Best Bivvy Bag for Wild Camping Adventures
If you really want to get close to nature and ‘become one’ with the authentic spirit of wild camping then a Bivvy bag is an experience like no other. Sometimes called Bivi bags or Bivouac sacks, these are waterproof enclosures which surround your sleeping bag, forming a cocoon of protection against the elements. Imagine waking up and the first thing you see is the sunrise or an inquisitive sheep giving you the eye. This is ‘proper’ camping and should definitely be tried once before your days in this world are over.
Bivvy bags range from emergency metal foil space blankets which every hill climber and mountaineer should keep in their rucksack, to full-on tent replacements costing hundreds of pounds. The best bivi bags can be much more lightweight and compact than the most expensive one-person tents, and as such are often favoured for a quick overnighter, especially in the summer months.
Bivvy Bag Basics
Bivouacs (what we all call Bivvy bags these days) were originally invented by climbers who needed emergency weather protection for their sleeping bags during multiple-day ascents of mountain peaks – the bags had to be lightweight and easily packable in a small climbing backpack.
Designs started out as little more than nylon sacks – there was no breathability going on, and so I’m sure it was pretty horrendous waking up inside one of those things!
Today’s designs have more in common with tents in terms of the materials used:
- A bottom layer typically consisting of urethane-coated nylon to make it waterproof. This is the same rugged material used for the ‘bathtub’ lower section of modern tents
- A top layer usually made of ripstop nylon (a lighter fabric) and treated with a waterproof, breathable textile. On the most expensive bivvy bags, look for Gore-Tex top layers.
If you are not so concerned about weight, you can also buy slightly larger bivvy bags which are more of a bivvy/tent ‘hybrid’. These use one or two fibre-glass flexi-poles, similar to those used for dome tents. The poles create an expanded volume of headspace and a full head enclosure to block out bad weather and insects. With these, it’s even possible to read a book inside your little den. The downside is they cost more and weigh a bit more too. We think it’s worth it for the extra comfort.
Where to camp with your Bivvy Bag?
Using a bivi bag can be a little like wearing a waterproof parka coat in the winter. The bivi wraps around your sleeping bag and includes a big hood which can completely cover encompass your head and face.
As mentioned above, some of the best bivvy bags include a rigid hoop in the hood which keeps the material off your face while you are sleeping, but even so it can be a little claustrophobic inside.
If it starts raining before you would normally go to bed then there is an even bigger problem – do you get in your bivvy bag and zip up for the night when you might not be ready to sleep, or try and find shelter somewhere in order to see out the storm? From experience, we recommend the latter!
For this reason, if you have room in your rucksack we recommend using a tarpaulin or ‘tarp’. This is a waterproof sheet with metal eyelets which can be strung up on tent poles or between a couple of trees to provide a basic shelter from rain. There are many available for sale – we’ve had good results with the Andes waterproof camping tarpaulin from Amazon, but there are many other options, none costing too much.
The tarp will allow rain to simply slide off meaning the ground underneath is kept dry and you can cook and place your bivvy bag with no chance of a soaking from above.
For positioning your bivvy bag, it’s best to aim for flat ground away from any precarious drops – you might be a ‘sleep-roller’ and roll off the cliff! If you have to sleep on a slope then we prefer head facing up the hill. Try and get near natural wind shelter such as big rocks or trees.
Snugpak Ionosphere Hooped Bivvy Tent
We are massive fans of Snugpak gear – they are leaders in well thought-out, rugged outdoor gear. The Snugpak Ionosphere bivy tent is no exception and straddles the line between bivvy bag and compact 1-person tent really well. There’s no wonder it’s often used by the US military – not bad for a company from Yorkshire in the UK!
The Ionosphere comes in two main parts – a double-hooped ‘undercarriage’ mesh section which forms the frame of the bivvy, and then a highly waterproof (5000mm HH) and breathable ripstop outer fly sheet which goes over the top. Both require pegging down using aluminum tent pegs which come with the Ionosphere. The fly sheet also has guy ropes to peg down to secure it. I have had it set up in severe gale conditions, and because of the low profile, there was absolutely no chance of it working loose and flying off.
Some bivvying purists will sneer at the idea of setting up two sections of a bivvy bag. Let me tell you that it is exceedingly quick to put up, and at around 240cm long, there is plenty of room inside for a rucksack, sleeping mat, sleeping bag and person. On warm nights you can easily sleep under the mesh on its own, giving superb views of the night sky. It is then no great problem to add the fly sheet if rain starts falling.
