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June 2013 Issue
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Ask Steve – Which bivy bag?

Before buying a bivy bag, determine the use you’ll be putting it top

Our gear repair expert Steve Haase answers your gear-related questions

Do you have any recommendations on bivy bags? I have read a lot of conflicting reviews, which makes it all quite confusing!

– Lindsay Jackson, email

Steve says:

The first question you need to ask yourself is what do you want the bivy bag for? Once you have answered that, the choice becomes easier.

There are three main designs of bivy bag:

  1. Sleeping bag cover – basically a large sack to protect your sleeping bag from the elements. Great for summer but really needs a tarp for more protection if the weather turns bad.
  2. Fully enclosed – think fabric coffin. The right bag will keep you warm and dry but can be claustrophobic. Initially, these bags were designed for climbers and alpinists who did not have the luxury or space to pitch a tent.
  3. Hooped – a mini tent that you still can’t cook in. They are a lot less claustrophobic.

Apart from the lack of space the only other issue with bivy bags is that due to the enclosed space, condensation can be a problem. Modern breathable fabrics alleviate this to some extent, but no system is perfect.

With the rise in popularity of ultralite hiking, there are some tents around that weigh the same, if not less, than bivy bags. So we come back to the first question.

For an emergency shelter, I would recommend a bothy bag over a bivy bag. These are lighter and more versatile. For people who need shelter when pitching a tent is not practical (snow cave, rock ledge, extreme wind exposed ridge), a fully enclosed bivy bag would be the way to go. For all other cases, I would suggest buying an ultralite tent instead.

If you have decided a bivy bag is for you, do your research on which models and brands are available. Stick to well-known and proven fabrics such as Gore-Tex and eVent. Go to a store with your sleeping bag in tow to test one out and quiz the store staff on their likes, dislikes and knowledge of bivy bags. They should be able to help you get the right model for your needs.  

Steve Haase runs Christchurch-based gear repair company TwinNeedle Outdoor Equipment Repairs