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For many looking to thru-hike the natural choice for shelter will be a traditional tent, this is due in large part to comfort and knowledge of the system beforehand. This is where I was as recently as six months ago, I have been working and adjusting to a hammock system so I felt today was a good day to tackle for everyone, what is hammock camping?
Hammock camping is choosing to utilize a hammock as your shelter as opposed to other methods like a tent. This does come with some additional gear needs and adjustments versus a ground-level sleep system, but for many yields far better sleep quality while helping you deal with uneven ground or finding a level spot.
If you’re looking for a near-perfect way to enjoy a wooded area thru-hike, look no further than switching over to a hammock-based sleep system! Overall, sleeping in the air in a suspended hammock offers several advantages over choosing to sleep in a tent on the ground.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss the appeal of hammock camping and the benefits of using a hammock instead of a tent. Then we will discuss finding a suitable spot and how to set up your own hammock campsite, some tips, and common fails of new hammock users to get started on the right path.
Why Consider Using a Hammock?
For starters, there are many advantages to being off the ground and suspended in the air as opposed to sleeping on the ground in a tent. Here are some things to consider before switching to a hammock-based sleep system on your next thru-hike:
Who Should Choose a Hammock?
This is a fairly simple yet complex answer, anyone should be able to choose a hammock for a thru-hike. Though this comes with some caveats, if you are hammock-curious or have specific needs that may not be able to be met by a ground system, don’t hesitate to give it a go!
Hammocks also offer some distinct advantages for those with injuries or medical conditions that prevent them from sleeping on the ground. Hammocks can provide both support and comfort in a way that sleeping on the ground simply cannot match.
The issues with a hammock are more about the allowance to use them as they are forbidden on some trails and some areas possibly on a specific trail, this can lead to having to plan sleeping without the hammock at times which can cause issues.
The last issue is in when you are hiking is related to the time of season itself.
What Does the Area Allow?
This is twofold, some trails restrict the use of a hammock on the trees and some areas have no trees at all, like the desert on the Pacific Crest Trail, or when above the treeline if climbing high peaks.
If you are looking to hike a trail or section of a trail, that does not allow hammock use or can’t support it, you will need to properly have a plan beforehand. Sometimes this means no underquilt and bringing an inflatable sleeping pad instead which could serve you on both surfaces, etc.
When Are You Hiking?
The season can mean a vast difference in gear and temperatures, what worked in the spring might not work so great in the middle of winter or vice versa.
This can limit what you are able to bring and what you need to account for when planning your hike around a hammock.
I have only experienced spring and summer hammocking, I would heavily suggest reading and adapting gear heavily for winter conditions due to the health implications cold can cause when underprepared!
So, Given the Above Are You a Fit for Thru-Hiking With a Hammock?
I believe all hikers can be hammock users but it does take some mentality shifting as a hammock, in general, for a thru-hiker takes more time than a trekking pole tent as many of us can have a full tent set up done in under 5 minutes.
This doesn’t mean you can’t get fast and efficient with a hammock but many will be starting from scratch, learning knots, set up, and it is just a transitionary time period but it can be very rewarding for a much better quality of sleep!
If you are considering it then you need to understand the gear required for the commitment, there is a wide array of additional gear and tweaks to match but I will focus on the core to get a full setup to start!
Minimum Gear Needed to Hammock Camp
Unlike a tent, which frequently comes with everything needed to set up the tent and be covered a hammock frequently will contain just the hammock itself and a variety of other gear can be added on as needed for conditions, or you can look at complete kits like this excellent starter economy version from Hammock Gear.
If you would rather pick out parts individually and build your own kit then the main parts are below to help you understand the part itself, what it does, and what I use for my hammock kit using lightweight options from Hummingbird Hammocks.
Hammocks come in many lengths and widths, some of which are more suited or less suited for a thru-hike. For most thru-hikers, you will want to get an 11′ hammock as this is the best length to give you a good flat lay while being comfortable for the hundreds of nights you will spend in it.
Additionally, there are single person hammocks and double hammocks, double in this case meaning much wider to accomodate two people at the same time so if lookoing to hike as a couple this may be worth exploring.
There are shorter hammocks but the shorter they are the more difficult it will be to get a diagonal lay which is what allows a sleeper to be flat and not in an arched banana shape that can lead to body aches and backaches.
There is a wide variety of materials used with one of the most ultralightweight being Cloud 71, which is made from 20 denier nylon monofilament and almost looks like a bug netting being strong but VERY see-through.
My Hammock: Hummingbird Hammocks Long Hammock @ 232 grams
This is the method of attaching the hammock to the tree and comes in many forms from whoopie slings, Dyneema cord, to webbing straps, and more. Suspension straps and adjustable suspension systems can look intimidating at first but you’ll learn to use them with ease.
