You heard about this hammock camping thing and decided to give it a try. As a new hammock enthusiast, you might wonder what on earth you should buy. Lucky you, your options are greater and more plentiful than they have ever been. Unlucky you, this means you could get stuck forever just trying to find the perfect setup.
You can relax now, we’re here to help you find the best hammock for you. Let’s build your hammocking system!
A basic hammock system consists of:
- Hammock (that was your freebie)
- Ultralight tarp for protection against rain and wind
- Sleeping quilt. Usually draped above you to reduce convective heat loss.
- You can substitute a mummy bag here if desired.
- Hammock Underquilt: This specific type of quilt hangs on the outside of the hammock. It reduces air movement around you, reducing convective heat loss.
So, which type of hammock should you buy for camping?
There are two main backpacking hammock designs on the market:
1. Gathered End Asymmetric Hammocks
2. Bridge Hammocks
Each design features a relatively flat sleeping position. This is in contrast to the banana-shaped positions provided by backyard furniture hammocks. Both designs often feature integrated or removable bug netting. Most feature fine netting to keep out every possible bug, including the infamous no-see-um. Besides the hammock there are some other components you’ll want. These components take your hammock and turn it into complete a hammock system. The goal here is for that system to be something you’ll look forward to using at the end of every hike.
Gathered End Asymmetric Hammock
This is by far the most prevalent camping hammock design. Its two most distinct features give its name:
1. The ends are gathered into a single bunch, and
2. Its shape allows the sleeper to lay diagonally across its center-line. The asymmetric shape that allows this is what gives it the name. Sleeping that way creates a flatter sleeping position than sleeping along the center-line.
Note that the width of the hammock must be enough to allow you to sleep this way, as well. A narrow hammock, even if it is asymmetric, will not cut it. It has to have enough material to allow for a flatter sleeping position.
The gathered end asymmetric hammock has two advantages over the bridge hammock (discussed below):
1. Lighter weight
2. Roomier, less constrictive feel
This person seems pretty comfy. Don’t you think?
This design uses flat, straight, wide ends. A spreader bar reinforces those ends and keeps them spread wide. This gives the bridge hammock a trough-like or half-cylinder shape. This results in a flatter sleeping position, with less body adjustments. But, it has two potential drawbacks:
1. The spreader bars add weight to the system. Although, most designs allow you to use trekking poles as substitutes.
2. You may find that it’s tubular shape is more constrictive on your body.
It’s a matter of personal preference, but some people enjoy the “trough-like” shape of a bridge hammock. With the included spreaders, bridge hammocks can run slightly heavier than gathered-end hammocks.
Now, How Do You Choose a Hammock Tarp?
There are five main kinds of hammock tarps. You might not need to consider all types, but we’ll go over them just so you know.
For simplicity, we’ll list them in increasing order. #1 being the most easy setup but minimal coverage. #5 being the most involved setup with the most coverage.
- Asymmetrical (A-sym) tarp: A-sym tarps come in a parallelogram shape. The ridge line hangs between the two furthest apart corners of the parallelogram. An A-sym hammock tarp gives the least shelter and requires you to lie in a specific direction.
- Diamond tarp: A diamond tarp for your hammock comes in the shape of a square or diamond. It is symmetrical, and the ridge line hangs between the two furthest corners. A diamond tarp provides more coverage than the A-Sym tarp.
This hammock camper has chosen to use a diamond-shape tarp above his hammock. Diamond-shape tents are best for mild-weather climates where heavy wind, rain, and cold are not expected.
- Hex / Catenary-cut (cat-cut) Tarp: A hex tarp, as you might guess, comes in a hexagonal shape. It has convex edges (catenary-cut) to keep the tarp tout. It provides a moderate amount of coverage, more than the diamond or a-sym tarps.
This caternary cut, or hexagonal hammock tarp offers good three-season coverage, and may work for some moderate winter use. Photo credit: Andreas Hagendorf (instagram @nordic_gear)This hex-cut hammock tarp was hung very low to the ground, but could still use some tightening across the top line. When using a hexagonal tarp like this, hanging it closer to the ground can provide more protection for a windy, cold night of hammock camping.
- Rectangle Tarp: The rectangle hammock tarp is a basic rectangle. The ridge line runs up the middle lengthwise. Think hot dog fold. Because the corners are a full 90 degrees, it provides a little more coverage than the hex tarp.Rectangular hammock tarps like this one provide slightly more protection than hex-cut tarps. This one needs to be hung slightly lower in comparison to the hammock. The bottom edges of your tarp should lie below the imaginary plane your butt rests on.
- Winter / 4-Season Tarp: The fullest of all, the winter or 4-season tarp is like the hex tarp. But, it adds flaps to the ends of the tarp, often called doors. You can close these doors together at the ends of your tarp to achieve full coverage. This one takes the most work to hang out of all five types.This closed-end, four-season hammock tarp is made specifically to block out all wind from all directions. This makes it the most protective style of tarp you can buy for your hammock.
