Tents vs Tarps vs Bivvy Bags

I was discussing a recent holiday with a colleague at work, and told him that tarping was a great way to camp on backpacking holidays. He nodded along a bit then changed the subject and the next day I showed him the photos from the holiday, his response: “oh so that’s what tarping is! I confess I wasn’t entirely sure what you meant yesterday”. I felt a bit stupid for assuming that he would be familiar with my term for using a tarpaulin as shelter. Considering he was in the marines for a number of years, I now wonder how many other people I’ve confused but never realised.

Below is a description of the three best ways to live whilst out exploring the world.

Tents

I’m sure you all know what a tent is, but to clarify – what I call a tent is a piece of fabric supported by poles and secured by pegs driven into the ground along the edge.
tents2

The advantages of a tent
  •  Keeps the elements out, you can normally weather a serious thunderstom in a decent tent.
  • Insects aren’t a problem.
  • A lot warmer in cold weather.
  • More private, you are completely enclosed on all 4 sides.
Disadvantages
  • Stuffy, as soon as the temperature goes above normal.
  • Heavier, you need to carry the tent, poles and pegs.
  • Nature is walled off by plastic.

Tarps

Unless you’re a camping enthusiast, tarpaulins/tarps/tarping is probably an unknown concept. You use a lightweight sheet of plastic/nylon and string it up as a shelter instead of a tent. I commonly do it between two trees, but if you’re on top of a mountain you can use your walking pole as a substitute tree.

tarps

The advantages of a tarp
  • Extremely lightweight
  • Never stuffy
  • Closer to nature
  • Somewhat easier to stealth camp
Disadvantages
  • Serious bad weather makes  tarping a mission of survival.
  • Mosquitos, midges, tics – all those bad things and no tent walls to keep them out.
  • Anyone can come up and peer at you sleeping.
  • A bivvy bag is also recommended to keep your sleeping gear off the ground.
  • A tree is required for the best pitching.

Bivvy (bivouac) Bag

We’re getting into the realms of serious lightweight backpacking shelters now. A bivvy bag is an extremely lightweight waterproof cover that you slide your sleeping bag into. It’s a solo shelter with no room inside other than for sleeping. I recommend a combo of the tarp with the bivvy bag, unless its glorious weather and warm nights.

bivvy

The advantages of a bivvy bag

  • Extremely lightweight
  • Stealth bivvying is easy. You can bed down anywhere and  it is unlikely you will be noticed.
  • Quick and easy to pack away.
  • You and nature are entirely one. Look around you and there will be a sheep (or slug!), look up and you will see the stars.

Disadvantages

  • Condensation, you can stop it with an more expensive breathable bag or if the weather is dry not going all the way in.
  • In bad weather you have to close the bag completely up and its claustrophobic. This in turn plays a part in the condensation.
  • On long, wet trips you will need to find somewhere to dry out.
  • Mosquitoes, midges, tics, slugs and spiders all want to say hello.
  • Your gear will always be outside, like you.

When to use what

Your choice of shelter is entirely dependant on where you’re going and the environment you will be in. If you know its going to be dry and somewhere you know there are no mosquitoes or can light a fire to keep them away then a tarp is the definite choice. However, if you’re doing a mountain trek then I would recommend a sturdy tent. I recently took a tarp up into the Pyrenees, and it was fine most of the time until the thunderstorms set it then it became too limiting. Its not recommended to attempt and survive a mountain storm at an altitude of 2000 metres with just a tarp.

In my experience the best all round combination is  carrying a tarp and bivvy bag. Whilst this somewhat negates the lightweight benefit it means you can feel more secure in wet weather and still be close to the great outdoors. You also don’t have to use the tarp if the nights are warm and dry.

Finally, my favourite bivvying photo. Sleeping at 2500meters below a glacier in the Alps. I woke up to find ice on the inside of my bivvy bag and the most incredible sunrise down the valley.

What’s your preferred way of camping?

Morning sunrise

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