The Bivvy Bag: A Ticket To Certain Death?

yorkshire walk

Bivvy bagging: fear, terror, misery? Let’s look at the facts.

Have you ever slept outdoors without a tent – say, in a bivvy bag?

It’s terrifying.

Except WAIT, WAIT.

It’s only terrifying in advance.

When you’re actually doing it, it’s exciting, safe and surprisingly snug (if you do it right, of course). The terror you feel is an imaginary terror, concocted by an over-active imagination that is forgetting the basics of what you actually do when you sleep outdoors.

I was chatting with a travel-writing friend recently – yo, Flora – and I mentioned that I was taking part in the “My Year Of Microadventure” challenge from Alastair Humphreys. She said:

I’m planning to do the Camino in May so why not incorporate some al fresco sleeping into the mix?!..little terrified about sleeping in random fields alone though.

So, let’s talk about three ways bivvy bagging seems terrifying – with great and meaningful emphasis on “seems”.


Anyone Could Sneak Up On You

As a number of sensationalist UK newspapers will eagerly tell you, the countryside is filled with criminals, murderers, lunatics and UKIP supporters whose sole purpose is to do you great harm. It’s a curious return to the way people used to think about the countryside. Thomas Hardy used heathland as a backdrop for tragedy, a place where normal civilization breaks down and nobody is safe. Then the Industrial Revolution happened, and cities became the places to avoid if you wanted to remain in one piece. Basically, we can’t decide where is worst. It’s all very British.

So, is the British countryside safe?

It goes without saying that if you’re alone, you need to make sure you’re not recklessly vulnerable, and that to a certain extent you feel safe. (Feel 100% safe? You’re not having an adventure.) The rules are also different for women. Take all this as a fundamental necessity of travel.

Now, safety. What exactly is safety? I’d define it as “your ability to be aware of potentially dangerous situations.” The more aware you are, the less unwelcome things will happen to you – especially if another person who means you harm becomes aware of that awareness. For example, if it looks like you’re paying attention, you’re not an easy mark for theft. (Great tip: make eye contact with everyone you meet, demonstrating your awareness of them.)

Ever climbed into a tent and felt like you’d gone indoors? Me too.

And it’s a lie.

Inside a tent, you are no more protected than laying out in the open, swaddled to the eyeballs in warm, breathable fabrics. You’re still “outside” in every way that matters – except one. You can’t see anything outside.

I hate that.

hornsea beach

When I first fell asleep in my bivvy bag on Bridlington beach in 2013, it was around 11pm. I’d be awake in a few hours when it started to rain, but right now the sky was clear and my night-vision was as good as it gets. I could see everything. Even Garrett couldn’t have snuck up on me. I felt perfectly safe and my logical brain backed up my feelings.

In short, it didn’t feel anything like I imagined it would, a week earlier when I unpacked my alarmingly flimsy-looking bivvy bag for the first time and imagined laying there in the dark, tense with fear. It felt nothing like that (and I was confusing “flimsy” for “lightweight”). And I also felt utterly reassured that if someone or something dodgy was to come anywhere near me, I’d be aware of it well in advance,  with plenty of time to avoid trouble.  You can’t say that about sleeping in a tent. (Blair Witch, anyone?)

I’m not stupid enough to say “Sleeping anywhere in a bivvy bag is perfectly safe.” Nope. Safety is your call. But what I will say is that once I got past the weirdness of “staying outdoors”, it felt safer –  a lot safer – than being in a tent.

bivvy bag

You’re Unprotected And Completely Exposed To The Elements

What if it rains?

Avid bivvy bagger and author Ronald Turnbull answers this question neatly in The Book Of The Bivvy:

What happens is, you get wet.

In fact, this isn’t exactly true. Maybe you’re not under a waterproof flysheet, but if you’re using modern bivvy bag materials, they’re designed to keep you dry. Rain will bounce off them, and moisture will be continually wicked outwards, keeping you free of condensation when you’re wrapped up. In my case? I woke up on the beach at 3am, and it was hammering down with rain – the kind that jumps inches into the air after it hits things. My face was wet and suddenly this inspiring adventure threatened to be truly horrible.

