Going bivouacking: essential hiking equipment

What equipment should you take for a bivouac?

Do you like hiking in the mountains and want to spend a night in a tent to enjoy a sunrise in the great outdoors with a beautiful view? But you're not sure how to go about preparing your first bivouac. We'll help you pack all the essential equipment for a great outdoor evening.

Would you like to sleep in the great outdoors for the first time? Are you afraid of forgetting something and having a bad night's sleep?
We've put together a list of the essential equipment you'll need for a bivouac, as well as a global list of all the equipment to take on a trek.

Bivouac: definition

How does it differ from camping?

The word "bivouac" originally comes from military vocabulary and the German word biwacht (meaning "auxiliary guard service"). It refers to a temporary camp similar to those set up by infantrymen during Napoleonic military campaigns. These basic living quarters enabled them to stand guard or watch over enemy positions.

- Bivouacs are therefore light campsites, and are permitted by law in certain areas, provided that the tent is pitched at sunset and the campsite is vacated by sunrise. Bivouacs can be similar to wild camping.
- Camping, on the other hand, is characterised by the fact that it takes place in dedicated areas, which generally have to be paid for. You can leave your tent up for several days.

And if you bivouac without a tent, you can say you've spent "a night under the stars".
That said, you'll probably want a minimum of comfort, which is why you'll need dedicated equipment!

bivouac definition and camping difference

What equipment do you need for bivouacking in the mountains?

Bivouacking means sleeping in a temporary shelter in the mountains. Here's what you need to pack for a quality night's bivouac.
Beginners will often opt for a night in a tent rather than under a tarp or under the stars. As this is an essential part of your equipment, it's important to choose the right type of tent for your needs. The rest of the equipment remains relatively similar whatever your level, although experts will prefer compact, lightweight gear.

List of bivouac equipment for a good night's sleep

A tent, tarp tent or tarp if you like to sleep in the open air
A duvet, or sleeping bag, to be chosen according to the weather conditions
Feather duvets are generally lighter, more compact and warmer than their wadding equivalent, but they don't like the damp. The temperature labels on duvets state their comfort temperature: you'll sleep well in your duvet if the ambient temperature is at or above the figure indicated. And the temperature limit: you shouldn't feel cold, but you shouldn't feel hot either if the outside temperature is on this scale.
A bag liner can be useful for extra warmth
A mattress, foam or inflatable, the choice is yours.
Beyond the comfort aspect, the mattress is important for insulating your sleeping bag from the ground. It stops you from being in direct contact with any moisture that may rise from it. The higher the R-value of your mattress, the more insulated you'll be.
A headlamp or small dynamo lamp to light up your bivouac
An inflatable mattress repair kit can be useful in case of a snag
☐ Optional: an inflatable pillow for extra comfort, a seat cushion so you can sit on wet grass, a beanie to prevent heat loss through the head and heaters for the more chilly

camping equipment rental

Get all of the equipment you need easily thanks to equipment rental

Buying all of the hiking equipment can be a significant financial investment and, if it is only used once, it takes up unnecessary space in your cupboards. Renting is a very good alternative and gives you access to top-of-the-range equipment.
A little extra: by renting, you are also engaging in sustainable consumption!

What equipment should you take for eating in a bivouac?

Water: It’s recommended that you take around 2 litres per person per day of walking. Double this if you’re camping far from any source of drinking water. Bivouac areas can sometimes include a water point.
☐ A gas stove and, if the weather is forecast to be windy, a windshield may prove useful
☐ A gas cartridge
☐ A cooking kit containing food and drink
Cutlery including a Swiss Army knife (always useful)
Freeze-dried meals or meals prepared in kit form before setting off. Don't forget to take all your meals into account, as you'll be doing a lot of exercise on the hiking trails. Plan accordingly. On a trek, it’s estimated that nutritional requirements vary between 3,000 and 4,000 kcal per day.
☐ Something to make your morning tea/coffee. If you like your tea/coffee with milk, opt for powdered milk to add to the water.
☐ Optional: biodegradable soap and a tea towel for washing and drying dishes, a lighter if your stove does not have a piezo burner

What should you pack in your toiletries and first aid kit for a bivouac?

Toilet bag

☐ A compact wash bag  
☐ A toothbrush
☐ Toothpaste that can be used with little water and is biodegradable (or homemade)
☐ A small microfibre towel
☐ A biodegradable solid soap/shampoo that can also be used for washing up: take care to wash away from water sources
☐ Toilet paper, ideally untreated. To relieve yourself properly in the great outdoors, follow our advice: how to poo in the woods.
☐ Optional: a small camping shovel (for the toilet if necessary), sanitary towels

First-aid kit

You're going to be out in the great outdoors, with limited access to emergency services. As a result, you'll need a small base of products to be able to treat the small wounds that can occur when hiking. That said, in the event of a major problem, let the mountain rescue service know so that you can benefit from their advice and more if necessary.
☐ Sterile compresses and disinfectant
☐ Bandages and anti-blister dressings
☐ Something to relieve headaches or stomach aches (consult your doctor or pharmacist)
☐ A tick remover (ticks are increasingly present in French meadows and forests)
☐ A survival blanket (ideally reusable)

The first-aid kit can of course be adapted to your needs and the recommendations of a health professional who knows you well.

