Conjure up that image of you in your backyard on a summer day with a gentle breeze rustling the leaves and a cold iced tea (or spirited, cold beverage of choice) at your feet. There is gentle sway of that rope-formed, wood-ended hammock that nestles your torso and provides you both the comfort and the peace of mind that you, my friend,  are living well.

Why would we not consider this for our shelter needs in the back country?

For those of you that typically camp above treeline, these thoughts are relatively moot as you simply need a static anchor for your hammock and without trees, well….have fun suspending your mass between two trekking poles or anchoring on two conveniently distanced boulders.

However, for those that are willing to pursue an alternative to your typical search-for-the-right-sized-spot, stake-out-your-perimeter, set-up-your-poles, and now adjust/tighten/tweak/twist. There is a certain simplicity to making a hammock rig your shelter of choice.  Depending on your hammock bivy of choice, it kind of goes like this:

1. Find trees, the appropriate distance apart (but there is wiggle room here).

2. Tie a couple knots (Or don’t.  More on that later.)

3. Guy out your weather canopy.

4. Tighten and recline.

Is this over simplified?  Of course, but the point is for you to consider something different that may enhance your backpacking experience. The set-up is realistically very simple and potentially much easier in areas with heavy rock beds or dense 1-3 year tree growth that makes tent placement a chore.

Now, I am going to be the last person to tell you that a hammock is the be-all, end-all solution and that you can go ahead and chuck your tent in the nearest cylindrical garbage receptacle. I am just here to highlight my pros and cons of both and let YOU assign value on the components that you feel are the most important to your individual needs when afield.

First, the hammock’s pros:

  • Reasonably lightweight and with no poles, the space required in your pack is relatively small.
  • Easy set up.  With two adequately spaced trees, it takes me 7-10 minutes to have the hammock and rain fly set up (using a Hennessy A-Sym).
  • Very good rain coverage.  The hammock naturally reduces the area that you need covered just in the physics of hanging and thus it takes minimal material to keep you dry (and less material means less weight that you are toting around).
  • Ground moisture is not an issue in wet conditions.
  • Comfort by position.  And this is where the debate begins.  I was very comfortable to nap for a couple hours (mid afternoon siesta, anyone?) but all night was more challenging.  I think you have to retrain your body’s expectations if you plan to sleep in a hammock routinely.  The lack of a parallel support source is a little difficult to get used to.  Think about it.  What are we all used to sleeping on at home?  A flat, minimally flexible, cushioned mattress.  Some say that a hammock is the most comfortable night they have ever spent in the woods.  Others are incredulous that anyone would subject themselves to such lack of support.  I maintain that there is room for both.
  • Comfort by climate/temperature.  Here is where I give the hammock a gold star.  In warm or humid climates, it is significantly more comfortable (for me anyway) to have air flow surrounding you.  How many times have you been on your closed cell mat in a tent in the middle of summer and have sweat, where you received no air circulation?  The hammock is the great equalizer because your back can be as cool as your front!

Now the cons:

  • I tie knots about as well as a bottlenose dolphin, so the fact that my ability to stay airborne depends on knots makes me squeamish.  However, there is a handy gadget called a Figure 9, made just for us former Boy Scouts who had to cheat to get a knot-tying badge.  You can either carry fewer ounces and be a good knot aficionado, or you can carry two Figure 9’s and rest easy that you will not be awakened by a sudden plunge onto the ground cover.
  • Dry gear storage is an issue.  Without upgrading to a larger rain fly, there are no vestibules so you need to center your gear under your hammock (which just so happens to be where you will be entering and exiting from with a bottom-loading hammock like the Hennessy).
  • Comfort by position (see above).
  • Comfort by climate/temperature.  Unfortunately, it is cold if you don’t insulate your backside when the temperature dips.  There are quilts and pads to help with this but I just wanted you to be aware that sixty-five degrees with nothing underneath you is shiveringly cold….

There may be other pluses and minuses and as I tinker around, and I will try to note them in the comments or elsewhere. Ultimately I am left with thinking that, if chosen carefully, there are probably expeditions where a hammock’s simplicity and wistful ambiance are a good fit.  Think summer trips along rivers or streams or perhaps as your shelter for canoe/kayak trips to get you off the shore and away from any tidal tendencies.  Either way, don’t dismiss it as an afterthought and risk not experiencing something that could shift your perspective on how you experience the outdoors.


Leave a Reply