Few things are as relaxing as lying in a hammock. We do it as a hobby in the summer, so why not transfer that comfort to camping as well?
Hammock camping is one of my favorite methods of living outdoors, but there are some important things to know before you go. Between choosing a campsite, getting the proper gear, and staying responsible, here’s how to camp in a hammock.
What is Hammock Camping?
Before we dive in, let’s start by looking at what hammock camping actually is. Generally speaking, when the term “camping” is thrown around, an image of a tent appears in people’s mind. So, perhaps hammock camping is as simple as bringing a hammock to hang next to your tent?
I’m afraid that’s not quite right. Instead of using one alongside your tent, a hammock is one of those rare pieces of equipment that can be used in place of a tent. You will need a few other accessories to make it work, but it’s really as straightforward as that.
This style of outdoor living is common among backpackers and bikepackers who want to stay lightweight and mobile. While there are a few reasons why someone would choose not to pursue this route (limited space, increased exposure, being confined to a location with trees, etc.), there are plenty more that make hammock camping a rather exciting prospect. We’ll take a look at those below.
Why Hammock Camp?
So, why learn how to camp in a hammock? What are the benefits of hammock camping, as opposed to tent camping?
I’m glad you asked.
To start, a hammock is much lighter weight and more space saving than a tent. For backpackers on the go, this is the primary selling point for a hammock, instead of a tent. Now, it’s worth mentioning that you’ll need more than a hammock to have a safe and comfortable night. We’ll talk about gear in the next section, but between the hammock, the underquilt, the rainfly, and possibly a top quilt, the additional items do start to add up.
Even so, hammocks still tend to be more minimalistic, unless you found something like the Big Agnes Tiger Wall tent. Still, there are other benefits to consider. For example, a hammock will get you off the hard, sloped ground and up into the air. Say goodbye to pointy rocks and roots jabbing into your back all night, in addition to that nagging fear that the tent will collapse or leak during a torrential rain shower.
Needless to say, hammocks are far more ideal for getting a restful night’s sleep. If you’ve been avoiding the campground because you have a hard time sleeping in a tent, it might be time to try hammock camping.
Camping in a hammock requires a lot more preparation than recreational hammocking at the edge of a lake or in a forest for the day. You’ll need a hammock (obviously), but these come in all shapes and sizes. Some are double hammocks, which means they can sleep two people, while others are narrower. Some come with bug nets, others are better for side sleepers…you get the idea. Consider the type of hammock camping you want to do and pick a hammock that fits that goal the best. But aside from a hammock, here are a few other vital pieces of gear that you’ll need to have on hand:
- Underquilt. In a tent, your back is directly against the ground while you’re sleeping. Though it’s not exactly comfortable, the earth is usually warmer than the outside air, and any chill that starts to seep through can be blocked by using a good sleeping bag and mattress. But in a hammock? There’s nothing but a thin sheet of nylon between your backside and the freezing air.
An underquilt hugs the underside of your hammock, keeping you warm and cozy in your cocoon. Many people use it in place of a sleeping bag, though you could certainly use them alongside each other as well.
- Bug net. One of the big problems with hammocks is that they don’t seal all the way. There will always be an opening for bugs to enter, or at the very least, the mosquitos and flies will bite you through the thin nylon fabric of the hammock itself.
A bug net is crucial for a safe and comfortable night hammock camping. I like purchasing mine separately, as I have a preference for the type of netting that wraps all the way around the hammock. This style prevents bugs from entering through the opening of the hammock and keeps them from biting me through the nylon as well.
- Rain tarp. Given the lack of a roof, you’ll need a rain tarp to prevent water from hitting you and pooling inside your hammock. A rain tarp is usually just a sheet of polyester or nylon, treated to repel water, and it tends to be fairly lightweight and inexpensive.
- Sleeping bag/pad. Some hammocks come with a built-in bug net, which only covers the top of the hammock. If that’s the sort of hammock you have (or is the type that you want to get), your sleeping bag and pad will serve a couple of functions.
First will be the obvious: warmth and comfort. Your sleeping bag adds another insulative layer between you and the cold air, while providing some extra cushion for you to rest on. The sleeping pad can trap some heat, if you don’t want to invest in an underquilt, and will also help with the “bugs biting you through the hammock” problem. It’s not a replacement for a real bug net, but gets the job done in a pinch.
If you want to know how to camp in a hammock, there are a few tips that you’ll want to abide by. Here are a handful of the most important:
1. Never Attach Your Hammock to Dead Trees
This one should be a no brainer. Dead trees are great for firewood, and that’s about it, as far as camping goes. You never want to pitch your tent underneath one, in case a strong gust of wind knocks it over, and you certainly never want to attach your hammock to them.
How do you know if a tree is dead? Look up and check the leaves: if there aren’t any, or they look yellow, brown, and dried up, the tree is probably dead. Or at least, part of the tree is dead. Either way, you’re better off avoiding it.
Another telltale sign is when there’s an excessive amount of deadwood lying around the base of the tree. Branches that are dry and snap easily are dead, and they likely fell from a tree that’s dead or dying. Keep looking around until you find two healthy trees with lush green leaves, and no sign of deadwood scattered across the ground.
