Indeed, some camping enthusiasts don’t hold the bivy in high regard. Some think of it as nothing more than a weatherproof cover for your sleeping bag, which an ultralight tent can do without being in your face all the time.
Others find them cramped, claustrophobic, and, quite frankly, miserable.
While it all comes down to your preference, the simple truth is that bivy sacks are an essential part of camping today because they work. Bivy sacks are simple, sophisticated, lightweight, and, when used correctly, an incredibly fast way to build an emergency shelter when needed.
If you are keen on mastering the art of lightweight travel and camping, a backcountry bivy should be on your list of outdoor gear.
Let’s take a quick look at the bivy sack, what it does, how you can use it to your advantage, and most importantly, how to choose the best bivy sack for your specific needs.
What Is a Bivy Sack?
Bivy sacks, bivy bags, or bivouac sacks are single-person shelters offering protection from environmental elements such as rain, wind, and even snow when camping.
A bivy sack is essentially a minimalist cover for your sleeping bag. It allows you to go cowboy camping with a full-body shell as an extra layer of protection from the elements.
Depending on your kind of emergency bivy, this extra protection could be the difference between spending a miserable night dealing with cold weather or being relatively warm and comfortable during your outdoor adventures.
Bivy bags are typically just slightly larger than your sleeping pad or sleeping bag and are designed to be either water-resistant or waterproof, which offers you the protection you need against most types of precipitation.
They were originally designed and developed as emergency shelters that could be deployed in a matter of seconds in case the weather turned. Bivies, on the other hand, now come in various styles, making them a staple in most outdoor adventures for people who want to travel light.
In your search for the right kind of bivy sack, you are most likely going to come across a number of options, including the traditional and simple bivy bag such as the E-Bivy or the MSR’s Pro Bivy which are both ultralight (weigh less than a single-person tent) and are designed to offer you a simplistic and utilitarian approach to lightweight camping.
We also have full-featured bivy shelters, such as this Outdoor Research Helium Bivy. Although they are a bit heavier, they come with an internal pole that expands to give you ample headspace and full-length zippers that make it easy to get in and out of the bivy.
Are You a Bivy Sack Kind of Adventurer?
Bivies are ideal for adventurers who want to move fast and travel light. These are outdoor lovers who prefer to use low-volume packs so they can travel in an unencumbered and efficient manner. As such, they are willing to trade the comfort of carrying and using a tent for a much lighter and smaller load.
For these outdoor adventurers, the ultimate goal is often to complete an objective, such as climbing to the peak of a mountain or hiking up a ridge, as opposed to lounging at their campsite.
For a very long time, bivies have mostly been used by big-wall and alpine climbers, who rely on them for hunkering down when they take on a multi-night trip on extremely technical terrain. These types of terrain frequently do not provide much space for tents.
Today, however, bivies have found a home with fast packers, bike packers, and minimalist adventurers looking for ways to shed any extra weight and keep their loads low while maintaining some degree of weather protection.
Why Should You Use a Bivy Sack?
When used in the right conditions, bivies can give you a certain degree of freedom that most tents and camping gear won’t. A bivy sack is right up your alley if you adhere to the minimalist way of life. Here are some good reasons to consider using a bivy over a tent on your next camping trip.
This is the bivy sack’s best selling point. Bivies are extremely lightweight. Some bivies, such as the MSR’s E-Bivy, weigh as little as 6 oz. (170 grams), despite being engineered to offer the kind of weather resistance and protection needed by professional alpinists.
At that weight, the bivy is the perfect camping companion, as you can put it in your pack lid and easily deploy it in case an emergency shelter is needed on your routine backcountry hikes.
Bivies are generally designed to be ultra-compact. This makes them extremely packable and a valuable asset when you want to create space for more camping gear or shed weight. Some bivies are so lightweight and pack so small that they can actually fit in one of your pant pockets.
The smaller your adventure pack, the greater your freedom of movement. Not only can you traverse through more technical terrain easily, but you can also cover more miles, both of which wouldn’t be so easy when dealing with a bulky backpack.
If nothing else, bivies are efficient. Unlike tents, you don’t need to set them up, pitch them, or even struggle with finding the right kind of terrain. When you go on an outdoor adventure with a bivy, you won’t need to worry about setting aside time to pitch your tent or camp at the end of the day. All you have to do is take it out of the sack, and you are good to go.
