Bivvying or Bothying – you decide
The pros and cons of sleeping in a bivvy bag or a bothy. Our two outdoor experts and authors Ronald Turnbull and Phoebe Smith have a lively exchange of views. While you can bivvy virtually anywhere, bothies are old stone houses run by the Mountain Bothy Association, and are mainly found in isolated areas of Scotland, northern England and Wales.
The joy of the bivvy - Ronald
Sometime before midnight, I became aware of the black hump of Scafell, and the grey glow of Wastwater far below. No walls were in the way between me and the hump of Scafell. The layout of my ledge meant I just had to half-open one eye...
Orange light flickered within the cloud, and then firmed up into the lights of Sellafield nuclear plant. Round in the northwest, behind Pillar mountain, a sulky glow was the last of the distant sun. I kept that eye half-open as a car headlight crept up the valley road and fanned a beam of yellow across the lake.
The headlight blinked out behind Lingmell, and I closed my eye again. The three-foot rock wall behind me meant just the faintest eddy of breeze across my cheeks – enough to ensure proper functioning of the breathable membrane, while feeling exactly like a slave person in pink harem pants wafting an ostrich feather fan.
But without the Human Rights implications, of course.
The earth revolved slowly underneath the night sky. A helpful stone sticking into my back made sure I was awake again two hours later.
Wastwater silver, Scafell black, orange villages, and the wash of dirty red now shifted right round into the north. Plus one or two sparkly stars, and the jagged shapes of the nearby boulders.
It’s called sleeping out. One place it really doesn't work is – indoors.
It’s true that being in a bothy is the indoors that captures much of the atmosphere of outdoors. It’s just as cold as outdoors: indeed, when you arrive in the evening, the stone walls still hold the chill of the night before. The pineslab platform is a harsher bed than the stony soil of any hilltop. It’s just as dark and damp as outdoors – darker, as you’ve shut out the moon and stars. But you can, if you peer around for the less scratchy section of the plastic window, get to see a bit of that special night-time scenery.
But I’m being a bit unfair. A bothy is not just some of the disadvantages of sleeping outdoors (hauling in the rucksack, and getting damp, and getting cold). It has special disadvantages all of its own. The mice pattering through the night. The unique aroma, so different from the dewy heather of the hilltop. The morning discovery of little mousy stuff in your muesli. And the fabled bothy companion, with his ‘interesting’ conversation: Have you visited Magoo’s Bothy under Seana Bhraigh. No? Well... it actually has a mattress. Leacraithnaich in Morvern? Not that one either?
Noisy neighbours? It was on the top of Wills Neck, in the Quantocks, that I was kept awake by a bedtime companion’s snoring, on and on through the night. When I went and shone my torch on him to make him shut up, he was a roe deer. A buck roe deer, in the rut. With horns on. I rolled up my bed and sneaked away into the woods. (Just try rolling up a bothy in the middle of the night.)
If I’m going to sleep indoors, there’s a whole lot of indoor delights that I'm wanting, to make up for not seeing the stars and the night air not wafting across my nostrils. A heater. An air fan to dry my trousers. Radio 4 and the weather. A cup-holder. A charger for my camera. A little light that switches on and off. A soft surface to sleep on, one that didn’t have to be lugged in tied on top of my rucksack, one that’s more than 12mm thick.
You’ve worked it out – it’s the passenger seat of the VW Polo.
Okay, so bothies don’t have roe deer in them. On the other hand, I’ve hardly ever had a mouse in my bivvy bag.
Well, there was that one who nibbled five little holes in it while it was stored up in the attic. And there was that other one in Kielder Forest who tried to raid my muesli bag until I reached one arm out of bed and hung the bag in a pine tree.
But on the whole, no rodents. Total mouselessness. Just slugs.
Does anybody know a way of getting slept-on slug out of the breathable membrane?
Why bothies are best - Phoebe
It’s raining. Hard. Not a misty kind of dreich, typical of a Scottish day in the mountains, but a thrashing tighten-up-the-hood, squint-your-eyes-to-see-anything and don’t-stop-unless-you-have-to hail. It’s also getting late, the grey of the storm is merging with the fading light to suck the colour out of the scene before you, and still you are miles from anywhere. You feel around on the side of your backpack to check for your bivvy bag, which is now covered in water – it could be a wet night.
But you’re not worried, for you have a cunning plan. You’re not actually planning to use your bivvy bag at all (that’s only your plan B). Instead you’re headed to a bothy.
Once there you can escape the elements and strip off your wet layers, cocooned in the comfort of four walls and a roof.
There will likely be a fire place (you brought your own fuel after all) and before long you’ll be stoking the flames as they start to heat up your little sanctuary, illuminating the stone with a friendly orange glow. Then you’ll light your camping stove and sit clutching a hot cup of coffee (perhaps with a splash of whisky inside for extra warmth) heating your hands, while gazing out the window watching the weather do its worst.
As you approach the wooden door to your home for the night, you feel the anticipation of the unknown waiting for you behind it – will there be anyone here or will you get it to yourself (you can't book these wonderful places)? And you smile for you know that’s exactly why you’ve come.
Place your bivvy on a mountain summit or under a howff and you pretty much know how the night will unfurl. It will be a great view, yes (so long as the weather is good) but then, other than the surprise of finding out whether or not the chicken in your camping meal will actually taste like the real thing or not (it won’t of course), things will pan out as they always do with no real twists or turns. A starry (and usually cold and damp) night, a few hours of tossing and turning that you try to convince your brain will count as actual sleep, then a short – though undeniably spectacular – sunrise, before reluctantly climbing out of your wet bivvy and attempting to stuff it (condensation and all) back into your equally sodden rucksack.
Stay in a bothy and you never know what will happen – it’s all a big game of chance.
You could arrive to find the place completely empty and spread the contents of your bag around the building in luxurious fashion – walk around, stretch, dance, do a bit of yoga – then fall asleep while the rain taps on the tin roof above. You might open the door to find a whole host of strangers from places as far flung as New Zealand and Patagonia and spend the evening telling tales of your escapades, sharing locations of other places yet to discover and leaving as friends the next day. Perhaps you’ll be fast asleep thinking you’ve got the place to yourself until at 1am a walker storms into the room with a cheery hello, keeps you awake for the first hour cooking and getting out their sleeping bag and then the rest of the night snoring with the volume of the air brakes on an articulated lorry – it’s all part of the experience…
But no matter what happens, the most important thing is that when you wake you will certainly be dry.
You can start another fire, take your time to make breakfast, pack your things, and plot your next move, in an unhurried and non-damp fashion, while you leaf through the pages of the bothy book reading about the people you’ve never met who are now connected to you by place.
Are there any drawbacks? Of course, but don’t believe this nonsense about mice. If you fall asleep fast enough and don’t hear the pitter-patter of their tiny feet then they actually don’t exist…
By day Phoebe Smith is an award-winning travel writer, broadcaster and presenter as well as Editor-at-Large of Wanderlust travel magazine and Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence at calm.com where she writes scripts for the likes of Stephen Fry, Joanne Lumley and Danai Gurira. By night she’s an extreme-sleeping outdoors adventurer who thrives on heading to the wildest locations she can find in order to sleep in the strangest places she can seek out.View Articles and Books by Phoebe Smith
Ronald Turnbull writes regularly for TGO, Lakeland Walker, Trail and Cumbria magazines. His previous books include Across Scotland on Foot, Long Days in Lakeland and Welsh 3000ft Challenges. He has written many other Cicerone guides, including Walking in the Lowther Hills, The Book of the Bivvy and Not the West Highland Way.View Articles and Books by Ronald Turnbull