Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems

Short-term, low-risk outings are ideal for discovering the optimal applications for and extreme limitations of gear, supplies, and skills. If the test succeeds, the lessons can be integrated into longer and riskier itineraries; if the test fails, at least the misery was short-lived and non-consequential.

This past year I used such opportunities — specifically my intro-level 3-day/2-night guided trips — to finally experiment with hammock systems, which had piqued my curiosity while writing The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide because I knew little about them despite their fanatical cult following. When my colleague Alan Dixon first saw my hammock in North Carolina, he immediately saw its potential and committed himself to this experiment, too. Based on his new first-hand experience, he has submitted a three-part series on hammocks:


Unlike ground systems, hammocks enable hiking long distances each day without sacrificing camp comfort or sleep quality. Above, the Dream Hammock Darien UL weighs just 13 oz, including bug netting, hanging hardware, gear organizer, and stuff sack.

By Alan Dixon

In 3-season conditions and in locations where trees are readily available — which includes nearly all of the eastern United States plus a fair portion of the Mountain West — I have concluded that a hammock is the best overall sleep system. This is especially true for mileage-driven backpackers because they need not make two critical sacrifices often demanded by ground systems:

  • Camp earlier than otherwise preferred due to limited campsite availability, and
  • Carry heavy camp gear (e.g. plush air mattress) to improve camp comfort and sleep.

I make this claim as an experienced backpacker who has happily ground-slept for decades. My motivation for hammock camping was curiosity, not dissatisfaction with ground sleeping. The more experience I acquired, however, the more obvious it became that hammocks were a more practical and efficient system, especially in the eastern US.

The primary advantage of hammocks

In locations with ample trees of sufficient strength, the primary advantage of hammock systems is the huge increase in suitable campsites. In Shenandoah National Park, for example, most of the terrain is rocky and steeply sloping; the number areas suitable for ground camping (i.e. flat; and free of rocks, roots, and vegetation) is very limited. Moreover, many of these areas have developed into crowded, heavily impacted campsites.

Shenandoah’s unsuitable terrain — and its overused campsites — is made completely irrelevant by a hammock, which can be setup in almost all areas of the park. So long as I can find two trees that are 12-18 feet apart, I can setup a hammock without any regard to the surface below it, even on, say, a wet and rocky 15-degree slope.

With the huge increase in suitable campsites, a hammock system gives a hiking-inspired backpacker the option to hike dawn-to-dusk (or some variation thereof) without the risk of getting caught in a stretch of un-camp-able terrain. In turn, this flexibility equates to a great number of hike-able time, which ultimately equates to hiking longer distances. I believe this increase in hike-able time will typically outweigh the slight weight increase of a hammock system versus a ground system, if there even is one.

A Jacks R Better bridge hammock pitched on a 15-degree hillside along the AT, hardly a suitable campsite for a conventional ground system. In a hammock, the terrain underneath has no effect on sleep quality.

Other advantages of hammocks

Besides improved campsite availability, hammock systems have other advantages over ground systems:

Camp comfort and sleep quality

Many people find sleeping in a hammock more comfortable than sleeping on the ground, or at least as good. A better night of rest allows me to recover better and hike more the next day. Unlike a ground system, this increase in sleep quality is not in opposition to a lightweight pack.

A hammock is also an excellent camp seat, without the need to bring a dedicated camp chair.

Fast Setup

Oftentimes I can setup a hammock faster than a ground system. When camping on the ground, I must first scope out a suitable area and then clear it of rocks and other debris. In contrast, setting up a hammock involves clipping two nylon straps around trees — a process that takes an experienced hammock camper just a minute or two.

Reproducible and consistent setup

Hammocks can be consistently set up the exact same way, night after night. In contrast, the ground experience changes nearly every night due to ground sloping, ground cover, and surface abnormalities. Therefore, it’s easier to master the setup, and I can reliably sleep the same way each night.

Leave No Trace

It is easier to practice Leave No Trace (LNT) with a hammock:

  1. With more campsite options, hammock campers can avoid further impacting popular campsites.
  2. Hammocks do not crush or smother the plants below them.

