This winter I spent some time working on accumulating some new bikepacking gear. First was this: A bivy sack from REI.
It is pretty well water resistant and with the bug netting over the face, is something that you could use as a shelter all by itself, although obviously it is minimal and the netting is not ready for rainy conditions. It weighs right at a pound. It also adds warmth to whatever your sleep system is and I always sleep cold. I did wonder if I would find it claustrophobic and I was concerned about condensation building up inside. It would require a few trial runs.
But, what I liked about it was the options it gave me. You know how the wise outdoors-person uses the concepts of layering their clothing to get a system that is flexible and versatile for all conditions? I can use this bivy all by itself with a summer bag/quilt and be bug free. I can add a warmer bag and bring my clothes inside to heat up a bit and I can use it in a shelter for increased warmth or for protection when I camp in this:
The Integral Designs Silshelter. It gets mixed, but mostly positive reviews, and was on sale at REI for 100 bucks. With the most excellent return policy, I was not worried in case it did not work out. What appealed to me was the more than typical tarp coverage and the light weight. It is 1 pound and packs up into a ridiculously small stuff sack. I do not care for the center pole, but I will work on that and it needs a lot of staking if you want it to be storm/wind tight. Otherwise, it really sets up with 6 stakes and has tie off options for overhanging limbs, etc. So this gives me another part of the layering system. Tarps are better in hotter weather as they ventilate well but should be storm tight if pitched correctly. We shall see. The obvious issue is the lack of a floor so a light ground cloth is a must and the crawly things can get ya. The bivy will stop that in cooler weather and for summer I will attempt to make up a bug net for the Silshelter (they sell one all pre-made for the Silshelter, but I am cheap and dirtbaggish...think Walmart).
Now here is another thing. Say that my tent weighs 3.5 pounds...I think that is about right for my one man set-up. If I am using a tarp at one pound, a bivy at one pound, a ground cloth, and some tent stakes (more than my tent ever needs), then I am right at the same weight as the tent, so why bother? Well, the tent is all or nothing. Yes, I can bring just the screen fly and poles but that is only good for summer and even then, high altitude summer camping can bring rain showers, yes? I can bring the storm fly to be safe, but there we are, back to all or nothing. I can use just the storm fly and poles and make a tarp option out of it but the storm fly on my tent is pretty heavy. And, in both cases, I still need a ground cloth (footprint) to protect the tent.
So I have that layered system....I hope....that gives me more options. Now it was time to try some of it out. I picked a local canyon and watched the weather forecast. We went from 80 degrees to chances of rain in a day or so but I figured that I needed to know how it did in the rain anyway. I grabbed a cheap 4mil plastic painters sheet and cut it into a ground cloth. I packed my old North Face down bag...too bulky, but rated to 20*...and headed out into the evening.
I found a spot under a tree...not a good idea in the rain...that was out of the way and set-up camp. One thing about a tarp is there are subtleties that are not present in a pre-configured tent. You need to get the staking and such right to get the tension and shape of the structure right and that is easy to do on my front lawn...harder to do in the uneven grass of a meadow. So much fiddling ensued until I had it pretty well ready to occupy. In went the ground sheet, sleeping pad, bivy, bag. The sleeping pad is an ancient Thermarest inflatable that has served me well but I found out that the surface of the pad against the surface of the plastic groundsheet had a nearly zero coefficient of friction...think Pigs on Ice as applied to sleeping.
So, the pad went inside the bivy, stealing some stacking room, but the bivy was stable on the plastic sheet under it. A bit of time reading outside the shelter then inside with my headlamp gave way to nighttime and sleep. I slipped the bivy sack over my head and zipped up the enclosure, placing the netting basically over my face. Interesting. If you are claustrophobic, avoid this. I am not, so that was fine, but it did not allow for a very fresh air feeling when breathing. I was surprised how the mesh inhibited that. I was getting some condensation right at the head area from the breath there, but not much. Eventually I unzipped the netting section and slept inside but uncovered at the head to feel fresher air.
I also played around with the quilt concept by opening up the down bag but keeping the bottom zipped into a pocket for my feet. Actually, the bag only has a 70% zipper anyway, so that pocket is always there. Inside that bivy, that set-up was awesome and I slept very comfortably into the low 40s. I want to explore the quilt approach more this year.
So, about midnight it began to rain. And rain. And rain. It rained all morning. At one point I switched on my light and took stock of my situation. I reached out from under the tent and readjusted the side stakes to give me more of a slope for a drip zone, but I did have some water enter the tarp right at the center pole. I am not sure if that came from inadequate seam sealing on my part (I sealed the tarp before use) or it was sneaking in where the two front flaps overlap. Still, it was a small puddle but unwelcome none the less.
By dawn the rain had moved on. I stayed dry and had no more issues with leaks anywhere. The inside wall of the tarp was as wet as the outside from condensation, but it never rained on me. I had the sides of the tarp down pretty low and the flaps closed, so that did not surprise me. However, inside my bivy it would not have mattered if I did contact the tarp sides as the bag would have been protected. As far as condensation inside the bivy, that was very minimal and I cannot imagine camping in wetter weather, not where I live. I only had some spots on the down bag where the shell had dark spots on it, but the loft was intact.
So, there were a few things I learned:
My ground sheet was too big and too slippery. Too bulky too. I need to cut it so any water getting into the edges of the tarp or dripping in just soaks into the ground and does not pool up on top of the sheet. I had it 5 feet wide...2 feet would be better. I will replace it with something else at some point. Maybe Tyvek or something.
Staking is everything on a tarp. Practice and get good at it. In spring, the ground is soft but in summer it won't be so I ordered some of these: Titanium tent stakes. Bomber and light too.
The pole solution: The Silshelter was designed to either be tied up to a limb for the main support or use a hiking staff as a center pole. Great if you have a tree or a hiking staff. I typically have neither. So I needed a center pole (maybe two) option. I wanted it to be light and cheap...dirtbag, remember...so I looked around for a suitable material. I found it in the form of carbon fiber golf club shafts. I will take some pics at some point, but basically I cut the heads off, cut them to length and then in half for storage, sleeved them, and pinned them together. Voila...light, strong and $3.50 to $5.00 each at the Goodwill center. They are only sooo long, but typically tarps sit low to the ground. I bet that fishing poles, ski poles, and who knows what would work too. I also am looking at ways to eliminate the center pole with an a-frame of two very light weight sectioned CF poles and an elbow join. We shall see. I would like to gain back some center room.
The Silshelter has one thing I fought and that is the two front flaps that make the vestibule. They are a challenge to get taught, overlapped, and staked down when you are inside. I need to figure that out, but I have to wonder what the makers had in mind when they designed such an odd arrangement? More thought required here on my part to come to terms with this.
But, all that said. it was a success in that I stayed 99% weather tight, warm, and secure in conditions that are above what I would typically expect to be in. Only high winds would have made that worse and hopefully I will get the set-up better as I go along.
More refining to come as I get a better ground sheet, look at lighter quilt options, and build some bug netting. Fun stuff.