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Bivi It!

May 3, 2012
by Dan Milner  

Our arrival at our guest house a big grassy plateau that has a 360-degree panorama of some of the best of the Alps. Photo by Dan Milner.
  Our arrival at our guest house: a big grassy plateau that has a 360 degree panorama of some of the best of the Alps.

As the sun sets I feel the onset of damp creeping into the outer layers of my clothes. I reach for my bivi bag - a high tech waterproof sack that will be my home for the night - and wriggle my way into the sleeping bag that’s already laid out inside keeping dry. Now warm and snug I peek out from my Gore-Tex cocoon to survey the scene one last time before darkness seals it off. Opposite us sits Mont Blanc, a wall of tumbling glaciers aflame in the last of the Summer sun’s rays and Europe’s highest peak, while only a few feet from our camp spot is the start of a trail. It’s this trail that will serve up a breakfast of endorphins, a meal that promises to be so hearty it has enticed us away from the comforts of home to spend a night out under the stars.

The last push to the sleepspot. choosing August means plenty of day light to play with but eeven so we d wake with frost on the outside of our bivi bags come morning. Photo by Dan Milner.
  The last push to the sleepspot. choosing August means plenty of day light to play with, but even so we'd wake with frost on the outside of our bivi bags come morning.

I’m bivi’ing out for a night with a couple of riding buddies, having chosen to swap our normal four hour Sunday ride for one that necessitates an overnight stop along the way. We’re trying to reach one of our favourite descents in the Chamonix valley, a 4500 ft downhill of snaking singletrack that is normally accessed via a rocky staircase and a half-hour hike-a-bike from the top cable car of the Brevent ski station. Usually this is punishing enough to feel you’ve earned the sweet rewards of the flowing descent that follows, but this Summer the Brevent lift is closed for replacement, meaning the only way of reaching our esteemed holy grail of a singletrack is by traversing and climbing from the neighboring lift station at La Flegere. It’s a ride that takes six hours and climbs 2500 ft, includes a forty minute carry and the negotiation of two ladders that scale a vertical rock face. With this challenge ahead of us, it’s easy to see why we’d choose to bivi out for the night and tackle the idyllic descent fresh and rested first thing in the morning.

Bivi ing means you get to be in places at times when you d not normally be there. We make the most of an exclusive VIP access all areas pass for one last ride before supper. Photo by Dan Milner.
  Bivi'ing means you get to be in places at times when you'd not normally be there. We make the most of an exclusive VIP access all areas pass for one last ride before supper.

The beauty of the bivi concept is portability; using lightweight, minimalist shelters rather than bulky tents makes this camp option well suited to mountain biking, when minimal weight and small pack size are paramount. That said, there’s no escaping the fact that going equipped to bivi means carrying a heavier pack, and dealing with the consequences of expending more effort on climbs and less agility on technical descents. Sounds kind of unpleasant, so why do it? In an era when most of us ride the same loops again and again, often on purpose-built trails, it’s refreshing to know that it takes merely a pinch of adventure and a handful of extra gear to escape the constraints of time and daylight and of having to return to the car at the end of a ride. The rewards for the extra effort involved in a bivi-out of course can be many fold, but the concept of adventure ranks highly among them, and as with our own epic, riding into the wilds armed with bivi kit is a simple and realistic way to extend your riding range and to access the more remote trails that typically evade the time and energy limitations of the day rider. Of course a bivi-out needn’t mean scaling K2 to reap the rewards and wherever you end up you’ll be rewarded with some genuine kick-back time with a very real back-to-nature nourishment for the soul. And if that alone doesn’t sell it, you’ll get to ride some incredible trails.

A long day mens a comfy bed for the night and nothing beats this mattress. Photo by Dan Milner.
  A long day means a comfy bed for the night and nothing beats this mattress.

Pack light or you ll regret it on the climbs and the descents. Photo by Dan Milner.
  Pack light or you'll regret it on the climbs and the descents.