The two hoops are formed by simple flexi DAC aluminium rods – these are exceptionally good poles and we really like to see them on the Ionosphere. They are very lightweight, but it must be said that the total combined weight of the bivvy is not the lowest at 1.5kg. Even so, this tradeoff is worth it due to the added space and comfort given by the Ionosphere. Dimensions are 48cm x 14cm when folded up, and will fit in a 30litre rucksack quite easily. When set up, the Ionosphere measures 240cm (L) x 90cm (W).
When you’re tallish like me (6ft3), getting in can be a challenge. The ‘entrance’ is at the head end and you need to get in feet first. If you’re smaller you can crawl in head first and turn around inside. The inside mesh layer has 1600 holes per square inch and will stop any bugs from disturbing your evening’s relaxation. There are also some pockets inside to store essential valuables.
We really like the Snugpak Ionosphere. It has been around for many years now and is a dependable, waterproof design. The understated green colour helps blend the bivvy into the background and you don’t feel like you’re on display at all. Is it the best bivvy bag available at the moment? It’s certainly up there!
Outdoor Research Helium Bivi Sack
Outdoor Research should need no introduction. A fantastic company based in Seattle on the West Coast of the USA, they have continuously been at the height of innovation and quality since their inception in the early 1980s.
Outdoor Research basically invented the hooped bivy sack category of products, and with the Helium model we see possibly the best value offering in their range.
The Helium is a lightweight and easy-to-pack bivvy bag weighing in it just under 500g – you will hardly know that you are carrying it in your rucksack! When set up it creates an excellent integrated shelter, with room to read and wriggle around inside without sacrificing heat too much. You don’t get this flexibility with some of the cheaper options and it is certainly worth investigating if you’re serious about bivvying.
The bag is constructed with a top layer made out of Pertex shield and a thicker nylon underbelly. Pertex is a lighterweight and yes, cheaper version of the well-known Gore-Tex range of textiles. It uses a weft of thick and thin fibers which are arranged to allow moisture from your sweat and breath to breathe out through the mesh whilst also being fully waterproof and windproof to rain and water trying to get in from the outside.
The hydrostatic head of the Helium is 20000 mm which is exceedingly waterproof and the Pertex material is also supposedly resistant to rips – however I didn’t wish to test this claim out! If you want to spend more money, then Outdoor Research also do a full Gore-Tex bivvy called the Alpine, but this is actually heavier.
The Helium bivvy itself uses a flexible fibre glass pole to form a hoop shape above your head with a zippable hood which can be pulled down over the hoop to fully zip up the enclosure if required. In good weather, the hood can be withdrawn and toggled up on the hoop, leaving a net mesh to keep bugs out.
In terms of size, this Outdoor Research bivvy is a palace! There is room inside to place a self-inflating mattress as well as your rucksack. Plus you of course, together with your sleeping bag of choice. Length is 82” (about 2.1m) with a width of 26” (66cm) at the head end, tapering down to 19” (48cm) at the bottom.
In use, I tested it on two separate occasions. The first on a mild autumn night when I was able to keep the hood pretty much open all night. It was wonderful to see the stars, and I recommend reading this great stargazing guide if that’s of interest to you. On a second occasion, I had some heavyish rain but found that I stayed relatively dry overnight with a small amount of condensation on the hood from my breath – nothing to worry about and my sleeping bag was not wet at all.
Overall, the Outdoor Research Helium is the best bivvy bag under £200 for regular use in the UK. It uses an excellent grade of waterproof, windproof and breathable top layer material and packs up reasonably small (32cm by 9cm). It’s a great option for some fun wild camping adventures.
Unfortunately, the UK supply of OR Helium’s is almost non-existent at the moment. Our link is for a Japanese import which we have had good service from. If you’d rather not risk this then we recommend the Snugpak Ionosphere as an excellent alternative bivvy bag for UK camping.
Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy Bag
Sierra Designs are a great American outdoor gear design house, and we were extremely excited to get our hands on their Backcountry Bivy Sack recently. If you’re ok with the idea of being fully enclosed in bad weather and having the top of the bivvy close to your face then we think this is a great lightweight option.
It’s worth talking about the weight first – packing down to only 25 x 10cm, and weighing only 400g in the regular length (450g for the long length), the Backcountry Bivy can fit in a rucksack with ease and is no sweat to carry. I’m 6ft3 tall and would definitely go for the longer version which is 2.18m long (vs 2.03m for regular).
There are two U-Shaped openings on the top surface of the Sierra Bivy. The largest is for getting in and out and has dual zips to accomplish this task. Because it can open so wide, getting in actually pretty easy for a bivy. The second opening is on the top surface and forms a little window with a fly mesh and cover. this allows you to lie out and look at the night sky before zipping up for the night. Nice.