Note: To avoid impacting trees, wide tree-straps should be used. Almost all backpacking hammocks are sold with this type of strap.

Solitude

With greater campsite availability, I can get away from habituated camping areas to find peace and quiet, and a better night of rest. Hammocks are a blessing to those that do not desire the crowded social scene at most Appalachian Trail (AT) shelters and other popular camping areas. And when better campsites exist — more aesthetic, more protected, less buggy, etc. — I can utilize them.

Water Availability

Many times it is faster and more convenient to camp near a water source, like if I am hiking on a ridge where water sources are sparse. With a hammock, I can camp near these water sources even if there are no suitable ground campsites nearby.

Protection against rain and ground water

When it’s raining and/or when the ground is wet, a hammock system is superb. The tarp keeps me protected against rain, and the hammock can be used as a dry bench seat while I am cooking or relaxing in camp.

Many people find sleeping in a hammock far more comfortable than sleeping on the ground, regardless of the terrain underneath. In keeping with Leave No Trace principals, the hammock will leave the ground cover and leaves almost completely undisturbed. Pictured: Warbonnet Blackbird Hammock with Edge Tarp.

Real and potential disadvantages of hammocks

Hammocks are not flawless, and there are a few obvious limitations:

  • To be optimally set up, trees of sufficient strength are required; and,
  • They are designed as a 1-person shelter.

Hammocks may also potentially have some less obvious drawbacks:

Weight

Comparing the weight of a hammock system against a ground system is difficult and complex. Both systems have several popular designs and configurations — Which systems should be compared? And how could we ensure that the systems being compared offer a comparable user experience, in terms of camp comfort, sleep quality, and environmental protections?

That said, generally speaking, hammock systems are slightly heavier than ground systems, especially those capable of colder conditions. But given the aforementioned difficulties of this comparison, this slight difference is not significant enough to be a solid disadvantage for hammocks.

Initial Learning Curve

Through long association and use, most backpackers are intuitively familiar with how to setup a ground system. Not to mention that most people use a ground system at home — a standard bed.

Conversely, most backpackers do not understand the first thing about backpacking hammocks. There is a bit of an art to setting up a hammock and sleeping in one. Thus, learning to hammock camp may initially take more time. As noted earlier, however, there is nothing terribly difficult about setting up a hammock, and in the long term it is probably faster to set up a hammock than a ground system.

Sleeping comfort

Yes, I know this was listed as an advantage earlier, but…

  • Some sleepers object to even a slight banana bend, which can be mostly but not entirely solved by a wide asymmetric hammock or by a bridge hammock.
  • Some people feel slightly squeezed in a hammock. In general, bridge hammocks feel a bit tighter than gathered end hammocks.

Cold comfort

While ground sleepers need to insulate their underside (against the ground, usually through a closed-cell foam or air mattress), hammock campers are even more sensitive to cooling from underneath, especially if there is wind. Even in 60-degree temperatures, convective (air current) heat loss can be significant under a hammock.

Most hammock campers will need to have effective insulation underneath their hammock, in addition to the conventional topside insulation (i.e. sleeping bag). This can be a properly installed sleeping pad, but this ground-inspired product does not translate well to hammocks, and under-quilts are widely preferred. In extreme cold temperatures, a full-sided tarp to block the wind is also very helpful.

Some knowledge and skill are required to correctly use an under-quilt and to correctly pitch a tarp. Once mastered, sleeping warm presents no major difficulties.

If there is any wind, a large well-pitched tarp is important to staying warm and dry in a hammock. Here the large Warbonnet Edge Tarp is pitched tightly against the hammock body, thus protecting the hammock and sleeper from wind and convective heat loss. Picture by Andrew Skurka; Pisgah National Forest, NC.

In less windy or rainy conditions you can use a higher and airier tarp pitch. Notice the under-quilt, which like a topside quilt will help to reduce convective heat loss.

38 Responses to Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems

  1. Daydé December 6, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    space/emergency blankets work well under hammocks in place of quilts for added warmth. just attach/hang under like the quilt, cut a slit so you can still climb in and out. blocks wind, reflects heat, little weight added. ive thrown a zlite pad in my hennessey asym and slept comfortably down to 30 in a 25 degree bag + baselayers. pads help smooth some of the squeeze also on the shoulders and obviously adds a bit of warmth (and weight).

