At the end of a long hike, I can’t wait to reach for my hammock. It’s quick to set up and nothing beats kicking off my boots and getting comfortable in my hammock. I know I’ll sleep soundly that night. For those new to camping in a hammock, it can be confusing and cause for anxiety. Bugs, weather, and back pain are the common worries that beginners face. With this guide, we’ll show you how to beat bad weather and nasty mosquitoes as well as how to optimize comfort when you spend a night hanging under the stars.
The Wrong Type of Hammock
One of the biggest misconceptions about hammock camping comes from the image of a classic rope hammock. These hammocks are popular in backyards, hotels and beaches around the world. These are the wrong type of hammocks for camping for a lot of reasons, primarily because they aren’t stable, comfortable, or portable enough to take into the woods and spend the night in.
Hammocks vs. Tents
Tents are the traditional way to camp. They’re great for creating a portable shelter on flat terrain that will keep you well protected from the weather and any creepy crawlies. However, tents do have their disadvantages. For many people, sleeping on the ground is uncomfortable to say the least. After a long day of hiking, not everyone wants to spend time finding the perfect flat area for a campground, only to be rewarded with sleeping on hard dirt. Tents are relatively easy to set up, but the poles and stakes are all extra weight on your back. While tents offer you great protection from the elements, they also confine you within its walls instead of letting you sleep under the wide sky.
- They are much more comfortable for most people.
- With a tarp and mosquito net, a hammock camper has no need to fear the elements.
- Hammocks are lightweight and very portable.
- A hammock with additional accessories costs much less than a tent of comparable weight and size.
- Setting up and putting away a hammock takes a lot less time.
- If the weather’s nice, there’s nothing better than falling asleep stargazing.
But that’s not to say that hammocks don’t have disadvantages compared to ground shelters:
- Hammocks are best used with a single person, your friend will have to bring their own hammock.
- If you’re bringing your canine companion, they’ll have to sleep on the ground.
- There’s little privacy with a hammock. You might find it harder to change clothes if you’re the shy type.
- Storing gear is more difficult. If it rains, you’ll want to make sure all your stuff is underneath the rainfly and not in the path of any runoff.
- You’re reliant on trees to hammock. If you’re above the treeline, you’re out of luck.
Photo: Nick Lake
How to Get a Flat Lay
The secret to getting the most comfort when sleeping in your hammock is getting a flat lay. Don’t make the mistake of laying lengthwise and ending up looking like a human banana. That's where the back pain comes in.
The most common mistake people make when using a hammock for the first time is hanging it too tightly. I made this mistake plenty of times when I started hammocking. My thinking was simple: if my hammock is super tight then it’ll be flatter. In practice, that doesn’t work at all. The reality is that your body weight will tighten the hammock around you even more. The sides will rise up and cocoon around you like claustrophobia inducing walls. The hammock will squeeze your shoulders uncomfortably throughout the night.
What you should try to do instead is keep the hammock loose. Give yourself a healthy amount of slack and make that hammock nice and curvy. Now you can take advantage of the full width of the hammock. Lie at a diagonal to get a naturally flat lay. Imagine yourself at a 30 degree angle from the midline of the hammock. Your neck and feet will be slightly elevated, but the rest of your body will be relatively flat. The hammock should hug the natural contours of your back.
In this position, you can toss and turn until you find a position that is most comfortable for you. I’m a side sleeper, and I can comfortably sleep on my side all night long when I angle my body.
The next thing to know if you plan on hammock camping is how to stay nice and toasty. With the right insulation, you can fearlessly take your hammock to the mountains even in the dead of winter.
When camping in a hammock, you’ll need to stay warm. Proper insulation is important and often times just a sleeping bag is not enough. With only a sleeping bag, the weight of your body will compress the bottom layer, severely reducing the insulating properties. The best way to stay warm is to use an under quilt with your hammock. An under quilt is essentially a blanket filled with down or a synthetic material that is hung on the outside of the hammock to provide bottom insulation. With a top quilt or a regular sleeping bag, a down quilt is the best option to properly insulate yourself at night.
If the hefty price tag of an under quilt turns you off, you can simply use your sleeping pad with a sleeping bag. This will work just fine in a hammock. The biggest drawback is that it may be difficult to stay underneath the pad for the entire night. Some people solve this by inserting their sleeping pad directly into their sleeping bag. Even if they toss and turn in the night, the sleeping pad will go with them and keep their bottoms well insulated.
For some people, a sleeping pad is too narrow to help insulate the shoulders. Depending on how your hammock is set up and the position you sleep in, the area around your shoulders may get cold. To solve this, some sleeping pads are sold with “wings” that extend the pad in both directions. These “wings” create a cross shaped sleeping pad. You can easily modify your sleeping pad by cutting sections of another foam pad and sticking them to the sides with tape. For beginners not ready to invest in quilts, get great insulation with some creative tricks.
While hammocks are best enjoyed in the sun, any given camping trip might run into spots of bad weather. Just because you’re in a hammock doesn’t mean that you can’t stay protected from foul weather. Bring a rainfly and enjoy the pitter patter of raindrops as you fall asleep dry and cozy.
