RangerMade asked me to write about tent camping in the mountains. I have to confess right away that at this time I don’t even own a tent! I used to have one of the best tents on the planet, The North Face VE 25, but I had to sell it in Mendoza, right after an expedition on Aconcagua, since I was penniless and still had a full week ahead of me to spend on Argentinian soil.
On my return home, I got myself the cheapest tent at Walmart for a seashore stay with friends, but I’d only recommend that if you needed a disposable tent.
So it’s not tents I am going to talk about here, instead I’d like to take this article to the next level: I’m going to talk about sleeping in the bivouac!
Sleeping in a bivy literally means to sleep under the open sky, with a bivy cover or not. I have experienced both types of bivouac and I can tell I love to sleep in the open with the sky above and the wind in my face. I can feel under me every blade of grass that’s thicker, each pebble and unevenness. That’s when I know I’m in the bosom of nature!
But enough lyricism. Let’s get to review the equipment necessary for spending the night in a bivy. I will not list here all the equipment necessary for a mountain trip, but only what’s needed for the bivy experience.
- 1. The necessary equipment for bivy camping
- 2. Choosing a camping site
- 3. What do you do when you don’t have the right equipment but still have to spend the night under the sky?
- Why go with a bivy sack and not a tent?
- Which type of bivy sack to buy?
- What matters the most when selecting a bivy sack?
- Can you reduce condensation in your bivy sack? How?
- Frequently Asked Questions About Bivy Sack Camping
1. The necessary equipment for bivy camping
Sleeping bag – we choose it according to season, altitude we’ll be camping at, weather condition, and the advice of others who’ve already been where we’re going.
In the summer, for instance, I sleep in a Wenzel Lakeside 40-Degree thin bag that I paid some $40 for a few years ago. If it’s chilly, I use the Latitude 20 Degree bag from Slumberjack. Got mine for $70.
In winter I love to use my BTU -20 Degree from Sierra Designs which protects down to -29ºC. I know this may seem overkill, but I’m sensitive to cold and I prefer a down bag lest I feel the chills.
Sleeping pad – this is optional. But not all of us can sleep directly on the ground, rock, grass etc. This summer in July, I slept in the Rockies in my thin sleeping bag with no mat, under a tree. I can’t tell I slept very well, I was a bit chilly (I was wearing shorts and a thin sleeved blouse). I would suggest you go without a mat once and see what it feels like. Most probably it won’t be the most comforting sleep you ever had, but it’s good to experience the rough conditions for once.
Hat and buff – you need to have a hat and buff with you, because it’s in the head and neck area that you’ll feel the most cold. No matter how snug you’ll tie the cord at the top of the sleeping bag, the wind will still get in, and if you manage to tie it so tight as not to feel the wind, you won’t be able to breathe comfortably.
Bivouac/bivy sack – this is a cover for your sleeping bag. I use a non-hooped one, which may not fit everyone comfortably, due to condensation from breathing. Your nose is basically very close to the bivy wall and you’ll get condensation much easier and in more abundance than in a hooped bivy. I ony use the bivy in strong wind, rain or snow. The model I own now is an Army-issued Gore-Tex bivy cover which you can see here B008JXV2PM. RangerMade has a good article reviewing some of the best bivies.
One thing to keep in mind about bivies is that breathable or non-breathable fabric matters. You’ll get significantly less condensation in Goretex or other such material than in a non-brethable one.
Survival bag/sheet – you should have one at all times. I only had to use it once, in the fall of 2009, to wrap it around my sleeping bag. We were also in the Rockies, the rain started and we camped under the pine trees at the edge of the woods and I wrapped my sleeping bag in the survival sheet. In the morning the bag was pretty wet, and I dried it up the next night in a refuge, with the gas cooker. I would totally advise against doing that!
2. Choosing a camping site
What do you need to take into consideration when sleeping out? First and foremost, the location. It’s one thing to sleep on grass, and another to sleep on pine branches, and yet another on rock or in snow. The place should be as flat as possible; not in a crevace or hole, nor on a slope, nor under the only tree in the area (for risk of a lightning bolt). Rock hollows are a good camping place. I would advise against night camping in the woods, because of wild animals. I shouldn’t need to mention not to keep food near you, but in a tree at least 50 yards away. This way, small carnivors – foxes, wolves – won’t reach it, and if a bear comes by, it will help itself to the food, without disturbing you J. Keep in mind that wild animals dread people as much as we dread them, and don’t enjoy meeting us.
