Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a dream for many people. The trail itself spans nearly 2,200 miles, and it takes, on average, six months to complete the trek.
However, for some people, this isn’t an option because they can’t bear to sleep on the ground for so long! One solution is to bring along an ultralight hammock setup which allows you to have comfort still while sleeping outside.
Hammocks have become a solid performer on the AT thru-hikes over time as they have become more comfortable and lightweight. For many older hikers, they provide much more comfort for resting than being on the ground allowing a more restful night of sleep while hiking for months.
As technology has improved, this has allowed backpacking hammocks to have lie-flat systems instead of the “banana curve” of old-fashioned hammocks.
This makes it much easier to lie flat on your back with no pressure points digging into you while still being able to rock side-to-side for comfort if the need arises.
The Parts Of a Hammock System
One of the things that makes a new hiker anxious is hammock camping, this is due to the thought of having to get an understanding of how everything works.
While there is a lot of equipment, this is not a hard task overall, and there are some simple instructions that will help you with figuring it out.
Several things make up a hammock, including two trees or posts, one end that attaches to each side using the suspension system, and a ridgeline.
If the weather is questionable, you have a tarp to add inclement weather protection, and you might want to use the bug netting depending on what type of bugs are in your area.
You can also bring along a sleeping pad, but it is not required as most people who sleep in hammocks have an under quilt which goes around them attached by clips instead to provide better bottom warmth.
The hammock itself comes in more variety than you may expect. There are lay-flat, symmetrical, asymmetrical, zippered and non-zippered, and color options.
You have a couple of different fabric choices to choose from on the hammock including nylon ripstop which is lightweight but durable, or you can get a breathable mesh one for those hot summer months.
Each company will have its version of the suspension system and ridgeline, so you will need to look at what they offer. I use an ultralight Hummingbird Hammock Long Hammock setup with whoopie slings and 1″ tree straps paired with a Dutchware Gear DCF Tarp that I just picked up.
A hammock requires a suspension setup, and it needs to be able to support your weight or you can end up on the ground underneath.
This is where the long straps come into place, they are called tree huggers because of how tight they need to fit against a tree trunk.
You will use these for either fixed-length loops using carabiners connecting each hammock end or find adjustable straps that make it easier to set up.
The best way is to test out several different suspension options if possible when you purchase the hammock so you know which works for your needs based on what type of trees are around.
This part helps keep all the components of a hammock in order, and it is usually made of a lightweight cord that holds the gathered ends in place.
You need to look at your ridgeline and figure out if it has tensioners or not, this will determine how tight you can get everything when hanging up the hammock.
Some also have loops for other accessories such as gear line locks which are small plastic loops that hold items such as your light or glasses.
There are also different options for the ridgeline, you can have a continuous one which is just a piece of cord, but some people prefer to use a shock cord instead which gives it more flexibility and helps with adjustments during the night.
In addition, there are fabric ones made from either a cord or a parachute, and there are also ridgelines that have built-in insulation for cold weather.
For most of us, a rain tarp will be a must-have. This is your protection from weather and wind, which helps keep you dry and warm.
You want to find one that is large enough so it can cover your entire hammock, but not so big that it gets in the way or puddles on top of you because of poor pitching.
Ideally, a tarp should be able to wrap around at least two times when pitched, and some manufacturers recommend a minimum of six inches between the hammock ends.
Consider your climate as well when picking out a tarp. If you are in an area where it rains often then get one that is waterproof, so no moisture gets through to you underneath.
A new option includes having taped seams on many tarps, which helps to prevent leaks, but you need to make sure it is all taped up, or else this will not work out well.
How to Stay Warm at Night
Hammocks have a few methods to achieve solid warmth at night; a few are your best bet for specific conditions.
Underquilts work well in colder weather and in climates where there is snow on the ground, as this will not allow any heat from outside to come through underneath.
In warmer areas, you can use a top quilt that comes up around you like a blanket instead, but it helps to keep the heat in during sleep maintaining core warmth.
Top quilts are lightweight versus a sleeping bag and provide amazing warmth for the weight.
