When I was 15 years old, I met up with one of my high-school buddies, Jim, to do an overnight hiking and camping trip just on the outskirts of my hometown. I didn’t have a driver’s license, meaning mom dropped me off. Like a lot of teenage boys, we planned last minute and made it to the trailhead parking lot late in the afternoon. We carried a lot of gear, too much, and hiked up the hillside as we headed to a promontory that we weren’t even sure if we could legally camp at.
Somehow, along the way, we decided to shortcut the switchbacks and we ended up bushwhacking through thick stands of mountain laurel trees in the dark. With frustration growing, we decided to make an impromptu camping spot and set up our tent on a slightly sloped hillside. We didn’t want to spend the night here, but it made sense. We could find our way in the morning with better light, which is ultimately what we did.
The thought of an emergency bivouac, or “bivy,” is terrifying for some. The woods can be seen as an unknown, and when the sun goes down, it seems like so many insecurities and fears we have come to bear. It’s easy to see having to bed down in an emergency bivy as a survival situation, but the reality is, it’s more of an inconvenience. Spending the night in your bed or even a well-appointed tent are much more desirable options, but sometimes, when the world hands you a shit sandwich, you just have to take a giant ole bite and choke it down.
But maybe that sandwich’s taste can be masked a bit with some basic prep. Here are a few tips for choosing the best emergency bivouac options that will show you this minor inconvenience is not, in fact, the end of the world.
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Recognizing The Greatest and Most Likely Threat
When you decide an emergency bivy is in order, you need to think about one of the most important survival priorities: protection. That’s what a shelter is, after all.
When you realize the sun is low on the horizon and you can’t get back out in the dark as temperatures drop or that you’re turned around, can’t locate the trail, and will be better off searching for it in the morning instead of getting injured, it’s time to set up an emergency bivy. Sometimes, the greatest threat in the wilderness you’re in is you, and more often than not, choosing to move instead of bivy for the night is a terrible decision.
But always remember, making a shelter takes time, and starting too late in the evening can be a critical error. Assess your situation, and make a good decision on your timeline before you’re forced to make one when you have no time left.
If you already have a tent, tarp, or bivy sack, you just have to set it up and hunker down. If you don’t, you’ll have to collect wood, build a fire, and set up a makeshift debris shelter. Be conscious of what you’re emergency bivy options are on a given trip, and how long they take to deploy.
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Location, Location, Location
The most important thing about an emergency shelter for the night is location, location, location. You must always consider the Ws: wind, widowmakers, water, wiggles, and wood.
Before you settle in for the night, consider which way the wind is blowing. You don’t want to set up your shelter to have wind directly in your face. As you set up your bivy, you want to look up to see if you’re directly under or in the fall zone of a widowmaker tree or branch.
Remember while setting up that you’re not the only thing wiggling around, and those wiggles can ruin your sleep. Check your camping spot for things that crawl before you bed down.
Also, consider too how far away your water resources are and if the area you’re setting up your shelter in will hold precipitation in pools if the sky opens up, or if a heavy rain will turn the spot into a small river.
Last but not least, an emergency bivy shelter is always improved by having a good fire. Look to see if you can collect wood in your immediate area and if not, continue scouting until you find an appropriate spot, but don’t lose track of time or the setting sun and avoid collecting firewood in the dark.
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Adhere to a Practical Timeframe
As previously mentioned, you will want to strictly adhere to a practical timeline. If you determine you must bivy, consider how much time it will take to set up your shelter. Some shelters are extremely expedient but are short on creature comforts.
A quickie tarp or poncho shelter will block the rain or snow but likely won’t be closed on all sides. A proper tent might take longer to set up and will afford you more protection at the cost of taking up more space in your pack, plus the extra weight. The smallest and fastest option is the basic bivy sack. This barrier can be used as a sleeping bag and even with a sleeping bag, but it won’t give you much space or standoff from your protective layers.
If you must build a shelter from what the land provides, you’re looking at upwards of six to eight hours of gathering and building. In this day and age, it doesn’t make sense to travel to the woods without some sort of emergency shelter equipment in tow, as there are a number of affordable and lightweight options.
I would recommend having something you can set up on a short-term basis, like a bivy sack, but then have items, like a larger tarp, you can improve your shelter with if time, the weather, and your energy level allow. If you have the coin to drop, a single-person ultralightweight tent could be a perfect option. As you pack your bag, think about the precious resource of time each item commands.
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The Ideal Emergency Bivy Kit
A proper shelter consists of three elements: something to sleep inside of, something to sleep on top of, and something to sleep under (handy mnemonic: “Shelter IOU”). Although proper shelter components make for a good night’s sleep, what also must be factored in are the creature comforts that can help make an emergency bivouac a lot more tolerable. Let’s face it, one of the worst aspects of spending an emergency night out is discomfort.
One of the ways to combat discomfort is head-on. When you’re sheltered in place, food and drink always help pass the time. Candy bars might be considered a cheat meal in the real world, but out in the wild, they’re a reward for setting up your temporary home. Another excellent creature comfort item to always have on hand is a good flashlight or headlamp. Spending the night in the dark without light isn’t the end of the world, but having the ability to light up your area is like a superpower when you don’t have it.
Additionally, a fresh set of socks and a wool watch cap will keep you warm at both ends of your body. These items aren’t much more to carry in your kit on top of what you normally pack. Spend a night without them and one with them and you’ll see they are worth it.
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Constant Emergency Bivy Improvement
Back when I was 15, I could sleep on a rock slab all night and wake up ready for a hike. Now, decades later, I know if I attempted that, I would require hours of stretching, a few ibuprofen, and significantly more time to get motivated to wake up.
As we travel, get older, improve our skill sets, build larger families, and change, we must constantly improve our emergency bivy needs. In the jungle and on the beach, I would rather have a small packable hammock than a ground pad, since so many insects and creepy-crawlies occupy the ground in those environments, and staying warm isn’t an issue. The best way to improve is to constantly test your gear. You see, the best bivouac is the one you’ve already tested.
When you have faith in your kit and your skills, you won’t have trouble sleeping at night in the backcountry on the fly. Test your kit in relative safety and build themed trips around it. You’ll find the limitations of your gear and figure out the best way to improve what you have. It is easy to assume what works for others will work for you, but the worst place to test this theory is in a real situation.
This content was originally posted by Fieldcraft Survival in January 2022.
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