3. What do you do when you don’t have the right equipment but still have to spend the night under the sky?
Besides those moments when you actually want to spend the night under the blue sky, unforeseen situations may arise when you have to take a decision to spend the night without a shelter. For instance: you get lost, your headlight battery dies out, you’re too tired to keep walking, you have an accident or are taken by surprise by a land slide or a sudden flood, and so on. The most important thing to do in such circumstances is to not lose temper, and if we’re the most cool-headed of the group, to calm the others down. Humans will never be prepared enough for an unexpected stay overnight in the open. For me, the nights I slept out when I was a kid at my grandparents’ farm, were a real help for when I had to sleep out in the mountains. A positive aspect of an unforeseen situation is that you really get to know your companions; and your own self too!
Very important: take your boots off and make sure your feet are protected from cold. If you have extra gloves, pull them over your socks. Use the backpacks to protect your lower body from wind. Cordura backpacks will work particularly well for this purpose.
If there are girls in the group, put them in the middle. Don’t shy away from hugging each other, even you’re only men or women, or you don’t lnow each other or don’t get along together too well. Don’t forget you’re in a situation that’s out-of-the-ordinary and you have to do all you can to stay alive.
Needless to say, I don’t recommend alcohol under such circumstances; also don’t leave the group, don’t sleep with food in your pockets, and such. Many times, the decision to spend the night in a place even without having the necessary equipment, will prove wiser than traveling by night with no direction. Of course, one situation is different from another, and it’s good to take as many options into account.
Why go with a bivy sack and not a tent?
As long as you pick the proper bivy sack and use it accordingly, the bivy sack provides you with the freedom that a regular tent cannot ensure. The bivy sack connects you with the outdoor in a way that the tent cannot do. If you don’t already have a bivy sack, but think about getting one, the following benefits will help you decide:
It’s lighter than a tent
A bivy can be as light as a feather and still meet the needs of experienced mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts. The versatility of a good-quality bivy sack is impressive and the pack can work for all-day hikes, backcountry ski tours, and shelter in emergencies.
It’s easier to pack
All bivies are ultra-compact by nature, a selling point for adventure seekers. You can find models that pack down to the size of a burrito, which makes them effortless to pack in small alpine packs and bikepacking bags. If one cares mostly about covering the miles and quickly going over the most rugged terrain, a bivy sack is enough for a comfortable sleep at night.
It’s more versatile
Regardless of what you may think, it’s the technical terrain where a bivy sack impresses. It requires only the width and length of the sleep system to offer numerous campsite options. You can squeeze the bivy sack in snow caves, nooks and craggy scrambles and still have a good sleep at night.
It can be warmer
Like rain shell jackets, bivies can trap some warmth and not let it escape—they do it a lot more efficiently than tents. You can find models made with water-resistant, breathable ripstop nylon that reduces the risk of condensation. Such models also keep you dry and cozy inside. Typically, you will find a bivy sack more enjoyable in fair weather than with other conditions. Don’t expect your bivy to give you the protection you need on a stormy day.
We recommend adding a tarp to improve your protection when using a bivy sack. You will still be able to travel lighter than with a tent.
No need to set it up
There’s no need to look for the proper location for your bivy sack. You don’t need to search for an even ground space nor to speed up to set it up before evening comes. There’s nothing to put together with a bivy sack, so you don’t need to preserve your energy throughout the day. The bivy sack is an ultralight shelter with an excellent weight-to-protection ratio and efficiency.
It lets you enjoy the outdoors completely
Tents let you have your own space while camping, but bivies let you camping in the enormousness of the outdoors. When you use a bivy sack, there will be no doors to open or windows to flip up—you just need to open your eyes!
Which type of bivy sack to buy?
