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We've tested over 20 of the best bivy sacks over the last 8 years, and purchased 9 of this year's top models for our latest round of side-by-side testing and analysis. Our testers have used them over all sorts of terrain - hanging off the sides of cliffs, basking in mountain meadows, and in riverside campsites in the desert. We waited out surprise storms at high camps and took them along on climbing, camping, bikepacking, and ultralight backpacking missions. With our field tests complemented by objective comparisons, we rate each product using key metrics. If you're looking for a great deal when it comes to weather protection, we've got the best choices for you to consider.
The Outdoor Research Helium Bivy offers fantastic weather protection, comfort, ventilation, and breathability, all in a relatively lightweight package. While other models might offer high performance in just one or two areas, the Helium is a true all arounder. It performed way above average in most of the metrics we tested and its overall score was higher than any other bivy sack during our testing process. Not only is it packed with features, but the entire package comes in at about one pound, poles included. Put simply; it combines everything we want in a bivy better than any other product we've tested.
While we are thoroughly impressed with this bivy, we'll do our best to be objective and point out its flaws. Right off the bat, it's important to know that if you're looking for the burliest and most durable of bivy bags, this isn't it. The OR Helium is intentionally designed to be a lighter-duty version of heavier-duty and more protective alpine bivy sacks. In a perfect world, you would have a different and specialized bivy for every situation. In the real world, you're probably limited to one, and the OR Helium bivy performed excellently in every situation we threw at it, from heavy rain to not weighing down our pack for extended outings.
The Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy is a past favorite and proved once again that it's an effective and functional bivy for a wide variety of situations. Although it isn't the lightest or most weatherproof, it offers features found only in the heavy-duty models, such as a bug screen and an inventive way to prop up the face of the bivy, giving a nice bit of breathing room to the occupant. It's not as comfortable as the OR Helium, but it's close, and the Backcountry Bivy weighs less, which is a bonus.
The Backcountry Bivy isn't a bargain choice, but it provides an impressive price-to-performance ratio. The clever set of features includes a zippered bug screen, the ability to elevate the bivy face without a pole, and a low overall weight make this piece of equipment stand out against the competition and ensure it can compete with some of the more expensive models.
The MSR Pro Bivy comes out on top when it comes to the weight-to-protection ratio. Weighing in at an impressive 8.9 ounces, the MSR Pro is a fantastic solution for those looking to add an insurance policy to their exposed ridge scramble or ultralight overnight. On the surface, this bivy appears to be something to reserve just for the unexpected emergent rain shower. Still, depending on your tolerance for discomfort, this could serve as an extremely lightweight shelter for longer excursions.
The Pro Bivy is more of a specialized tool rather than an all-arounder. If you need a bivy that can hold up to a big storm, check out the Sierra Designs Backcountry or the Outdoor Research Helium. If you're in the market for a bivy strictly for emergencies, the SOL Escape is our favorite. However, if you're looking for something suited for emergencies as well as ultralight missions into the hills, we think the waterproof fabric, ample footprint, and ease of setup on this model make it a welcome companion.
The SOL Escape Bivy is a remarkable and simple emergency bivy. We have used ours on and off for over a year, and it has held up well, which is asking a lot from an inexpensive emergency bivy. If you're on a budget and want to make sure you have a little extra warmth and protection in your pack, the SOL Escape is a good choice. If we recommended a bivy solely upon its price-to-performance ratio, this might be the highest-rated bivy we have ever tested. The proprietary "metalized spun-bonded olefin" fabric proved to be lightweight, very weather-resistant, breathable, and added a significant amount of warmth to the 35-degree sleeping bag that we used during testing.
If you're venturing into a cold and dry climate, you could certainly get by with the SOL Escape as your primary shelter. Some of our criticisms include the footprint being far too small unless you're under 5 feet, 11 inches, and 175 pounds and the inability to fully close the bivy. While the SOL Escape is certainly a far cry from the premium bivys, like the Outdoor Research Helium, it is an excellent emergency shelter that can be used over and over without losing the attributes that make it so functional.
