Andy Kirkpatrick's Doctor Gear: Bivy Bags vs. Bothy Bags

Andy Kirkpatrick is Doctor Gear

In this interactive article series, gear guru and mountain funny man Andy Kirkpatrick will answer your questions on gear. From the basic to the bizarre, if you need to know something then just Ask Andy!

Forum Thread for posting questions: Premier Post

Read Doctor Gear Part 2 - Alpine Leg-Wear

Question for Andy:

Hi Andy,
My name is Jason, I am 35, live in Melbourne, Australia, and am becoming hooked on this whole mountaineering thing....there's no turning back (I think the wife wants to though).

I am doing a course with Adventure Consultants in New Zealand in November (an Alpine Climbing Course) as I don't have any mates so I have to pay for them at the moment! Well, I do, but none are interested in this, so stuff em, I'll do it myself. I require a bivy bag for the course, and understand that there are horses for courses, and materials to suit. I suppose to start with, it would primarily be used for snow caving and emergencies.

I don't know if a bivy bag is ideal for emergencies though, as you would be fluffing around on your own, rather than say in a bothy shelter, which sounds like a great peice of kit (not big here in Oz, but I like them). At least that way you can both sit it out together and benefit from each others warmth.

Hmm, what am I trying to say:

"A bothy shelter looks great for emergencies, but would you modify or use it as a bivy bag for snow caving situations?"

Also, I came across a Bozeman bivy with a Silnylon floor and Pertex Quantum top... 177grams, but do you reckon it would suffice (enough water resistanceness, durability etc)? I'm trying to keep the weight down! Either way, I look forward to your slant on the subject, and what works for you, both in product or material.

Cheers, and thanks for your time.


Andy's Answer:

Hi Jase,

Well lets start this new column with a story...

I will always remember the very first time I slept out in a bivy bag. I was probably about 13. I was in North Yorkshire with my brother and sister, when my dad told us cryptically that we were going to be sleeping somewhere special. Driving up onto the moors after tea via a winding road, we parked at an old stone bridge, the the dark closing in around us as soon as the engine died.

Bothy 4
“Where's the camp-site?” we all asked, thinking our dad was joking.

“Follow me” he said, getting out of the car and pulling a huge rucksack out of the trunk. Unsure what was in store, we followed him into the dark, all mumbling and complaining about the lack of obvious sleeping amenities.

“Here we are” he said, dumping his bag on the floor.

“Here?” we all said.

Emptying out the rucksack, four sleeping bags tumbled out onto the floor.

“We're sleeping here!?” we all cried again.

“Yep” he said, next pulling out 4 loaf sized stuff sacks, from which big oblong bags of fabric appeared.

“Right kids, this is a bivy bag. Grab a sleeping bag and get inside before it starts raining”.

Laying under the stars, shoulder to shoulder, was one of the most memorable moments of my young life. If some one had told me before that night that you could see satellite crossing the heavens, or that shooting start could be so numerous that you'd run out of wishes, that the constellations did stand out, and once seen would never be forgotten, I wouldn't have believed them.

Since then I've probably spent a couple of months of my life laying in bivys bags, bags of all shapes, sizes and materials, models made for two people, and models obviously made for less than one! I've used bags made from every waterproof breathable fabric know to mankind, plus some which were non breathable and some which were non waterproof, or even both! I've tried super-light-weight bags that were snow proof, and heavy weight bags you could probably sail the Atlantic in, and along the way I've learnt a couple of things.

A Bothy Shelter/ Bothy Bag is the Number 1 Survival Tool:

If you think a bivy bag alone will save your skin I'm afraid you may be sorely disappointed. Of course by getting into your bivy bag you will reduce the effect of wind, and create a slight rise in your micro climate, but sitting alone in a bivy bag with nothing else is a pretty grim affair. A bothy bag is cheaper, lighter and provides far more protection, both physically and psychologically and should be in the rucksack of every climber or walker in the UK (or stowed in a bum bag for rucksack-less multi pitch climbers). By grouping together you can share body heat, food, water and more importantly moral. Also a bothy bag is a very mobile shelter, and you may find that when the shit hits the fan, stopping for half an hour in the bag will allow you to sort yourself out enough to carry on (eat some food, double check the map, ring for a forecast). Splitting a team into their bivy bags almost guarantees to magnify the problem. Personally I use a 4 man Terranova bothy bag, which I further compress into an XS Exped dry bag (marked bothy bag).