And then I turned over.

Really, that’s it. Most bivvy bags, including mine, are fitted with hoods that tighten with draw-strings. I lay on my front with my head turned to one side, I pulled the hood tight about my head…and I went back to sleep.

In the rain.

I woke at 6am feeling rested enough to get walking again, and I should have slept for a few more hours because the second I crawled out the bag, I realised just how well it was protecting me. That’s when it got miserable.

sunset, yorkshire

Incredibly, magically, despite my worst fears, my bivvy bag keeps the rain off. I don’t know how it compares to the waterproofing of tents. I also don’t care, because I’d rather sleep places where it doesn’t rain on me, thanks. (I’m adventurous, not stupid.)

It also keeps me warm. Getting cold is dangerous. Luckily, if you have a good sleeping bag in a good bivvy bag, you will be toasty-warm (and try resting your feet on a hot-water bottle if they tend to get cold, like mine do).

Another great thing about using a bivvy bag is you can lay it anywhere. If you’re nervous about laying in the open, use the terrain. Invent a new place to sleep, made of combining your bivvy bag with the scenery: a rocky outcrop, a protecting stone wall, the underside of someone’s car (note: this from @alp4886 on Twitter – “wrong and v dangerous to bivvy under a car if you’re not sure it’s not going to move or sink in rain/mud“).

You have the complete freedom to do this. No faffing around with finding ground soft enough to accept tent-pegs, either. Anywhere will do if you can stretch out comfortably. You’re not exposed to the elements – you’re unusually well-equipped to avoid them.

I’ve bivvy-slept on lake-sides, in hedges, under cars and in someone’s laundry room (admittedly, that was cheating). I’ve woken up in blasting rain and I’ve woken up because the sunshine was turning me into a boil-in-the-bag blogger. (One of these awakenings was more pleasant than the other, of course – but neither was horrible. Horror never entered into it. Maybe a little self-indulgent misery, but seriously, that’s it.)

My bivvy bag has a proven ability to not just keep me alive, but keep me warm, comfortable and protected from the British weather. Did I mention I had all these experiences happen in England? You know, England?

You’re So Alone

Sure, if you like. But you don’t have to be.

That’s why I’ve set myself the challenge of sleeping outdoors with a total of 500 people by the end of the year.

(Fancy being one of them? Leave a comment!)

But there’s a little truth here. It’s easier to be alone with a bivvy bag. When tents are used, camp-sites becomes logical choices (because of facilities, lots of room to pitch, ground that’s soft enough for your tent-pegs etc.) And after a while, it’s easy to only use camp-sites – especially in this country, which often frowns on people camping in the wilderness.

But with a bivvy bag? You’re not camping. It’s not that official. You’ve just….stopped for a while. Technically you’re just as prone to tresspassing, but it’s going to be much easier to ask for forgiveness when you can pack up and be on your way within 5 minutes. Here’s someone who agrees.

It’s so wonderfully temporary in nature that you can probably get away with sleeping anywhere. (I never said that. Look, just use your head, okay?)

And yes, when you can sleep anywhere (sorta, kinda), you don’t have to sleep in campsites. And maybe that’s not always such a bad thing, aye?


I won’t belabour it. But seriously, bivvy bagging. It’s not what you think. And hey, at the very least it’s worth trying once.

So go on. I dare you.


Further reading:

– “What is a bivvy bag, and why do I need one?” – Alastair Humphreys

– “The Book Of The Bivvy” – Ronald Turnbull

– “Bivy Bag Nights” – Andy Strangeway


Images: YorkshirePhotoWalks and Mike Sowden.
  • I’m just too nesh for this, though it sounds strangely appealing. I’ll give it a miss on the grounds that I can’t go anywhere without the new baby, and I’m not sure putting a baby in a bivvy bag is a good idea!