Not one of these tarps is going to be perfect for every situation, but that’s ok. You don’t need one tarp to be perfect for every situation. When you’re starting out, find a versatile tarp that will be great for most of the camping you do. With all except the a-sym tarp, you can pitch the tarp higher or lower to decrease or increase coverage. A catenary-cut hex tarp is a good choice for most 3-season campers, but your preference may vary.
Watch Out For Your Butt While Hammock Camping in Cold Weather
You wouldn’t sleep on the ground without something beneath you. You probably use a closed-cell foam pad or inflatable sleeping pad to guard yourself. Why? The ground is not only hard and jagged, it steals your body heat.
It is the same when you camp in a hammock, minus the hard and bumpy surface. The air doesn’t stick in your side like a rock, but it will steal your body heat with gusto. If there is wind, this is can happen immediately. In that case, you can find yourself shivering in 60 degree weather.
You have some options for protecting yourself from convective heat loss in a hammock.
- Use a double-layer hammock along with your existing ground pad. This can be a favorable option if you want to commit to as few new purchases as possible. The double layer hammock has two layers, and you stick your pad between the two layers of fabric. This extra layer of fabric adds weight, but it will hold the ground pad in place. Double-layer hammocks are popular for this reason.
- Use an under-quilt. You may prefer to use an under-quilt designed to increase the warmth and comfort of a hammock. Unlike a ground pad, it will hang along the sides of your hammock, insulating you further. You won’t have to spend energy inflating a sleep pad, and it can double as an extra blanket in case of emergency. It also increases the weight and expense of a hammock system. But, it doesn’t cost any more than a nice air sleeping pad.
This hammock has a hammock underquilt hanging below it. The quilt hangs close to the hammock so that with the weight of the camper, the hammock will be nestled down inside the underquilt.
Hammock costs and weight compared to ground systems
How much do hammock systems weigh and cost? How does that weight and expense compare to conventional ground systems?
As mentioned earlier, the hammock market is full of great new products. This is wonderful for you, the new hammock camper. But, it doesn’t make it any easier to compare hammocks and ground systems.
Each hammock system has several popular designs and an almost infinite number of configurations. Many brands have different options and accessories. Purposes of some accessories overlap. So, there is no “standard.” You won’t find two systems that give you the exact same experience. That makes price comparisons more abstract.
Below, you’ll find a comparison of possible setups. Each system offers standard protection against rain, ground water, wind, and bugs. Each system also includes underside insulation, through either an under-quilt or a sleeping pad.
You will not see topside insulation here, because that component wouldn’t change across systems. You can see that hammock system weight and cost are similar to comparable ground systems. In the event that the tent has any advantage, it is a slight one. You then weigh the many advantages to hammock camping against that slight advantage. Chances are, you’ll end up in a hammock.
And of course, your hammock doubles as a nice relaxing chair at your camp site while you’re not sleeping. Eat, read a book, or just enjoy the scenery!
In conclusion, here are some actors to consider when making your decision:
- Where you usually camp or backpack
- Whether you want a one-person or multi-person shelter
- If you have already invested in gear that is optimal for one system or the other
- Whether you are struggling to sleep well with your current system
Gathered End Asymmetric Hammock System, Entry Level
Gathered End Asymmetric Hammock System, Mid-Level
Gathered End Asymmetric Hammock System, Top End
Bridge hammock system
· BMBH Hammock (UL) , including webbing suspension ($190, 23 oz)
· Tri-Fold Alloy UL Trekking Poles (as substitute for spreader bars)
· Greylock, 3-season under-quilt ($190, 14 oz)
· Hex Tarp with guylines and stakes ($100, 16 oz)
Ultralight hammock system
· Dream Hammock Darien UL, including suspension hardware ($180, 13 oz)
· Hammock Gear Phoenix 3/4-length, 3-season under-quilt ($144, 9 oz)
· MLD Cuben Hex Tarp with guylines and stakes ($300, 10 oz)
· Tarptent Contrail ($225, 24 oz)
· Guylines and stakes (included, 2 oz)
· NeoAir, Air mattress ($160, 12 oz)
Total: $385, 38 oz (2.4 lbs) Based on TarpTent and Therm-a-Rest products and pricing
Ultralight tarp/bivy system
· Gossamer Gear SilTwinn Tarp with guylines and stakes ($175, 16 oz)
· Closed-cell foam sleeping pad ($20, 5 oz)
· Moutain Laural Designs Water-resistant bivy sack ($170, 8 oz)
Total: $365, 29 oz (1.8 lbs) Based on Gossamer Gear and Mountain Laurel Designs products and pricing