Material and construction-wise, the Backcountry Bivvy never felt less than a quality bit of kit. With fully taped seams and breathable waterproof fabric on top (10400mm hydrostatic head and 20 dernier), and a more rugged 30-dernier ‘bathtub layer’ down below this is not going to let in water. On an overnight stay in some woodland near my house I had a great night in the Sierra with a hipflask of whisky and the moon and stars for company. Bliss indeed.
Downsides are the same as for any bivvy of this kind. If it’s raining you can find yourself having to get into it when you otherwise wouldn’t with a small tent. Using a tarp can overcome that problem, and we would certainly recommend that if you think there will be trees to set it up. Alternatively bring along some poles for the tarp.
Overall, the Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy is a great quality, lightweight bivvy bag which simply does not leak and is extremely breathable. In terms of a non-hooped design, it is one of the best bivvy bags on the market at the moment.
Mountain Warehouse Bivvy Bag
The Mountain Warehouse bivvy bag is a great option for those on the tightest budgets. It can be picked up for around £25 and offers decent waterproof capability for a night or two under the stars. Any more than this and the lack of breathability may cause too much condensation and dampness, with no easy way of drying out.
The Mountain Warehouse bivvy packs down into a 23 x 11 x 8 cm bag and comes with a stuff sack included. This can fit nicely in a 35 litre rucksack with plenty of space for other essentials. Weight is 310g which is extremely lightweight.
The top of the bivvy bag completely zips up, but there is no way of keeping it off your face, and sleeping can get difficult. On warmer nights this isn’t a problem as you can open more of a gap. As a result, we would say this is three season only, but of course your mileage may vary!
The length is 225cm which is on the shorter side for these bags. I’m 6ft3 tall, and fitted in ok just about but there wasn’t much room to move. For this reason, I don’t recommend this above the Highlander Hawk Bivvy Bivi Bag as a value option, even though it’s half the price.
Snugpak Special Forces Bivvi Bag
Consisting of Paratex Dry material for the top layer, the Snugpak Special Forces bivvy is a competent performer at not too high a price point. In black it can be found for around the £65 mark which is great value for a non-nonsense ‘tactical’ waterproof enclosure. It’s recommended that if you buy the Snugpak bivvy sack that you get the Special Forces 2 Sleeping Bag to go with it – it’s the perfect fit and offers warmth at subzero temperatures. A great combination!
The paratec material is soft to the touch and lightweight, meaning the bivvy has a total weight of only 340g. Length is 230cm and so can take a >6ft tall male with room for a sleeping bag and smallish rucksack inside. Packed up, the bivvy takes up about 14 x 10 cm, so not too bulky at all.
The hood area can be zipped up to obtain complete coverage at night, although this does increase the chances of condensation forming inside.
Overall, we found this a good value bivvy bag for a one night stopover under the stars. If you’re going to be braving it out in the UK weather more often then it’s possibly worth going with a slightly more expensive option such as the Outdoor Research Helium.
OEX Bush Pro Bivvy Bag
We recently reviewed the OEX Bush Pro Bivvi and feel we have to include it in this roundup of the best bivvy bag choices. It represents fantastic value for money, and pushes the Highlander Hawk really close for the top spot if you’re looking to spend less. In our view, the hood system is slightly better in the Highlander Hawk, but with the OEX Bush Pro being substantially cheaper, it’s certainly a close run decision.
The OEX Bush Pro uses a 5000mm hydrostatic head top layer for decent waterproof capability, but we didn’t test it under monsoon conditions. With a vertical spray of a hose pipe to replicate rain I was kept dry inside using the OEX in my garden overnight.
The Bush Pro weighs in at a respectable 560g and has fully taped seams to aid with the water proofing. The nylon material is extremely sturdy and will not rip or tear easily. Length is a respectable 245cm x 95cm wide.
The sack will fully cover your sleeping bag, but the shape is a tapered ‘mummy style’ which does not leave much room for your feet to move around at the bottom. There is an integrated hood to cover your head for shelter, but it is only sealed up tight using a drawstring rather than a zip. This works reasonably well and makes it quick and easy to undo to let some air in – however it increases the chance of water ingress….
The top layer material is unfortunately not breathable and so condensation is likely to be a bit of an issue – it should be noted though that we have not found a single bivvi bag which does not suffer from this problem slightly if fully done up and you’re inside breathing all night. For a one or two night wild camp, the OEX Bush Pro is fine and will keep you warm and sheltered for under £40 if you have a Go Outdoors discount card. Bargain!
