Sleeping under the stars or under a bivouac tent can appear simple. There are however basic rules which you should know to get the most out of a night in the great outdoors. Mountain guides will teach you how to put up a bivouac properly.
A bivouac is not necessarily the end of a long, technical and strenuous day of hiking! Simply walking for 3 or 4 hours away from an accessible road can get you well into the mountains. This kind of “bivouac” becomes accessible for families with children.
The next morning, after breakfast, the return route on a circular walk will bring everyone back to their departure point. This “initiation” formula means you can save on the weight of two lunches!
Choosing where to put up your bivouac
To choose the ideal site for bivouacking, you need to take into account some simple criteria:
- Running water nearby is important. This limits the amount of drinking water you have to carry. To make the mountain water drinkable all you need is a few purifying tablets.
- A flat and dry area, as sheltered from the wind as possible (below but at a safe distance from a peak or a pass, if possible, backed by a rocky ridge) in order to limit cold temperatures. Flat is quite a relative concept, a very slight slope of 2 or 3% can be good for both evacuating any possible run-off, and especially for having your head slightly higher than your feet when sleeping.
- West or east facing. This is a matter of personal choice: you either prefer the sunset to take advantage of this beautiful light during your evening meal or you prefer the rising sun for the obvious reasons of temperature in the early morning! If you choose the “rising sun” option, it is logical to have the tent entrance facing east.
On the other hand, you must never camp:
- On a pass and immediately below it for obvious reasons because of the venturi effect (the wind speed increases due to the terrain) and because of the chance of lightning strikes. This is also the case under a large, isolated tree.
- In a peat bog (an old glacial
lake filled with sediment), because as well as trampling on fragile flora, these flat areas, which are certainly soft, are usually very humid. Your body weight and pressure would leave some marks by morning!
- Close to an area where a flock of sheep or goats are sleeping. Your presence will disturb them and you risk disturbing the guard dogs as well!
Camping in the forest or a clearing is very pleasant (the air temperature in a forest environment is generally greater than 1-3°C) but on the other hand, in a forest of conifers (fir, spruce, Arolla pine, Scots pine etc.) ants love the acidity of the soil! It is important to check that there are no large anthills within 100 meters.
However, in the forest you can also hang up your backpacks, making them inaccessible to rodents and other small animals such as foxes or weasels who would feast on your trekking provisions!
The basic rules of camping apply to bivouacking
- If a small downpour is likely, you will need a traditional trench all around the tent. No needs to dig too deep, 2 or 3 centimetres are sufficient to drain away any possible run-off.
- A small camp fire is very useful both for the late evening ambiance and to keep away small prowling animals. Even when the fire is out, the smell of burnt wood keeps them away for hours.
- However, it must be contained by small rocks and you must take great care that it doesn’t spread when the grass is dry (old winter grass when you are camping in spring or mature grass when camping in September or October).
- Even without the traditional “American shovel” whose weight of 2 or 3 kilos is a deterrent, you can use a simple small garden hand tool to dig both the run-off trench and a small pit for the “amenities”!
- Do not leave food to be eaten by the wildlife! Bread, biscuits, and cakes, which small animals appreciate very much, are not easily digested by them. The yeasts contained in these foods can cause serious complications in their digestive systems!
Bivouacking is different from camping. A municipality may prohibit camping on its territory by municipal decree. However, when you are in the mountains, camping becomes bivouacking and it is permitted if you do not stay two consecutive nights in the same place. In National Parks, bivouacking is prohibited except when it is organised more than one hour’s walk away from a refuge or the park boundary.
Mountain Guides offer regular hikes ending with bivouacking in the middle of the mountains. With them, you’ll learn how to be even more self-sufficient in this beautiful mountain experience.