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 There are two main hammock designs on the market:
- Gathered End Asymmetric Hammocks
- Bridge Hammocks
The sleeping position of both designs is relatively flat, not banana-shaped as customarily found with backyard furniture hammocks. Both designs normally feature integrated or removable no-see-um bug netting. Finally, additional components are usually needed to complete a hammock system:
- Tarp for protection against rain and wind
- Sleeping quilt, worn atop the sleeper, to reduce convective heat loss
- Under-quilt, secured below the sleeper usually on the outside of the hammock, to reduce convective heat loss
Gathered End Asymmetric Hammock
This is by far the most prevalent camping hammock design. It is named for its two most distinct features:
- Its ends are gathered into a single bunch, and
- It has an asymmetric shape (i.e. not symmetric) that allows the sleeper to lay diagonally to its center-line, which is a flatter sleeping position than the banana-shape of the center-line.
It’s important to note that the diagonal sleeping position is enabled not just by the asymmetrical cut, but by the width of the hammock. An excessively narrow hammock, even if it is asymmetric, will not have enough material for a flat-ish sleeping position. There are two main advantages of a gathered end asymmetric hammock over the other common design, the bridge hammock (discussed below):
- Lighter weight
- Rommier, less constrictive feel
This design uses flat, non-gathered ends that are reinforced with a spreader bar. The resulting hammock shape is more of a flat, trough-like half-tube, versus the curved banana-shape (but not sleeping position) of a gathered end hammock. The bridge hammock provides a flatter sleeping position than the gathered end hammock, with less fuss and body adjustments, too. However, it has two potential drawbacks:
- The spreader bars add weight to the system; however, most designs allow trekking poles to be used as substitutes.
- Some sleepers may find that its tubular shape is more constrictive.
About those under-quilts
To insulate themselves against the ground, which will steal heat from a ground sleeper through conduction, ground sleepers use closed-cell foam pads or air mattresses. Hammock sleepers can also lose heat from their underside, but due to air convention, especially if there is a wind. There are two options for reducing this heat loss: 1. Use a double-layer hammock to capture and control the ground-pad. The pad is inserted between the two layers of fabric. This extra layer of fabric adds weight, but it will securely fix the ground pad in place. Double-layer hammocks are popular for this reason. 2. Use an under-quilt. A better solution is to use a hammock-specific under-quilt, which increases the warmth and comfort of a hammock. It also increases the weight and expense of a hammock system, but by no more than would a NeoAir mattresses from Therm-a-Rest, which are extraordinarily popular with ground sleepers. As an added perk, you will not get dizzy inflating an under-quilt.
Hammock specs compared to ground systems
How much does a hammock system weigh and cost? And how does the weight and expense compare to conventional ground systems? As explained in Part I of this 3-part hammock series, it’s very difficult to compare hammocks and ground systems. Each system has several popular designs and an almost infinite number of configurations; there is no “standard.” Moreover, it’d be a challenge to find two systems that offer the exact same features and user experience. Nevertheless, I have tried, below. Each system offers a standard level of protection against rain, ground water, wind, and bugs. Each system also includes underside insulation, through either an under-quilt or a sleeping pad. Topside insulation (i.e. sleeping quilt) was not included into the weight or expense of these systems because this component would not change across systems. The conclusion you should reach is that hammock systems weigh and cost about the same as “comparable” ground systems, with a slight edge to ground systems in both regards. This advantage, however, is not substantial, and probably other considerations — such as where you normally backpack, whether you want a one-person or multi-person shelter, if you have already invested in gear that is optimal for one system or the other, and if you are struggling to sleep well with your current system — will drive decisions about whether you are better off with a hammock or ground system.
