The Top Line
A bivvy bag is not much more than a waterproof sack for you to sleep inside. Despite that unpromising description, bivvying is a superb alternative to full-blown tent-based camping – especially when weight or discretion is important.
Without exaggeration, a bivvy bag could completely transform your vagabonding – as one did mine 7 years ago.
The following is the mother lode of lessons that I’ve learnt over dozens of bivvying adventures since 2011. Take all this advice with many pinches of low-sodium salt, and find your own way.
Let’s kick off with some pros and cons about bivvying. You’ve probably already thought of all these, but just in case you haven’t, here goes.
The Brilliance of Bivvying
- A bivvy is waaaaay less weight and bulk than a tent, although you will still need a good mat and sleeping bag liner.
- There’s none of the pitching up and breaking down a tent faff. This is particularly nice if you’re in an area where you feel self-conscious about camping – or are just knackered.
- You won’t waste any time trying to find suitable ground or enough space for a tent; you really can throw a bivvy bag anywhere – as long as the ground is flat.
- You can see the STARS!!!!!!
- I love the fresh air scent of night (location dependent…)
- You’re less likely to draw the ire of locals. But bear in mind that I have NEVER EVER been moved on in any country, whether in a tent or a bivvy.
The Badness of Bivvying
- You’ll sleep worse than in a tent, probably, at least for a week or two as you get used to it.
- You’ll sweat more than usual and will smell bad in the morning.
- Rain can be a mild annoyance, but probably not as much as people expect.
- You’ve got nowhere to dump your stuff.
- It’s hard to share snuggles with other people!
As you can see, the pros outweigh the cons – but keep in mind what you yourself want from your trip.
Kit You’ll Want for Brilliant Bivvying
- If you haven’t already bought your bivvy, please get one that’s extra large. The smaller ones feel like sarcophagi and you can’t move your legs. You can get cheap ex-army bigguns for about £35 and they are LUXURY compared to the one I had before.
- I’d really recommend getting a top notch sleeping mat. I’ve got a Thermarest and it’s lightweight, comfortable and expensive – but worth every penny.
- Get a sleeping bag liner if you haven’t already. They add masses of comfort and a bit of warmth so you can use them alone in the summer, or with a sleeping bag if it’s chilly. Synthetic silk liners are both tough and feel gorgeous.
- Bring a tarp to keep your kit and bike dry if it rains (it’ll rain).
- If you want somewhere to dump your stuff for the day, bring a long piece of lightweight rope or paracord and you can use it as a pulley to hoick your kit up into a tree.
- Condensation is a problem: it doesn’t stop you sleeping, but it does make you stink the next day / week. Your best bet is simply to wash every day (in a lake or river, at a friend’s house, using beach-side shower facilities, in a leisure centre or gym – but maybe not the sea). Take bungees so you can dry your kit on the back of your bike / backpack – if it’s not raining.
- For a pillow, I usually just use my jumper stuffed inside a cotton drawstring bag.
- An eye mask is great – and not one of those shitty airline ones; a proper piece of kit. Likewise ear plugs, but make sure you keep them clean to avoid ear infections.
- A headtorch.
Where to bed your bivvy
- Flat ground is still pretty much essential if you don’t want a very sleepless night rolling down a hill. Even a slight slope can be pretty discombobulating.
- If it’s windy, find shelter. Wind is unbelievably noisy on your bivvy and you won’t sleep a wink. For this reason, the top of a hill, although romantic, might not always be a good idea.
- Woods are good for a number of reasons: shelter from wind and rain, darkness, easy to hide from people. But they are also rammed full of wildlife and can be a bit noisy – I’ve been slapped by slugs multiple times.
- Fields are good, but not ones that have crops in them.
- Pastures are good, but check for cows / horses / sheep – not because they’ll do you any harm, but because you don’t want to freak them out and you don’t want them freaking you out in the middle of the night when they wander over for a snuffle.
- Orchards are good because you’re concealed between the rows of trees.
- Parks are good, but might have more traffic than other places. Football or rugby pitches are particularly good because they’re flat.
- Canal towpaths are good – usually very flat and calming, but also quite high traffic areas.
- Don’t be afraid of climbing over fences – although it can be tricky if you decide to bring your bike as well. I’ve slept inside castles as well as closed off fields. It’ll make you feel safer, and you’ll be long gone by the time anyone else gets there.
- The roadside isn’t good, but can be used in a pinch – I have, numerous times. Even the odd ditch.
- If you’re really stuck, ring on a doorbell and ask to use their garden.
- Try www.warmshowers.org – a superb community of cycle tourers who offer somewhere to sleep and a warm shower (plus, in my experience, great chat, hugs, wifi, food, beer and almost too much generosity).
The great Private Land debate
All land in England is privately owned and you have no right to sleep on any of it. Fuck me, but it’s true.
Having said that, as I mentioned earlier, I have never ever ever been even challenged in the UK, let alone asked to move on / attacked by farmers. (The only time I have been challenged was by German police when I was camping in a tent in a stupendously public location, very close to an actual campsite – and they let us stay when we said we were moving on the next morning.)
Having said THAT, it does no harm to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.
And having said THAT, I have slept in some remarkably public places:
- Under a bench by the side of a canal (woken up by cycling commuters in the morning)
- In a stairwell on the Thames path in London in midwinter (horrendous, but dry!)
- On top of a hill very popular with walkers.
- I even bivvied in a campsite once and left before anyone saw me – I would’ve paid, but there was no one awake!
- I once pitched a tent in the middle of a famous monastery extremely popular with tourists – and NO ONE CARED, even when my companion slept in until about 11.
Although there must be exceptions to the rule, the rule is: NO ONE GIVES A SHIT ABOUT YOU, SO SLEEP WHEREVER YOU LIKE AND DON’T BE A DICK.
The rule might extend to ‘don’t stay in one place too long’, but I never have, so I can’t comment. The rule might also extend to ‘don’t break into any farm buildings’, but I’ve never done that either.
The Bottom Line
I could rant on about bivvying for a lot longer, but we’re probably reaching the point of diminishing returns. The main thing is to do it and you’ll see for yourself what works and what doesn’t.
The bottom line is:
- Get a bigger bivvy.
- Get a mega comfy sleeping mat.
- Get a synthetic silk sleeping bag liner.
- Don’t worry about what people might do or think.
See you out there!