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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!