Bivy Sacks vs. Tents: How To Choose An Ultralight Shelter

    Both bivy sacks and lightweight backpacking tents offer their own slates of advantages and disadvantages.
    As Bivy sacks become more popular in the mainstream, companies are doing more and more to pack as much comfort and innovation into the design
    A lightweight tent will provide you with the most reliable outdoor shelter.
    Tents can be heavy and bulky in a lightweight pack.

The following guide breaks down the differences between bivy sacks vs. backpacking tents to help you find what works best for you.

Best Bivy Sacks

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Best 1 Person Tents

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Best 2 Person Tents

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Bivy Sacks vs Tents

You’ve made the decision to take on nature with nothing more than a pack, a water bottle and the barest of essentials. But what about shelter?

Even though you’re a lightweight backpacker, you’re still human (for the most part) and you have to plan for how you’re going to sleep at night.

Both bivy sacks and lightweight backpacking tents offer their own slates of advantages and disadvantages. There are several important questions you have to have answered for yourself before you make a decision.

    1. Where are you going?
    2. What’s the temperature going to be?
    3. Will there be rain or snow?
    4. How big are you and how do you sleep?

Let’s go through the pros and cons of each.

Bivy Sacks

  1. Pros

    • Lightweight
    • Great for “Roughing It”
    • Comfortable
    • Backpacking Performance Increase
    • Warm
    • Bug Netting
    • Compatible With Other Shelters
    • Flexibility In Where You Set Up

    Cons

    • Can Be Too Small
    • Can Be Too Warm
    • Inside Moisture / Condensation
    • Too Close To Nature
    • Not Enough Space Inside for Backpack

Benefits of a Bivy Sack

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  • Lightweight. Aside from simply just a tarp, a Bivy Sack will provide you with the lightest weight shelter and will take up the least room in your pack. Most Bivy sacks weigh anywhere between 7 ounces to 2 pounds and pack down to the size of a water bottle.
  • Great For “Roughing It”. BIVY sacks are perfect for the solo traveler who is more concerned with their performance on the trail than worrying about sleeping arrangements. Stressing about comfort while you sleep on a backpacking trip completely defeats the purpose of backpacking. You’ve already made the commitment to sacrifice most 21st century conveniences, if you’re worried about being uncomfortable while you sleep, you might be in for quite a few surprises.
  • They’re Comfortable! Let’s not forget, there are quite a few very comfortable Bivy sacks on the market. Just because they’re small, doesn’t mean they’re any less comfortable. As Bivy sacks become more popular in the mainstream, companies are doing more and more to pack as much comfort and innovation into the design of these lightweight sleeping compartments to give you the most comfortable night’s sleep possible. With advancements like highly breathable Gore-Tex for increased circulation, straps for sleeping pads and loops for staking, Bivy sacks like the Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy are comparable in size to any one person tents.
  • Backpacking Performance. Aside from sleeping, Bivy sacks get most of their benefit while you’re actually on the trail. Less weight will be physically less exhausting and allow you to travel longer distances and keep you more satisfied while hiking. Also less soreness for the duration of your trip. There’s a reason why extreme athletes choose Bivy sacks as their preferred sleeping arrangement and that’s because of their convenience and their smaller footprint while packed away in your backpack.
  • Stay Warm. Bivies will keep you very warm, in fact, the biggest complaint we hear on bivies is sometimes they can keep you too warm. Of course, there are ways to get around this. You can simply open up the top part of the bag and let in cooler air.
  • Bug Netting. Most Bivy’s actually come with bug netting installed over the sleeper’s face that allows you to keep the top part of the bivy sack open for ventilation. This works especially well in warmer climates. The bug netting feature is also great so as you keep your bag open and exposed, you won’t have to deal with mosquitos eating you up and buzzing in your ear while you sleep. Even if your Bivy sack doesn’t include bug netting, having your head popped out of your bivy sack open on a clear night is one of the purest ways to experience nature while you fall asleep watching the stars.
  • Can Be Paired With Other Shelters. Most are light and compact enough that even if you choose to bring a tent, a bivy sack can be used as a backup or even as an extra option to use along with a tent for extra warmth. If you have a second person with you, one of you can use the bivy sack while the other uses the tent.
  • More flexibility in regards to where you can set up. Bivy sacks are incredibly easy to set up, which is a huge plus if you’re camping in less than ideal terrain or if the weather goes south in the middle of a hike. You can pull out your bag and be inside in less than a minute. No more spending long stretches of time looking for large enough spaces for tents. As long as your not trying to set up on top of a puddle a bivy can be set up in most spaces. Bivy Sacks are highly versatile and can be set up in a number of ways. Personally, my favorite way to use a bivy sack is by combining it with a tarp. This provides extra weather protection so you can do things outside the Bivy like cook, and read.
  • best bivy sack, man in bivy sack outside, best bivy sack for camping, best ultralight bivy sackBuilt Tough. Bivy sacks are very durable. They were invented by the military for soldiers to use in the field, so they have to be built tough and be able to handle all kinds of difficult terrain. They’re made with lightweight materials including lightweight polyester, 70D RipStop Nylon fabric, Laminated Polyurethane coating, 190T polyester and 180G PE. Many sacks also come with an anti-fungal coating on the floor to keep you protected from any microscopic predators. Feel free to abuse your Bivy sack without having to worry about it tearing or breaking or hurting its feelings. These bags were built for tough use.
  • Work For Any Length of Trip. BIVY’s are great for both short term and long term trips. If you’re just going out for a long weekend of lightweight hiking then the bivy works perfectly. Who wants to overpack for a short trip? Or if you’re going for a long time say biking or even motorcycling, the bivy sack will keep your load light to keep you on the road.
  1. RELATED: What You Need To Know About Ultralight Bivy Sacks
    US Army Military Woodland Camouflage Camo GTX GORETEX...
    While it wasn’t the first Bivy sack, the Woodland Camouflage Waterproof Bivy Cover utilizes the same aesthetics as the original Bivy Sacks.

