A Guide to Hammock Camping

For many, a swaying hammock is synonymous with relaxation. The word alone conjures memories of breezy summer afternoons: a cold beer sweating in the heat, dappled sunlight dancing through leaves, and gentle rocking that lulls you into a midday nap. It is the physical manifestation of the word “chill.” But, its portable, lightweight design is just as convenient for camping in the backcountry as it is for lounging in the yard, the park, or on the beach.

I started hammock camping a couple of seasons ago, and on solo overnight trips, it’s my absolute go-to. It’s wicked easy to set up after a long day of hiking, and it’s a significantly more sustainable, lower-impact way to camp. Provided you don’t need all the add-ons for every trip—like a rainfly or bug netting—it’ll even lighten the load in your pack. It is a different game, though, and you have to consider a couple of things before grabbing your hammock and hitting the trail.

From left to right the packed ENO SingleNest hammock, Atlas Hammock Suspension System, and DryFly Rain Tarp, weighing in at 3lbs 1oz. | Credit: John Lepak
From left to right: the packed ENO SingleNest hammock, Atlas Hammock Suspension System, and DryFly Rain Tarp, weighing in at 3 lbs., 1 oz. | Credit: John Lepak

Finding the Right Hammock

First thing’s first: you’ve got to get yourself a hammock. However, the “right one” is really just about finding a combination of size, material, and extras that make sense for you.

Backpacking hammocks tend to come in two widths—single and double wide. Just like it sounds, a single is a good fit for one person, while a double is a bit wider and good if you’re expecting company or just want a little extra room to kick it solo.

The material boils down to weight versus durability. A heavier-duty fabric lasts longer but will add ounces to your pack. A lighter fabric will wear quicker but packs down smaller and keeps it light on the trail.

Extras are in name only. In the backcountry, you’re probably going to want at least a few of them. So, let’s start with suspension. I love the ENO Atlas Hammock Suspension System. It goes up quickly—a bonus after a long day of getting beat up in the mountains. Also cool? They’re designed to lessen the impact your hang has on the trees you’re using.

The Atlas Hammock Suspension System straps are webbed so it’s really, really easy to adjust the hang as needed. The unused ones are good for hanging other stuff too, like a camp light, or clothes that need drying out. | Credit: John Lepak
The Atlas Hammock Suspension System straps are webbed, so it’s really, really easy to adjust the hang as needed. The unused ones are good for hanging other stuff, too, like a camp light or clothes that need drying out. | Credit: John Lepak

Next up? Bugs. Heading out in black fly season or just want to keep the mosquitoes at bay? Check out the ENO Guardian Bug Net. It’s another piece of gear, but it’s worth the weight in your pack if you’re in particularly buggy terrain.

Keeping Warm

Among the unique considerations hammock camping presents, keeping warm is likely the first you’ll hear about. On the ground, it’s easy: just a sleeping bag and pad. In a hammock, however, it’s not so simple.

Most sleeping bags have down or synthetic insulation on the bottom layer. But, when compressed, as it is under a person’s body weight, it’s significantly less efficient than its temperature rating would indicate. On the ground or a tent platform, the surface itself and a sleeping pad, which provides insulation of its own, correct this flaw.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

With a hammock, you can get around this in one of two ways. Insulate the bottom with an under-quilt, which hangs under the hammock itself. Or, place a sleeping pad inside the hammock. Personally, I prefer the latter, and run with a Big Agnes Deer Park 30 Sleeping Bag, a Big Agnes Gunn Creek 30º Sleeping Bag, and a Big Agnes Air Core Ultra Sleeping Pad.

Big Agnes ditched their bags’ bottom layer of insulation for a built-in pocket to fit an air pad. But, really, you can use any bag-pad combo. Once you’re in the hammock, your weight will pin the pad down, and the sides help keep it in place overnight. I dig this setup primarily because, unlike with an under-quilt, I can use it in a tent or for cowboy camping just as easily.

At the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal preference and takes some trial and error to get it right.

Staying Dry

It seems obvious enough, but a tarp or rainfly is critical if you’re out in weather or in a place where weather can move in quickly. For this, I use the ENO DryFly Rain Tarp. It’s light, it’s quick to set up, and it has kept me dry. The trick is, rig the tarp just above the hammock, so when the hammock sags under your body weight, you’re not exposed to the rain and wind blowing in from under the sides.

Motion Sickness

If you’re the type that gets motion sickness, this may not be for you. You’re going to move around, be it from wind or your own tossing and turning. Over the period of a night’s sleep, this may lead to some problems. If you’re unsure, give it a go for an hour or two out in the yard on some sunny afternoon to see how it makes you feel. Laborious, I know, but sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Picking Your Spots

In the mountains, two trees are often easier to find than a patch of earth flat enough to pitch a tent. This factor alone is enough reason to give hammock camping a try. It’ll take some time to feel out your preference—the perfect hang is subjective—but you’re good to go with two trees and enough line or a pair of straps (more on that below). Keep it off the trail (human or game), and give yourself about two feet of ground clearance. That’s just enough space to keep yourself from an unfortunate midnight run-in with a curious porcupine. 

Getting Comfortable

All right. You’ve done the dishes, rigged up the bear hang, and are ready to hit the hay. Your hammock is strung up just the way you’ve found yourself liking it in the yard and now’s the time. You’ve made your bed, and now must literally lie in it. Great!

Now, sleeping in a hammock is completely different from sleeping on a surface and takes some getting used to. There’s no one way to get comfy, and just like in the yard, it’s going to take some time to find the best fit. So, try out a few different ways to see what feels comfortable. Shift your bag up or down, and change the tension on the straps—do what feels good, and don’t be afraid to adjust! Hopefully, by the time you’ve tucked yourself in, you’ve also gotten your miles in and crushed a couple of mountains. If you’ve done it well, they’ve crushed you back, and you’re just about ready to sleep the sleep of the dead, anyway.