Over the years, I’ve camped quite a lot. Often in north Devon, and always in a tent. But this week, I came across the phrase ‘bivvy bag’ for the first time, and now the rules of camping have changed.
A bivvy (short for bivouac, and sometimes spelt ‘bivi’) bag is a waterproof cover for a sleeping bag, and using one means you can do away with a tent. You just find a patch of ground, lie down, and – hopefully – go to sleep … ideally on a warm, clear night under a thousand twinkling stars.
The idea instantly grabbed me, so I spent a few hours researching which bivvy bag to get. It boiled down to a couple of clear frontrunners – the Alpkit Hunka, which was out of stock, and the one I went for, which was an ex-British Army bivvy from eBay which cost me £34.
I had to travel a fair distance to a gig the day the bag turned up, so decided to test it that night, rather than driving straight home after the show.
Now, it’s probably worth noting that in the UK at least, technically you can’t just crash out wherever you feel like it. There are rules about that sort of thing. However, Alastair Humphreys has some great advice about being respectful in your choice of location, and not leaving anything behind when you go. If you’re sensible, there are plenty of nice spots to be found where the worst that can happen is that you’ll be politely asked to move along.
For that reason, I won’t tell you exactly where I ended up, but after my gig I spent a few minutes on Google maps and found a likely looking spot – thank you, satellite view. After a short drive, I parked up, grabbed my stuff, and within five minutes had found a brilliant little clearing under a tree, surrounded by ferns. I unrolled the bivvy, put my bag inside … and then sat there for a few moments wondering what the hell I was doing in a random glade at 1.30am … I realised that having nothing else to do, I might as well try and get some sleep.
The ex-Army bivvy is pretty big – and that is a real bonus. There was space in the bag for my shoes and rucksack, which meant they wouldn’t be affected by any damp (or stolen by an opportunistic owl).
Psychologically, I was surprised at how safe I felt. This is partly to do with living in the UK, where the worst I was likely to have to contend with was an overly-inquisitive badger, but it really didn’t feel that different to sleeping in a tent – even though when I looked up, I could see stars overhead rather than a sheet of canvas. In that sort of situation, I’m always amazed at how well your eyes adjust – I could easily have walked back to the car without my torch.
The sounds took a little getting used to. It was fairly windy, so leaves from the tree above kept landing on me – it’s surprising how loud that sounds in the middle of the night. I didn’t hear much in the way of wildlife though – I assume my noisy arrival scared them all off.
It didn’t take me long to drop off to sleep, and while I did wake up a couple of times to move position, I ended up sleeping through until 8am. I rolled up my bed, and headed back to the car. No-one saw me leave my wild campsite, and I got nothing but a cheery hello from the early morning dog walker I passed.
It was a really simple, cheap little adventure – one that I can repeat again and again in the coming weeks, months and years. As I sat in the cafe I found nearby with my coffee, I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I looked at the people around me – how many of them had experienced what I just had?
Waking up with the summer sun on my face, and the tree waving gently above me is something I will never forget. “When your life flashes before your eyes, make sure you’ve got plenty to watch” is something I strive to live by … the view as I opened my eyes that morning will definitely make the highlights reel.
Let’s go do it …
You’ll need a sleeping bag, and I’m afraid I can’t really help you much here – the choice is too large! What I will say is that I am currently using a 10-year old, 3-season Eurohike – you’ll get the equivalent for about £30 today. You absolutely do not need a really expensive sleeping bag. The bivvy will keep you warm, and you’ll be sleeping in your clothes too, remember, so in the summer you’re more likely to be too hot than too cold!
When it comes to the bivvy bag itself, I definitely recommend the ex-Army ones. You’ll find them on eBay for £30-40, but they are used so may have names written in them, and even a repair or two. Also, make sure it is an ex-Army bag (these are Goretex, so are completely waterproof), rather than a ‘reproduction Army’ bag, as these aren’t as good. If you don’t like the sound of a used bag, then you’re probably better off with the Alpkit. (And if you really want to geek out, go here).