    The Downside of Bivy Sacks

  • Too Small. A bivy can be uncomfortable for a full night’s sleep. Especially if you’re not used to sleeping in one, there can be a small learning curve. Not great for bigger people. If you’re well over 6 feet or maybe even on the heavier side a bivy sack might seem like a tight fit, especially once you factor in your sleeping bag, gear, etc. Although many bivies are made close to 7 feet long.best bivy sack, man in bivy sack outside, best bivy sack for camping, best ultralight bivy sack
  • Toasty. Many backpackers complain they get too hot in a bivy sack. This might be the bivy’s biggest downside. Although it’s ability to keep you warm even in sub-freezing temperatures is the bivy sack’s claim to fame, you might try to use one in warmer weather and realize that you actually don’t want all that cold protection.
  • Inside Moisture. Another major bivy sack complaint is the internal condensation build up. Its great to have the external water protection, but as the heat and humidity outside build up, so does your body heat and sweat which can make everything inside the bivy sack a bit clammy.
  • Too Close To Nature. You can feel more vulnerable just lying outside in such a basic shelter. Some people need the 4 walls of a tent to feel a secure barrier between them and the elements.
  • No Space For Your Pack. Most bivies also don’t provide enough room to fit you AND your pack. Unfortunately, while you stay warm your gear is outside exposed to the elements. This can be problematic if you need your phone or a snack late at night out of your pack.

Tents

Pros

  • Weather Protection
  • Extra Room
  • Headspace
  • Fit more than one person
  • Better for longer trips.

Cons

  • Longer and more complicated setup than a bivy
  • Can be heavy and bulky in a lightweight pack.
  • They can provide “too much shelter”
MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2-Person Lightweight Backpacking Tent,...
The MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2 Person Lightweight Backpacking Tent includes a mesh roof for air circulation, and a ventilated rainfly that also makes 2 vestibules for extra storage.

Benefits of Lightweight Tents

An ultralight tent will provide you with the most reliable outdoor shelter. Tents have dominated the outdoor shelter market for so long and provide so many design and style options that its hard not to find one that works best for you.

  • Weather Protection. Most tents come with at least a decent rainfly to keep you dry. Even if you’re not crazy about the included rain fly you can always find one to compliment the tent you buy.
  • Extra Room. There’s room for not just you but also your pack and any extra gear you have on you. As opposed to a bivy sack, even the smaller 1 person tents give you some extra space to fit all of your gear. If space is tight inside the tent, most offer vestibules built into the sides to keep all of your stuff dry from the outside weather.
  • Headspace. Tents are great for longer than anticipated rain delays, mostly due to the fact that they offer enough headroom for sitting upright. Even though the Bivy might be easier to set up in the rain, once you get it set up you still have to lie inside of it until the weather clears up. In a tent you can sit up, you can read, you can play games on your phone. Overall you’ll be way more comfortable than a bivy sack.
  • Fit more than one person. The tent market is full of variety and it’s easy to find tents that fit more than one person. There are tents that can fit 8+ people inside, almost turning into mini-dorms. For the lightweight backpacker, you can get a 2 or 3 person tent to fit you and a partner quite comfortably. Sometimes as independent backpackers we forget how enjoyable traveling with someone else can be. Especially when falling asleep, having someone in your tent to chat with or even cuddle together with can make the trip more enjoyable.
  • Better for longer trips. Sleeping for extended stays in a bivy sack can grow old, to the point that you can dread actually shacking up for the night. The tent will give you more of the homely feeling you miss on the trail.
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Coleman tents are extremely versatile, reliable, and easy to set up.

The Downside of Lightweight Tents

  • Longer and more complicated setup than a bivy. Setting up a tent after a long day of traveling can be a bummer, especially if the weather is bad. You’re looking for space, you’re unrolling guy lines and tying them to stakes, you’re arranging rods and tent materials. It can get daunting.
  • Can be heavy and bulky in a lightweight pack. A 1-person tent is reasonable, but as the size of the tent increases so will the weight, and if you’re trying to stay light your 2 or 3 person tent can really start to weigh you down.
  • Longer and more complicated setup than a bivy. Setting up a tent after a long day of traveling can be a bummer, especially if the weather is bad. You’re looking for space, you’re unrolling guy lines and tying them to stakes, you’re arranging rods and tent materials. It can get daunting.
  • Can be heavy and bulky in a lightweight pack. A 1-person tent is reasonable, but as the size of the tent increases so will the weight, and if you’re trying to stay light your 2 or 3 person tent can really start to weigh you down.
  • They can provide “too much shelter” and take away from some of the ruggedness of the outdoors. Sometimes you just want to feel closer to the elements of the earth.
Techcell 2 Person Tent Camping Instant Tent Waterproof Tent...
The Techcell 2 Person Waterproof Camping Tent is a low cost 2 person tent that works well for beginning campers or a backup for more experienced camping families.

Note that even with the extra space you still want to bring some kind of pad to deal with the cold, wet ground. Especially as you get more use out of your tent, the bottom will begin to wear down and you’re going to want a more comfortable barrier between you and the ground.

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Erik

Erik grew up as a desert rat in Arizona. After exploring the backcountry of the west coast he came east for a job but still finds time to explore the beauty of the northeast.