I’m going to presume that you know what a bivvy bag is and why it’s so fun to use. If you don’t, click that link in the previous sentence. Thanks.
The sun is setting, and I’m about to die.
In the fading light, the towpath alongside the Kennet and Avon canal is taking on a more sinister hue. The bushes rustle with things that will probably be gnawing my bones in a few hours, and the water smacks against the sides of the moored canal boats, soft golden light glowing through the curtains as their murderous occupants sharpen steak knives until they gleam, and take practice swings with baseball bats, imagining how it’ll sound when they connect with my skull.
A few hours ago, I was safe. Over to the left, I can see the lights of The Boathouse, a delightfully posh restaurant where legendary travel writer Don George and I had dinner.
Looking out, the path along the canal had looked cheery and welcoming. We sipped wine, discussed our favourite writers (I’d mention someone in reverential tones; Don would casually mention he had lunch with them a few weeks ago) and I spent a few happy hours pretending I was one of the Normal People who was going to sleep in an actual bed tonight.
An hour later, after dropping Don off at his cosy-looking hotel accommodation for the night, I went in search of somewhere to lay my bivvy bag and sleep outside for the night. How about the canal? That looked nice! And there are friendly people in boats!
It’s one thing to decide to sleep outside when it’s bright daylight, and another entirely when the shadows lengthen and death stalks your footsteps.
My heart in my mouth, I clump down a few wooden steps into an overgrown forest clearing, find a spot that is just the right mixture of not-100%-uncomfortable and only slightly waterlogged, inflate my rollmat, unfurl my bivvy bag, stuff my sleeping bag inside it, unlace my boots (beyond this point you can’t even run for it, says a quietly terrified voice in my mind) and crawl inside.
And a few minutes later, I’m murdered in my sleep.
Of course I wasn’t. You’re reading this. I’m absolutely fine.
So why, when you sleep outside in a bivvy bag, does it feel so threatening? And why on earth is it so challenging to find a safe place to sleep for the night?
My answers to these questions:
- It doesn’t.
- It isn’t.
Is It Safe To Sleep Outside In A Bivvy Bag?
I’ve touched on this before, but really, this all boils down to two seemingly major but fictitious threats, and one minor, actual threat:
(1) Wild Animals
(2) Axe Murderers
(3) (The Weather)
Tackling each in turn:
This is largely not a problem in the UK and many parts of northwest Europe.
In those places, the wildest animals are humans, and under certain conditions (really noisy camping parties, fox hunters etc.) I’m all for a good culling.
But otherwise, the fauna is safe. The most dangerous large animal in the UK is probably the deer. Up to 75,000 deer are involved in collisions with motor vehicles every year, resulting in around ten human fatalities. In around 75,000 of those cases, I feel certain that the deer was doing its very best to bloody well run for it, and the humans were driving a little too fast for their own good.
The next deadliest creature is probably the Orca, or killer whale.
I don’t want to sound judgemental, but if you’re sleeping in a bivvy bag in the UK, and you get eaten by a killer whale, you are definitely doing it wrong.
2. Axe Murderers
This feels like a big problem, but calm-headed logic is your best friend.
When you’re in pitch darkness, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be axed to death.
Have you ever chopped wood with an axe? It’s really hard, even in broad daylight. You prop up the chunk of wood, take a few practice swings, then let your reflexes take over, hoping you bury the axe head deep enough so you can finish it off like Captain America in Age Of Ultron:
If you’re lucky and you can see what you’re doing, you won’t lose a toe or a finger.
That’s what using an axe is like.
So, let’s imagine our budding axe murderer, preparing to murder people with his shiny new axe.
- practices in broad daylight, in which case he gets pretty good at it, but requires some kind of light to murder people with, or
- starts practising in the dark, quickly lops off a leg or foot, and angrily bleeds out, cursing his career-sabotaging stupidity.
Either way, if you’re in the pitch darkness, you’re safe from axe murderers. Because they need to see.
As for other people – the ones who are evil-minded, sociopathic cowards on the fringes of society, looking for their chance to ruin some lives – they’re not out in the woods in the pitch darkness either. Main reason? They’re afraid of axe murderers – simply because they haven’t thought it through like you just have.
Again, your safety is almost certainly assured.
The way I see it, the only people we really have to fear are ex-military lunatics driven crazy by black-ops super-soldier experiments that went wrong, who have access to professional head-mounted infra red “night vision” goggles (RRP anything upwards of £1200).
I can’t advise you about those folk. If you meet one of those, you’re screwed.
But otherwise? Reckon you’re fine.
3. (The Weather)
I class this as a minor fear because you can’t do anything about it and you are probably going to get rained on at some point, or snowed on, or blown over, or some other meteorological indignity.
But once that happens, you’re already wet, cold and miserable, and you can’t fear what has already happened to you.
Fear neutralized. Job done.
A Quick Word About Fear Of The Unknown
Sleeping in a bivvy bag is opening yourself up to massive amounts of the unknown.
