If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent most, if not all of your life, camping in a tent or under a tarp on the ground. It’s the classic camping method and has been around since the beginning of time it seems. Ground dwelling (a term used by outdoor enthusiasts to describe tent or tarp campers) is the most popular form of camping without a doubt. I remember spending countless summer nights in our family tent as a child. I loved falling asleep to the sounds of the forest while staring up at a star filled sky and breathing in that crisp mountain air. Actually, I still love falling asleep that way! But these days I use a different method called hammock camping.
What Is Hammock Camping?
So, what exactly is hammock camping? Well, it’s pretty self explanatory actually. It simply means sleeping and lounging in a hammock hung between two trees, rocks, or other sturdy structure. It allows you to be up off of the ground and suspended a few feet in the air. Modern camping hammocks are made of extremely light, yet sturdy materials, which can support body weights up to roughly 350 pounds. These hammocks typically pack down to sizes comparable to a softball or football depending on the make and model.
There are literally hundreds of hammock vendors out there these days. You can typically find them at outdoor outfitter stores, Amazon.com, WalMart, and other large chain stores that offer an outdoor recreation department. You can’t just hang up any old hammock and expect to get a great night’s sleep however. There are a few things you need to keep in mind when choosing a hammock suitable for camping. I highly discourage you from buying a camping hammock from the “big box” stores as they are typically not suitable for overnight use, even though they may be labeled as such. My recommendation is to visit an outdoor outfitter store or contact one of the many online hammock “cottage” vendors.
- Length – Hammocks can range in length from about 3 feet to 12 feet. The smaller 3-6 foot hammocks are designed primarily for children, and are most often used as “day hammocks”. Day hammocks are not meant to be slept in. They are usually used for just sitting around and relaxing for an afternoon. They are way too small in length to sleep in and are typically made of less durable materials. The most common length used for overnight camping is 11 feet. This length allows plenty of room to lay down comfortably and to get diagonal in the hammock, which is how you achieve a flat lay for sleeping.
- Width – The width of a hammock is detrimental to it’s comfort. Just as you need one that is long enough for your body, you also need one wide enough to allow you to lay diagonally across the center-line of it. Lying diagonally gets your body flatter so that you can sleep comfortably without folding yourself in half like a “V”. Hammock widths range from about 4 feet to 8 feet. The wider the hammock, the more spread out and flat you can get.
- Material – There are many different materials that camping hammocks can be made out of. And, there are newer, stronger materials being developed all the time. Materials used include rip stop nylon, cotton, and polyester. Nylon is great for camping hammocks as it is quick drying and durable. Cotton is the softest and most comfortable material, but it is horrible for a camping hammock as it will absorb moisture and take much longer to dry. Polyester is very durable and dries quickly like Nylon. When choosing a hammock for overnight camping stay away from cotton!
Why Sleep In A Hammock?
I’ve been hammock camping for about two years now and am absolutely hooked. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of occasions where I bring a tent instead. But, my first choice is always a hammock. Sleeping in a hammock has been medically proven to increase blood flow to the brain, is much more comfortable than a ground mat or inflatable mattress as there are no pressure points, and keeps the spine and neck aligned much more naturally than a mat and pillow.
I can personally vouch for the comfort and back support a hammock offers. I have had lower back and shoulder pain when waking up most mornings for the past several years. When I sleep in a hammock those pains are non-existent in the morning. Many people think that you can only sleep on your back when in a hammock. This is the most popular position to sleep in, but by no means is it the only one. I routinely sleep on my side in mine.
Another advantage to using a hammock for camping is site selection. With a tent you need a level and debris free area of ground to set up a tent. This can be difficult in remote backcountry locations where larger established camp sites do not exist. With a hammock however you can camp anywhere you want as long as you have two trees that you can hang up between. The hammock also acts as a “chair” when you are not laying in it. You can sit on the edge of it and keep your rear end off of the ground if needed.
Tarps, Top Quilts, Sleeping Pads, and Under Quilts
There are a couple of necessary accessories that you’ll need as a hammock camper. These items are mandatory (in my opinion) for a safe and comfortable night in a hammock.
- Tarp – A tarp is not necessary if you are absolutely sure you will not be encountering any rain, mist, or snow on your trip. If the weather has even the slightest possibility of turning bad on you, take a tarp. Tarps are hung over your hammock in an “A Frame” set up and simply block any rain, snow, or wind from getting in your hammock. They can be set up in many different configurations for different situations.
- Top Quilt/Sleeping Bag – A top quilt or sleeping bag is necessary for warmth throughout the night. A top quilt resembles a sleeping bag from about knee level down to the feet. But from knee level up it is open and square like a quilt on your bed would be. This allows you to more easily remove the quilt from your upper body should you need to cool down or exit the hammock. A sleeping bag is a perfectly fine option in place of a top quilt. Just make sure that whichever you choose is rated down to the coldest temperature you expect to encounter on your trip.
- Under Quilt/Sleeping Pad – An under quilt or sleeping pad is needed without question. Don’t even think of camping overnight in a hammock without one or the other. Because you are suspended in the air in a hammock you can lose body heat very quickly through convection. This occurs when cold air passes underneath you and wicks away your body heat because there is no space to create “dead air” underneath you for your body to warm. Underquilts look like a sleeping bag that has been cut open from top to bottom. It attaches to the outside of your hammock system beneath you to create a space the length of your body filled with non moving air. Your body then warms this air, keeping you perfectly warm and comfortable throughout the night. Using a sleeping pad will also help keep your backside warm, but is very difficult to keep in place as you move in your hammock throughout the night. Underquilts are made with both real down as well as synthetic. Camping overnight in a hammock without either an underquilt or suitable insulated pad almost certainly guarantees the onset of hypothermia so don’t do it!
Popular Hammock Cottage Vendors
As I stated earlier there are literally hundreds of company’s out there that make hammocks. Most of those manufacturers are making what I call “day hammocks”. They are made of cheaper materials, are shorter and narrower, and many lack the strength to hold a heavier person. These hammocks are more suited for lounging around during the day while hanging out at the lake or on a day hike. A true camping hammock will cost you a bit more money, but the comfort and safety it provides are beyond worth it. Below is a list of links to some of the more prominent camping hammock vendors. I highly recommend you check them out if you are serious about purchasing a hammock.
I hope that you found this article helpful in understanding the joy of camping in a hammock. There are many different brands and styles of camping hammocks out there. The important thing to remember is that you get what you pay for. Don’t compromise your comfort and safety just to save a buck or two. If you have any questions regarding hammock camping please feel free to leave a comment or send me a message using the Contact page. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to my email newsletter to keep up on the latest posts and news! See you on the trail!