Getting Into the Bivvy Bag

A strange compromise between comfort, space, and weight—I’d never really got to grips with the idea of the Bivvy bag. No stranger to solo wild camping, I bought my first one-man tent in 2006 and always enjoyed the ample room and shelter its provided since. A bivvy bag always felt that bit too exposed, too cramped, and too extreme. They were for other, hardier people, I’d take the tent.

Though it’s impossible to deny the many advantages the Bivvy holds. Weight savings ranking highly amongst those, they are also counter-balanced by a great many trade-offs. The one-man tent has always seemed too convenient, too sheltered, and too protective to give up. After all, where would I put my boots?

Over time, my curiosity grew about those strange types who took to the hills with barely more than an extra sleeping bag for cover. I envied them a little. Mostly, I wondered how they did it.

It was an article by Hazel Strachan late last year that finally sold me. Photos of Bivvy camping high on Ben Cruachan, even in the snow, looked freeing rather than exposed or daunting. The Bivvy now looked to provide opportunities that the tent couldn’t match. My mind had switched gear and now I had to give it a go at least.

By the time I cobbled together the kit and gear from the web, the season was rapidly closing and COVID restrictions were looming large again. A lightweight Rab Alpine Bivvy arrived along with a smaller, more lightweight rucksack to carry it. Highly rated, smaller than a can of lager packed up, and tightly cramped on the living room floor—it was exactly what I was looking for.

The final step was just to use it. Easier said than done. An attempted last-minute trip to Ben Vorlich turned into a single day outing as poor weather closed in and chased me and my new tech back off the hill. Restrictions were imposed again in the next again week.

Winter was spent staring at the as-yet unused Bivvy bag instead—looking forward to a season that may well be spent searching for an available spot on crowded hills.

Locally, there are only so many routes you can take to prepare. The Pentlands, local green lanes, and the nearby routes are all more than well-trodden by now. And while many new discoveries about these doorstep spots have been found, I, like everyone else, am more than eager to make discoveries further afield too.

Packing a lighter, more compact bag and waking up to leave after staying home for so long is as close to that Christmas morning feeling as you’ll get. Rucksack, coffee, and driving playlist into the car and it’s time for the hills. Almost. A flat tyre brings the trip to a quick halt. Fate, it seemed, wasn’t convinced yet.

When April 26th was announced, the bag was already dusted down and re-packed two more times. The only step left was to choose a location.

Previous experience of coming out from restricted travel showed that honeypots were to be especially avoided in the season to come. Doubly so in the opening weeks. People are, understandably, itching to get back outdoors.

Weather too was always going to play a major deciding role. While I’d been itching to experiment with a new light-weight Bivvy setup, it was always going to be a fair-weather test. I’m not one of those hardy sorts, yet.

The Cairngorms, the first choice I’d been eyeing up all winter, was still a little too cold for comfort in late April. The previous week had the country was bathed in scorching sunshine and overnight temperatures that would make Mediterranean climates blush. The week that restrictions finally eased turned as mixed and changeable as Scottish weather gets. So it goes.

Weather forecasts, fitness, and availability left one stand-out option for a first Bivvy. Glencoe. So much for steering clear of honeypots.

Doing as much as possible to stay out of the Glen itself, I opted to take a long-awaited route up onto Beinn a’Chrùlaiste. Far from technically challenging, or overly physically taxing, it’s the ideal place to pitch up and look back over Glencoe, Glen Etive, and most importantly—take in the view of Buachaille Etive Mòr opposite.

Close enough to the Glen to take in a spectacular sunset and morning’s sunrise; far enough away from the main trails and paths to remain a remote and isolated camp.

Even the most miserably cold and wet overnight Bivvy would be short-lived, taking barely two hours to walk out and back to the car.

Heading to the Glen

Fifteen minutes with the air compressor and the wheels were rolling again. Finally out of the street, on to the Edinburgh City Bypass, the M8, and then the M9. Heading north again for the first time in a long, long while. The feeling, almost giddy. A bit like passing your driving test and getting out on the roads for the very first time again.

Two hours later, at Altnafeadh, I was relieved to find the mountains exactly where I’d left them.

Arriving at lunchtime with plenty of daylight to spare, I could already count more than two dozen groups around the foot of Stob Dearg. I wondered if my choice to come mid-week to avoid the crowds had paid off. Perhaps everyone’s schedules had changed a little now.

Leaving the car with a rucksack full of food, water, and overnight gear—I was pleasantly surprised not to be tipping backwards, or bogged down by weight. There were some notable early upsides to the Bivvy.

Walking a kilometre the ‘wrong’ direction down the West Highland Way felt like swimming upstream against the groups of hikers heading north. By the Kingshouse hotel, I’d seen another dozen groups , and then, turning left past the gate at the WHW turn-off, I’d see nobody again until making my way back to the road tomorrow.

From here, leaving the road behind and carving a route up and onto the hill turns into a choose your own adventure. There’s scarce few paths and trails on to Beinn a’Chrùlaiste, the few that do appear fizzle out after a just handful of paces.

The ground on this side of hill is still boggy, despite recent dry weather. Since the thought of spending the night out in damp clothes didn’t appeal much, footing was chosen carefully and wisely. Progress, in comparison to more defined paths and trails, is necessarily slower. Though the rewards, for making your own way up the hill, are plentiful too. Few follow close behind without the well-trodden paths ahead.

