Experimental bivi (or Why I like my tent)

I’ve had my Rab Survival Zone bivi bag for a few years now and, apart from using it as a sleeping bag cover for extra warmth in the winter, I’ve only used it twice.  On both occasions, the weather was warm and dry.  I’ve had my “micro-tarp” for at least two years and have only ever set it up in the back garden.  I decided that the Easter long weekend would be a good time to finally use the two together during a 40 mile 2-day walk on and around the Offa’s Dyke Path.

My planning was vague at best.  After a 3 or 4 mile walk to my local station, I caught the train to Cefn-y-bedd a couple of miles north of Wrexham.  I’d not taken a local map as how on Earth could I get lost so close to home?  Thankfully, a milestone told me I’d turned left rather than right and I reckon I only added a quarter of a mile to my journey!

From Cefn-y-bedd it was about 18km of road-walking to the Offa’s Dyke Path.  This was very reminiscent of the final couple of days of a TGO Challenge, especially when I took a detour to follow a Cafe sign.  Despite my intention to travel fast-and-light, I was carrying about 10kg which is more than I’ve carried since last year’s Challenge.  Although I was aware of the weight on my back, I was also surprised at how much more comfortable it was compared with the 12-13kg I would take on a Challenge crossing, so that has spurred me on to cutting my pack weight before next month.

I wanted to have no more than 20 miles to walk on Day 2, so that meant I had to find somewhere to camp north of Moel Famau.  I knew that the area is very busy every weekend and I did not want to draw attention to myself, but it was after 7pm when I left the ODP to look for a pitch, and there were only a few runners and dog walkers around.

I chose a flat-ish patch of soft mossy grass and built the only shelter I could remember from the video which Backpackinglight sent me with the tarp.  The idea was that this would shelter me from the wind which was blowing in from over my left shoulder and would allow me to sit up for eating.  Of course, in the night, when the clouds dropped to ground level, the wind changed direction and was blowing drizzle in to the right of my bivi bag.  During the night, I reached out and put the pegs slightly further out which meant that the rain (and condensation) had a tauter surface to run off.

When I was planning this trip, I was intending to take my Vango Ultralite 100 sleeping bag as that bag has the smallest pack size of any of my sleeping bags and has a synthetic bag which would be better if it got wet.  However, the overnight temperature was due to be around 6-8 degrees C which would be testing the Comfort rating of the bag.  Instead, I decided to take my Ajungilak Kompakt 180 but I’d forgotten just how big that bag is when packed away.  The Ajungilak was my first “proper” sleeping bag, but I now regard it as suitable only for car-camping as it’s so big.  So, I took my Rab Quantum 400 which packs down small, is light to carry and well able to keep me warm in above zero temperatures.  Yes, it’s down – but I trusted the Survival Zone bivi to keep it dry.

The weather was still dry as I fell asleep but I awoke in the night to squalls of drizzle blowing onto my face.  I was dry and warm, inside the bivi bag, but the rain got heavier through the night and I thought it prudent to seal up the bivi drawstring, leaving only a small breathing hole.  Whenever I changed position, I felt like there was damp inside my sleeping bag – but the bag was dry when I got home, so I presume I was just feeling the cold air on my warm legs.

In the early hours of the morning, I woke up feeling a little chilly.  If I had been in a tent I would have rummaged around in my rucksack for any extra layer.  Maybe I would have put my fleece over my hips for a bit of extra warmth.  However, in this bivi/micro-tarp combination, I felt trapped by the rain.  There was not enough space to fully sit up and I knew that bringing my arms out of the bivi bag would have dripped drops of rain onto my dry sleeping bag.  I tightened the sleeping bag drawstring around my face and went back to sleep.

