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The Book of the Bivvy

I love camping. I’ve spent over a thousand nights in my tent. But this year, being my year of microadventures, I have swapped my affections for the damp, chilly alternative of a bivvybag. [A bivvybag, for the uninitiated, is basically a waterproof sleeping bag cover. Alpkit make nice ones]. For an idea of what I’ve been up to have a look at the 24 Hour Bivvy Challenge.

I love bivvybags because they are very light, very cheap, inconspicuous and require zero putting up or taking down. But mostly I love them because you are truly sleeping outdoors, whereas once you are in a tent you are effectively sleeping indoors, albeit a very cramped, uncomfy, crappy version of indoors.

In a bivvy bag you are free to look up at the stars, watch the tide ebb and flow through the night, and watch the sun rise over the mountains. They are wonderful. They are also slightly silly, which also appeals.

As I’ve said over and over again about microadventures: you don’t need skill, money, time or hardness to sample them: take your duvet and a pillow and sleep out on your lawn one fine summer evening. If you get cold or it rains you can simply scamper back inside. Just try it. It’s a super escape from normalness and routine. (When I was at uni I once slept on a third-floor windowsill just to see what it was like).

For anyone tempted to give the Bivvy Challenge a try I highly recommend The Book of the Bivvy by Ronald Turnbull. It’s far more witty and entertaining than the title suggests it should be!

Here are some snippets I enjoyed:

  • People who don’t smoke or drink also tend to have sexual intercourse less often. And I suspect, though this has not been studied by sociologists, that they tend to prefer the B&B to the bivvybag.
  • It is quite possible to take your bivvybag onto the lawn on a spring evening, with a cup of cocoa and a candle, and have a wonderful time.
  • It is up to you to either sit back and dream, or go out and do…
  • “Exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as not to deserve the name.” – Samuel Butler
  • For those who want to bring a bit of old-fashioned pain and suffering back into the outdoor experience, the bivvybag is the place to be.
  • As you get further and further from the car park, the breathable jackets get shabbier, the hats are bobble instead of fleece, the boots are scratched and old. Four hours out you meet the breeches. Eight hours out it’s the rucksack fixed with string. And on the furthest, loneliest hilltop, as the stars come out, is the chap or lassie in the bag.
  • “Better a thousand times that he should be a tramp, and mend pots and pans by the wayside, and sleep under trees, and see the dawn and the sunset every day above a new horizon” – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The moral benefits of a bit of misery can get depressing, and also rather smelly.
  • I expect five-star hotels have drying rooms.
  • Many walking handbooks list the things to take. Here is a list of things to leave behind. (the list is on p69)
  • A barmeal before a night on a mountain top is a sign of sophistication (ie – go to the pub, eat drink and be merry, and then scamper up a hill to sleep). P88 lists good pubs near good mountains!
  • The contrary pleasure… the charms of dispossession, about having a lovely light rucksack during the day and an austere and funless evening.

Now that summer’s here I really urge you to give the Bivvy Challenge a try. It only takes 24 hours…

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  1. David Bickerstaff Posted
  2. Daniel Robinson Posted

    Good article – I went out and brought the book, very entertaining read. I am walking from Lynton, North Devon down to Prawle point, Devon’s most southernly geographic point with my bivvy bag.

  3. “You don’t go far by going fast, you get far by going for a long time”

    “Calories per £ custard creams are the best”

  4. The bivy challenge is such a great idea. Was planning on doing it this weekend which is extended for the Queens birthday. Then realised it is winter and I have just a plastic bag and mildly warm sleeping bag. I might wait for summer. Will to spend a night sleeping on my deck though. Thanks for the ideas from me down here in Dunedin, New Zealand.

  5. Tycho Posted

    Hey Al,

    I just got back from my 24-hour bivvy challenge. I walked 15 miles to a wood, evading the patrols by the police. Man I was scared. I was scared, cold, miserable… but I loved it. I saw the milky way, I took a dip in the north sea at 5 am and walked back home. Thanks for inspiring me!
    And to everyone else who hasn’t tried this: What are you waiting for?!

  6. Simon Falk Posted

    How much varmth does a bivy bag add? I am considering bringing my summer sleeping bag, a silk liner and then a bivy bag for the Tour of Mont Blanc this summer.
    Simon from Denmark

  7. Hiya Alistair
    Since coming across you on I have to say that I think my life is about to change again, and for the better. The day before my 43rd birthday, I began the art of living. I went sailing with an Alaskan stranger and eventually returned to a life ashore. In the last year, I fell in love with an old flame, cycling.
    My partner and I were planning an off road trip to Morocco by bike this Christmas, but now I want to add in wild camping. Your stories have reminded me how much I enjoy the simple stuff. I like a wee drink or two, the odd smoke and I know I’ll get a greater than average amount of the other thing. Thank you, for re-inspiring me.



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