Summer Bivies: How to Eek Out Some Z’s

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Summertime, when our attention finally turns to barbecues, ball games…and bivies. Yes—those lightweight sleep-overs, with pared down packs and long routes ahead. Lightweight need not mean poor sleep, though, and with a little planning, you can get some good shut-eye the next time you sleep under the stars.

Hear from Boulder-based Vetta Mountain Guides co-owner Rob Coppolillo on his tips for the perfect summer bivy below.

To plan…or not to plan

It’s the age-old question: do we plan to sleep out and therefore condemn ourselves to a night on the ground, or do we embark upon a long climbing route or ridge traverse with the expectation of finishing it off in a day? Many (most?) believe that to pack a sleeping pad, warm bag, and stove guarantees we will eventually find a relatively flat spot, lay out our sleeping system, and succumb to blissful unconsciousness. I tend to agree, but no matter your approach, let’s consider a few keys to getting some rest, whether in an idyllic forest or perched on a ledge 22 pitches above the valley floor.

Something to sleep on

Maybe you planned to sleep, maybe you didn’t, but whatever your situation, you should’ve considered how you could eek out some Z’s. The foundation of any night’s sleep is a pad or mat. More than a few hard men and women have happily snored away atop a rope, arranged carefully on the ground to act as a backcountry mattress. In order of comfort and weight, I’d go from rope to an emptied pack laid out, a section of foam unfolded and deployed from an interior sleeve of one’s backpack, and of course the most decadent option of all, a superlight inflatable pad carried expressly for a bivy.

(Winter may demand you carry two components of a system—a rope and a back pad, for example—to be married with a quality down jacket. Summer or winter, consider your tolerance for cold, your chances of bivying, and your willingness to shiver. Don’t discount the difficulty of the climbing, too. For harder routes, a light pack makes sense!)

Sack, tarp, or bag?

Many alpinists (guides especially) carry a siliconized nylon tarp—it functions as a shelter, a bivy sack, or even a rescue sled. This might be all the insurance you need for a summer day route. If we bump up our policy, though, it’s time to consider a dedicated bivy sack (hopefully one that breathes) and even a sleeping bag.

If you’re going to carry a sleeping bag as part of a system, then keep it simple, but spend a little for some quality down. Serious rain might have you thinking about a synthetic, but if it’s going to rain that hard, will you really be climbing? If at all possible, stick with loftier down (700-fill or more) and consider the newer technologies like DownTekÒ, a treated goose down that absorbs less water and dries more quickly.

Bags like Brooks Range’s “Snooze” series, don’t pile on the bells and whistles (read: weight!), but still offer some modern engineering and time-tested design features. FlowÒ Construction helps channel heat efficiently, keeping you warmer without adding bulk or precious ounces. Down-filled draft collars and tubes along the zipper jealously guard your body’s hard earned heat while you sleep.

If you’re going to carry a bag, you may as well get some good sleep out of it. At less than three pounds, for example, the Snooze 20 takes you up to 14,000-foot peaks with ease.


Consider your sleep system, including your warmest layers. Savvy alpinists sleep in their down jacket, so calculate that warmth into your strategies. Keep a Snickers in your pocket, too; a midnight nibble often stokes your body heat until morning. Superlight down booties can keep you just warm enough you can skimp on your bag’s warmth. Remember to sleep on durable surfaces like slickrock, slabs, or gravel (rather than tundra!) when possible. Oh—and ear plugs. Never forget the ear plugs. Your partner always snores.

Rob Coppolillo co-owns Vetta Mountain Guides and is the author of The Mountain Guide Manual (Falcon Guides, $24.95). He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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