Backpacking with Hammock instead of Tent

For years, campers and backpackers defaulted to the tent as their overnight shelter. The humble hammock, though, is an alluring alternative—and an increasingly popular one. If you’ve enjoyed relaxing in a hammock, then it might be time to give camping in one a try.

We’re going to compare the hammock to the classic outdoor shelter – the tent. For this article, we need to establish a benchmark against which to compare hammock camping. So, first, we’ll summarize a few key analytical criteria of the tent as a shelter.

1

What is Hammock Camping?

Hammock CampingHammock camping is a form of camping in which a camper sleeps in a suspended hammock rather than a conventional tent on the ground.

Hammock camping simply means you’re swapping out your typical tent in favor of a hammock and a few helpful accessories where you can comfortably sleep outdoors overnight.

Many backpackers and bikebackers enjoy camping with hammocks because they are so lightweight and take up little space in a pack. Hammock campers also enjoy a higher vantage point and are spared the discomfort of sleeping on sloped or rocky ground. A couple of sturdy trees are all you need.

What You Need to Hammock Camp

You can create a DIY camping (or backpacking) setup by adding components to your current hammock, or by purchasing a prepackaged “hammock tent” system that comes with most of the items below:

Suspension system

At its core, a suspension system spans the gap between the hammock and the anchor point. It should also provide a mechanism to adjust that gap, depending on how far apart the anchors are.

Bare ropes are a no-no because of potential damage to tree bark, so a good suspension system with wide straps is essential. Strap systems also make setup a breeze—no special knots required. Note that a few hammock tent systems include thick ropes with protective sleeves that are designed to protect tree bark.

Hammock

A hammock is a sling made of fabric, rope, or netting, suspended between two or more points, used for swinging, sleeping, or resting. The hammock is often seen as a symbol of summer, leisure, relaxation, and simple, easy living.

If you are buying one, the key consideration is its comfort, though weight will also be a factor if you’ll be backpacking. You can find innovative designs beyond the classic sling, too.

Sleeping pad

Whether you’re in a tent or a hammock, the underside of your lofty sleeping bag gets compressed and loses its insulation value when you lie on it. In a tent, the solution is to use an inflated or foam sleeping pad. You can use a pad in a hammock, too, though it might not nestle neatly into the hammock’s shape.

One option is to get an accessory sleeve to help stabilize your pad. Another tactic is to deflate an air pad slightly to help it better conform to the shape of your hammock. Some people take a closed-cell foam pad and cut it to fit, which is inexpensive, effective, and provides wind resistance.

Underquilt

An underquilt is used as bottom insulation as a replacement for a sleeping pad. It consists of sleeping bag insulation that is suspended underneath the hammock where it can insulate the bottom of the hammock without being crushed under the occupant’s bodyweight

Because a hammock wraps around you, a lot of your underside is exposed to the cold. Thus a better (albeit pricier) solution than a sleeping pad is an underquilt. Because it hangs outside and below, an underquilt’s insulation doesn’t compress and can loft fully to provide plenty of warmth.

Rain tarp (or rainfly)

Typically mounted over a ridgeline that you tie between the trees above your hammock, this is the hammock equivalent of a rainfly for a tent. If you’re not buying one specifically designed for hammocks, make sure the option you choose will give you enough attachment points so you can secure the tarp in a place where you want it.

Bug net

Many nets that you can buy for hammocking will fit over your whole hammock, while some only fit over the top. If you have a top-only net, your sleeping bag and pad will provide some bug defense underneath, but you might also consider treating the bottom of the hammock with a fabric-safe insecticide like permethrin.

How to set up a Hammock

Hang your hammock correctly by following these basic rules (but, remember, that every hammock model is slightly different):

Find Anchor Points

For camping and backpacking, your hammock anchor points are almost always two trees. These trees must be sturdy enough to support your full weight suspended in your hammock. Make sure there are no dangerous branches (window makers) hanging precariously overhead.

The two trees (or other anchor points) should be about 10 to 15 feet apart. This will help you achieve the most comfortable hammock hang angle possible.

Attach Straps to Trees

Now, it’s time to attach your hammock straps to your anchor points.

Although all straps work differently, most use a looping system. Simply, loop one end of the strap around the tree and pass it through one of the loops on the strap.

Adjust your straps so your hammock hangs at about waist height. You want it to sit about 18 inches off the ground when your body weight is added.

Take your time while fixing the anchor points. There’s a good chance the ground is uneven where you’re camping, so you want to make sure that your hammock is hung evenly between the two trees at the same height.

Attach Hammock to Straps

Once both support straps are firmly attached to the two trees, attach your hammock to the straps.

Some models have the straps built into the hammock. Other models require you to attach them separately.

Attaching the straps to the hammock separately basically just consists of clipping one carabiner on the hammock itself to one strap and the other carabiner to the other strap.