I’m only two hours into the ride but am sure I have sweated the equivalent of at least half my CamelBak’s reservoir. It’s been a while since I loitered at the spot where we’ve chosen to bivi and struggle as I may, I can’t quite picture a water source there. I ponder the idea of trying to make my reservoir last, but then remember the ride-in crossing a couple of trickling streams. Water is essential for any overnighter and we’re going equipped with a pump-action water filter, so hydration and cooking shouldn’t be a problem whatever source we find. It’s one less anxiety at least. All I have to do now is concentrate on hauling bike, backpack and myself up the hillside ahead of me.

Late light and one last traverse to go before a cup of tea. With the lift closed the trail is silent. Photo by Dan Milner.
  Late light and one last traverse to go before a cup of tea. With the lift closed the trail is silent.

The extra weight of our backpacks has caught each of us by surprise; It’s been an eye-opener just how the extra 15 Ibs in our packs affects our riding, especially on technical sections and steep, lung-crunching up-hills. From the off even on the traverse, I feel top heavy, my weight and balance all wrong and I falter on rocky sections of trail that on any other day would be a breeze to clean. I’m reminded of the sensation of launching into the first off-road ride after a long winter of asphalt rides, being armed with strength and stamina but lacking co-ordination and timing, and as I crash through rocks and bounce over roots the pendulous weight of the backpack causes me to bottle a couple of exposed sections. It takes a good hour to become accustomed to how to manage the weight on our backs and compensate for it in our riding, but by the time I am immersed in the forty-minute portage, my Meta 5.5 resting comfortably on the top of my ballooning backpack I am starting to appreciate the sense of challenge we’ve undertaken. We’re pretty much alone on the trail apart from a scattering of Chamois (mountain goats) that regard us with bemused expressions from the rocks either side of the trail.

You dont get anything for free nowadays. Ladders are part of AM riding in the Alps. Photo by Dan Milner.
  You don't get anything for free nowadays. Ladders are part of AM riding in the Alps.

Although now accustomed to our packs’ ride-modifying qualities, by the time we reach the Brevent at 7800 ft we are starting to look forward to shedding our loads and cooking up some hearty camp-style nosh. Across the mountainside we can see the bivi spot we’re aiming for, a humpback hilltop that offers a 360° panorama of the glaciers and peaks. But between us and our goal lies perhaps one of the most technical descents in the valley however, one that will produce a couple of over-the-bars spills before we reach the relative mellow trail that snakes along the ridge. This descent is sphincter-tightening at the best of times and I now more heavily laden than usual, I ride it with extra caution, aware that the solitude we’re seeking is a double edged sword when it comes to accidents.

Just when you think you have your bivi spot to yourselves. Photo by Dan Milner.
  Just when you think you have your bivi spot to yourselves.

Six hours in and we reach our bivi spot and unfurl our high tech cocoons. We’re tired but excited, buzzing from the endorphins unleashed by the challenging descent behind us and the fact that we’ve accomplished half our objective. It’s Chamonix and August, but a distant tinkling of sheep bells is all that breaks the overwhelming silence, and as the sun dips lower toward the horizon, we spark up the stove and dive headlong into a messy tea-and-biscuit fest. Bivi’ing I realize is a yin-yang experience and it’s starting to make sense as I clutch a steaming brew and gaze at the landscape around me. It’s not just the views, but also the sense of achievement that is making it easy to justify the extra effort involved in getting there. Ahead of us is a night tucked up warm inside a nest of high tech insulation with only conversation and a star-filled sky for entertainment; we don’t need no damn television. And when morning comes, what could be better than waking up in some remote spot far from the madding crowd, with only a ribbon of singletrack by your side ready to be ridden?

Bivi Essentials - Five Reasons Why:

• A night out under the stars with your mates will be one you’ll never forget, especially when accompanied by a hip flask.
• What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Overcoming the unexpected challenges that arise en route will teach you something you never knew about yourself and your riding.
• A bivi-out will give you access to some remote trails, most of which you’ll have to yourself.
• Carrying a bit of extra gear can change a simple descent into an eye-opening technical challenge. Even cleaning the easiest sections of rocky trails will become rewarding.
• Because mountain bikes and bivi bags were invented for using in the wilds.

