Strapping your bike with the bare essentials for a mini-adventure and a night under the stars is a concept that is simply second nature to some. But for plenty of others it is something totally new, that scares and excites in equal measure. What kit do you need ? How will it all fit on the bike ? What if it rains ? Will I feel safe ?
As with so many things in life, doing something new for the first time can be more fun and less scary when you do so together. A quick show of hands among fellow Bellavelo.cc members proved there was plenty of interest from women within the club alone. And so the idea of the ‘bivy-curious women’s bike trip’ was born…
Where to go ?
The nearlywildcamping.org website gave a great lead for the perfect half-way house overnight solution: Night Pastures in West Sussex, which was just the right cycling distance from London to make it enough of an adventure yet not too big a stretch for those who may be less used to riding longer distances and also a perfectly legal and total gem of a nearly wild camping field to which we had exclusive access.
Night Pastures had all the things we were looking for in a bivy spot: secluded, quiet, bang in the middle of nature, surrounded by acres of empty space and far away from any road noises or the usual city-life light pollution, making it a great star-gazing spot.
What is more, Night Pastures also offered some luxuries that were much appreciated by this bunch of bivy-curious women: two composting loos, fresh water taps, two eco hot (!) showers and several fire pits with plenty of wood to enjoy a good few hours of cozy evening chit chat. No electricity, no WiFi, just a good time in nature.
How to get there ?
I enjoy route planning and know most of the roads in Surrey and Sussex well. The challenge was to design a route that was scenic and safe, that felt adventurous yet wasn’t too long. I did a couple of recce rides to fine-tune the route, including an off-road version, but then decided on a road-only version as few of the women had gravel/MTBs anyway.
We were lucky that the trip fell in the little window of opportunity this summer when staying away from home was permitted. Covid restrictions meant we set out in small bunches of 4 to 6 Bellas, with staggered starts across the morning also giving a nice lie in for those who love to sleep a bit longer or were worried they might not get much sleep during their first bivy night.
What about all the kit ?
For months, the Whatsapp group set up for this trip exploded with discussions about bivy bags (hooped or non-hooped ?), sleeping bags (2 or 3 seasons or just a liner ?) and sleeping mats (what is a R rating even ?)
As this was the very first bivy trip for many of us, there was a bit of reluctance to spend a lot of money on kit that you don’t yet know you will be using again. But there is plenty of cheaper or second-hand kit that will do fine for a night and can easily be sold on again.
And you can come a long way by borrowing from friends or asking for help. Apidura came on board with a loan of some top notch bikepacking bags, consisting of a mix of Expedition Handlebar and Top Tube Packs, Backcountry Saddle Packs as well as smaller Racing Handlebar and Saddle Packs for those needing less space, including two lucky Bellas renting bivies from the nearly wild camping site.
We had a right giggle a week before the event when Jonathan from Apidura kindly delivered all the kit for a try-out in Bushy Park, with several Bellas staring at the packs and still scratching their heads how the pile of stuff they had planned to bring for the 1-nighter would fit into these packs and onto some of the smaller frames …
How did it all work out in the end ?
We couldn’t have wished for a better weekend. Temperatures of 30C+, glorious sunshine, blue skies, not a drop of rain.
Night Pastures had made all the Covid safety procedures one can think of with clear rules, lots of hand saniters and oodles of space to maintain our Bella bivy bubbles.
We may not have gone about this the ‘die-hard’ or totally self-sufficient and minimalist way, but why not enjoy a few of life’s little luxuries and pleasures when embarking on something new ?!
With the support of Night Pastures, I had arranged for a yoga teacher to rock up upon arrival to guide us through a relaxing outdoor yoga class to take care of fatigued bodies.
A few hours later, the owner of a nearby gastro pub delivered a delicious tagine spread that just needed heating up in the horse box turned field kitchen, topped off with a generous selection of post-dinner brownies. After dinner, one of the Bellas who grew up in the area had her daughter come round to supply us with ample of drinks for a fun night by the fire !
After a surprisingly good night sleep (for most), some early birds took care of making coffee and cooking bacon and vegetarian sausages on the fire pits in the morning. Not long after that, it was time to pack up and make our way back to the city, all with a generous supply of tasty Rawvelo energy bars in our jersey pockets. None of us were in a hurry, so there were plenty of ice-cream stops and for some even a spontaneous off-road diversion for some wild swimming.
From bivy-curious to bivy-converts ?
I guess the fact that several Bellas have since bought their own sets of Apidura packs and started to plan and go on more bivy bike trips (even on an autumn night with temperatures close to zero) says it all ! No better way to express our experiences though than with a mix of answers to questions I asked the Bellas before and after the trip.
Q: Have you bivied before ? If not, what has held you back ?
“ No. I didn’t even know what it was until now !”
“ Never. I have wanted to try it for ages but just never had the opportunity; I would be too scared to try on my own”.
“ No, but I am excited to be doing something different from the mundane and to do it with like-minded people”.
“ Never. After an early youth spent hiking and camping (and some cycling) in the Peak District, I had dreams of hiking the Pennine Way or cycling across the Pyrenees and other hillside and mountain adventures. I was very much a northerner and of the countryside… Then I became a Londoner, a city girl, with a new circle of friends who didn’t know where the Pennine Way even was…and I gradually left behind my ‘self’. Now, as I am approaching 50, I am remembering where I was supposed to be…”
“ No. I didn’t even realise gear existed so small and light, that it was possible to carry it all on a bike, until I read Emily Chappel’s book “Where there’s a will”. Emily’s book introduced me to a whole new world of long distance bike racing, audaxes, traveling the globe by bike. I was simply fascinated by it.”
“ Yes. I bivied once before. Roughly 2 years ago, but on foot as part of a group of “Adventure Queens” with Anna McNuff. I am excited about incorporating cycling, which I do lots of, with bivying, which I’m still worried about.”
“ Yes. My first experience was with a friend and it was amazing. It could only have been improved by a coffee while in my sleeping bag! My second experience was on my own. I didn’t know the area at all. I felt nervous about finding a good bivy spot and in the end stayed at a pub. I am excited about doing it again in the security of a group plus learning tips from others”.
Q: How did the bivy trip compare to your expectations or worries ?
“ I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, much more so than I thought I would. The conditions were perfect, which definitely helped. I also managed to get some sleep, which was a real bonus (over 6 hours according to my Fitbit!!).”
“ I don’t really even like camping, so the thought of bivying never really appealed to me! But it was great to try something new with a fun and supportive group of women. I enjoyed the adventure and stepping out of my comfort zone ”.
“ It exceeded my expectations! I slept better than I thought I would, despite my terrible ‘boil in the bag’ cheap survival bag. As much as I would have told myself to be brave and try something like this solo, I know it wouldn’t have been as great an experience as doing it together”.
“ I loved seeing shooting stars while falling asleep: I think I fell asleep with my eyes open as I did not want to miss anything in the sky!!”
“ I definitely needn’t have worried about not sleeping as I slept so well, that when I finally woke up most other people were already making breakfast! I suspect that was due to the eye mask which is a definite must if you don’t want to wake up with the first light.”
Q: Key lessons and recommendations for other bivy-curious cyclists ?
“ I would definitely recommend a hooped bivy. I didn’t like the idea of my face being exposed to the elements, so this is a good half-way house. It was cosy and had enough room to be comfortable. The trade-off is the weight of it, as the one I bought had poles, but it was worth it. I experimented with no sleeping bag as it was a warm evening, opting for a down jacket instead. I was a bit chilly in the night so I would definitely take a sleeping bag next time! ”
“ Even on a hot summer’s day, it is always colder at night than you expect; pack some socks to keep some heat in. I was grateful that I had my Woolie Boolies.”
“ I did not consider a pillow to be important. I thought some clothes would do, but it didn’t. It took me a few hours to fall asleep. Next time I would bring a small inflatable pillow as a must, not a luxury”.
“ You might want to try and stuff everything into the saddle bag but balance is key. Try and distribute your weight as evenly as you can – your bike will handle better! “
“ I was so impressed at how well my very light bike coped with being laden down. It handled well and I experienced surprisingly little loss of speed; I even managed to get up Combe Lane quite comfortably. I did feel I had to be a bit more cautious than normal descending but then we weren’t in a hurry! “
“ Make a list, prioritise the list and pack the key things first. It will help you only take what you really need”.
“ If the weather is good you can get away with a lot less kit than you think. Practising packing your bags and attaching them to your bike as much as you can before the trip helps a lot.”
“Find a group of like-minded people and give it a go. The worst case scenario is a bad night’s sleep, but you can quickly recover from that. While the best case scenario is a whole new world of mini adventures right from your doorstep!”