Group Shelters (Bothy Bags)

I remember many years ago, on a miserable day in the Rockies, sitting with my climbing partner in a large plasticized bag on the summit ridge of an unclimbed peak looking out of a small vent at swirling snow and thick mist. We were having a snack in the cozy confines of a bivy sac, as it was known in those days, waiting for the weather to clear before our push to the summit.

In the UK, where most of them are made, Bothy Bags, as I will call them, are standard emergency equipment and mandated for many guided or club led trips. They are credited for saving lives in the cold, windy British mountains where the weather can change very quickly.

These group shelters are large windproof bags designed for use by groups of anywhere between 2 and 12 people in the mountains. Their main advantages over the individual emergency blankets and tarps used in North America are:

  • a bag provides provides better wind protection than a blanket.
  • people can huddle together for warmth.
  • being together helps maintain morale in a stressful situation.
  • quick to deploy, easy to repack and reusable many times.
Rab Superlight 2

Rab Superlight 2 available at MEC online.

These bags pull over the heads of the group when they are sitting in a huddle on their packs and extend right down to the ground. It’s surprising how quickly they provide warmth in the most hostile of conditions. Bothy Bags can be used for anything from simple lunch stops to shelter while awaiting rescue. They may not be completely waterproof to keep weight down, but they are windproof. Usually made of coated lightweight rip-stop nylon they have one or more vents, and clear plastic widows to avoid claustrophobia. Most models have completely waterproof flaps at the bottom to sit on. Two person bags can be as light as 240 gm. A 4-person bag weighs 320 gm.

Bothy 2

Let’s make it quite clear — a Bothy Bag is primarily an emergency shelter. Don’t confuse them with Bivy Bags which are lightweight sleeping shelters. Bothy Bags are designed for people to sit in, not lie down under.  

Huddled in a 10-12 person bag.

They are deployed by standing up, pulling the bag over your heads, then sitting down. You use the bag as a backrest to keep it in shape. Some of the larger bags have sleeves for hiking poles to prevent the top from sagging. There is enough room to use a small stove to brew a hot drink or even cook meals — and significantly raise the temperature inside the bag. Make sure the vents are open!

Well known British climber Andy Kirkpatrick said on his blog, In my mind setting off into the hills without a bothy bag is just stupid, as the weight is so low, and the protection it offers so high, that it’s a non brainer.

When I first blogged about them in Of Bivy Bags and Bothy Bags in 2009 they were unobtainable in North America and we bought ours directly from Terra Nova in the UK. Group shelters for 2, 4 & 8 persons are now starting to become available in North America with MEC carrying Rab Superlite Shelters online, and Amazon.com the Terra Nova line of Bothy Bags.

This 4-person Rab shelter has sleeves for hiking or ski poles.

I strongly recommend that outdoor clubs, particularly seniors clubs consider acquiring one of these shelters to take with them on their outings in case someone is incapacitated and needs to wait for rescue or even to use for a lunch break on a cold, blustery day.

Footnotes:

A bothy is a Scottish term for a basic shelter in the highlands, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use without charge.

A bivy bag, sack or shelter is a lightweight single-person alternative to a tent that adds comfort and protection to a planned or unplanned night in the outdoors. Either in the form of a protective bag, a tent-like structure supported by hoops or poles or a combination of the two.

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