Gathered end asymmetric hammock system
- Blackbird Hammock, including webbing suspension ($190, 21 oz)
- Yeti 3-season under-quilt ($190, 12 oz)
- Edge Tarp with guylines and four stakes ($85, 13 oz)
Total: $465, 46 oz (2.9 lbs) Based on Warbonnet Outdoors products and pricing
Bridge hammock system
- BMBH Hammock (UL) , including webbing suspension ($190, 23 oz)
- Trekking poles (as substitute for spreader bars)
- Greylock, 3-season under-quilt ($190, 14 oz)
- Hex Tarp with guylines and stakes ($100, 16 oz)
Total: $480, 53 oz (3.3 lbs) Based on Jacks ‘R’ Better products and pricing
Ultralight hammock system
- Dream Hammock Darien UL, including suspension hardware ($180, 13 oz)
- Hammock Gear Phoenix 3/4-length, 3-season under-quilt ($144, 9 oz)
- MLD Cuben Hex Tarp with guylines and stakes ($300, 10 oz)
Total: $624, 32 oz (2.0 lbs) Based on Dream Hammock, Hammock Gear and Mountain Laurel Designs products and pricing
- Tarptent Contrail ($225, 24 oz)
- Guylines and stakes (included, 2 oz)
- NeoAir, Air mattress ($160, 12 oz)
Total: $385, 38 oz (2.4 lbs) Based on TarpTent and Therm-a-Rest products and pricing
Ultralight tarp/bivy system
- Gossamer Gear SilTwinn Tarp with guylines and stakes ($175, 16 oz)
- Closed-cell foam sleeping pad ($20, 5 oz)
- Moutain Laural Designs Water-resistant bivy sack ($170, 8 oz)
Total: $365, 29 oz (1.8 lbs) Based on Gossamer Gear and Mountain Laurel Designs products and pricing
Nice write up. I don’t agree with you leaving top quilts out of the equation, but otherwise nice write up! Looking forward to the third installment.
I have a one of a kind custom spinnaker cloth hammock that weighs 4 oz with whoopie slings. Planning to add a lightweight bug net and tarp soon to see if I can get the total hammock setup, minus quilts to just over a pound.
Yeah, there are a bunch of nice ones out there. But on the principle of *keeping it simple* I took it out of equation. The comparison was difficult and complex enough without throwing in Top Quilts
And Top Quilts are very similar between ground and hammock systems. In fact one of my favorites, the JRB Stealth, I use both hammock and ground camping much of the time. Personally, I can’t remember the last time I used conventional sleeping bag–it’s been quilts for years and years.
I am currently experimenting with a custom Hammock Gear +20F Burrow, slightly trimmed dimensions, using M50 and NB2 fabrics. It is very light, and very warm.
My wife and I are also using a two person quilt handmade by a friend, also using M50 fabric.
I know a lot of UL folks use quilts so that’s why I figured you left the top quilts out…I just purchased my first UQ and am looking forward to building my kit.
The hardest part for me is I have been working so hard to get my ground setup where I want it and in the last four months, I have started to make the switch to hammock backpacking. It’s new lingo, more expensive cottage industry gear, but a very supportive online community. I’m excited to see more exposure to hammocks online. I’m trying to convert my friends now. 🙂
A great set of articles introducing folks to hammocks. I can’t wait to read the next installment…
I know some of this is homemade so it is hard to compare to commercial systems:
DIY Ghost hammock with suspension = ~8.40 oz
DIY HUG bug net for bug season = ~2.18 oz
DIY Cuben tarp & stakes = ~6.10 oz
Modified Te-Wa Breeze = ~9.44 oz
Total = price:??, weight = 26.12 oz / 1.63 lbs
It could probably be done a little lighter, but this is my basic set up with easiest set up suspension.
TQ top quilt, UQ underquilt. Nice article and glad see you guy have some interest in hammocking, 3 years off the ground for me.
The DIY aspect of hammock camping should not be overlooked. My entire hammock/whoopie sling/tree strap/stuff sack system weights 1 pound 5 ounces. The total DIY cost was less than $100. Probably closer to $60. The total sewing effort was to run a seam all the way around the 4 edges, roll it, and sew it again. I also sewed bar tacks into the tree straps but that was it as far as sewing technique goes.
