#NicheCamping #LowCostAdventure #ExperiencingNature

The art of bivvying

by Robbo Bennetts
first published in Outdoor Australia, February-March 2001

I bivvied out on my first independent trip. It was Xmas and I was fifteen. A mate and I hitched to Phillip Island, taking nothing but a few dollars and a beach towel each. We spent two nights shivering under our towels, huddled under a cypress tree. On the third day, while thawing out along the foreshore, we noticed a row of bottom-up aluminium dinghies. We returned that night and crawled under one of them. We pushed the still-warm sand up into the gaps to stop the draught, and dozed in "centrally-heated" comfort.

Bivvying out can mean camping out under the stars, under a hoochie, on a rock ledge, in a snow cave or igloo, or in a makeshift shelter. The Oxford Dictionary defines a bivouac as a "temporary encampment without tents". Such encampment may be pre-planned or enforced. The ability to bivvy out can be a matter of survival, or simply a way of enhancing the adventure inherent in any trip.

Above all, bivvying out is a state of mind. It is the willingness to surrender to the power and beauty of Nature without erecting physical barriers.

In Australia, there is a culture of carrying tents on all trips, no matter what. Obviously, there are situations where it might be irresponsible not to carry a tent. In the High Country, especially, it is dangerous to rely on huts. They may be elusive or over-crowded. They tend to be dark, damp, dirty and draughty places. Above the snowline, campers do not always have the time, skill or right kind of snow to build a passable snow shelter. If the weather in the mountains is foul, snug inside a tent is the place to be.

Tents of course can be erected quickly. They not only keep out rain and wind, but they afford privacy (if that's important). They exclude bugs and other pests. They boost personal comfort and a sense of security, and in the event of a serious incident, they can be an essential item in your first aid kit.

The weight and bulk of tents, however, means that it is bothersome to carry a tent plus all of the really useless things that you carry by tradition (like coffee percolator, thermos flask and hot water bottle). Tents not only insulate you from the natural world outside, but also alienate you from it. It seems bizarre to always experience the great outdoors crammed into a tiny space about two metres square.

Regardless of weather or time of year, trips can be conducted to many venues where there is dry, natural shelter. Often, there are suitable rock overhangs or caves, some of which have accommodated humans for millennia. You will need to consider issues like ease of access, environmental fragility and obtaining permission from land managers or traditional owners. Clear level floor space is also an important consideration, especially if you don't want to surf all night on your self-inflating mattress!

North-facing caves tend to be warmer and more protected from cold winds. (Rock surfaces absorb the sun's heat during the day and slowly re-radiate it at night.) They also tend to be better lit, both during the day and at night in the moonlight.

Absence of vegetation and moisture indicates an all-weather shelter. If the weather is inclement, you can still cook, eat, sleep and socialise without the normal hassles of wet-weather camping. You can move around, unpack and re-pack much more easily than in a tent. Wet gear can be hung out to dry. If you must light a fire, there is often dry tinder and firewood at hand, as well as plenty of ventilation to allow smoke to escape. As long as the rock above you is stable, you can camp with Attitude!

Even if there is little or no natural shelter you can still bivvy out in style. All you need is a waterproof fly, some light cord, and pegs. A 3x3 metre square fly formed into a simple A-frame hoochie will comfortably accommodate two people. I carry 10m of 6mm cordellette and 8x1m lengths of 3mm cord as a part of my bivvy kit. (You can use the cordellette for lots of other things as well.)

Ideally, there will be two trees just the right distance apart to tauten a ridge line. A sturdy stick (or paddle) or two can be guyed and used instead of the tree/s. Other site selection issues are the same as for tenting. The site should be sheltered but open, level and well-drained, and away from the nests of biting ants. Avoid camping under big old branches that can crash down without warning.

Your hoochie should be reefed down with the bottom edges guyed off the ground to avoid pooling of rainwater (unless you want to collect it). Within reason, the wilder the weather, the lower the ridge line. Try and orient the hoochie for maximum protection, especially in case rain comes in horizontally. Remember, like any art, setting up hoochies is a rough science. There are few hard-and-fast rules.

Hoochies, or some similar arrangement, can actually complement tents. For example, tents can be erected for sleeping and hoochies for cooking. Hoochies can function as an add-on verandah for tents that may not have generous vestibules of their own. In hot weather, hoochies can provide easy-to-erect, well-ventilated shade for that compulsory midday siesta. How cool!

