Not Just a Retro Bivi Bag

This blog was originally going to be a ‘how-to’ on making your own waxed canvas bivi bag, but on reflection, I realised I personally gained a few insights while doing it, that I felt were beneficial to my bushcraft philosophy and perhaps to life as well. So the bivi bag ‘how-to’ is combined with a bit of reflection.

I have a very lightweight sleeping set up when out in the woods. Everything fits in a 13-litre dry bag with plenty of space to spare… tarp, bivi bag, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, a groundsheet and even a pillow. It takes a few minutes to set up and I am always warm and dry. But, I have an affinity to the ‘old ways’… mainly primitive but also pioneer periods. A few of my fellow instructors use blankets, and one also uses a length of oilcloth as a weatherproof barrier. It has long been my ambition to make my own canvas or oilcloth bivi bag, so this year it was one of my winter projects.

Llightweight sleeping set up when out in the woods.

Canvas bivi bags or swags can be bought. Firstly, they are not cheap. Secondly, because of my own bivi experiences, I had some design ideas I wanted to try out so it would suit my particular needs. Finally, and most importantly, I like to make my own equipment if possible – as a way of expanding my skills

All it took, was a sewing machine, thread, a long robust zip, a 6m length of waxed canvas and patience. I was determined to take my time and think it through, making sure each stage was well planned. Firstly, the design, although it is not really ‘pioneer’, I did not want it to be just a bag. I have had bivi bags without a zip in the past and they are awkward to get in and out of at night, especially if you are in a natural shelter with limited space – which I tend to be in during our courses in Oxford. A side zip would make life a lot easier, and if I included a baffle, I would be slightly better protected from the elements. I also thought that a pillow flap would be a good idea so I could store clothes in it at night and they would stay there – my modern bivi bag has a hood which sort of does this, but I find my pillow moves north in the night, and I end up waking up to retrieve it. I could also roll the bag into it when not in use. Lastly, I added an extra length of material that could reach over my head to act as an additional weather barrier if needed.

The final design looked like this

I won’t bore you with details of how to sew, as I am sure you can work it out, but in short:

  1. Lay out the waxed canvas in one length to suit your body, make sure it is doubled over and I allowed an extra 1m (2x 50cm) for the pillow envelope and an additional 60cm material for the head cover.
  2. Note: Being canvas, every edge had to be well seamed. I used French seams, a method that encloses the edges so they cannot fray and leave you with bits of thread everywhere.
  3. Make the zip panel. This is made up of 3 pieces of material – one for each side of the zip and a bottom length to fit the length of your body into the bag. I chose a long zip (150cm) so I could easily lay out and manipulate wool blankets inside the bivi bag. I used a zig-zag stitch to sew the zip to the material for strength and to reduce any fraying. This bit took most of the thinking, I also went a little crazy and created it with a double baffle to protect the zip from the wind and rain.
Zip panel
  1. Sew in the zip panel – be careful to make sure it is the length of your body.
  2. Sew the other edge of the bivi bag together – don’t forget the French seam and don’t forget that 60cm at the head end is a weather flap – so don’t sew to the end!
  3. Create the pillow flap by folding over the waxed canvas to create an envelope and join it together not forgetting to create a seam.
  4. Sew the seams for the weather flap – allowing a wider seam for the end edge – I did this so I could add brass eyelets, so I could use cordage to lift the flap over my head if wanted.
  5. Add two pleats at the end of the bivi bag to give volume to the feet – a nice to have, not a must have.

That was it… all done and ready to be tested.

Completed bivi bag, ready to be tested

As this was a ‘retro’ piece of kit, I decided to test it using wool blankets. I am terrible in the cold. There is not much of me and I have very little body fat so really feel the cold. When I am out in the woods in winter, I take a lovely warm down sleeping bag and have no problems. Although I had slept in blankets before, I did it badly. I only used one blanket in the summer and woke up at about 4am feeling cold and stayed that way for a week – and just to prove it wasn’t a one off, I tried it again a few years later in the summer and still with one blanket and still felt cold!

Bivi bag with wool blankets

This time, I had learnt my lesson and from friends who advised that more than one blanket is needed. It was February, the weather forecast was for a dry, but cold, weekend with temperatures dropping to -2oC (28oF). So, I got 3 blankets in on the scene just to make sure I was warm. There is a knack to the laying out of blankets that has been worked out by pioneers who had obviously suffered in the past. That is, to lay them out diagonally to your body, so that you can create a flap from the bottom corner that goes over your feet first and then the lower corner of the diagonal of the blanket wraps over your lower body and tucks under you, giving multiple layers of material over the feet and legs, helping to keep you warmer than a single layer. Similarly, with the upper body, the other diagonal corner wraps around and underneath you (with a bit of a wiggle) to create a couple of layers of material. As I was using 3 wool blankets, I had loads of layers over me. During the nights over that cold weekend, I can honestly say I was really toasty. Not only was I pleased with how the bivi bag turned out, I was also very happy that I had used the wool blankets and knew they worked to keep me warm.

Bivi bag all set up in my natural debris shelter

This experience led me to realise that much of my own learning and confidence has come about because of taking risks. Not hazardous ones…well, there have been a few stupid ones, and I am lucky they turned out all right. But on the whole, a good risk is one where we make it safe-to-fail i.e. have a plan B and do some research and thinking before you take it. For example, I tried out my newly made bivi bag and wool blanket set up on a cold weekend because I wanted to test how it worked and gain an insight into the lives of pioneers. But, I also took my normal tarp, bivi bag and sleeping bag set up with me and left it in the car… just in case. I researched how many blankets people found comfortable at temperatures hovering around freezing, and I knew from other instructors I know who habitually use blankets that they were still alive and smiling after spending nights in cold weather, so I was pretty certain all would be ok and at the worst, I would have an uncomfortable and maybe slightly chilly night. The biggest element was really just pushing through a comfort zone that I had built up around modern sleeping set ups.

This project taught me quite a bit. I know my design works well, I have gained good sewing machine skills, I have pushed through my personal comfort zone in a way that was safe-to-fail and gained insight and experience at sleeping out in cold weather using materials used by the pioneers. Crucially, I am now confident to do so in the future. On reflection, perhaps this safe experimentation approach is a good personal philosophy to take into my bushcraft and perhaps into wider life as well.

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