My tarp is a fairly large tarp at 12’x10′. But with the SilNylon fabric it’s still only 14 ounces. The total price of the materials was also less than $60 since I used SilNylon 2nds. It took a full day of sewing since every corner of my hex shaped tarp is reinforced with ripstop nylon but I ended up with a great piece of gear for very little money.
I look at sewing DIY gear as simply another backpacking skill set. Just as with water management, fire starting, weather knowledge, tarp setting ability etc. sewing is a skill set which gives you more ultralight possibilities.
Good points all about the DIY–a plus for hammock campers. Not that hard, with even moderate sewing skills, to make a hammock *and* tarp. That could easily have been an Advantage for Hammocks in Part 1.
Well done Alan! I agree with you that a full comparison is a challenge for many reasons, and yet you did a great job under the circumstances. In some regards, hammock camping requires a paradigm shift — it changes the way you think about site selection, hiking and camping goals and objectives, and even insulation.
If anyone is interested in comparing all the different hammock options out there, I have a database-driven chart on my site that lets you pick-and-choose from all the available hammocks, quilts, and tarps on the market. It’s an interesting exercise.
Alan, as usual, an interesting article. One issue that was not mentioned as a potential disadvantage to hammocks is a mirror of their advantage in opening up a wider variety of places to set up camp. My spouse and I do a lot of multiweek trips across widely varying terrain and habitats. It is impossible to know in advance on these trips where you will spend each night. Agreed that stopping places are often dictated by the availability of suitable sites. However, with a hammock, it appears that one must always have a site with suitable anchors. On all of our long trips I can think of campsites that simply did not have had places to anchor a hammock, sometimes for miles or even a day or two in any direction. Even if a very high percentage of stopping points did have suitable anchors, you only need to lack anchors at one site to have a problem on your hands. Based on experience, I know I have always been able to find a place to erect our tent. Thus, for long trips through unpredictable terrain, I am not convinced that a hammock is a viable option. Perhaps people with more experience with hammocks could comment on this issue. (And of course for us, there are always the two of us, so hammocks are not the best option for conviviality.)
I’d agree that in the western US, and other less forested areas I’ve traveled (e.g. Alaska’s Brooks Range, Iceland, etc.), finding good ground campsites is not difficult, so this “advantage” goes away for hammocks in these locations.
In the eastern US, however, trees abound, and finding good camps will NEVER be a problem, except for a few knolls in the Southeast and a few stretches of alpine terrain in the Northeast (collectively, probably less than .01% of the East).
Also, I think if you were carrying a hammock and seeing the terrain from that perspective, you would be surprised by the number of viable campsites even in locations where you think you’d struggle. For example, in the Southwest, many of the canyons contain stout cottonwood trees. And throughout the Rockies, robust spruces, firs, and whitebark pines sit just below treeline.
Although they are a different species, a hammock system with tarp can still be used as a bivy tent, using a ground cloth like tyvek or other item to keep the hammy from abrasion, and hiking poles or sticks for uprights on the hammock ends. A hammock bug net and tarp is suspended from the hammock ends/hiking poles set up, and the body of the hammock on the ground, use the UQ/pad inside the hammy. The site selection would be the same as a tent set up.
This advantage of a hammock system converted to ground use (when anchor points cannot be found) is not possible in reverse using a tent to be erected into the trees or anchor points.
The hiking experience can be utilized by any method available using your imagination in conjunction with your abilities. The hammock is similar, “utilized by any method available using your imagination in conjunction with your abilities”.
Really like the article and respect your openminded approach to hammocks.
I am very interested in exploring this possibility. I am planning to hike the North Carolina Mountains To Sea Trail next summer and, thanks to this article series, would like to get outfitted with a hammock sleep system. The hammock system would work well throughout most of the trip except for the Outer Banks & coastal regions where there are insufficient trees or hammocks are not allowed. Would any particular hammocks and tarps be well suited for occasional rigging as a tarp+bivy setup?
