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What is a bothy bag? How to use a group emergency shelter

A green bothy bag in a field with people inside it
What is a bothy bag? We explain the benefits of this lightweight, portable group emergency shelter that is vital for cold weather expeditions (Image credit: Oli Scarff / Staff)

We recently sat down with mountain rescue in the Scottish Highlands to find out what safety gear every hiker needs to carry, and without hesitation we were told to bring a bothy bag on our mountain expeditions. But what is a bothy bag exactly? In this article we explain what a bothy bag is, how to use one and what to look for when choosing one. 

What is a bothy bag? 

Orange bothy bag from Rab

This bothy bag by Rab is a group emergency shelter that you can carry in your backpack on hikes and other mountain expeditions to provide protection against the elements  (Image credit: Rab)

If you do lots of hiking in areas where the weather can be extreme – let’s say high altitude areas like 14ers the Rockies in winter, or the Scottish Highlands in pretty much any season – you’ll be familiar with the need for carrying your own safety equipment. Foil blankets, headlamps and bivy sacks are all important gear for protecting yourself against the elements, and a bothy bag is another vital piece of safety equipment worth adding to your kit.

A bothy bag is a group emergency shelter that you can carry in your backpack on hikes and other mountain expeditions to provide protection against the elements. Bothy bags are named after the Scottish bothy – a network of remote shelters scattered across the Highlands – and are basic, lightweight, portable structures that you and your group can huddle inside for warmth.

Bothy bags are made of material like nylon and polyester and are windproof and waterproof. They have no poles and come compressed into stuff sacks a lot like your sleeping bag, and can be pulled out and quickly erected into a rectangular shelter with waterproof seats that several people can hide inside to fend off wind and rain. 

How do you use bothy bags? 

Hikers in the rain in Scotland look at the views down the glen

(Image credit: Getty images)

Imagine you’re out with a group of friends on a long hike on a cold, rainy and windy day. At the summit, you sit down for lunch and after 20 minutes, you’ve all cooled off and teeth are starting to chatter. Time to get down.

In your haste to get off the mountain and warm up, one member of your group takes an awkward step and twists their ankle on an exposed ridge. Unable to walk down, you contact mountain rescue. They’re happy to come and get you, but given your remote location it’s going to take them several hours to reach you.

The rain is turning to sleet as the temperatures are dropping, you’re all shivering and you need shelter, fast. So, you pull the bothy bag out of your backpack and over the entire group, everyone squeezes together and within minutes your shared body heat has everyone warming up nicely. And voila – you’re safe and sharing a flask of tea and good conversation until help arrives.

A helicopter searching for hikers inside a bothy bag on a mountain at night

Everyone squeezes together and within minutes your shared body heat has everyone warming up nicely while waiting for rescue to arrive (Image credit: CHRISTOPH BURGSTEDT/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)

Even better, you don’t need to wait for a medical emergency to get some use out of your bothy bag. Mike Pescod of Abacus Mountain Guides who provides skills training and mountain guiding in Scotland and the Alps strongly encourages hikers to carry an emergency group shelter and use it any time they stop for more than a few minutes in harsh conditions.

“An emergency shelter totally changes your experience if something goes wrong, but they're quite nice to have your lunch in as well. Or if somebody’s laces have come undone and they need to spend ten minutes sorting that out? Get inside your shelter if it’s raining and it’s good. You might not want to get out again.”

Can you sleep in a bothy bag? 

A man sleeping in a bivy sack with snowy mountains in the background

A bothy bag is not intended to be a replacement for a sleep shelter like a bivy sack (Image credit: Galen Rowell)

A bothy bag is intended to be an emergency shelter so while you might find yourself nodding off inside one if you’re there all night, it’s not really intended to be a replacement for a sleep shelter like a tent or a bivy sack If you have a group of people inside a bothy bag, condensation will slowly build up on the inside walls which won’t make it as comfortable. Basically, use it in an emergency but not as a replacement for your tent. 

What size are bothy bags? 

A packed bothy bag from Terra Nova

A bothy bag takes up very little space but offers big returns if disaster strikes (Image credit: Terra Nova)

Bothy bags come in different sizes depending on the size of your party. A smaller bothy bag meant for 2-3 people can pack down to about 8x3 inches (20x8cm) and might weigh not much more than half a pound. Larger 8-10 person bothy bags are only about 9x6 inches (23x16cm) when packed away and still usually weigh under 2lbs. So basically, a bothy bag takes up only a small amount of space but offers big returns if disaster strikes. 

What to look for in a bothy bag 

First off, Pescod suggests renting a bothy bag instead of buying one if you don’t do a lot of hiking and only want it for the occasional bigger expedition. If you’re making a purchase, the good news is that they aren’t terribly expensive, however make sure that yours checks off all of these requirements: 

  • Waterproof 
  • Windproof 
  • Ventilation 
  • Lightweight 
  • Small pack size 
  • Waterproof seats 
  • Bright color for visibility
  • Draw cord to secure it around the base 

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.