Camping Kits: Bivy Sacks, Tarps, Tents and Sleeping Bags

All About Bivy Sacks

A good bivy sack can be used as your primary shelter, or as a back-up plan when it might rain and you are planning to sleep under the stars without a shelter. They don’t necessarily reduce the weight in your pack, though, thanks to all the new ultralight tarps that are even lighter. The primary advantage is their simplicity. Roll it out and climb in.

Bivy sacks can be a bit confining, especially if you are at all claustrophobic. In that case you might try something like the Bibler Tents Hooped Bivy Sack. With its netting and headroom it is a little like a tent, but still only 22 ounces. There is a full description at the bottom of the page.

Another bivy sack I would like to try is the Black Diamond Winter Bivy Sack, which weighs only nine ounces. Although it may not be technically waterproof, it has had good reviews, even by those who have used it on rainy trips.

Bivy Sacks

The Lightest Bivy Sacks

To keep it really light, try the Adventure Medical Thermo-Lite Bivy. It is really just a high-tech plastic bag (bet they don’t like that description). I had my reservations when I first saw it. I thought I’d wake up soaked by condensation, but I have used it on a rainy summer night (with a small umbrella over my head) and I was dry in the morning. It has screened ventilation at the foot of the bag . I especially like the light weight: 6.5 ounces. Also, there aren’t any bivy sacks I know of that are cheaper, except one.

The Cheapest Bivy Sacks

My experience with the Thermo-Lite Bivy made me realize that maybe the warnings of bivy sack condensation were over-blown. I have since experimented with simple garbage bag bivies. To try this, get the extra large bags, duct tape the open ends of two bags together, then cut open one end. My garbage-bag-bivy weighs 4 ounces.

I discovered that in a dry climate, I’m only a bit damp in the morning, and dry quickly hiking. These bivies will wear out easily, but you can just throw them out after each trip and make new ones. At less than a dollar, the price is right.

Precautions When Using Bivy Sacks

When using bivy sacks, be careful not to breath inside them. Even the ones that are waterproof and breathable can’t handle much moisture. In the morning check inside the sack, and if there is moisture, take a break at some point during the day to turn it inside-out to dry.

Finally, if you have a bivy sack that can be used with either side down, be sure to always use it with the same side down. Small holes that wear in the fabric will allow rain in if they are on top, but usually won’t let much moisture seep in from the ground. Just keep the damage to one surface of the bivy sack.

Make Your Own Backpacking Tarps and Bivy Sacks

Backpacking tarps and bivy sacks are both decent alternatives to a tent. They will usually be lighter on your wallet as well as on your back, especially if you make them yourself. I don’t have much to tell you about making tarps (my experience consists only of one failed attempt), but Ray Jardine does. He’ll tell you how in The Ray-Way Tarp Book: How To Make A Tarp And Net-Tent.

Some of you may even enjoy the process, but not myself. Somewhere around the hundredth hour of sewing I lost interest in making gear, except for the simple things. Tents and backpacking tarps are not simple things to make.

Backpacking Tarps

Making Bivy Sacks

A bivy sack, on the other hand, can be two garbage bags duct-taped together to create one large bag (then cut one end open). Use the extra-large bags. The ones I make weigh 4 ounces, and are 3’x7′. I use them for a weekend trip or an over-nighter, and throw them away.

At less than a dollar, the price is right. So there is your lesson on making ultralight bivy sacks. Only 4 ounces, it will fit in your pocket, and leave you only a little damp in the morning (from condensation; don’t breath inside it). Hit the trail and you’ll be dry in a few minutes. You really should only use this type of bivy sack in a dry climate, but I haven’t had any real problems yet.

Ultralight Tents

There are many ultralight tents that I would love to try. Unfortunately, the manufacturers have discontinued their build-a-website-get-a-free-tent promotions. Also, I usually use a tarp. However, I can tell you a few things about ultralight backpacking tents, and give you a couple examples. I recently added a video as well.

Ultralight tents have to be judged by personal standards. Are you claustrophobic? Over 6-feet tall? Do you just sleep in your tent, or spend hours in it playing cards? Will you be in rainy areas? Do you want faster set-up or lighter weight? How much have you budgeted for a tent?

Ultralight Tents

What to Look for in Ultralight Tents?

When looking at tents, be sure to note the floor size (especially important for tall guys like myself). If the length is within a few inches of your height, you will be touching the walls and probably getting wet from the condensation. Total floor space becomes important if you plan to spend a lot of time in the tent.

Remember that single-layer tents (without a rain-fly) are likely to have more condensation inside, even if they are made with material that is waterproof and breathable. This is less true with the newer designs that have a lot of screen/ventilation area. Personally, I think air circulation is as important as having a “breathable material.” These materials just don’t breath that well anyhow.

Finally, it isn’t fun to spend 20 minutes setting up a complicated tent in the rain. And it can be more than inconvenient to tear the seams because of a design that stretches everything so tight you have to fight with it. So my own preference is for tents that set up easily and quickly.

Ultralight Tents: Specific Recommendations

I really like GoLite products. The Golite Den 2 Shelter is the only totally enclosed 2-person tent that I know of that is under 3 pounds. The forward sloping door allows for a large screen area, to keep air-flow at a maximum, which keeps condensation at a minimum.

