I’ve had a bivy in my shelter quiver for many decades. Prior to getting the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy I had a few alpine climbing bivy sacks. They were robustly constructed, but didn’t breathe all that well. Compared to a 4 season mountaineering tent they offered a very light and compact shelter option that could be setup quickly on any human sized sort of level patch of ground. However, once out of the alpine setting they didn’t compare all that well to the current crop of ultralight 1-person tents so I rarely used them once my mountaineering days were over.
Fast forward to this year I was thinking about how to streamline my bikepacking gear setup further. I spotted this bivy sack and reviews seemed to indicate it was worth a shot so I grabbed one. Compared to my old alpine bivy sacks the Helium Bivy is very compact and light at ~476g. The lighter weight comes at the expense of a much less robust construction, but that’s just part of the trade off as you move to lighter and lighter gear. I was intrigued by reviews that said the Pertex shell materiel was super breathable and that the sleeping feel of the bivy was very roomy. A tight bivy sack can feel like a body bag. That’s fine in an emergency storm situation, but not something you’d look forward to night after night.
My first comment is that no matter what the OR product photos may suggest this is not a small 1-person tent. It’s a bivy sack. A roomy comfortable bivy sack, but a bivy sack nevertheless. The single pole does a nice job of keeping the fabric off your face, but the staking loops are limited and there is no pole at the foot end of the bivy so for the most part the fabric lays on your sleeping bag. If you are claustrophobic or want a shelter to hang out in on your trips this is not the one for you. Get a small tent.
On the other hand if you are moving fast with your priorities focused on fast setup and lightweight this product could make you happy. I say could because in my experience the performance of this shelter is highly dependent on the weather. Like any waterproof breathable fabric how well it works is a function of the moisture gradient across the barrier. If it’s dry and cool outside the bivy you won’t be generating as much moisture inside and what you do generate can cross the Pertex shell effectively. If it’s warm and wet outside the bivy and you have the hood closed it’s going to get warm and moist inside as well. So I will be scanning the weather forecast before a trip and if I am going to spend multiple nights in this bivy I want to be confident it’s not going to be warm/hot and humid. If it is I’ll bring a tent.
On the plus side the Helium Bivy does add a noticeable amount of effective warmth to your bag. So that means you can bring a lighter sleeping bag for a given set of conditions saving you a bit more weight and space. The breathe-ability is excellent once you factor in the caveats about the weather and you don’t have a bag that’s too warm. Setup is a snap. Just unroll the bivy and insert the one small pole near the head. There are 2 stake loops, but I have never used them. The shell is thin so if the ground where you camp if rough you’ll want a ground sheet. I have been just placing the bivy directly on the ground here in BC with no issues.
Once inside the bivy there is a lot of room for what it is. I’m 5’11″/190lbs and I can sleep without any restrictions to being able to roll over or assume any of the standard positions. With the Pertex hood open and just the mesh screen in place my breathe doesn’t add to the moisture load the bivy has to deal with and it feels spacious. The hoop does a nice job of keeping the fabric off my face and prevents bugs from sucking my blood as I sleep. I was able to shed clothes and store a few items inside the bivy with me, but again it’s not a tent so functionality in that area is limited. The way I used the bivy was to jump in when I was ready to sleep and jump out as soon as I woke up. It’s a fine place to sleep, but not super great to spend any time in when awake.
Another advantage I enjoyed with this shelter is the gray colour and low height makes stealth camping a breeze. I can roll my bike up to a potential camp spot and be in my bivy in a few minutes with the hoop being lower than my handle bars with the bike laid on its side. Much faster than any other shelter I own and lower profile. Ideal when I am camping places I am not really supposed to be.
At a cost of $179USD [~$240CAD] it’s a relatively low cost way to get a light shelter that provides excellent bug and reasonable weather protection. I’ll be grabbing this bivy sack for very minimal short trips where I may not even camp, but I want a shelter with me just in case I can’t complete the route moving fast in a big day. Paired with a light sleeping bag and pad I will have a sleep system that’s comfortable and that can deal with pretty much anything Mother Nature throws at me without slowing me down during the day when I am trying to cover as much ground as possible. I’ll also be grabbing this bivy for longer trips in cooler weather where it will breathe really well, provide bug protection and if the weather gets nasty I know I’m still okay.
Packed size shown in the photo above is ~12″ x 5″ and 476g, but the bivy is just loosely packed in the stuff sack. It can easily be compressed much more. Particularly if you remove the pole and pack it separately. For comparison my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 1-person tent is ~18″ x 6″ and weighs 1011g.
For bikepacking use the Outdoor Research Helium Bivy isn’t perfect, but used for the right trips it is pretty great. I’m glad I bought one.