Everything You Need to Know About Camping Hammocks
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The idea of camping—that is, sleeping outside overnight—in a hammock is a very romantic notion but without proper research and planning it can turn into a rather horrible experience. Hammock camping has been around for centuries and the word “hammock” itself comes from the Taíno (Caribbean) language meaning “fishnet” as that’s just what early hammocks were made of.
Now we have sophisticated fabrics, mostly types of nylon, to hold us up in rest and slumber and they have become incredibly lightweight and durable. This article is specific to outdoor recreation hammocks, not cotton or decorative woven rope style hammocks. That said, most outdoor recreation hammocks are very similar and for anyone without any particular needs most hammocks will do the job. The differences come down to the details and the combinations users are looking for. This article will delve into some of those details and get anyone interested in hammock camping on the right track.
The advantages of sleeping in a hammock ranges from personal preference because it’s more comfortable than sleeping on the ground to the logistical advantage of not needing to find a six-foot long flat and stable surface. Hammocks can be suspended over all kinds of terrain that isn’t suitable for laying on including bumpy rocky ground, inclines, or marshy surfaces. A hammock also elevates the sleeper above and away from any curious creepy crawlies scurrying along the ground.
Day vs. Overnight
Sometimes hammocks are marketed as a “Day Hammock” or a “Camping Hammock”. The main differences are the width of the hammock and type of material used. Day hammocks are typically made with lightweight material and are narrower, around 40-50 inches wide (most hammocks are around 9 feet long) because it’s just for the person laying in it (and whatever they’re wearing). An example of this is ENO’s SingleNest Hammock. Overnight hammocks are wider (around 70-80 inches) to accommodate the extra bulk of a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad on cooler nights, and to lay flatter when laying diagonal to the centerline (more on that below). These are also called Double Hammocks.
The misnomer of the name Double Hammock is people tend to think it’s for two people. They are named that way because they are around double the width of a single. With weight capacities of up to 500 pounds in some cases, the hammock can certainly hold two or three people. But that’s usually only comfortable for short day use stints. Most people will not be comfortable sleeping overnight in a double hammock with someone else.
In mild weather a day hammock could be slept in overnight as long as the person is able to stay warm enough without a sleeping bag or pad. There’s also an accessory called an underquilt which could eliminate the need for a bulky sleeping bag and pad in the hammock for overnight camping. More on accessories like this below.
One of the hidden truths about hammocks is they don’t just hang there on their own—to make for the most comfortable setup possible, users find a few accessories to be a huge help. Here’s a list of common gear and a few notes when considering going a little more elaborate.
Rare is the scenario where the two anchors (usually trees) are perfectly spaced with hooks built in for a hammock to hang without some sort of strap suspension system. Straps, at least 3/4 of an inch wide, are preferred over rope to minimize damage to trees to suspend a hammock. While climbing webbing can be used as a DYI strap, most hammock manufacturers make straps to go with their hammocks. They usually include a number of attachment points to make it easy to establish the perfect (preferred) distance between the two anchors. Some hammock brands sell hammocks with straps and some do not. Consider this when comparing prices.
Hammock Bug Net
Hammocking, by virtue of its name originating from a Caribbean language, is usually done in warmer climates—the kinds of climates preferred by bugs, especially the flying kind. For that reason, be it for a day hammock use or sleeping overnight, hammock manufacturers have developed various styles of bug nets. Some are sold separately and encompass the entire hammock and some are sewn into the top portion of the hammock. The latter style does leave for the chance of mosquitos pushing their proboscis through the under-fabric of the hammock. The former eliminates that and it also makes for a protected space to store a backpack or to change clothes—particularly important for overnighters needing to change into their preferred sleeping attire.
For those hammocking in wetter climates, suspending a tarp or rain fly over the hammock is good insurance to avoid the unpleasant experience of being woken by droplets on the face. Scrambling out of a hammock to keep everything dry is not an easy process, and rarely successful. Any kind of tarp can be used but hammock manufacturers have developed options that suit hammock specific setups. One feature is to have eyelets or ways to stake down the tarp along the long edge for very windy conditions. Another is a method to prevent rainwater from traveling down the suspension straps that lead under the tarp into the hammock.
