To bivvy or not to bivvy – that is the question

I have been racking my brains over the past few months as to a suitable set up for the winter that involves a bivvy with or without a tarp. Ok, slightly mad I’ll admit, but I am sure it can be done although a few caveats spring to mind – wind, rain and temperature to name but a few ….hmmm maybe this needs more thought. No really, I am looking to test out a bivvy or bivvy/tarp combo for the winter at least once.

Ok, using a bivvy in winter…..extra insulation required – a given. Safer? Posssssibly……given that a tent can be blown down if the wind is fierce does seemingly throw up a paradox that a bivvy would be a better bet. Imagine the scene. The wind is howling, its not pissing it down but it may do later. You are on or near a summit and the available space to pitch a tent is limited either by bogginess (making pegging difficult) or lots of rocks (ditto). There is the possibility of a teeny bit of shelter offered by a slight outcrop of rock. Perfect bivvy conditions or a recipe for adopting the foetal ball of pain in the middle of the night? I would like to think that a bivvy in these conditions even in winter is not only doable but doable in a stylish/comfortable/slightly deranged mwahahahaha type of way (delete as applicable).

On its own, the bivvy would need to be waterproof and probably oversized to allow for kit/extra insulation. But what about when the precipitation falls with a particularly sickening thud (heavy rain to the layman)? This is where I believe a small tarp would be of immense benefit. If its small enough and low enough, I believe it would help with entry/exit to the bivvy itself and also allow for simple cooking/eating/superman-like changing of clothes. All this is nothing new.

What I want to do, is test these principles out in a good old fashioned British winter. I would prefer little wind, little rain and gentle temperatures of course but want to be prepared for armageddon.

So, my rig? Without a tarp and assuming no great deluge, I would use my MLD soul bivvy. Add to this my Golite ultra 20 quilt, Gossamer gear thinlight full length pad and additional torso pad and I have the beginnings of a set up. If its peeing it down, then I would add a tarp. I have a small cuben fibre tarp which can be pitched as a head cover area or just about cover the length of me if pitched to the ground as an A-frame.

The set up without the tarp is around 1Kg. With the tarp it rises to 1.25Kg

Of course, sensible clothing choices would be made to compliment this arrangement but I feel that its a good option for a winter set up. There is also a local hill where this could be tested in relative safety. 900feet high and only 3miles from home so definitely bale-outable

Thoughts?

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About Saddlebags and Backpacks - a brewer's outdoor adventures

I am a keen hiker, camper, cyclist and general all round gear addict..... I also manage to be a professional brewer in my non-spare time :->
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49 Responses to To bivvy or not to bivvy – that is the question

  1. backpackingbongos says:

    My thoughts: Tent 🙂

  2. R MacE says:

    I’m assumung you’re not intending to bivvy in full on winter (like last year) with temperatures well below freezing and substantial snow?

    For whats it’s worth I’d be inclined to plan sleeping in my clothing, something like pertex/pile using a lightish synthetic sleeping bag and use the tarp primarily to shelter from unexpected wind/rain.

    I’d be reluctant to forego some kind of tarp if only to provide a windbreak, if it was raining heavily when you set up getting out of wet gear into dry gear and then into a bivvy bag and trying to cook would be difficult if not impossible which is why I’d choose my clothing carefully so that it could be slept in wet or dry.

    I curious to see what others suggest.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      yes, agree re the synthetic gear…probably take my Prism jacket rather than my antifreeze and the Rab VR trousers are a must!

      I probably would take the tarp anyway….the poles, pegs, lines and tarp itself only come to 250g

  3. I can see that if you have a very minimal amount of space, that using a bivvy set up as you described would be good. But I think at the weight, I would find a spot where I could get a lightweight tent ( 1kg) pitched – would be my option in winter. If you have concerns about wind damage, you are back to the Soulo ! – 1kg more but you will be safe and comfortable. I have done very few camps in bivvies, but to my mine – there are for ultra lightweight summer camps and/ or sheltered year round use. I guess you would have better experience than me on the limits of such shelters.
    Mark

    • backpackbrewer says:

      yes, back to the Soulo! But seriously I want to test out the tarp arrangement, strangely enough late autumn onwards is quite appealing due to the lack of insects if nothing else! 🙂

  4. Mark Roberts says:

    Yes, a tarp for a good old British winter would be essential. How about one of those poncho tarps to do double duty?

