Earlier this winter, I partnered with Bruce Beckmann at Alpine Rescue Team to offer a webinar on winter 14er safety and preparation. While prepping for the session, he and I discussed emergency bivies in a winter alpine environment. If you are not familiar, a bivy (short for ‘bivouac’) is a temporary campsite or shelter used by hikers, climbers, or soldiers in the outdoors, particularly when a conventional tent is not practical or available. In mountaineering, they are often considered a refuge of last resort when caught in poor conditions and descent is impractical or impossible. Left exposed to the elements, you would be unlikely to survive the night – and even if you did, it would make a descent or rescue much more challenging.
I’ve never had to setup a bivy in real-life conditions (thankfully), but I learned how to do so while growing up in the Scouting progam. Bruce told me how Alpine Rescue Team members each do a practice bivy as part of their regular training in case they ever needed to do it during a rescue mission. He suggested I try it – and bring only what I usually have with me for a typical winter climb to see how prepared I am and identify what I should bring in the future. With a bit of a smirk, I said I would accept the challenge and see what I could learn from it.
Planning the Practice WinterBivy
Bruce suggested Echo Lake Campground at 10,600 ft elevation as a good “first time” bivy spot. It’s accessible from a well-maintained highway and is just an hour drive from Denver. I wanted to make sure that I took precautions to ensure my practice emergency doesn’t become a real emergency. I packed extra supplies in my Jeep, including blankets, food, and water. I brought my Garmin InReach, ensured I had a satellite signal, and also kept my phone and battery pack with me. I wrote down my plans in detail, left them with my partner at home, and checked in with him every few hours. In a worst case situation, my car (with a full tank of gas) was only about 100 feet from where I set up camp.
Picking a Bivy Site and Digging My Pit
I arrived at Echo Lake around sunset, with some beautiful colors in the sky as I drove up the highway. I had hoped to arrive a bit earlier but got delayed, I decided to go for it anyway as in a real emergency I would also be working under pressure and without advanced notice. I got my gear and hiked over to the first spot in the site. There was a decent snowbank that was partially surrounded by trees which would help block the wind. I decided this was a good spot and got to work.
The weather forecast for the night was not particularly cold – but winds were blowing at a steady 30-40 mph. This is pretty standard for a high-altitude location – Echo Lake sits at 10,600 feet, just 1,000 feet or so below the tree line. With this in mind, I decided to dig a pit into the snowbank on the ‘leeward’ side of the snow bank. This would help block the wind and allow it to flow above me, keeping me warmer. I did not have a shovel, but my ice axe worked pretty well at clearing away a gap large enough for my lightweight sleeping pad and bag (my winter emergency shelter gear). Below is a picture of my setup once complete.
I also used my ice axe to build up a small wall of snow around the top of the pit to block incoming wind and route it around or over my snow pit. This took a little practice and care, as pushing too much snow up caused some of it to fall into the pit and get on my gear. I had no way to dry out my sleeping bag or clothing if it got snowy and then melted from my body heat, so keeping snow off my bag was a major priority. I ended up removing the sleeping bag while doing my work.
With my pit complete, I set out my sleeping pad and blanket. I only recently started to carry a lightweight pad with me on winter trips, after reading a survival tip on the importance of insulating yourself from the ground. Compared to sleeping on bare snow, the pad provides significant heat savings and also provides a layer of waterproof material to avoid getting your bag wet throughout the night as the snow melts. I highly recommend bringing one with you during winter climbs in addition to an emergency bivy or sleeping bag. It is worth the weight.
I used my backpack as a table of sorts to pull out my gear once I was sitting on my sleeping bag so I could sort through my items, clothing, and food without getting anything snowy and wet. I took out and put on every piece of clothing I brought with me, including my base, mid and top layers, a jacket, stocking cap, face mask, and gloves. I took a last large chug of water and ate a Kind Bar before climbing into my sleeping bag. This itself took a bit of time to ensure I did not knock more snow into the pit or get anything wet – especially with 4 layers of clothes.
However, once I was in the bag, the setup really worked well. The 2-feet or so of snow that surrounds my head and sides prevent nearly all the wind from hitting me, which was the biggest threat in terms of exposure. I actually ended up taking off a layer after about 20 minutes – it was much warmer than I had expected. The low that night was 20 degrees – right around 2 degrees windchill. However, except for the noise of the wind causing some issues, I managed to get a relatively full night of sleep. When I packed up the next morning to head home, I was surprised at how prepared I was for a bivy – but there were also a number of things I learned that I could do differently in the future.
My Top Lessons Learned for Emergency Winter Bivouacs
Here are the six top takeaways I learned from the experience:
- Don’t forget to check for “widow makers” when down in the trees before spending time setting up a site. These are hanging dead branches waiting to fall on you. The winds were gusting throughout the night and I could clearly hear the trees swaying and cracking. I forgot to check to see if there were any large, dead branches or trees above my site that could fall and hit me from the wind. When I got up to check, thankfully there were none – but if there were, I would have had to move my whole site and dig another pit. Take the time to check up front.