Those dedicated to hammock sleeping don’t want cold weather camping to be a reason to leave the hammock at home. Because the loft of a sleeping bag is what gives the bag its insulative value, any part of the sleeping bag under the sleeper that gets compressed loses its ability to insulate. So, even in the warmest of sleeping bags, will feel cold on the underside where the open air can waft by and suck away warmth. Underquits are suspended under the hammock so they are not compressed by the user’s weight. Some hammockers will use an underquilt with a sleeping bag and some will just bring the underquilt and a blanket made of sleeping bag type of material, depending on the outside temperature.
Since sleeping two in the same hammock was discouraged earlier in this article, there is a way to sleep side by side without having to find four trees growing in the perfect configuration. ENO, a popular brand for hammocks, developed the Fuse Tandem Hammock System. It’s a set of bars to separate two hammocks at the head and the foot while they are suspended from the same anchor points.
Types of Hammocks
Everything covered to this point has been in the context of a standard outdoor recreation style hammock—very simple in and of itself. Just hang it between two anchors and add whatever accessories suit the conditions. But hammock manufacturers have gotten more creative and to ensure versatility, developed variations of the simple hammock.
Instead of adding accessories à la carte, some brands have just built all-in-one hammock tents. While components of the system can be removed, like the tarp or rain fly, those buying tent hammocks are probably going to use the whole kit most of the time. The other advantage of tent hammocks is they can be set up right on the ground if there aren’t any anchors available.
Flat Lay Hammocks
Another recent development in hammock styles is to design a hammock that does not bow like a banana. This is one of the romance-versus-reality factors new hammockers can be surprised by. The tip experienced hammockers share with rookies is to lay slightly diagonal across the centerline of the hammock to get as flat of a hang as possible. But this technique takes practice and determination and for many doesn’t really work that well. These new flat lay style hammocks may be the ticket for anyone who couldn’t get comfortable in a traditional sling hammock.
Tips & Tricks
For the most part, getting an overnight camping hammock setup to feel just right (or at least sufficiently tolerable) takes some trial and error to find that perfect combination of the many points of adjustment available. Nevertheless, here are a few tips and tricks to use as a base line, each of which can be modified to suit.
Before committing to a situation of many nights where sleeping in a hammock is the only option, try the new system out a few times in a low risk, easy to bail, scenario. This can be in a backyard or in a place where there’s another bed available if it’s just not working out. Then make some adjustments and try again until things feel right.
If there’s no time or interest in practicing before hedging out on a hammocking adventure, at the very least, pack a sleeping pad as a plan B to be able to sleep comfortably on the ground when the hammock doesn’t work as planned.
How to Sleep in a Hammock
As alluded to above, the trick to sleep relatively flat in a curved hammock is to lie slightly diagonal across the centerline. Once in the hammock and feeling like a banana, think of the hips as the pivot point to move the feet one direction off the centerline about 12 inches, then do the same with the head. This takes practice, so be patient and refer back to the first tip above.
How to Hang a Hammock
To be able to get that diagonal lay trick to work, the hammock has to be hung relatively loosely. A good starting point is to have the suspension strap hanging at about a 30-degree angle down from horizontal. There should be a good arc, or sag, in the empty hammock before climbing in. If the hammock is too tight, the diagonal lay won’t work.
To keep it easy to get in and out of the hammock, it should only be between 15 and 20 inches from the ground once loaded. This makes it about the height of sitting in a chair. To get this height will depend on how far the anchors are apart and how high the suspension straps are up on the anchor. Again, see the first tip above.
Most people underestimate how cool it can get overnight while in a hammock. Without any sort of insulation under the user—remember, the compressed insulation of a sleeping bag becomes nearly useless for retaining heat. Add to that a light breeze and the cold underside will totally ruin a night of sleep. Bring some sort of pad or underquilt to mitigate this. Again, some practice sessions will help determine personal tolerances depending on the outside temperature.