Sleep, Pray, Suffer

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Words by Mike Sowden / Photography by Mike Sowden & Pixabay

We have recently been welcoming guest bloggers to our site (because of this). I’m so happy to welcome Mike as a part of our unofficial series of stories by hilarious English men (part one is here). As well, I am also pleased to learn what a bivvy bag is. ~ Dalene

It’s late January, in northern England. We crunch our way up the hill.

“There’s…quite a lot of snow up here. Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Alistair turns to face me. He looks every inch an outdoorsman: a couple of acres of breathable fabrics swaddling him from head to toe, a huge battered rucksack that’s clearly been to hell and back, a beard you could lose a Landrover in, and a perpetual cheery twinkle in his eye.

Al’s seen it all, and now he’s going to tell me hah, come now, Mike, this is nothing to be worried about! I’ve handled far worse! Then my heart can stop racing, my knees can stop wobbling, and I’ll know that everything will be just….

Al says, “I’m really not sure about this, Mike! Hahaha. Oh well, we’re here now!”

Ok then. We’re going to die.

And it’s all my fault.

Consider the tent.

Modern tents are marvellous devices, made of materials that keep moisture out, yet allow it to escape from within (I still have no real idea how this happens). They’re light, compact and incredibly easy to put up, at least compared with the olden days where it took three hours and a team of horses to drag your tarp upright. Modern tents are amazing. No, I’m definitely not here today to pour scorn on tents.

You know what’s wrong with tents?

They’re liars.

If you stand outside of a tent, you can see what flimsy things they are. You can knock a tent down with pretty much anything, including yourself if you get up in the middle of the night to pee and trip on a guy-rope. Tents are designed to be temporary, and when you’re outside one, they certainly look it.

But crawl inside, and they start lying to you. Mmmm. Indoors! Safe. Warm. Protected.

And then, unless you’ve seen the Blair Witch Project, you tune the “outside world” out and happily drop off to sleep, feeling sheltered and secure like you’re tucked up in bed at home.

Unfortunately, your tent has completely fooled you. You’re not back home. You’re in the great outdoors, with nothing between you and it except a material as thin as your underwear.

Even worse, you’re blocking out the very thing you came here to experience! This is a chance to feel at one with nature like never before, to fill your lungs with gloriously fresh air – and you’re spending your time in a tent that smells of the socks you’ve spent all day walking in.

Consider, then, the bivvy bag.

At first glance, it’s around 2000 times more terrifying than a tent (especially in this photo). It’s brightly coloured, sure, but it still looks alarmingly morbid, like a body-bag designed by clowns.

To spend the night in a bivvy bag takes a certain…mental readjustment.

But it’s one well worth taking.

Instead of being fooled into complacency by a tent, you have the outdoors pressed up against your face. Every time you open your eyes, there it is – and after a while, that’s remarkably reassuring. You know nothing’s out there because you can see nothing’s out there. In the very small likelihood that anything or anyone started coming your way, you’d hear them and see them long before they got here…

And in the meantime, oh wow, look at those stars. Smell those pine needles. Marvel at the rhythms of the outdoor world playing out in front of you – and set your alarm, so you can lay here and watch the daylight creep back into the world, turning the sky every colour you know and a few you don’t.

Bivvy bagging is a really wonderful way to experience the world.

Unless it’s been snowing heavily and the temperature’s below freezing, of course.

“Oooh, I think it’ll go below freezing tonight,” says Al.

Our original plan was to stretch out our bivvy bags under a corner of a low wall, to protect ourselves from any wind that might spring up. We reach the spot. We stare at it, and then at each other.

“Actually, how about we…”

“Yes, excellent idea.”

Our home for the night becomes the frozen depths of a nearby wood, near a metal park bench which we use as a table for Al’s tiny wood-burning stove, fuelled with fallen twigs.

I lose feeling in my toes around 9pm, and in the tips of my ears an hour later, but we both keep our fingers warm with hot food until it’s time to reluctantly lay our bivvy bags out in the snow, stuff our sleeping-bags inside and crawl in. This is where I start to discover my sleeping bag isn’t designed for below-zero temperatures – but when you’re bivvying, a little self-inflicted suffering is the usual order of the day. You don’t do this for comfort. Good grief, no. Ha.

What you do it for are moments like the first few seconds after you get comfortable, stop writhing around, and start to listen. Your awareness expands into the growing silence, and you start to hear things you’ve never heard before, especially if there’s snow on the ground. A rabbit hops through the trees fifty yards away, and you hear every soft impact. The trees creak and drip. Everything is still, and it’s a perfect stillness you’ll never find in normal life.

You take deep breaths (they roar, like the blood in your ears), and a sense of delicious peace fills your mind, swamping any lingering sense of anxiety from the sheer weirdness of doing this. Transcendental, magical moments like that make bivvying worth all the extra mental and physical effort.

And today, they almost made up for the next 8 hours of lying there, shivering uncontrollably. Almost. But not quite.

So try leaving your tent behind sometime, and try heading out onto the hills with a bivvy bag stuffed in your rucksack and a song of adventure (with a bass line of mild terror) playing in your heart. Head out, try it, and see what the world gives you in return.

Just don’t do it in winter.

Only complete idiots would try that.

author bio

Mike Sowden is a travel writer and story consultant, helping people get their stories straight (try his free 5-part story course here). You can find him at Fevered Mutterings, or lying uncomfortably in a brightly-coloured sack somewhere rather odd, wondering if he’s having a midlife crisis.

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    1. Wow – doing it in a Grand Canyon is a whole other level. I’m jealous.

      And yep, in the UK we don’t have to worry about the wildlife so much. I think the biggest scare I’ve ever got was a hedgehog crawling into my cooking pan, getting stuck and shrieking for help at 3am. Shining your torch onto a pulsating mass of spikes when you’re in the pitch-black middle of nowhere does absolutely nothing for your peace of mind…

      Thanks for reading, Leigh!

  1. Hi Mike, great article. I love your use of humor in this piece “only complete idiots would try that”! I completely agree with what you’re talking about with finding complete stillness outdoors that you can’t find in ordinary life. The moments of complete stillness that I find in my life are so special to me. This piece really reminded me of one of my first climbs I sent outdoors. The whole way up climbing was miserable, but once I got to the top, absolute peace. I even remember hearing birds tweeting from way up there. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, I can’t wait to read more from you!

    1. Thanks, Lexi. 🙂 And I hear you. More and more, I’m drawn to solitude the way injured people are drawn to emergency rooms. And there’s good scientific evidence that finding that kind of perfectly still alone-ness (not loneliness, just alone-ness) is what our overtaxed modern brains desperately crave:

      Cheers for reading!

  2. Great post, Mike!

    …but no. Sorry, don’t think I could do the whole ‘bivvy bag’ thing. Even if the roof is a flimsy one and even if the socks might stink… honestly I’d run the temptation of being distracted by the awesome view and forget to sleep!

    Oh, and seriously. Every campout I ever went on as a kid, we hung a clothes line and let the wet stuff dry out. No stinky socks in the tent!

    1. “I’d run the temptation of being distracted by the awesome view and forget to sleep!”

      Hah. That’s the best excuse for not doing it that I’ve ever heard. And there have been a few nights when I’ve spent at least an hour staring upwards at the stars, getting more and more awake. Occupational hazard that you pay for the next morning, definitely.

      A clothes line. Oh god. I’ve been doing it wrong all my adult life.

      *adds to the long list of things I’ve been doing wrong all my adult life*


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