40 different models were up for consideration during our research process before we bought the top 9 contenders to put to the test for this review. We examined how well they protected us from wind and precipitation and how they vented and transferred moisture from inside to out. We also paid attention to packed size, weight, comfort, and compatibility with other items. Testing was conducted in the field, in various environments, from swampy conditions to snow, to rocky ledges. This review is the distilled knowledge we gained from multiple seasons of intensive testing, and we hope it will serve you well in your own selection process.
Our bivy sack testing is divided across five different metrics:
Weather Resistance (25% of total score weighting)
Weight (25% weighting)
Comfort (20% weighting)
Ventilation (15% weighting)
Packed Size (15% weighting)
This review is brought to you by OutdoorGearLab Review Editors and multi-discipline outdoor athletes Brian Martin and Brian Smith. As a former member of Yosemite Search and Rescue, Brian Martin was tasked with researching, testing, and replacing team equipment. This, in addition to his lifestyle centered around various outdoor pursuits, gives him a keen understanding of the features to look for in all kinds of outdoor equipment. He's as familiar with rock climbing as he is with backpacking or mountain biking, and he brings this broad experience to help readers discern the advantages and disadvantages of different products for different pursuits. Brian Smith is a professional outdoor guide based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and spends multiple nights per year camped out in the snow, in the desert, or on the side of a mountain ledge.
Analysis and Test Results
Whether or not to bring a bivy depends on many factors, and everything from weight to the weather forecast to the available space in your pack can influence the decision. Before purchasing a bivy sack, consider the conditions in which you will use it. The high mountains in winter? A boggy swamp in spring? Each of our reviewed products has unique characteristics that might create a compelling reason to consider it for your next outing.
We aim to bring you the best of the best, but also the highest value, especially when it comes to performance and cost. Our team of experts put each model through a series of tests, awarding scores for a series of metrics. Determining which bivy will suit your needs will certainly involve a list of pros and cons. What are you looking for? If the best value tops your chart, look for the highest-performing product from our scores that fits your price range. The Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy, for example, covers what most folks need from such a product (low weight, comfortable, and weather-resistant) without costing as much as most premium models. Or for emergency protection on a budget, the SOL Escape Bivy gives you the extra protection and warmth you might need when the unexpected occurs but also doesn't put you out a ton of cash. As always, we recommend finding the product that fits your performance needs and financial limitations.
From emergency bivys to the ultra-protective alpine expedition models, it's important to have a firm understanding of the characteristics of the bivy you're considering. Does it make sense to have an ultralight emergency bivy as well as an alpine heavyweight? Maybe it makes more sense to have a jack of all trades like the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy. Whatever your needs are, we thoroughly tested each of these bivy sacks within their intended boundaries and beyond to know where their limits really are. Waterproof fabrics and the ability to fully zip and enclose the sacks are a couple of key performance considerations.
Different types of fabrics work best in different situations. A fully waterproof material, like Gore-Tex, will keep all the rain out, but even the most breathable fabrics have a hard time letting water vapor from sweat and breathing escape. Ripstop nylon is lightweight and waterproof, if treated with a durable water-repellent (DWR) coating. It's typically more breathable, but it's only ideal for a light rain since it isn't entirely waterproof. The SOL Escape deviated from the norm by constructing a bivy from metalized spun-bonded olefin, which is typically used as a moisture barrier for home construction. This material provided excellent weather resistance while maintaining some breathability.
Some bivy sacks are made for four-season protection and can be used in wintry, alpine conditions. Other models strive to save weight and don't allow for a complete closure of the waterproof shell material around the face, so they're best reserved for emergencies or milder rain and temps.
The most weather-resistant bivy sacks are the Outdoor Research Helium and the Black Diamond Bipod. Both of these options were fantastically waterproof and offered substantial protection from the elements. In our opinion, these models provide the best balance of durability, warmth, and overall protection.