They basically are a 3/4 covered with the back open, this is because any down or synthetic crushed by your body loses all heat retention benefits by removing the loft.
This can work well alone at most summer temperatures, on a hike like the Appalachian Trail you will be hiking in colder temperatures where you will want to supplement with an under quilt and/or sleeping pad.
An under quilt is the opposite of your top quilt, it is to help remove heat loss through the air passing below you, this free-moving air can suck the warmth directly from your bones.
You want to get one that is rated for at least ten degrees lower than your lowest expected temperature, this way you will stay warm and not have the quilt be too much.
Some will use a sleeping pad instead or an under quilt to maximize warmth.
Insulated sleeping pads are very good, but you need to ensure there is no air leakage which can easily happen with a pad especially when it gets cold.
You want the pad to fit well around your hammock and have little room for any air pockets underneath because these will suck all your warmth.
The benefit to bringing some form of sleeping pad is for when you pass in areas and have to make camp where no trees are available you will still have insulation from the ground.
Bug Screens / Mesh
If you are camping in an area that has bugs then a bug net can come in handy for protection against mosquitoes and other flying insects at night.
You want one with full-length zippers so it can be opened quickly during the night, and there are models that have no-see-um mesh which is very fine to keep out smaller bugs.
Mesh inserts will give you more airflow on a humid summer night compared to nylon screens, but they can be more of an open invitation for insects especially if it is hot enough at night.
Benefits of Hammock Camping on the AT
Using a hammock on your Appalachian Trail hike is a great choice for many reasons.
A hammock setup is incredibly versatile in that you hang them up just about anywhere there are two points of contact, this includes trees or artificial supports like poles or beams if they are available.
Let’s go over a few benefits to hammock use before we wrap up:
For most hikers, a hammock is a much more enjoyable, comfortable, and less physically demanding way to sleep on a hike along the Appalachian Trail.
Many find they have an easier time falling asleep quickly, as well as sleeping through the night with fewer disturbances compared to ground-based shelters.
This leads to better, more restful sleep, and for some, a hike in the morning is actually easier due to improved sleep at night.
For many hammock setups, the cost can be better along with more convenience due to the ability to be set up in more areas.
You can bring everything needed for a hammock shelter with less weight than most ground shelters, and they don’t take up much space when packed down or even string them between two trees if needed.
Green & Environmentally Friendly
Unlike a tent which will have to compress the ground it lays on, the ground remains untouched by a hammock.
This helps follow leave no trace principles and can reduce the impact on fragile ecosystems along the Appalachian Trail which is important to many hikers out there that want to leave as little of an imprint as possible.
If you care for your placement on trees you can be as near-zero impact as possible using a hammock.
Off the Ground
There are some extra benefits to being off the ground, like the fact that you don’t need a groundsheet nor the ability to get wet in a severe rainstorm by runoff.
This can also help you stay away from bigger ground-based animals like snakes, mice, and other rodents.
This can help you stay dryer and less exposed to wet ground, insects, or other small critters that could be sharing the same space.
A huge benefit to a hammock setup is the freedom to camp nearly anywhere with two points of contact.
That means you can camp on rocky or uneven ground or other surfaces and still be able to get in your hammock, this is why it’s so great for the Appalachian Trail which has many areas where there are no flat ground surfaces available.
This means that you can camp on a hill, mountain peak, or any other surface that might not be great for pitching a tent but is perfect for stringing up your hammock.
Potential Drawbacks to Consider
While there are many benefits to a hammock, there are some issues that they can cause for hikers:
More Complicated Setup
Hammocks need a precise distance between the two points to be safely used, and it can take a few moments to get them set up correctly.
For those who are new to hammock camping, this is going to mean that there will be some learning curve as they adjust from ground-based shelters.
There might also be an adjustment period for those switching over from traditional tent setups where you’re not used to pitching things in the trees.
Unlike a tent, a hammock has no real room to sit and is very exposed to the elements.
There’s no bug protection, and you can’t hang them up high enough to be out of reach from any other wildlife that may want to disturb your rest.