- In a real survival situation, hang a half dozen 6-foot-long strips of flagging high enough to be seen to alert rescuers to your bivy pit, or else they may walk right past you while you are asleep.
- When digging your shelter or snow pit, take off a few layers. I did not think of this at the time, but digging snow with an ice axe is hard work, and it only took a few minutes to start to sweat. I noticed this and slowed down and removed a layer, but I can see how in a real situation where you are in shock, you might not – and get soaked in sweat for the night, which would be very bad. Don’t push yourself too hard. Remember, sweat, and you’re dead.
- Bring along a backpacking stove. I usually only brought one on longer trips and overnight hikes, but obviously, it would have been nice here to have an easier method to get water – and a cup of hot cocoa would be a big pick-me-up in a cold, windy, and miserable situation. Remember the small thermos too to keep your water liquid during the night and provide extra warmth (10 oz is plenty).
- Consider Buying a Bivy Sack. These are essentially one-person tent, like a sleeping bag that completely encloses you with just enough space to sit up slightly. I don’t have one, and I have scoffed in the past at the price, but I now see the value they have for a situation like this. Truth be told, I will likely invest in one now to be ready next winter. They are warmer, waterproof, and deal with the issue of snow getting in your bag and pit. Well-worth the price. They are great year-round too.
- Bring the ten essentials. I found that I used each of them at some point during my experience except for the sun protection (which I would have needed anyways during the day if it were a real adventure). Don’t skimp and don’t ever separate yourself from them while hiking or climbing.
- Do not skimp on your food and water supply. Pack nutritious food you enjoy eating. I bought Kind Bars, which are my favorite, and a ton of trail mix, which is not. It was nice to have some comfort food and I wish I had brought even more of them! Once settled in your bag, eating a high-caloric bar, helps to increase your metabolism and helps keep you warmer. Each time you wake up, have a snack and settle in for another few hours of sleep. Remember to drink fluids. Did I fill that thermos? Had I been really hiking all day 12-14 hours, (rather than driving up and “bivying”) and then realizing I needed to bivy, I would probably find myself dehydrated and more susceptible to AMS. Food and hot fluids would be very nice to have.
- Don’t forget your toilet paper. This is the one thing I identified I should have brought but didn’t. Usually, I only bring it along if I am going on an overnight. If you get stuck outdoors overnight, you probably will need to go at some point in the night. I ended up waiting because I knew I’d be getting breakfast in the morning – but if you are really stuck outside, you might not have that luxury. (Tip: Kitchen paper towels work well too and are a bit more sturdy in high winds, etc., and can be used for fire starters)
Learn For Yourself: Try a Bivouac!
The best way to learn to do an emergency bivy is to try it – that’s certainly what I experienced. If you want to go for it, here are some steps to follow to make sure your practice emergency does not become a legitimate emergency.
- Tell someone what you are doing, where you are going, and check in regularly.
- Bring a phone, battery pack, and satellite communication device (Garmin or SPOT).
- Keep your car close with extra equipment and a full tank of gas.
- Check the weather and avalanche forecast and reschedule if conditions look bad.
- Stay somewhere accessible, like a campground on a major highway or county road
- Bring the ten essentials and keep them with you throughout the experience.
- Remember a small stove and a thermos. If the thermos is empty, you need to fill it up so it is there ready to use when things go bad, or your cold at 3:00 am..
Once you are comfortable doing this “test” bivy, (again only use what you will normally carry in your pack – no “stuffing” it for the test bivy…) try it above the tree line in the “worst” spot exposed to the winds (be safe). Try lying on a good slope all night and see what things change and what adjustments you have to make. Remember, sometimes you cannot pick the best spot to bivy, the situation picks it for you.
An emergency bivy is not a common occurrence, but when they happen they can often result in serious injuries, complex rescues, and sometimes even death. Make decisions to stop and turn around early, read the weather signs, don’t push it. The mountain will be there tomorrow, will you?
NOTE: I would like to express my appreciation to Bruce Beckmann and the Alpine Rescue Team for their help with this article and their suggestion to try this winter bivy exercise. Learn more about their work and please consider supporting their efforts with a donation of any amount.
Recommended Bivy Sacks and Shelters
Considering buying an emergency bivy? It is a good way to be prepared should the worst occur in the mountains. Here are five solid options for your first winter bivy sack.
- MSR E-Bivy
The MSR E-Bivy is an ultralight and weather-resistant emergency shelter designed for added warmth and comfort during unplanned nights in the hills or when used in combination with a tarp or open bivouac. Crafted with a silicone-coated fabric top, the E-Bivy effectively blocks wind, dew, spindrift, and precipitation, ensuring you stay protected in various conditions. The durable, waterproof Xtreme Shield™ floor provides both warmth and weather-resistance when you need it most. With its ability to pack down light and small, the MSR E-Bivy is the perfect addition to your outdoor gear, fitting effortlessly into a pack lid or pocket, and ensuring you’re prepared for any situation. See current prices.
- Mountain Pod Emergency Shelter
The Trekmates Mountain Pod Emergency Shelter is a water-resistant and packable solution designed to protect your group when unexpected weather hits during your outdoor adventures. This highly visible storm shelter can accommodate up to 4 adults, making it an essential addition to your group’s gear.
