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
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: https://www.rangermade.net/the-best-bivy-tent-in-2014/
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.
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.