Should You Take a Hammock or Tent on Your Thru Hike?

Post By: Josh

A thru hike is a great way to test yourself, and see how far you can go. But when it comes to deciding what gear to take with you, the options are endless. One of those decisions is whether or not you should bring a hammock or tent on your thru-hike.

This article will discuss all the pros and cons of each option so that you can make an informed decision.

Choosing which is best for you will depend on many criteria:

  • Terrain
  • Climate
  • Time of Year (for example: during the summer months in a desert climate)
  • Budget
  • Comfort

You should also consider if it will be more comfortable to sleep on something soft or hard; as well whether there's ample space for either option when pitching camp and how dispersed you keep your gear once you establish a camp.

Knowing Your Thru Hike

To be fair each thru hike is different than the next, choosing a tent or hammock for one hike will be different than the next because they all run in different areas with different nature benefits to one or the other.

For example: The Pacific Crest Trail spends a large chunk within the desert, in this case a hammock is nearly useless unless you hike specifically focused on whether you could deploy it.

The difference here being that as long as you can find "mostly" flat ground a tent will always work, whereas in the desert your hammock is nearly useless.

But then on a trail like the Appalachian Trail you have lots of trees and you will be able to set up a hammock with ease, allowing you to carry and use a hammock the entire length of the trek.

Where Do You Choose To Sleep?

Many thru hiking trails have shelters pre built for hikers that many choose to stay in when they are around them, especially in inclement weather. Understanding the placement of these shelters will help you determine if you want to bring either a tent or hammock.

Shelters can make your choice of shelter to carry change as much of trail life can center around these shelters for a place to hang out ad talk and just enjoy some company after a long day alone.

Shelters are also first come first serve and are usually full of hikers when in the bubble. Due to this you don't want to depend on having space in a shelter as that would set you up for issues at times.

What is the Expected Terrain?

Are you heading into a deep forest or into desert type terrain? If you are heading into desert terrain, then a hammock may be the right choice if there is trees or objects to attach to as the desert floor can be baked solid and difficult to stake in.

But for many deserts in the United States you will only have infrequent trees and some sparse cacti that will do a hammock hiker no favors and lead to them having to lay on the ground, many times without a pad since hammockers don't always have sleeping pads.

While if you are heading into a deep forest then you are freed up to better choose between the two types of shelters as each can work equally well in a forest, though for tents you need to find good ground for placement.

What is the Expected Weather?

Knowing the time of your hike and the expected weather may help you choose the right gear for this hike, as you will need a tent or hammock that can handle the expected weather and conditions.

If not you may be at risk of being uncomfortable to even being in danger with heavy rain or worse weather on your hike one day when it might have been sunny outside on another day.

Knowing You and Your Preferences

Almost everything in backpacking is personal and no one person can decide everything for you. Only by weighing the different aspects of hammocks and tents can you decide if one is better for you than the other.

For us older hikers sometimes a sleeping pad just doesn't do it anymore and using a hammock is more preferential than a tent, the other side though is that you enjoy the walls and privacy are important then the tent may always be the right answer.

What is Your Expected Budget?

Here is where some changes start to occur, as many good quality lighter weight tents can be had for less than $200 where many base hammock setups will escalate in price to add the gear you will need for a full thru hike build.

Where these start to become inconsequential is when you are reaching the $500+ dollar tents and then the sleeping pad.

For a tent you need, at a minimum, the tent, stakes, poles (or trekking poles), and your sleeping pad. This set of gear will be the base required for a functioning tent shelter system.

For a hammock you need, at a minimum, the hammock, the straps, the bug net, the rain fly, and a underquilt or sleeping pad to insulate the bottom side of your sleeping system since it is raised.

Note: I didn't include a topquilt, or sleeping bag, as these are required for either solution and are more a personal preference and need based on the temperatures and not a true part of the shelter itself.

What is Your Expected Comfort Need?

The other focus for many will be solely based on comfort, sometimes the extra bulk or weight is directly outweighed by comfort level they provide, especially over thousands of miles.

Choosing between the two is a highly personal decision, and you should note that with both solutions there are trade-offs.

I know many hikers who swear by hammocks because they provide more space for their backside when sleeping which can often lead to less aches and pains by the morning.

I personally prefer a tent as I like having walls and a cover overall, with a good sleeping pad I feel fine in the morning. Though I have had some times where I have woken with some residual aches and pains, they tend to wear off fast once moving around.

