Tarp/Bivvy vs Tent Camping- Which Shelter is Best for You


While camping is one of life’s simple pleasures, you do need to have some outdoors knowledge to have a safe, enjoyable camping trip. 

Perhaps one of the most important things you need to know is how to find shelter overnight. 

Tents are some of the most common types of camping shelters. In fact, in many contexts, they are symbolic of camping. 

But some campers have been looking at other ways to spend a night in the wild. Some minimalist campers, for example, like using tarps and ‘bivvy bags,’ which are similar to sleeping bags that work as snug, compact shelters in the night. 

What Is Tarp/Bivvy Camping? 

If this is the first time you’re hearing the word ‘bivvy,’ you need to understand what a bivvy bag is before you decide whether it’s a feasible option to replace your tent. 

Bivvy is short for ‘bivouac,’ which is a term used to refer to a temporary shelter. 

There are two types of bivvy shelter.

One is the bivvy bag or sack, which resembles a sleeping bag but is designed to insulate.

The other kind is the larger bivvy shelter, which is a bivvy sack that can be raised, thus creating a ‘tent’ over you to protect you from the rain. 

Bivvy shelters can also be made with wood, leaves, and other natural materials. This makes them a great option for when you’re stuck in the woods with no other form of shelter. 

Instead of lugging along or constructing larger bivvy shelters, some people carry a tarp which they set up over the bivvy. Tarps are set up using guy lines and are fastened into place using stakes. They form a shelter over the bivvy, shielding you from rain, snow, and other foul weather. 

Bivvys are made with two layers of fabric. 

The bottom layer is made of nylon. It is covered with urethane, which keeps it water-resistant and shields you from the damp and moisture in the ground. 

The top layer is made with a lighter material. It is also coated with a waterproof substance to make it waterproof. 

When they were created, bivvy sacks were designed for mountaineers who needed lightweight, compact shelters. These shelters needed to fit easily into their packs and allow them to camp on narrow ledges. 

Today, bivvy bags are not just for mountain campers. Other campers are also choosing to swap out their tents with bivvy bags. There are several reasons why campers prefer to use a tarp and bivvy instead of a tent. 

Some of the advantages of using a bivvy are: 

  • They’re much lighter. Tents – with the canvas and the gear needed to set it up – can weigh up to five pounds. A bivvy and tarp are only about a pound, reducing your pack weight and allowing you more room to pack other essentials. 
  • They’re warmer. The bivvy cocoons itself around you and is made with material that is designed to insulate and trap heat. 
  • They’re less technical. You do need some experience and expertise when setting up a tent, as there are poles and stakes involved. Using a bivvy is a lot less complicated. All you need to do is shake it out, lay it down, and you’re ready to go to bed!
  • They’re more versatile. When you’re setting up a tent, you need to find flat ground with an open space. Setting up a bivvy doesn’t have this limitation. As long as you have a bit of cleared land, you’ll be good to go. 
  • They’re cheaper. A mid-range bivvy bag will be about half the price of a very basic tent. 
  • They’re more open. A tent essentially puts a roof over your head and may interfere with you getting an authentic wilderness experience. A bivvy bag puts you right out into the open, and you’ll feel the wind or rain in your face, look up at the stars as you’re falling asleep, and wake up to see nature all around you. 

So, should you also choose to switch to a bivvy bag? 

To decide which shelter is best for you, consider what kind of camping you’re doing and what your unique needs are. 

When Should You Use a Tarp and Bivvy? 

There are specific camping scenarios when a bivvy would be better for you. 

Scenario #1: If you’re not sure whether you’re staying overnight

Some hikers like to carry along a bivvy when they’re not sure how long their hike will be. 

While you can do research about trail times and try to estimate your hiking speed, there may be occasions where you’ll have to choose between hiking in the dark or overnighting where you’re at. 

Having a bivvy bag will help you make that choice. Carrying a bivvy bag and tarp will only add a few more pounds to your pack weight, and it can shelter and protect you overnight. That way, you’ll be hiking back in the morning, in much more ideal conditions. 