A Bothy Bag in Action
When a Bivy Bag Rocks:
A bivy bag is an odd piece of kit, it's a shelter, but it's not a tent, it's lieghtweight, but not that much lighter than the lightest tents, it's almost the same kind of price as a tent. What am I saying? Well for some people having a lightweight tent for sleeping in and a Bothy bag for emergency's probably makes mores sense. What a bivy bag is good for is dossing, basically sleeping rough in doorways, car parks, snow holes, caves, anywhere were there is wind and wetness, providing all the protection you need, but pitch-able in the same space as a sleeping bag (laying or sitting). This is why a bivy bag is a vital piece of climbing kit for alpine climbers, giving them and their sleeping bag a tiny mobile shelter, and extending their ability to stay comfortable in the hills for multiple day outings (and not just survival).

Make Sure 100% of the bag is Breathable:
In the past all waterproof bivy bags were 100% breathable, meaning both top and bottom were Gore-Tex. But as the years progressed manufactures tried to reduce weight and bulk by introducing PU bottoms, the idea being you could simply slip your mat inside rather underneath, after all why have breathable material if you're laying on it. This is probably fine for some campers, but for climbers, who may often find they are sitting in their bags, or spending days, even weeks in a bivy bag (snow holing, multiple bivys, damp huts), then a 100% breathable bag is the only way to go, with the extra cost being offset by the high usage.

Make Sure it's as Waterproof as Possible:
Now in the past I've dabbled with water-resistant bivy bags made by PHD and Black Diamond, and although great for super cold trips, I've finally come to the conclusion that nothing beats having a 100% waterproof bag (well as 100% as waterproof bags can be). No matter how cold it gets, there is always water. A good example was my trip to Patagonia last year with Ian Parnell, were even in the winter we had to content with rivers flowing under our tent, super wet snow holes, spindrift in a bergshrund bivy, and worse of all, a lake forming under our sleeping bags in a rock cave (the ice melting under us). On that trip I had a BD Epic bivy bag and Ian had an Event Wild things bags, and several times I really envied him as he simply zipped himself up safe and sound from the dampness.

Delta Bivvy Bag from PHD
Keep it Simple:
Make sure your climbing bivy has a double zip that goes from shoulder to shoulder, and is long enough to sit up in (when wearing a helmet), with a little extra room for boots, gas canisters and the like. Having a tie in point is nice, but simple larks footing a sling to a large hex on the inside works just as well, and can be placed were you need it (such as in the hood on sitting bivys, or on the hip for laying bivys).

Never Breathe in to Your Bag:
Unless you simply can't avoid it, never stick your head into your bivy bag. Always leave a gap to breath out off, as the moisture level in your bag will rocket if you do. This is perhaps one of the reasons why non hooded bags (bags that are simple mummy shaped) often seem to breath better than more expensive hooded bags.

Keep It Bright:
If you can avoid olive green bivy bags, both for morals sake, and because having a bright bag makes it easier to see in an emergency (either layed on the ground or when sitting waiting).

Look After It:
Treat your bivy bag like a tent and keep it clean (with a sponge), and dry (store in a drybag on the hill).

About Andy Kirkpatrick:

Andy Kirkpatrick
© Mick Ryan
Andy Kirkpatrick is the third best climber ever to come out of Hull (John Redhead and Joe Tasker pipping him at the post), and is as well known for his nerdy knowledge of gear, as his ability to climb slowly up hard routes. His knowledge of the finer points of climbing gear comes from ten years in the trade (running the rock room in Outside Hathersage), as gear editor for magazines such as Climb, Climber and High, and twenty years of climbing, often on routes where only the right gear would see you home safe (gear that very often he'd neglected to bring...or dropped!).

Having spent two years in the wilderness writing his first book, Psychovertical (published by Hutchinson in September), Andy is returning to climbing gear writing here at with Doctor Gear, an irregular surgery for all gear and strange technique questions. If you would like to book an appointment, then please submit any questions to the associated Premier Post (please note Andy will not treat your questions confidentially in any way!).

Andy Kirkpatrick is sponsored by Berghaus and Lyon Equipment.

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