    • backpackbrewer says:

      I looked at those Mark…cant decide if I would want one or not but the size is decent enough at 8×5 feet. Still the cuben fibre tarp is insanely light (60g for 6×4.5 feet)

      🙂

  5. Martin Rye says:

    Get a winter shelter that is light. It called a Trailstar. Mine is on order. The rest of the kit you have is good. Hope it works for you. Trailstar is good in the wind. Why risk it with a tarp with few guy points and more prone to damage in the wind.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Martin,

      have looked at the trailstar on and off for the past year. It does look good and apparently excellent in a blow (Colin Ibbotson)

  6. John Davis says:

    Sorry if you have already seen this because I mentioned it in another comment at the weekend, but wind battering a bivy bag does a good job of wrecking sleep. Then how are you going to cook? No cook systems may work for summer, but surely not in winter. By the way, I’m not just thinking about the wind whipping heat away from your billy. I have had the whole stove, billy and wind shield set up blown over.

    I like a bivy bag for late autumn to early spring because the heavy dews put water everywhere but some other form of shelter seems essential. You don’t have to buy anything if you are prepared to seek out trees for your bivouac.

    I too have a Trailstar on order – but will it ever arrive? Order now to prevent disappointment next summer.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      good point re the ordering, MLD can sometimes take a little time….but so worth it.

      I dont think I am looking for a multiday trip just an overnighter to see how the “system” fares.

      Maybe I am mad….hmmm that Trailstar does look good 🙂

  7. Ben says:

    I have once bivvyed with no tarp on Dartmoor in the winter once after a week of very careful weather forecast watching.

    The high pressure meant it felt very cold but it was great. I think Martin is right Trailstar is the answer. I am trying to justify the cost.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      blimey, is all the world looking to get a trailstar?! 😀

      It does look good and is surprisingly cost effective too

      • Ben says:

        I know they are “cost effective” but, you may find this hard to believe, but some people think you can have too many tents/tarps. No I dont understand either.

        • backpackbrewer says:

          really?

          oops…..too late for me then.

          Seriously though if you cost out the Trailstar in £’s per square metre of shelter it is also extremely good value too

  8. R MacE says:

    The Trailstar looks quite good, waiting patiently? for your review Martin.

    I was looking at the Gatewood Cape myself but I think I’d prefer the Wild Oasis with the mesh removed and the Serenity Net used instead, of course you’re starting to move away from the tarp style and into double skin tent territory.

    That said for the scenario that Dave is talking about I might prefer a simpler design although I’m not quite sure what , perhaps the MLD Grace if I was using a full bivvy bag.

  9. backpackbrewer says:

    thats what I am looking for Mac, a simple set up.

    its a bivvy with small tarp but again having said that the Trailstar does give lots of options and its not that heavy.

  10. Martin Rye says:

    Waiting patiently Richard for it to arrive. We know it performs as Ibbo and Steve Horner have done rather fine reviews. Cost £119.29 all in all with shipping according to my Card statement. Good in the wind is critical in the UK. I took some convincing to get one but Steve used it high on the fells and it has not let him down. So I am waiting for mine to arrive.

  11. Simon Hackett says:

    I’m another one who’s just got a trailstar- It does cancel out some of your original ideas though- namely, the massive size and multiple pegging points doesn’t allow you to squeeze into that tiny spot. I’ve done winter camps on snow in a bivvy- there are certainly condensation issues. You might consider a tiny head only tarp for a really minimal setup- eddie meechan had a fairly recentish article in tgo on this idea. you should be able to knock at least a hundred grams off the tarp weight even in pu coated nylon and it’s a pretty easy job to sew. ultimate low profile as well. i love my gatewood cape but in winter it’s really a lower level/ sheltered tent.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Yes, good point re the trailstar…it relies on pegging points pure and simple plus a largish area to pitch it.