Scenario #2: If you’re trying to cut down on your pack weight

Another consideration to take into account is your backpack weight. 

If you’re a thru-hiker or overnight hiker, you’ll be looking for ways to cut down on your pack weight and conserve space. 

Using a bivvy bag and tarp instead of a tent is one way to shave some pounds off and to make some room in your pack, as bivvy bags can fold up into a bag that’s just a little bigger than the palm of your hand. 

That way, you’ll have more room for other hiking essentials like food, water, and medical supplies. 

Scenario #3: When you’re camping in extreme terrain

Bivvy bags were the shelter of choice for mountaineers and alpine campers – with good reason. They allow you to camp down in even the most inhospitable spots, including rocky terrains, narrow ledges, and hard, unyielding surfaces. 

With a bivvy bag, you can camp anywhere, ensuring you have a good night’s sleep and can tackle the terrain the next day.  

Scenario #4: If you’re on an exploratory trip 

If you’re on a cycling trip or are not only hiking through wilderness areas, you probably won’t find a campground to spend the night. 

A bivvy is less intrusive than a tent if you want to overnight in public spaces, like a park or a field. Bivvies are also better for cycling trips as they can easily be attached to your cycling, unlike a tent which can be bulky and heavy. 

Scenario #5: If you’re on a budget 

A bivvy and a tarp are significantly less expensive than a tent. If you want to spend some time outdoors, but don’t have too much to invest in the experience, then get a bivvy. 

If you prepare for your trip and ensure the weather will be good, you don’t even have to spend extra on a tarp shelter!

Scenario #6: If you want to connect with nature 

Unlike a tent that shuts you off from the world, a bivvy places you in the open. 

If you’re sleeping without a tarp, you’ll enjoy the sight of the sky as you fall asleep and wake up. Even if you do have a tarp over you, your bivvy will still allow you to be surrounded by fresh air. 

Tips for Using a Tarp/Bivvy

If you decide that a bivvy is best suited to your needs, there are a few things you need to keep in mind when using it. 

Be aware of condensation

While you’re sleeping, your body will emit heat. This heat will get trapped inside the bivvy bag and react with cool air on the surface of the bag, creating condensation. So, you may wake up inside a wet bag, which can be uncomfortable and frustrating. 

Unfortunately, there’s no real way to stop condensation, especially if you’re camping in a humid area. 

Bring a dry bag 

Condensation aside, your bivvy bag will keep you dry during rainfalls, but won’t do the same for all your other belongings. Pack a dry bag that you can put your kit into so it’ll stay dry as you sleep. 

Bring a sleeping mat 

Bivvy bags are designed to keep you warm, but a few extra accessories can help keep you even warmer. Bring a camping sleeping mat that can be placed under your bivvy bag; it will trap heat and keep you comfy and toasty. 

Get a bivvy with an insect mesh 

When you’re bivvy shopping, be sure to look for a bivvy with an insect mesh that can be zipped over your face to protect you from mosquitoes and other insects. 

If your bivvy doesn’t have an insect mesh, then be sure to carry along lots of insect repellent. You should also consider bringing earplugs, which will block out the annoying sound of buzzing. 

Be prepared for no privacy 

If you’re not solo camping, or are camping in public campgrounds, then remember that a bivvy bag and tarp will give you little to no privacy. Be prepared to wake up in the morning and have to pull yourself together in front of others!

When Should You Use a Tent? 

While bivvy bag and tarp camping are great in a range of scenarios, there are camping trips where you should take a tent instead. 

Tents are made by assembling sheets of fabric with a variety of poles and staking the structure to the ground. Tents have been used for centuries by nomads, travelers, and campers. They function as a ‘mini-home’ as they put a roof over your head and allow you a private, enclosed space in the wild. 

Tents are heavier than bivvy bags and tarps and can be more cumbersome to set up. However, they offer you more privacy and protection from the elements, and there are several scenarios when a tent would be a better shelter. 