If this is an issue for some hikers it might mean carrying a tarp or another shelter with you for added privacy or weather protection.
Limited or No Weight Savings
Many think that a hammock weighs less than a tent system, but that is not always the case.
You can find some very lightweight hammocks, like this one weighing in at only 20 ounces or less, or there are heavier options that can be closer to two pounds once everything has been added up.
But after you add in the suspension, tarp, under and over quilts you end up with a fairly heavy shelter system which can be much heavier than some of the best ultralight tents.
No Way to Store Gear With You
One other irritation is that storing gear has to happen under the hammock in most cases, out of sight and also out of reach.
This can make it difficult to access when you need it, and also means that there’s a chance of rain or an accident happening to your gear if you can’t easily get to it.
This is going to be mostly up for personal preference as some hikers prefer not having anything under them while they sleep while others have no problem with this setup.
Best Complete Hammock Set for Thru-Hiking
Numerous fantastic lightweight hammock producers are constantly developing and improving their equipment to meet the needs of ever-changing consumer tastes.
Here is an excellent value for those looking to begin their hammock camping, ensuring you get a complete set of gear for those first times out that will keep you warm and safe!
The Wanderlust By Hammock Gear
This kit was designed to function at pro-level with a price that invites everyone to get the best sleep under the stars! This quality bundle of gear includes their industry-leading line of American-made economy insulation as an add-on at a steep discount that is only made available with this package.
- Lightweight and compact – Weighs only 22 oz, packs down small for easy carrying and storage. Perfect for backpacking and camping.
- Durable ripstop nylon – Made from durable 1.6 oz ripstop nylon that is abrasion resistant. Can support up to 300 lbs.
- Integrated bug net – No-see-um mesh netting keeps mosquitos and bugs out while sleeping or lounging.
- Versatile and adjustable – Can be set up between trees, poles, vehicles, or other anchors. Includes tree straps and carabiners. Adjustable gathered end design fits most people.
FAQs About Hammock Camping
Some additional questions that many looking to use a hammock ask to help you get a better idea of what you’re getting into:
Will I fit in a hammock?
Many bigger guys ask this question and there are options available for you, but you will want to pay attention to the dimensions of a hammock before buying it.
If you are on the bigger end, then you will want to look for something that is wider and longer than average so that you can rest comfortably.
In addition, this will require you to add on stronger suspension depending on what ships with the hammock, make sure it is rated well enough to support you and additional weight that you may keep inside.
Will I be warm enough camping in a hammock?
As long as you set up a full kit correctly with quilts and windbreaks you can stay warm overnight.
However, if you are someone who struggles with feeling cold often it may be a good idea to buy an underquilt in addition to the primary one that they provide.
These will fit around your entire body and trap more heat inside, making sure you remain comfortable through even the chilliest nights of hiking.
Can I stay dry in a hammock when it rains?
As long as you understand the directionality and set the tarp up the right way you will stay dry during rainy nights helping to also trap body heat to keep up the warmth.
However, if you are planning to keep your gear underneath the hammock and not in a pack then it is going to get wet unless there’s enough room for anything that leaks through the tarp.
Do hammocks weigh less than tents?
In most cases, a full kit for the Appalachian Trail will not weigh less than a tent system due to the overall kit needs.
However, you can find hammocks that are under two pounds which is much lower than many of the better lightweight tents on the market today.
Do hammocks cost less than tents?
Hammocks are definitely able to be less expensive than a high-end tent, but the full kit is going to be a bit more expensive along with being heavier than a top-end tent much of the time.
The benefit is that you can buy the kit in more parts if funds are difficult to come by so you won’t have to drop $500-$800 in one go, instead you can buy them piece by piece.
In Summary: The Magic of Hammocking on the AT
Hammocks are a great option for those looking to hike the Appalachian Trail.
They offer many benefits from pack weight savings and stealth camping, and you can even stay warm during cold nights if you have an underquilt with your hammock setup.
They aren’t something you should go into without putting some time into practicing setup and teardowns, as it is not as simple as it may seem at first glance.