      Back to the head tarp a la Eddie Meecham, the cuben fibre tarp I use is only 60grammes, its the peg, lines and poles that add the weight. I guess I could lose a pole and a few guylines and drop the set up below 200g

      and yes the condensation issue raises it ugly head when you dont have a tarp because potentially you will have to “seal yourself up” in poor weather

  12. Tomas says:

    I’ve been thinking about the same set-up for a while now. A tent is great when you can use it, and these days there’s no problem getting a something suitable for snow use weighting in under a kilo. However I don’t like the idea of a tent all the time, for a start when you want to sleep on kayaking trips, often you end up on some rock with nothing to peg into. Or the same when on climbing trips, trying to set up a tent on a windy stony hilltop is a pain in the ass. And in Winter when temperatures drop to below -20 it takes an unbelievable amount of time and effort to set-up a tent.

    So recently I made a bivy bag that I can roll out, pump up a mat inside it, and just hop in under a quilt. I haven’t actually finished it yet because I don’t know how to finish the head-end, but I’ve taken it out for a few weekends anyway and so far haven’t been disappointed. Quicker to set-up than a tent, needs no specific placement or pegging out, smaller and lighter in the pack, and of course leaves you with nothing between you and the surroundings.

    The downside is no cooking in a vestibule during crazy storms, but I’ve never actually done that, so I’m not sure what I’m missing. To me tents feel like overkill in almost all situations.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Tomas,

      thanks for the reply. I like tents most of the time but there are times when a simple “check it down” attitude takes over and I hanker for the bivvy/tarp. I just want to be able to do this occasionally in winter with a relative amount of confidence. Its fine in the summer as the risk is relatively low. I guess I am trying to be as flexible as I can with my set up for all seasons

      Unless its really really cold, I havent go an issue with skipping a hot meal or drink but would find it pretty miserable if I couldnt do so over the entire trip. Food for thought (pun intended)

      • Tomás says:

        I think the main difference here is the difference between Winter in Scandinavia and Winter in the British Isles. Sweden appears to be more hardcore with all the snow and deep freezes, but compared to Ireland and the UK I think it’s a piece of cake.

        Everything is dry except for the beginning and end of the season, and it’s usually a lot less windy. Digging out a little hollow in the snow and throwing a bivybag into it is a lot easier than trying to get out of soaking wet rain-gear and into a bivybag during a downpour. A decent tent is invaluable in those situations.

  13. Mark Roberts says:

    I’m also looking forward to more Trailstar reviews. I’d like to see how some tall people get on with it – the entrance looks a bit low for me. I’d hate having to crawl on all fours to get in or out.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Mark,

      same here, until I see it in the flesh its all guesswork even if there are youtube videos

      we will just have to wait for all those packages to arrive and for the comments back

      🙂

  14. Hendrik says:

    Well, I have bivyied in winter and spring with tarps and without, and think it is just fine. Of course our conditions here are different from the UK, where there is snow and serious minus degrees only every twenty or so years 😉

    I had my MLD Alpine bivy on the last trip to Russia, and it would have been fine for all nights. The last night I camped on a very exposed ridge and the wind was howling along, but I had no problems in the bivy and under the HMG Echo I tarp (I could have done without the tarp).

    Go ahead and try your idea on a autumn/ winter evening at the safe spot, and see how it performs. In the course I am doing, we are sleeping in open shelters year around, thus also on the two two-week expeditions to Lapland in the winter (-20°C to -40°C to be expected!).

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hendrik, you give me confidence in my plan. Of course I know its doable but I just want to try and cover as many of the angles as possible

      🙂

  15. Mark Roberts says:

    Tomas makes a very good point about the different winter conditions in Scandinavia and Britain. In the Nordic lands, the dry climate, very cold weather, and snow do, in many ways, make winter camping easier. You get less wet, you tend to automatically overkill on insulation, it’s less windy, and more than anything else, it isn’t damp.

    In England, the dampness pervades everything and gets into your bones. I always felt far colder in England than in the -30C temps of Lapland.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      completely agree Mark,

      its a different kind of cold. I remember last winter when we had temperatures in the -15 to -20 range and although seriously cold it was dry and very bearable.