There is a huge variety in suspension systems overall and some are more simple than others, though weight in these suspension systems doesn’t always equal more difficulty or that they hold more weight.
My Suspension: Hummingbird Hammocks Tree Straps @ 44 grams
Additional Suspension*: Hummingbird Hammocks Tree Strap Extensions @ 21 grams
* I carry hammock straps and extensions in case the space is greater than the initial straps can provide me for 21 grams it is more peace of mind as I haven’t needed to use them yet.
A hammock tarp is what keeps you clear from the elements, as you are typically very exposed with a hammock to the elements a tarp ensures you have coverage from rain, wind, snow, or similar conditions.
There are two main types of hammock tarps, the kind that is built with doors, and the type that is open without doors on either end. If you are hiking in locations with heavy rain then doors can help cut down on drafts and rain from the head and foot end of the hammock.
As to materials, tarps are typically made from SilNylon, SilPoly, and DCF. As you may expect DCF is the most expensive but also nearly water repellent in full whereas SilNylon tends to stretch and sag as it absorbs moisture.
My Rain Tarp (SilPoly): Hummingbird Hammocks Pelican @ 363 grams
This can sometimes be integrated, or built-in bug net, or as in my hammock setup being a full-on enclosure you add on after the fact to give 360-degree cover from biting insects like mosquitos.
If you are on hikes in times where bugs are non-existent or not a bother you can decide not to set this up and save some time and effort but for many of us once summer kicks in it can become unbearable to not have protection!
My Bug Net: Hummingbird Hammocks Martin Bug Net @ 166 grams
For hammocking, you will want to look at investing in an underquilt as your lower half will otherwise be exposed to the airflow which is an example of how you lose precious body heat.
If you are transitioning from a tent you can make use of an existing sleeping pad in the interim or if you know you will be hiking in areas without trees where you may choose to cowboy camp.
An underquilt is what provides insulation to the bottom of the hammock and is suspended using the same suspension system as the actual hammock which helps it stay in place much better than a sleeping pad will, especially when you sleep at an angle.
My Underquilt: Hammock Gear 20 Degree Premium Phoenix @ 14.9 oz
What has become a staple for many thru-hikers works here just as well as on the ground, a top quilt for a hammock though can be narrower and cut down on some additional weight versus the same quilt for use on the ground.
Similar to an underquilt, a top quilt provides extra insulation above you to help keep the loss of heat from the airflow over the top of your body. I am still currently using the same quilt I use when I tent camp.
My Top Quilt: Outdoor Vitals 15 Degree Stormloft @ 26 oz
Additional Gear Options
From this point, anything you need is extra and not needed which is when you can begin to customize your gear to what you feel you may need.
For me, I bring a small pillow, typically an inflatable one as they pack down small but there are other great options like the Hammock Gear pillow which is filled with goose down.
There is a range though to things like ridgeline organizers to hold things, a gear sling to hold your backpack, phone ridgeline holders to allow you to lay back and just enjoy your phone without holding it manually.
It’s really just unlimited options from here, let me know if there is something you always add or are wanting to add to your hammock setup as I am not a legendary hammocker but enjoying it and sharing my belief.
Hammock Camping: Pros and Cons
As to choosing to camp with a hammock, there is some good information to know ahead of time as to benefits and drawbacks. Covering these may give you more pause to think or help you make the decision to jump in with both feet!
The Benefits of Hammock Camping
As to reasons to choose to use a hammock while out on the trail for a long trek there are some key reasons why they should be your choice in gear for a good, enjoyable thru-hike.
While getting a lightweight set of gear for hiking it is very possible to assemble a pretty lightweight overall set of gear for a hammock set up for far less than a tent set of gear would cost you.
The true benefit of a hammock though is later it is easier to adapt and buy a part to go lighter whereas with a tent you would need to look at buying an entirely new tent to drop any weight or size.
Easy to Set-Up
While a tent can be easy to set up as you gain practice with a hammock you will find them very simple to set up also, most of the initial pain is learning a new skill that many didn’t have before.
In truth, most hammock setup is understanding two straps and connecting them to the hammock in between, this is what will take the longest to get used to but the payoff is worth it.
Versatile for Any Terrain
With a hammock you never have to worry about the terrain as long as there are sturdy trees around, you can find a way to make it work.
This opens you up to a wide variety of camp choices, from near waterfalls, on mountainsides, in trees, and nearly any other place you would want to set up for the night.
You can also choose what kind of trees you use to make sure they provide what you are looking for in a campsite, from full sun exposure to complete shade and everything in between.
One of the best reasons, in my opinion, is to use a camping hammock on a longer hike is the pure comfort that happens once you master laying in it. After all, what’s the point if you aren’t enjoying yourself?