I woke up at 6:37 and it was light enough to get up.  However, the rain was persistent and squally and I really did not fancy getting out of bed.  An hour later there was no improvement, but I had a long day ahead of me so had to make a move.  This is where a tent would have been ideal as I could have made my breakfast and packed up without getting wet.  I managed to get out of my sleeping bag whilst staying in the bivi bag.  I then used the shelter of the micro-tarp to put my sleeping bag in its waterproof compression sack.  I was nearly packed up and ready to go when I realised my mobile phone was in my sleeping bag; grrr!

I keep most of my camping gear in waterproof bags, so I packed up by putting everything in its bag and using the limited shelter of the micro-tarp to keep everything together and as dry as possible.  Most of my drybags are Podsacs which felt very wet on the outside, so I was glad to find that the clothes inside were still dry when I got home.

What did I learn from this bivi/micro-tarp experience?  I need to watch the bivi video again as I can’t remember whatever configurations I could have used and what would work best in certain weather conditions.  I might also need to permanently attach some shock-cord to some of the pegging points to give me more options.  Maybe I need to choose pitches where I can make better use of what is already there, such as trees and walls; I can then use my trekking poles as an extra lifter or guying point and extend my pitching options.

I did enjoy the openness of the tarp and feeling like I was outside and not cut off from Nature by being inside a tent.  I can understand why so many people use proper, large-but-lightweight tarps with their flexible pitching options but, for this trip, I’d have been more comfortable in my tent and would not have liked to have to spend a second night in the bivi bag in the rain.

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11 Responses to Experimental bivi (or Why I like my tent)

  1. John J says:

    A tarp / bivi wouldn’t suit me ‘cos I’m a wimp…….and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise!
    Seriously, I AM a wimp and whilst using your setup might have been okay for me in dry weather my little tent would win every time – for me anyway.
    Well done for getting out there and doing it though!


    • Judith says:

      Hi Alan, John – Although I think I’ll always regard a tent as “proper” camping, I’m attracted to the bivi/tarp combination for summer nights when I’d really just be taking a day-pack plus a few extras rather than the whole camping set-up. I do enjoy sleeping under the stars – although this weekend I was sleeping under a big wet cloud!


  2. Alan R says:

    10/10 for the trial run. I don’t think it would suit me with such a small tarp. Like JJ i think my Tarptent Moment is as close as i want to get to a tarp right now. But i must admit i like the looks of the Trailstar.


  3. Martin Richardson says:

    I have a similar experience in my motorhome. I can see the stars through the windows. And if I want to enjoy a bit of drizzle I can open up the sunroof.


  4. Pingback: First impressions: Vaude Bivi 1P | Around the hills

  5. Richard says:

    Hi judith
    have just found your web site while looking for tgo photos 2012
    love your photos and just read your blog on experimental bivi or tent apr 12.being ex- forces i know all about tarps and bivi bags-evan with a bivi-bag i would still used a tarp at least 8 x 5 size so you can administer yourself-cook/dry your feet/dress etc please dont be put off by a tarp-tarping is still more flexible then tenting.
    great web site


    • Judith says:

      Hi Richard. Thanks for your comments; I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. I think you’re right about the size of the tarp – it really needs to be big enough to act as a full shelter. I think I’m more likely to use my “micro tarp” as an emergency shelter (although I’d probably be carrying my bivi bag or bothy bag instead) or maybe to make a bigger porch for my tent. I do like the idea of the newer shaped tarps which give you loads of room but can be pitched in several configurations. I’ve spent enough on gear this month though!


  6. John J says:

    Ah, good stuff!
    Yes, I knew about the Vaude Bivi but I thought you had been spending even more!
    What do you think of the F1 Lite?
    I too have a cheapo roll-mat for exactly the same reason. So far: pot cosies, protective layer under delicate air bed, padding…and some other stuff too.


    • Judith says:

      I’ve not tried the F1 lite stove for real yet. I was pondering whether the lack of any sort of built-in windshield will make a difference, but I have a very light foil windshield anyway so I decided the stove should be fine as it is. It’s a basic light stove and should do the job – at a reasonable price too.


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