2. Hang Your Hammock Properly
This tip is a little multifaceted. Properly hanging your hammock involves more than keeping enough slack in your suspension system. You also have to consider the types of trees that you’re going to be hanging from (width, height, health, and the presence/absence of wildlife), in addition to the type of suspension system you’re using in the first place.
But first, let’s talk about the types of trees. Not just any tree will do, as we’ve already mentioned in our first tip. However, just because you find a couple of trees that are alive and healthy doesn’t mean that they’re suitable for your purposes. The trunks should have a diameter of 6 inches or more, and be spaced far enough apart to create room for your hammock to hang comfortably. You’ll get a sense for this distance through trial and error, as not all hammocks are the same size. Never hang your hammock on trees that are home to sensitive wildlife, and make sure your hammock isn’t blocking anyone’s way.
Your suspension system should be tree friendly with straps that are at least 0.75 inches wide. Ideally, they’ll be wider (some locations require 2-inch-wide straps or larger) to prevent damage to the trees. If you use rope or very narrow straps, all of the weight from the hammock will be concentrated onto a much smaller point of contact. In the process, you’ll cut into the tree, badly damaging it.
3. Stay Away from Water
At least 200 feet away, to be precise. Hammock camping follows the same Leave No Trace principles as tent camping, one of which is “dispose of waste properly.” What waste, you might ask? Well, pretty much anything you can think of, between cooking waste, human waste, plastic waste, and so the list could go on.
It might seem like a small amount, or relatively harmless in your eyes, but any amount of waste can transmit bacteria into the ecosystem. This can have a negative impact on any wildlife that depends on the nearby water source for survival, or any people who use that water in the future, after they’ve taken over your campsite.
4. Break Down Your Hammock Whenever You Leave
By nature, hammocks take up space between two trees. When left unattended, certain animals might find their way inside, or get tangled in your setup as they try to make their way through. Even beyond that, there could be the chance that a young child will find their way into the hammock and fall out.
Anytime you plan on leaving your campsite for an extended period of time, make an effort to unclip it from the trees and fold it away. It doesn’t have to be fully put away, unless you’re actually planning on changing locations. Just make sure it’s torn down enough where people and animals won’t inadvertently hurt themselves while you’re gone.
5. Research Your Campground
Most of the time, hammock camping is pretty simple. You find two trees that are a certain distance apart, set up your hammock, and that’s the long and short of it. Honestly, most campgrounds and National Parks that you stay in will feel the same way. However, there are a few exceptions, so never neglect your research.
A problem that hammock campers might run into is the existence of “endangered trees.” Certain campgrounds have them, and they don’t want to risk any damage being done to the trees. Other campgrounds just don’t have any trees at all, or at least, not enough of them to make hammocking a viable option. Always research your campsite before you leave, just to make sure you can hammock camp there in the first place.
6. Use a Drip Line
In extended rain showers, your suspension system is going to get soaked. After becoming saturated, the moisture will continue to travel down the straps and rope, slowly making its way to your hammock. If left unchecked, your hammock itself will get wet, even if your tarp is doing a good job of blocking the rain from above.
This is where a drip line comes in. You can use accessory cord, string, or anything else you have on hand, tying one to each side of your suspension system. After tying one end of the rope to your suspension cord, leave the other end to dangle. When the water hits your drip line, it will go down the rope, falling harmlessly to the ground.
7. Lie Diagonally in Your Hammock
The proper way to lie in a hammock is at an angle, usually 10-15 degrees off center. This puts you in an ergonomically flat position, removing pressure points, and giving you the most amount of comfort possible. I’d also suggest lifting the “foot” of the hammock a few inches higher than the “head” to prevent you from rolling into the middle during the night.
8. Figure Out Storage
I mentioned it briefly already, but one of the big problems with hammock camping is the lack of storage. Generally speaking, you’ll keep all of your belongings inside your backpack, laying it on the ground close by and as protected as possible. However, this can make it difficult to get anything out of your pack without leaving the warm embrace of your hammock. Not to mention, it’s hardly ideal during a rainstorm.
Something like the Sea to Summit gear sling is a lifesaver for hammock storage. You can think of the sling as a mini hammock for your backpack that can be hung underneath your main hammock. It gets your belongings off the ground, close enough to reach, and protected from the elements (since it’s lying directly underneath you and your rain tarp).
Don’t feel like spending a few bucks for a gear sling? I’d still suggest leaving your pack on the ground underneath your hammock. It will reap some of the protection offered by your rain tarp, despite remaining exposed to light flooding and animals.
Setting Up a Rain and Bug Shelter
We’ve talked about rain tarps and bug nets, but how do you go about setting them up? Since you can’t attach them to the hammock, you’ll have to set up a ridgeline to lay your tarp over. The ridgeline is just a cord that will run over your hammock, suspending the tarp. The height of this line will vary on your needs and the weather conditions, but generally speaking, lower is better. It helps with aerodynamics in strong winds, and is more ideal for keeping rain out of your space.
Toss your tarp over the ridgeline, making sure there’s tension across the entire length of it. Pull it taut on all sides, and stake it down to the ground. Simple as that, you’ve got rain and wind protection inside your hammock.
Bug nets are a little different, but for most of them, they slide like a tube over the hammock. After you’ve set your hammock up, temporarily unclip one side of it, sliding the bug net over the hammock. Attach the bug net to both ends of the hammock, and put up another ridgeline to suspend it above your face and body.