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Looking for people's Bivy experience
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Joseph Scalia
(jscalia) - F

Locale: NorthEast
Looking for people's Bivy experience on 03/12/2009 09:12:49 MDT Print View

I am considering trying out a new lightweight backcountry shelter/sleep system.
For those bivy users out there....what has been your real world experience with:
1. Sleeping Comfort
2. Site selection
3. Condensation/dew/wettness inside and out of the bivy
4. Contact with insects, rodents, animals in general
5. Wind, rain, adverse weather conditions in general

Thanks for your input

Jim W.
(jimqpublic) - MLife

Locale: So-Cal
Re: Looking for people's Bivy experience on 03/12/2009 10:35:17 MDT Print View

I think it depends on your climate.

I have two:
-Standard bivy sack with drawcord hood, no zipper or netting. 18 ounces. I've only use it on a few trips.
-Micro-tent with a bivy foot and two arches over the torso area and a zippered door with inner screen. The "tent" portion is 30" wide, 40" long, 19" high. 35 ounces with poles & 4 stakes. (Early Winters Pocket Hotel) This one has been used on a few backpack trips and many bicycle tours.

Both are 25 years old and made out of 3-layer Gore-Tex. In the Sierra I've never had any condensation inside during dry, above freezing weather. Below freezing I get frost and during rain there has been a little condensation (micro-tent, luckily I've never been rained on using the regular bivy).

Regarding bugs- the tent just zips them out. The bivy isn't a problem if I wear a headnet.

Rodents, animals, etc. have never bothered me.

Sleeping comfort is fine as long as it isn't too warm. Never a problem in the Sierra but I've had a few miserable nights bike touring when it was 80 degrees, humid, and buggy.

Site selection is the best part! Steep, rocky slopes often have small flat spots up against a fallen tree or where a bush has trapped some soil. All I need is 2'x6'.

Wind is no problem. Unlike tents where I worry about damage, the bivy can handle more wind than I can. Wearing a headnet keeps the breeze off my face.

Using the micro-tent if it isn't likely to rain and bugs aren't bad I just use it like a bivy sack, without the poles or stakes.

All that said, I won't use the standard bivy again unless I put a zipper in and bring a small tarp for rain protection. it is a pain to enter and exit, if it rained I'd have a wet face, and it is cut so narrow that on hot nights I can't escape my sleeping bag. Plus it is heavy compared to modern alternatives.

What I especially love about these compared to other shelters is the speed packing up in the morning. If the weather or bug conditions were truly foul I would rather have a bigger shelter where I could do something other than lay prone.

Edited by jimqpublic on 03/12/2009 10:38:42 MDT.

Tony Wong
(Valshar) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Looking for people's Bivy experience on 03/12/2009 11:12:12 MDT Print View

Last year I made the switch to a bivy & poncho tarp on "pure faith" that it would work out for me. (I did not have any friends who had a bivy & tarp for me to borrow or to see first hand).

So far, so good, but it does have its limitations.

To answer your questions:

I sleep on my back and I tend to sleep like a dead log. If you are and active sleeper, this could be an issue. Two things that I have for my Mountain Laurel Designs bivy is that I have a side zip and mine is extra wide. I highly recommend the side zip for ease of getting in and out of the bivy at night for restroom breaks. The wide cut gives me plenty of room to wiggle around or move a little bit so that I don't feel like I am in a coffin screaming to get out. The wide cut helps if you have a thick sleeping pad and/or a thick sleeping a winter bag. My bivy has a tie out loop at the top of my head area, which I clip to the underside of my poncho tarp. This has the effect of pulling the head area/bug netting up and away from my face, which also gives me more "mental breathing space". I am 5'6", so the extra space above my head is where I put my glasses, head lamp, extra clothing, which is nice....I have everything that I need for the night inside my bivy.

Site selection is one of the greatest things that I was looking forward to when I got my bivy. I can pretty much fit into the smallest places if I am not using my tarp. I have on a few occassion in the Sierras, just sleep out on the flat granite areas, which would be almost impossible to stake a tent down to. Setup on a night with no chance of rain is extremely fast and easy. Lay out the bivy, pop in your pad, and sleeping up the bivy to keep the critters from getting in and you are done. (Assuming you are sheltered from the wind. Otherwise, I could stake down the bivy with the exterior loops. Have not had to do that yet.

Condensation: I have an eVent top on mine and condenstaion has been none to minimal. I have only had 1 experience where the condensation was soaking the inside of my bivy and the top of my bag. Really the result of dew point vs. a failure to vent. Nothing the sun could not dry off in the morning. That said, make sure that your head is positioned under the bug mesh so that your exhalation is venting out the mess. Early on, I sleep to "low" in my bivy and I noticed the condenation forming just under the bug mess...user error. Because of my relatively limited experience using a tarp/bivy and for my mental health, if I knew that I was going into a situation where I was expecting a lot of rain, I would probably take my Contrail do give me more room to move around, sit up, eat food, etc. That said, I don't see why I could not do the same in my bivy under a poncho tarp, but something to be said about more floor space when you are trapped for hours on end in a rain storm.