    • “Strangely appealing” is the gateway emotion that gets you into bivvy bagging. Be warned. ;)

      And yep, probably not best with a bairn. Wait until young’uns are old enough go foraging for food, collecting water etc, while you sleep. Wait until they’re, you know, *useful*.

  • Mike C

    I’ve slept outside by the campfire, under the stars quite a few times in Canada. Even the bears won’t stop me. The most memorable times are when you wake up in late May after a beautiful day of sun only to find it snowed.

    • That sounds terrific.

      (Apart from the bears-trying-to-stop-you bit.)

  • Enjoyed this post. I’ve bivvyed a few times and throughtly enjoyed the exepreince, though I find it difficult to get much sleep, my mind is usually too busy being amazed by it all!

    • Same.

      Also, finding the right position to sleep in. ;)

  • Zoe Homes

    I enjoyed this post, and it definitely adds new reasons why I want to go bivvy bagging some day… but not on my own, and preferably on a dry night :)

    • Bivvy bagging in the rain, as in deliberately *planning* to bivvy bag in the rain, is crazy. There. I said it.

  • Yes! I’ve only slept in a bivvy bag for a couple of nights, in the desert in central Australia, but I felt totally safe and cosy. The only thing that worried me was that horrifically big spiders might scuttle in with me!

    http://www.secondhandhedgehog.com

    • Yeah, I’ve heard things about the wildlife in Australia. ;) Kudos.

  • Chiming in from California where we call them sleeping bags! I had never heard of a bivy bag. Learn something new everyday!

    • jimothyGator

      A bivy bag is different than a sleeping bag. You put your sleeping bag inside a bivy. The bivy gives you protection from wind, rain, insects, etc. Just as a tent does, only much smaller, lighter, and more minimalist.

    • Yep, as jimothyGator says, bivvy bags aren’t sleeping bags, they’re more like (apologies for the analogy) hi-tech condoms that go on the outside of sleeping bags. When I was up on the North York Moors a few weeks ago I also used a silk inner liner that went inside my sleeping bag, giving me 3 layers (on top of an inflatable mattress).

  • Ummm camping Mike. Not really, even though I do. Every month with my son who’s an active member of the Boy Scouts of America (we’re British). It practically kills me as I like the open air but I don’t like sleeping in it, and I’m a supportive mother so…I like the fact that” I’m not camping, just stopping…for a while!”. A bivvy bag? Perhaps!

    • Worth a try! And if a night is too much, try an evening nap under the stars, before heading back home. Let me know how you get on.

  • islandmomma

    Been saving this to read this weekend and loved it. Only bivvyed once, and it was here in the Canary Islands so you might say it was a cheat, but I promise I slipped on ice when looking for somewhere to pee. We were under an overhanging rock so it was like a cave. The night skies here are famous, so falling asleep looking at the universe above is, well, simply indescribable.

    • Nothing like closing your eyes on a faceful of stars…

      And I do not say it’s a cheat. Mainly because there are no rules. (They’re just guidelines. Rules are no fun at all.)

  • Claire

    Reading this has really wet my appetite to give bivvying a go. Especially as I’ve just found someone who is crazy enough to do it with me :-)

    • Dare ya, And please come back and leave a comment about how you found it!

  • Louisa

    Alistair I love the idea but have never actually bivvied. Would love to be part of one of your 500 this year. Will be in London from April onwards.

    • Grand! (Although I should add I’m not Alastair, I’m just one of his fans / aspiring copycats).

  • GGenevra Fletcher

    Sold. Will be taking my seven year olds bivvying at every opportunity this year.

    • I bet they’ll love it. Thanks for reading!

  • Walker Hunter

    great article – i would definitely appreciate joining you on an adventure this year!