The least protective are also often the lightest options. Just because they can't keep you warm and dry in a heavy downpour doesn't mean they don't have their place. These lightweight emergency bivys can be worth their weight in gold for fast and light ascents, long trail runs, or fastpacking when some extra protection is warranted.
Like all camping shelters, the way they're used can affect weather resistance. When possible, selecting higher ground or a clearing under a tree will add a bit of extra weather protection and avoid pooling water in a nasty deluge. Always check the trees overhead for dead limbs or "widow-makers," which can break off dangerously (especially in a storm).
When hunting for a bivy sack, it's important to take a mindful moment to imagine what exactly you're going to be using it for. Before you look at weights and packed size, make sure the bivy will perform at the level you need it to. If you're venturing into a snowy alpine environment with likely precipitation, you want something you can spend a lot of time in comfortably and that you are confident will keep you dry. If you're heading out on a burly all-day ridge climb but aren't sure if you will have to bivouac, a lightweight emergency option might be more appropriate.
If you're breaking into the ultralight game, there are some excellent options available that offer decent protection against those surprise rain showers or windy nights. The lightest reusable bivy is the SOL Escape. The heaviest is the Bipod, which still weighs under two pounds and is far lighter than a standard backpacking tent.
Comfort is always an important criterion for outdoor gear, especially for gear that you rely on for shelter in backcountry situations. Time spent in an uncomfortable or cramped bivy with creepy crawlies getting inside can turn a user away from bivy sacks for good. The things we considered that contributed to the comfort rating of these each tested bivy included insect protection, roominess (volume and floor plan), ease of use, and added features, such as gear pockets or straps to hold your sleeping pad in place.
If you choose a bivy because you want a shelter that weighs less and takes up minimal space in your pack, you should also expect less space for you inside. Just hopefully not to the point of discomfort. We compared not only floor space but headspace and width at the shoulder when assessing our comfort ratings.
Ultralight and minimalist models can often be less spacious to cut down on the amount of material used. Conversely, four-season models often have wire hoops or tent poles to help increase volume, leave room for the face, and provide an experience very similar to sleeping under the stars with all the protection of a tent. The Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy is an excellent combination of size and comfort features, such as the ability to keep the ceiling away from your face with no added weight. The SOL Escape is on the snug side but still usable for our 5'11" gear tester.
Ventilation in bivy sacks can be a tricky thing. Just like any piece of waterproof gear, typically, the better a sack protects you from rain and weather, the less it's able to breathe. How well a bivy ventilates and how much condensation builds up inside is a huge factor in its versatility and performance.
Many human factors can make your night miserable even in an exceptional bivy, so here are a few actions you can employ to make sure your bivy will perform to its highest abilities. The main issue is that your condensed breath or extra sweat from getting overheated can build up on the inside of the sack, causing a "rain" effect when moving or shifting inside. One of the easiest things to do to prevent condensation if you have dry weather is to keep the zippers open as much as possible. Even during downpours or extended periods where complete protection is necessary, we recommend "cracking" the mesh or zipper to allow some ventilation of the condensed air inside.
If dry weather is not in the forecast, the two critical things to keep in mind are to make sure your breath is directed toward the outside of the sack and to use a sleeping bag and pajamas (or whatever clothing you sleep in, if any) that are the appropriate warmth for the temps. If the temps are variable, or you toss and turn in your sleep (and can't easily ensure your mouth stays at the bivy opening), it might be a good idea to bring a synthetic sleeping bag instead of a down sleeping bag. Why? Synthetic insulation will retain its insulating properties and keep you warm if it gets damp or even soaked.
If your bivy can be staked out or has a pole to give you space around the head, taking advantage of these features will add extra air space between your body and the bivy walls, which significantly improves its ability to ventilate. The Outdoor Research Helium has this feature, making it more comfortable than models that let the fabric rest against your face.