Riff Raft and Vermin: Has not been an issue. Thankfully, I sleep like a dead log, so if a bear or rodent came up to my bivy, hopped on top of my chest and started pounding on my head, I doubt that I would notice it. I just don't think that the animals want anything to do with my yellow and green freakish looking bivy. I look like a bright yellow twinky in the wild. I have spend two nights out when I unzipped my bivy and pulled the top back to sleep out in the open, which was fantastic to be under the stars and to be completely unrestricted. I did wake up with an bug or two in my bivy...small one, but I was fine and alive with all my digits.

Wind has not been an issue with my bivy and in really bad weather, you can and should lower the sides and back end of your tarp to provide additional protection.

See Ron's great photos below about how you can close up the end of your tarp to provide more wind and storm protection.

In my case, the eVent gives me a bomber bivy that is waterproof, which is probably overkill and heavier, but as this was my 1st and last bivy (because Ron's workmanship is just top notch) I opted for bomber upgrades for eVent top and silnylon 2.0 for the bottom.

That said, I have not used my bivy in any sort of extended rain for a good test...but there is no reason for me to believe that I would to adequately protected.

One thing that my friend, Jeremy, and I love about our MLD bivies (he has the Superlight and I have the Soul Side Zip) is that paired with a poncho tarp, we get the wind and rain protection but feel more connected with the environment. We can wake up in the morning and look around 360 degrees to see things. Lay on our bellies with the bivy opened up and simply enjoy the view, which is limited in a tent.

If you are thinking about a poncho tarp, they are a great way to cut weight, but the big draw back is if you had to setup your tarp while it is raining. You are going to get wet, though wearing a wind shirt would help.

Anyway, hope that this long rant helps you out, but a little over a year ago, I had the same questions and concerns that you have.

Good luck on your gear evolution.


Edited by Valshar on 03/13/2009 12:11:31 MDT.

Henry Blake
(Dragon) - F

Locale: Minnesota
Include Ease of Entry Info on 03/12/2009 11:28:11 MDT Print View

I'm interested in this same subject and whether to go with no zip, side zip, 1/2 zip, full zip, etc. And would this be different with a sleeping bag vs. a tarp, or summer vs. spring and fall or winter. So please include your experience on this point as well.

Christopher Chupka

Locale: NTX
True on 03/12/2009 11:45:57 MDT Print View

"One thing that my friend, Jeremy, and I love about our MLD bivies (he has the Superlight) is that paired with a poncho tarp, we get the wind and rain protection but feel more connected with the environment. We can wake up in the morning and look around 360 degrees to see things. Lay on our bellies with the bivy opened up and simply enjoy the view, which is limited in a tent."

This is so true, which blew me away the first time I used a bivy/tarp combo.

I bought a used Oware tarp and bivy on the Gear Swap, good way to see if you like it.

No issues with condensation, if there is a little dampness it usually dries in the AM sun or if necessary during a quick lunch break.

A steady rain has not been a problem enough tarp coverage keeps any splashing at bay.

It can be a little nerve wracking to have mosquitos right on your face but I usually rig up something to keep the netting off my face.

If its a little warm I push my quilt off to the side or down off my chest.

I got the Epic bivy with bug netting but no side zipper. I don't know what its like to have the easier entry so I don't miss it. With my Nunatak quilt no problem getting in and out.

Site selection is key, I've found some great spots right below tree line. Nice soft grass with natural drainage. I have been to paranoid to sleep without the tarp set up. I actually sleep better being able to see and hear the outside better.

Edited by FatTexan on 03/12/2009 11:50:11 MDT.

Brian UL

Locale: New England
connected with the environment on 03/12/2009 12:12:49 MDT Print View

That is why I love bivys so. They look so exposed and just "out there" under the sky. This why I think a lot of people see bivys as a bit extreme or dangerous.
But those same things are what makes bivying so great. Once you know its limitations and what your doing there is simply no other way you can be sheltered and yet be so connected -closest you can come to just sleeping on the ground without, just sleeping on the ground.
I use water resistant bivys with bug netting paired with a tarp for rain protection. the bivy itself is for wind/bug/splash protection. I made a Meteor bivy from the SMD plans and I cant wait to get it out this summer. SMD will be selling them soon but you cannot go wrong with MLD or TIgoat.
I am a side sleeper and after a few nights I learned how to roll around and shift without taking the bivy with me. The same way I learned to do that with a quilt- so its not a problem. It is helpful to be able to stake the bivy down to help keep the bottom from riding up during the night and it helps with getting the netting just right.
Ive tried a few different tarp tents and tents and I just keep going right back to my bivy/tarp setup because Im so used to it and I miss the ease of use on a clear night and the connection to the environment I get.

