Camping in a Hammock

I suppose we all have a favorite church calling, one that we really enjoy. Mine is being Scoutmaster.

I served as Scoutmaster and Assistant Scoutmaster for quite a few years, and I really enjoyed camping with the Scouts.  However, my body joints are stiff, and I had a hard time sleeping in my tent on hard ground. Finally, I discovered from talking electronically with other campers in New England a better way: hammocking, the use of a hammock instead of a tent. You must be kidding, you say! How do you keep dry in storms? Easy! Pull up a chair and let me tell you about it….

Setting up a hammock

Allen setting up his hammock

Hammocks Can Be Used In Any Weather

I’ve slept in my hammock during 60 mph winds and heavy rain (the Army meteorologist from Ft. Devens (Massachusetts) jokingly said the storm would be so bad that we would have Scouts floating away). I’ve slept in my hammock when the temperature was zero degrees Fahrenheit and the wind was 40-50 mph (I don’t even want to think about the wind-chill factor that night. The ground was frozen so hard, that the scouts had to put big rocks in their tents to keep the tents from blowing away). I’ve been in my hammock for 15 hours waiting for the rain to stop (try lying on the ground for 15 hours!). On two occasions, I slept in my hammock for the full week of Scout Camp because of a shortage of tents at camp (I wrapped my hammock/bag with a large sheet of mosquito netting and used clothes pins to keep the netting “closed”). My PR (personal record) for winter camping in my hammock is -10 Fahrenheit, a temperature equivalent to about 20 below zero in Utah because of the high humidity in New England. That temperature was a measured-temperature. I’ve probably slept in colder temperatures that weren’t measured. On all of these occasions, I enjoyed myself and spent the nights with no discomfort. My sleeping bag was a mummy, filled with 4# of Quallofill fiber, rated at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Not Many Problems

In four years of hammocking, I only had two nights that were problems. One was the time I tied my hammock to a dead pine tree. When I sat in the hammock to try it out, the tree snapped, and the hammock pulled the tree onto my head; my scouts got real first aid training that night (I suffered a slight cut on my forehead). We had arrived at the campsite after dark, and I didn’t notice that the tree I selected was dead. The other problem was the night I got a slight case of frost bite on my big toe. I solved that problem in future campouts by placing hand warmers (the kind that contain iron filings and get warm due to oxidation of the iron after you shake the envelope) in the foot of my sleeping bag.

Advantages

Hammocking has great advantages!

  • First, they cost less than tents. My hammock is a Marina Double web hammock. I bought it in Massachusetts at Spaags, but it is available on the web

    http://www.safetycentral.com/mardoubsizha.html
    http://www.preparedness.com/mardoubsizha.html

    A similar hammock is the Green Mountain Back Packer. Although more expensive, the Back Packer has one difference over the Marina Double that I use. It is made from a solid material, and for summer use you would not need a closed-cell pad under your sleeping bag. I have heard, though, comments that a solid hammock tends to compress the foam pads more than a web hammock, but I’ve had no experience with solid ones.

    http://www.hammockstock.com/green-mountain-hammocks/the-back-packer/782.htm

  • Second, they are smaller and lighter to carry than tents. My hammock and two 15-foot ropes roll into a grape-fruit sized ball.
  • Third, they take less time to set up.
  • Boy Scouts of America policy forbids the use of fire in tents, and scouts who backpack with tents end up cooking in the rain. In my case, I sat under my hammock, out of the rain, and cooked with my backpacking stove.
  • In New England, people using hammocks are allowed to camp anywhere off-trail, as long as they are 200 feet or more from the trail and from streams and ponds. When my troop made its annual hike of Mt. Washington (the highest peak in New England), hammocks were required, and we camped off-trail, usually on rocky, bush-filled, sloping ground. It would have been impossible to have set up tents in those areas. To be honest, though, I wouldn’t recommend hammocking in desert areas. There probably aren’t many trees, and one needs a tent to keep bugs and spiders out.

Overview of Hammocking

Convinced that hammocking has merits? OK, let’s see how it works. Your hammock will be tied between two trees. A long rope will be tied between the two trees and will be above the hammock. A plastic tarp will be draped over that rope and will serve as a “roof”. Wooden clothes pins and short pieces of rope will be used to fasten the tarp so it won’t blow away. Closed-cell foam pads will be used to cushion your body so you won’t feel the nylon webbing that makes up the hammock and so you’ll be warm in the winter. A “bug head-mask” will protect you from mosquitoes. Finally, your sleeping bag will keep you warm. Got the picture? OK, let’s look at the details.

