Overall Rating: 4.5/5
The bivy/bivvy/bivi (however, you prefer) experience is pretty unique in camping terms. You are, as cheesy as it sounds, one with nature. With no doors or walls, like a tent, you are much more exposed to the elements and since a bivy is essentially a waterproof bag to sleep in, what else would you expect? This is certainly not going to be for everyone. On my first ever bivy trip we were wild camping in the Lake District with work, where two of us were using bivy bags with tarps. On the second night only one of us was!
The Helium Bivy from Outdoor Research is a top selling bivy with a good reputation hitting the mid price point for bivy bags. It weighs in at just over 500g with the bag and pole included, or you can take that down to around 450 without the pole.
It is made from Pertex Shield, a 2.5 layer, fully waterproof material. The top of the bag is made with lightweight 30D (denier) fabric while the floor is made with a more durable 70D fabric. It is important to make it very clear straight away that it is highly unlikely that this bag would ever leak. The material is far too effective for that yet many people complain about this. Upon waking in the morning you find wet patches on your sleeping mat and are horrified by the damp down sleeping bag you find. It’s simple, you’re sleeping, sweating and breathing in a waterproof bag when the temperatures are dropping outside. If windows get condensation on them it’s pretty obvious this bag will too. Once you understand that and can deal with this fact you can work on mitigating this in lots of different ways. This bag has an opening with two fabric covers, one fully waterproof but underneath a second mesh, bug net style covering. In warmer conditions you can tie up the waterproof outer and just have the mesh across your face which has a huge, positive impact on condensation build up too.
Although much smaller than any tent, the Helium is still a decent size. Its 214cm long so there’s plenty of head room while being 66cm wide at the shoulders so even when you’re tucked up there is still space to move. I was treating myself to two sleeping mats and using my three season bag in it and had space to turn and move during the night. The Helium comes with a single pole that threads easily through the bag to give some structure and keep the material off your face but for the pole to stay upright it does need help from pegs and a guy. The biggest advantage for me was the weight and pack size which got down to around 30cmx8cm and freed up a lot of space in my pack. To make more of the camping experience I coupled the Helium with a Rab SilTarp to create a sheltered area to sit, cook and store my kit under and it made a big difference. You will need enough pegs to set a tarp up effectively to keep the rain or wind out but it is worth doing. There are other bivy option available, with heavier weight fabrics and secure pole set ups right through to minimalist survival style super light ones but I like the all round design and weight of the Helium.
On my first trip we were away for two nights with the first night seeing temperatures drop to low single figures due to a clear sky in late September. It was an amazing night for me with an uninterrupted view of the stars whilst laid warm and comfortable in my bag. That alone made the experience and was exactly what I wanted from the bivy. There were some issues and in the morning while packing up I did see plenty of evidence of condensation with a decent amount of wet patches on the mat and sleeping bag. To me this couldn’t really be avoided in this weather but many people confuse this with leaking material or faulty bivy bags when actually you just need to get air into the bag to reduce the condensation but, this is easier said than done during the night! On the second night we had already endured hours of howling 20-40mph winds and driving rain as we got to our camp spot which by then was definitely saturated ground. However, this meant that temperatures were higher and in the morning there were no issues with condensation and no rain had got through the material. The tarp set up was crucial in beating the wind and creating a comfortable place to sleep and shelter from the rain and despite being cold, wet and a little frustrated at fiddling about getting it taught and strategically placed it was worth it as I never felt any wind on me or the bivy and only the bottom of the bivy actually got rained on and this didn’t affect me during the night. A problem with the bivy in these conditions occurs when it’s time to pack up in the morning as there’s nowhere to roll up your mat and sleeping bag without getting wet or dirty if the weather has been poor.
Overall, this is a love or hate piece of kit. You’ll either love the experience of feeling out in the wild or you’ll feel vulnerable without the protection of a tent. Others will feel too constrained by the bag itself, particularly if the weather is poor and you are without a tarp. Personally, I loved it. Wild camping in the Lakes next to a tarn and looking up at the stars was everything I want out of a camping trip and despite two nights of challenging weather in two different ways I can’t wait to get back out there and do it again. I might be less inclined to use this option if I was out for multiple days in constant rain or in areas with lots of biting insects constantly after me as there is no escape and a tent would definitely be most appropriate. I certainly have confidence in the Helium Bivy to protect me and with a few tweaks to the set up I’m sure it will provide a more comfortable night’s sleep each time I use it.