7 of the best bivvy bags for nights out on the trail

·8-min read
Photo credit: Jenny Tough
Photo credit: Jenny Tough

If you’re shaping up for a multi-day race or fast-packing adventure, then you’ll be faced with an inevitable trade-off when purchasing your overnight set-up: a good night’s sleep or running with a heavy bag. This dilemma boils down to comfort versus speed – the lighter your pack, the faster you will be able to travel.

Some one-man tents are now so small and light, it’s hard to imagine that it’s even possible to take a more minimalist approach. But it is: enter the bivvy bag.

What is a bivvy bag?

A bivvy bag is essentially a lightweight sleeping bag cover that protects you from the worst of the elements but offers little in the way of shelter. It is usually composed of a waterproof bottom fabric (groundsheet) and a lighter upper fabric that is waterproof but also breathable.

The appeal of a bivvy is that it's an affordable, ultra-lightweight, stripped-back approach that enables you to, quite literally, sleep out under the stars. For many, this is the ultimate wild camping experience – but it’s not for everyone.

Types of bivvy bag

A basic bivvy bag weighs in at around 300-600g and packs down to the size of a water bottle. Such designs close or tighten around the face, creating a small opening for you to breathe. Irrespective of the breathability of fabrics used, it is common to feel a bit damp in the morning as a result of condensation build up overnight. A bivvy with a full-length zip, however, provides better ventilation options. Usually, your bivvy bag would rest on a sleeping mat for improved comfort and insulation from the ground, though with some designs it is possible to fit the sleeping mat inside.

Hooped bivvy bags have to be pitched like a tent but their structured design keeps the fabric off your face, offering better ventilation and a much less claustrophobic experience – sometimes with a little room to store some of your gear. Hooped bivvy bags come with pegs and poles, so tend to weigh more and take up more space when packed.

Low weight and a compact shape are the most important factors for runners, since a bulky or heavy bag makes running feel awkward and also more strenuous.

One-man tent or bivvy bag?

To address this quandary, you should first consider the location, terrain and weather that will be encountered on your run. Tents are always going to be the better choice in very poor weather (greater protection and ventilation), whereas in a warm, dry climate, a bivvy bag may be all you need. In the mountains, a heavy bag will really hold you back if your route involves a lot of ascent. However, mountain weather can be severe, so the decision should ultimately revolve around the forecast.

Next, consider the nature of your running excursion. For a long adventure (more than a few nights), the importance of comfort and plenty of rest can't be underestimated. This is where a slightly heavier set-up might be preferred (eg a one-man tent with some space inside and a comfy sleeping mat).

But if you’re racing, then pace tends to take precedence. In a short race (only one or two nights), it’s easier to rough it and sacrifice a good night's sleep in favour of better running performance. But for long, expedition style races or Fastest Known Time (FKT) attempts, the situation is more complex, with the aim of the game being to maximise performance over a prolonged period and changing circumstances. In this situation, you'll need to consider the following: will you be able to cope with prolonged sleep deprivation? Will you be able to dry out your kit? What is the terrain on the course? What is the climate and season?

Another consideration is insects. If you dislike the idea of waking up covered in slugs, then a tent might be for you. Most tents are twin skin, with the inner offering good protection from mosquitos and midges. They also provide a space where you can pass the time, protected from biting bugs or to wait out a storm.

What are the best bivvy bags?

We tested a range of bivvy bags and shelters with running adventures in mind and below we’ve listed our favourites. Most these models also work well for fast-hiking, trekking and thru-hiking expeditions.

Best in test: Alpkit Hunka

  • Weight: 360g

  • Packed size: 10 x 24cm

  • Base waterproofing: HH 10,000mm

Simple but effective, the Hunka is light, breathable, packable and very affordable – everything we look for in a good bivvy bag. We recommend sizing up to the XL if you’re tall or just like a bit of room to move. 'Ideal for the occasional fair-weather bivvy, the Hunka is a great no-frills way to get into fast and light overnight adventures’ said one of our testers, Raeanne Miller, a trail running guide for Girls on Hills.