David Neumann
(idahomtman) - M

Locale: Northern Idaho
Bivy... great except in the rain forest on 03/12/2009 12:25:39 MDT Print View

I was fortunate to purchase a Vapr NANO Bivy Sack from BPL which has a breathable upper (Pertex Quantum) and a waterproof floor. It only has a chest entry zipper which also accommodates the noseeum mesh window. All for 4.6 ounces. It isn't as easy to get into as a bivy with a side zipper, but it isn't difficult to enter and I wanted the weight savings.

I pair the bivy sack with a MLD Patrol tarp made out of Spectralite.60 which weighs about 6.5 ounces. This combination has provided me with condensation-free sleeping here in Idaho. I use this combination with an Arc Specialist down quilt from Nunatak. I will generally place a 1/8" foam pad under my legs and a BPL Torsolite under my torso. I have never slept better than I have with this combination. It is roomy, allows me to move around and sleep on my side, stomach or back. The bivy can be staked out to keep it from turning over but I haven't done so and haven't experienced this problem.

The combination of the well constructed tarp and the bivy keeps me dry and warm. I have used the bivy directly on the ground, but others might want to use a light plastic tarp underneath to keep it clean and further protect the bottom. Site selection is important just as it is for a tent to make sure water isn't running through your site, but otherwise it takes up less space and is more adaptable to differing situations. I would not hesitate to use it without the tarp in good weather.

If using the insect netting I use a small bungee cord to hold the netting off my face by attaching it to the bivy and the tarp above. I like the fact that the bivy provides additional protection against wind infiltration under the quilt and keeps the ants from crawling around under the quilt as well.

Having said all of that, I would be hesitant to use this combination in a very wet location such as the Olympic Peninsula or Alaska. For that a tent is worth the additional weight to me.

Monty Montana
(TarasBulba) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Re: Bivy... great except in the rain forest on 03/13/2009 00:30:03 MDT Print View

Hi Dave! Last year I bought a 10oz SMD Gatewood Cape, paired it with my 6oz water repellent Equinox bivy, and went through rain and snow all Summer & Fall long with narry a wet piece of gear the whole time, neither from the rain nor condensation. Prior to that, for fifteen years I relied on my 2lb Goretex REI Cyclops bivy, which I used without any other protection, tarp or otherwise. Either way, it's a wonderful and intimate way to Be. In the wilderness.

Edited by TarasBulba on 03/13/2009 00:31:12 MDT.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Looking for people's Bivy experience on 03/13/2009 01:50:16 MDT Print View

So many great posts already! When I think of a lightweight sleep system, it is a bivy/tarp or bivy/poncho-tarp combo.

My main shelter for several decades has been a tarp or poncho. I have always used bivys in snow or lots of wet weather. With the earlier bivys, I quickly learned that a vapor barrier liner was the key to deal with condensation in cold weather. This is the key to sleep comfort, minimizing the condensation. The lightweight / breathable / water resistant bivys are great for condensation, but require some sort of tarp to keep off the majority of rain, sleet or snow. If you are in bad weather and opt for no roof, then you are going to need a waterproof material and a vapor barrier liner... something most people don't do well with. But I like the combo.

Regarding sleeping comfort... I think that your pad/bag or quilt are the most important factor. Blocking wind also impacts comfort. I find tents are claustrophobic. I sleep much better in the open, and under a tarp you still have an open feeling. I just sleep better when not in a tent. Last year I bought a 6 Moons Wild Oasis Tarp Tent. Miraculous piece of engineering. But I find a poncho/tarp/bivy combo works better for me. I rarely take the Wild Oasis, but am going to keep it anyway for those long winter nights in the snow. Those nights require a waterproof bivy and VBL for me.

Site selection... just like any other system. Use nature to help protect you from the elements. With a bivy/tarp you have more options. For me this is particularly important in the high deserts, where most ground is covered with rocks and plants. It is much easier to find a small spot suitable for the minimal footprint required for a bivy.

Here is a picture from a recent trip. I didn't need to use the tarp or bivy but wanted to test my new trekking poles. I would have been hard pressed to find a spot for a tent. The only site would have been a couple miles away, and not somewhere I would have wanted to camp. Even this spot had a few rocks under it, but I did get a good nights sleep. This was the only sandy area in a large area, and you can see that pitching a tent would have been impossible. The sides of the poncho/tarp actually overhang brush.

I now have a breathable MLD bivy with a side zip for milder weather conditions. The zipper is a nice feature. But for years just had ones without zippers, so I am used to that set up.

