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5 Questions to Answer Before Going Hammock Backpacking

Sleep is more comfortable off the ground

By: Addison Klinke + Save to a List

In the past, your shelter options while backpacking were pretty limited – tent or…… tent. Then ultralight cuben fiber flat tarps and pyramids came along, but everything was still on the ground. Now, backpacking in hammocks is a serious option with multiple manufacturers offering products suited to this new style of shelter. Whether you’ve already heard about the fanatic following hammock backpacking has gained or this is all new to you, I wanted to share my experience researching gear and making the transition. 

But first, let’s quickly list a few of the benefits which might persuade you to make the switch:

  1. Your shelter now doubles as a VERY comfy camp chair
  2. There is substantially more headroom under a hammock tarp to stand up and change in inclement weather
  3. No need to worry about poorly placed roots and rocks ruining a good night’s sleep
  4. More campsite options since you are no longer limited to flat ground
  5. Arguably reduces the environmental impact on your campsite
  6. Better protection against ground water
  7. Hammocks are highly modular, allowing easier reuse of shelter components in different seasons (even winter!)
  8. Reproducible, simple, and fast setup

Continuing to present a detailed list of hammock advantages isn’t all that necessary. There are numerous articles and even entire forums already dedicated to this online. Instead, I’ll focus the rest of this article on what I think is the trickier part – distilling all the information and new terms so you can make an educated decision!

1) What type of sleeper are you?

While hammock camping can be an incredibly comfortable way to sleep, it’s also not for everyone. From my experience, natural back sleepers will have an easier time than those with a strong preference for sleeping on their stomach. Before committing one way or another, I’d strongly encourage you to test it out for a night either in your house (if you can finagle a way to rig the hammock) or in your yard. If you don’t currently have a hammock, chances are there’s a friend somewhere who does. Of course, make sure you know how to properly setup and lay in your hammock first!

2) Where do you typically hike?

Hammocks have gained a lot of popularity on the east coast and Appalachian Trail, and for good reason. Trees are plentiful and bringing a hammock allows you to avoid all the rocky slopes, roots, and uneven ground. If this sounds like your usual stomping grounds, then a hammock could be ideal. But keep in mind there are other regions where hanging a hammock isn’t so easy. Portions of the desert southwest don’t have enough trees to guarantee you a campsite, and some high alpine locations are either above tree line or the trees are too scrawny to support a hammock. Either way, the point is, consider your usual trips and how much use you would realistically get out of a hammock system. I still take trips that require a ground shelter, but if trees are an option, you can bet I’ll be bringing my hammock. The comfort is just too good to pass up!

3) Underquilt vs. sleeping pad, which should you use?

Woah hold up a sec, what the heck is an underquilt? Don’t worry, it’s not actually that complicated. Just how your inflatable sleeping pad keeps you insulated from the cold ground, you need insulation below you in a hammock. This can of course be achieved by repurposing your ground sleeping pad, but more often an underquilt is used. It’s just a down or synthetic sleeping bag which goes underneath the hammock to block drafts and keep your backside warm throughout the night. Typically, there’s some combination of bungees and clips to keep the underquilt securely in place. For those on a budget or just testing things out (remember my first point?), reusing your ground pad can help minimize costs during the transition. However, from personal experience I think it is worth (eventually) considering a dedicated underquilt. In particular, I found my shoulders stay a lot warmer with one.

4) What type of tarp should you get?

On first glance, this might seem like a simple question. However, your choice of tarp is critical to completing the shelter system as a whole, and there are actually several different options. In order of lightest/least protection to heaviest/most protection, the common ones are asymmetrical (asym), diamond, hexagon (hex), rectangular, and winter (with attached “doors” for closing off the ends). Your choice of tarp will largely depend on the expected weather conditions and your experience with campsite selection. Don’t forget to pay attention to how many stakes you need to pitch each variant and factor that into your weight – diamond tarps only need 2, but hex tarps need 4! Personally, I started out with a Zpacks hex tarp (article cover photo) and have found it to be a nice balance of weight and coverage for a beginner. Perhaps when I have more hammock camping under my belt, I’ll opt for an asym to shave a few ounces.

5) How does the weight compare to your ground setup?

Once you’ve researched and familiarized yourself with the available options, it may be worth considering how the weight of your proposed hammock setup compares to your current ground sleeping system. For a fair comparison, make sure you’re counting up even the small items (suspension straps, tarp stakes, etc.) and deducting those that you no longer need to bring (for instance, with an underquilt you can ditch your sleeping pad). While it’s certainly possible to go ultralight with a hammock setup (my base weight is just under 8 pounds using a DD Superlight which I modified to have bug netting and a zipper), many of the options on the market may be a little heavier than an ultralight cuben fiber tarp and bivy. That’s not to say that the weight penalty can’t be worth it, because the improved comfort and sleep quality can make a big difference! In particular, for those of you backpacking with older family members or a friend who really needs their creature comforts, hammocking can be an excellent compromise. Everyone I’ve brought along with me so far has really enjoyed the experience!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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