  2. Derek Hansen December 6, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    Alan, thanks for the great primer and objective review of hammock camping. I think you hit all the major points. I can’t wait to read the next in the series!

  3. alan.dixon@gmail.com December 6, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    You are welcome. Thanks for all the wonderful hammock camping resources you have contributed over the years. -a

  4. Patrick December 6, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    You make a good case. Would that the GA state park management felt the same way. Every state park I called said, “Sorry, no hammocks”.

    • craig gulley December 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

      you might look more closely at their regulations and engage them in a friendly conversation. most of the time the wording is anything that would damage a tree. once you explain how the wide tree straps are used, hammocks usually are allowed

    • Kudzu December 6, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

      I agree with Craig. Here in FL we’re actually experiencing a year-long pilot program initiated by the state to determine if the rules will be changed to allow us to hang hammocks in our state parks. It certainly can’t hurt to engage the park rangers and give them a demo to show how you’re actually creating less of an impact on the environment.

      The comfort and flexibility provided by the hammock while in the backcountry is enough to keep me off the ground. I stress this when I do presentations on the subject and also explain the added flexibility in building a completely custom setup based on your needs and the conditions you expect to find. When you’re using a tent your options are limited. A hammock setup is limited only by your imagination.

    • Mitchell December 9, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

      Depending on where you are in Georgia you don’t need to stay at state parks. If you’re in north Georgia you have the entire Chattahoochee National Forest in which to play. Only a very small portion of it is state (national?) park land. You can hang free of charge anywhere to which you are willing to walk. I personally, after living in Georgia for three years, only paid to stay in a state park once. While there I spent at least one night but up to seven nights a month backpacking. Hammocks rule!

    • As You Were April 2, 2013 at 9:10 am #

      I’ve hung several times in the Ft Yargo State Park in Winder, GA without issue and have seen others using hammocks as well. None of the park rangers or campground hosts ever raised any objections.

  5. Pat Neville December 6, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    As a member of the “fanatical cult” I look forward to the next in the series. :-)

  6. Jim Neal December 6, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    Well done. I’ve been using hammocks for several years now and I’m not going back to the ground unless it’s absolutely necessary. And thanks to you Derek for your wonderful illustrations that provide numbskulls like me with the information needed to hang properly and in style. If you haven’t tried a hammock, I highly recommend them.

  7. Michael Davis December 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Alan, I enjoyed your article as I have all your input at BPL. I went to hammocks a few years ago and I will NEVER sleep on the ground again (who came up with that idea anyway?). During my ground days, I used tarptents and I have not added one ounce to my backpack by changing to a hammock.

  8. Jeremy Puskas December 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Thanks for the primer, I too am looking forward to seeing the rest. I sleep great whether on the ground or in between trees in my hammock. It is definitely a HYOH kind of situation, but I choose hammocks 99% of the time because of the benefits listed above. My hammock set up is lighter than any ground based setup I’ve used before.

  9. Rick Schott December 6, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

    Three-season is sensible, but I’d add that hammocks can be awesome in deep winter as well. Once set up camp in a couple feet of snow. I set up wearing my snowshoes the whole time, didn’t need to dig or stomp down snow in any way. Use deadfall branches as snow-stakes for your tarp- easy. I have spent nights in my hammock in deep cold (down to -36f thus far), it is work but it can be done.

  10. jcavenagh December 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    I am a mid-50′s guy with hip and back issues. I swtched to a hammock system in 2011. I find that my back and hip have little to no pain each morning when I wake. This is in marked contrast to the hip pointer and back ache I used to get when tent camping. I know my experience is not shared by everyone, but many older guys like me have made similar reports. I agree that a hammock system is not necessarily lighter than a ground set up, but on average I think a hammock system is about the same weight as a tent system. If you use just a tarp, bag, and pad then you probably have a lighter system. My Warbonnet Blackbird, 40* UQ, 40* TQ and cuben tarp weigh just around 3.5 lbs. Not that bad considering the comfort I get from this set up.

