If you love to wander the wilderness solo the question of whether to hit the trail with a one person tent or a bivy sack would have come across your mind a few times.
In the old days, bivy sacks were pretty much just a giant plastic bag that you could sleep in in emergencies. They were terrible things with zero breathability and if it wasn’t raining it would probably have been more comfortable to just sleep outside.
These days, they are a lot more comfortable. They are weatherproof, breathable, and some even include poles in their design so you don’t end up sleeping with fabric sitting on your face which leads us to the question of – a small tent vs bivy sack, which one is best for your adventures?
The ideal scenario is, of course, to own both so that you can pick and choose depending on what kind of trip you’re going on but that’s not always an option so which one is right for you? Join me as we take a look at the pros and cons of each so you can make your choice with confidence.
There are two types of bivy sacks out there to choose from – with or without poles. A bivy sack without poles is pretty much a breathable, weatherproof (Gore-tex) cover which you and your sleeping bag can crawl into and have a comfortable night’s sleep regardless of the weather.
A bivy sack with poles is kind of similar to a tent. They can either come with poles at the head or head and foot end. This raises the fabric so that it’s not touching your face while you sleep and it feels a lot roomier and less claustrophobic, plus it aids ventilation to minimalize condensation build-up.
I’m sure you already know what a tent is, so I’m not going to go into the design details of those – they are a lot more spacious overall when compared to a bivy.
Regardless of the type of bivy sack, you choose it’s not going to be very spacious. Bivvy bags with poles do have more room, and you might be able to squeeze one or two valuable items in there with you while you sleep but that’s about it. If you don’t like sleeping in confined spaces, or might spend the whole night worrying about the safety of your backpack, then a bivy sack might not be for you.
A 1 man tent on the other hand might not have space for both your backpack and sleeping bag inside, but there is certainly enough space for you and your favorite items. Plus, lightweight one-man tents these days often come with two vestibules meaning you will have a place to keep your backpack and shoes secure and protected from the weather overnight.
In the realm of pitching time, a bivy is the easiest and quickest by far. To set up a poleless bivy sack, all you need to do is lay it on the ground and put your sleeping bag inside the bivy, and that’s it. With a pole version, you might have to spend an extra minute adding two poles to the bivvy. In any case, it’s way faster than pitching a tent with all the stakes, poles, flysheet, and guy lines.
Since bivys are so small and easy to pitch, you can sleep almost anywhere. This means you can hike until dusk and simply roll out your bivy sack where ever you find yourself and go to bed. Bivvy bags are also way more discrete and any wildlife or people in the area will not notice you’re even there as you’ll look more like a log than anything else.
When it comes to tents, the pitching time and need to pick a suitable campsite reduces your options considerably but making and finding a campsite is something a lot of people enjoy. So it really comes down to your personal preference.
If you have slept in a bivy sack before then you’ll know how tricky it is to get inside one. There is a lot of tricky shuffling involved if there isn’t a zipper and if there is, it’s still hard to get in and then zip yourself up for the night.
Tents have doors, sometimes even two, making access about as easy as possible. You won’t have to shuffle around, you can just hop in, leave your shoes outside and go to sleep.
When it comes to keeping your pack light, a pole-less bivy sack is the way to go. Some poles-less bivy sacks weigh as little as 8 ounces and roll up super small, so you’ll barely notice them in your backpack.
Bivvy bags with a poled design are a little heavier but more comfortable. They can weigh anywhere between 1-2.5 lbs. A 1lb option is still far lighter most one-man tents on the planet, although the lightest one in the world is just 15 ounces but is extremely expensive.
Tents have been getting lighter and lighter with new fabrics, design, and technology and you can easily find a solid, spacious, 1 or 2 man tent that weighs between 2-3 lbs.
As you can see, there is no clear winner when it comes to weight and packed size when comparing poled bivy sacks and lightweight one-man tents. Poleless bivy sacks are the winner when it comes to weight but you’ll have to sacrifice some comfort.
When it comes to price, all bivy sacks, even poled designs, are far more affordable than tents of a similar weight class.
For an all-season poled bivy sack that is top-quality and weighs less than 2.5 lbs you’ll be looking to pay around $300 – The Black Diamond Big Wall Hooped Bivy is an excellent example of this.
For a 3-season ultralight 1 man tent of similar weight such as the Nemo Hornet, you’ll be looking at dropping $500. So a tent certainly more expensive but you get the added bonus of some headroom and a small vestibule to store your gear in.
When it comes to handling the weather, tents and bivys are pretty much equal. The same technology that goes into tents and their fabrics are used in bivy sacks too, so as long as you match the quality of each, both bivy sacks and tents should be as good as each other when it comes to rainfall and snow.
Bivvy bags do have the upper hand when it comes to the wind though. They have a much lower profile than a tent and won’t be pushed around in a heavy wind, plus since they fit around you, your weight will anchor them to the ground.
As we all know when camping in a bivvy or a tent, you can get wet from the outside and the inside. If your tent or bivvy isn’t well ventilated and has good breathability, condensation will build up and create moisture on the inside and you’ll likely wake up damp.
Tents have a clear advantage when it comes to ventilation as the room above your head allows the air to circulate and the inclusion of a flysheet and internal roof means they can include vents for the air to escape.
Bivvy bags without poles have next to no ventilation, although some include a mesh cover which you can open if the weather permits. Bivvy bags with poles do create some ventilation but nothing compared to tents.
Breathability comes down to the fabric used to make the tent or bivy sack, and both can be as breathable as each other, it just depends on the product you choose.
Now that you have all the information, which one would you choose?
In my opinion, making the choice comes down to three things: money, comfort, and freedom on the trail.
If you love to roam, have no qualms about sleeping in a confined space, and want the freedom to sleep pretty much anywhere, unencumbered by the need to set up camp and find a campsite, then a bivy sack will suit you to a T.
If you choose comfort over freedom to camp anywhere and don’t mind spending a few hundred dollars more for an ultralight tent then a one-man tent will be far more enjoyable to sleep in while you’re out in the wilderness.
I would personally own both. I’d use a tent for a long week of camping and hiking where sleep and comfort are important. I’d use a bivy sack for one or two night adventures where an activity, such as fly fishing, will have me moving all day and fishing into the night without much time to worry about finding a campsite and setting up for the night.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!