Tent Based Thru Hiking

This is by far the most common way for thru hikers to shelter up on a trek, this is due in large part to the ease of finding and using a tent.

Tents are a near perfect shelter option as most have a large amount of experience in them and are very versatile, a tent can be used to create an environment you want in most environments.

You will also find that there is usually not much of a difference between tents overall; they all have about the same ease when it comes time for setup with tent poles or trekking poles as well has having pretty close styles.

The only big difference would be in the materials used to create the tent as the most lightweight is Dyneema but the most common is Sil-Nylon which cuts the expense down dramatically.

Benefit to Tents on a Thru Hike

There are many benefits to using a tent as your shelter, from protection from the elements like weather, to housing your gear keeping it safe from theft, to the overall ease to setup and use in pretty much any area you trek through.

Protection From Elements

Tents are very excellent at making sure you are safe from rain, snow,  hail, and other natural elements. They provide a place for you to sit in peace as the storm passes overhead or they protect your gear from heavy downpour making sure nothing gets too wet.

This same protection from wet elements also helps when you encounter dry, arid, and hot conditions as well.

Tents are a great way of offering shelter from the sun, which can be very intense in some areas or during certain times for instance on an exposed mountainside.

This can help where there is no shade to offer relief and provide comfort while you rest your weary head at night after hours out hiking up steep inclines all day long!

Protection of Your Gear

Being able to have access to your gear because it is inside the tent with you is a major bonus to have, especially when you are in an area where weather conditions and the elements can change at any moment.

Additionally this makes sure there is less issue with anyone deciding to look through your gear or decide that some piece of gear that you have is theirs to take.

Ease of Setup in Near Any Environment

Tents are incredibly functional and can be adapted to nearly any environment. If you are near sand and rocks you can stack rocks on the tent stakes to help anchor them, for example.

The poles, stakes and fly are all made of lightweight materials that can be carried easily in your pack if the need arises to move on from an area where you've pitched your tent for shelter.

The ease with which tents set up makes it much easier than trying find some type cover out in the woods, as all you need to do is find an area of decent open space to lay out the tent and set up.

Drawbacks to Tents on a Thru Hike

There are some issues with using a tent on a thru hike that may make them not the perfect fit for your hike. For starters, the more budget choices in tents will be heavy, like 4-5 pounds on their own and over 2000 miles tis will hurt.

Additionally, a tent is awesome in the winter due to holding in heat, conversely in summer they can be sweltering and need to be opened up wide to drop temps.

Overall Weight

Most the time tents can be one of the lightest gear you own, the problem is the costs will dramatically increase to drop ounces after a point. I would caution you though not to minimize the weight portion of your backpack on a thru hike!

Over a longer hike those "couple pounds" add up and beat on your legs, feet, and back. I would really suggest you look at spending a solid chunk of your overall gear budget on your tent, there is amazing value options like the X-Mid 1P or 2P, or 3F UL Gear Lanshan 2 Double Wall (Or Lanshan 2 Pro Single Wall) that are around 2 pounds but won't bust your back account.

After this 2 pound mark is where you start to see the price rise dramatically to only lose ounces of overall weight, if you have the budget this can be a tremendous value with the Zpacks Duplex being a thru hiker favorite!

Holds in Warmth

When you are facing cold temperatures the ability to hold in heat and keep you warm is incredibly powerful, but when it gets hot it can be incredibly painful to roast.

This means you want a tent that has more mesh if at all possible along with additional vents or that tent that was awesome through Spring becomes detrimental to progress through the summer.

Condensation

When you have higher humidity outside your tent along with your hot breath inside this can lead to buildup of condensation on the walls, if you have a single wall tent this can run down the walls onto your sleep gear.

If you should move too much and shake the tent wall you could actually end up having your breath rain back down on top of you, I have had this happen and BOY did that night give me some of the most sucky sleep EVER!

Set Up and Tear Down

When you have a tent for a shelter you will more than likely need some more time to set up your tent at the end of the day while making sure the area is clear of debris.

When you look to break down camp you will need to spend some time working to get off excess moisture before packing away your tent, otherwise you are going to be carrying extra pounds that may never dry off during your day hiking.

Hammock Based Thru Hiking

Hammock based sleeping systems are typically more technical as you need to have proper tree distance and height to be able to complete your setup and have a comfortable sleep.

Typically this system is also more heavy the less expensive you purchase as there is a need for anchors, straps and suspension systems that can add up quickly in pounds on your back.

