A bivouac can be many things: a summer camp under the open sky, a spectacularly exposed emergency night in a north wall or an ice-cold winter accommodation in a snow cave.
Bivouac – the eyes of some of them shine when you think of this term. Others feel cold when they remember the last north-wall bivouac. No matter how you implement it – a bivouac in the mountains is and remains one of the great mountain adventures. In the following, we would like to clarify briefly where the term bivouac comes from, what you should pay attention to when bivouacking and what needs to be considered when it comes to equipment.
Where does the term “bivouac” come from?
Bivouac originally comes from the Flemish “bijwacht” and means “special guard” or “guard”. Later the term became “bivouac” in French, which meant something like “night guard” or “field guard”, later also “field camp”. Over time, the term from military jargon has also become established in the language of mountaineers and adventurers.
For example, there are:
- Bivouac sacks for spending the night outdoors (not to be confused with sleeping bags; a bivouac sack is not lined, but light and thin and is used only for weather protection!)
- Bivouac boxes for sheltered overnight stays in the mountains
- Bivouac tents that offer a little more comfort for one or two people
- Equipment for emergency bivouacs in alpine accidents
- and for winter bivouacs during the cold season
Depending on the planning, special emphasis should be placed on the right equipment for a bivouac – because a lot depends on it. From the matching bivouac sack (which, incidentally, is also available for two people and made from a wide variety of materials – to special sleeping bags that are suitable for bivouacking), the outdoor manufacturers have come up with a host of practical bivouac products.
The most important items of equipment for a bivouac are:
- Bivouac sack
- Sleeping bag suitable for bivouacs
- Camping mat suitable for bivouacs
- spacious (but not too heavy) backpack
- suitable insulation clothing for the bivouac
- Camping stove and cooking equipment
What distinguishes bivouacs from tents?
There is no clear definition of the term bivouac. So what is still bivouacking for some – for example, high alpine camping with a one-person tent – is already camping for others.
Nevertheless, it can basically be said that bivouacs are generally understood to mean an outdoor overnight stay with reduced funds. When camping, on the other hand, a certain amount of comfort is important – just the fact that you always have “stuff over your head” when camping and in many cases not when bivouacking speaks for itself. In high summer, a bivouac sack is often not even needed for bivouacking. If the weather is stable and the conditions are dry, a high-performance sleeping bag is sufficient.
Note: In a mountain sports context, a bivouac is a (high) alpine overnight stay with reduced, light equipment
Bivouac species in the mountains
In the mountains there are usually the following types of bivouacs:
- Emergency bivouac as part of an alpine multi-pitch tour
The most spartan form of bivouac is often born out of necessity. Strikes an alpine multi-pitch such as On the north face of the Eiger or one of the countless routes on the Grandes Jorasses, depending on the weather, or if you are too slow to take a tour that is estimated to be a few hours in high-altitude guides, an emergency bivouac is waiting.
If you do not count yourself among the professional mountaineers or do not belong to the “speed fraction”, the line between the actual emergency bivouac and the “deliberate” bivouac blurs, for which the most necessary equipment should always be carried. A bivouac bag should definitely be in your backpack as emergency equipment when you walk through the large (north) walls of the Alps!
For example, Joe Simpson’s bivouac at Petit Dru became famous in the 1980s, during which the ledge on which he and his colleague Ian Whitaker slept (or were secured) literally broke under his butt. All of her equipment, including hiking boots, sailed hundreds of meters below the surface. The two were only secured to a small rocky outcrop, but luckily they were saved by helicopter after 12 hours. Usually, emergency bivouacs are of course much less spectacular. It is crucial that you find a reasonably adequate place to bivouack – e.g. on a stable ledge.
- Winter bivouac in a snow cave
Those who do high and alpine climbing tours in winter do not always have the opportunity to find a flat surface on which a “conventional” bivouac can be set up. Often, ledges, heels and other flat surfaces are covered by snow and ice and are therefore unusable. If there is enough snow, it is advisable to simply build your bivouac into the snow – be it in a specially created snow cave, an igloo or in a crevasse / edge gap.
- Planned bivouac as part of a mountain tour
Feel the freedom from the mountains, consciously leave behind the amenities of everyday life, feel the closeness to nature and the feeling of having the vastness of the starry sky directly above you: There are many reasons for a planned bivouac. In contrast to an emergency bivouac, the equipment here is somewhat more extensive. Ideally, a warm down sleeping bag and a good sleeping pad include a richly filled storage compartment and, above all, a comfortable bivouac, which, in contrast to an emergency bivouac, offers more freedom of movement.
- Overnight in a portaledge
Portaledges – from the English port-a-ledge (meaning “portable rock ledge”) – are mini-tents that can be folded up and transported, which have a rigid, stable basic structure and are used primarily for big wall inspections. Portaledges enable bivouacs in the vertical, so to speak. The equipment for a big wall must be carefully thought out and carefully selected.
- A long hike / mountain tour with overnight stay (s) in a bivouac box
Anyone who has ever made a large hiking trail in the Italian Alps, such as the Grande Traversata delle Alpi (GTA), will be amazed by the variety of bivouacs along the way. In the Italian mountains – be it in the Alps or in the Apennines – an overnight stay in a bivouac box is simply part of it.
In contrast to the Northern Alps, there is a real “bivouac culture” in the Southern Alps. In other inner alpine regions there are also bivouac boxes – but generally far fewer than in Italy.
What are the rules for bivouacking?
Unfortunately, it is rarely the case in the European Alpine countries that you can simply boot and bivouac. Unless you are in high alpine terrain, where bivouacking is usually is tolerated. In the different Alpine countries there are sometimes very different requirements when it comes to bivouacking. To make matters worse, these can vary greatly from region to region.
Conclusion on the topic of bivouac
A bivouac – whether it’s the north wall version born out of necessity or a summer bivouac in the foothills under the starry sky – is an unforgettable experience. If you have the right equipment with you and don’t have to carry out the bivouac in danger of an emergency, you will want to do it again and again. A bivouac can mean a lot: lifesaver in an acute emergency – or one of the most beautiful mountain experiences ever!