Items needed

  • A double-sized hammock, one that will be large enough to contain you, your sleeping bag, and one or two closed-cell pads. Don’t use a single-sized hammock, because it will flip and dump you out. The double hammocks are stable and won’t dump you. Don’t use the hammocks that use wooden “arms”, because the arms stretch the hammock too much. Your foam pads will stretch the hammock “just right” so you won’t feel like you’re in a cocoon. The corners of the pads get caught in the webbing, and the pads don’t slide around.</span
  • Longer ropes. Remove the short ropes that are tied to each end of the hammock and replace them with about 15′ of rope at each end. You will need that much rope to reach the trees and go around the trunks.
  • Drip lines. Tie short lengths of string at strategic points on the hammock. The strings act as drip lines and keep water from running down the rope and into your sleeping bag. The strategic points are (a) where the rope ties to the rings supporting the hammock, and (b) the point where each cord that comprises the webbing of the hammock leaves the rings. The idea is to divert the water that runs down the tree trunk and then down the rope to the rings. In addition, tie drip strings at other places that might help divert the water. The drip strings are permanently tied to the hammock. These strings are one of the key elements that keep you dry during storms.
  • A “roof”. Get a plastic sheet about 9 feet by 12 feet. The plastic should thick enough so it won’t tear during use. This tarp will be placed above your hammock. This “roof” is the other key element that keeps you dry.
  • Rope to support the “roof”. Get a separate rope (1/4″ clothes line) about 30 feet long. This rope will be tied between the two trees to support your “roof”. The rope also makes a nice “handle” when turning ones body while in the hammock.
  • Short ropes. Get four 3-foot ropes to be used in tying the corners of the plastic sheet to trees and bushes during windy nights. This gives you a stable “roof” that won’t blow off your hammock. There is an easy way to tie the ropes to the corners of the tarp. Place a small rock or twig in each corner and twist the plastic around the rock. Tie the ropes around the twists; the rocks or twigs will prevent the ropes from slipping off.
  • Wooden clothes pins (6 or 7 of them). Three pins will be used to fasten the “roof” to the rope. The others can be used to fasten the “roof” to itself if you want to be sealed in a “cocoon” during storms. That is, you can wrap the “roof” around the hammock and also around the trees that support the hammock to give you more protection from wind and bugs.
  • Closed-cell foam pads to help insulate you from the webbing of the hammock and to help keep you warm in the winter.
  • A bug net for your head, if you live in areas infested by mosquitoes, black flies, noseeums, etc.

This sounds like a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t take much room in your backpack.

Setting Up Your Hammock

It takes about 5 minutes to set up a hammock, and it can be done in the dark (hold a mag light in your mouth or wear a head lamp). Here is what you do.

  • Select two trees about 15 feet apart. Trees further apart than that can be used, but your hammock will sag more and might scrape the ground after you are in it. If you use hardwood trees, you can use trees as small as 4 or 5 inches in diameter. If you use softwood trees, use larger ones.
  • Tie one end of the hammock to a tree. Position the hammock so the ring is about 5 feet above the ground. Wrap the rope around the tree a couple of times, and then run it back through the ring and back around the tree again; after going through the ring, the rope should be going the opposite direction around the tree. Then use half-hitches to secure the rope. Going back through the ring will make your hammock more stable, because you will have, in effect, two ropes holding the ring to the tree.
  • Tie the other end of the hammock to the other tree. In doing this, leave a little sag in the hammock to increase its stability.
  • Sit in the hammock to test that the trees will support your weight and that the hammock won’t scrape the ground. Tighten the hammock if necessary.
  • Tie the long rope about 12-15 inches above the hammock to support the roof. Pull the rope tight when tying it.
  • Place the plastic tarp over the rope and fasten it with three clothes pins.
  • If you don’t expect wind, you can let the corners of the tarp hang loosely over the hammock. Or, you can tie the corners away from the hammock to give you a larger “bedroom”. If you do expect wind, tie the corners of the tarp so they won’t flap in the wind and disturb your sleep.
  • Place closed-cell foam pads in the hammock (one if by summer and two or more if by winter). Place your sleeping bag on top of the pads. The pads keep the hammock stretched out a bit so you won’t feel like you’re in a cocoon.
  • Shake your sleeping bag to increase the loft, and place the bag on the pads.

Guess what? You’re finished! Fast and easy!

