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Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy Review

Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy Sack Review

The Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy is a spacious bivy sack that is large enough to hold a thick air mattress and a cold-weather sleeping bag. It has a U-shaped zipper that provides access at the head-end along with a mesh panel that can be exposed for ventilation by rolling down an outer cover. While the bottom of the bivy is seam-taped and waterproof, we recommend using it under a tarp or in a shelter because the top leaks when it gets wet, and none of the hood zippers are taped.

Overall, we found the Backcountry Bivy quite heavy and ungainly to use and would recommend you look at other products if you want a fully waterproof winter bivy or a three-season bivy that provides lightweight insect and wind protection.

Specs at a Glance

  • Weight: 13 oz (actual weight is 12.5 oz)
  • Size: Regular (a long version is also available – see SD for specs)
  • Top Fabric:20D Nylon Ripstop WPB, DWR/10,400MM PeU, 18,300 g/day MVTR
  • Bottom Fabric:30D Nylon Ripstop, DWR/1200mm PeU, FR CPAI84
  • Dimensions: 80″ long x 36″ wide x 10″ deep
The head end of the backcountry bivy can be suspended from above to increase livability
The head end of the backcountry bivy can be suspended from above to increase livability

The Backcountry Bivy is a large bivy sack 80″ long x 36″ wide with a 10″ deep seam-taped bathtub floor that will swallow a sleeping pad and bag/quilt with room to spare. While this can be seen as an advantage, that extra volume makes the bivy ungainly to use because it’s difficult to keep the breathable cover on top when your sleep insulation slides around inside the slick interior fabric.

There’s also just one stakeout point to hold the bivy in position at night and just at the foot end instead of the corners which is the usual norm for bivy sacks. If you toss, turn, or thrash at night, you should expect to wake up in a different orientation or position, relative to your shelter, than where you went to sleep.

Access is through the top of the bivy sack.
Access is through the top of the bivy sack.

Hood/Access

You get into the Backcountry Bivy by sliding in through the hood, which has a U-shaped zipper for access. We found this awkward and prefer bivy sacks with side zippers because they’re much easier to get in and out of, especially at night for bathroom breaks. The lack of a side zipper also makes the bivy more difficult to use with a quilt since it can be difficult to secure a pad attachment system if your buckles are located below the door.

The hood has two parts: an outer cover, which can be rolled down to expose a mesh screen which improves livability and helps reduce internal condensation when open. The hood can also be suspended overhead, which we recommend doing to keep it off your face at night. We found the hood quite spacious and could easily store personal items inside for easy access at night.

The hood is quite spacious and can fit a pillow as well as personal effects.
The hood is quite spacious and can fit a pillow as well as personal effects.

Waterproof/Breathability Rating

While Sierra Designs’ specifications would indicate that the Backcountry Bivy is a fully waterproof and breathable bivy sack suitable for standalone use, we would advise against that if you expect overnight precipitation or morning dew.

The breathability of the top cover is adequate, although we did note footbox condensation, which is not entirely preventable on any bivy sack product made with a solid top fabric. While the bottom of the bivy sack is seam-taped, the entire hood area is not, and the top of the bivy leaks when it gets wet. Frankly, we’re not all that surprised. Sierra Design’s product specifications have become increasingly unreliable over the years.

The U-Shaped zipper isn’t as easy to use as a bivy sack with a side zipper.
The U-Shaped zipper isn’t as easy to use as a bivy sack with a side zipper. Not by a long shot.

Assessment

The Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy isn’t a product that we recommend for winter or three-season use because it doesn’t have many of the best-of-breed features offered by other vendors. This is a product that’s been in the Sierra Designs product line for a long time and hasn’t kept pace competitively or with changes in backpacker preferences. The problem with the Backcountry Bivy is that it can’t be used by itself in rain or in winter because it’s not waterproof and it’s not particularly breathable when you just want insect protection in three-season weather. If either of those describes your needs, we recommend that you check out our Winter Bivy Sack Guide or our Bug Shelter Primer which list better products that are optimized for those purposes.

Disclosure: The author owns this product.

Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy

Water Resistance
Breathability
Ease of Access
Insect Protection
Weight

Nothing Special

Overall, we found the Backcountry Bivy quite heavy and ungainly to use and would recommend you look at other products if you want a fully waterproof winter bivy or a three-season bivy that provides lightweight insect and wind protection.

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11 comments

  1. What would you recommend over the Sierra Designs Backcountry Bivy for a 3 to 4 season bivvy bag (in this case for the UK)?

    For context, I’d be using it standalone or with a micro tarp, so needs to be waterproof top and bottom, with a bug screen, and will be using a quilt and thick mat.

    I checked out the links to your other articles, but couldn’t see anything that was similar to this brief.

    Many thanks in advance.

  2. Wow. Well, I’m glad I read this review. The Gear Lab review makes it sound wonderful. Thank you.

    HJ

  3. I have currently have the hunka xl from Aplkit but is real tight from the waist down because I use the thermarest xtherm in a regular wide (66cmm width with out taper). Is there anything you’d recommend to get for this sleeping mat. I also use a cumulus custom quilt. Thanks

    • There is a new model of SD Backcountry Bivy currently available in Europe that supposedly now has a waterproof floor. It’s green. I’d try that. The current model is enormous, so I’d expect the new one to be as well.

  4. I strongly disagree with this review.

    I’ve owned this bivy for three years. I used it as a standalone shelter (no tarp) on thruhikes of the AZT, CT, and Uinta Highline Trail. It’s been on two winter mountaineering trips through Desolation Wilderness in Tahoe, and I’ll be taking it on a long section hike on the PCT this summer. I have used it over 1,400 miles and it has absolutely rocked! I accidentally stepped on mine with microspikes and punctured the top and bottom. I’ve ripped the top shoving it under a bush, and it’s still going. Leukotape, duct tape, and sleeping pad patches are great for impromptu field repairs.

    I did seam seal the areas on the hood where there’s no tape, and I’ve never had an issue with it leaking. N-E-V-E-R. The few times I got caught in driving rain I rigged up my poncho into a tarp, and voila.

    Oh yeah, and it’s huge inside – big enough for you and all your gear.

    The author mentions how slippery the material is, but notice he’s using a polycro groundsheet. No kidding the bivy is going to slip and slide! The bottom of the bivy is nylon. Whodda thunk that plastic + nylon = slippery? Just use the bivy straight on the dirt as the manufacturer intended! If you absolutely need stake-out loops, you can literally add them yourself- just a little cordage, a few quick stitches with needle and thread, and a little seam sealer, and presto, you have stake-out loops. For the record, I never felt I needed them, but it’s such a simple DIY it’s not really worth complaining about.

    The shifting of the material as you thrash around inside can be mitigated by… not thrashing around. I remedied my slippery pad syndrome in the past with a couple blobs of silicone on the floor, but now I use a 1/8” thick eva foam pad under my sleeping pad.

    Regarding the weight and the bulk- this is intended to be a standalone all weather bivy. In theory you don’t need a tarp when using it. In practice you don’t need a tarp either. If you’re resourceful you will stay dry. Research is your friend! If you’ve done your research and planned well, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea what to expect weather-wise. If you adequately planned your route, you’ll have a pretty good idea where the good campsites are!

    Caveats: I wouldn’t use the Backcountry Bivy (or any bivy really) in areas where I know I’m going to have prolonged bug pressure, rain, or humidity. Super warm evening and morning temperatures would also be factor. There are just some places where no amount of planning/campsite selection is going to help you when using a bivy – namely the east coast and the south. For all my experience, I would never use this in Florida, for instance. The bugs, heat, and humidity would have me reaching for a tent. The constant rain on the AT would have me reaching for a tent too. Yes, you could use an ultralight bivy like a Borah or MLD + a tarp in those conditions, but if you’re going to go thru the trouble of pitching a tarp, why not just bring a tent?

    The author clearly has strong opinions regarding Sierra Designs, which is fair, but I would be leery of this review as it’s so biased it’s practically a hatchet job. I honestly question the author’s experience with bivies, their knowledge of campsite selection, and their resourcefulness.

    There’s a reason this bivy has great reviews on YouTube, gearlab, etc. – because it’s an outstanding piece of equipment. You can often find these for less than $100 online, and at that price you can feel less guilty about modifying it to suit your specific needs… Or you can drop $300 on a OR Alpine, or MLD Soul bivy.

    Bottom line: if you have the knowledge, skills, and resourcefulness to use a standalone bivy you will not be disappointed.

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