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To bivy or not to bivy? That is the ultimate question

Bivy sack camp setup for backcountry hunting

Bivy sack camp setup for backcountry hunting. Photo credit: Chris Neville

Bivouac style hunting gained traction for me about 17 years ago. I was drawn to the fact that a bivy sack offered an extremely lightweight simple option to stay dry while spiking out in the backcountry. Since then, I have continued to use a bivy for almost all of my overnight hunts despite the fact that there are some good lightweight tent options. I understand the drawbacks, but a bivy sack is a compelling shelter option that I believe more people should consider. I’m convinced that using a bivy has made me a more successful run and gun elk hunter.

Quick and easy bivy sack camp setup

Photo credit: Trail Kreitzer

So what exactly is a bivy sack?

A bivy sack is a simple one-man waterproof shelter. As the name implies, it’s basically a sack that you slide your sleeping bag into and is designed to keep you and your bag out of the elements while you’re sleeping. Bivys were originally used as a minimalist shelter by thru-hikers and climbers on multi-day trips. Some bivys are only a waterproof sack while others have pole(s) to keep the fabric up off of your face and head. There are several bivys out there. We carry two of the very best bivy sacks in our goHUNT Gear Shop: the Outdoor Research Alpine and Helium.

For even more information and a quick look at the Helium bivy sack, you can check out this gear review video below:


So why use a bivy sack over a tent when hunting?

Trail Kreitzer with bivy sack setup on elk hunt

You can literally sleep anywhere in a bivy sack. Photo credit: Lorenzo Sartini

Advantages

The major advantage of any bivy over a tent is the ability to quickly set it up. It can be placed in areas where you may not be able to pitch a tent; for example, a deer or elk bed on a steep slope will work if you need it to. You really only need a flat spot about 6’ x 2’. A bivy is extremely mobile. In the evening, you are in bed in a matter of minutes and can be packed and ready to go just as quickly in the morning. Setting up a bivy takes much less time than a tent. They are waterproof so they make a nice addition when using a floorless shelter and stove (no need for a tent footprint). They are lightweight. The Outdoor Research Helium bivy weighs in at 17 oz and the Alpine bivy is 2 lbs. The biggest benefit to bivy sack hunting is that it allows you to be extremely mobile.

Disadvantages

Lorenzo Sartini and buck in a bivy sack

There's not a lot of room in a bivy sack. But Lorenzo can fit his dog Buck in one. Photo credit: Brady Miller

Some people find them claustrophobic, especially when the lid is closed. You cannot get dressed in one and the headroom above your face even with a pole/hoop feature is minimal. There is maybe enough to read a book inside one, but just barely. Riding out multiple days of bad weather like… rain or… snow… is not recommended. It can be tough. If you expect multiple days of bad weather, pair a bivy with a tarp or floorless tipi/tent. Condensation can be an issue in the right conditions and you may have a damp sleeping bag near the footbox when you wake up. This requires you to hang your bag midday to air it out—provided you can. You may spend a day or two with a damp sleeping bag near your feet. Bugs, snakes and small animals could also be an issue if you don’t sleep with it zipped up although, in the many years I have used one, I have never had an issue and, on most nights, I sleep with my head out under the stars.

Roughly, how big are bivy sacks?

Essential items for using a bivy sack for hunting

The dimensions are the same for the Alpine and Helium bivy sacks: 26" maximum width x 84" maximum length x 20" maximum headroom. Floor space is 12.6 sq. ft. for both. The two Outdoor Research models we carry are among the roomiest bivys out there. Both will allow you to sleep with a sleeping pad and your bag inside—even with some of the newer thicker 3” plus pads and lofty bags.

Showing the bug net on a bivy sack

Showing the bug net system on a bivy sack. Photo credit: Chris Neville

Also, both of the models we sell have a single pole that goes up over your face to give you some headroom when fully closed and both have a bug net with a zipper to keep the lip partially open and still keep bugs out.

Bivy sack materials

The Alpine is made from three-layer Gore-Tex respiration positive fabric. It has a 30D ripstop upper and 2L nylon plain weave taffeta floor. It is seam taped internally on every seam to keep moisture out. The Helium is made from Pertex Shield+ 2.5L 100% nylon with a 30D ripstop upper with 100% nylon 70D TPU laminate floor. It is seam taped internally on every seam to keep moisture out.

Ripstop nylon is a light-weight nylon fabric with interwoven ripstop reinforcement threads in a crosshatch pattern for added strength and to stop a tear once it starts. Pertex is lighter and, by most accounts, less breathable while Gore-Tex is a bit heavier and breathes very well. Pertex may not wear as well over the long term, while Gore-Tex has a good track record with being both durable while retaining its waterproof integrity.

Staking down a bivy sack for windy conditions

Both have tabs that can be used for staking them out to the ground. Both have internal straps to keep your sleeping pad from shifting or moving during the night.

How small can they be packed up?

Keeping sleeping bag inside bivy sack

I prefer to keep my sleeping bag inside my bivy when I stuff it inside my backpack for a quick camp setup at night. Photo credit: Chris Neville

Both the Alpine and the Helium can be packed up into a stuff sack approximately the diameter of a Nalgene bottle and about twice as long. When I am hunting with a bivy sack setup, I often either use no stuff sack at all or I leave my sleeping bag in the bivy and stuff both in a 13L or 15L compression or dry sack. This allows me to inflate my sleeping pad, insert it inside the bivy with my bag and I’m done.