A hammock allows you to sleep at an angle that takes all the pressure off your back that sleeping on the ground can cause. This is one of those reasons, as it was for me, that made the decision to switch an easy one.
Keeps You Dry
A hammock is totally off the ground, so when set up you don’t need to worry about getting wet from a poor camp spot choice where you are going to wake up in a mini lake floating on water and in danger from serious problems.
A hammock will also protect you from much of the dew that can settle low to the ground, especially when it is more humid out, which can help keep you more comfortable and dry through the night.
Keeps You Cool
A hammock is going to be off the ground and in most cases, a little higher up as well. This means that you are less likely to be affected by the permeated cold temperature of the ground which can lead to more comfortable sleeping.
Being up off the ground also means that there is more airflow around you which can help keep you cooler in the hotter months which can make up nearly half of a long-distance thru-hike on trails like the Appalachian Trail.
Allows You to View the Stars
On a long hike, what better way to fall asleep than by looking up at the stars? In a tent, this is more difficult as you are typically on the ground and looking up at the tent walls.
In a hammock, it’s easy to just look up and be in awe of what nature has provided for us to see, if you know the weather is going to be nice you can easily choose not to hang the rain fly and instead leave yourself the most amazing view of the stars that is nearly unmatched!
The Drawbacks of Hammock Camping
There are some drawbacks to be aware of when deciding what is best for you but in all honesty, I have found these more to be limited-scope problems and not trip-ending related issues while on the trail.
There is only so much that can be stored in the hammock with you and this can limit what you can bring on a hike, especially one that is longer in duration where you carry everything you need you must know the few things you will keep in with you.
As to gear, the hammock doesn’t have the area to store your gear as a tent does so you will need to get creative in how you manage what you bring and what gets left outside and away from you overnight.
This can be managed by adding a Polycro or Dyneema groundsheet below your hammock, like this inexpensive and ultralightweight Dyneema one from Hammock Gear. Or you can look at a hammock underbelly sling that runs under your hammock that holds your pack and gear off the ground.
Requires the Right Spot
While you don’t need to worry about the ground placement you do need to focus on the right size trees at the correct spacing to accommodate your hammock and provide you with a comfortable night’s sleep.
In addition, your spot needs to be amongst trees so learning how to spot a dead tree beforehand, or also widowmakers, is important to safety as a dead tree can break with you in it dropping a tree on you and a widowmaker can fall like a dead branch from the tree crushing you.
In some cases, you may find yourself without the perfect trees and have to get a little more resourceful in order to make it work for the night. This could mean using your hiking poles to help support your hammock or even tying it off to rocks if you are on a rocky outcropping.
May Cause Sleep Issues (Especially Stomach Sleepers)
Stomach sleepers beware, a hammock may not be the best choice for you as it can cause discomfort and even pain in your hips and shoulders. If this is you, try to adapt to your side or back for an adjustment.
There are also some people that find it difficult to get to sleep in a hammock as it can cause a little bit of anxiety due to the fact that you aren’t on firm ground but instead you are higher in the air.
This is something that takes a little getting used to for some but if you have trouble, the feelings can be managed for many this alone may be a huge detractor.
Most tents have solid walls and some level of privacy but with a hammock, you are elevated and even with a tarp you will be more exposed to others that may be around you.
This is something to consider if you are in a crowded area or one where you want to avoid people but if you don’t mind being out in the open then it won’t be an issue for you.
Can Be Cold
If you don’t get a tarp with doors or place your hammock poorly you can experience what is called the frozen butt syndrome(1) where your backside gets cold from the air passing across your rear all night.
This can be remedied by using an underquilt or sleeping pad in your hammock if real cold or when warmer you can choose to wear extra clothing to keep yourself warm but it’s something to consider if you are out in cooler weather.
There are a few things you will want to consider before making your purchase, a few of the ones I was focused on are listed below.
As near any thru-hiker will understand the weight of the hammock is very important and this is something that may be more complex to count since they have multiple parts, I use lighterpack to track all this in one place and see weights in context together.
Once you get to add and compare gear together you can pull the trigger on what will meet your needs for overall weight, for myself I wanted under two pounds for the hammock and gear itself.
While you may think width is more to do with having two people this is more to do with a lay-flat lie, the more off-angle you can lay the flatter you will be able to ie flat.
This means the wider the hammock is the more angled you can be and still be flat, for me this was a key consideration as I wanted to use it as my primary sleep system on the trail.
The systems will all offer a maximum weight they can carry without a chance of failure and this is something you will want to know as think about but over the course of a thru-hike I know of no one who gained significant weight.
