Sleeping outside is an incredible nocturnal communion with nature. Wind, animal, and insect unite in a subtle symphony that's easily mistaken for cacophony by the sore-backed and restless.
It doesn't matter how many times we've set up a campsite, there are always those sites that defy comfort and waste our time. Aside from the injured sleep resulting from a rogue root beneath a ground pad or the slope we didn't sense while setting up our tent, there's the time it takes to set up the tent. Time on the trail is precious, and if we find a way to get five more minutes of meal prep, or better, a little more Z's time, then we're all over it.
Hammocks check both boxes, in this case. We can set up a simple hammock in under three minutes without much practice. Some of the more feature-rich designs can take longer, but compared to pitching most one-man tents, hanging a hammock is almost always faster. But, more importantly, a hammock delivers exactly the same sleeping surface every time, regardless of the ground beneath it.
We know. You don't believe us. Hammocks are for sailors and island-time naps, not overland travel, you say? Read on.
Hammock designs range from a simple sheet of suspended fabric to modular sleep systems.
There are dozens of hammock styles out there. We're going to break hammock designs into three families for this article: unstructured hammocks, structural ridgeline hammocks, and spreader bar hammocks.
Unstructured hammocks are fixed at each end and hang with the tension provided by the anchors and the body lying within. This is the simplest hammock design and is hard to fall out of once inside.
Integral ridgeline hammocks are the same as unstructured hammocks except they add a structured line across the top that connects the endpoints of the hammock. This creates a tensioned ridge that suspends bug netting and rain flies above the occupant and also maintains a uniform droop regardless of the length and angle of the support ropes. These are also tough to fall out of.
Spreader bar hammocks use a bar or pole at each end to support the hammock from center to edge along its short axis. This makes the hammock feel more like a mattress and keeps the edges from rolling in. But, it also makes for a tippier feeling hammock.
The hardest part of setting up a hammock may be finding a pair of suitably spaced trees. Once we've found a couple of stout trees spaced about 12 to 18 feet apart, set up is fast. A simple hammock can go up in seconds. Adding mosquito netting, if not integral, and guying out fly lines adds a couple minutes, if needed. We can hang the Hennessy Hammock Jungle Explorer with its integral bug net and fly and being toes-up in about three minutes on a good evening. Morning get-out is fast, too. Untie one side and stuff it in a bag as you walk. By the time you've reached the other tree, you're ready to roll.
Don't worry, if you don't want to learn knots, then plan on shelling out a few extra bucks for some daisy chain webbing and a couple of carabineers. The longer the webbing, the more options for hanging the hammock. Just keep in mind, the longer the run from tree to hammock, the more droop will be introduced.
The ground is a heat-sucking beast. In the height of summer, the earth can help cool us off. But, more often, it'll draw too much heat in temperate environments and wake us up with a predawn chill, which is why we always haul a ground pad, even when the weather's warm.
Sleeping suspended in the air with only a few millimeters of fabric to buffer the ambient temperature means a more comfortable sleep in hot weather. But, anywhere other than the tropics will leave you wanting some insulation since that thin layer of fabric and a slight breeze is a recipe for convection cooling that'll turn your lips blue on a summer night in New England. Laying an inflatable ground pad inside a hammock is one way to do it, but an underquilt is a more packable solution.
A mosquito can bite through fabric. The weave of thicker fabrics can form a labyrinth that will blunt a syringe-like stinger, but even tightly woven, ultralight fabrics used in hammocks will offer mediocre protection from biting and stinging insects. The best protection is a double bottom. This isn't two tight layers of fabric, but a layer that you lay on with a looser layer of fabric that forms an air space too great for an insect's stinger to span.
A bonus of this design is insulation. Empty, the space provides a buffer between you and the ambient air. But, packing a lofty blanket in there, or a thin reflective pad (the kind used inside a car's windshield to prevent faded dashboards in the summer) adds an effective layer of uncompressed insulation without needing to carry an inflatable pad.
Once you have your ass covered, you'll want to have something overhead to keep the biters at bay. Some hammocks have built-in bug netting, some offer it as an accessory that wraps around the hammock. Both work. One offers speed of setup/breakdown, the other modularity.
Keeping the rain and sun at bay in a tent isn't that different than it is on a tent. Both use a rain fly. Some flies are a breeze to set up, hooking to the hammock that's already guyed out. Some are more involved and require ground stakes.
Lying in a hammock invites visions of curled-back sailors swaying in the breeze. Not so in modern hammocks. All of the hammocks we present are made to accommodate a diagonal sleeping position. If the hammock straps are 12 and 6 o'clock, then you're laying across the hammock with your head at 1:30 and your feet at 7:30. Lying this way, the hammock is nearly flat. No bowl bottom.
If all of the above doesn't allay your fears of sleeping suspended, we haven't even talked about the practical aspects of a hammock when living rough in uncertain times. A hammock has a tiny footprint compared to a tent. It also leaves a smaller signature after it's removed. There's no big square area of crushed brush highlighting your passage when your tent is a hammock.
Oh, the downside? Well, there's very little storage inside a hammock. Some have pockets in the ridgeline or on the edge. But, your pack and other gear is on the ground, under the fly. If you hang the hammock low, it's like a huge tent atrium. So, it's not bad. But, if you're used to laying stuff around you in a tent, you're going to have to adjust.
The only other issue that comes to mind when comparing camping hammocks to tents is the amount of people you can fit in them. There's no such thing as a party hammock. Well, not one that we've heard of. You can find a double hammock, but it's not for the unromantically involved to share.
All things equal, and depending on the location you're planning to visit, you can replace a tent with a hammock system and never look back. If you've got a hammock system and trees, you're in business. Forget the tent. You'll never miss it. Lighter, faster, smaller. Hammocks are it.