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How to Bivvy. Planned and Unplanned!

Updated: Jan 7

In fine weather a unplanned or a planned bivvy generally involves little suffering. Fine weather can also be very forgiving when it comes to small mistakes in gear management. Bivvying can be broken into two categories. Planned and Unplanned. I will start with the planned type, as an unplanned bivvy is more about enduring with what you have rather than planning for something you know is coming.

If you have to wait out a long storm inside your bivvy bag, nothing beats being able to pee while zipped warmly up inside your sleeping bag. Therefore when planning to bivvy I always take a wide lid 1.5L piss bottle. Its great to be able to pee whenever you like and go back to sleep rather than lying awake for hours trying to hold on. The piss bottle is also great for a tent. Many will knock it but once they have tried few people go back to not carrying one!

For planned bivvys and on long winter routes I usually pack a spare pair of dry socks. Frost bite is no joke and having a dry pair of socks to change into will not only help you sleep better it will also reduce the risk of frost bite on a long planned or unplanned winter bivvy. The same goes for one spare pair of dry gloves. Generally I have a pair of synthetic mitts sitting at the bottom of my pack. They don't weigh much and for planned or unplanned bivvys they help keep your fingers warm. For winter climbing I would only bring these gloves out on the descent when I am certain I will reach a more permanent shelter. Otherwise they stay in the bottom of the pack for emergency use only. This ensures they are dry and warm when needed. Keeping your toes and fingers warm during a bivvy is the best way to get a descent night's sleep. In cold wet environments having a small amount of foot powder to help keep your feet dry can also be useful. Along with the dry gloves and socks for winter routes

In winter I also carry a second spare warm hat. This is to ensure that when you stop for the day or night you can take off the usually damp balaclava or beanie you have been wearing, and while it drys put on your spare warm one. This is often topped up by a neoprene face mask if I think things are going to be particularly cold. Often in a bivvy bag to avoid excessive condensation you need to leave an opening for your face. Allowing you to breath outside of the bag. When its super cold or windy however having your face exposed to the elements can make it very hard to sleep. A balaclava and a face mask work well to fix this problem. For a planned bivvy you can often have the luxury of excess gas. This will allow you to make yourself a hot water bottle with your drink bottle to help warm your sleeping bag for the night. Just make sure it is one that can actually handle boiling water! You can also fill your water bottles with boiling water and put them inside your boot inners to help dry out moisture.

The actual bivvy bag

Many bivvy bags are made out of two different fabrics. A fully waterproof nylon on the bottom that doesn't really breath, is tough and durable. Then some form of breathable fabric on top. This is useful when you bivvy on snow and for reducing the overall cost of the bivvy bag. It does however mean that if your role around during the night you usually move the non breathable part of your bag to a new location and end up making another part of your sleeping bag damp. Even a fully breathable bag will condensate when zipped up. Therefore in most situations where full closure is not necessary I mostly leave the bag completely unzipped to allow more airflow. Personally I do not like the extra storm hood that some bivvy bags have. I find this simply sits on my face and makes me feel claustrophobic. Instead I prefer the lighter and more simple design of having a side zip that comes up and over your face. I like this zip to have three zippers allowing you to have more than one opening point.

Your pack plays an important role in any planned or unplanned bivvy. I prefer to take a pack with a removable back pad & one that does not have a fixed frame. Usually I will insert some foam in this space that folds out to about the length of a three quarter Thermorest. This combined with the actual pack, rope and anything else that works well to insulate you from the ground usually makes the basis of my bivvy spot. On snow I usually put everything inside the bag. On rock I place the bivvy bag on top of my pads and pack to protect it from getting any holes.

One option that many people don't seem to consider is the double bivvy bag. This is something I particularly like. Two people inside a double bivvy bag often need no sleeping bag or just a very light bag to keep them warm enough to sleep. Sadly few if any companies make this as on off the shelf item so you will have to either make one yourself or have it custom made for you. Just make sure you size it big enough to fit you and all your gear when seated and when lying down.

Ear plugs & an eye patch are excellent for improving your enjoyment while bivvying. If you don't pack them already give it a go, I am sure you will sleep better for it. Just make sure you hang your alarm somewhere close to your ear so you wake up in the morning. In general terms I try to keep everything inside my bivvy bag. My boots dry bagged along with spare cloths. I will leave my stove outside weighted down just to make sure it doesn't blow away during the night. Even if the weather is fine its worth making sure all your gear is packed away in a dry secure place before bedding down for the night. For any items outside of my bag I try to make sure they are within arms reach.

For planned bivvy’s I will take my 10L MSR style water bladder. This allows a team of three when also filling all of their water bottles to hold enough water for the evening, breakfast and the next days climbing without having to spend time in the morning melting snow or collecting water. It is also great to have a large water storage to help you sit out storms and avoid having to get out of your bivvy bag to melt snow or hunt for water. Think for example of three climbers water requirements for an evening meal, breakfast and climb. Usually 2L each in the night (one to cook with and one to drink) the same again for breakfast and another 2L for a big day of climbing. Thats a total of 18L of water if you plan to stay well hydrated. Trying to melt even 1L each in the morning wastes time and slows down the start of your day.

Don’t be afraid to cuddle! If it is freezing at a belay or you are sitting outside in an open bivvy, don’t just shiver alone while your partner suffers next to you. A good old cuddle will usually warm you up. It is especially nice if your cold and scared as they say a cuddle is proven to reduce your stress!! For all those climbers who are also trying to pick up their climbing partner this could be the ice breaker you have been looking for! For everyone else it will help keep you warm. On some very cold belays when climbing as a three I have hugged the belayer to help warm us both up. I have also shared a belay jacket one arm each the rear person hugging while the front climber belays. When it’s super cold, do what ever it takes to warm up.

Climbing with a stove at the bottom of your pack for any routes where getting caught out could have a catastrophic consequence is not a bad idea. For most summer rock climbs I would not carry a stove, as in general you can absail your line and get back to safety fairly easily. However on any big snow / ice routes or pretty much any long winter climbs I take a stove. The reason for carrying a stove and bothy bag for winter climbs is simply that the consequences of a forced unplanned bivvy are much higher. In winter you are far more likely to end up with frostbite, or to be unable to find water that is not frozen to drink. Therefore having something to melt snow for hydration and a shelter to cut wind chill is very important. For a bivvy planned or unplanned I prefer the titanium 800ml titanium Jetboil Sol. It is not the lightest cooking system you can use but…….. It is pretty light and boils water fast. I also like that I can use it while sitting i.e. hold it in my hand and heat water or cook a meal. Combined with a bothy bag a light stove with a small gas can plus spare lighter is usually the only survival equipment I carry. Never count on the push button ignition on your stove to. Taking a spare lighter stored in a dry bag is essential.

When deciding to make an unplanned bivvy, It is important to remember that in winter you will most likely survive the first night out, the second night will be very hard and without food or water your body will begin to shut down. By the third night you are unlikely to have the energy to rescue yourself. When you find yourself in an unplanned bivvy in an emergency situation I think it is very important to equally weigh the risk of sitting and waiting for rescue vs the risk of continuing on. In general terms and taking into account that every situation is different I always prefer to get myself as low as possible on the mountain before considering stopping. Even in places like Chamonix where there are well trained good rescues services, in bad weather you are unlikely to be rescued. Many people die every year sitting and waiting for rescue. If you find yourself in this situation assess your food, water and energy levels well and really decide if you have the right resources to wait out a major storm. Or is it simply safer to keep on moving and rescue yourself.

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