I probably leave the tarp and bivy in my pack 95% of the time, and just sleep under the stars. Insects just don't bother me that much, and I never have problems with other creatures, other than the occassion racoon or marmmot that might try to get into my stuff. I don't understand the need for a tent to ward off insects... but I have never camped in Alaska, Minn, or on the AT. I don't worry about animals, other than practicing safe camping in bear country.

Wind, rain, adverse conditions in general. This is an individual thing. If you need to sit around at night, then a larger shelter is needed. The only advantage a tent might have, is blocking wind. A properly set up tarp and bivy is almost as effective. A tent will probably keep you warmer, but with proper bag/quilt and insulating garmets you can keep just as warm with many fewer ounces.

It will probably take you a little time getting used to a bivy/tarp combo, but if you stick with it, I think you will like the versatility. JimQ really summed up the ease of use. Even in rain, you will develop a system to set things up. You can get all your gear in place, at the last moment slide on a windshirt, and set up the tarp in a couple of minutes or less... usually the reverse procedure when it is not raining. Packing up in the rain is easy. You just pack up everything while under the tarp. I normally use mini-biners for guyline attachment at the tarp (in the picture above, I didn't use them as I was experimenting with some plastic guyline adjusters, which will now be thrown into my junk gear drawer - not worth the extra weight). After you have the pack ready to go, unclip the biners and pole at one end, stick your head into the hood, unclip the remaining biners and pole, collect all stakes and guylines, place them in an outside pocket of the pack and start hiking.

Jeremy Pendrey
(Pendrey) - MLife

Locale: California
bivies on 03/13/2009 08:58:24 MDT Print View

I just started using a bivy a year ago, and I really like it. As Tony mentioned, and others echoed, the main benefit is the quality of your wilderness experience (and the versatility a bivy / tarp combo give you to enjoy that experience). You are much more connected to your location. I particularly like the water resistant bivy / tarp combo. You get great weather protection if bad weather threatens, but on a clear night you just hop in the bivy and leave the tarp in your pack and enjoy the star gazing. I mostly hike in the Sierra where this set up works very well. As others have mentioned, in notoriously buggy or bad-weather prone areas, this might not be such a good thing. Especially because there is typically not a lot of room to sit up under a tarp pitched with trekking poles so you would be in cramped quarters during a storm.

Condensation can be an issue on very cold clear still nights, but those are also nights likely to be followed by a sunny morning that can dry out your bag so that you do not accumulate moisture night to night.

Site selection is easy as mentioned by others. A tarp that needs to be guyed out is still easier to manage than a tent with the same footprint.

Some people get claustraphobic in a bivy, but I do not. On a cold or buggy night I close it completely (it has a bug screen vent) and tie up the bug screen to my tarp, or if not using a tarp, to a tripod of my trekking poles and a stick. This keeps it off your face. Otherwise, I keep the bivy open. I've not had a problem with critters. I've found that wandering ants that look threatening when I arrive in camp go to bed when I do and don't bother me.

FYI, my bivy is an MLD Superlight (6 oz) regular size. It has a side zip, which I find to be very helpful. I really am happy with my bivy, and Ron's gear at MLD is very well made, but I also think one of the designs with a large bug screen on top rather than just a vent window might work well and feel more spacious (I think Oware and Titanium Goat make bivies like this, but I don't own one so can't vouch for them. I don't think they side zip, so that is one advantage with MLD.) I use my bivy in conjunction with an MLD poncho tarp.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: Looking for people's Bivy experience on 03/13/2009 09:13:38 MDT Print View

I have only one night in the bivy. Not sure if that counts as any experience at all.

1. Sleeping Comfort
More comfortable than I expected. I didn't even notice the bivy was there.

It helped provide a small amount of protection from micro-breezes getting into my quilt. That is the only reason I used it, other than wanting to know what it was like.

I did get a little tangled sometimes trying to get inside my quilt and zip up the bivy.

I also wasn't sure what to do about cinching the opening for my face. The bivy is like a sleeping bag, but I use a quilt and like to sleep with the quilt pulled up and over my head when it's cold. Cinching the bivy like a mummy bag got me all tangled up inside. It might make more sense if I feel it's necessary for whatever reason, but at the time, I just left the opening completely opened.

2. Site selection
No real experience to share there.

3. Condensation/dew/wettness inside and out of the bivy
None at all. There was some condensation on the underside of my poncho. The bivy was more like a soft, thin blanket on top, not like being encased in a plastic sausage as I had imagined.

4. Contact with insects, rodents, animals in general
No insects on my night out. I have an A16 bug bivy for that purpose.

5. Wind, rain, adverse weather conditions in general
No experience here. I would like to hear more from others about this, too.

Overall I found the experience extremely positive.