Here are some scenarios in which you should use a tent instead of a bivvy/tarp. 

Scenario #1: If you’re not a regular camper

Seasoned campers are used to the surprises that the great outdoors brings, from unpredictable weather to curious animals. Experienced campers may also be comfortable with the open sleeping that a bivvy bag and tarp promises. 

However, if you’re not a seasoned camper, a tent may be a better overnight camping option. It will give you some protection and help you acclimate to sleeping outdoors. 

Scenario #2: If you’re claustrophobic

A bivvy wraps itself snugly around you and will not leave you too much room to move and maneuver. 

If you tend to get claustrophobic in small spaces, then it’s better to carry a tent. While tents are still quite small, they allow you a little more breathing space. 

Scenario #3: If you’re expecting extreme weather 

Bivvy bags are waterproof. However, they can’t protect you from thunder, lightning, or heavy snowfalls. If you’re camping in extreme weather, then a heavy-duty, well-protected tent will help keep you safe. 

Scenario #4: If you’re on a multi-day trip

When you spend more than a day out in the wilderness, then it’s likely you’ll need to do a range of tasks like cooking, repairing, and tending minor injuries and sores. A tent will allow you the weather-protection and comfort you need to carry out these tasks. 

Scenario #5: If you’re driving to your camping site 

Are you driving to your campsite? If so, then take a tent – since you aren’t carrying your kit while hiking or cycling, the extra weight shouldn’t be a worry. You can even pack both a tent and a bivvy and decide what works best for you once you reach the campsite!

Scenario #6: When you’re in a public campground 

If you’re camping in a public campground, then choose a tent to give you the privacy you need to clean up, change, and sleep. 

Tips for Using a Tent

While a tent offers you privacy and protection, there are a few aspects of tent camping that you need to consider before heading out to buy one. 

They’re more technical and less versatile

Setting up a tent can be complicated. You have to put together a range of accessories from the canvas coverings to the poles. 

Most tents come with instructions on how to set them up, but it will be helpful if you practice setting up your tent in your background before heading out into the wild. 

In addition to this, tents need to be set up on smooth flat surfaces and take up more space than bivvy bags. 

So, if you’re tent camping off-trail, you may spend more time and energy looking for a camping site than you would if you were using a bivvy bag. 

They’re more expensive 

Tents, especially lightweight ones, are way more expensive than bivvy bags and a tarp. 

You should only buy one if you genuinely enjoy camping and spending time outdoors. Otherwise, you’ll end up spending a lot of money on a tent that you only use once or twice a year! 

If you want to try your hand at camping, then try renting a tent or finding a campsite with a cabin – that’s the ideal way to test whether you have an appetite for camping or not!

They’re not as environmentally friendly 

When you’re setting up tents, you often need to hammer stakes and poles into the ground, which can disturb the soil and harm fragile ecosystems. 

Additionally, some cheaper lightweight tents can be made out of PVC chemicals, which are harmful to both the environment and you. 

When you’re buying your tent, look for options that have been made with more eco-friendly materials. You should also opt for a heavier tent, so you’ll need to use fewer stakes to anchor them to the ground. 

Try out Both Types of Shelters

While this guide will help you decide which shelter is best for you, you should also do some experimentation to figure out what you’re most comfortable with. 

Rent a tent and tarp/bivvy and do some trial runs in your backyard. Set up a tent, and spent a night sleeping in it and then do the same with the tarp/bivvy. You’ll soon come to understand what works better for you. 

You should also pay attention to the terrain, weather reports, and the type of area you’re camping in to help you make your choice. 

On more challenging terrain, bivvy bags would work better; they’re also better if you are a thru-hiker or on a bike trip and are looking for ways to cut down on your pack weight. 

But a tent will be better when you’re spending more than one night in the wild, or if you’re sleeping in a public area. 

Remember that where you shelter is one of the most critical choices you can make while camping, so take some time to consider what will work best for you. As long as you make an informed decision, you’re sure to have an enjoyable camping trip.

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