Tent Fly = Hammock Tarp
Tent = Hammock
Sleeping Bag = Top Quilt (TQ)
Pad = Under Quilt (UQ)
The size and weight of your hammock or tent can depend on on how big and heavy you are. I know may nice ultra light tents and hammocks I can not use because of my size/weight. Not a problem as I do have a hammock that works for me.
Jim, you have many valid points. And a hammock certainly won’t work everywhere.
One of my goals with this series was to get people what never considered using a hammock to give them a second look as a valuable tool in their camping tool kit.
When I am hiking in the Sierras as you and Amy do, my goal has always been to camp well above treeline with the best view. That great sunset and alpen glow just before bed. Morning coffee at sunrise perched a thousand feet above a alpine lake. Obviously a hammock is not appropriate. But hiking with Andrew has also opened my eyes to the fact that a lower sheltered campsite with tree cover (less radiant and convective heat loss) is a lot warmer and more restful. Now, I think I would be more cognizant of this. I would weight the pros and cons of sleeping high and exposed vs. low and sheltered and make a considered decision—rather than making a knee jerk decision always to sleep high. Sometimes you just need a warm nights sleep.
Your point about couples sleeping is well taken. I share a quilt with Alison and I am her primary source of warmth. I don’t see us hammocking much on trips together. (Although the head to head hammock anchor on a single tree isn’t bad)
All that being said, as a single shelter on the East Coast I think a hammock has very few drawbacks and many advantages.
Another point that I didn’t see, is the availability of wall anchors, like in the climbing community. A good nut in a wall will give you one of your anchor points.
How does this work out for tall people? I’m 6’5″. Hammock product descriptions often say things like “for sleepers up to 6’7”. I know how miserable I am in a tent or sleeping bag that is sold as being “comfortable for sleepers up to 6’7″ ” … so I suspect I won’t be happy with a hammock with these dimensions, either. Any tall hammock sleepers who can comment?
Im 6’7″ Phil, Ive used vendprs and DIY’s with no issues. Consideratioms and custom always makes it nice. But I used a Warbonnet Blackbird for a long time. Now I have a 11′ DH Darien UL. I prefer the 11′ hammocks these days. There are tricks to cut the extra weight if your handy with a sewing machine.
I’m 6’6″ and sleep and fit better in my hammock’s than my REI camp dome 2. I have used a treklight hammock and now have a new wilderness logistics night owl. Both fit me fine. I got the night owl for the double layer to hold my pad. The great think is you can try them out cheaply. there is an active for sale section on hammockforums.net to get a hammock. You could rig a tarp while car camping to see if you like.
I suppose this is a given when discussing hammocks (and likely common knowledge), but since it doesn’t seem to have been mentioned here…
Side sleepers (much less stomach) may find hammocks frustrating. I spent many nights trying to love my hammock, but as a side sleeper found the back-only position disrupted my rest. If you are almost exclusively a back sleeper, you may very well love a hammock. If not, proceed with caution.
I had wondered about that since I flip from side to side all night. It’s not the best on a Neoair either though (normal width).
Michael, I completely agree on the regular width pads. In my normal sleeping position, half of me is hanging off the pad.
I am a 100% side sleeper at home in bed and find my self sleeping on my side 95% of the time in my hammocks. Different hammocks, be it style or length can make a huge difference to sleeping on your side. Also having good support for your neck can make a big difference to side sleepers in hammocks. I find I need a good supportive neck pillow to lay on my side but need it less for back sleeping.
On not being able to hang everywhere (in regards to James Y’s post above) I think that you would be surprised at how many places without trees…or very few…that have been used to hang. I know folks that have hung above tree line on the Colorado Trail, folks that have hung from climbing equipment, folks that have hung from natural rock features, folks that have hung from Bamboo struts, others that have hung from parked vehicles and still others that have set up intricate suspensions from multiple smaller trees over large spans to stabilize the hang. Of course these suspension systems for difficult hangs come at a weight penalty but it can and is done on a regular basis. There are some extremely creative people involved with hammocks and many of them have a hand in working to make them work nearly everywhere. It simply requires that you look at everything with an open mind for the potential to hang and then be creative.
