If you believe that sleeping well and camping should go together, this article is for you. If you’ve ever wondered how nice it might be to get off of the wet, hard, uneven ground, you are in for a treat. If you’ve ever packed a heavy tent for three days, your shoulders will thank you for reading onward.
If you’re a three-season camping enthusiast, your tent may be in for a rude awakening. If you camp mostly in areas with plentiful trees, you may not be pitching one for a while. Why, you ask?
I believe that in these conditions, you may find that a hammock is the best overall sleep setup. This is a comparison, so judge for yourself, and don’t sell your tent just yet. But, you’ll see why we believe hammocking has distinct advantages. The advantages of hammock camping apply especially to lightweight campers and overland backpackers.
What Do You Lose by Using a Hammock
If you need a light pack for physical reasons or want to cover many miles, using a hammock will…
Allow you to avoid sacrifices like:
- Camping earlier than desired due to limited campsite availability
- Carrying heavy, bulky gear (e.g. plush air mattress) to improve camp comfort and sleep.
- Leaving items behind to make room for rigid tent poles and stakes
I write this as an experience camper who has enjoyed tent camping my whole life. I chose to try hammock camping out of a desire to see even more stars at night during a meteor shower. It may seem silly, but it opened the door to a new way of camping for me. And, as I’ve spent more time in a hammock, I’ve come to appreciate many benefits. I believe that hammocks are a more practical camping shelter, especially here in Texas.
The primary advantage of hammocks
Your campsite options are going from few to many. In locations with plenty of trees, your options for hammock campsites are nearly unlimited. In Big Bend National Park, for example, most of the flat terrain is rocky and littered with cacti. The cleared sites are in busy, populated nooks, like little suburbias.
The mountainous parts are rocky, sloping, and wooded. The backcountry areas suitable for ground camping are few. And they’re first come, first serve. You could hike all day to reach a crowded, overused campsite, only to find it full.
All this is completely irrelevant to a hammock camper, who can set up in any of the wooded areas of the park. If you can find two trees that are 12-18 feet apart, you can hang a hammock without any regard to the surface below it. Even if that jagged rocky surface has cactus jutting out in every direction.
With such increase in usable campsites, your hiking and exploring options improve greatly. You can hike, fish, or relax all day, as long as you have trees. Now, you have a smaller chance of getting caught in a stretch of terrain where you can’t camp. This flexibility gives you more hike time, which can lead to hiking longer distances. The freedom this provides you is unheard of with ground camping. And it this freedom outweighs any increased weight of a hammock system, if it ever exists.
Further Advantages of Hammocks Over Tents
A hammock can make the world your campground, and that alone may be enough. But, there’s more! Hammock systems have these advantages over ground systems:
- Camp comfort and sleep quality. Your enjoyment of your trip is directly affected by how well you sleep. And the comfort of hammock camping may surprise you. The majority of people who try it report that they sleep better for longer in a hammock. Also, if you have aching joints, hip, back, or shoulder issues, a hammock can provide relief. Getting better rest allows you to recover more quickly and hike more the next day. With ground camping, better sleep would mean carrying a heavier pack. With hammock camping, that is not usually the case.
- A hammock makes a comfy camp seat, so you won’t need to bring a camping chair. One less item to haul in!
- Hammocks have a fast Setup: With some practice, you will be able to set up a hammock faster than a tent or ground tarp. You won’t need to scout the ground for ants, rocks, thorns, etc. You won’t need to clear these hazards even if they exist. Setting up a hammock involves clipping two nylon straps around trees. That should take you just a minute or two.
- Reproducible and consistent setup, with flexibility. You can set up your hammock the exact same way, night after night. With ground camping, the setup can change every night. You have to worry about sloping, ground cover, and uneven surfaces. If you ever need to improvise, your hammock can adapt. In a pinch, you can usually use it to sleep dry on the ground. You should learn how to do that before you hit the trail.
- Leave No Trace. You can practice Leave No Trace (LNT) using a hammock. You’ll leave even less trace than with the smallest of tents. Hammocks do not crush or smother the plants and insects below them. And with more campsite options, you can avoid further impacting popular campsites. Note: To avoid impacting trees, use wide tree-straps. Almost all backpacking hammocks come with wide, tree-friendly, easy-to-hang straps.
