Travel

What is bivvying? How to have a night of adventure – without a tent


When I bivvy I’m not in search of sleep. I know I’ll wake up frequently, feeling restricted by my sleeping bag. Bivvying is camping at its simplest: sleeping outside without a tent and minimal gear.

It isn’t about a comfortable night’s rest. It’s about squeezing an adventure into a humdrum week; it’s about being in nature, hearing hedgehogs snuffling and waking to the dawn chorus. It’s a short, sharp dose of escapism that has become even more restorative in the past 15 months. And, while I’ve bivvyed on Dartmoor, on Scotland’s west coast and in places in-between, most of the time I’ve been within 10 miles of my home in Bournemouth.

Being in the open air remains the delight of every bivvy I’ve been on, yet individual trips have memorable features. Once, on a clear November night, I saw shooting stars because the Leonid meteor shower was making its display. I’d glimpsing natterjack toads in daytime for years, but a beach bivvy showcased their raucous nocturnal croaking.

Here are the tips I’ve learned …

What kit do I need?

Hiker bivouac at the summit of Knocknahillion mountain, Maumturk Mountains, Connemara, County Galway, Ireland.
Bivvying in the mountains. The right sleeping bag is essential. Photograph: Gareth McCormack/Alamy

A sleeping bag will keep you warm, so long as you check its rating and make sure you are using it within recommended temperature ranges. A bivvy, or bivouac bag, is essential for keeping the dew off your sleeping bag – think of it as a miniature lightweight tent without the faff of poles, strings and pegs. Alpkit’s Hunka (£49.99) is simple but effective for a mild storm-free night; Rab has bivvy bags designed to cope with fiercer weather, starting from £135. As well as cushioning you from the ground, a sleeping mat provides insulation. Slipping first your sleeping mat, then your sleeping bag inside the bivouc bag sets you up for a night outside.

Is bivvying allowed?

In Scotland “the right to roam” includes bivvying. It’s also allowed in a large proportion of Dartmoor. Otherwise in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland you should ask the landowner’s permission. Currently trespass without intent to establish permanent residence is a civil, not criminal, offence. If you are bivvying and the landowner asks you to leave, you should move on.

Nick Hayes, author of The Book of Trespass, says: “In all my years sleeping out, I’ve never been caught or asked to leave. That’s because no one has ever seen me. This isn’t hard: you’ve got to get out into the English countryside to realise just how much open space there is, and how many snug options there are for a night’s snooze. You don’t need to go anywhere near a home or private space. I prefer woods – not just because they block wind chill and rain, but also because few people want to walk through the woods at night.”

Why bivvy close to home?

Staying local there’s no need to commit to bivvying before knowing the weather forecast. A mild and dry evening is perfect for a spontaneous adventure. It also makes it easier to navigate the etiquette of bivvying, essentially being as unobtrusive as possible. Arriving late and leaving early gives you the night but causes minimal disturbance to others.

Having dinner and breakfast at home means there’s no need to carry food and cooking equipment, which helps you to leave no trace. Wearing the right clothing keeps you warmer than a fire. Both fires and disposable barbecues leave marks of blackened pits and scorched ground. If you need hot water or want to cook, use a camping stove.

It’s OK to pee outdoors, so long as you stay off paths and places where people might obviously sit and walk, and at least 30 metres away from bodies of water. Take a trowel to ensure waste is buried if you need to poo (and bring any paper back).

How do I find the right spot?

Sleeping out under the stars on an adventure trek in England.
Sleeping out under the stars on an adventure trek in England. Photograph: Alamy

Adventurer and explorer Alastair Humphreys recommends using an Ordnance Survey map to find a place to bivvy. “In this digital age nothing beats unfolding a giant paper map and dreaming big while spilling biscuit crumbs and tea. Things to look for include: lots of contour lines with a flat bit at the top, green areas of woodland, blue areas of water, walls to hide behind. Look for a footpath leading off the road and into a quieter area.”

What if you live in a city?

If a walk or cycle ride can’t get you away from urban sprawl, city dwellers can take a train or bus to a place where birdsong is louder than traffic. As Humphreys says on his blog: “Nobody in the UK lives more than 15 miles from somewhere green, pretty, and invigorating to spend a night.” Humphreys walked a lap of the M25, and despite being within the most highly populated and densely urbanised area of England, he found spaces to bivvy.

Lots of people write about bivvying alone: dare I go solo?

Phoebe Smith wild camping.
Phoebe Smith wild camping. Photograph: Phoebe Smith

Some people find reassurance in checking that their chosen place to bivvy has phone reception. Using discretion in reaching your bivvy can also contribute to our comfort: for example, turning off paths to your bivvy spot when people aren’t nearby. Phoebe Smith , author of Extreme Sleeps: Adventures of a Wild Camper, says: “I’ve bivvyed alone across Britain from mountain tops to woodland valleys and coastal cliffs. Many think it would be scary doing it solo, but I find the opposite. When I’m in a tent, I’m avery much a visitor on the landscape, but in a bivvy I become part of the landscape. Wildlife comes closer, trusting me as one of their own, the stars are there for company whenever I open my eyes and rather than feel scared of the dark I’m hidden by it – no one knows I’m there.”

Can I bivvy with kids?

Bivvying locally gives you the convenience of being a short journey from home if you or you kids aren’t enjoying it. Lucy Hawthorne of Modern Maternity Solutions had bivvyed with friends, but going with just her daughter to bivvy on the Isle of Purbeck was a different experience. “Bivvying with my eight-year-old I felt a huge sense of responsibility. The mother and the adventurer in me were having a rather heated internal discussion about whether or not I was doing the right thing. However, as we snuggled down in our bivvy bags gazing up at the night sky, we watched a shooting star and she whispered ‘Thank you for letting me come tonight Mum,’ before rolling over and falling asleep. That parenting moment is one I will treasure for ever.”



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