There are many options available from Hammock Gear, Hennessy Hammock, Warbonnet, Jacks 'R' Better, and much more on sites like REI, Backcountry, and others.

Benefit to Hammocks on a Thru Hike

There are a range of benefits to choosing to use a hammock while on the trail which range from helping minimize pack weight to getting you away from ground hazards.

Can Be Lighter Than Tent

While there is many parts to a complete hammock set up, the hammock itself can be lighter than a tent while also has the possibility to be less bulky within your pack.

This is because with many systems you only need to carry suspension lines which are typically under three feet long meaning they take up very little space when packed compared other bigger items like a tent and sleeping pad can add.

More Comfortable For Rest

Lets be super honest here, the older you get the worse you are at getting good restful sleep on hard, compact ground. Your body just doesn't rebound the same way as when you are younger which is why many hammock hikers are older.

A hammock provides you the closest rest to a bed as you can get while hiking in the woods and the comfort that a hammock offers is unmatched by anything else in this category.

You will be able to sleep on your back or side without any pressure points, have space for some specific gear which can make it more comfortable for relaxing evenings.

Off the Ground Weather & Terrain Protection

A key thing to think about too is what the ground conditions will be wherever you are choosing to hike, for example, if or when you are travelling over primarily rocky terrain a tent and sleeping pad will be less than optimal.

One other nice fact for a hammock is with a storm and heavy rains you won't be as worried about torrents or water entering your sleep system in the same way a badly placed tent can be.

Also with hammocks being off the ground this helps you to be less in the critter zone, for example, you have much less chance of a mouse chewing into your hammock versus a tent on the ground (wrappers happen, don't lie)!

Drawbacks to Hammocks on a Thru Hike

There are some issues though with choosing to take a hammock as your sleep system on thru hikes which can include piling up gear, finding that spot needed for a hammock setup, open to elements, and the fact that unlike a tent you have very limited internal storage space.

More Gear Than At First Glance

If you have a hard time managing organization then a hammock may be a stressor as without something like Snake Skins it can be hard for a beginner to organize everything.

Arguably this point is true, it is definitely more than a tent where you can just shove it back into a sack with stakes and be packed up into a single container.

Education and Training Needs Right Distance For Setup

A limiting factor for many to decide to choose a hammock is needing to learn and then know to pay attention to whether a site is hammock friendly to allow them to set up correctly.

This has been a big reason why I have just stuck with tents as I can easily identify where and when I can set up my tent and know that I will be safe and clear for the night.

As to buying and learning the issue for me comes in having property without trees and to practice would require heading out away from home and away from the burbs to find someplace with the right ability to work out my visualization.

Not A Perfect Shelter Versus the Elements

While a hammock is amazing for laying down comfortably it does have some limitations in protection from elements for you and your gear in many occasions.

Having to use a rain tarp means without near perfect placement some rain will always have a chance to make it into your area, and with wind moving the rain and not having walls makes this a near certainty.

Having a rain tarp also means that in cold you will have to put it just right to block as much of the cold breeze as possible too, so not only is it doing duty to stop rain but it has to be perfectly placed to block the most wind possible.

No Gear Storage Inside With You

You backpack also needs to be stored outside of the hammock in nearly all hammocks I have ever seen which can leave it open to rain and extreme cold which can prematurely age gear.

I have seen a cool "gear loft" that rides the cables and suspends your backpack below your hammock off the ground by about a foot which I think is a very logical gear choice to suspend your goods off the ground.

Change It Up Sometimes

Part of enjoying the outdoors is pushing your limits and expanding your skills and abilities, if you have the ability to get a set of hammock or tent gear to use opposite of your normal gear then do it and use it, it may change your opinions more than you would believe.

Additionally when out on the trail, like the PCT, you can bring a tent through the desert and Sierras, while having a drop later with your hammock to use once you move into the forested areas giving you the best of both worlds.

Final Thoughts on Tents Vs Hammocks

This debate will rage on in perpetuity as the people who defend their side do honestly believe it to be the best option for anyone who chooses to hike.

Really what you want to do is evaluate the upcoming trail as to the viability of any shelter system and not be beholden to only using one, you may not know what you are missing.

Please be safe though and practice setting up your shelter long before it is necessary on the trail as you want to know all the parts and what is needed for a complete setup as when the snow and rain are coming the last thing you need is to delay.

Now get out there and get moving!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I love hiking and exploring as many trails as I can find the time to get onto, my plan is to complete the triple crown and to thru hike as many trails as I can find.
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