No matter what you intend to do with your bivy, packed size is important. Space in our haul bags, backpacks, and bike bags is always at a premium. Having a bivy that is not only lightweight but can also be crammed into a tiny package is essential. By dropping down from a tent to a smaller bivy, you should be able to save several liters of space, allowing for a smaller pack overall or room for other essential gear. Taking this even further, if you opt for an ultralight bivy, you might even be able to pack it down to the size of one of those mini coke cans, saving loads of space in your pack.
We measured each product when packed up in its (usually provided) stuff sack. Some of the models have poles that could be added to the same stuff sack or stored in your pack separately. The Survival Frog Tact Bivvy 2.0 offers the smallest packed size of all the products tested, but it's more of a single-use bivy because it can be easily torn and rendered useless (think giant yard leaf bag).
When to Switch from a Tent to a Bivy Sack?
The most common reasons to buy a bivy sack rather than a tent are to reduce your overall pack weight and size by utilizing a smaller and lighter sleeping that still provides some shelter from the elements. But there is an active debate in the ultralight backpacking community about whether bivy is a better solution than an ultralight tent or tarp shelter. Bivys are still easier to set up than even the best UL tents and tarps, especially if you're looking for a solo shelter equipped to deal with the stormiest weather and mainly winter snow conditions.
A few points to consider:
A tent offers comfort with a lot of floor space which typically gives you enough room to sit up, read and hang out, or store gear. An ultralight tarp can also offer a similar amount of room that a tent does, with even lighter weight and improved protection in the rain over bivys. In a sustained rainstorm, a tent or tarp is much more comfortable than a bivy sack. Many people don't realize that some bivys can give you enough headspace to read or to sit up a bit so you can comfortably sip your coffee or slurp your miso soup.
Regardless of whether a bivy has those features, some of these traits are not needed by everyone, and they may be worth sacrificing interior space in order to save weight and space in your pack. By shedding extra material, poles, zippers, and doors — bulky components of a tent that are difficult to avoid — a camper can be reasonably comfortable while sitting out poor weather in the smaller enclosed space of a bivy. However, there is a limit to how many hours or days a person can comfortably wait inside a cramped bivy.
For this reason, we recommend that extended backcountry trips with the possibility of poor weather might be better spent in a tent or tarp. For quick trips where a storm can creep up at a moment's notice, or for adventure excursions that require the lightest packs so you can be fast on your feet, a bivy sack can perform and protect as well as a tent.
Indeed, at first glance, a bivy sack is just a micro-tent, lighter, and smaller with all the protection and less bulk. They are also much more mobile, able to be used on any flat surface long enough to stretch out on and narrow enough to fit on tight rock ledges and small patches of soft grass. And some bivys don't need trees or anything to anchor them down. They can also keep you warmer in cold weather than some tents do and certainly warmer than a quick tarp setup.
The bottom line is that you can make a bivy work in many places where a tent will not — high rock ledges, tight snow caves, tiny flat campsites on rocky terrain. Depending on your needs, a bivy can fluctuate from a fraction of a pound to up to two pounds, and with associated fluctuations in price. While you can now find options for full-sized ultralight tents that are less than two pounds, these tents aren't usually four-season shelters, and they lack the versatility that a bivy sack of similar weight will give you. Another reason people will use a bivy is when they are headed on long adventures and want something to protect them from the elements in an emergency or if they find themselves unexpectedly benighted. Bivy sacks give you the most versatile and lightweight option, and for those who prefer sleeping under the stars, a great alternative to tent camping.
Climbers, mountaineers, and ultralight backpackers alike may be interested in a bivy sack for numerous reasons. In addition to being a lightweight emergency shelter, these products can be a lower weight and a smaller alternative to a tent. A bivy's smaller footprint can also allow you to sleep in a multitude of places where a traditional tent would not be possible. Many factors need to be considered when selecting a bivy, ranging from weather resistance to pack size.
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.