The difference between the Helium and the Alpine bivy sack

When might I use one over another?

I would suggest the Alpine bivy sack if you are using it as a standalone without a tarp or floorless shelter. It's more durable and is going to breathe better. I would also likely use the Alpine if I were hunting in conditions where heavy condensation may be an issue—places with wide temperature swings or extended rain expected, which might cause you to keep the lip closed; your breath can build up condensation, or camping in humid climates, lowlands or next to water sources.

The Helium is a great choice to save some weight and perhaps better suited for shorter trips—three to six days—where the weather may be more predictable. I would advise using in conjunction with a tarp, especially with heavy or extended rain in the forecast. It's extremely light and fast though and, if you are hunting more arid conditions and only experiencing light rain or showers, you'd do just fine with the Helium.

In conclusion

Showing the room of a bivy sack camp setup

Showing the room inside a bivy sack and tarp camp setup. Photo credit: Chris Neville

Bivy hunting has made me a more successful elk hunter and here’s why: I’ve noticed that tent camping tends to tie me to an area and I end up wasting time hiking when I need to be hunting. Elk are big, they cover ground quickly, and often are only active for a short period of time during the morning and evening. A bivy allows you to quickly make camp, get in bed and wake up already in the mix. If you are looking for a lightweight, simple, one man shelter that will keep you dry and help you be more successful, consider adding a bivy sack to your gear list.

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8 Comments

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stephen
stephen s. - posted 7 hours ago on 07-15-2018 07:24:29 pm
goHUNT INSIDER

What are your thoughts about the bivy sack versus a light weight tent like the Kuiu 1p or 2p. It appears that I can be lighter as a single hunter with the 1p and with two of us in the 2p we beat the bivy again and neither of these take in to consideration the additional weight of your tarp. Both of the Kuiu tents also provide a shelter for my gear in the vestibule. The bulk is proportional to the bivy sack also. Perhaps the OR products just need to be updated with newer materials and they will again be weight/bulk competitive.

trail
Trail K. - posted 3 days ago on 07-12-2018 02:21:52 pm
goHUNT Team

@ John D.

Nice, looks like a great set up! I'll be interested to hear how it goes for you. I'm convinced that being mobile and camping close to where the action picks up in the morning has helped me a ton. Good luck this fall!

John D. - posted 3 days ago on 07-12-2018 01:36:24 pm
Lewes, DE
goHUNT INSIDER

Nice article. I made some big changes to my sleep system for this fall and am excited to run with it. Had been using a Kelty Cosmic down sleeping bag with Kelty Salida 2P tent. Changing to a set-up that includes the Sea to Summit escapist tarp (large), Enlightened equipment recon bivy, and a Hammockgear camping quilt.

Very excited to shave some weight but more importantly bulk from my back to get more mobile this September. I like that the tarp is multi-purpose and can be used as a quick shelter in bad weather or cook spot if two of us bivy under the other's tarp.

trail
Trail K. - posted 5 days ago on 07-10-2018 10:14:04 am
goHUNT Team

@ Chris S.

The Tarp is a Rab Siltarp 2, which is 10'x13' and weighs in at about 13oz.

@ Joshua W

It is a little unnerving the first few nights I tried it, but over time you get use to it and now I hardly even think about it. Besides that, if a bear wants to, it's going to get in whether there is a thin layer of nylon or not :)

trail
Trail K. - posted 5 days ago on 07-10-2018 10:12:32 am
goHUNT Team

@ Sam K

A bivy is going to ensure my sleeping bag stays dry, which is a must. By itself, I don't feel like a tarp offers the coverage and piece of mind that I get from having my sleeping bag in a bivy. If I am planning an extended trip (5+ days) I regularly pack a bivy and a tarp/floorless shelter in case I get caught out in inclement weather for a long period of time. In most cases I only break the tarp out if need be. I can throw out a bivy almost anywhere and it just saves time. Paired with a tarp you have a good amount of room and you're going to stay dry. A bivy is also going to function as a ground cloth, with your sleeping pad inside it you don't have to worry as much about punctures or having issues with your pad. The Helium bivy paired with the tarp I use is going to be just shy of 2lbs with stakes and it gives me so much flexibility. Hope that helps, all the best!

Joshua Warren_10154502495516113
Joshua W. - posted 5 days ago on 07-10-2018 07:29:57 am
goHUNT INSIDER

This is worth a look! There is something phycological about a the "safety" of a tent for me, I'm jealous of the guys who pull this off. I'd just be nervous of the what-if's...bears!

Chris S. - posted 5 days ago on 07-10-2018 07:13:15 am
goHUNT INSIDER

Awesome! I have been kicking around going this route. What tarp and size tarp is that being used in the pics? Thanks, great article!

Sam K. - posted 6 days ago on 07-09-2018 06:51:17 pm
Lennox, South Dakota
goHUNT INSIDER

Great stuff, Trail. How does this differ from just using a floorless shelter or tarp? I guess I can see the need if there are bugs and/critters (like early season). But why have the extra weight and gear if a tarp can keep the weather off just the same as a bivy? Or is that not how it works?
Thank you!