Pass/Fail: Hammock Camping

If you’ve come across campers hanging blissfully above the cold, hard ground, you might have wondered: How hard can it be? Our scout finds out.

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A backpacker doesn’t need an excuse to go backpacking. But this trip felt more urgent than others. I had been working at a crowded biological research station in the Appalachians of North Carolina, eating, sleeping, and snoring with a dozen others in close quarters. Spilling 12 servings of boiling spaghetti in my lap was the last straw. I needed to excuse myself from communal living for a while.

I grabbed a map and highlighted the 53-mile AT-Bartram Trail loop I’d had my eye on for weeks. But with only two days for the whole hike, I needed to go fast and light. Tent? Pah! I had a 1-pound hammock I’d been wanting to take on a serious trip.

Using the hammock would spare both bulk and weight. And without having to look for a flat patch of ground, site selection would be a breeze. If it rained, as the forecast suggested, I’d be dangling above the wet ground—not lying in a puddle.

I’d used my hammock for summer car camping and figured the only real difference would be adding a fly. Easy. My tent fly was longer than my hammock, and waterproof is waterproof. I was certain it would suffice.

Dusk settled as I parked at the Wayah Bald trailhead. Copper-topped beeches signaled the end of fall. Steely clouds hung over the distant mountains, but the sky above the bald was clear. I shut the car door. There I was: a woman, a hammock, and a long way to go.

So I walked 5 miles and congratulated myself on knocking my weekend goal down to 48.

I poked around my first stop, Cold Spring Shelter, by headlamp. The area by the shelter seemed more hospitable than the wind-fanned ridge designated for overflow camping. Nearby, I found two torso-size poplar trees about a body length apart. The spacing wasn’t ideal, but compared with their neighbors—trees that were dead, spindly, or too far apart—they seemed like the best choice. I tightened a loop of accessory cord around each trunk and clipped the hammock ends to each loop. I laid my sleeping bag out and swung into bed and closed my eyes.

And started to shiver.

My sleeping pad lined the hammock, and my sleeping bag was rated to 30 degrees, but I was wrapped top and bottom in refrigerated October air; without the earth underneath it, my thin pad couldn’t hold the heat. So I put on my down puffy. And my rainpants, raincoat, and hat.

Warming up only allowed me to focus on other discomforts. I had selected trees that were a little too close together, and my butt folded the hammock darn near in half. Gravity trumped every effort to stay horizontal. No matter what position I started in, I ended up a pile of limbs in the lowest point of the hammock. I fell asleep in a tiny ball.

Without tent walls to shut me off from the sunrise, I awoke with it. I was pleased to discover only a minor crick in my neck. Sure, I had slept poorly, but not enough to dissuade me from trying again.

After a 30-mile day that ended with sore feet and drippy weather, I was desperate to find a good spot to hang. The forest floor tilted like the deck of a sinking ship, but what does slope matter to a suspended sleeper? I hung my rig and draped the fly from my overhead rope.

The dome-shaped fly puckered in all the wrong places. The guylines didn’t reach the ground, so staking the thing out was impossible. I hoped for a breezeless night and layered up for bed.

Naturally, the wind started howling at around 1 a.m., blowing the fly aside until there was nothing to stop the horizontal rain. I groped through sleep fog and real fog, tugging on my rainpants and jacket, then retreated inside my dampening sleeping bag.

My body was still funneling downward in the poorly rigged hammock, but now it wasn’t alone. Water, of course, is also adept at finding the low point. By 4 a.m., my butt was submerged. I couldn’t sleep, so I packed up and started walking.

The next 18 miles were slow going, mainly due to the 5 extra pounds my gear had taken on in water weight.

I arrived at the car, tired and bedraggled. A woman, a hammock, and a feeling of damp disappointment.

The Verdict: FAIL

I should have searched out appropriately spaced trees, rigged my hammock properly, and brought a tarp sized for the job. Instead, I turned the hammock’s strengths into liabilities.
Use these tips (right) to avoid my mistakes.

Hammock Camping 101

Stay warm. Sleeping pads help, but they tend to slip around—or out of the hammock—during the night. They can also compromise comfort by preventing your hammock from hugging your body like it’s meant to. If you expect temps below 40F, invest in an underquilt ($100 to $250, depending on the temperature rating), which hangs beneath you and provides a pocket of insulated air to keep you warm.

Seek sheltered sites.Wind will chill you faster in a hammock than in a tent.

Upgrade your fly. Your best bet for weather protection is a silnylon hammock-specific fly (not a tent fly). A tarp will suffice if it’s long and wide enough. To rig a tarp, hang a taut “ridgeline” rope between your two trees. Tie the ridgeline below the suspension straps so your tarp stays close even when your bodyweight sags the hammock. Stake it for security. If it gets stuffy, activate porch mode: Prop up one edge of the tarp with a pair of trekking poles.

Perfect your geometry. Your suspension lines should drop away from the tree at a 30-degree angle to the trunk. A sharper angle will amplify lateral and vertical force, straining your gear and the tree. Look for thigh-wide (or greater) trunks 15 to 20 feet apart. Opt for suspension straps over bark-damaging rope.

Hone your sleeping technique. Hammocking shouldn’t be a banana-shaped experience. For a flatter lay, keep your body at a diagonal. Angle your head off to one side and your legs to the other.

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