A stream coming down off Coire Bhalach provides a rough guide to take you up into the hill from the roadside. A sharp kink, where the stream takes two 90 degree turns, marks the conventional turn-off to make a sharp left and climb the slopes onto Beinn a’Chrùlaiste. Today though, the weather is fine, daylight plentiful, and my pack is much lighter than usual.

Instead, I continue upstream to summit the short ridge that connects Meall Bhalach. A kind 4×4 has made its way up here a time or two and left faint and intermittent path towards the ridge.

Eventually, over the top of the ridge, rocky ground opens up to reveal the Mamores to the north. At this time of year, caught between spring and the last traces of winter, great white patches of snow remain across many of the tops. The views look like they could come from an Alpine setting just as easily as a Scottish hillside.

On this day, the weather is as changeable as any Scotland’s hills see. Sheets of rain and patches of sunlight chase each other between the mountains in the distance. With barely 10 minutes between the seasons, conditions over vary wildly between mid-summer and the depths of winter. I spend some time watching in hope that the latter doesn’t approach these hills.

On Beinn a’Chrùlaiste the weather was still dry, but without the shelter of the ridge, a cold northern wind brought a chill with it that seemed to invite pressing on rapidly towards the summit. One more left turn from the ridge starts the hike over rocky ground towards the peak.

For the first time in hours, the views out into Glen Etive, Glencoe, and on to Buachaille Etive Mòr are unobstructed again.

Without much time to sit and enjoy the top, it’s time to start descending to more level ground again. More importantly, it’s time to find a good spot to pitch up for the night.

The wind is my main concern for now. The cold air coming from the north will be particularly unwelcome as temperatures drop with the sun. Second to that is making sure the views over the mountains in golden hours remain relatively unobstructed.

To achieve both, I descend onto the south side of Beinn a’Chrùlaiste and drop away from the conventional route off the hill.

With uneven, boggy, and waterlogged patches covering the hill, the options for a suitable pitch are remarkably limited at best.

I search the hill to look for a space that combines ample shelter from the wind, dry grass, a flat surface, and uninterrupted scenery—a goldilocks pitch. After some false starts and not-quite-right candidates, there’s a suitable spot at hand. A tiny patch of level ground downwind of a grass berm.

My home for the night is a little more narrow than I’d have liked, but what’s the use of having a Bivvy if you’re not going to play to its strengths.

I pitch up, assembling the sleeping mat, sleeping bag, and an inflatable pillow into the bag. The latter, a small luxury afforded in return for shedding the excess weight of the tent. With some dry layers added to see through the night, dinner is a chicken tikka and sticky toffee pudding boiled in their respective bags.

Overnight Bivvy

Now, as the sun sets over the hills opposite, there are some minor nerves. Much like the first night’s solo camp, what to expect through the small hours and into the morning is a complete unknown.

Warm sunlight is chased up the hills of Glen Etive and replaced by shadows first and then darkness. The weather overnight is set to remain dry, but temperatures are expected to dip a little below freezing. Even with ample shelter from the mountain and the terrain, the Bivvy still seems that bit more exposed now.

For a little insurance, I rip open a packet of hand warmers and throw them into the foot of my sleeping bag. Forty pence for a warm night outdoors, an unmissable bargain.

Pulling my hat over my eyes to catch some sleep and there’s an unusual silence. With the Bivvy too low to catch the wind, there’s little of the tell-tale rustle usually provided by the tent. Without it, it scarcely feels like camping and more like falling asleep directly on the hillside.

When I next wake up, there’s a single point of light shining brightly through the bug-net. Outside, the cloudy sky had cleared, and with no tent overhead, the entire night sky was visible. The stars were lighting up the sky in reds, whites, yellows, and blues. There was a show going on overhead and I was there to watch from the comfort of a sleeping bag.

More and more became visible as my eyes adjusted to the light. Within 15 minutes, there was barely a spot in the sky that they didn’t fill. The advantage of the Bivvy, to watch the night sky from high over Glencoe, vastly undersold.

I expect I watched for an hour or two as satellites raced from one side of the sky to another. As they criss-crossed and followed each other high above the Glen, I noted how comfortable and quiet it seemed. Only my face was slightly chilled outside of my sleeping bag drawn tight. Otherwise, a night planted on the side of the mountain was much warmer than I might have imagined.

In the early morning light, I wake up before the sun has a chance to rise yet. The sky and landscape lit up in a pale blue tone. There’s daylight and bird song, but a cold chill still in the air before the day really gets started.

A thick layer of frost covering the top of my Bivvy and rucksack suggests the shelter was putting in more of a shift last night than I initially thought. My boots are frozen stiff and the drinking water now simply a bag of ice. Lessons learnt, tips I should have taken eight hours prior.

Breakfast was another boil in the bag meal to get the day started. All day and hot—the exact contents didn’t seem to matter. Time to pack up and, much like tenting, it’s a process that’s cold and cumbersome until you can get moving again. It may have been a little faster though.

Before 6 am I was on the move back towards the car. Not long after, the sun was beginning to catch the top of the mountains again, chasing shadows back down into their Glens.

In bright sunshine, dry, and warm, it was a morning in the hills as pleasant and amazing as any I’ve had in many years prior.

Following the contours of the mountain and up onto Stob Beinn a’Chrùlaiste, I lumber down the steep slope, warm now, and heading back down onto the West Highland Way.

Back with the car at Altnafeadh, I find myself packing up and changing boots thinking about where to take the Bivvy next. In fair weather anyway.

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