      I have also been camping in the Lake District with very low temperatures but bone dry and sunny. Very copeable indeed

      It is the wet that is the bugger in the UK. Insulation suffers, spirits are sapped and there is not even a chance to enjoy the scenery

      hmmmm……

      roll on a winter like last year! 😀

  16. R MacE says:

    As has been mentioned already you can’t compare Scandanavia in winter with the UK and Ireland, the temperature doesn’t stay sufficiently low for long enough, it’s freeze-thaw-rain-freeze-snow constantly right through the winter months and high winds are a constant problem as the areas where you can wildcamp are generally exposed high ground. You can’t say with any certainty that just because the temperature is well below freezing with clear skies and no wind when you set up camp that it won’t change to rain/sleet in a matter of hours.

    A few years ago (1993) we camped in Glenmore on the Friday night, no wind, plenty of snow and temp below freezing, Saturday we had light winds and snow in the afternoon turning to sleet as the wind picked up. Saturday evening it was raining heavily and there was no snow whatsoever remaining in the campsite but it was flooded, high winds/heavy snow blizzards caused the ski center (about 2 miles up the ski road and a few hundered metres higher) to be evacuated. Sunday dawned bright, the temperature fell again, Sunday night there was high winds and heavy snowfall even in the campsite. Monday morning the temperature was far enough below freezing that there were still traces of ice/snow on my car after driving from Aviemore to Cairnryan in spite of low level snow cover ending at around Pitlochry.

    That’s by no means unusual but it makes it difficult if not impossible to plan when to use a bivvy set up.

  17. backpackbrewer says:

    think you have hit the nail on the head there Mac. Unpredictability of UK weather is the bane of planning a trip however short. 4 seasons in one day as the song goes and its very very true.

    I went on a trip many years ago in the Brecon Beacons where it was a nice sunny spring day in the valley around the 15degC mark and we were in tee-shirts. 2 hours later and 700metres up it was minus something nasty with a biting gale and horizontal snow.

    I guess thats the bit that makes me nervous. The only way around it is careful planning including bugging out points on the route and building in a little extra to the kit level.

    Food for thought

  18. I’m late to the party on this. Thanks Martin for mentioning my review of the Trailstar, I’m almost salivating thinking of snow and getting out in the Trailstar.

    I’ve been wondering about bivying in the winter too and interesting to read all the comments. Last winter was strange I was walking the West Highland Way the night the coldest temperatures in the UK were recorded. I think it was -24c a few miles along the road, I was in the open near Conic Hill in an Akto with the door open (to prevent condensation so I thought). It was cold (-17 possibly colder) but it was different, very dry which is strange for the UK. I think you could happily bivy if conditions were like that.

    Like Hendrik I’d say go for it in your safe spot. You could easily walk out if its horrible. I walked out of a test camp earlier in the year when my feet got wet, had forgotten spare socks and it was -9c on the top of a hill. Although I had 6.5 miles to walk to the car. Did get some nice night hiking in though 🙂

    It makes me happy to see the Trailstar mentioned so much, if you haven’t already take a look at my site for the review, you wont regret buying a Trailstar if you do. I’m starting to sound like an advert.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Steven,

      thanks for the comments and also the link to your blogsite. Very impressed with the trailstar and your review of it. Looks even bigger than I imagined.

      I have a couple of friends who are handy with sewing machines and I am sure with the correct inducement could probably knock up a “half mesh inner” to go inside this beastie

      Another subliminal push to try the trailstar I think…..

      Great blog by the way….

  19. Lightening up... says:

    Should work, it works for climbers in Alpien environment. But I think one should make it clear to oneself why to try things like that. To make the kit lighter? Ok. Just to try out? Ok. To make thing safer and easier? Not sure about that. For more comfort? Most likely not for that. =D

    The winter conditions here in Finland are some what different and in my experience one doesn’t even need a bivy if camping in a forrest in deep winter. Warm pad and bag is enough – and decent fire is nice for the morning and evening. If camping in exposed areas a bivy or other way to shelter from the wind would be necessary. If there is a danger of rain (water or sleet or heavy snow) I would take a tarp with me. The weight difference is minimal and it also gives some shelter when you are not snuggled up in your bivy. I can imagine that the long, dark and cold nights might also turn out quite boring if the only shelter available would be a tight fitting bivy and a strom would be raging outside the too-small-to-do-anything-else-but-lay-on-you-back shelter…

    • backpackbrewer says:

      you do have to remember one thing about people from the UK, we do like to suffer for our art! 😀

      I agree about the reasoning to oneself as to why to do it in the first place. For me its a combination of simplified/small volume shelter for the winter and also pushing my own comfort boundaries a little.