Will it rain? Will anyone see you? Will a hedgehog crawl into your bag in the middle of the night and start making noises like someone with a kazoo in their mouth trying to free a zipper from their pubic hair?
Possibly all of these things. Possible none of them. No way to know in advance.
However, most of us misunderstand “fear”, the same way we misunderstand “risk”.
Risk is a sign something is worth doing – otherwise, there are no stakes to raise (emotional, financial, social etc.) and you will feel absolutely nothing as a result of doing it.
But most of us think of risk as something to avoid, as if it’s universally bad, and out to make our lives as shitty as possible. This is wrong. This couldn’t be wronger.
Same with fear.
Fear is a deep, wise part of you yelling WOAH WOAH THERE’S SOMETHING INTERESTING HERE, BACK UP A MOMENT – and it’ll get your attention any damn way it can, including the overwhelming urge to poop yourself.
This lady paid attention to her fear and used it to do something really awesome.
And this lady is making an entire career of doing it.
If you’re still unconvinced, read this book – it’s smarter than I could ever sound on this topic.
So, yes, it’s safe to sleep in a bivvy bag. There’s science and stuff. And almost certainly no axe murderers.
You’re good to go.
Well, except for one thing.
Where Do You Sleep In A Bivvy Bag?
Here are a few suggestions if you want to sleep outside without, you know, dying.
My point, which I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, is that it’s usually easy to see a good spot to lay your bivvy bag – and half the fun is searching for the right spot to sleep outside, your imagination roaming over the landscape before you, draping your bivvied body over hummocks and fitting it into nooks and crannies, like you’re playing an infinitely freeform version of Tetris.
If this feels too nerve-wracking, boot up Google Maps before you set off, and look for some likely spots. But be prepared to adapt.
When I plan my 25-mile walk to the Humber Bridge, I use GMaps to locate a likely-looking patch of woodland almost underneath the bridge. It turns out to be a private park with a chainlink fence in full view of passing traffic – and I had to go exploring along the beach until I found a nettle-free gap in the undergrowth:
A few nights before my canalside adventure, I wander out of the town of Salisbury until I find a path into the woods, and I lay my bag by the side of that path.
This is my view the next morning:
I sleep outside on the beach near Bridlington in a savage rainstorm…
Never, ever again – but I stay dry. (Bivvy bags are amazing.)
I sleep outside by the edge of a weir in Northumberland the night after two of my friends got married, my grey flannel suit carefully packed into multiple layers of bin-liner and the protective depths of my rucksack.
This is the view in the morning:
In 2015 I slept in the snow up on the North York Moors.
It was an exciting, mind-expanding and remarkably miserable night.
Every time I sleep outside and bivvy in the open, two factors dictated my choice of location.
(1) Protection from the elements without ruining the view. What’s the point if it just looks like a windier, draughtier version of indoors? If you can’t see your surroundings stretching away for at least a couple of hundred feet, you probably need a better spot.
(2) Not being seen by Normal People. Ahhh. Now we get to it.
Let’s get real about a normally unspoken truth.
Bivvy Bagging Is About Managing Your Fear Of Looking Weird
There. I said it.
If you sleep outside the normal way, camping in a tent, people will understand at a glance what you’re doing. They might wrinkle their noses if they’re not into the outdoors thing, they might not be happy about it if you’re trespassing, but they’ll get what you’re doing, instantly.
Bivvy bagging is still novel enough that most people will not understand what the hell you’re doing.
They might wander over to check if you’re alive or not. They might ring the police. They will probably assume you’re unhinged. This is the reality for most people you’ll meet as you go merrily bivvy bagging into the world.
And quite understandably, you want to avoid all that – so you hide.
Hiding is a perfectly natural thing to do in these circumstances. Bivvy bagging and hiding complement each other perfectly, like chips and vinegar, Sherlock and Watson, or rain and misery.
When you find your spot for the night, you perform a kind of rudimentary viewshed analysis, which is a thing archaeologists do when they try to work out what ancient people could see when they stood in a particular spot. You’re trying to work out if you can be seen, particularly when the sun comes up, but also in the headlights of passing cars, or if the sky is clear and the moon is alarmingly full that night.
So if you’re freaked out at the thought of preparing to sleep outside, sleeping entirely in the open, ready to be tripped over by someone walking their dog the next morning, and you’re feeling like that’s a sign you’re not cut out for the bivvy bagging life?
No. That’s all of us. We all feel like that.
And a lot of the time, we deal with it by hiding.
So, you’re probably safe, and you’re totally allowed to hide in the bushes if it all gets a bit too much.
What’s stopping you? Go forth and bivvy with misery-loving abandon. (And if you’re looking for the right excuse, take the Microadventure Challenge from Al Humphreys.)
Best of luck! And please pop back and let me know how you got on, by leaving a comment below.
Ta for reading.
Images: Mike Sowden and Pixabay.
If you enjoyed this article, I reckon you’ll love my curiosity newsletter. Sign up for free below: