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From mats to shelters to cookware, most bivvying gear has shed weight and bulk in recent years. Though kit seems to be getting lighter all the time, is it improving in other ways? I'm no fast and light fanatic and would never willingly sacrifice comfort, usability or durability on the altar of a featherweight fetish. But all else being equal, lighter has to be righter.
The lightweight bivy set up tested:
Alpkit Rig 7 tarp
Rab Alpine Lite bivi
Exped Synmat UL 7
Edelrid Kiro Ti stove
Primus LiTech Trek Kettle
SteriPEN Traveler mini
= 1838g all in
Similar products are available from other brands.
With summer in the offing thoughts turn to bivvies; fresh air, manageable loads and the freedom of the open hills. Since most of my old kit now looks shabby and decidedly on the heavy side I reckoned I'd check out a range of newer, lighter offerings from several different manufacturers, making up a shortlist of key kit for tent-free nights out. In each case plenty of other makes and models are of course available, but the items I've chosen are all around the top of their class and strike a good balance between lightness, functionality and cost.
In most cases going much lighter than these models will have drawbacks in terms of finance or function (or both). In addition to the obligatory bivi bag etc I thought I'd have a bit of fun with a tarp, that slightly quirky compromise between under canvas (ie. nylon) and under the stars (ie. rain). They are all the rage this season, and the one I chose was basically black, which never really goes out of fashion. Bar a miserable night in a Sumatran downpour that I would prefer to forget, this was to be my first ever tarp attempt.
Research for a hillwalking guidebook sent me on a long circuit of Ben Hope and Ben Loyal; you could do it in one big day, but it was the ideal opportunity to get started on the test.
The first and perhaps most notable observation came before I'd even used anything – it's all so easy on the shoulders. For a spring bivvy with two days' food and a reasonable amount of camera gear my bag was no bigger than a winter climbing pack, and definitely less burdensome. I found I could maintain more or less the same pace as on a moderately loaded day walk, with barely more effort. It didn't take long to nip along the Moine Path and up Ben Hope's north ridge (missing out the tricky VDiff step – it wasn't that sort of trip)...
Alpkit Rig 7 tarp
For more info visit Alpkit
A strong wind with hints of the winter just gone was gusting on top of Ben Hope, and though my previous tarp experience was limited I knew that wind plus tarp would not make easy bedfellows (well, I wouldn't be easy in my bed). I picked a way down the steep east flank in search of calm among the jumbled boulders and hollows. Light was fading when I finally found a spot flat enough to lie down on – a bit boggy, but I was running out of options. Its shelter was only relative. Being endowed with a relaxed attitude to forward planning this was the first time I'd taken the Rig 7 out of its stuff sack. Unlike a tent there's more than one way to pitch a tarp, and it was immediately obvious that I ought to have practised various options beforehand.
"...though my previous tarp experience was limited I knew wind plus tarp would not make easy bedfellows..."
As I tried to devise the best structure in the limited dusk available it flapped like a sail in a storm, threatening to take off and leave me roofless; a conventional poled tent would have been easier to manage. I'd been canny enough to bring some lightweight tent pegs, but didn't really have enough string and was a little piqued that the Rig 7 came with no guys. With its large surface area and multiple rig points it is however supremely versatile, and in the circumstances it was only a lack of imagination (and string) that resulted in a traditional ridged tent lookalike, the uprights formed by my walking poles. This was a new one on me but makes perfect sense; if you're carrying two poles in your hands all day then why can't they serve a useful function at night too, obviating the need for (and weight of) dedicated tent poles?
More or less satisfied with my bodge, I weighted the tarp hems with rocks and crawled in. The wind whooshed through my open-ended tunnel, the fabric billowed and cracked like a flag, but the structure held surprisingly firm. Set up well it seems a Rig 7 can take a fair bit of weather. I'd pitched it low to withstand the breeze but even allowing for that space was fairly limited; I can imagine two people using this tarp happily, but three would be a squeeze and Alpkit's four man claim seems wildly optimistic unless we're talking very small men with no personal space issues.
On this squidgy ground the lack of a groundsheet was felt right away, and I and the Exped mat were soon peat smeared. However if I'd brought an extra groundsheet in addition to the tarp then my net weight saving would not have been impressive. My usual shelter on a one-person camp is provided by a Terra Nova Laser Competition 1, a genuine tent with double walls and a real floor that weighs less than one kilo; it's hard to imagine a tarp-plus-groundsheet combo beating that. It would be possible to fold the Rig 7 into an open-sided structure with some of the tarp forming a floor, but it's not something I'd be likely to do with wind gusting from all sides.
When the day died so did the breeze. Then a full moon rose and it seemed almost as bright as morning. And it was then I grasped the whole point of a tarp, something more fundamental even than the weight saving. From under my shelter I could see everything without even having to poke my head out; the light on the rocks, the long shadows of the boulders, the jaggedy form of Ben Loyal beyond a wilderness of pools and burns. I really felt outside, not divorced from it as I would've been zipped up in a tent.
For its size the Rig 7 seems pretty light, and while I've not yet had the chance to subject it to long term abuse on first impressions it appears durable too. The multiple reinforced points to attach guys or upright poles allow many possible shapes and configurations, and I'll look forward to playing more with this in future. Pitched well it stands up to a reasonable amount of weather, though it would not be my first choice if high wind or rain were forecast and I can't see myself ever wanting to use it in winter. And as for Scottish midge season? Don't even go there. Ideal opportunities to use the Rig 7 in the hills of home are limited but within these parameters it's an excellent choice, and at £45 good value compared to most decent tents.
SteriPEN Traveler mini
For more info see Steripen
I popped out in the moonlight in search of water. The only source available was a bog-fringed pool. In Scotland I always drink straight out of running burns with no ill effects (touch wood), but in places like the Lakes and northern Snowdonia that feel the pressure (that's a euphemism) of sheep and visitors I'm generally more circumspect. I've often boiled doubtful water, or added vile tasting iodine (while wondering if an upset belly is really the greater of two evils after all); that goes double in warmer climes with nastier nasties in the streams.
For all I know a pool 500m up in the pristine hills of Sutherland might be cleaner than my tap water in Fife, but why take a slim chance? Even in the Highlands I'd generally prefer to treat or boil still water, so although I'd thought the SteriPEN would end up being unnecessary weight in the event I was actually glad of it; it's quicker and less faff than boiling, with none of the unpleasant taste of chemical treatments.
SteriPEN products are new to me and I'm struck by how nifty they are. They use shortwave UV light as a germicide to disinfect suspect water by zapping the DNA of any microbes floating around. 'Without intact DNA, microbes cannot reproduce to make you sick' they explain. 'SteriPEN's UV light technology eliminates over 99.9% of bacteria, viruses and protozoa that cause water-borne illness.' Without a lab full of white-coated boffins how's a lowly gear reviewer to falsify that claim? I'm not about to go around quaffing litres from random dodgy sources until something volcanic happens – or preferably doesn't. Let's take their word for it.
"...SteriPEN products are new to me and I'm struck by how nifty they are..."
Ninety seconds gets you a litre of guaranteed safe water, and while the flashing lights indicating various operating signals, battery and lamp warnings require a translation manual fundamentally the Traveler Mini is very quick and foolproof in use (well, I got it to work). It is light and compact too. One word of caution: SteriPENs are only reliable in temperatures above 0ºC; I guess below that you'll probably be melting snow or ice for water anyway.
Exped Synmat UL 7
For more info see Exped
And so to bed. Since I was 14 a thick winter weight Karrimat has gone with me on practically every camping trip, and it's still going strong after more than 20 years. It must be the best purchase my Mum ever made, and I was a little reluctant to part with this utterly reliable security blanket. But rolled up it is huge, stuck on the outside of the pack catching the wind and sticking in chimneys when climbing. On the other hand I've tended to be sceptical of inflatable mats of all makes, and have not had a great track record with punctures and leaky valves to date. But after only one night with the Synmat UL 7 I was a firm convert to cutting edge comfort.
In use it's as luxurious as the sort of pump-filled airbed you'd pack in the car for a family camping trip to Brittany, undreamed-of pampering for someone used to making do with closed cell foam. In size M it's plenty long enough for my 6-foot frame. Raised a full 7cm off the ground on its fat air-filled ridges I couldn't feel the unevenness beneath at all – and I'm usually a bit of a princess and the pea (despite the penchant for old school bedding). Though it was a chilly night on Ben Hope I still felt well protected from heat-sapping bogs, insulated with a light lofting microfibre insert that's rated to -4ºC. The Synmat is quick to inflate, about 90 seconds without going blue in the face, and there are separate valves for inflation and deflation.
Exped claim these are more durable than conventional two-way valves, and there does seem to be less to go wrong with them. They sit neatly flat against the mat, the only drawback to which is that everything gets covered in slobber when you blow. It's also worth bearing in mind that you'd not want to use this mat unprotected if there was any danger of puncture – gravel, sharp sticks etc. Again a groundsheet might be handy here, though as already stated that all adds to the weight on your back. Exped reckon the Synmat is slip resistant but having used it camping now as well as bivvying I beg to differ – in a tent on a slope you do drift just a little. Peat stains don't seem to wash out of it too well either.
Deflated there's little more bulk to the Synmat UL 7 than a single duvet cover; it packs down about the size of a 1litre water bottle and weights a paltry 460g. I've slept like a baby on it for several nights now and have barely noticed it in the backpack during the day. The £90.00 price tag for the size M does look a lot but I would say unequivocally that it's a price worth paying for sleeping and carrying comfort. To save a bit on money and weight even tall folk could make do with the size S if they don't mind using rolled up clothes at the head and/or foot end. I won't be going back to the Karrimat in a hurry.
Rab Alpine Lite bivi
For more info see Rab
This is a great bit of kit. At first glance the Alpine Lite looks deceptively simple - fundamentally it's just a waterproof bag after all – but every feature has been well thought out and there are no extraneous whistles and bells. The first welcome discovery on Ben Hope was the waterproof nylon 'bathtub' style base. I think I may have mentioned that I was bedded down on a bog, and though elevated off the peat on my sleeping mat there was still more than enough wet slime smearing about the place; with its raised sides nothing's getting past that nylon base.
Without wishing to labour the point it was pretty nippy as well, and I was glad of my lightweight Rab down bag (a review of down bags for summer is forthcoming). The Alpine Lite bivi has side walls in order to maximise sleeping bag loft, and this being a 'summer' sleeping bag on an early spring night halfway up Scotland's northernmost Munro I needed all the help I could get. It's not something I've noticed on a bivi before, and I reckon it worked a treat.
"...I think I may have mentioned that I was bedded down on a bog.
The bag's upper is an eVent fabric, light but tough-feeling with a ripstop pattern and fully taped seams. The couple of nights I've now spent in it have been cool and dry and condensation has been no issue. If it was to struggle with this at all I might expect it to happen more in muggy damp conditions, though so far I've not had a chance to find out. Considerable past experience with eVent jackets would suggest it'll breathe as well as anything currently available; this is my preferred fabric for waterproof shells so I'd be expect to be able to say the same for bivi bags. As for keeping the rain at bay, I've had to resort to testing it in the shower. It works. If you're going really lightweight then dispense with the tarp altogether – the Alpine Lite is more than capable on its own.
Alpkit Rig 7 - instructions (and string) not included!
UKC Gear, May 2011
© Dan Bailey
For someone of my average-ish size there's plenty of shoogle space inside, and more than enough headroom to be able to zip right in for the full foul weather experience. The opening also has a velcro storm flap which if only part-closed I personally prefer to the zip to avoid any stuffy claustrophobia. One of the features that impressed me most is something I've sadly not had the chance to try in anger – the 'doughnut' tie-in loop, so simple it's verging on genius. On alpine or big wall ascents clipping into the belay while sleeping can be done by running a line through the mouth of your bivi bag down to your harness, but with the Alpine Lite Rab have dispensed with this faff. Midway down one side of the bag they've included a little sealed tunnel (or 'doughnut') which can be threaded with a rope or sling from the outside and clipped into on the inside. It's completely weatherproof.