Similar to tents, there are several types of bivy sacks to choose from. If you don’t know which type to buy, we give you some basic information about the most common types of bivies out there:
The emergency bivies are made to pack almost invisible in your pack. They’re made for emergencies and are affordable. Some are semi-reusable. However, these bivies will give you protection when you need shelter but don’t have time/energy to make one. Most emergency bivies have a minimalist design and can withstand a challenging environment.
These bivies are ultra-light, simple and have no poles. They don’t have features that add weight and bulkiness. The minimalist models are typically made for three-season use and are reliable in most situations. If you don’t go backpacking every weekend and want to enjoy a nice hike without packing heavily, a minimalist bivy sack is a good choice for the night.
Keep in mind that most minimalist bivies don’t withstand the trips in the winter, thunderstorms, inclement weather. The minimalist bivy sack will offer good protection from the elements and insects. They represent the lightest and smallest bivy sacks. The prices are low, which seals the deal for most users.
If you’re looking for a highly weather-resistant model, the four-season bivy sack is it. This type comes with a wire or pole so that the fabric doesn’t come in your face. They’re made with durable and rigid materials, so they withstand intense wear and challenging weather conditions. You can use a four-season bivy sack year-round. As a matter of fact, many are reliable for winter camping or camping when protection against the elements is much needed.
We want to remind you that a four-season bivy sack is typically heavier than a minimalist model. At the same time, it’s more comfortable and dependable in inclement weather. As a result, a four-season bivy sack is pricier than any other type of bivy sack. Some models can even be more expensive than one-person backpacking tents. Still, even a four-season sack will be lighter and pack more compact than any tent.
What matters the most when selecting a bivy sack?
Where you plan to take your bivy sack is crucial when selecting your bivy sack. Here are some essential aspects to consider before buying your bivy sack:
Many bivy sacks are made with waterproof/breathable materials such as an event, Gore-Tex, and Pertex. These materials are also used for rain jackets and have specific resistance in difficult weather conditions, breathability, and durability.
The layering of bivies can make a difference for performance in inclement weather. Here are some examples:
2-layer fabrics include a face fabric and a membrane/coating. The thick individual layers make them heavy, whereas the breathability and weather resistance are inferior to other materials. Bivy sacks for emergencies are typically made with 2-layer fabrics. Some models come with ventilation holes to reduce the risk of condensation, which is common with less breathable materials.
Such fabrics include an inner material, a membrane, and face fabric. They are long-lasting and provide decent breathability and rain resistance. Bivy sacks made of 2.5 layer fabrics are light and might develop condensation due to the poor breathability. Reliable models feature ventilation holes/panels to reduce the risk of condensation.
A non-fabric inner layer, a membrane/coating, and a face fabric are used to make the 3-layer fabric. These fabrics are long-lasting and ensure excellent rain resistance and breathability. As a result, the bivy sacks made with 3-layer materials are durable, waterproof, breathable, and expensive.
Regardless of the fabrics used for the bivy sacks, they should all present a DWR (durable water repellant) treatment. With such treatment, the material will repel and not absorb the water. The floors are commonly made with polyurethane-coated nylon for efficient water resistance and durability.
If you know that spacious headroom is essential to you, we recommend buying a bivy sack with a snorkel or clamshell design. Such models typically come with flexible fiberglass poles that can slide into the hood area to obtain more volume around the shoulders and the face. Keep in mind that the tradeoff with such models is the weight. They will weigh heavier than their minimalist counterparts.
If you want to take the bivy sack for a winter hike, look for a model with high volume to fit your winter sleeping bag. Search for a sleeping bag and inflatable pad with a high R-value. When you buy a bivy sack, especially for the winter experiences, you want to make sure there’s enough room for the sleeping bag. You don’t want to feel tight inside the bivy sack.
Needless to say, the higher the volume of the bivy sack, the heavier and more challenging the carry the bivy sack will be.
If, on the other hand, you want to buy a bivy sack for spring camping, make sure that you buy a model with a mesh panel over the face to protect yourself from the annoying bugs. We recommend you opt for ultralight bivy sacks for the warm weather to travel as light as possible without losing comfort at night. Three-season bivy sacks are excellent choices for the spring, summer, and early fall outdoor adventures.