Getting in the Hammock

Getting in the hammock is easy (I do have to admit, though, that it took me a couple of years to figure out this scheme…)

  • Zip open your sleeping bag and drape the top of it over the far edge of the hammock such that it hangs down. Be sure there are no folds in the bag, because once you are inside the bag you will be lying on top of the folds and won’t be able to remove them. This is a key step in insuring a comfortable night.
  • As needed, place a couple of hand warmers in the foot of your sleeping bag.
  • If you don’t sleep in your clothes, remove your clothes and dress in pajamas or what ever you use when camping. If you use a down filled sleeping bag, you should not sleep in the clothes you wore during the day, because the clothes are damp from body moisture. If you use a bag with synthetic fiber, this moisture is not a problem.
  • Sit in the hammock such that your feet are dangling over the edge of the hammock and the portion of the sleeping bag that drapes over the edge of the hammock is behind you.
  • Remove your boots and stow them at the foot of the hammock. During the winter, I place my boots inside my sleeping bag so they won’t be frozen when I use them the next morning. During the summer, I place them inside a plastic bag and leave them on the ground.
  • As needed, place dry, wool stockings on your feet.
  • Swing your legs into the hammock and lie down.
  • Pull the top of your sleeping bag over you and zip it up.

Miscellaneous Comments

A jacket rolled up makes a nice pillow. The rope supporting the plastic tarp makes a nice hand-hold if you need to shift body weight during the night. It’s a nice feeling to be swaying gently in a hammock while looking into a star-filled sky.

Make Your Own Hammock

If you’re a do-it-yourself person you might like to make your own hammock. It will probably cost less than if you buy one, and you can tailor the size to fit your body. I’ve never made a hammock, but here is a link to a camper who makes many of his camping things. Thanks to Doug Campbell for the link.

http://www.imrisk.com/testhammock/testhammock.htm

Conclusion

Hammocking isn’t for everyone. Some people can’t handle the curvature of their body while sleeping. Others miss the lack of privacy that tents provide. However, many campers love hammocks. As I mentioned above, I required that hammocks be used on our annual hike up Mt. Washington so we could camp off-trail. I found that about half of my scouts voluntarily chose to use hammocks at other times during the year.

Try it, you might like it!

30 Responses to Camping in a Hammock

  1. Brian says:

    How did you find out about the law in New England that lets you camp anywhere off trail in a hammock? I’d like to find out if there’s a similar rule in Tennessee. Thanks.

    • Allen says:

      Hi Brian,

      I think I learned about being able to camp off-trail in New England (subject to the 200 foot restriction) from hiking books that describe the trails in New England. I learned about hammocking from hikers who use them, and I don’t remember if I heard about off-trail camping from them or from the books. I think it was from the books. The State or Federal regulatory agency that governs the area you are considering should be able to tell you about off-trail camping.

      I was a missionary in West Virginia for 21 months (1956-1957), and there were Copperhead snakes everywhere. I lived in eastern Tennessee for the last three months of my mission, and I don’t remember any comments about Copperheads being there, but I would expect to find them there, too. Snakes and hammocks don’t make a good combination. I lived in Phoenix for about 12 years, and I know that I wouldn’t use a hammock in the Arizona desert due to rattlesnakes and scorpions. And, due to an absence of trees.

    • Allen says:

      I’m not sure, but the law concerning off trail hiking might have been a Federal law about camping in National Forests. I remember it as a general thing about camping on state or federal lands.

  2. Steve says:

    Where did you store your gear?

    • Allen says:

      Good question! We were a backpacking troop, and the only gear we had was the stuff in our backpacks. During the day and at night we left our backpacks under our hammocks in case it rained. Our foam pads, sleeping bag, and the plastic “roof” shielded our backpacks from rain showers. When we camped at the base of Mt. Washington (NH) for our annual climb up Washington, we kept our food in bear bags strung between two trees. I didn’t let the scouts keep candy in their backpacks, because the racoons would bite through the packs and plastic bags to get at the candy. If my car was nearby, such as at a Scout camp, we kept the candy in the car trunk and made 2 or 3 trips to the car during the day. If my car wasn’t within walking distance, we kept the candy in the bear bags.

  3. Wayne McLemore says:

    Hi, I enjoyed your site. I’m a new hammock camper and I was curious about your “snakes and hammocks don’t make a good combination” comment. I was under the impression that being off the ground would be better for crawling things. Maybe I’ve been enjoying a false sense of security. I know that hammocks are used regularly on the southern AT.

    Thanks,
    Wayne

    • Allen says:

      You have a good point, Wayne! Hopefully, in the US at least, we won’t have tree climbing snakes. Scorpions, though, do climb trees. If I were hammocking in snake country, I would keep my boots in my sleeping bag at night.

    • Stillnotallhere says:

      Or upside down on your leki/hiking poles/stuck into the ground. Keeps them dry if it rains, within easy reach, and critter free.

    • Allen says:

      Stillnotallhere, nice idea about boots! Thanks for posting it.

