Why Hammock Camping?
For most people, the first image that comes to mind on the subject of camping is a tent. Yet recently the advent of the portable hammock has begun to change everything. Simple parachute hammocks that pack down to the size of a grapefruit have created an entirely new niche to the outdoor industry. Camping in a hammock has a great many advantages, mostly comfort and a great nights sleep.
In fact once you escape the cold, hard, wet ground for the pleasure of floating in the air… it’s hard to go back. However hammock camping it has its fair share of disadvantages too. Read on to find out.
Advantages of Camping in a Hammock
Weight savings, pack size, quick deployment, and comfort are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hammock camping. But to start, let’s elaborate on these main points. Hammocks have been slept in for thousands of years. Ancient Mayans used them almost exclusively for a good night’s rest, and for good reason. Zero pressure points are applied to your body when laying in a hammock which decreases tension and soreness. Their gentle sway and comfortable embrace is subconsciously reminiscent of the womb or cradle; and many find themselves being lulled to sleep after a few short minutes.
While many believe hammocks may cause back problems, the opposite is in fact true. The slight “banana” shape and zero pressure lay of a hammock encourage tense back muscles to relax along with the rest of your body. For this reason typical soreness resulting from a traditional nights sleep simply evaporates after resting in a hammock.
On the trail, one is no longer victim to sharp rocks and wet or uneven terrain. Instead of searching for a clear spot on the cold hard ground, hammock campers are free to rest wherever there are trees. This solves many problems while traveling through rough or steep terrain, and it’s damn hard to find a spot without trees in most campgrounds.
Sleeping enclosed in a tent does have its benefits. But trapped condensation and lack of air flow can cause problems almost every night. Hot, humid, and stuffy tents can easily become unbearable; especially when moisture in the air suddenly becomes a puddle at your feet. In a hammock however, moisture is free to evaporate while a gentle breeze constantly provides positive airflow. Having the option to gaze up at the stars or protect yourself with a tarp without sacrificing ventilation leaves you free to experience pristine conditions in almost any situation.
Speaking of protecting yourself with a tarp, it’s often drier than sleeping in a tent when done correctly. The aforementioned ventilation qualities prevent moisture from pooling around your body while protecting yourself just as much from the rain. It’s the modularity of hammock camping that’s truly powerful. There are an endless number of accessories you can combine to prepare yourself for almost any environment. This allows you to configure your kit both beforehand and on-the-go to adjust for whatever conditions present themselves.
Because hammocks are so lightweight in comparison to tents and accessories can be swapped like layers of clothing, a hammock setup is often smaller and lighter than other options. Sometimes cheaper too. Plus, set-up and tear-down can be accomplished in just a minute or two once practiced. There are no poles or stakes to fumble around with. While hammock set-up methods may vary, I encourage you to check out the post on Quick Deployment Tarp Systems for your kit. Configuring a system like this can save huge chunks of time and effort in the backcountry.
One area the simple tent shines is privacy. In a tent, one can feel free to change clothes, enjoy the company of their significant other, or simply relax in privacy. However many tarps offer the ability to set up in multiple configurations. Extra tie-outs, even zippers on some tarps can completely transform your set-up in to a full on hammock tent. This combines the privacy and security of a tent with the comfort and versatility of a hammock. The best of both worlds some might say. Yet, setting up a hammock tent can be more difficult and time consuming than other options.
Furthermore, because you’re comfortably floating above the ground; leave-no-trace camping is easier to practice. There’s no need to clear the ground or crush vegetation on the forest floor. It also allows you to stand within your shelter instead of awkwardly crawling on the ground. The ability to comfortably sit, stand, and sleep is a benefit hard to understand until you’ve experienced it.
Disadvantages of Hammock Camping
While it is hard to find the drawbacks of camping in a hammock, they do exist. In fact, many of its advantages can also be disadvantages especially when poor planning or technique comes in to play. It’s best to study the many complexities of using a hammock and practice in convenient conditions before ever hitting the trail. Your backyard or local park are excellent places to do this. Even if you’re set on backpacking with a hammock, always practice and become familiar with your kit first. It’s far easier to deal with disaster in your neighborhood than in the middle of the wilderness.