GoLite also has a floor-less 3-person tent, the Hex 3 Shelter, that weighs less than 2 pounds. I haven’t tried it yet, but it gets good reviews, and it is in the weight range I want for ultralight tents. Being floor-less, you will have to bring a groundsheet of some kind with this tent.

Unfortunately, I have discovered the hard way (four tents and counting) that you tend to get what you pay for with ultralight tents. That is one of the reasons I backpack with a tarp.

The Best Lightweight Sleeping Bags

There are many more options for lightweight sleeping bags than in the past, but we are all so different. Some can’t sleep in a mummy bag. Others can sleep in anything that is enclosed. Some won’t be gentle enough to use a fragile high-tech bag, while others seem to make their gear last forever. Ray Jardine swears by his hand-made quilts, but many of us don’t have the time nor skill to sew.

There is no one answer to which lightweight sleeping bag is best. Some of us will need two or three different ones for different situations. One of the big choices is whether to go with a down or synthetic bag. You’ll find pages with more information on both types listed at the bottom of this page.

Of course, until I get that bag-testing gig (any offers?) I can’t personally try out too many sleeping bags. I have used the Western Mountaineering HighLite, which I highly recommend.

There are many places in the U.S. to buy good sleeping bags and pads, and you’ll find my recommendations scattered throughout the pages of the site.

Lightweight Sleeping Bags

Lightweight Down Sleeping Bags

Down is lighter as an insulation. People have been speculating for decades that we are just about to see a new synthetic material that, ounce-for-ounce, insulates as well as down, but it hasn’t happened yet. Down bags are much more compressible than the synthetic ones, so they take noticeably less space in the pack. They also can be rejuvenated by throwing them in the dryer with a shoe. This “fluffs” up the down. I have seen 30-year-old down sleeping bags that have virtually all of their original loft after a treatment like this.

You might think now that a down bag is the ultimate lightweight sleeping bag. Well…maybe. The primary problem with down is that it is worthless when wet. This can be a serious problem. I have been through a week of rain, camping under a tarp, and managed to keep my down bag dry. But I had to be very careful. Also, down will sometimes leak out, especially if you tear a seam.

Using Ultralight Tarps

I have two ultralight tarps, but with the strings, the lightest weighs 16 ounces, which seems heavy now, when I look at the new tarps out there. The Integral Designs Sil Tarp 5′ x 8′, for example, weighs only 7 ounces. Then there is the Bozeman Mountain Works Stealth 0 Catenary Ridgeline Ultralight Backpacking Tarp. With a name like that, you know it has to be expensive, but it weighs an amazing 5.7 ounces. In any case, almost any backpacking tarp you can buy will be lighter (and cheaper) than the lightest tents out there.

Weight is not the only advantage of ultralight tarps, though. They give you room to move, and you can look around. You can also quickly take down a tarp when you are ready to go. If it is wet, you can shake it off and it will fit in an outside pocket of your backpack. Even if they were the same weight, I would prefer using a tarp over a tent now. At least most of the time.

Ultralight Tarps

Tips for Using Ultralight Tarps

Tarps work well if you use them correctly. Remember to pitch the low side towards the wind. Keep all the sides low if a storm is coming. Evenly tighten the guy lines. Use rocks, trees, hiking poles and whatever else helps. Always pitch your tarp tightly. This keeps it from flapping around in the wind too much, which can loosen the strings or even cause the tarp to tear.

If you haven’t backpacked with ultralight tarps before, experiment until you know how to quickly set up in several different environments. You can bring lightweight stakes, but I prefer to use sticks and trees and rocks. Less to carry, and I’ve always found something to use, even up high on the tundra.

You may need to treat the seams with a sealant occasionally, or at least when you first buy your tarp. You can buy seam-sealer anyplace that sells tarps and tents. You will have to buy string or cord of some sort, also, for tie-downs. I put varying lengths on the tarp, so I can untie them and use the long ones where I need them. Sometimes that one tree will be a little too far away.

I use a 2-ounce piece of plastic (4’x7′) for a groundsheet. It is really just an opened-up giant garbage bag. I have used it for a week straight in the Rockies. It is cheap and easy to replace. Whatever you use, just be sure you lay out your bag on it, to be sure you’ll have room. You don’t want to be touching the wet ground in the middle of the night. Also, be sure it isn’t too big, or it will catch rain out near the edge of the tarp, and funnel it back to you.

Ultralight Tarps and Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes probably keep a lot of ultralight backpackers from using a tarp. Repellent is a partial solution. So is using the tarp only in areas that aren’t too buggy, and bringing a tent otherwise. You can bring a 1-ounce head net, but this solution still requires that you keep the rest of your body covered, which isn’t pleasant when it’s warm. Pitching camp in a high place that gets a breeze (and therefore less mosquitoes) has worked well for me.

There is another alternative. The Black Diamond Beta Bug Mesh Shelter is basically a mesh tent you can pitch under your tarp , and it weighs only 1 pound 7 ounces. If you are using it with a 7-ounce tarp, you are still under 2 pounds for your shelter, and you don’t have to bring a head net or groundsheet. You can also just bring the tarp if there are no bugs.

Ultralight tarps, by the way, weigh less than 20 ounces. I just made up that standard, but it seems reasonable.

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