    • Thanks – and excellent! Keep an eye on this ‘ere blog – I’ll be using it to organise things in advance…

  • Brian Buckmaster

    Sounds strangely appealing, and if I were younger, I suppose I’d give it a try. But being the old fart that I am, comfort is paramount. I’ve spent more than a few nights with my honey in a sleeping bag on an air mattress that slowly deflated, leaving us like two hot dogs in a bun. Yeah, I know, the air mattress thing is a different topic, but the bottom line is this: After a long day of being in the saddle, I don’t want to eat and sleep in the dirt. I want to shower, put on some clean clothes go out to eat and sleep in a bed – not in the dirt. So, I’ll pass on the bivvy thing and plan my trips so there’s a motel, hostel, or B&B to spend the night!

    • Nothing worse than the slowly-deflating mattress. :) And bivvy bagging does come with a certain amount of discomfort, so I hear you. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve slept in a proper bed the next day, so part of this year’s challenge is seeing how I feel after sleeping outdoors multiple days in a row. I suspect the answer is “a bit creaky”.

  • Adam Davies

    I’m planning on beating this fear at the end of Feb, although in cheating and will still be on a camp site…

  • Mark Haigh

    Amusing, yet informative, thank you. I’ve spent many, many nights in a tent, but my
    first night in a bivvy bag is planned for this Friday, as the start of My Year
    of Microadventure. Looking forward to it, yet strangely apprehensive. Becoming
    one of your “500” sounds like fun.

    • Thank you. :) And would be grand to have you along. The more the merrier. Please check back in coming weeks, when I start to make plans.

  • Richard

    Running out of days, have to get first night before the end of January!
    Cold northerly winds with potential snow flurries this weekend – CARPE DIEM!!

    • I hear you. I was up on the North York Moors a week ago for my first microadventure of the year (blog post forthcoming) and yep, thick snow everywhere. There are easier months to sleep outdoors, that’s a fact…

  • Olie Hunter Smart

    Now I just need to sort myself out with one and I’ll be on my way. Any tips on what to look for in one?

  • Bas Rotgans

    Mike,

    What’s your opinion on sleeping pads/thin air mattresses? Do you use them? Do you put them inside they bivvy bag? Outside with the chance of sliding off? Do you not use them at all, but find some soft grass to lie on?

    I’ve been pondering but haven’t quite figured it out. Would love to hear your opinion.

    Bas

    • Hey Bas,

      Yep, I use a roll-up air mattress by Alpkit, the maker of my bivvy bag (Hunka):

      https://www.alpkit.com/products/dirtbag

      They go underneath your bivvy bag – at least mine does. Hmm, I will experiment to see if it’ll fit inside it. But however you use it, it does make a big difference. An air mat will allow you to sleep anywhere, which is handy when you’re in vegetation-scarce surroundings. It will also keep you warm, providing a cushion of air between you and the ground – otherwise, the ground’s infinite capacity to absorb heat will relentlessly cool you through the night and you will wake up with a back stiff with the cold. Not a great start in the morning…

  • Penny Sadler

    I saw someone sleeping in something like this, but with a net that was hanging from a tree. It was a simple set up,but not quite as simple as this. And it was in an unlikely place. You guys in your bivvy bags could give someone a heart attack.

    • A net in a tree? Genius. I’d be up for that. But first – a hammock. Never tried it, really want to.

  • Sam

    Mike, what about insects! Slugs, earwigs, ants, snails, spiders, and larger more curious creatures, badgers, foxes, rats etc. I once had a hegehog crawl in and sleep in the porch of my tent right next to my head. When I unzipped to see what was going on, I shone a torch right in its face and it just blinked at me! But less cute, I’ve also unzipped my tent on a mountain side in the morning and found legions of earwigs crawling everywhere!
    How do you avoid this in a bivi with no zipper between you and the outside world?
    (I intend to go bivying this year but I’m scared as hell! ha ha!!)

    • I once had a hedgehog clamber into my mess tin and get stuck. I woke up to a high-pitched animal-in-panic noise, shone my torch, and almost had heart failure when I saw it, a pulsating spiked ball with no visible head….

