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It’s been a long time since I’ve slept in a tent or my car. Not because I’m “above all that” but because most of the time I’m too broke and busy to travel. And so when I do finally scrape together some cash for a trip, I go all-in and get an Airbnb with a friend so we can take showers and have Wi-Fi. I know, totally bougie, but I put my time in. Thirty years ago I’d live in my tent or car for months on end, showering at the KOA, bolting routes at Rifle, getting covered in sweat and grime and filth, somehow passing the time on rest days before smartphones and Van Life were a thing.
Back then, we Rifle long-haulers found ways to make our living situations better. I took to sleeping in my car, so I could use the dome light to read myself to sleep and because it seemed warmer, ensconced in there (you could run the engine and turn on the heat on particularly cold nights). This worked great when I had a Toyota Tercel station wagon, and was just doable—just—in my second car, a VW Golf, if I lay diagonally in the hatchback. My friend Charley ripped out the passenger seat in his clown-nose-red Nissan hooptie and put a sheet of plywood down to have a “sleeping platform.” It was jury-rigged and sketchy—like when you rode into town in his car for groceries, sitting on the plywood, unbuckled, hoping you didn’t round a blind corner into a herd of cows. But it worked. At six feet tall, Charley was getting a good night’s sleep, and sending hard.
The Backseat Bivy
Like so many recent inventions that have improved our lives as climbers—auto-belays, app walls, lightweight cams, downturned shoes, strap-on kneepads—I wish the Backseat Bivy had been around back then. It’s a simple, little thing that makes life that much better: essentially a nylon tarp/hammock that strings over the gap between your folded-down back seat/hatchback and the back of your front seats to bridge the chasm and extend your car’s “sleeping quarters.” Sure, you could—as we used to do BITD—cram a bunch of junk in that gap to fill the space. But that almost invariably ends up being uneven and uncomfortable, making for a spotty night’s rest.
I took the Backseat Bivy out to play around in both of our cars, a Ford Expedition (soccer-dad car!) and a VW GTI four-door hatchback (midlife-crisis car!). Installation is quick and easy: You insert the tent poles in the tarp, Velcro the sleeves shut, hang the tarp around the headrests of the front seats, and clip off the back end to the closest child-seat anchors (those U-shaped hooks) to stretch the nylon out. You can then adjust the various straps’ lengths and heights to get the angle and coverage you want based on your sleeping needs.
Set-up took me maybe a minute or two per car. It’s intuitive and uncomplicated: For my money, way better than setting up a tent in the dark, though, of course, the back of you car will never be as roomy.
So was it comfortable? I’d say yes, for sure, though much of this will depend on how well the Backseat Bivy synchs up with your car. In the Expedition, with its massive, towering front seats, the angle of the tarp was steep, meaning the sleep-on-your-stomach types would have to cant their necks at an angle, risking a crick. (Longer straps, so you could drop the tarp down around the body of the seats, and off the headrests, might help here, assuming there was some way to anchor them.) But in the VW GTI, with its lower, smaller seats, I was able to drop the angle way down and it felt more comfortable. In the VW—as in the old days—I threw in an ensolite pad and sleeping bag and stretched out diagonally, face-up, and it was deluxe. Because I’m chronically exhausted, I just about fell asleep out there, in my car in front of my house, till I realized dog walkers sauntering by were looking at me quizzically, perhaps poised to call the cops on a “sketchy vagrant.” (I mean, look at me in this photo—you see it, right?)
The Backseat Bivy is plenty long, too (four feet), so for couples who like to snuggle up in the back of the car, there’s room for side-by-side pillows.
The Backseat Bivy is the brainchild of Nick Haycock, a Canadian climber who—like all of us—loves to travel and often sleeps in his car. He identified the need and spent two years with his team refining and testing the idea. At $125, the Backseat Bivy is reasonably priced, and if I were still in dirtbag mode or traveling on weekends, camping dirtbag-style, I would get one for sure. Sleep, especially when you’re trying to send, is priceless, and any edge you can give yourself goes a long way on the rock.
Matt Samet is the editor of Climbing. He has been climbing since the 1980s and living in the Boulder, Colorado, area since 1991.