How to Choose the Best Emergency Bivouac

Posted by Kevin Estela on Jan 19th 2022

When I was 15 years old, I met up with one of my high-school buddies, Jim, to do an overnight hiking/camping trip just on the outskirts of my hometown. I didn't have a driver's license meaning mom dropped me off. Like a lot of teenage boys, we planned last minute and made it to the trailhead parking lot late in the afternoon. We carried a lot of gear, too much, and hiked up the hillside headed to a promontory that we weren't even sure if we could legally camp at. Somehow along the way, we decided to shortcut the switchbacks and we ended up in the dark bushwhacking through thick stands of mountain laurel trees. With frustration growing, we decided to make an impromptu camping spot and set up our tent on a slightly sloped hillside. We didn't want to spend the night here but it made sense. We could find our way in the morning with better light and that is ultimately what we did.

The thought of an emergency bivouac "bivy", is terrifying for some. The woods can be seen as an unknown and when the sun goes down, it seems like so many insecurities and fears we have come to bear. It's easy to see an emergency bivy as a survival situation but the reality is, we can view it as more of an inconvenience instead. Spending the night in your bed, or even a well-appointed tent, are much more desirable options but sometimes when the world hands you a shit sandwich, you just have to take a giant ole' bite and choke it down. If you've ever wondered how to choose the best emergency bivouac options, let me give you my take on this inconvenience that doesn't have to be the end of the world. Maybe that sandwich's taste can be masked a bit with some basic prep.

Greatest Threat, Most Likely Threat

When you decide an emergency bivy is in order, you need to think about one of the most important survival priorities; protection. You may realize the sun is low on the horizon and you can't get back out in the dark as temperatures drop. You may realize you're turned around, can't locate the trail, and will be better off searching for it in the morning instead of getting injured. You may recognize that the greatest threat in the woods you're in is yourself and that choosing to move instead of bivy for the night is a terrible decision. What is most likely to happen if you don't bivy is a mistake others have made before you and your training has given you solutions to these problems. You need a shelter which you can make but it takes time and starting too late in the evening is a critical error. If you already have a tent, tarp, or bivysack, you just have to set it up and spend the night. If you don't, you'll have to collect wood, build a fire, and set up a makeshift debris shelter. Depending on the time of year, you don't have to worry about hibernating animals threatening you in the middle of the night. You do have to worry about not making the right decision soon enough. Assess your situation, and make a good decision on your timeline before you are forced to make one when you have no time left.

Location, Location, Location

From setting up your emergency bivy to locating a spot for your campingtent or shelter, to even the placement of your home, one of the most important aspects is location, location, location. With emergency shelters, you need to consider the W's; wind, widowmakers, water, wiggles, and wood. Before you settle in for the night, consider which way the wind is blowing. You don't want to set up your shelter to have wind directly in your face. As you set up your bivy, you want to look up to see if you're directly under or in the fall zone of a widowmaker tree or branch. Remember while you are setting up, you are not the only thing wiggling around and the "wiggles" can ruin your sleep. Consider too how far away your water resources are and if the area you're setting up your shelter in will hold precipitation in pools. Last but not least, an emergency bivyshelter is always improved with a good fire. Look to see if you can collect wood in your immediate area and if not, continue scouting until you find an appropriate spot but do not lose track of time or the setting sun.


As previously mentioned, you will want to strictly adhere to a practical timeline. If you determine you must bivy, consider how much time it will take to set up your shelter. Some shelters are extremely expedient but they are short on creature comforts. A quickie tarp or poncho shelter will provide you a block from the rain or snow but will likely not be closed on all sides. A proper tent might take longer to set up and will afford you more protection but at the cost of taking up more space in your pack. The smallest and fastest option is the basic bivysack. This barrier can be used as a sleeping bag and even with a sleeping bag but it won't give you much space or standoff from your protective layers. If you must build a shelter from off the land, you're looking upwards of 6-8 hours of gathering and building. In this day and age, it doesn't make sense to travel to the woods without some sort of emergency shelter equipment in tow. I would recommend having something with you to set up on a short-term basis, like a bivysack, but then have items, like a larger tarp, you can improve your shelter with if time, the weather, and your energy level allow. As you pack your bag, think about the precious resource of time each item commands.

Ideal Kit

In past articles, I've mentioned how a proper shelter consists of three elements. These are something to sleep inside of, something to sleep on top of, and something to sleep under. This is easily remembered as "Shelter IOU". While it is true the proper shelter components make for a good night's sleep, what also must be factored in are the creature comforts that can help with an emergency bivouac. Let's face it, one of the worst aspects of spending an emergency night out is discomfort. One of the ways to combat discomfort is head-on. When you're sheltered in place, something that helps pass the time is something to eat and drink. Candy bars might be considered a cheat meal in the real world but out in the wild, it is a reward for setting up your temporary home. Another excellent creature comfort item is a good flashlight or headlamp. Spending the night in the dark without light isn't the end of the world but having the ability to light up your area is like a superpower of harnessing the sun when you don't have it. Additionally, a fresh set of socks and a wool watch cap will keep you warm at both ends of your body. These items aren't much more to carry in your kit on top of what you normally pack out. Spend a night without them and one with them and you'll see they are worth the extra step to pack each time.

Constant Improvement

Back when I was 15, I could sleep on a rock slab all night and wake up ready for a hike. As I mentioned at the start of this blog, at 15, I was fine sleeping on the side of a hill slipping into the side of the tent throughout the night. Now, decades later, I know if I attempted that, I would require hours of stretching, a few ibuprofen, and significantly more time to get motivated to wake up. As we travel, get older, improve our skillsets, build larger families, and change, we must constantly improve our emergency bivy needs. In the jungle and on the beach, I would rather have a small packable hammock than a ground pad as insects and creepie crawlies occupy the ground. The best way to seek improvement is to constantly test your gear. You see, the best bivouac is the one you have tested. When you have faith in your kit and your skills, you won't have trouble sleeping at night. Test your kit in relative safety and build themed trips around it. You'll find out the limitations of your gear and figure out the best way to improve what you have. It is easy to assume what works for others will work for you but the worst place to test this theory is in a real situation.