All photography by Dan Milner. You can see more of Dan's incredible work on his website.

has Dan's bivi adventure inspired you to pull an overnighter? Let's hear what you have to say in the comments section below.

Editor's note: We'll be bringing you adventures from Dan Milner each month, so stay tuned!

Author Info:
DanMilner avatar

Member since Feb 11, 2011
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  • 30 1
 Congratulations, you discovered Bikepacking! Smile
  • 55 2
 bear grylls would just sleep inside that goat once he's killed it
  • 12 2
 that shit right there ^^^^^ is funny and i dont care who ya are
  • 2 0
 Nice, i really want to do that! (the bivi'ing, not the goat dismemberment part)
  • 1 0
 THIS is what MTB is all about!!! I love hucking it at Whistler, riding skinnies, street, pump tracks, and maybe even a training road ride, BUT being out in EBF with your mates is indeed "the shit!!" Great story and pics Dan!!!
  • 2 0
 reading and looking at those photos is the soul of bike porn. my spirit feels like it's getting a mean bj
  • 1 0
 Hello new Android wallpapers Smile
  • 4 0
 I use a 30-35ltr OMM sack, cut down foam roll mat, Alpkit bivy sack, Rab sleeping bag, plastic mug, hip flask with a wee dram of single malt, a Coleman lightweight stove and a small kettle. If you use "boil in the bag" bags (Lakeland plastics sell these - UK readers) you can cook couscous, noodles etc just by boiling the kettle and pouring the water on the food in the Boil in the Bag, keep it warm for 5 mins and presto. Hot food, no pans and feather weight. Works for custard too. Green tea, cuppa soups, pepperami (no need to keep cold) and hula hoops (for salt)

Last time we went a little more extravagant and rode a shorter distance - proper camp fire (remove grass and replace afterwards) with a platypus of red wine and flamegrilled steak sandwitch cooked on a home made Hazzle griddle.
  • 3 0
 Damn, you made my mouth water with the steak.. Gotta go camping haha!
  • 2 0
 Like your style Mountain-nic. You've got it dialled.
  • 5 0
 After your experience what pieces of gear were the most important? What advice would you give to someone who was interested in an over night ride?
  • 4 0
 lowlands - bug spray! Alpine - quick changes in weather and temperature, keep it light and be prepared for anything.
  • 1 0
 I would suggest trying any layering clothes out in similar conditions and see what works with out having too bring too much extra clothes while managing to keep it light. This way you aren't stuck wishing you brought different stuff once its too late. Mostly back packing quality out door gear is best as it's light. Otherwise you are going to pay a weight and bulk penalty that you will have to haul around. That being said I've made a bivi sack out of a blue tarp, so there is room to improvise!
  • 1 0
 Depends where you're going. You need to be warm and dry at night and after riding. Our location went below zero C at night in August, though was dry. so we took warm sleeping bags (rated -10C) and a bivvi bag each (breathable essential, such as goretex). You could skip the bivi bag if the weather is good. A closed cell mat, even a cheap $5 one under you adds a season rating to your bag, and doesnt weigh much at all. Strap it on the outside of your pack. Dehydrated dinners like those by BACKPACKERS PANTRY are great, tasty and filling, and again dont weight anything really (have used these extensively during snow camping expeditions for the Further and Deeper TGR movies). Take instant oatmeal / readybreak for breakfast.. warming, filling and light to carry. We took a Katadyn ceramic water filter meaning we could take water from any source rather than try to carry lots. MSR pocket rocket stove. lit the shared gear between the three of us. Thats the basics. If you can carry two dinners and breakfasts up there, then camp two nights. All the effort is getting there.. and you cant ride exactly how you want to with the gear on your back!
  • 3 0
 Man, I can't wait to do this. Its just like... www.pinkbike.com/news/Matt-Hunter-Lone-Wolf-Video-2011.h

It seems like volume is the biggest issue when carrying a pack on a bike. A big pack wants to flop around on your back, and the traditional hip belt is not comfortable in the saddle. Leaving typical camping things at home like a large cooking pot, stove, and sleeping mat would free up space in the pack. I think I could get by with a tarp, tin-foil meal for the fire, ground cloth (maybe tyvek), and just clothes. Maybe a bug net that fits over the sleeping bag head area too.

