The Car Bivy

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Not much room for sleeping in the car last year on Mount Shasta

Eight years ago, on a trip to Mount Hood, I was introduced to the staple of dirtbag sleeping arrangements known as the car bivy. For those of you who don’t travel in climbing circles, a car bivy is merely forgoing the comfort of renting a room, or the inconvenience of pitching a tent, in favor of sleeping in the car. It may sound strange that a group of people who lug around thousands of dollars worth of high-tech equipment, while wearing clothes made of expensive, cutting-edge materials, are inherently cheap, but we are. While climbing gear is expensive, the idea of spending hard-earned money on a motel or campground is enough to make even the most profligate climber shudder.

While publications like Outside Magazine glamorize van life, and others such as Rock and Ice romanticize true dirtbag climbers living out of their cars, I am here to dispell the myth: sleeping in your car sucks! After three days of being storm-bound in a rental car in the Mount Hood parking lot, I can confidently say that living out of your car is terrible. While being trapped in the car for three days waiting for the weather to break isn’t fun, sharing that small space with one of your best friends and a pile of gear is especially challenging.

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After three rain-soaked and car-bound days, it was a joy to escape into a slightly moist tent

The same qualities that lead climbers to the car bivy in the first place are, ironically, also the qualities that ensure they will rent the worst possible car. Before heading to Mount Hood, I knew we would spend somewhere between one and three days sleeping in the car, yet I never let that stop me from renting the cheapest (read: smallest) car available. Living in a small car is tough, but making it even worse is a trunk and backseat jammed with skis, packs, jackets, food, and everything else that coincides with a ski mountaineering trip. If sleeping in the front seat of the car wasn’t difficult enough, not being able to push the seat back all the way or recline it didn’t make it any better. On a positive note, we got great gas mileage over the course of the trip, allowing a few extra dollars to be stashed away for next time.

Even when renting the cheapest rental car available, they tend to be nice. I’ve never had a rental car with more than a few thousand miles on it, and most of the rentals I’ve had would pass for new. It’s a shame how disgusting they are when returned after a few days of serving as a bedroom, living room, kitchen, mudroom, and—in desperate times, or when it’s too cold to get out of the car—a bathroom. While we took great care not to drag in too much sand and mud into the car from the parking lot, there was no avoiding the skis de-icing in the trunk, ski boots airing out in the backseat, and heaps of layers in various states of drying draped anywhere there was space. Oh, and the car doesn’t have a shower. So after a few days of ski touring, the unique smell of the car only gets more pungent. By the end of the trip, the car stunk and, despite driving around with the windows open for a few hours before returning the car, I’m afraid that smell isn’t going away.

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Feeble attempt at drying stuff out in the car mid-rainstorm

The crazy thing is that despite all the negatives of the car bivy, I still had a fantastic time. In fact, the moment I got back I began plotting my next adventure, an adventure that will most likely involve a car bivy, complete with too small of a car. In the end, the disjointed sleep, weird food, weirder bathrooms, strange smells, and all the other challenges living out of your vehicle presents merely add to the adventure. Maybe the car bivy has grown to prominence with climbers because why else would you get up at one o’clock in the morning to climb a mountain, other than you have to get the fuck out of the car?

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