Who needs a tent anyway?

"If you build it yourself, you’ve only yourself to blame" says contributor Jenny-Anne of her first bivvy build.

a bivouac ready and waiting for the camper in the forest

This article is by our contributor Jenny-Anne, sharing her experience of her first trip camping with a bivvy.

What is a bivouac shelter?

A bivouac shelter is a temporary camp used by mountain climbers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. It is typically a small structure, built from simple materials like tarps or sleeping bags or foraged from local sticks, branches and foliage, that provides just enough protection from the elements to allow its occupants to rest or sleep. Bivouac shelters are often used in emergency situations, when bad weather forces climbers to descend from the mountain before reaching their destination. But they can also be used for more pleasant purposes, like spending a night under the stars away from the hustle and bustle of civilization. No matter what their purpose, bivouac shelters provide a sense of security and comfort in the wild and we hear from Jenny-Anne about her first experience building and sleeping under a bivouac shelter. 

Over to Jenny-Anne.

Who needs a tent anyway?

This year my intention is to give camping a proper try and try to understand what it is that drives multitudes of maniacs to sleep in a damp field enveloped by insects. But so far, after three attempts, I’m yet to sleep in an actual tent. This is yet another story of how I went camping without one and built my own shelter instead. With neither reason nor clue how.

I don’t like sleeping out. I slept in the woods in March and it was okay. I had some sleep, I saw a nice sunrise and I heard a lot of birds singing far too early in the morning. It was also an unexpectedly freezing, windy night and I dropped my chocolate rations into a puddle before I’d even arrived. But I found it was all worth it once I’d returned home, had a hot bath and received social media kudos / adulation for my mad mini adventure.

Now it’s mid-May and I’m in the woods again, this time to sleep under a shelter I’ve made myself, rather than simply bedding down on a soft mattress of dry leaves with very little effort. I’m in a lovely bit of woodland owned by Dave & Emma Cornthwaite, who host visitors at their Lincolnshire-based Big Sky Hideaway in a glorious assortment of camping options. But tonight, I have it all to myself, so there’s no-one to hear me shuffling about in the undergrowth.

In theory, this is going to go much better for me. It’s a warm, dry night, and there are no creatures expected to investigate me during the dark hours. I can use anything I can get my hands on in this wooded copse I’ve adopted for the night, so I hope it contains all the things I think I need. I haven’t really done my research, unless you count pretending to watch two randomly chosen YouTube videos by well-meaning amateur outdoor ‘experts’ who looked suspiciously like the type of person you see voluntarily appearing on shows like Naked and Afraid.

getting the right branch to make a solid bivouac build

Building the bivouac structure

The first task is to find two trees that allow me to mount a strong bough between them, acting as my main frame, upon which the rest of the shelter will rest. It’s not windy, but I don’t want to find myself underneath a mound of timber, come morning. Joy of joys, I find both quickly and easily, except that they’re at opposite ends of the woods. It takes me fifteen minutes to drag a huge log back to my site and I’m glad to have comfortable boots on as I could easily smash my 10,000 steps during the build, I’m sure. Add to that the lifting and carrying and I’m pretty sure I’ve earned my grab bag of Doritos tonight.

I need long, strong, straight branches for the first layer, followed by more spindly branches for the second layer that’ll make a robust frame for the lean-to type of shelter I’m making.

layering up the bivouac with branches

Layer up with foliage

Finally, I can top it off with a thick layer of foliage that’ll act as a wind break as well as block out the morning sun as it rises from the east, so I can try to doze until a reasonable hour rather than 5.03am. At least that’s the plan. And until this point, it’s all going well. There are plenty of supplies scattered about and I can avoid the mossy ones that look like they might contain critters.

Then there are nettles. I don’t want to p*** over Dave and Emma’s kind hospitality by tearing leafy branches off their healthy, happy trees, so I opt to go nettle for the final, critical layer as they’re covering the woodland floor in abundance. It’s a bold choice, but the sun is setting, and I can’t dither too long. Picking nettles after dark certainly doesn’t appeal either.

(My after-the-fact advice is to pull them out by the roots, though careful as I am to do so, my forearms are still desperately throbbing from numerous sting attacks, hours after the shelter is completed, because I wasn’t half as careful as I should have been. Complacency will surely kill us all in the end.)

adding foliage to the bivouac

How long does it take to build a bivouac?

Never again will I underestimate the time it takes to build a half-decent shelter. Or in my case, any shelter. From start to finish, the build takes two hours, much of it from sourcing the materials, so it’s vital that if you’re trying this yourself, you make sure you’re somewhere where you do have everything you need. It’d be heart-breaking to have gotten halfway through and realised there’s no hope you can finish your shelter. Especially if it looks like rain. Or wind. Or you can’t find your car keys to curl up in the boot.

As it’s approaching summer, the evenings are warm, almost balmy. Lovely, you may think. Lovely, I think. Lovely, the thousands of insects surrounding me also think. One in particular will not LEAVE MY FACE ALONE! I must’ve spent at least an hour asking it in various ways to please just sod off.

But, finally, inevitably, my muttering tails off, I start feeling drowsy and the night passes incredibly quickly. Unlike my previous woodland adventure, where I rested on a bed of deep, dry leaf cover, this evening’s base layer was far harder, but it didn’t prevent deep slumber. Only twice, very briefly, I wake up, acknowledge my surroundings, roll my eyes at my own naivety, and fall deep asleep again. The insect is gone. All is well.

bivouac camp made up with bivvy bag

Wakey Wakey

In the morning, as early as the sun, there’s a cacophony of creatures chirruping, flapping and buzzing away all around me. It’s this and not the bright sunlight that prevents extending dozing. The shelter blocks out all of the rising sun’s rays so at least I’m able to enjoy the morning air without squinting. It’s bliss to lie still and take in the natural sounds. They are quite loud though. (And, to be honest, it does get a bit grating eventually.)

I’ve enjoyed a second night under the stars. There as sleep and some comfort, so I’m a reasonably happy camper. One thing that was deeply missed though, was that first cup of morning tea. Next time I’m going to add in some home comforts and try a proper campsite experience. I’m already looking forward to campfire cookery, which I’m sure must’ve come a long way since the burnt bangers of rainy nights under canvas on Brownie camp in the New Forest all those years ago.

I roll up my bag and ground mat. I admire my creation one last time. It’s reassuring to be able to leave the shelter intact as I depart. As it’s all made of foraged materials there seems little point in demolishing it as it’ll soon enough return to the earth it originated from. There’s even a tiny chance it may prove useful sooner, if Big Sky has a double booking in the next week or two. But right now I’m off to the motorway services for a comfortable wee.

Have you ever made and stayed under your own bivouac shelter?

Share your experience or top tips with us over on Instagram @beoutsidebeactive

sunset from my campsite bivouac

About the Author

Jenny-Anne Dexter is a full-time life enthusiast, who likes to say yes to the abstract, the sublime and the ridiculous. A bog snorkeller, trail runner, year-round dipper and sometime cage fighter, she's currently deciding on which will be her next challenge... You can see Jenny-Anne and all of our other contributors here

Read more of Jenny-Anne's articles here:

Wild Camping for the first time

A beginners guide to bike packing


Subscribe