A bivouac is a lightweight, no-frills overnight stay—sometimes planned, sometimes not. Climbers plan spartan bivouacs so they can travel fast and light and start high on the mountain. An unplanned bivouac comes as a not-so-pleasant surprise due to injury, bad weather, or getting off route.

Climbers at a planned bivouac camp make sure they have the essentials for a tolerable if not comfortable night, such as a bivy sack or cagoule, perhaps a tarp, some special food, and plenty of clothing.

Climbers at an emergency bivouac also carry everything necessary for survival—all the Ten Essentials and usually a good bit more. You can prepare for your own eventual unplanned bivouac by carrying an emergency shelter in your day pack, in the form of a very light bivy bag or plastic tube tent or even a couple of very large plastic trash bags. Another alternative for shelter from wind and rain is your pack. When it's time to settle down for a bivouac night, put your feet inside the empty pack, and pull the pack's load extension collar (the "bivouac sleeve") up over your legs and hips. Wear a waterproof parka or poncho to take care of the rest of your body.

A low-altitude bivouac might be a fairly comfortable affair, where you can get by comfortably by donning some extra clothing and sitting on a small insulating pad in front of a fire while you enjoy a hot drink. Most bivouacs aren't so pleasant. For a climbing bivouac, you may have to anchor yourselves and your gear to the mountain for safety during the night. Always conserve body heat by taking off wet boots, putting on dry socks and other dry clothes, keeping snow off your clothes, loosening belts and other items that can impede circulation, and putting on all the warm clothing you need or have. Huddle together with your bivouac-mates for as much warmth as possible.

How much clothing and gear should you carry to ensure that you survive a bivouac? The answer depends on a lot of other factors, including your experience, physical condition, and mental attitude. A mountaineer in top shape, who climbs 150,000 feet a year and has a positive outlook, might handle several planned bivouacs and perhaps a couple of emergency overnighters each year with no difficulty. Experience has shown this climber what we all can eventually figure out: how to distinguish that fine line between carrying too much and carrying too little.

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