For those trampers who want to be able to bivvy out anywhere, any time, at the drop of a pack, the best single piece of equipment you can invest in is a bivvy bag. Bivvy bags are typically waterproof, more or less breathable cocoons, into which bed rolls and sleeping bags are inserted. Most bivvy bags have hoods and flyscreens, and weigh less than a kilo. Some have hoops to keep the hood off your face. They are expensive, but they will keep you and your sleeping bag dry from precipitation. However, bivvy bags tend to sweat underneath, and you may get damp from the 'inside out', especially if you sleep hot.

In the open or under canvass, a bivvy bag will keep you warmer by minimising heat loss. This means that you can use your el cheapo sleeping bag for a greater part of the year, or camp out in more extreme conditions. In an emergency, you can simply crawl into your bivvy bag fully dressed and still punch out Zs.

Bivvy tents are a small step up from bivvy bags. They have more headroom and almost enough room to change clothes. But they weigh more and are more expensive. You can also buy single-pole, single-skin "pyramid" tents that have no floor and can be erected super-fast, even over the top of an injured person, who you may not wish to move.

Large heavy-duty plastic "survival bags" are a step down from bivvy bags. These are good for lining packs, but can also be used as bivvies, even though they sweat like a Brahman bull. Adults perspire up to a litre of body vapour overnight and non-permeable material like plastic acts as a vapour barrier, causing the vapour to re-condense as it cools on the inner surface. A strong cheap alternative to purpose-made survival bags is veterinary 'body bags', in which you normally stow your dead mog.

You can also use your pack as a sort of short bivvy bag. Pulling it up over your knees will keep your lower body warmer - canvass having the advantage of being breathable. I have employed this strategy inside my tent when my toes froze. (You can use your Gore-Tex jacket in the same way.)

If you are caught out, and there is little more than a packet of stale sultanas in your daypack, you can still make a respectable emergency shelter with natural materials. All you need is sufficient suitable vegetation, like the bark of a stringybark, fronds of bracken or tree ferns, or branches of pine trees. You can make twine to tie everything together by plaiting the leaves of native sedges. Improvise with rain jackets or groundsheets to keep out the rain.

In some areas, junked man-made materials can be used to construct shelter. I once slept in a snow hole with a roof made from a piece of corrugated iron that I scrounged from a nearby burnt-out hut. At the time, it was probably the humblest abode in the country.

Building snow shelters is a big topic in its own right. Snow caves and igloos are magical to sleep in. Snow is an excellent insulator due to a myriad of tiny pockets of air trapped between snowflakes. Properly constructed snow shelters not only keep out wind and below-freezing air masses, but they also keep out all external noise. They can be lit up with a single light source. The temperature inside should stabilise around a very pleasant zero degrees. To build classic snow caves and igloos requires the right snow conditions (both depth and texture) and lots of time. In an emergency, crude trenches and snow walls can be a faster but effective way to reduce heat loss. Snow Caves for Fun and Survival by Ernest Wilkinson is an excellent resource on the topic of snow shelters.

Even if you always carry a tent, you don't always have to use it. On mild nights when there is just a lick of warm air, simply lay down a groundsheet, bedroll and sleeping bag. If you don't want to share your sleeping bag with other critters, don't lay it out before you are ready to crawl into it! Tucked into a sleeping bag and/or liner you may only need a fly veil to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Otherwise opt for a lightweight mosquito net.

Whatever type of bivvy you use, make sure that food and rubbish are secure, preferably right inside your pack, or you will wake up in the morning and find it has been ssattered or spoiled by scavengers. You will definitely need a Plan B in the case of precipitation overnight (including dew). This may mean crawling under your groundsheet, retreating to a shelter you have already erected, or crashing in some other dude’s pad.

Even on day trips, there is a chance you can be caught out badly. Accidents happen. You may become geographically embarrassed. That creek you planned to cross may have risen dangerously. If you are caught out, you need to be prepared, above all mentally, though hopefully you will be carrying emergency equipment, including a 1st aid kit, survival kit and survival rations.

If you stay dry and warm when you bivvy out, the experience should be most rewarding. The night sky, in all its wondrous beauty, will press down on you. Falling stars will fall all around you. Nocturnal creatures will visit you, either silently, or scurrying about, barking, growling, hooting and croaking louder than you thought possible. And all this you will weave into vivid dreams.