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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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).
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.