Bivvy Bag: A Ticket To Certain Death?

MikeachimEngland, Travel67 Comments

yorkshire walk

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

UPDATE: I’ve added a follow-up post, giving further tips on using a bivvy bag.

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”.

“In A Bivvy Bag, 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 – and so is the level of discomfort you’re willing to endure….

…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

In A Bivvy Bag, You’re 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?

In A Bivvy Bag, You’re So Alone

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

Yet 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

– “Thin bivvy bag offers deep connection to world” – my article for the San Francisco Chronicle

– “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

– “Sleep, Pray, Suffer: Why Bivvy Bagging Is The Best Way To See The Outdoors” – my guest post for Hecktic Travels

My Recommended Bivvy Bag

Images: YorkshirePhotoWalks and Mike Sowden.

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