros and cons of a bivvy bag.

  • Lightweight, and cheap compared to a tent.
  • It'll add about a 'season' of warmth to a sleeping bag.
  • Ideal for stealth camping, when you don't want to be seen; laid out under bushes, in brush or deep in woods you're close to invisible. This is arguably one of its greatest advantages.
  • They take no time to set up and in the morning you just climb out, roll up and go. The other great advantage.
  • But, they're not nicknamed 'body bags' without reason. If you're pinned down in bad weather you can't do much more than just lie there. At the very least get a model with a hood big enough to be able to read, or make a sandwich in without letting the rain pour through. Maybe practise your meditation techniques. Claustrophobics will be challenged.
  • A mosquito-net panel in the hood can make Highland and Scandinavian nights more bearable.
  • Sleeping bags and other kit? Down bags, though lighter and warmer, are high risk in a bivvy bag; even mild condensation inside the bag over several nights can dampen them and reduce their warmth, sometimes drastically. A silk sleeping bag liner plus the bivvy bag itself, and wearing spare clothing all add warmth, meaning you can use a lighter non-down sleeping bag. You'll need an insulation mat – a small Therma-rest is a luxury that's maybe worth investing in, and best put inside the bivvy bag; a closed-cell foam mat is cheaper, tougher and has more alternate uses and is better put under the bivvy bag on the outside. 
  • You'll need some kind of cover – a heavy-gauge plastic bag at least - to put over your rucksack and boots to keep them dry.
  • Persistent rain will flood the bag if the ground under you waterlogs, and it's hard to keep water out of the hood opening in a badly chosen site.
  • Two techniques for successful bivvying in continuing bad weather are to either cut and run for shelter after a couple of nights if the weather isn't going to improve, or carry that lightweight tarpaulin and learn how to set it up in different configurations as a shelter over the top half of the bag. With a tarp you've got a place to sit up in, somewhere dry for your kit, and you can make halfway-decent food.
  • As important is to learn how to find a good bivvy spot, with shelter for all weather conditions. Typically i'll start looking for somewhere an hour ahead of when I plan to stop, noting possibilities; then, exceptionally, i can walk back to the best place spotted if I don't find somewhere suitable, or bearable, further along my route. 
  • But i'll also read the landscape, the weather and the map to work out what lies ahead. If a really good place presents itself earlier than i'd planned on stopping i'll probably camp there and just start earlier in the morning to make up distance.
  • Learning how to find a good sleeping spot in an unpromising landscape or in bad weather is paramount, and only comes with experience.
  • Every potential sleeping spot is different at different times; on a hot mosquito-ridden night a breezy ridge can be ideal, on a cold, blowy night it will be hell. Depending on the weather a sheltered hollow can be a perfect haven, or a dank bog.
  • Often it's not the rain outside but the humidity inside a bivvy bag that's the problem, especially in temperate climates with warm rain or drizzle when there's not enough temperature differential to transfer water from your body and breathing out through the material. Tricks are to prop open the bag's mouth to get airflow, sleep so that you're slightly cooler than comfortable, or site the bag at a point where there's a breeze.
  • It's good to keep cheerful when, despite your best efforts, things go wrong and you have to tough out a miserable night.
  • Knowing how to bivvy bag sleep confidently gives you a level of safety in extreme conditions in wilderness areas. Then the same principles can be applied when you have far less kit than a fully configured bivvy bag. 
  • I carry an Adventure Medical Kits emergency bivvy bag amongst my minimum kit that I take even if just going off for a day walk somewhere fairly remote and might end up sleeping out. It's about the size of a duck's egg, and weighs ounces. 
  • As an alternative, a couple of tough, garden-sized plastic bags are cheap, lightweight and with know-how can be used as an effective emergency bivvy.
  • When you're confident that you're prepared and experienced enough to bivvy bag camp in all seasons, all weathers and all landscapes, and you can confidently upgrade your bivvy bag's basic comfort with a cunningly-configured tarpaulin, then you can consider leaving the bivvy bag behind on future trips and just tarp camp. And that's one step closer to ultimate lightweight slow adventuring, and being really free in the wilderness.

The Info:

As my light, good-to-go basic shelter the bivvy bag I use is a Rab Storm. I think! I haven't got it to hand to check – but whatever make it is, it's commendably simple and low-key. There's quite a few quality brands similar to the Rab and they're much the same in design. Whatever, Rab are a great make for most kit and recommendable. My bag weighs barely half a kilo and is a good drab colour for stealth camping. The zipped mouth is pretty simple/basic as will become evident if you're sleeping out in hard, continuous rain; and that'll teach you more about picking the right spot for the prevailing weather, or using a tarp than days of reading books and articles about bivouac theory.

Go online and Google 'bivvy bags' (or 'bivy bags,' there's some disagreement on spelling), and you'll get an idea of the range available. Bear in mind that as a rule of thumb lighter, simpler, cheaper is good. But don't get a 'water-resistant sleeping bag cover' just because it's very light, simple and cheap; these are what they say, to keep sleeping bags from getting damp when inside some other kind of shelter. Second-hand bivvies are a bit of a risk; breathable material and waterproof bases can become less waterproof if abused or stored badly, and that's not good in a bivvy bag.

For buying new bivvy bags a good start is Back Packing Light – They're UK based and have made a virtue of sourcing - and often self-designing and then having made - specialist kit, for super-light bivvying and camping. (Don't go wild with avarice when you see their range of kit; remember too much light stuff is as bad as too much heavy stuff – but then again can one really have TOO many essential items re-figured in titanium?). Anyway, they stock the Rab Storm, and the lighter (and more expensive – that's the paradox of 'less is more' kit), Rab Survival Zone. The Storm has a breathable top and a tougher and non-breathable underneath. Back Packing Light also have some cheap military-style, really simple, draw-string mouth bivvies that are good entry level options – or even for on-going use given how with a bit of practise you're going to become brilliant at picking sleeping spots and throwing up a quick tarp shelter, and so won't need anything too complicated. Back Packing Light also have a good selection of tarps – all sizes and prices. But you might be better sticking with the poncho-tarp option.

Equally Google 'tarp' and 'camping' and you'll find tens of suppliers of different designs. Go for simple, though, Or find the online sites that tell you were to source light waterproof fabrics and give designs, how-to tips and measurements for making your own tarps. I've done a number of them and it saves money, which is nice, but even better you end up with what you want (depending on your handicraft skills).

The Sea-to-Summit poncho-tarp is well designed, super-light and strong. This is the link to their website - – but it's pretty useless to us Europeans - or maybe only for us Irish - as you end up on their Australian website in my experience, (why, guys? WHY?); luckily some good outdoor shops stock their kit. Otherwise look on Amazon or e-bay.

Adventure Medical Kits' Sol emergency thermal bivvy bag. Not for regular use – though it's got vents to help shift condensation it's not breathable, and it's 'rescue-me' silvery orange colour makes stealth camping hard – though it can be used more than once if looked after, and is a practical back-up for sleeping out where you really don't expect rain but it might just precipitate despite your expectations (which is pretty much every night in many regions). Or to carry on all lightweight trips including day walks when you might get caught out. It weighs around 10 oz/00.28 kilos.

Ronald Turnbull has written a handy and amusing little guide; The Book of The Bivvy (Cicerone Guides). Not a huge amount of practical information, but with lots of inspiring tales from the hills and a refreshing maverick philosophy which pretty much sums up the kind of people who really enjoy bivvy sleeping.

Above all, get out there and start working the techniques and skills and don't worry too much about the kit side of things.


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About Me

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I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.