Constructed with bright orange 190T polyester and featuring a polyurethane (PU) coating, the Mountain Pod provides reliable protection against harsh conditions. The wraparound, flexible TPU windows ensure visibility, while the double-sewn seams guarantee strength and durability. A drawcord bottom hem reduces volume, and the integrated stuff sack doubles as a chimney vent for improved airflow. See current prices.
- All-Season Emergency Blanket
The SOL All Season Blanket is a versatile, thermal survival blanket designed for warmth, durability, and multiple outdoor applications. Unlike traditional mylar blankets, this compact, waterproof blanket features a heat-reflective material with a vaporized aluminized coating, utilizing direct-weave technology to trap air and provide enhanced heat retention. The bright orange color aids in signaling rescue teams, while the four brass grommets with reinforced edges withstand up to 37 lbs. of force each, making it perfect for rigging an emergency shelter. Lightweight at only 16 oz., the SOL All Season Blanket can be used as a tent tarp, gear cover, firewood hauler, or lean-to shelter, and it folds easily into a compact size for repeated use. See Current Prices.
- Alpine AscentShell Bivy
The Outdoor Research Alpine AscentShell Bivy is designed specifically for alpine pursuits and extreme weather conditions, combining the best features of the popular Alpine Bivy with Helium AscentShell technology for enhanced breathability and reduced condensation. Its large, step-in opening allows for easy entry without shimmying, while the durable, waterproof, and breathable fabric is fully seam-taped for protection against the elements. The fly fastener reveals an extra-large mesh screen for stargazing, and no-see-um mesh helps keep bugs at bay. The high-volume toe end and additional headroom provide space for gear storage, and the single-pole system enables quick setup and breakdown. Weighing 1 lb. 2.6 oz. with pole and 1 lb. 0.8 oz. without, the Alpine Bivy includes two stake loops and one guyline loop for secure anchoring in challenging environments. See current prices.
- SOL Escape Lite Bivy
The SOL Escape Lite Bivy is a versatile and compact solution that provides peace of mind during your outdoor adventures. Designed to be used as a sleeping bag liner for added warmth, a sleeping bag shell for protection against rain, or as an emergency bivy, it is constructed with breathable, windproof, and water-resistant Escape fabric. This innovative material allows moisture to escape while keeping rain, snow, and wind out, and reflects 70% of your body heat back to you for optimal warmth. With its minimalist design, the SOL Escape Lite Bivy weighs a mere 5.5 oz. and packs down to an impressively small size, making it an essential addition to any outdoor gear kit. See current prices.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
A: An emergency bivy, or bivouac, is a temporary shelter used by hikers, climbers, and outdoor enthusiasts when they find themselves in an unexpected or life-threatening situation. A bivy provides protection from the elements and helps to conserve body heat, allowing an individual to rest, recover, or await rescue in a potentially hostile environment.
A: Yes, you can bivy in winter, but it requires additional precautions and preparation due to the harsh weather conditions. You will need to ensure you have the proper insulation, such as a high-quality sleeping bag and pad, and a weather-resistant bivy sack. It’s crucial to choose a sheltered location, stay dry, and maintain your body temperature to avoid hypothermia and frostbite.
A: A bivy sack is designed to provide a protective barrier against wind, rain, and snow, but its primary purpose is not to keep you warm. Your sleeping bag and insulating layers are responsible for retaining body heat. However, a bivy can help trap some warmth and reduce heat loss, especially in windy conditions.
A: A bivouac can be a good decision when faced with unexpected weather changes, injuries, or exhaustion that make it unsafe to continue traveling. It’s also suitable when traditional shelters are unavailable, or when a lightweight and minimalist approach to camping is desired for activities like mountaineering, alpine climbing, or long-distance backpacking.
A: To choose the right location for your emergency bivy, consider the following factors:
- Safety: Ensure the location is free from hazards such as falling rocks, avalanches, or potential flash floods.
- Wind protection: Seek natural wind barriers like trees, boulders, or the base of a cliff.
- Elevation: Avoid setting up in low-lying areas where cold air tends to settle.
- Visibility: In rescue situations, try to find a location that is visible from the air or nearby trails.
- Ground conditions: Choose a flat, dry surface free from sharp objects or water that could damage your bivy or sleeping pad.
A: An emergency bivy kit typically consists of the following essential items:
- A lightweight, waterproof, and breathable bivy sack or emergency shelter.
- A compact, insulating sleeping pad to provide a barrier between you and the cold ground.
- A warm sleeping bag, ideally rated for the lowest expected temperatures in your area.
- A reliable source of heat, such as chemical warmers, a portable stove, or a small fire-starting kit.
- A headlamp or flashlight for visibility in low-light conditions.
- A whistle or signaling device to attract attention in case of a rescue situation.
- A basic first-aid kit for treating minor injuries.
- High-energy snacks and a water bottle or hydration system.
- Additional warm clothing, such as gloves, a hat, and extra layers.
- A lightweight, durable groundsheet or tarp for added protection from the elements.