There’s something magical about the idea of camping out in alpine regions during the winter. The magic of the Northern Lights flickering overhead, the beauty of freshly fallen, pure white snow on the trail—there’s nothing else quite like it.
But you’ve heard it can be dangerous if you’re not properly prepared, and you’re not sure where to get started. Some simple tips and suggestions can get you going, including understanding what something called a bivy bag is.
What is a Bivy and What Does It Do?
There are several related uses of the term bivy. The original source of this word comes from France. The term, bivouac, means an additional watchman is on patrol, keeping an eye out at an encampment.
The term has gone on to refer to military and other temporary shelters created for short-term stays on military maneuvers, climbing expeditions, or scouting missions. This word is often shortened to bivy, or bivvy, and now applies to related things like bivy bags, bivy sacks, bivy shelters, or even bivy covers.
What’s a Bivy Shelter?
A bivy shelter, or bivouac shelter, is easily defined as a temporary shelter built from improvised materials. If you’re near an outcropping of rock, with small boulders or rocks nearby, you may pull these smaller rocks in towards the outcropping to create your shelter.
If you’re deep in the woods, and have no shelter to take cover in, collecting together sticks, branches, and leaves, and creating a lean-to is your bivy. If an intended encampment is planned, like those in military endeavors, materials are brought along for the purpose of quickly constructing these bivouac shelters.
What’s a Bivy Bag or Bivy Sack?
Your standard three season sleeping bag can handle temperatures down to just above freezing temperatures. Most commonly, these will be what you find in sporting goods stores and retailers like Wal-Mart.
You will also find sleeping bags designed for much lower temperatures, 10 degrees or below, and can generally be found on sites or in stores that cater to backpackers and campers that get a bit more hardcore than your suburban 2.5 kid family.
This is done by cutting the wind, keeping you dry, and by insulating the sleeping bag that’s already trapping body heat. The term bivy cover is synonymous with the term bivy bag.
When you Might Need to Bivouac
Those heading out on tough trail hikes, alpine adventures, and other similar, unknown or chilling ventures will benefit from bringing along a waterproof bivy bag. They are light weight and small, and easily pack into your hiking backpack. And though you may not have the necessity of a full-on bivouac experience building your shelter out of rocks or twigs, a bivy bag can help keep you healthy overnight, trapping in your body heat and keeping you dry.
Tips for Surviving the Cold
Here are a few tips to help keep you warm and alive on those snowy nights.
1. Keep Your Sleeping Pads Close to Each Other.
When it’s that cold out, nobody’s worried about bumping elbows in the night. Keep your pads close together to prevent as much cold air from seeping through the floor into the tent as possible.
2. Pre-heat Your Sleeping Bag.
Before you crawl in, toss a hot water bottle into your bag and let it get the warmth started for you.
3. Use Proper Layers.
You might be used to using layers at the office, but that’s nothing like what we’re talking about. For your base layer –the stuff that touches your skin—you’re going to want to avoid cotton, and aim for moisture wicking materials to help keep you dry. Your middle layers should be your insulation layer, using materials that will trap heat and keep you warm. The outer layer should keep out wind and water.
4. Keep your Socks and Boot Liners in Your Sleeping Bag Overnight.
Nothing says misery like a pair of frozen boots applied to your feet.
Cold Weather Gear
Obviously, we’d recommend getting a waterproof bivy bag like the Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy, but there’s a few other highly recommended gear items the experts advise you take along for your cold weather adventures.
- Insulated pants
- Waterproof backpack or backpack cover
- Low temperature rated sleeping bag
- Lightweight sleeping pad
- Foldable shovel (for breaking through snow that piles up overnight)
- Waterproof matchbox
- Insulated canteen
- Compass and GPS
If you think you’re ready to get out there into the deep cold, do some research and pre-plan your trip properly. Get the right gear, like a bivy bag and compass, and plan a trip into the frozen north with your most adventurous friends.