  11. SGT Rock December 6, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

    I love my hammock and gladly pay the weight penalty, though I constantly work to get this lower and make the system as simple as possible. It is possible to make your entire hammock system get under 1 pound.

  12. Steven Shumway December 6, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    Thanks I love my hammock It has helped me get back in to the pinny woods.The comfort factor was the big seller for me. Sleeping through the night and waking up without back/hip pain.

    I also had my learning curve (ENO single w/slap straps) Still improving my system.

  13. Martin December 7, 2012 at 2:02 am #

    A very useful post, I’m planning to purchase a hammock in the spring for wild camping expeditions here in the UK woods. This is most helpful, cheers.

  14. Shelly December 7, 2012 at 9:00 am #

    I love my current hammock (Warbonnet) so much I am sleeping in it at home most nights. I tried to use my hammock in the So. Cal portions of the PCT last spring and found myself on the ground most nights so I sent it home till I could find a good part of the trail for hanging. I was sorry to see it go! Looking forward to reading the next installment.

  15. Rat December 7, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    Weight always plays a role, but if I can get a full nights sleep and wake up TOTALLY refreshed, pain free and ready to hit the trail, I would gladly carry more weight. Luckily, I don’t have to! As SGT Rock said, sub one pound is as easy as watching his video! I love the hammock system and, if all else fails, the components can still be used to…gasp…go to ground if needed! The hammock system can cover it all. Great article!

  16. Gunner76 December 7, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

    Great article. I used my hammock on the AT this summer and when I got tired, out came the hammock and in about one minute I was taking a a very comfortable break. Never had a problem finding a place to set up I also carry one with me on my day hikes and use it to lay back and enjoy the surroundings.

  17. Kevin Casey December 8, 2012 at 5:34 am #

    I have used my Clark Jungle Hammock while exploring rivers in the Guyana jungle, suspended overnight above a half metre of swamp water in Borneo, and used it in West Africa too (where I suspect a leopard would view it as a large green hanging burrito), and it works great. Nice to be above the ants, centipedes, scorpions and snakes, easy to set up, and I make it a bit more comfortable by the addition of the short, wide version of the Neo Trekker mat inside, which lessens that “squeezed shoulder” effect. In BC Canada I prefer a tent. Using a hammock in colder weather isn’t something that I’ve tried, mainly because all the extra quilting required to block the cold and wind would seem to negate this hammock’s advantage – its compactness and simplicity. In the tent I’m typically a stomach sleeper, so was worried how I would adjust to hammock sleeping, but it’s actually quite comfy, and makes a great seat during the day too. In 2013 I’ll use the hammock in Belize, my WE Bug Dome tent (awesome ventilation) in the heat of northwest Australia, and possibly a slighly heavier grade tent along the BC coast later in the year. The Clark Jungle Hammock is the best expedition hammock made, and has looked after me well on many epic journeys.

    Cheers, Kevin Casey
    Remote River Man

  18. Ben Scott December 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Fantastic write up. Very Fair. …To add to tye LNT perspective. Surgical tubing or similar wprks well on the tarp lines that wrap the tree as well. A well practiced system will also reduce running back and forth compressing growth.

  19. Wil Colquhoun December 11, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    Very helpful. Still not sure on hammock’s but would like to try it out wondering if anybody does hammock gear rentals.

  20. GrayDog December 13, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    The biggest disadvantage of hammock camping is that I don’t want to get up in the morning. I’m also in my fifties with questionable back and knee problems. Hammock camping has allowed me to rediscover my love of the outdoors. I actually sleep better in my hammock than I do at home in bed.

    Thank you for your great article.

  21. AkFly January 1, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    Just found this great series of articles. I had often wondered if one of the Deans of long distance UL hiking would ever find his way to “light side,” and now he has. I know there are strong opinions on both sides of issue because, like sailing or flying or any activity where weight is a governing factor, every consideration is really just a compromise – light weight, low cost, strong and durable – pick 2!

