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Adventure, Alpine, Cycle / February 11, 2016

Shelter: Bivy or Tent?

Written by: Jan Bennett

Picking the right shelter system for your adventures is about as personal as setting up an online dating profile.  Choices run the gamut from minimalist to luxurious: from nothing more than a sleeping bag on a pile of pine needles to a full-blown cot, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and a spacious tent. The choices are nearly endless.  Ultimately, your needs and your adventures will provide the determining factors in what works best for you.  I have had a few people quiz me on my set-up, so I figured I’d discuss my process of selection, including the trial and error I’ve gone through.  There are plenty of sites out there that go into great detail about the difference in materials among products.  I’ve chosen to focus this article on personal experiences as those seem to be harder to come by and are often the deciding factors for many. Hopefully, some of the issues I bring up here will help you in making decisions about your shelter selection.

Shelter Selection: Bivy

When I started to look into touring via bicycle, I set out with the notion of going as light weight and compact as possible.  After all, the more weight you carry, the harder it is to make it up those hills at the end of the day! When it came to shelter options, a bivouac sack (more commonly known as a bivy) seemed to be the natural choice.  On the surface, it fit all my initial needs:

  • As small as possible without any wasted space
  • As light as possible while still providing shelter from the elements
  • Inexpensive
  • Quick and easy to set-up and tear down
  • Free standing

I feel that these requirements are pretty self-explanatory, save the last one.  My planned travels have me going to Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona, among other places.  In case you haven’t spent much time in these states, I’ll explain.  The ground is mostly rock.  If I found myself needing to set up camp on a chunk of slick rock while in Utah I didn’t want to be at a loss because my shelter HAD to be staked down. (This is also why I never considered a hammock for my adventures.  Hammocks are great for some situations, but not all.  I needed a solution that would fit the majority of my adventures.)

I went with a bivy over an ultra-light tent because it saved me about a pound and was slightly smaller when packed than some of the tents I was considering.  Since space is at a premium on a bicycle, just like in backpacking, I put more emphasis on these factors when making my decision. The Outdoor Research Helium Bivy seemed to be a great solution, so I bit the bullet.

My first night in the bivy ended up being my last.  I quickly discovered that condensation in a bivy is real and is miserable.   There are ample articles online and numerous examples that discuss this very issue.  I had read them and weighed my options carefully.  However, as is always the case when it comes to  adventure travel, nothing can replace first hand experience. Even if that first hand experience comes at the cost of a sleepless night.  I had let size, weight, and cost have more bearing on my choices than form and function.  Lesson learned.

Upon returning from my first trip, I started to look into other options for my shelter.   I still really liked the idea of a bivy for its compact size and ease of set-up, so I decided to dig in a bit and see what I could find.

Picking various bivy sacks that claimed to resolve the condensation issue through the use of advanced fabrics, I found that the weights were just as much, if not more than some of the ultra-light backpacking tents that I was considering.  Strike one for the bivy.  Then I started to compare packed sizes and discovered that these bivvies were roughly about the same size as the tents I had considered.  Strike two for the bivy.  Once I compared the prices of my selected bivvies to the tents I was considering, I made up my mind.  I was making the change to a tent.

“My first night in the bivy ended up being my last. ”

Shelter Selection: Tent

For the same amount of money, roughly the same pack size, and same weight, I could pick up a 2 person, ultra-light backpacking tent AND have somewhere to cook dinner in the event of bad weather; something I had never considered initially when looking at bivvies.  I could also keep my gear inside the tent with me or under the vestibule which meant that it would remain dry in the event of precipitation, including frost.

I started to look at tents more closely, using the same parameters as my bivy search.  I narrowed down my choices to two ultra-light backpacking tents and headed to the local store to set them up and see them in person. I highly suggest doing this when possible.  Prior to arriving at the store, I had thought I wanted the Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 Person Ultralight Tent.  Once I spent the time setting both tents up, I quickly realized the Nemo Hornet 2 Person Ultralight Tent fit my needs better.

The decision ultimately came down to the entry into the tent and the usable vestibule space.  On my most recent trip, I came to appreciate the dual entry on the Nemo tent.  When the wind was blowing (as it does in Texas), I was able to set the tent up with the smaller frontal area facing into the wind.  This meant the tent was more stable.  This also meant that I wasn’t limited by entry.  It’s a minor detail, but being able to set-up your shelter where entry and exit are most convenient based upon your camp site is one very minor but very nice luxury to have at the end of a long day.  The larger vestibule space coupled with the dual entry also meant that I could stash and access my panniers on one side and still prepare a meal on the other, all while being sheltered from the elements.

As an aside, I found that I could put my Nemo Hornet 2P tent, ground tarp, and rain fly all in a Salsa Cycles Anything bag, which meant it was compact and protected from the elements while riding on my fork at the front my bike.

Ultimately, your adventures will dictate your needs when it comes to a shelter.  This process of trial and error helped me decide what the best solution was for my needs.  I discovered things I had never considered and I’m not sure I would have been able to consider them without first hand experience.  While nothing can replace that first hand experience, hopefully I’ve helped you in your process.  Whatever you do, make sure you get out there and enjoy your adventures!  Great memories don’t make themselves.

about the author

Jan Bennett

An adventure seeker at her core, Jan Bennett has always been drawn to the outdoors and being active. Completing three different wilderness expeditions before graduating high school, Jan has always been at home in the wilderness. Even though she has a degree in Technology Management and a minor in Business, Jan took the leap and left corporate America in 2015 in order to persue her cycling passions. On any given day, you can find Jan in Dallas, Texas preparing her mind and body for the next outdoor adventure.

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