Yes there are differences in the eastern US versus the western in a lot of regards. But in nearly 4 years of hammock camping all over the western US I have never once felt like I would not be able to hang my hammock for the night. This includes nights in the deserts of Arizona and Utah as well as many nights in Idaho, both in high alpine areas as well as our desert regions.
I sleep curled up on my side and have no problems.
I too am a side sleeper and sometimes fetal position. I have had no issues sleeping this way in my hammock. Actually, I am more comfortable in my hammock side sleeping than on a ground pad. If pressed to camp and having no trees, one can easily set up a lot of hammocks as bivy sacks under their tarps. Most hammock campers on long hikes will take a torso length pad for those nights they might have to use shelters or ground sleep. My system is also pretty light weight; about 20 ounces for hammock/tarp and stakes. UQ and TQ come around the same as my ground set up. I ground dwelled (aka suffered) for 5 nights this year and this will not happen again! I am very glad I decided to “elevate my perspective”. Your article on hammock camping is nicely done. Looking forward to part 3.
Clearly my experience with side sleeping in hammocks is not shared by (many) others. I was using a Hennessey Asym and honestly cannot imagine how one might comfortably side sleep in that unit…believe me, I tried.
Paul and Pat C. – would you mind sharing the brand(s)/model(s) that you find work well for side sleeping?
I often find myself in the AM sleeping on my side in Clark hammocks, which are heavier and stiffer than some. Further, I fall back asleep in the side-to-fetal position for another couple of hours. That’s a few hundred nights and mornings now after falling asleep on my back.
JH. I have to admit that I had a heck of a time in a Hennessy myself. I spent a month searching for comfort in it and never really could find any comfortable position to sleep in…back, side…did not change and I ended up getting rid of it.
The good news it that I have not had any other hammock I have tried be a problem. I am a fan of the Warbonnet hammocks, both the Black Bird and the RidgeRunner. I was not sure about the RR at first as I have not fallen in love with other Bridge Hammocks but so far I have fallen asleep while just relaxing in it a couple of times, once quite to my surprise. Most larger/longer gathered end style hammocks have been very comfortable for me as well. Hammocks like those from TreckLight and others of that style…while not set up from the get go as a “camping” hammock have been plenty comfortable for me personally.
If you can make it to a Hang in your area it would be well worth it to be able to see and try other hammocks.
If there are no other options, hammocks can be pitched on the ground as a kind of bivy/tent. The trick is to have a torso pad along for such emergencies. I use mine under my feet in the hammock, but on the very rare occasions I have had to go to ground this has worked fine ( not nearly as comfortable, but workable ). I use my trekking poles at each end to hold the ridgeline up and then stake down the suspension lines like the guy outs of a tent. With the tarp, it is very much like camping with a bivy and a tarp setup.
Great series, packed with solid info! I’m one of those committed side-sleepers who struggled for a long time with hammocks. After trying over a dozen models, I settled on the Lawson Blue Ridge hammock and have been able to sleep as soundly as I do on my waterbed at home. The Lawson does weigh more that other options, but I’ve not found that to be an issue, even on a long hike. (With a better night’s sleep, I can carry more and go farther…) It took a few nights to learn how to turn over without tipping the hammock, but it’s not that hard, and the sides can be staked out if need be. The Lawson also can be easily set up as a bivy in those treeless situations; I did this on a beach in Florida back in September and it worked very nicely!