- Get Some Peace and Quiet with Hammock Camping. You can get away from busy camping areas and find solitude. This makes it easier to relax in your campsite before bed and to get a good night of rest. If you don’t want the crowded social scene found in many park campsites, hammocks are a blessing. And when better campsites exist, you can use them. You can be more protected, wake up to a better view, fight fewer mosquitos at dinner, etc.
- You can camp near water more easily. Often it is faster and more convenient to camp near a water source. If you are hiking a trail where water sources are sparse, this is huge. With a hammock, you can camp near a water source even if there are no suitable ground campsites nearby.
- Protection yourself from rain and ground water. When rain strikes, campsites are not always the most pleasant place to be. The ground is wet, everything is wet, even your tent floor is wet. Without an extra tarp, you’ll be wet too. But alas, you have your hammock to use as a chair! And it’s covered by a tarp! You can relax, sit, and cook from the dry comfort of your hammock. This is much safer and more comfortable than trying to cook in a tent, which you should never do.
Hammocks do have some limitations and disadvantages.
Nothing is ever perfect, and the same is true for hammocks. You’ll want to know these limitations before relying on a hammock in the backcountry:
- To be set up well, you need strong enough trees.
- A hammock is a one-person shelter. Two-person hammocks may be ok for two people lounging. You don’t want to share a hammock with another adult while sleeping.
Hammocks can also have some less obvious drawbacks:
- Hammock system weight may vary, especially for cold weather. This is not an easy comparison. Hammock systems have several popular designs and configurations. Tents and ground systems have even more. Which ones should we compare? Trying to match sleep quality, campsite comfort, and impact makes it even more complex. How do we ensure that we’re comparing apples to apples?
- Hammocks and hammock accessories have improved over the years. Many hammock setups are much lighter than ground sleeping options. The exception is in hammocks capable of colder conditions. Cold-weather hammock camping requires a protective quilt underneath the hammock. Although negligible, this can make it heavier than an ultralight ground system. Still, in an apples to apples comparison, I still think the hammock wins. Any weight difference is not significant enough to be a solid disadvantage for hammocks.
Initial Learning Curve of backpacking with a hammock
Most backpackers are already familiar with how to setup a ground shelter. And, most people are already used to sleeping on the ground, or something placed on the ground. We grow up sleeping on them (beds).
In contrast, many backpackers and campers are unfamiliar with hammock camping. There is a bit of an art to setting up a camping or backpacking hammock and sleeping in one. So, learning to hammock camp well may take a little time. The learning curve is not difficult, though, and the benefits are more than worth it.
Sleeping comfort is different for everyone, especially while camping
As mentioned earlier, most people prefer the comfort of a hammock to sleeping on the ground. But…
- Some hammocks cradle the body with a slight banana bend. Some people don’t like this, but most don’t notice it. You can fix this by using a wide asymmetric hammock, or a bridge hammock.
- Some people feel a little squeezed in a hammock. You may or may not. Bridge hammocks will also reduce this feeling.
Cold comfort when hammock camping takes extra planning.
You’re use to insulating your underside as a ground sleeper. You may use a closed-cell foam pad or inflatable sleeping pad. In a camping hammock, you need something different. You are even more sensitive to cooling from underneath, especially if there is wind. Even in moderate temperatures, heat loss is a factor. You can lose significant heat to the air moving around your body.
For cold-weather hammock camping, you will need to have effective insulation underneath your hammock. Besides your topside protection (blankets or sleeping bag), you will need underside protection. A sleeping pad can work, but isn’t ideal. Under-quilts are preferable, and you can buy them with your hammock. In extreme cold you may also want complete underside wind protection. You can get this in a several ways.
You can use a full-sided tarp, so that it hangs well below the dip of your hammock. For even further protection, you can hang a tarp or space blanket below your underquilt. If there is any wind, you will at least need a large and well-pitched tarp to stay warm and dry.
Once mastered, sleeping warmly in a hammock is simple.
As with any backpacking tool or method, you need to practice all of your hammocking skills in short-term, low-risk outings. You should set up your hammock, tarp, and underquilt in a controlled environment first. Then, try it out on an easy trip in a beginner level setting.
That way, you can discover the optimal applications for your gear. You can learn the limitations of your gear, supplies, and skills. If the practice goes well, you can put it in place on longer and riskier trips. If things don’t go well, at least the discomfort was short-lived. And, you can learn and adapt to improve for the next outing. This will make you more prepared and more confident in the backcountry.