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Nights in Green Nylon: The Ups and Downs of Bivvy Life

Bivvies can be the nastiest nights there are, says Ronald Turnbull, but when they're not, they're the nicest nights of all. Here he examines the rationality of his bivvy bag habit, and passes on a few tips for bivvy beginners.


How little you know of happiness, you comfortable people

Nietzsche 'The Gay Science'

On Beinn a' Ghlo above Blair Atholl, at 8 o' clock on a summer night, there were hills all the way to the horizon and not a single person on any of them. Along the ridgeline to the final Munro, Carn nan Gabhar, the evening breeze had dried away the sweaty ascent. That would have been just right, except that the nighttime breeze was just starting to reverse that effect with chilly drizzle flying sideways.

Searching for a sheltered spot - not that easy to come by on Beinn a' Ghlo  © Ronald Turnbull
Searching for a sheltered spot - not that easy to come by on Beinn a' Ghlo
© Ronald Turnbull

Carn nan Gahbar is an eastern hill, smooth over the top and stony. The sheltered side of the summit knoll was a boulderfield; everywhere else was in a wet wind that was getting stronger.

So how sensible is it, sleeping out, without any tent, on Beinn a' Ghlo? When trying to justify my twenty year habit of doing exactly that, I try to keep quiet about the earliest recorded practitioner of bivvybag sleeping.

Cold and dank - why are we doing this, again?  © Ronald Turnbull
Cold and dank - why are we doing this, again?
© Ronald Turnbull

"Man is born to suffer," says Wanda von Dunajew: "born to suffer – and you in particular." It was in 1870 that Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the inaugural masochist, born 1836 in Ukraine) wrote 'Venus in Furs' and made it official: suffering is sexy. But when Count Leopold got tired of being tied to the bedpost, there was nothing nicer than an overnight ramble through the Carpathian mountains.

With him he had a donkey, to carry his wine and cigars – and a roomy and luxurious bivvybag. A fur-lined bivvy bag, we have to imagine. Because pain and misery may be a form of comfort, but actual comfort itself is even comfier.

Sleeping out on the summits of Scotland and the Lakes: some people think this isn't altogether sensible. But Count Leopold's lady has the answer to that. "I really believe," said Wanda thoughtfully, "that your madness is nothing but a demonic, unsatisfied sensuality."

A comfy, starlit night on Helm Crag  © Ronald Turnbull
A comfy, starlit night on Helm Crag
© Ronald Turnbull

Uncomfortable, but unforgettable

Bivvybag nights can be the nastiest nights there are. I arrived at Nevis summit, at midnight, with the cloud down and the rain flying sideways on a brisk wind. I bedded down in the ruins of the observatory so's to sleep on rotting-down planks rather than the bare boulderfield. And all the rest of the night, the damp brought out the distinctive odour of the observatory – for why do daytime people dodge in behind the ruined walls?

Or when I dashed down from Mickledore in the dregs of the daylight to get below the snowline. And in my cosy hole below the boulder, the warmth of my body slowly unfroze the ground below back into its original bog, while the snowline moved on downhill to cover me in three inches of fresh, wet, slushy stuff…

Ronald's 100th summit in a bivvy bag, Walla Crag above fogbound Keswick  © Ronald Turnbull
Ronald's 100th summit in a bivvy bag, Walla Crag above fogbound Keswick
© Ronald Turnbull

But that's just two nights, out of a hundred on hilltops and as many more of riversides, seasides, woods and moors. Nights with the stars turning slowly overhead, nights where opening one eye would show the Isle of Rum performing hours-long colour changes under the sunset, nights when opening the other eye saw the stag silhouetted against the loch below, or the streetlights of Keswick swimming in the early morning mist.

Up on Carn nan Gabhar, the wind and drizzle was coming from the left – the west. On the right, the ridge dropped in a steep slope of stones to the economically named Loch Loch. But there'd been a little landslip. Just one metre down from the ridge top, there was a sort of shelf. And being one metre down below the weather meant it had grown some comfortable grass. Carn nan Ghabhar means Cairn of the Goat. I decided to go for the Goat.

A surprising bivvy spot on the stony summit of Scafell Pike  © Ronald Turnbull
A surprising bivvy spot on the stony summit of Scafell Pike
© Ronald Turnbull

Sitting up to eat supper meant my head was up in the weather. But so what, my jacket's got a waterproof hood. And then, rolled up, that jacket makes a waterproof pillow, in a place where I can get it if I need it in the night. About two in the morning the sky cleared – which I noticed, because it got a whole lot colder and woke me up. About three in the morning was the start of the sunrise.

Down in the blackness, the River Tilt began to pick up the lightening colour of the sky. The dark land separated into mauve and blue-grey curves of hill, one behind the other. The wind still blew from behind the ridge, with black rags of cloud trundling forward into the greenish sky. I watched it all happening, then slept a bit, then watched it all some more.

You get a better view from a bivvy than a tent - Middle Fell, Wasdale  © Ronald Turnbull
You get a better view from a bivvy than a tent - Middle Fell, Wasdale
© Ronald Turnbull

I'd had to carry up water anyway. So, for luxury, some of that water was with added protein and sugars in the shape of blue-top milk for the morning muesli. And who needs fresh orange for breakfast when there's a big, juicy sunrise spread all across the skyline?

Being 1000m up, in early summer, meant a whitening of frost on the rucksack cover. But one shake got rid of that, and in 15 minutes I was walking down and warming up, on a dewy ridgeline bathed golden in the early sun.

Tents are indoors. Pull down the zip, and miss out on the world around you. Okay, bivvybag nights can be nasty. But when they're not, they're the nicest nights of all.

Sunrise on Carn nan Gabhar, compensation for a drizzly evening  © Ronald Turnbull
Sunrise on Carn nan Gabhar, compensation for a drizzly evening
© Ronald Turnbull

Bivvying for beginners

  • Simplicity is part of the point. A straightforward bivvy bag is around £50. Take a mat, and a sleeping bag one season warmer than you would for a tent.
  • For a first attempt, choose a fairly low hill, easy to get down off by torchlight if it all goes wrong.
  • Choose a dry night to start with, not too cold and windy, and take a note of the forecasted wind direction and any changes overnight.
  • Take 20 mins to choose a sleeping site, considering shelter, surface comfort, surface dryness – but above all, the overnight and early morning views.
  • Mat inside the bag, so's not to slide off in the night.
  • Cold food saves weight, and saves fiddling around with the stove.
  • Leave your head out in the open (wear a hat!). If cold or rain means your head's inside the bag, then keep a small hole for breathing through.
  • A lightweight tripod helps, for overnight photos without getting out of bed.

Book of the Bivvy cover  © Cicerone

Ronald's award-winning Book of the Bivvy is the definitive account of bivvybag life. A guide to the bivouac - the pinnacle of minimalist wild-camping, it includes accounts of bivvybag adventures, both nice and nasty, and practical chapters on lightweight kit and long-distance bivvying, before finishing with a selection of bivvybag expeditions.

Informative, honest and highly entertaining! The 20th-anniversary new edition is now in full colour, and has been extensively rewritten with 19 years' further experience of sleeping in the open, without a tent, all over the UK and beyond.

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