Best mountain bivvy: Outdoor Research Helium

  • Weight: 484g

  • Packed size: 31cm x 9cm

  • Base waterproofing: HH 15,000mm

The Helium Bivvy is the lightest hooped bivvy bag on the market, offering all the comfort benefits of such a design but at no additional weight. It’s also really packable with good levels of waterproofing and has a built-in bug mesh to keep the insects out. Fastpacking and ultra endurance athlete Jenny Tough is a fan. ‘In drier climates, I don’t often use a bivvy bag and opt for just a hydrophobic sleeping bag instead. But whenever I need proper shelter, I use the OR Helium bivvy. A great lightweight option that kept me dry and mossie-free during a 25-day run across the Canadian Rockies.'

Best for long adventures: Terra Nova Jupiter Lite

  • Weight: 770g

  • Packed size: 40cm x 11 cm

  • Base waterproofing: HH 15,000mm

The Jupiter Lite is a very lightweight hooped bivvy bag – it's only 548g without pegs. It has above average headroom and levels of waterproofing (both upper and groundsheet) and good ventilation, thanks to its breathable fabric and fully mesh door. Our tester said: 'You can rely on the Jupiter Lite; it’s a robust design that combines comfort and durability, making it perfect for travelling long distances, where having confidence in your kit is key.'

Best for comfort: Sierra Designs Backcountry 3000

  • Weight 400g

  • Packed size: 25.4cm x 10.2cm

  • Base waterproofing: HH 3,000mm

The Backcountry 3000 scores well in many areas, but’s its standout feature is its volume. It's designed to accommodate the luxurious Backcountry Bed system and an inflatable sleeping mat, but there is enough space inside for whatever sleeping bag and mat system you choose. 'This is ideal for runners who like a comfy bed,' said our tester. 'Its low weight means that you can put your weight where it matters and bring along your most comfortable sleeping bag and mat combo.' It also offers high levels of breathability and effective venting, so you can expect a good night’s sleep wherever you are.

Best for staying dry: Rab Ridge Raider

  • Weight: 890g

  • Packed size: 32cm x 15cm

  • Base waterproofing: HH 15,000mm

The Ridge Raider has a spacious hooped design, which combines a high level of waterproofing underneath with good breathability up top – it’s moisture vapour transmission rate is higher than all other bivvy bags we tested. Despite being heavier than some ultra-lightweight tents, this bivvy bag is sturdy, reliable and keeps you dry in changeable weather. 'I felt pretty chuffed with myself when I hunkered down in the Ridge Raider and read a book in comfort when it was battering horizontal rain outside,' said our tester Sam Jones, a trail runner and amateur aurora photographer. 'You can manage good ventilation without letting water in and, with a bit of contortion and swearing, you can even get changed while zipped inside! The only downside we found was that the single curved pole was tricky to install.

Most minimalist bivvy bag: Terra Nova Moonlite bag cover

  • Weight: 180g

  • Packed size: 21cm x 6cm

  • Base waterproofing: HH 15,000mm

When you buy the Moonlite bag cover, you’re paying for premium materials and design quality, as you don’t get a lot of bag for your money. Coming in at under 200g, this packable bag weighs marginally more than a plastic survival bag but all the key features are there – high levels of waterproofing, good breathability and a bug screen. Pair this super light option with a simple tarp for extra protection and you can create a really flexible sleeping system. ‘I love the idea that you can run with this bivvy bag instead of a survival bag on remote/backcountry epics and be prepared to sleep out if it comes to it,' said our tester, 'it's the ultimate minimalist solution.’

Best for sleeping under the stars: Lightwave Starlight 1 Tarp

  • Weight: 77g

  • Packed size: 6cm x 18cm

Set your bivvy experience free by sleeping under a tarp. Protection from rain and wind plus complete ventilation is all possible with even the simplest of designs. But not all tarps are made equal. Different shapes, sizes, specs and attachment points make tarp camping a specialist art form. Whilst any old budget tarp might keep the rain off, the Starlight 1 is the premier choice for ultra-light camping: small in size and made of extremely tough Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF). This tarp can be pitched and tensioned in a variety of ways according to your needs. You can buy poles, use your running poles or simply use surrounding rocks or trees to set it up. It might take a while to master, but for less than 100g, you won’t even know you have it with you.

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