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:
- Part I: Advantages and disadvantages versus ground systems
- Part II: Types of hammocks, and spec comparisons to ground systems
- Part III: Helpful tips and resources for a virgin hammock camper
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.
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.
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:
- With more campsite options, hammock campers can avoid further impacting popular campsites.
- 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.