When the time comes to bug out or just catch a little time and the great outdoors, you’ll need a reliable shelter option that can help keep you warm and keep any bad weather off of you when it is time to catch a little rest.
The two most popular options for transportable shelters are the bivouac sack, or bivy, and the classic tent in all of its many guises. They can both get the job done, and they both have advantages of their own. Is one of these outdoor shelters clearly superior?
Which is best between a bivvy and a tent? Both are adequate for shelter in conjunction with sleeping bags in a variety of outdoor scenarios. Choose a tent when you need more room, need to shelter additional gear with you, and need privacy and extra space. Bivys are ideal for those who want to travel as light and lean as possible, minimize their footprint while camping, have fewer concerns about weather or want to maximize efficiency.
This is the simple answer but, as you’d expect, there’s a lot more to consider before you pick one or the other. In the remainder of this article, we will examine both the bitty and tent, comparing and contrasting them so that you can figure out which one will best suit your needs.
The Compact, Lightweight Option – The Bivy
- ✅ Efficient. The bivy is little more than a small cocoon or cover that your sleeping bag fits inside, trapping a smaller volume of air that is easier to heat, and will generally stay warmer even in a slight draft.
- ✅ Compact. Both the footprint of the bivy and its overall material size are smaller than any comparable tent, saving space and weight in your pack and also requiring less clear ground to set up.
- ✅ Cost. All things being equal a high quality bivy is less expensive than a comparable tent because it uses less material and typically does not depend on a large frame for structure and stability.
- ✅ Setup. Compared to even the most user-friendly tints, modern bivies are extremely easy to set up and tear down, usually taking no longer than a couple of minutes. This will save you time and energy when you are worn out and ready to settle down for some rest.
- ❌ Cramped. Since a bivy is little more than an additional shell over your sleeping bag, you won’t have much if any room inside to maneuver. This means you won’t have any room to bring significant additional gear inside with you to get it out of the weather, and you also won’t be able to strip or change with any privacy. Folks who report themselves claustrophobic often have a difficult time relaxing and getting to sleep in a bivy.
- ❌ Condensation. Most bivies are fairly notorious for building up significant condensation inside, condensation that, if not alleviated, can soak both your sleeping bag and you meaning you’ll then have to deal with drying out your gear.
- ❌ Less secure against pests. You’ll generally need to leave the flap open or otherwise vented to evacuate moist air from your bivy, and that means you might have issues with insects, arachnids, rodents and reptiles coming inside in the night to get warm with you or just to check things out. This could be anything from a gross-out experience to a life-threatening situation depending on the critter in question.
The bivy is a favorite of modern hikers, campers and climbers who want the lightest conceivable shelter option to take along on their adventures. Pretty much every bivy weighs less than a couple of pounds, and the best modern examples weigh only a few ounces.
Combined with their ability to pack down extremely small when stowed means you’ll be dedicating hardly any weight at all to your shelter gear and you’ll save tons of room in your pack.
This is a huge advantage for everyone, as minimalist hikers can drastically reduce the size of their load while preppers can save precious weight for other, equally important gear.
Bivies are also cheap, or at least cheap compared to equivalent tents, often costing around half as much or even less for the same quality.
However, it isn’t all good news with bivies as they do have some shortcomings, some of them serious. Probably first among them is that they are very cramped, being a little more than a tiny covering that will barely accommodate a sleeping bag with a person in it.
Though this makes them very easy to keep warm using nothing more than body heat, it also makes them claustrophobic, and prevents you from bringing your gear inside your shelter with you.
Also, bivies are notorious for accumulating condensation on their interior surfaces, condensation that will drip, run, and eventually soak your sleeping bag and then soak you.
Not only does this make for profound misery and aggravation, but also necessitates drying your gear out before you pack it up upon setting off again.
The answer, of course, is better ventilation, as most bivies don’t even zip all the way up like a tent would. This allows better airflow, but also allows a variety of pests easier access to your bivy.
Letting insects come in is bad enough, but if a snake should slither inside to warm up with you it will be an experience you will not soon forget.
The Spacious, Traditional Option – The Tent
- ✅ Spacious. Even a compact tent is significantly spacious compared to a bivy. You’ll have room to bring your gear inside, sit up, and even change with privacy if you need to. Larger tents can sleep multiple people.
- ✅ Breathable. Tents typically have excellent ventilation if they are well-designed, and you will not struggle nearly as much fighting condensation as you would with a bivy.
- ✅ Secure. The zippable door or flap on a tent will allow you to easily keep out insects, animals and other critters you don’t want joining you.
- ❌ Size. Tents have a larger footprint than a comparable bivy, and their greater amount of material and dependence upon an internal or external frame means they take up more weight and more space in your pack. Modern tents can still be very lightweight, but every pound counts.
- ❌ Expense. Tents always cost more than a comparable bivy because they have significantly more material used in their construction.
- ❌ Setup. The larger size of a tent and its reliance on a multi-part frame means you have to spend more time setting it up and taking it down then you would a bivy. Some tents are complicated, and losing any component might render the tent virtually unusable.
The tent is the traditional and popular choice for outdoor shelters, including for preppers. A modestly sized tent will allow you plenty of room to stretch out and sleep, sit up and read, and even change out of wet or dirty clothes into a fresh set.
It will provide you plenty of room to bring in your pack and other supplies, as well. Larger tents can even sleep multiple people.
Compared to bivies tents have good ventilation, and typically do not suffer from condensation nearly as badly as bivies do.
Additionally, the zippering door or flap found on your tent makes it easy to secure against intrusive critters in stark contrast to the bivy. However, tents are not the end all, be all option for outdoor shelters.
Tents cost more, all things being equal, and a high quality, modern tent can easily cost you several hundred dollars. Specialized tents can cost $1,000 or more.
This is partly because more material is needed to properly construct them, and this larger overall footprint is something that might work against you when trying to camp in cluttered terrain or close quarters.
This larger size and greater complexity also makes setup and tear down take longer, and losing any part of a tent’s frame or other component might render it nearly useless for your purposes.
Something else to keep in mind, the larger overall internal space of a tent means that it traps a correspondingly larger volume of air, air that will have to be heated if you want it to keep you warm. Compared to the tiny confines of a bivy, it is harder to keep a tent toasty warm.
Bivies and tents both offer suitable shelter to those camping outdoors. A bivy is best for people who want the lightest and most compact shelter possible so long as they don’t mind dealing with the quirks of condensation and potential issues with sealing the bivy against intrusive critters.
Tents are best for those who can spare some extra ounces and some extra room in their packs, but desire a more spacious shelter that affords them more flexibility. Both are entirely adequate, which one is best for you can only be determined by your requirements.