      For keeping the wildlife out, well, it’s pretty difficult for it to get *in*. :) Bivvy bags don’t have a zipper, so the bugs and animals would have to get in via your hood – and you’d probably noticed that happening. I’m always more worried about what ends up in my walking boots (always give them a damn good shake in the morning – always).

  • Bivvy bags seem like a great alternative to tents and allow much more freedom. Thanks for sharing! – Janeen

    • A pleasure! Yep, *much* more freedom. It makes a huge psychological difference when it only takes 5 minutes to “set up camp” (ie. sit down, roll out your bivvy bag, stuff your sleeping bag inside that, secure everything, and climb in). And it’s great in the morning – no tedious pulling up pegs when your heart is screaming “LET’S JUST GO ALREADY, IT’S A SUNNY DAY!”.

  • noctumz

    The simple reality is that when camping you are much safer than being in a populated area.

    People, they are the largest threat, not animals and certainly not open and remote spaces. After hiking, biking, and camping (with others and alone(use a bivvy)) I can tall you with certainty that being away from people is safer than being near them.

    However, I do camp in the US and go armed, prepared and educated about the local area (plants, animals, weather patterns). Once you prepare and educate yourself the “fear” which is irrational and not based on facts just disappears.

    A word of warning(1): If you go camping alone, be prepared that the first time you do it, it will feel uncomfortable, scary, and weird. This is not how it will feel the second, third and fourth time..
    In the end, if you can do it three times, by the time the fourth time rolls around you will be looking forward to the piece and isolation with great intensity.

    A word of warning (2): When done consistently, camping alone will rewire your brain, it will change your perspectives and beliefs, the more you do it, the more you change–and there is NO GOING BACK.

    Camping alone is a trans-formative process.

    “Isolation is THE gift” –Charles Bukowski

    • I definitely agree that camping is more than a little addictive. The freedom of setting up “camp” with a bivvy bag in about 30 seconds is pretty special. Transformative indeed. I’ll never see the outdoors in the way I used to (“you can’t sleep out there! What if it rains?” etc.)

      Regarding camping in the US, I haven’t tried it, but so far everyone I’ve met on my tiny, tiny expeditions has been helpful and welcoming enough to improve the trip. Bivvy bagging is socially weird enough that I don’t like advertising it in person, and there are some places I’d be loathe to sleep in for personal security reasons, but so far everyone I’ve encountered has been great. I also prefer crowds when I’m around folk – the more people there are, the safer it should be.

  • Lewis

    Hey man,
    Probably super late to the game. I am a woodland officer and always been an outdoors kind of guy.
    But only this past year have I got into the bush skills and such like in a big way.
    I would love to have a go at bivy bagging.
    Give me a shout if I can take you up on the offer to go for a night in a Bivy, don’t worry if you can’t I realise I am almost a year late.

    Good luck out there buddy.

  • Happy Masked Guy

    Hey man, up for a joint Scottish bivvy adventure in early 2016? I know it’s a touch late, but hey- why not? :)

    • If you’re late, I’m later! My 2015 bivvy bagging and/or microadventures were interrupted (I managed to get outside 4 months out of 12) so I’m making the most of 2016, if and when it stops raining….

      Keep an eye out for upcoming posts, and scoot me an e-mail through my Contact form – the more people to go adventuring with, the merrier I am. :)

  • FrogMom

    After years of wild camping (love being by myself in nature), I’m finally taking the plunge this weekend. Bought British Army bivvy bags on eBay and found caves to sleep in should the weather not agree. However, main idea is to sleep outside and not fall off a cliff (coast). Only hitch is arriving at bivvy spot at midnight on Friday. Sucks not to see surroundings in daylight before going to sleep but hopefully, won’t be an issue. Thanks for your words!

    • Yay! Delighted to hear this – thanks so much for popping back to tell me. If you see this – I’d love a full report on your adventure.

    • Yaaay. :) Awesome.

      Please come back and tell me how it went!

  • David Place

    I’ll go bivvying with you, mucker!