Entrance and exit
Look for a bivy sack that features a solid and long-lasting zipper along the side—it will be easier to get in/out of it than one that comes with a “hatch” at the head end. When there’s snow on the ground, a bivy sack with a zipper along the side will keep you drier than other models. Additionally, it will be more comfortable to put on/take off the shoes.
Sizing and fit
If you have no idea how the bivy will fit you, simply get one and try it at home. It’s the best way to tell if the size is right for you. No matter how much time you spend checking out the specs for several models, trying the bivy sack is the surest way to see how it fits. For a winter model, you need to place the sleeping pad and sleeping bag inside as well. Seek that the foot box is comfortable enough for your feet.
Weight and packed size
When you look for a bivy sack, you should check out the weight and packed size as well. One of the main reasons to choose a bivy sack is the gear weight and size reduction. Even if there’s some tradeoff between the weight/size and features, you will find bivy sacks that are tough enough to take a winter hike without adding weight and bulkiness to your backpack.
Weatherproof and packed size
The bivy sack must be made with waterproof and breathable top fabric. This way, it will eliminate water vapor and reduce the condensation inside. Otherwise, your sleeping bag can get wet and you will find it difficult to sleep at night. If rain jackets manufacturers list the laboratory measurements to rate the waterproofing, it’s not the case with bivy sacks manufacturers. Rates about the breathability (movable water transmission rate, typically found as “MVTR”) aren’t typical with bivy sack manufacturers either. Therefore, it will be difficult to compare the performance in inclement weather between various models.
Can you reduce condensation in your bivy sack? How?
When you use the bivy sack for a long time, condensation is a real issue, especially throughout the night. Even if the manufacturer claims that the risk for condensation is null, you should always take it with a grain of salt.
Here are some tips to use when fighting condensation in your bivy:
Keep the vents open
Keep the rain fly open and other vents that the bivy features. If it’s possible, you should also keep the door open. Constant circulation is crucial to reduce the risk of ventilation in a bivy sack.
Keep the wet clothes and shoes out
It’s wise to keep the damp things outside the bivy (footwear and wet clothes). Otherwise, they will contribute to the already present moisture inside the bivy and aggravate the situation. Place your footwear and clothes in a secure and covered place. Put them in a bag when sleeping at night.
Frequently Asked Questions About Bivy Sack Camping
How does air circulate inside the bivy sack?
Waterproof/breathable laminates like Gore-Tex event fabric make the vapor produced by body heat escape outside the bivy sack. The condensation will escape easier when you rest your warm body in cool and dry ground. If it’s raining, you need enough overlapping materials and zippers to ensure that no water gets inside the bivy sack. You can still have a decent humidity level inside by manually venting the flap or zipper.
Can the bivy sack maintain the sleeping bag dry?
If your bivy sack is made of Gore-tex, you can relax knowing that you will stay dry throughout the night. However, keep in mind that wet Gore-tex fabric generates a clammy feel when it touches your skin. Don’t panic, because this is only a feeling. Ensure adequate ventilation inside the bivy sack to reduce the risk of clammy feeling.
Is it possible to suffocate in a bivy sack?
A reliable bivy sack should be made so that there is no risk whatsoever for suffocation. That doesn’t eliminate the warning that you should never breathe into a bivy sack. The vapor in your breath will condense and wet your clothes.
Does the bivy sack add warmth?
Bivy sacks add warmth because they’re made to add as much as 4 to 8 degrees of heat to your sleeping system. Additionally, bivy sacks will keep drafts away from the body since they completely enclose your body.
How do you wash your bivy sack?
Use warm water and a sponge to wash your bivy sack while erect. Never scrub the bivy sack because you could damage the DWR coating. Hosing down the bivy sack is typically enough to clean it. It’s an efficient way to get rid of all the mud and debris from it. Never use detergent when washing your bivy sack.
In the end, I’d add that a lot of people are scared by sleeping in a bivy. Even experienced hikers who sleep in the tent a lot. I would be curious to find out their reasons in the comments below, and I hope that by reading this article, they’ll see this type of ‘lodging’ in a more favorable light.