      I have a couple of months until deep winter is here and in the meantime will be trying out bits and bobs in preparation

  20. I bivy throughout the winter in Japan, but gad, it’s a brave man who’d bivy in the British winter…

    I’m not sure where you’re planning to go, but if it’s somewhere with a decent amount of snow (or with some good sized drifts), then I’d definitely recommend digging a snow trench and pitching the tarp over the top.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Chris,

      I kind of thought about doing that but my angle was around looking for a natural outcrop of rock or similar and putting the tarp over the bivvy area and “connecting” it to the “wall” if that makes sense

      I think we are all agreed that for the most part it is actually better to bivvy/tarp in very cold dry conditions, which if we are honest, doesnt happen in the UK an awful lot

  21. In a way I hoping that the article I saw in New Scientist earlier this year, which suggests that low magnetic activity from the Sun indicating periods of colder winters is true. It suggests more winters such as the last one. This will be great for bivvying in cold dry conditions for the UK.
    Mark

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Mark,

      interesting article for sure. Does that herald the beginning of the next ice age?!

      Maybe the UK will become the new Scandinavia 😀

  22. Blogger Zed says:

    So far, I’ve only pitched my Trailstar on the lawn. A six day trek with it should start in ten days, after which I will post something. Given the simplicity of tarps, it is hard to think of things to say, so if there is anything you want to know, please tell me before I head for the ferry.

    As far as size is concerned, it could be a problem if you had to fit a Trailstar between bushes, but in the open you just need a six foot by two foot space per person between the tussocks somewhere under the tarp. The rest of the internal space does not need to be suitable for sleeping on.

    Size has one virtue. That central pole is very easy to work round.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Zed,

      I will be extremely interested to see how you get on with the trailstar over an extended autumn trip. Where are you headed out for?

      Yes, size is only a problem for the trailstar in terms of finding a big enough patch of ground to pitch it on but as you say the “eveness” of that ground is largely irrelevant

      I will wait for the review and trip report and in the meantime, good luck and bon voyage 🙂

  23. Phil says:

    I had a brief Trailstar vs DuoMid debate last winter concerning shelter snow loading and the angle of side walls etc etc. To avoid repetition (OK, copy and pasting) it’s here:

    http://lightweightoutdoors.com/?p=457

    Ten months down the line I reckon that if I were expecting a decent snowfall (Scandinavia?) I’d choose the DuoMid (or steeper-sided shelter) over the Trailstar. But in typical British winter conditions that tend to be wet and windy rather than snowy and suffocatey then the aerodynamically-superior Trailstar would (and will) be my shelter of choice.

    Oh, and have a think about pegs for use in snow – the Trailstar relies on a bit of tension to maintain that taut skin, so maybe some MSR Blizzard stakes or similar would be appropriate if you’re pitching on snow?

    • backpackbrewer says:

      thanks Phil, link much appreciated.

      I reckon you are right that the duomid is probably the better option in snow but the trailstar is probably the better alround option for the UK

      and yes, pegging well is imperative on any tarp/tarptent system. I’ll have to have a play when the snow comes to see what the best option for my set up is

  24. Derekoak says:

    The trailstar is very versatile . With a pole extension it could be turned into a steeper version of the high setup with one corner raised and the other 4 corners in a 7′ square or even some way to a 7′ equilateral triangle, or a duo mid type shape with one panel folded away

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Hi Derek,

      The Trailstar looks a very versatile bit of kit indeed. It can be pitched low for storm handling and still have oodles of room or high for ventilation or with one corner raised for a bit of both.

      I see that James (Backpackingbongos) is getting one. I feel left out! 🙂

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