Bivying in the UK Mountains

Bivying in the UK Mountains

Words by Scott Webster

What?

What is bivying?!  The word bivy or bivouac is the term used to describe a temporary camp that does not involve the use of a tent.  Bivies are usually minimalistic with weight generally being prioritised over comfort.

Why?

In the context of mountaineering a bivy is typically utilised on routes that are too long to complete in one day.  A bivy would be used as a means to get some rest before continuing the next day.  A bivy can also be a great way to connect with the outdoors and literally sleep beneath the stars!

When?

Bivying is an appropriate choice for routes where weight is a primary concern and the weather is not expected to be so severe that a tent would be necessary for survival.  A bivy may also be the most appropriate option if the location you expect to spend the night in does not have enough space to pitch a tent. 

A bivy is typically utilised on routes that are too remote or too long to complete in one day. Photo by Scott Webster.

Where?

With the exception of the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye, the typical length of the routes found in the UK means that a bivy is rarely necessary.  However as well as bivvying for practical reasons it can also just be good fun to spend a night out up high, enjoying an alfresco meal and a good sunset!  Rules about where you can and cannot bivy out in the mountains vary across the UK*, but there are some key considerations to make before selecting a site for a bivy:

    • - Safe area for sleeping that you won’t roll off in the night
    • - Weather forecast for the night and the next morning
    • - Away from any serious overhead hazards such as rock fall
    • - Not in the way of any other parties in the same area

The same rules apply to bivying as with wild camping – ensure you leave no trace after you leave.

Bivying vs Camping

 

Advantages

Disadvantages

Bivy

Lightweight

No inside space to cook if the weather is really bad

Unique experience sleeping in the open

Limited protection from weather & midges

Surface doesn’t need to accommodate tent pegs

Limited space for storing rucksacks/equipment

No need for a large flat area

 

Tent

Provides additional warmth and protection from wind/rain

Additional weight and bulk when compared with a bivy bag

Space to cook inside if the weather is not suitable to do so out in the open

Requirements for a flat area big enough to site the tent

Space to organise and store your gear inside

Ground must be suitable for tent pegs to secure the tent

 

A Classic UK Bivying Case Study – The Cuillin Ridge Traverse

A complete traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is the most well known mountaineering objective within the UK where a bivy is normally required.  The 12km ridge (not including the walk in and out) is most commonly done over two days.  While one day traverses are not uncommon, and very achievable for fit parties who have some prior knowledge of the intricate route, a 2 day approach with a bivy really adds to the experience – it allows you to enjoy the route without as much clock watching, and if you are lucky and pick a good weather window the evening views looking out towards the Outer Hebrides are hard to beat!

There are innumerous options for planning your overnight bivy during a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge.  Some people opt to pre-stash their sleeping kit before their traverse attempt.  This approach has several advantages: lighter bags for day 1, opportunity to recce the central section of the traverse while stashing equipment, ability to leave more food than you would want to carry from the start, opportunity to stash water if it’s a particularly dry spell and the usual springs have dried up.  The downside of this approach is the slight loss of a pure, unsupported traverse should you carry all of your equipment with you ‘alpine style’ and the obvious need to get to the point at which you have left your bivy kit!

By carrying all of your sleeping/cooking equipment with you from the start you have the flexibility to stop when time and tiredness dictate. With a bivy of this nature “light is right”, but there is still a balance to be struck between keeping your pack light enough to move quickly throughout the day but also ensuring you can get a reasonable nights sleep and recover some energy for completing the traverse the next day. 

Over several years of guiding traverses across the Cuillin I’ve tried multiple different approaches and used a variety of equipment.  Of course the weather plays a big part in the decisions on what equipment to pack so I still don’t have a standard kit list - rather a mix and match philosophy depending on what I expect to encounter.  For example, a super light sleeping bag combined with some insulated trousers can be a good option.  This has the advantage of giving you quite a lot of flexibility in terms of sitting around in the evening without having to be inside your sleeping bag while cooking etc.

The specific location for a bivy on a Cuillin ridge traverse varies and is determined by a number of factors.  Generally speaking I like to get more than 50% done in the first day, as this is a huge psychological boost going to sleep at night knowing you have a shorter day ahead of you.  Other slightly more left field options include a short day 1 with an early bivy in Corrie Laggan meaning that you only carry a heavy bag for a short portion of the traverse, camp somewhere comfortable where a good nights sleep is more likely and where there is a plentiful supply of fresh water.  You can then elect to leave your bivy kit here and collect it with ease on a subsequent day.  If the weather takes an unexpected turn there are also some fantastic bivy caves high up on the ridge, which often drip with water but will keep you far dryer than sleeping out in the open.


