The Book of the Bivvy


Ronald Turnbull’s The Book of the Bivvy is an odd book. In part, it’s a collection of comic anecdotes about walking and climbing trips Turnbull has made in Northern Ireland, Wales, the Scottish Highlands, and the Lake District. But it’s also a guide that explains how to go about making such journeys, with detailed information about hikes to Skiddaw, Bruce’s Crown, and Pumlumon Fawr, as well as advice about re-enacting Alfred Wainwright’s walk to Hadrian’s Wall and back (see my post on Wainwright’s book about that journey here). What ties these disparate elements together is Turnbull’s belief that the bivouac sack–the bivvy bag–is the best form of shelter for hikers, walkers, and climbers, one he relies on for all of his adventures.

I can hear you wondering: what on earth is a bivvy bag? It’s basically a waterproof sack in which the walker (or hiker or climber) sleeps. It might be a basic plastic survival bag which costs £5 or less. It might be a more expensive bag made out of a fabric that’s both waterproof and breathable, like Gore-Tex. It might even have a small pole to keep the bag away from your face while you’re sleeping, although Turnbull argues that such a bag isn’t a bivvy bag at all, but merely “an extremely cramped and uncomfortable tent.” It’s cheaper than a tent–or at least for Turnbull, it ought to be–and it allows for an entirely different experience of the outdoors than a tent does. “Can you really experience nature’s rawness from inside a zipped-up storm flap?” Turnbull asks. “For those who want to bring a bit of old-fashioned pain and suffering into the outdoor experience, the bivvybag is the place to be.”

Old-fashioned pain and suffering? Who wants that? Anyone, Turnbull suggests, who wants no “oppressive luxuries” to stand in the way between themselves and the experience of the natural world. That means being able to see the stars and the moonlight without having to put on your boots and climb out of the tent. It also means experiencing the “full misery” of the wind and the rain if that’s what the weather brings. “A bivvybag,” Turnbull writes,

may not be all that expensive, but it’s not a way of saving money. It is, rather, a new way of having fun. A bivvybag isn’t simply an extra bit of kit that has the backwards effect of making the rucksack lighter. It’s a new attitude, a new way of being in the hills. It rearranges the co-ordinates of space and time and allows us to wriggle through the wormholes into a different universe.

If leaving luxuries at home and experiencing the world in a new way sounds like your cup of tea, then a bivvy bag might be for you, and Turnbull’s book will tell you everything you need to know about them.

I myself am the proud owner of a bivvy bag: a heavy, green British army surplus sack, allegedly made of Gore-Tex, in which I slept on my most recent walks. If you pull on the drawstring, the opening gets smaller, which is helpful on a cold night, although if the opening gets too small, breathing fresh air becomes difficult. (Hence my search for the sweet spot between hypothermia and asphyxiation while walking to Gravelbourg.) The bag also lacks any protection against mosquitoes, which is a definite disadvantage in this part of the world, although I wore a cheap head net to bed in an attempt to keep from being bitten. (It worked, but the cold temperatures were probably the real reason.) The dark colour allows me to camp where I’m not supposed to without drawing the attention of the RCMP or other passersby. I’ve never used it in the rain, though, and I’m happy about that. When you’re sleeping in a bivvy bag and it rains, Turnbull writes, you get wet. Condensation is the problem: a sleeping human produces about a pint of water vapour overnight, and on warm, damp nights that vapour will condense inside your shelter and soak your sleeping bag. And rainy nights tend to be warm and damp. I’ve been thinking of investing in a lighter bivvy bag–maybe even one of the luxury versions Turnbull scoffs at–and many people who post online reviews of the models I’ve been considering complain about dampness, but according to Turnbull, their bags aren’t leaking: even breathable fabrics, like Gore-Tex, are prone to condensation problems. His solution? Move higher up the mountain, where it’s colder, because a difference in temperature between the outside of the bag and its inside will help to limit condensation problems. Of course, moving higher up the mountain isn’t possible in Saskatchewan, so I’m not sure what my options might be. A synthetic sleeping bag instead of the down one I’ve been using, I suppose, since down is useless if it gets wet, and takes forever to dry.

I like The Book of the Bivvy. I like its oddities, which I assume reflect its author’s own eccentricities. I like the stories about sleeping in puddles and caves and on the tops of mountains. I even like the idea of opening oneself up to the natural world even if that means a degree of discomfort (or, in Turnbull’s words, “full misery”). And I find The Book of the Bivvy reassuring; I’m not the only crazy person willing to spend the night in a waterproof (I hope) sack.