SOL (“Survive Outside Longer”) has a pretty clear mission – provide modest-cost items to improve safety in the backcountry for recreational and light-and-fast users; emergency blankets and bivvy bags, along with first aid kits, are their bread-and-butter. They don’t provide the bomb-proof bivvy bags alpinists would want, but that isn’t their target segment.
Their blankets range from $7 heavy duty “space blankets” (a little more robust than the $2-5 versions, but still very light and packable), to small light-weight tarps tipping the scales at $25. Although these products are good, they aren’t substantially different form other offerings – the one detail being their characteristic orange on one side, which makes them much more visible to searchers than the pure silver of a space blanket or the drab colours of tarps… don’t underestimate visibility!
However, their bivvy bags are much more interesting. At the low end, the $17 “Emergency Bivvy” is a space blanket which has been folded over and taped shut into a bag, while the high-end “Escape Pro” is a $125 waterproof-breathable seeking to move into the “proper” bivvy market, promising that you can even leave the sleeping bag at home on mild nights.
The review looks at the two lightest bags, the “Emergency” and the “Emergency XL”.
The XL bag is very much the same as the Emergency, being a space blanket folded over and taped, but is just a little bigger: $23 vs $17, 152cm vs 91cm wide (both are 213cm long), 178g v 108g, and can officially sleep two.
These are designed as few-use shelters, with light weight being more important than durability. That said, I slept in my Emergency Bivvy three times on a forest floor during the course of one race, and it was very functional, with limited signs of wear and tear. No punctures, and the main damage was the reflective inner lining having worn through where my feet are (I tend to be a restless sleeper); this did not affect the most important attributes of the bag: waterproof and windproof.
The improved comfort was considerable, from keeping me dried than the ground, but mostly keeping an insulating layer of still air near my body. The length means that most people can pull the bag all the way over their head. The bag design makes for much better closure and comfort than using a space blanket.
Note that the insulation from this bag is solely associated with reflecting body heat and trapping air near the body. While these add considerable warmth to the situation, you should remember that it will do nothing for cold, hard ground – except keeping you dry (and don’t underestimate this!)
Note that it is waterproof, NOT breathable – you will build up moisture, and so give thought to ventilation unless it is quite cold. Also, after the outing, take care to dry it out before packing it away.
Packing the bivvy back into its carry bag can be a challenge. You need a flat area to fold the bag into sixths (fold it into thirds then double the resulting package in two before rolling from the closed end. If you do this with care, it will fit easily into the storage bag.
As mentioned above, the outside of the bag is orange, improving visibility.
This bag will become a regular item on my 100mile+ and challenging terrain packing lists, likely in addition to a conventional space blanket.
Some notes on the higher-end bags. While great products, they begin to stray from the needs of most trail-runners, and would be of more use to light-and-fast mountaineers and fast packers.
– The Thermal Bivvy ($30, 250g) is made from a Tyvek-like material which is substantially more durable and adds some conductive insulation. While the fabric itself is still non-breathable, side vents offer a limited amount of venting to reduce condensation
– The Escape ($60, 240g) introduces breathable material, a draw-string and a side-zip. This is starting to intrude on conventional bivvy-bag terrain.
– The Escape Pro ($120, 220g) takes the shape structuring and breathability even further.
The Emergency Bivvy is a great emergency or occasional use product at a price where all ultra-distance runners should consider owning one, and carrying one on most longer runs.