Rab Ridge Raider Bivvy Bag
We are massive fans of Rab gear – over the years they always seem to magick up the perfect combination of great designs coupled with great performance on all of their outdoor products. Let’s be honest though – you do end up paying more for Rab equipment, but you know that it will do the job well.
The Rab Ridge Raider Bivvy Bag is a case in point. Packing down to an acceptable 30 x 16 cm (12 x 6 inches), the Ridge Raider uses a single hooped fiber glass pole system to create an enticing bivvy bag structure for the night.
The material used for the top section of the bivvy is Rab’s eVent waterproof and breathable technical fabric which is 40 dernier and consists of three layers sandwiched together. The bathtub uses a more weighty 70 dernier nylon waterproof floor – this won’t be letting any moisture up from the ground.
When you’re ready to camp, the Ridge Raider is effortless to put up. Thread the 8mm pole through a duct in the head section of the bivi, a bit like putting up a dome tent. This then lifts the top of the bivi off your head meaning you can easily lie down and read a book, or even tend a stove located outside close by.
In terms of dimensions, the Ridge Raider measures 60cm high, 80cm wide and is 255cm long. This gives room in the bottom of the bag for your rucksack. The total weight is 1033g which is actually heavier than some one-man tents, but still very portable.
Getting in and out is ‘interesting’ as is the case with all bivvy bags. Our technique is to get it all set up with the head section fully unzipped, then undo our boots and literally step out of the boots one at a time onto the top end of the bivvy. It’s then a simple matter of sitting down and sliding in.
Overnight testing showed no signs of the dreaded condensation, and I did get rained on heavily. I was impressed with the ability to keep dry inside the Ridge Raider and it is now definitely my choice of best bivvy bag if money is no object.
In summary, although it is highly expensive and rivalling some of the better one person tents as a purchase, the Rab Ridge Raider has the best performance of any bivvy bag we’ve tested. The Outdoor Research Helium also performs well, but is difficult to get hold of in the UK.
Geertop Bivy Tent
When does a bivvy bag turn into a one person tent, and does it matter? Our answer is “when it uses two fibre glass poles rather than one or a separate fly sheet”, but no it doesn’t matter.
The Geertop Bivy Tent straddles the line between bivvy bag and tent closely, and in some ways it offers the best of both worlds. It weighs a fairly hefty 1.5kg and packs down to 43 x 13 cm (16.9 x 5.1 inches). This may horrify the ultralight backpackers amongst us, but really it’s not much heavier than a bag of sugar.
What you really get with the Geertop is flexibility. It can be set up simply as a standalone netted structure to sit in if the midges are getting at you or the additional outer waterproof camo fly can be added to keep the rain off.
The fly sheet is 5000mm waterproof and the bivy tent has two ventilation windows – one behind your head, one at your feet and there is also a big side door which can be left partially unzipped. Total end-to-end length of the Geetop is 3m (although this includes a vestibule at the foot end), so this is definitely stretching towards tent territory, but who’s counting? The height is good too at 91cm.
One thing to note is that if you are over 6ft tall (I’m 6ft3 or 195cm) then you may be stretched for sleeping space inside – the sleeping area is 213cm long but this includes a sloping roof. Something to bear in mind.
Putting the bivy tent up for the first time took me about 10 minutes, but I think I could probably half that with a bit of practice. A short hoop is threaded through the foot region and a longer one up at the head end. The base structure is then pegged out with 6 pegs and the fly sheet added on top. This is then also pegged with a couple of guy ropes if it is windy.
Because there is more air to warm up inside the Geertop then smaller bivvy bags, make sure you have a decent down sleeping bag if you are planning to use it in winter conditions. Overall, we were impressed with the Geertop as an interesting ‘halfway house’ between tent and full-on bivvying. Recommended.
Highlander Hawk Bivvy Bag
The Highlander Hawk is an excellent mid-level bivvy sack, usually available from Amazon, but sadly again difficult to get hold of currently.
The hood when zipped up also includes an integrated waterproof mesh screen to keep bugs off – this also allows you to view your surroundings as you rest.
Overall the Highlander Hawk offers a great value introduction to bivvying. We highly recommend trying it out, preferably in conjunction with a tarp to provide some shelter. Get out there!
That brings us to the end of our roundup of the best bivvy bags for UK wild camping. They are great bits of kit, but not for the faint of heart. Be sure to check back soon for our review of 1-2 person all-season tents for similar capability in much improved comfort!