But if you are wanting to grab an underbelly sling to hold your backpack then this weight also is what is included, so you do need to understand the gear you will want in the hammock with you since this all would go towards the maximum weight.
There are a wide variety of materials used to make your main hammock and even more that are used to make a hammock rain fly. You want the best quality material that can hold up over time and this won’t always be the most lightweight fabric.
You need a fabric that is both lightweight and durable as you will be using it consistently for 6+ months and you want to make sure you don’t have to replace your hammock parts on the trail for costs and time loss.
There is a wide range of suspension options available for hammock users, personally, I chose the simplest ones I could as at the end of a long day I don’t want to need to think about the setup.
There are a variety of straps, cinch buckles, and carabiners to make the setup process easy and something you want to consider when looking at what hammock you want to purchase.
Additionally for a thru-hiker, you also want to think about being out in cold weather where your fingers will work less effectively or maybe in gloves so you need something simple and easy to grasp and set up.
Hammock Camping Tips
Some tips to help you have a better and more enjoyable hammock trip is to think about some very core setup and preparation concerns that I listed below.
Location, Location, Location
When picking a spot for hammock camping you want to make sure there is a healthy distance between you and the nearest trees as you don’t what to risk being in a spot where your hammock could get caught on a branch in the night.
Ideally, you find two tall trees in relative proximity at least 12′ or more apart so that you can set up your hammock easily and quickly, over time you will learn to be able to tell this on-site, initially you may want to look at pacing out manually.
Then you want to start checking above you and you are looking for limbs that don’t have foliage like the others around them, these dead branches may be connected to the tree or not but they are called “widowmakers” as they drop randomly and at unexpected times and you NEVER want to be in the vicinity.
Another important step is you need to spend some time checking the trees to make sure they are rock solid and sturdy as you don’t need one to crack and break and possibly fall on you in the middle of the night.
For most thru-hikers, the ability to anticipate the weather will be key to what you want to set up, so if you expect good weather with no rain you may still want to set up the rain fly but leave it not staked out so you can have a view of the night sky without the worry to have a full set up if rain should start falling.
Or if you know the rain will be coming in from a specific direction you can ensure that you set up your hammock and rain fly at the right angle to counter the rain from being able to get in and onto you from the sides attached to trees but this takes a little more time in spot location finding.
Optimal Sleep Angle
This is the magic 30-degree angle you want to have your suspension system line running at as it provides the best comfort and support for your body, it is what allows you to sleep in a hammock without feeling like you are in a banana shape.
If your suspension system isn’t at this angle then you will start to feel the hammock pull on different parts of your body which can cause some discomfort, so always make sure this is set up correctly before getting in for the night.
This is a harder thing for many to gauge when they first get a hammock but you can use rough math using just your hand, with your pointer finger out and your thumb up you should have both come into contact with the suspension at the same time to be roughly 30 degrees in angle.
Just as with a tent or other shelter you need to think about how you will be storing your food while in a hammock, keeping food with you is a dangerous game and puts you and others in harm’s way.
Make sure you are taking time to hang a bear bag properly and at the distance, you are camping from the nearest water and shelter area according to Leave No Trace principles(2).
Not like a spare hammock but if you have suspension with a simple bracket that could break or be lost, bring a spare one for your system to limit issues.
It can be frustrating to not have the ability to suspend your hammock when you are out on the trail due to cutting grams.
Frequent Hammock Camping Mistakes
There are some frequent mistakes that people make when hammock camping and not setting things up correctly is one of them, as well as not being aware of what to look for on a campsite.
Not Checking for Widowmakers
Regardless of the shelter, you choose you ALWAYS need to check what’s above you before setting up any campsite, these branches can weigh hundreds of pounds and be a life ender.
Don’t skip this important part of camp preparation.
Poor Tarp Setup
The tarp is what will keep you from getting wet and from harm during inclement weather and if it isn’t set up correctly you will be very unhappy.
You want to make sure it can be fully extended and cover your hammock by at least a foot on both sides, this is negated a bit by adding a tarp that features doors to close up to ends from rain.
Not Considering Weather Conditions
Many times a new owner will just look to find the tree distance alone which means they are oriented poorly to rain, wind, and other bad weather conditions.
Final Thoughts on Hammock Use on Thru-Hikes
Hammock camping can be a great way to enjoy the outdoors and what better time than taking on a thru-hike? Before you set off, make sure you do your research in order to avoid common mistakes.
Remember that it is always best practice for food management as well as what kind of weather conditions are expected, but never forget that the best part of the trip is to enjoy nature and meeting new people and gaining new experiences!
If you want more information about hammock camping or want help setting up your system correctly before embarking on a hike, feel free to comment, and while I am not a pro I am hoping to become one as I find it a nice change from tents!