This is a multi-post series on backpacking shelter systems. Start with the Introduction or skip to:
- Six questions to ask before buying a tent, tarp, or hammock
- Modular Tent: Gear list & discussion
- Tarp & Bivy: Gear list & discussion
- Hammock: Gear list & discussion
- If cost were no object: My go-to shelter systems, gone ultralight
- Stakes & Guylines: My top picks
A night of quality sleep in the backcountry depends on multiple factors. A shelter and sleep system that defend against precipitation, wind, insects, groundwater, and cold are the most obvious prerequisites.
But equally important is campsite selection, or the art of finding a comfortable location where you can hang your hat.
Unfortunately, such spots can be hard to find. In places like Rocky Mountain, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, backpackers are forced to stay in designated campsites that become rock-hard due to nightly use; they are often sloping and have exposed roots and rocks.
Dispersed camping is permitted in other zones like the Appalachian Trail, Long Trail, Adirondack High Peaks, and Aspen Four Pass Loop. But the number of promising ground sites is naturally limited — there is too much topographic relief and vegetation. In combination with the area’s popularity, the campsites become heavily impacted, and sleep quality is not as good as it could be.
What’s the solution? When backpacking in the aforementioned areas (or similar), I use a backpacking hammock like the Hennessy Ultralite Asym Zip Hammock instead of a tent or tarp. This unconventional practice is gaining popularity and acceptance — especially in areas where they excel most — and I expect even more widespread adoption.
Gear List: Backpacking Hammock System
A backpacking hammock system will be heavier and more expensive than a comparable ground system. But the penalties are small and overshadowed by the functional differences.
- Critical = A must-have, no exceptions
- Suggested = A valuable addition, few reasons not to bring
- Optional = Not critical, but worth consideration
- Depends = Contingent on trip objectives, conditions, and/or other selections
- Unnecessary = Unlikely to need and/or can be improvised
Omitted: Hammock sleep system
My preferred sleep systems are beyond the scope of this series. But I think they are worth a quick mention.
Ground sleepers typically use a mummy bag, air or foam sleeping pad, and pillow. In contrast, hammock sleepers generally prefer a(n):
- Quilt like the Sierra Designs Backcountry Quilt 600, because mummy bags are difficult to use while laying inside of a hammock; and,
- Underquilt like the Arrowhead Potomac, which is a down- or synthetic-insulated quilt that covers the outer underside of the hammock, because sleeping pads tend to be squirmy.
I do not use a pillow in a hammock. It is more naturally supportive of the neck than a sleeping pad or bed mattress.
Application outside of high-use areas
When I am backpacking in high-use forested areas where all of the ground sites are heavily impacted, I think that a hammock is the only acceptable setup.
In less popular areas, I find that ground shelters are a comparably valid choice. For example, I have found excellent ground sites in Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains, along New York’s Finger Lakes Trail, and around Mount Kineo, a low-use corner of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I should point out that in addition to having lighter traffic, these areas have more level ground and more open forests.
Of course, hammocks work wonderfully in these low-use areas, too, and I continue to use one because the number of good hammock sites exceeds the number of good ground sites.
The tables turn somewhere west of the 100th Meridian, and hammocks become more limiting than ground systems. I’m sure that a hammock could be used to thru-hike the Colorado Trail or John Muir Trail, for example, but a ground system provides more options in low-elevation parks, stunted subalpine forests, and the alpine.
In the Desert Southwest, where trees only grow at the highest elevations and along perennial water sources, hammocks would be most challenged. Some hammocks have been designed to be pitched on the ground, and I have seen some creative rigging systems, but these approaches have significant trade-offs and seem forced. I’ll just bring my modular tent or tarp & bivy, thanks.
In addition to geographic suitability, hammocks have a few other limitations:
1. They are primarily solo shelters. The only legitimate multi-person hammock I know of is the Clark Jungle Vertex, which sleeps two. Hammock users can sleep near each other and sometimes even share a tarp, but that’s a different experience than sharing a tent.
2. They are not as intuitive as ground systems, which closely resemble how we sleep at home. Before going out for the first time, watch instructional videos, read tutorials, and practice-pitch it in your backyard. If possible, join a group of hammock veterans so that you can learn their tips and tricks.
3. In cold and windy conditions, hammocks are more vulnerable than ground systems. It’s not impossible — I once had a client use a hammock on a winter backpacking trip, with nighttime temperatures of -10 F — but it takes more gear and skill to stay comfortable.
There are two styles of backpacking-worthy hammocks:
Gathered end hammocks are simpler, lighter, and less expensive. They have a smaller footprint, and need less space and a smaller tarp.
Bridge hammocks offer a flatter lie and are generally considered more comfortable. They are about a pound heavier: more hammock build, a larger tarp, and two metal spreader bars.
More reading: Types of backpacking hammocks
To date, every trip on which I have used a hammock has been casual. And I happily carry the extra weight of the Warbonnet Ridgerunner bridge hammock in exchange for greater comfort. But if I were to undertake an intense hammock trip (e.g. AT thru-hike), I would learn to master the gathered end.
(I featured the Warbonnet Blackbird XLC in this series because it is a more middle-of-the-road pick, similar in nature to my modular tent and tarp & bivy systems. In all three cases, opportunities exist to save or add weight, with some ripple effect on your budget or on the shelter’s size, durability, and performance, or a combination thereof.)
Once you settle on the basic type of hammock, you can then start comparing the specs on specific models, like size, weight capacity, bug net integration, storage shelves, etc.
Most hammock tarps are variations of the classic A-frame. Most importantly, the tarp must be made of waterproof material and cover completely the hammock when occupied. Good tarps are available from many cottage companies, including but definitely not limited to:
Even if I were counting grams, I would err on the side of a larger tarp. It will offer greater protection from wind and driving rain, and one or both sides can be “porched” for additional living space and ventilation without a critical sacrifice to storm-resistance. Finally, the weight penalty is miniscule — an extra three square yards of ultralight tarp fabric weigh as little as 1.5 ounces.
If you occasionally ground camp and if you want to minimize your gear expenditures, my other recommendation is to select a tarp that will serve double-duty in a ground system or as a group tarp. For example, the ENO ProFly Tarp is a conventional A-frame, whereas the ENO DryFly Tarp has side extensions that make it a hammock specialist.
Most hammocks include a suspension system. For example, Hennessy uses a cord lashing system, Warbonnet defaults with adjustable straps, and ENO models have a daisy chain and carabiner.
These stock systems are functional and usually intuitive. But they may not necessarily be the lightest, most adjustable, or best for your specific needs. To explore alternative suspension systems, check out Dutchware Gear, and read posts on the topic by Derek Hansen at The Ultimate Hang, which is an excellent resource (and book), and the single best place to continue your hammock education.
Use a hammock? What are your thoughts on your setup? And what advice do you have for prospective hammock users?
Considering a hammock? What are your top prospects, and what are your reservations?
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