    But for me the comfort factor trumps all. Too many sleepless nights, even on good pads and I had all but given up on ever sleeping outdoors again (and no, I don’t count sleeping in RVs/trailers or any vehicle as sleeping outdoors). Then two years ago, I discovered the Deans of Hanging – Shug and Professor Grizz Adams – check out http://hammockforums.net. Now, I will gladly pay even a hefty weight penalty in exchange for the difference in comfort. However, as SGTROCK noted in the second article, UL weights with hammock gear rival, and may even beat, that of the UL tarp and pad crowd. I even managed to use UL rock climbing gear to anchor my hammock suspension when there were no suitable trees to be found. Short of an emergency bivouac, I will never go back “to ground.”

    Thanks for spreading the word.

  22. gunner76 August 19, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    If the rangers object to the hammock, tell them its a suspended tent.

    When hiking I find it easy to stop and take a break by setting up my hammock, which takes about 1 minute. Stretch out of 30 minutes and I am good to go again ( If I don;t fall asleep first)

  23. Jenn August 21, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    One other MAJOR advantage for me: not having to spend an hour or more cleaning the tent, fly, and footprint after returning home. Just air everything out and it’s ready to be packed back up for next time! Major win.

  24. David Stone September 4, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

    I’m a special forces soldier in the Army and found hammock very useful in jungle environments (a necessity). The amount of bugs, snakes, spiders, chiggers, ticks, rodents, ants and other creepy crawlers that will give you a hard nights rest is limited if you are trying to save weight not taking a tent (the military patrols don’t take tents) but most importantly flash foods from heavy rains wont wash your gear away if you hang it from your hammock rope. I had some buddies in the Philippians that learned that hard lesson. If you don’t take a net, a ThermaCell is a must have.

  25. Jim November 6, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    Thanks for this write up, very well done

  26. vonfrick November 6, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    i’ve seen hammocks pull down live trees twice in maine. once nearly hitting me (an innocent bystander) and once nearly killing the guy in it- and it was a HUGE tree. it’s still laying across the stream at cooper brook falls lean-to in maine if you want to see it. so, in my opinion, the size of the tree matters little- you have to think about the topsoil-to-rock ratio its roots are in. i would think anywhere in new england is questionable.

  27. Ranger Bill November 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    When I Thru-hiked the AT in 2012 I switched to a hammock in Harpers Ferry. My tent was just to hot at this point. I went to Trail Days and picked up a Hennessy for 50% off. The hammock was amazing. I agree with all of your points. By the time I reached Maine it started to get very cold at night and I would often hang my hammock up in a shelter trying to get the heat from the other hikers.

  28. Ranger Bill November 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    I would also hang my hammock anywhere. I slept in it from the lift tower on top of Bromley. I hung it from the rafters in the new AMC Madison hut. I even stealth camped at the lookout just south of the Summit of North Kinsman. The trees were very short up there and I rigged up 5 to six of them to support me without any problems. The sunset / sunrise from up there was just amazing.

  29. Craig November 29, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    Thanks for the info, I have been wanting to use the hammock I bought. My intention was to camp ontop of Table Mountain, in Cape Town. The weather here isn’t too bad, so I think I should be warm enough.

  30. hammock_monk January 14, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    Hey, nice to see you in a Darien UL. It’s my goto hammock! I just added a Hammock Gear cuben fiber tarp. All that comfort for so few ounces!

  31. Chris Weaver June 29, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    Check out this tarp and hammock (Works with any hammock) http://www.smrgearme.com/

    You can purchase a ground piece that attaches to the tarp for those times you cannot find trees. Hope to purchase for when I hit the AT.

    • Chris Weaver June 29, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

      Sorry let me add, my brother is already using it….and can’t speak enough about quality of all parts. And I have been using a hannesey for years….plan to never sleep on the ground again.

  32. Jimmy Oddstuff October 4, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

    Although I use TTTM as tree strap, I agree webbing will leave even less trace on the tree! Go LNT!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Lightweight Winter Hammock Camping | The Ultimate Hang – Hammock Camping Illustrated - February 25, 2013

    [...] ulralight backpacker and I never would have imagined him adapting to hammocks so quickly. His three-part primer on hammock camping is a must-read for anyone researching hammock camping and I highly recommend it. Recently, Alan [...]

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