Long distance backpacking, hiking, and mountaineering trips bring with them a unique set of challenges that you have to be prepared for in order to have a successful and enjoyable experience. The big three items: shelter, food and water all must be available to you at all times. There is a debate on which of the three is the most important and given the variety of potential situations and all three can be number one depending on the conditions.
With the ultralight backpacking movement in full swing and shaving ounces in every place possible, bothy bags are making there way around the outdoor community. In essence, they are ultralight emergency shelters to keep you out of the elements when an unexpected weather front moves in.
What exactly is a bothy bag?
Short answer: bothy bags are ultralight emergency shelters.
Bothy bags (UK term) or Zdarsky sack (US term) is an ultralight emergency shelter meant to cover a person or group of people for coverage from the elements. They’re similar in concept to a bivy sack and in shape to a tent. This particular piece of gear did not become effective until synthetic materials like GoreTex and synthetic blends became commercially available in the seventies and eighties.
They’re a shelter that originated in the United Kingdom and are slowly making their way over the ocean to America. Typically carried by outdoor instructors and they’re a great way to get shelter when unexpected weather hits or if you just want some shade while you enjoy an afternoon snack.
Occums razor basically states that the simplest solution is usually the most likely one and bothy bags are no exception. This extremely simple concept, a bag with a piece of synthetic fabric can be used just about anywhere and is a literal lifesaver. Bothy Bags do not have poles or other supports, it’s just a bag that you put over your head to keep wind and precipitation at bay.
Do you need a Bothy Bag?
If you spend time in the outdoors, enjoy hiking in rugged conditions, or there’s a potential for a bad day then a bothy bag should be added to your gear list. Let’s say you’re on a week long backpacking trip and you planned for bad weather, a bothy bag is an unnecessary piece of gear. However, if you’re taking a group of friends on one of your favorite trails in the Fall and the weather is unpredictable, a bothy bag will provide you with warmth and shelter when you most need it.
Everyone could use a bothy bag in their backpack, having an extra shelter in case things go off the rails is never a bad idea.
Bothy Bag features
As simple as they are, Bothy Bag’s have different features depending on the manufacturer. For the most part, they’re all extremely simple with the occasional “fancy” extra.
Bothy bag’s come in a variety of sizes so you can find the one that will fit your group, large or small. The sizes range from 2 to 20 people and they have everything in between. Be sure to bring one that’s large enough for your group, the last thing you need is one person left out in the cold.
Yep, bothy bags have seats, sort of. They’re really just more of extra pieces of fabric that extend from the sides so you can tuck them under your butt. We’re using the term seats loosely since they’re only meant to protect you from getting wet from the ground. You can always use a daypack or something else in your gear to make it a little bit more comfortable.
With modern outdoor gear, waterproof or water resistant fabric is expected. Your bothy bag is no different, and considering that it’s designed for emergency situations being made of waterproof fabric is an absolute must have.
A bothy bag is lightweight by nature, after all, it’s nothing more than a single sheet of fabric. Considering that a bothy bag is an emergency piece of gear and not intended to be used on each and every hike, they should be one of your lightest pieces of gear.
Bothy bags are small. compact and designed with portability in mind. Bothy bags come in a variety of sizes, so the portability is directly related to the size of the group you need the emergency shelter for. They should fit into the bottom of your backpack comfortably and not weight more than 10 ounces for 2 people.
We’re assuming that your bothy bag is already water resistant, with that being said, it should also be made of durable materials. A blend of ripstop nylon and polyester is a popular mix, giving you protection from the elements and providing an insulating layer at the same time.
Due to the nature of the design, bothy bags have a natural breeze that will flow throughout the bag by simply pulling one side up slightly. Most bothy bags are solid pieces of fabric that don’t have mesh windows, however, this can be easily remedied by a simple life of your rear end or your hand.
Most bothy bags will have at least one window on the side that you can use to see what’s going on outside. In the unfortunate situation that you need to use your bothy bag, the window gives you the ability to take a peek at the conditions without exposing yourself.
How to use a bothy bag
If you’ve ever used a blanket as a kid and covered yourself from head to toe while sitting on the edge of the blanket and making a cozy place to hide, you have the basics of using a bothy bag down.
There really isn’t much set up involved, as it’s nothing more than a piece of fabric to cover you and keep the heat inside. That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- Take the bothy bag out of your backpack (had to say it)
- Unfold it
- Place over your head
- Sit on the edges
- Enjoy your little slice of solitude form the storm
As long as you understand how to place a piece of fabric over your head so that you’re protected from the elements, you have the entire process down. As much as we’d like to sugarcoat it and make it seem like your an amazing survivalist (and you may be), the simplicity is the beauty of the bothy bag. Anyone can use a bothy bag, anytime, anywhere.
A bothy bag is an emergency shelter that is extremely compact and easy to use. They are slowly making the voyage across the ocean to the United States and their an excellent piece of gear to include in your emergency kit. The packed size really depends on how large or small your bothy bag is, they make them in sizes that range from 2 to twenty people.
Featured Image Credit: “P1080844” by Tim Regan, used under CC BY 2.0 / cropped from original