Looking forward to the next story, Dan!
  • 1 0
 I was watching that and I really wanted to try it soon too.
  • 1 0
 Sweet! Check out this great bikepacking website for all the info you need: adventurecycling.org/features/ultralight.cfm
Cost me a few hundred $ for all the uberlight camping gear - sleeping bag, alcohol stove, silnylon tarp, bear spray, etc. - and it's only 10-15 extra pounds and all fits in my regular biking backpack (~15 litres). But only if it's warmer, you'll need a bigger bag & more pounds if you're talkin frost in the morning. Or you can throw your gear into those slick bike bags like from Revelate Designs but I prefer the backpack. I spotted a bottle of wine in one of the pics - wine, steak, campfire, that's the shit
  • 2 0
 Epic article, my friend and I went out for a 2 day ride and tried something similar a while back. Not quite as impressive though...

  • 2 0
 Haha. I wondered what Bivi meant. All good now. Sick story. Even camping at a track and building late into the night can be incredibly rewarding. I'll have to get some mates together and do it some time. Thanks for the story
  • 1 0
 I've done this kind of thing before. Really enjoyed it. Wish I could do a longer one.
  • 1 0
 For those of us who have the time a good system for me was to take a larger pack and a stuff a small day pack/camelbak inside. Move around with the large pack for a day or so, set up camp; then take the day pack the next day and leave the heavy stuff behind.
Come back to camp in the afternoon and either ride on or just chill and move camp the next day. This worked very well for me in New Zealand's south isle last year and I'd definately do it again!
  • 1 0
 You should check out the gear from Revelate - most people who are doing bikepacking are using this type of gear to get a good bit of the weight off their backs...
  • 1 0
 Any one seen these.... www.freeload.co.nz

I reckon they could be the business for trips like these....

Edit: oops... already mentioned above!!!!!
  • 1 0
 I remember MBUK running a similar (but not as good) article about this a while ago, I'd really like to have a go one day! Could do with a bivvy bag first though Frown
  • 5 0
 Check out Alpkit, they do a decent bivi bag for a good price...
  • 5 0
 Alpkit to a more than decent everything. Best customer service I've ever had from an online shop.
  • 3 0
 And all of their Titanium cookware is very well priced. Ild also advise trying out the drybag rucksacs. Actually everything they do is fantastic.
  • 1 0
 if you want a good, cheap bivi bag go to an army surplus store. i got mine for about 30 quid and its perfect. i go biviing every year in morzine Razz
  • 2 0
 Great article, i really want to do this! sleeping under the start on top of a mountain looks amazing!
  • 1 0
 Very nice !
Reminds me a video I saw a few weeks ago where the rider woud fly-in for a 2-day ride in BC, I,m not able to find this video again though Frown
  • 1 0
 beautiful......I want to find a place like that ...near my house.....this weekend
  • 2 0
 fantastic pictures... seems like a great ride!
  • 1 0
 Ever heard of Freeload rack? (www.freeload.co.nz) Sounds like a good thing to have for this trip.
  • 1 0
 argh. now thers still snow. cant wait till the snow melts and then doing a big am-tour Smile
  • 1 0
 Me and a mate are planning something similar in the summer. What size packs were you using? (litre)
  • 1 0
 They were about 35-40L packs.
  • 1 0
 Really keen to get out and do this, how did you plan your route, any useful resources online etc?
  • 1 0
 Here in the northeast US, I use a hammock instead of a Bivy. Much easier to find a place to camp, and twice as comfortable!
  • 1 0
 If you don't want to get rained on a lightweight tarp strung up from your bike keeps the rain off!
  • 1 0
 great article looking forward to doing some overnight rides on the colorado trail this summer
  • 1 0
 Great article, this is my mountain !
  • 1 0
 great article and amazing pics...
  • 1 0
 all i need is to do is move away from Onterrible and it may be possible

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