Featured Kit:

 

Helium 400

An incredibly light, versatile and packable sleeping bag well suited to backpacking that will still happily cope with cooler nights during the spring and summer months.

 

Helium 400 Women's

An incredibly light, versatile and packable Women's specific sleeping bag well suited to backpacking that will still happily cope with cooler nights during the spring and summer months.

Ion Bivi

Ideal for alpine-style mountaineering, a lightweight water resistant bivi with an oversize cowl hood for greater protection.

Compressor Pant

Insulated overtrousers that provide critical extra warmth for super alpine climbing, ski-mountaineering and winter camping.


Suggested bivy kit for a Cuillin Traverse in summer conditions:
  • - Sleeping bag: a lightweight 3-season bag such as the Mountain Equipment Helium 400 works well. The age-old discussion of down vs. synthetic can be debated here but in my opinion a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge isn’t a great idea unless the forecast is dry – in which case the warmth to weight ratio of down wins every time.  The Helium 400 is versatile and on colder nights can be combined with a pair of Mountain Equipment Compressor pants for extra warmth.
  • - Sleeping mat: a simple cut down ¾ length closed-cell foam mat is adequate providing you find a nice flat spot. You can use your rucksack and the rope to provide extra padding.  Alternatively a lightweight inflatable mat can give you the extra comfort you need to get a really good nights sleep.  There are some super light mats out there weighing as little as ~250grams but you’ll need to be careful not to put these on top of any rocks as they will puncture easily!  In addition a short section of foam matting is recommended, as is a small repair kit!
  • - Bivy bag: as with the down vs. synthetic discussion on sleeping bags a big burly bivy bag isn’t necessary providing the forecast is reasonable. We all know that the British weather is fickle and the forecasts aren’t always correct (especially in the mountains) but you should be able to tell if very wild weather is a possibility.  A waterproof, breathable bivy bag such as the Mountain Equipment Ion Bivy is ideal.  Top tip – put your sleeping mat inside the bivy bag to prevent it from blowing away if you move in the night and also to give it a little more protection from the rough ground underneath.
  • - Stove: a hot evening meal isn’t required if you really want to save weight but for 2 people a small 100g fuel canister and a tiny stove, combined with a titanium mug really doesn’t weigh much or take up a huge amount of space in your bag. For me a hot evening meal is important for morale and also for re-fuelling after a big day.  I also like to start the next day with a cup of coffee!  Small luxuries like this set you up well for the challenge ahead.
  • - Food: Dehydrated/freeze dried expedition meals are great for a mountaineering bivy. There is a huge selection out there to choose from and almost all allergies are catered for these days.  Don’t forget a long handled spoon!  I like to pack a “pre-dinner, dinner” also…some noodles or similar allow you to have a warm soupy snack that helps with hydration as well as hunger.
  • - Headtorch: during the height of summer there isn’t a huge amount of darkness on Skye. A headtorch isn’t completely necessary however I like to carry one just incase!  The Petzl Bindi weighs less than 100g and is surprisingly bright.
  • - Insulated pants: the Mountain Equipment Compressor pants make a good companion with a lightweight sleeping bag for enjoying the evening and providing a little more warmth when sleeping.
  • - Insulated jacket: an essential item in the hills even when not spending a planned night out. A lightweight synthetic jacket with a hood goes with me virtually everywhere.  

* Bivyng in the mountains, along with snowholing in the winter, is governed by the same rules as wild camping in the mountains. These rules differ between Scotland, England and Wales, and indeed between different national parks in the same country. For example, wild camping is not permitted by right on open access land in England and Wales without express permission of the landowner, but is permitted in Scotland on the proviso that you follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) and provided that you do so responsibly.

If in doubt, preliminary research into the area you are staying is always a good idea. Sites such as the BMC website have resources on the do’s and don’ts of bivying and wild camping in the UK, and the National Parks website provides details of regulations in each national park area, as well as lists of campsites where wild camping and bivying is not permitted.

 


About the Author

Scott is a mountaineering instructor and  expedition leader who has guided on the Cuillin in both summer and winter. Find out more about Scott Webster Mountaineering

 

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