Useful tips before setting off on a bivouac

Choosing your tent, an essential part of your bivouac equipment

Whether it's a tarp, an ultra-light tent or an old tent lent by a friend, a tent is an essential part of bivouac equipment and not everyone needs the same model. Above all, take the time before you set off to unfold the tent and check that all the accessories are present. For a quality bivouac, you should practise pitching your tent before setting off. This means that you don't spend too much time on it once you're at your campsite, and can be very useful if the weather conditions are difficult. In the event of rain or strong winds, you'll be glad you can put up your shelter quickly.

For a first bivouac, our advice is to choose a tent that is easy to put up, even if it may be heavier. This is one of the rare occasions when you have to forget about the weight of the equipment in favour of habitability and easy pitching. Ultralight tents or tarps are often more complicated to put up if you don't have the knack for it. So ignore the weight and focus on ease of pitching. And if you're going away with several people, you can divide up the different parts of the tent between you so that everyone can lighten their bag a little.

On the other hand, ultralight tents are often very narrow and have relatively little space. This means that they’re designed for you to sleep in and that's it. If you're planning to spend any time in the tent, or if the weather is mixed, this is an important consideration.

Is sleeping under a tarp easy or not?

Similarly, if you want to sleep under a tarp that you can set up with your hiking poles, make sure you find a place sheltered from the wind. The protection offered by the tarp is minimal. As a result, pay attention to the weather conditions and make sure you're well equipped (in particular, remember to take a very warm sleeping bag and an overbag to protect it from damp). Above all, be aware that the tarp, while attractive in its apparent simplicity and lightness, can prove much more difficult to pitch than expected. This is a solution often favoured by trekkers who set off with the bare minimum, as the weight of the tarp is negligible compared with that of a tent. You'll need a few trees, hiking poles, a groundsheet and a lot of practice!

To sleep comfortably under the tarp, make sure you have a mattress with a high R-value to isolate you from the ground as much as possible. And find out the forecast overnight temperatures so that the comfort temperature of your sleeping bag matches. And a groundsheet or tarpaulin to put under your things can be useful to avoid waking up with all your equipment soaking wet.

When camping in the wild, you need to find out about the rules in force where you are planning to go. And for a quality bivouac, remember to shelter from the wind, and not too close to watercourses.

Is summer the perfect time to spend a night bivouacking?

One of the golden rules of bivouacking is: find out about the weather. Because the best thing is to set off in good weather to enjoy a good day's hiking and a pleasant night's sleep. That's why summer is often the ideal time to go bivouacking, knowing that you'll be woken early by the light. Beware, however, of summer thunderstorms, which can be violent in the mountains.

Summer is also the ideal time to indulge in a night under the stars, as it's usually shooting star season. If the weather is fine and the sky is clear, you can make wishes for the next ten years!

That said, spring (when it's sunny) is also a good time to organise your first bivouac. Make sure you bring something to keep warm even when the sun goes down.

Where can you sleep in a bivouac in France? Where is it forbidden?

Find out about the regulations in force. Especially if you're planning to go to a national park or a protected natural area. Bivouacs are sometimes prohibited in these natural areas, but it is possible to sleep in tents around existing refuges. A quick phone call means you could set up camp in a magical place without risking endangering biodiversity!

Whatever you do, always respect the bivouac areas and don't camp just anywhere. Above all, for your own safety and comfort, avoid setting up alongside hiking trails, public roads or near herds (you don't want to risk having your equipment trampled underfoot by animals unhappy with your presence).

You can sometimes bivouac on private land, provided you have the owners' prior agreement. If you do it right, they may also point out a watering hole or offer to fill your water bottles. Make sure you check with them whether they agree to you building a campfire or not. And of course, leave your pitch perfectly clean and tidy. This avoids unpleasant surprises for the owners of the site and will make them more inclined to accept other camping requests.

A few words about campfires

Sitting round the campfire is one of the precious moments that stay with you after a bivouac. But don't do it lightly. Fires are strictly regulated, especially in summer when many regions are on drought alert. They should be reserved for bivouac areas where there is sometimes a dedicated pitch.

To cook your meals, opt for a gas stove. It's less romantic than a campfire, but just as effective. And it helps to leave no trace on your bivouac site.

You now have a list of all the equipment you'll need for your first wild camping adventure in the mountains or by the sea!
Take your camera to capture these precious moments. Whichever season you choose to embark on your adventure, remember to take the time to prepare well, find out all you can about it, and when you feel ready, go for it! This first bivouac could be followed by a long series of nights in the great outdoors or by self-sufficient treks lasting several days!

Trekking and bivouacking: essentials for a successful experience

The Forclaz editorial team

Trekking, bivouac and backpacking

The Forclaz team shares its advice and experience to help you prepare for your backpacking adventures!

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