Adjust Sleeping Position

It might take a little experimentation to find your preferred hammock camping sleeping position, especially on your first few outings.

One common beginner hammock mistake we see is people trying to make their hammock too flat. Since you’re used to sleeping in a flat position on your bed, it might make sense to try to do this with your hammock.

But hammocks are not designed to be used like this. A hammock has a natural curve. Use this natural curve to your advantage for the most comfortable sleeping position.

Making your hammock too flat also makes the sides of the hammock too tight. It will squeeze you from the sides and feel constricting.

Hammocks as a Shelter

Practicality

Hammocks have a steep learning curve. You will spend time tinkering with your setup, learning how to pitch taut, fix slack after you weigh the hammock, and estimate distances between trees. You’ll have to master hang angles, and keep your top quilt and underquilt dry among other tasks.

Comfort

Hammocks inherently provide a very comfortable surface to lay on. Camping hammocks cause the user to lay sideways, generally, creating a lying position that is more flat than banana-shaped. Because you don’t have to deal with roots, rocks, and lumps the hammock is usually a very pleasant sleeping system.

Protection

Hammocks leave something to be desired when it comes to protection. They’re extremely vulnerable to convective heat loss – the loss of heat due to breezes and winds moving under the sleeper. For this reason, something called an “under quilt” must be used to insulate you.

Options

For camping hammocks, the options are simultaneously staggering and yet limiting. There are relatively few manufacturers of hammock camping gear compared to tents. Most hammock campers who stick with it for the long haul end up making or modifying their gear.

Size/Weight

Hammocks generally come out in a wash with size and weight. While they don’t have bulky, heavy tent stakes, they do require a generous rain tarp, tree huggers, toggles, and underquilt. When you compare this with lightweight tent setups, hammocks are usually about on-par.

However, there is a ton of variation in size and weight depending on which hammock and tent you’re comparing. Be careful to compare ‘apples to apples’ or you’ll get a very skewed perspective.

Set up

Hammocks, compared to tents, require significantly greater setup time and effort. The learning curve for setup can be steep and you’ll get it wrong many times before you perfect your hang.

  • The reason setup is difficult:
  • Hammock and tarp must be set independently
  • Hammock hang angle is important
  • Tree distance and size is important
  • There can be sensitive knots and setup procedures involved
2

What is Tent Camping?

Tent CampingTents are used as habitation by nomads, recreational campers, soldiers, and disaster victims. The Tents are also typically used as overhead shelters for festivals, weddings, backyard parties, major corporate events, excavation (construction) covers, and industrial shelters.

Tents as a Shelter

Practicality

Overcoming the learning curve is simple and quick. This is exactly how tents are designed: foolproof and fast. Finding a tent campsite is usually easy except in specific situations. Mastering the art of setup and site selection, however, may take time.

Comfort

Tents are dead simple to keep comfortable. They keep bugs out and rain off (provided you purchase a decent one). They may, however, struggle with condensation issues. Most tents have ample flat space and room to stretch and move around.

Protection

Well designed to protect from wind, rain, and even driving rain. Usually, rainfly come down plenty far enough to keep out even the worst weather. Tents protect you from convective heat loss – or heat lost to air moving under you. However, you must use a sleeping pad to prevent conductive heat loss to the cold of the ground.

Options

Are practically endless. Tents have been well-loved for years and every manufacturer produces variations with different features. If you can think of it, chances are very good that it’s available.

Size/Weight

Compared to hammocks the size and weight of tents can vary dramatically. When we compare high-end tents to high-end hammock setups, tents tend to weigh about the same or just a bit less. We’ll get into this in detail later.

Set up

In the field, tents tend to be simpler to set up than hammocks. For users short of expert status tents are going to be far easier and faster to achieve a consistent setup. In all but the rarest cases, finding a tent site is often easier than finding a hammock site.

Final Thoughts

Hammocks and tents are worlds apart. Moving from tents and ground shelters into a hammock is a total makeover of your gear and systems. However, for the right people, it’s a great move that can be fun and rewarding.

Be warned: hammocks are not all fun and games. They can be finicky, hard to set up, and may require tons of testing and modification to get them “just right” for you. We think that hammocks make the most sense for users who otherwise can’t find a good sleeping system for some reason.

In a hammock, you’ll need bottom insulation, when you used to sleep on the ground this was taken care of by your sleeping pad (inflatable or closed-cell foam), and if you like you can use it in your hammock as well. An underquilt is used as bottom insulation as a replacement for a sleeping pad.

Even if you may feel somewhat like a soft-shelled burrito served on a bear platter when hammocking, there is no research to suggest that hammock camping is any more dangerous than tent camping. Bear attacks can most always be attributed to some form of human error, not your preferred sleeping arrangement.

Next time you go camping, set up both your tent and hammock. Start the evening in the hammock. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll have a safe and familiar back-up plan.

As far as we know, no one has ever been eaten by a bear burrito-style from the comfort of their hammock.

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