If you’re interested in switching from sleeping on the ground to sleeping in a hammock, perhaps these tips & ideas will be helpful.
Why Should I Hang?
- Comfort. In the past, I was never comfortable in a hammock, didn’t understand how anyone could sleep in them, et cetera. To clarify, I’m speaking of gathered-end hammocks, not the ones with spreader bars on the ends. (Those are less stable than gathered-end hammocks.) But over the past few years, I’ve found that I cannot sleep on the ground, even with a Z-rest pad tripled. I’d wake every 60-90 minutes to roll over, and I never got a good nights’ sleep. I figured it was worth taking a chance on a hammock. I also find that I really like the airflow. Sleeping in a hammock, surrounded by a bug netting and under a tarp, is no where near as stuffy as sleeping in a solo tent or bivy sack.
- Environmental impact. Assuming you’re using straps that are at least 1″ wide and you’re only hanging from stout-enough trees, a hammock camp has less impact on the ground than a tent. Tent sites end up becoming permanently packed ground. A hammock can hang anywhere, and that leads me to point #3.
- Ease of finding a campsite. Now that I’m a hammock convert, I’m finding acceptable campsites far more frequently. A hammock camper needs a couple of stout trees an appropriate distance apart with relatively little vegetation growing between them. I can camp on a slope. I can camp in a rocky area. I can camp where the ground is soggy. I’ve camped where a downed tree was lying between the two trees my hammock was suspended from. I’ve camped where the ground had shrubs growing beneath me. I prefer camping where the ground is clear, but it’s not a necessity. This flexibility means I can get well off the trail and camp places others haven’t – this also reduces the environmental impact of making camp.
- Expense. In addition to the hammock – which is relatively inexpensive – you’ll need extra gear. Generally, hammocks are sold without the hanging straps. That can be an advantage, as the ones I purchased are designed better than the one the hammock maker sells. That’s the absolute minimum you’ll need. I also purchased a bug netting and a tarp. If you’ll be sleeping in your hammock any time that it’s likely to get below 70°F, you’ll need something akin to an underquilt (I’ll explain that shortly). With hiking gear, lighter weight comes at a higher cost. (Fortunately, I already owned the sleeping bags I’m using with my hammock set up.)
- Comfort – specifically, the cold. When you’re sleeping on the ground, your body heat warms up a few inches of the earth underneath you. Your sleeping bag’s insulation is compressed by your bodyweight, but between it and the pad you’re on, it’s enough to keep you from getting cold. Not so with a hammock. You’re still compressing the insulation underneath you, but your body heat is being transferred to the air around you. You will get cold. You can add a bit of insulation with a sleeping pad. (When the overnight lows were in the 60’s, I was comfortable in my 45°F bag with an ensolite foam pad.) It’s better, though, to have an underquilt. An underquilt hangs under the hammock so it doesn’t compress. Also, if you’re a side sleeper, it takes some getting used to.
- Weight. My bivy sack weighs just over two pounds. Because a bivy is so warm, I could use my 45°F bag into the 40’s and be comfortable. Bivy + ensolite foam pad + 45°F bag weighed 5 pounds, 11 ounces. The hammock, straps, bug netting, and tarp weigh about four pounds – and that doesn’t include the sleeping bags. Yes, bags. I use my 45°F as an underquilt (that tip is described below) and I sleep in my 15-25°F bag.
- Space. Not only is this more weight, it takes up more space. I’ve had to plan how I’m going to pack my bag very carefully.
- What if there are no trees? Yup, that’s always a possibility. In that case, I end up sleeping on the ground. My hammock becomes a bivy sack – a much heavier, much more expensive bivy sack.
For me, the ability to get a decent amount of sleep was the deciding factor. I’ve come to love the ease of finding a campsite, and the lessened environmental impact is a huge bonus.
- Sleeping bags vs. quilts: After using the hammock for a season, I purchased a Zenbivy. I love it enough that I sold my beloved 25°F down mummy bag. It’s taken some getting used to, but whilst hiking Section J in September 2019 I found that it makes for a cozy nest in a hammock. The Zenbivy is designed to combine the advantages of a topquilt with the advantages of a sleeping bag. In the hammock, it works as a topquilt; to use it as the Zenbivy is designed, you’ll need some sort of sleeping pad. On the plus side, any sleeping pad will increase the R-value of your sleep system, meaning you can use an underquilt with slightly less fill power. (I tried using two Z-rest sit pads. It worked, but not very well. Before next season, I’ll get one of these. I expect it to work perfectly.) If you’re buying an underquilt, make sure it’ll work with your hammock. You can make just about anything work, but if it’s one that will work with your hammock set up & take down are quicker & easier and you’ll likely be more comfortable.
If you already have sleeping bags, there’s no reason to not use them. I stuck with my 45°F down bag as an underquilt for two seasons. It worked better with my original hammock than it did with my new Kammok Mantis, and now I’ve decided to purchase a specific underquilt. But there’s no reason to purchase new gear if you already own stuff that works, especially if when you’re first transitioning to hammock camping.
- How to get a good hang: The most important part to good hang is having the straps at the right angle – 30°. Fortunately, you have a built-in protractor. If you stick your thumb & index finger out and hold your hand so your index finger is parallel with the ground, the angle between the tip of your thumb and the tip of your finger is 30°. To get this in the back country, you’ll need trees that are the right distance apart and adjustable straps. The “right” distance will vary with the size of the tree trunk, but they should be at least 10′ apart. In a pinch, I’ve hung with a steeper angle than 30°. It’s less comfortable, but it still beats sleeping on the ground.
- But how do I sleep in this thing? This is blog contains a really good explanation. In reality, you’ll want to experiment. That may mean some less than comfortable nights, but with some ‘tweaks’, you’ll find your sweet spot. https://www.treklightgear.com/blogs/trek-life/hammock-angle