This saves you time and energy while offering adequate protection from the elements.
You need nice, even ground when camping with a tent. It’s necessary for staking out the tent, which kind of limits where you can camp out. When camping with a bivy, however, all these concerns become irrelevant.
The length and width of the bivy make it the ideal shelter for technical terrain. You can camp out on rock ledges, in snow caves, and in almost any narrow backcountry space that would otherwise be too tight for a tent. All this previously unavailable camping real estate opens up a new frontier for adventure seekers.
Even though camping is an excellent way to sojourn with nature, there’s always a sense of being cut off from your environment once you are in the tent. This is particularly true when you have a massive tent with multiple rooms and even a vestibule.
On the other hand, when you are camping and sleeping in a bivy, you are immersed in your immediate environment. While the bivy protects you from cold weather and most elements, it doesn’t offer much else to cut you off from your environment. You will fit right in! Short of cowboy camping, there’s no better way to be part of the wilderness.
Bivies are a little better at holding in the heat than most tents. Since the typical bivy is so close to your body when you sleep, it acts almost like a jacket, trapping your body heat inside.
Of course, this comes with the unwanted side effect of condensation, which can make the bivy damp. That’s why it’s important to choose the right kind of bivy. For example, the bivies produced by MSR often feature breathable, water-resistant ripstop nylon as part of their top layer. This reduces the degree of condensation experienced by campers.
That being said, bivies are often best used in fair weather. While an emergency bivy sack is an ideal survival shelter when the weather turns suddenly, you might want to consider extra protection if you tend to camp in areas that experience extreme weather.
Pairing your bivy with a tarp is one way to go. This will keep you protected from heavy rain and even snow.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Bivy Sack
However, not all bivies are created equal. To get the best experience from bivy camping, you must first choose the right bivy for your needs. Here are some factors to consider when choosing a bivy for your next camping trip.
Consider the Fabric
The best bivies on the market today are made with ventilation and breathability in mind, so you don’t get stuffy or have condensation at night. That’s why you need to consider the design and fabric used in the manufacture of the bivy in question.
The best bivy designs today involve two tiers of fabric:
- Bottom tier: This tier is often made of durable, urethane-coated nylon that’s waterproof. This is the same material that you will find on most tent floors.
- Top tier: This tier is made of ripstop nylon, a lighter fabric. It’s treated with a laminate like Gore-Tex®, which makes it breathable and waterproof.
Consider the Design
There are three main bivy designs:
- Basic traditional bivy: This is what you will typically get when you go bivy shopping. It’s nothing more than a big sleeping bag that can accommodate your sleeping bag while protecting you from the elements. It has a zipper and is made out of waterproof material. That’s it. This kind of bivy tends to get a little claustrophobic for some people.
- Shelter or structured bivy: This kind of bivy has a wire that allows you to pull the material off your face, giving the bivy some structure. This bivy often resembles a shelter or a small tent. It provides more space and is more comfortable to sleep in, though it is heavier and bulkier than traditional bivy sacks.
- Bug bivy: This is just like a structured bivy, but it has a mesh that keeps all the bugs and creepy crawlies out. Bivies such as the Outdoor Research Bug Bivy are excellent for summer camping when you want to sleep under the stars without getting feasted on by bugs.
Consider the Zippers
Traditional bivies tend to have a zipper at the top, meaning you have to slither into them. That makes them a little cumbersome to use. More modern bivies have zippers down the side, which means they can be opened just like most sleeping bags, making them easy to use.
Bivies can get claustrophobic, mostly because they are designed to be lightweight and easy to pack. The size of the bivy will determine just how tightly packed you will be in there. It’s often best to go a size bigger, at least.
How bulky is the bivy when packed? The whole idea behind a bivy is that it should be tiny and lightweight when packed. It should be small enough to fit in your backpack or side pockets.
Every outdoor enthusiast should have at least one emergency bivy sack in their gear repertoire. These tiny tents are convenient in every sense of the word.
They are lightweight, easy to deploy, easy to pack away and, best of all, can be deployed in a matter of seconds, keeping you protected from sudden weather changes. Another advantage and reason you should have one is that they are relatively inexpensive.
The tips shared here should help you choose your first bivy with ease. But as with all outdoor gear, your needs and tastes will change as your experience and expertise grow.
Here are some links to our most popular articles:
Last update on 2023-01-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API