Intro to Tarp-and-Bivvy Camping
For most people, the preferred bushwalking shelter is undoubtedly a conventional tent. However, there does exist a radical minority population who favour a less-than-conventional option; the tarp and bivvy bag. I use both options, although where possible, I often find myself landing in the latter.
Some people compare these shelters individually; ie. tent or tarp or bivvy bag. I find using a tarp or bivvy independently is vastly more spartan than using a tent. Using just a tarp gives you protection from general rainfall. However, you will have minimal protection from wind or sideways rain. Using just a bivvy will protect you and your sleeping bag from the elements. However, unless you stuff all your gear into the bag (which would be horrendously cramped), it will be left exposed. Therefore, a more reasonable comparison is a tarp-and-bivvy combination against a tent. This combination has less collective mythology than a tent, so it can be confusing to get your head around. Hopefully by demonstrating how this pairing works, you might better understand why people opt for this type of shelter system.
Essentials of Tarp-and-Bivvy Camping
The ingredients you’ll need for this shelter setup include the following:
When choosing a tarp, foremost you want something big enough to give you rain protection. Beyond that, the choice is yours. We stock Wilderness Equipment’s range of tarps, which come in a bombproof 75D option and a lightweight SN240 option. Both have multiple tie outs, giving you plenty of options when pitching. The latest addition to our range is the Mont Batwing, which comes in medium and large.
This is probably the most nuanced aspect of the entire setup. If you’re only summer camping, a full mesh option is great, like Outdoor Research’s Bug Bivy. For 3-season use, the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy, Mont Hibernator or Rab Ascent will work well, providing ample water- and wind-protection. For winter-ready options; take a look at the Outdoor Research Alpine or Rab Ridge Raider.
This is very much a personal choice. You can use builder’s plastic or Tyvek for a basic solution. For something more comprehensive you could try a Wilderness Equipment tubbed floor groundsheet. This groundsheet can be pitched creating a bath-tub effect, with lifted edges to keep waterflow out.
Most tarps, including those from Wilderness Equipment, come with guy lines. You will probably end up modifying the lines, depending on your needs.
I recommend using a variety of pegs, different lengths and shapes. This gives you options if you’re camping on different ground types.
Unless you’re always camping in densely wooded areas, you will need trekking poles to pitch your tarp. Personally I always use trekking poles. They reduce fatigue and make me move more efficiently. Using them with my tarp enables me to camp just about anywhere.
Lunchtime tarp setup. Photo by Neil Blundy.
A tarp/bivvy system makes for a very versatile shelter.
Without a conventional ‘footprint’ you can camp on uneven terrain or even around obstacles. I once camped with a stump under my tarp to extend the height of my pole, creating a tipi-like pitch.
You will essentially be ‘floorless’.
This sounds like a drawback, but hold fast. In a tent, one constant battle is keeping water out, because water can pool on a tent floor. By using a small groundsheet, you can keep your mat and gear dry and water will run off the tarp, onto the ground. If you get any water on the groundsheet, you can just wipe it off. The key to not waking up in a puddle is less about the shelter and more about the site. Choose a proud area of ground and avoid depressions.
When you combine the weight of a lightweight tarp, bivvy and groundsheet you’ll probably be around the average weight of a 1-person tent or under.
This is often used as an argument against tarp-and-bivvy camping, but I argue that the opposite is true. Namely, because each part of 1-person tent isn’t functional when used alone. For example, in regard to freestanding tents, you can’t set up the inner without the poles, nor the fly without everything else, nor the floor without the inner.
In comparison, the tarp/bivvy system is a sum of usable standalone parts.
Depending on the weather and environment, you can choose to deploy everything or only some parts. For example, on a fair-weather summer night with no wind and zero precipitation; you can sleep on the ground sheet. On a windy night with no precipitation, you can jump in the bivvy. With rain and light wind, you can pitch the tarp and lay out the groundsheet. When a storm rolls in, you can deploy everything and pitch the tarp with as many tie outs as possible to provide more stability.
One weight-saving aspect of a tarp/bivvy system is the multiuse factor of multiple items.
For instance, if you stop for lunch in the rain, it would be quite a bit for work to setup a tent just for short-term shelter. In comparison, you can quickly rig up a tarp in a lazy pitch providing ample protection. Your trekking poles sublimate conventional tent poles. Also, you can use your bivvy bag as a large dry bag.
There is something about being closer to the outdoors.
In a tent, I’ve always felt secure because the tent shields me from the elements. With a tarp and bivvy, I feel less secure but more aware of my environment – which for me, is one of the key reasons I go into the bush in the first place.
Snow on Mt Buffalo with a 2015 Mont Firefly tent. Photo by David Blundy.
Drawbacks (When to pack a tent)
Despite how nifty and versatile the tarp/bivvy combo is, there are some situations where a tent wins out the day.
When facing extreme weather, the tarp/bivvy combo leaves little room for error.
If your tarp isn’t pitched securely, or if its oriented incorrectly, strong winds can pull pegs out or turn the tarp effectively into a sail. Due to carefully designed pole structures, purpose built 3–4 season tents such as the Mont Moondance, Wilderness Equipment Space ranges handle the wind much better than a tarp. In addition, if you plan on camping above tree line during winter, I would definitely recommend a proper 4-season tent capable of withstanding snow load and high winds.
One often touted drawback of bivvy bags is condensation.
There are many debates over which material or membrane results in the least condensation. Personally, I believe that if you seal the bivvy; zipping it closed, there will almost always be some sort of condensation. To combat this, I leave an opening in the bivvy. Some models, like Outdoor Research Helium or Alpine, have a mesh closure that can provide ventilation. A traditional double-walled tent will provide more breathability because you have greater internal volume, venting options and a wall separating you and the fly.
Another drawback of bivvies is the coffin-like confinement.
There’s no denying it, even though most bivvies are cut wide enough to fit the average sleeping mat, they are quite restrictive. This is really a personal issue. For some it’s a non-issue and for others it’s a barrier to entry. Even in the smallest one-person tent, you will have considerably more room than a bivvy. If you get stuck in multiple days of bad weather, having a spacious refuge to retreat to can be a real treat.
The versatile nature of tarps makes them finnicky.
A tarp requires some on-the-spot engineering prowess to get a near perfect pitch. If you’re tying off to different points like stumps, trees and pegs, obtaining a perfect pitch is darn difficult. One nice thing about a tent is that someone – probably multiple people ‐ have done the thinking for you. You might be especially grateful for this after a long day, or if you want to get your camp set up quickly.
At this point, I imagine you’re probably wondering if a tarp/bivvy combo is for you. When it comes to safety, I think it’s really important to look at what is recommended and what others have used comfortably. However, when it comes to general use and fun, I think it’s important to think about yourself. If you really enjoy car camping and like to have a really comfortable time in the backcountry, then a tarp-and-bivvy setup will be a big transition. If you’re already venturing into wilderness areas and want something a bit more spartan than a tent, this setup could be ideal. Either way, look inwardly and if it interests you, give it a whirl!