Rainflies come in numerous shapes and different materials. The most basic rainflies are blue plastic tarps purchased at the hardware store. These tarps are durable, cheap and effective at keeping water out. However, they are very heavy and add a lot of extra weight to your pack.
Specialized rainflies exist for the hammock camper that wants a better option than the blue tarp. These flies are made out of silnylon, a lightweight waterproof material. It is several times lighter than a blue tarp, but is just as waterproof. These rainflies are already popular amongst ultralight backpackers that are content to camp on the ground under a tarp. They can be set up with a ridgeline and a couple of stakes to keep the sides taut.
Different shapes exist that offer varying degrees of protection. A diamond rainfly may offer decent rain cover and cuts a bit of weight, but suffers in heavy wind conditions. A hexagon covers a greater amount of area, but you have to now stake four corners instead of just two. In the heaviest squalls, there are rainflies that can completely envelope your hammock. These transform your hammock into a floating tent that gives you protection on every front. Many of these shelters will have doors that you can open and close to enter your suspended fortress as you please. Learn more about choosing the perfect rainfly for your next trip.
While bugs aren’t that much of a problem in the colder months, as the temperature climbs, the mosquitoes come out to play. In the warm months, it’s important to stay protected from the bloodsucking critters. You can get complete insect protection in a hammock with specially designed mosquito nets.
There are a couple of different options to choose from when picking a bug net. Certain nets are designed specifically for use with a hammock. These nets are designed like large cylinders nets with two open loops at each end. The hammock is strung through the two open ends and a drawstring tightens the ends once the hammock is inside. The net is also suspended with a ridgeline to keep it off your face when in the hammock.
Another way is to simply use all purpose mosquito netting and drape it over a ridgeline. Let the ends fall to the ground or tie them together once inside the hammock to create a barrier.
Sometimes the best defense is to avoid camping near hubs of mosquito activity. Stay away from camping near large pools of stagnant water where mosquitoes breed. The shore of that crystal clear lake might seem like a great campsite, but it’s also mosquito heaven. Just moving a few hundred feet away from the edge of the lake can reduce the amount of mosquito activity. If the buggers are unavoidable, don’t be afraid to give yourself a nice dosing of mosquito repellent before bed.
Some hammocks have mosquito netting directly attached to the hammock. These hammocks provide decent protection, but they only cover the top half of the hammock. If the blood suckers are persistent, it won't stop them. I’ve woken up to find that mosquitoes have bitten through the nylon!
Straps or Cords?
Photo: Serac Hammock
When hammocking, it is always better to use tree straps instead of raw rope. Many hammock manufacturers will include a pair of rope or paracord and market it as their “suspension system”. This is very misleading and should be ignored by the savvy hammocker. Only using rope to tie your hammock can dig into the bark and severely damage the tree.
Use tree straps to spread out the pressure being applied to the tree and prevent any unnecessary damage. You’re using a living organism to get that comfortable hang, so please do what you can to limit your impact. Be careful to choose strong trees that can withstand the horizontal force you’ll be applying to it from the hammock. Don’t hang from younger trees. Err on the side of caution and choose trees with thick trunks and strong branches.
Safety and Leave No Trace
As always, be safe when doing anything in the outdoors. It’s your responsibility to make sure that you and your camping buddies avoid dangerous situations. Always inspect your gear for any defects or signs of damage beforehand. The last thing you want is to jump into your hammock and accidentally rip through the fabric because you didn’t notice a tear. To be safe, never hang higher than you’re willing to fall.
Before you pack your camping hammock, be sure you're allowed to hang hammocks from trees in the area you plan to camp. It can't hurt to call ahead and ask at the ranger station. When picking a place to set up the hammock, choose sturdy trees that can support your full weight. Avoid dead trees, their core may have rotted away and your weight could cause them to snap. Be aware of what is above you as well. Make sure there are no dead or sickly looking branches high up that look like they could break off and fall. If you are camping in the winter, snow and ice can add additional weight that pushes these branches past their breaking point. Take a good look at the canopy and look for large dead branches that may have fallen and gotten snagged. These are known as widowmakers and they can be shaken loose by wind or perhaps somebody tying a hammock to one of the trees they’re resting in. Make sure not to tie to a tree that has any of these and that you won’t be in their path when setting up your hammock.
In a survival situation, having a hammock can be a great resource. The bright colors and large surface area are great signal flags for rescue crews. You can fly the hammock as a large kite or flag that can be highly visible for miles around. You can also use your hammock as an emergency sleeping bag if your original bag gets lost or ends up wet and unusable. Fill your hammock with pine needles, moss, grass and leaves to act as insulation. The hammock will keep it all together so you can crawl inside and stay relatively warm. If you are desperate for shelter, you can even use it to create a bivvy.
This list of potential uses goes on: make a makeshift backpack to carry any tools or useful items you come across, use pieces of the hammock to patch gear or clothing, create a sail for a raft in case you need to get across a body of water, and even collect rainwater.
Get creative. Necessity is the mother of invention and there are plenty of ways to use your hammock when you are in an emergency situation.
Find the original article, “The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Hammock Camping” on Serac’s website.
Cover photo: Christin Healey
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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.