Hammock camping can be a challenge in So. California. Lots of desert with few trees and lots of cactus stickers. Spreading oak trees 30 feet apart and Sierra trees three feet and more in Diameter. Just be creative and go with what you find. I carry extra web slings for bigger trees and tie to whatever is available. Lots of good advise in the comments about how to keep warm in colder temps. Hammocks are also cooler then ground camping for hot weather. I have a homebuilt gathered end hammock and use an oversize down bag outside the hammock that replaces an over and under quilt . Then I have a dwr over cover outside of that to add warmth and block wind. With this setup I can start off the night while it is warmer by pushing the bag and over cover toward my feet and later pull it over me as it gets colder. My tarp is also a poncho. Slings are Samson-Amsteel with whoope splices. I can put up the tarp in rain and then the hammock under it and when packing up the hammock is put away dry and then the tarp-poncho is last.
i love my hammock. been using a “Clark Jungle Hammock” for 3 or 4 years now and it is the boom. Only weighs 2 pounds too. Overall, i just like being off the ground because really helps my back. There is one downside, sometimes i sleep so well that i find it hard to not sleep in!
I have been hammock camping for almost 20 years and love it. And I am still learning new techniques and ways to cut the weight. I have found times when it was not possible to hang a hammock (well above tree line in the western states), but find it is not hard to use my hammock system as a ground system – not as comfortable but it still keeps me warm and dry. I use my tarp and hiking staff to make a tarp tent and my closed cell pad for insulation/comfort(?). I do try and find a relatively soft spot.
While camping a jumbo hammock is the best option for comfortable sleep. You can sit, lay even sleep on a hammock. Your points to hang a hammock was quite informative but nowadays some hammock designers designs folding hammock stands which are quite handy portable and easy to assemble. You can hang any type of hammocks in those hammock stands.
Great article, another option for insulation is a sleeping bag, I found one that’s made for hammocks at http://www.ddhammocks.com which is good down to -5C. It has a waterproof foot box, meaning you can get into it before you get into your hammock even if the ground is wet without having to wriggle around for ages.
I’d be wary of a “waterproof” foot box. If it’s truly waterproof — like, say, rubber — then your perspiration will get trapped inside the bag and wet the insulation, compromising its warmth. If the foot box if waterproof in the same sense that waterproof/breathable fabrics are — like, say, Gore-Tex — then eventually the DWR that enables its waterproofness will wear off, at which point it will no longer be waterproof. Oh yeah, and that DWR will wear off more quickly when subject to dirt and abrasion.
I’m not sure about using the spreader bar type system for backpacking hammocks. Seems like these would be too bulky and only add to the need to find a place for them in a tight pack. I suppose once they are used a couple times it might not be such a big deal.
Great article! One additional “system” I would love to see thrown into the comparison is a budget system. Since these articles are targeted at new hammockers, a lot of people won’t be looking to spend a lot of money just to try it out. Here’s my attempt:
– Grand Trunk Ultralight hammock ($20, 12 oz)
– Dutchware Gear Suspension – Whoopie Slings and Tree Straps ($21, 4 oz)
– Closed Cell Foam Pad ($20, 5 oz)
– Warbonnet Edge Tarp with guylines and four stakes ($85, 13 oz)
$147, 34 oz (2.1 lbs)
For an ultralight backpacker who already has a tarp and foam pad, this setup would only cost $40.
I started hammock camping about 4 years ago. I truly believe it has extended my ability to camp/hike. I’m almost 60 and the best part of sleeping in a hammock at my age is that I’m almost standing up when I get out of bed!. I really love my Clark hammock. It provides such a restful sleep.
Great post.. looking forward to the 3rd installment. Just bought a hammock and have not had a chance to take it out yet. Looking forward to it.
It would be lighter, but most of us use a strap of some sort of strap to protect the trees from damage. The last thing we need is for hammocks to start getting banned in the places we love to camp. Check out Dutch speed hooks or woopies – those systems use Amsteel and a minimum length of strap just to cover the tree.http://hammocksexpert.com/hammock-camping-season-with-these-cold-weather-tips/
[…] Learn more about gathered-end and bridge hammocks on Andrew Skurka’s website. […]
Thanks for this breakdown, Andrew.