I’ve written elsewhere about my variable experience of bivvybagging; how I always seem to end up lying in water one way or another. How, as Ronald Turnbull says in The Book of the Bivvy, I’m either dry but cold or warm but wet. The worst problems arise when it rains and you have to put your head inside the bag, not least because it’s impossible to sleep with water pelting onto your eyeballs. The bag promptly fills with condensation and it cannot breathe because, in the rain, there’s no moisture differential across its membrane.
Over on Twitter I noticed that to improve his bivy experience hiking guru Colin Ibbotson had made himself a nifty little tarp that covered his head, with hardly any bulk or weight. Further research turned up several YouTube videos of these so-called Micro-Tarps and eventually the fact that you can actually buy one, from BackpackingLight. “Well,” I thought, “my partner has a sewing machine, this looks like a pretty straightforward way to learn to use it”. I resolved to take my first and apparently unambitious step into the murky and seemingly quite laborious world of MYOG – Making Your Own Gear.
Spoiler – in my opinion the asking price of £44.99 is more than reasonable for the labour involved in making one. If, like me, you’re inexperienced verging on downright incompetent in needlecraft, it’s an absolute bargain. Not realising this, I perversely persevered. Here’s a design that’s widely available online:
This requires a piece of fabric 2.5 metres wide, a bit wasteful as silnylon seems to be made in a 1.5 metre width and sold by the metre. However applying just a little thought, and a pair of scissors, it seemed I could cut that shape from a shorter piece of fabric…
Thank goodness for old-school paper and scissors. Here are the final dimensions for maximum economy, using a piece of ripstop silnylon 1.5 metres wide and 2 metres long. I got mine from Pennine Outdoor, it cost about £18 with the postage and a nice big reel of green thread.
Spoiler – I think a slightly bigger tarp, as per the original design, might have given me better protection in really rough weather. Ah well.
Having recklessly and irreparably cut the fabric, it only remains to hem it all round, with nice strong double hems. You need LOTS of pins. At this point I received a stern lecture on the age and fragility of the sewing machine, also speed awareness training.
Now use your silnylon trimmings to bodge on at each corner some grotty reinforcing patches with lots of random stitching, and some peg loops made from nylon tape salvaged from a useless rucksack that went in the bin (review elsewhere). I suppose you could make nice tidy reinforcing patches with pretty stitching if you prefer.
Now, in a mad delusion of grandeur, I blatantly copied the commercial design by adding a lifter loop that’s supposed to give you a bit more headroom. You’ll need to seal the stitching with Silnet, so it’s quite a bit of extra work for a small enhancement. Especially if, like me, you make a right pig’s ear of it and in fact while trying to bodge it on actually nick a hole in your tarp with your scissors, necesitating the sewing on and sealing of another patch!!
That’s about it. Now for the great moment when you rig it up in the garden, and even the cat laughs.
Around this point you start to realise that from your first ever effort at Making Your Own Gear you have learnt a few lessons. One is that it probably takes a lot of experiment and evolution to arrive at a silnylon shape that pegs out without creasing. Respect to professional tent makers – did I mention you can buy one of these for £44.99? Another is that silnylon hems ruck when stretched if they aren’t more or less orthogonal to the weave.
So – what’s it like in use? Well it very much depends of course on your bivy bag. Mine is rubbish. Even with my head covered, which I admit was transformational, I still woke up in a puddle after nights of heavy rain, that’s if I got any sleep at all for the general horror of the experience. Several mornings on the 17-day hike for which I made this tarp I had literally to wring out my sleeping bag, but that wasn’t the fault of the tarp, I’d have been far worse off without it. I think I need a better bag!
On just showery, breezy nights my tarp was brilliant. It keeps the wind off (as long as the wind doesn’t change!) You don’t have to worry about packing up and covering your gear, you can just strew it randomly around your head. Add a bit of Tyvek groundsheet and it’s positively luxurious. You can check your email and social, eat a pie or three or even make a brew in relative comfort, quite well protected from all but heavy windblown rain.
As you can see, my micro-tarp experience has been mixed. However there’s one final tarp tip I’m keeping up my sleeve – you can pitch it in different configurations. In particular the triangular-ish shape is perfect for adding a roof to a summit wind shelter. Here I am (below) on the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn (1064 m). The micro-tarp kept the hail off brilliantly – this was in the middle of June, by the way, I wouldn’t just stroll up there for a random kip if I were you. In fact I had such a great night that my tarp is now officially known as the Carnedd Llewelyn Sheraton and just for that one experience it was well worth the small cost and moderate trouble of making.
I just wish I had a better bivy bag. Mine is a Snugpak ‘Special Forces’, it’s pretty horrible. Any recommendations would be gratefully received, thanks.