For the purely weight obsessed backpacker lighter bivi bags are available, and of course there are cheaper models on the market too. But to my mind the Alpine Lite is an ideal compromise of lightness, packability, toughness and weatherproofness with some intelligent features that set it apart. I hope Rab don't ask for it back in a hurry.
Edelrid Kiro Ti stove
For more info see Edelrid
This did not arrive in time for the Ben Hope trip, but I took it to Rum the following week and it's been out with me several times now. I like it a lot. Where canister gas is available I much prefer gas stoves over other fuel types for their reliability, ease of use and lack of soot. Though they're less stable and more wind-prone than ground-standing models I'd generally go with a canister-top stove since they're inevitably smaller and lighter. For the purposes of this review smallness and lightness were key, and the Kiro Ti didn't disappoint. There can't be many stoves better suited to weight conscious backpacking.
With its minimalist titanium construction this stove comes in at a respectable weight compared with other wee canister-top stoves (the MSR Pocket Rocket for instance is 85g; the Primus Micron Ti is 69g), but it doesn't feel at all flimsy for it. The folding pan feet are simple but clever, opening wide enough to support a pan big enough to cook for two or three people. To pack away the pan supports nest neatly together while the control lever folds discreetly over the body to give a compact package in a satisfyingly wee stuff sack.
In use it roars reassuringly, producing a powerful even flame at full blast that soon brings a litre of water to a violent boil; Edelrid estimate three minutes at room temperature with no wind, though these conditions are unlikely to be encountered in real life. However if cooking in draughty weather under an open tarp even a stove as enthusiastic as the Kiro Ti will wheeze and flicker a bit. Yes you could bring a foil wind guard, but as with the groundsheet conundrum it's just one more thing to offset the weight saving of having opted for a tarp. The small diameter of the burner means quite a focused flame, so burning your food could be an issue for the less attentive. But the output is very controllable, easily reduced to only a light simmer if need be. Though I've not done a controlled trial against other gas stoves the Kiro Ti's efficiency seems good, with a standard gas canister going quite a long way for your money.
Primus LiTech Trek Kettle
For more info see Primus
Anodised aluminium is a good thing to make cookware out of. Harder than stainless steel and five times harder than bog standard alu it resists dents and scratches pretty well, meaning that pot walls can be made thinner. Naturally thinner walls mean lighter cookware, and for its size the LiTech Kettle certainly doesn't make much impact on overall pack weight. To shave many more grams from a pot would probably cost you, and I for one have better things to spend money on.
With its 1 litre capacity this pot (it's not really what I'd call a kettle - and it's not black) is the ideal size when cooking for one. If my experience is anything to go by its tall-ish, narrow-ish shape is ideal for bringing water to a rapid boil. Combined with the Edelrid stove a half litre can be bubbling ferociously in the time it takes to find your cafetiere and fill it with ground coffee (darling). The little spout pours smoothly without dribbling. Heating liquids is certainly what the LiTech Kettle does best, since the small area of its base does not make it best suited to frying. Still, needs must and it's fine if you're attentive with stirring. Turns out the lid is the perfect size for a fried egg too.
I have not yet managed to scratch the titanium non-stick coating. This makes the pot easily wipe clean-able, and even singed porridge can be removed without excessive elbow grease. If, like me, you're all elbows and thumbs then the ridged surface on the base of the pot does offer a little welcome traction when it's balanced on a stove. The rubber coated folding handles on pot and lid obviously add a little weight, but they make up for it with convenience, coupled with the fact that you don't need to carry a separate pan grab. For the very reasonable price this is a quality, no-nonsense choice for solo cooking. It also doubles as a mug.
About Dan Bailey
UKH Editor Dan Bailey is the author of several guidebooks including Great Mountain Days in Scotland, West Highland Way, The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland - Scrambles and Climbs and Scotland's Mountain Ridges - A Guide to Scrambles and Climbs described as 'a work of considerable authority, I can recommend (it) unreservedly' by Chris Craggs.
Dan lives in Fife and has always had a passion for climbing and the outdoors. His work features widely in print and online media, from outdoor mags to Sunday papers.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com: