A bivouac shelter in winter at Benediktenwand, Germany

Pratt bivouac by Tom Frost

Rock climber Chuck Pratt bivouacking during the first ascent of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley in September, 1961.

A bivouac (pronounced /ˈbɪvuːæk/, Template:Respell) traditionally refers to a military encampment made with tents or improvised shelters, usually without shelter or protection from enemy fire or such a site where a camp may be built.[1] It is also commonly used to describe a variety of improvised camp sites such as those used in scouting and mountain climbing. It may often refer to sleeping in the open with a bivouac sack, but it may also refer to a shelter constructed of natural materials like a structure of branches to form frame may be utilized, which is then covered with leaves, ferns and similar for waterproofing and duff (also known as leaflitter) for insulation.

As a verb, to bivouac (alternatively bivouacked, bivouacking, bivouacs also bivouacks) is to set up or camp in any such improvised camp.[2]

Etymology Edit

The term bivouac was introduced into English from French but did not become common until after the Napoleonic Wars; it ultimately stems from the Alsatian or Swiss German word biwacht. (Broken down, it reads bie- (the modern German equivalent is bei-) for subordinate, secondary and wacht for guarding as in secondary night watch.) Originally, the term referred to a guard duty watch set up outside a fortified town to warn of approaching enemy armies, in addition to the main watch inside the town that functioned more or less like a police station does today; these secondary watches used temporary shelter, and the term eventually came to refer to that aspect only.[3]


Single sided designs allow easy access and allow the heat of a fire into the shelter, whilst full roofed designs have much better heat retention. As a general rule the roof should be at least a foot thick and opaque to bright sunlight. Artificial bivouacs can be constructed using a variety of available materials from corrugated iron sheeting or plywood, to groundsheets or purpose-made hootchies (bashas). Although these have the advantage of being speedy to erect and resource efficient they have relatively poor insulation properties and are relatively easily damaged by the myriad sharp objects usually found in camp.

A hootchie (or basha) is a simple tent, made from one or two sheets of waterproof fabric and some strong cord. Generally a basha is made of RipStop nylon with a reinforced seam, eyelets and loops or tabs are located along all four sides of the sheet and across the two central lines of symmetry. Usually measuring 6 foot by 8 foot (although much larger sizes can be found) the basha is an extremely versatile shelter that can be erected in many different ways to suit the particular conditions of the location. (The word also sometimes refers to a special type of bivouac sack.)

There are many different ways to put up a bivouac shelter. The most common method is to use one bivouac sheet as the roof of the shelter and a second as the groundsheet. The 'roof' flysheet is suspended along in its ridge line by a cord tied between two trees which are a suitable distance apart. The four corners of the flysheet are then either pegged out or tied down to other trees. Care must be taken to leave a gap between the ground and the sheet to ensure that you can see out and that there is enough air flow to stop condensation.

Storm poles are often used - these are poles made of metal and are used to hold up bivouacs. They are normally extensible and raise the heights of the bivouac. They are often used by fishermen. Hikers often use their extensible trekking poles for the same purpose.

When making camp in a tropical situation, where sleeping off the ground is desirable, it is a common practice to string up a hammock underneath the bivouac rather than use a groundsheet.

See alsoEdit


  1. "bivouac." Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 10 Jan. 2008. <>.
  2. "bivouac." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 10 Jan. 2008. <>.
  3. "bivouac." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 10 Jan. 2008. <>.
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