Weight & Cost
Because certain conditions often necessitate additional pieces of kit, the weight and cost of hammock camping can quickly add up. While inclement conditions can easily be dealt with using one piece of kit: a tent… camping in a hammock requires many. Although efficient systems can solve this issue; tarps, cordage, insulation, and other accessories start to diminish the minimalistic appeal of a hammock. Especially when ounces and dollars start to accumulate. However, the cost of these additions is usually only a few ounces. A fair trade off for the many benefits a hammock can provide.
Many a hammock camper is all too familiar with the infamous “cold-butt syndrome”. While sleeping in a hammock saves you from the cold wet ground, it leaves you exposed to heat loss through convection. Cold air can quickly pull much needed heat away from your body without the proper precautions. To make matters worse, traditional sleeping bags suffer from compression under your body weight in a hammock. Sacrificing insulation just where you need it most. To combat this, one must simply adapt their kit to solve for compression.
Underquilts & Cocoons
An underquilt is basically a sleeping bag for the underside of your hammock. Because it lies on the outside of the hammock itself, it isn’t compressed by the weight of your body. It therefore retains its insulation value and keeps you warm and cozy all night long. Underquilts can be more complicated to set up and use however, and also create the need for some form of insulation above your body.
A simple blanket or top quilt can be used, but some prefer a more all-encompassing solution. While an underquilt protects you from below, a hammock cocoon completely surrounds your body like a sleeping bag. Yet again without suffering from the drawbacks of compression. Cocoons are heavier, but do offer savings in weight and complexity over an under/top quilt combination by eliminating redundant material.
Mats & Pads
Sleeping mats and pads can be an easy affordable solution to the same problem. However they’re usually not as effective, less comfortable, and prone to shifting out from under your body during the night. Nevertheless, many hammock campers use them anyway. Because you can find them almost anywhere including your local Wal-Mart, they can be hard to look past. Unfortunately both foam and inflatable sleeping pads can detract from the soft, silky, supportive feel of laying in a hammock.
Gnats and insects are generally a non-issue in tents. However hammocks leave their occupants exposed to the biting hordes of seasonal pests on the trail. While chemical treatments can either cut down or eliminate this problem completely, a bug net is the only fool proof solution. This additional piece of kit while not overly heavy can complicate your kit.
When it comes to relaxing with friends or lounging with a significant other, hammocks are great. Unfortunately if you plan on sleeping with a partner you might be disappointed to find out that it just won’t work in a hammock. Physically it can be done, but it certainly won’t be comfortable. The form simply doesn’t lend itself well to sleeping two, no matter how comfortable you are with your partner.
Hammock Camping Tips
To be honest, hammock camping has a more difficult learning curve than other methods. The following tips and tricks might help out beginners and experienced users alike.
While some might prefer it, many new practitioners make the mistake of pitching their hammock too tight. A healthy amount of sag is necessary for achieving an optimal lay, and ultimately a good nights rest. Hanging with a little slack helps add stability and comfort to your setup. It also enables the correct conditions for achieving a truly flat bed. Laying diagonally in a hammock helps spread out the material to eliminate the usual banana shape. Setting yourself up about 10-20 degrees off center will ensure you lie almost completely flat. Although many have found a little bit of sag to be more comfortable once you’re used to it.
In order to achieve this, you should seek to rig your suspension straps approximately 30 degrees above the horizontal. To better visualize this, try extending your thumb and forefinger to line up and create a triangle with your strap. This creates a rough 60-30-90 triangle and helps to perfectly line up your straps. Level your triangle and adjust strap height accordingly.
Setting up your tarp or rainfly properly can keep you drier than a tent, but also susceptible in a few areas if you’re not careful. Especially heavy downpours can completely saturate your suspension straps and allow water to run down them and into your hammock. Attaching a small piece of cordage where your strap and hammock connect and allowing it to dangle below your hammock encourages moisture to travel through the drip line instead of your hammock.
Ridge lines not only provide the central support for your rainfly, but also attachment points for gear and accessories. Lights, bug nets, pockets, pouches, and more can be hung from your ridgeline. But also, sufficiently strong cordage can allow you to hang gear underneath your tarp… off the ground and away from the rain. I also like to suspend a small flashlight from mine for reading and other tasks.