  4. rory ryan says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/13/nyregion/13trees.html?ref=nyregion

    Hi the above article led me to do a web search on sleeping in hammocks in trees. I found your interesting article first.
    thanks for the info. Hope you find the NYTimes article interesting.

    Rory

    • Allen says:

      Thanks, Rory, for the link. Those two guys have had a different experience in hammocking than I had. It’s good they were up 25 feet and hidden in the leaves; Central Park isn’t the safest place at night.

  5. Andrew N. says:

    Hey Allen. You mention that;

    “Some people can’t handle the curvature of their body while sleeping.”

    Perhaps a comment about turning on an angle in the hammock to provide a more level bed.

    Also, have you checked out hammockforums.net ? It has some excellent discussions.

    And when it comes to hammock camping, many are cold, but few are frozen.

    All the best!

    • Allen says:

      Hi Andrew,

      Moving around in a hammock is difficult, because the hammock moves with body-movement. I found the rope that holds the tarp over the hammock makes a nice “handle” to help me move my body. I don’t think I ever slept on my side while in a hammock (normally I do sleep on my side and almost never on my back). Sleeping that way could be difficult since the hammock adapts its shape to fit the body. Since we’re all different, trying to sleep on ones side while in a camping hammock is certainly worth trying.

      I like your “many are cold but few are frozen” slogan. Right on!

  6. zack0109 says:

    That’s really cooool. A hammock provides shining moment in the life. It’s a new way to live.

  7. Bo says:

    In the absence of trees, how well does it work on the ground?

    • Allen says:

      Hi Bo,

      Hammocks must be hung from something. In New England, trees were everywhere. In addition to using trees, I’ve used 6×6 supports for a roof. Anything that allows the hammock to be tied about 6 feet off the ground can be used. Here in the west, finding trees wouldn’t be a problem in the mountains but might be a problem in the desert. If I were to go camping in the desert, I would use a tent, and I would be sure the tent had a good zipper to keep out scorpions and other bad things. I lived in Phoenix for 11 years, and almost all scout camping was in the desert. I used a tent for several years in New England, and then I learned about hammocks and used that for quite a few years.

  8. 3 season tents says:

    Heya! I know this is sort of off-topic but I had to ask.
    Does managing a well-established website such
    as yours take a large amount of work? I am brand new to writing a blog however I do write in my diary on a
    daily basis. I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share my own experience and feelings online. Please let me know if you have any ideas or tips for brand new aspiring blog owners. Thankyou!

    • Allen says:

      Keeping a blog is pretty easy. The two companies most used are blogger.com and wordpress.com I use both. My suggestion is to start a blog and write in it instead of in your diary and learn as you go. This blog is via wordpress.com My personal blog at http://oldmanrunning.org is via blogger.com You can create throw-away blogs and learn from them and then delete them when you’re ready to become officially online. Both blogs have nice editing programs with the usual editing features, including inserting pictures.

      Getting people to follow your blog is another matter. The secret of success about that is having good content in your blog. Interesting text and pictures that others would like to read or see. Think about yourself. What do you have to offer to others? Your nickname implies you do a lot of camping during three seasons. Maybe you can find something unique about your camping and make that the “theme” of your blog.

      Good luck with your blog!

  9. Joel Ashmead says:

    Allen,
    This caught my attention and I thought I’d bring it up since you are posting from mormonsite.com…

    “I would use a tent, and I would be sure the tent had a good zipper to keep out scorpions and other bad things.”

    ???

    “And God maketh the beast of the earth after its kind, and the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, and God seeth that it is good.”

    I quite enjoyed your post about hammocks but the fact that you can’t appreciate all of the natural world (and even seem to delight in the idea of killing scorpions for fun) is really depressing to me. I’m just a kid myself (more or less) and I want my kids to be able to appreciate scorpions and snakes and all the good “creeping things of the ground”.

    No offense…but hopefully whoever does read this will begin to see scorpions and other insects as the amazingly complex (and necessary) micro-machines that they are.

    And how many people do you (whoever may be reading this) know who have been killed by snakes or scorpions anyways? Or even bitten or stung?

    • Allen says:

      Thanks, Joel, for your comment. You have a good point. I’ve modified my essay to make it more acceptable to others.

  10. Joel Ashmead says:

    Eh…mormonsite.wordpress.com is what I meant…either way I noticed the biblical correlation and thought I’d drop one too.

  11. Joel Ashmead says:

    Allen,
    Thank you for your consideration! Have fun out there!

  12. greg Paul says:

    I sleep in my Carolina style(wood spreaders) a lot, take a lot of naps listening to the ocean. Sometimes I put a single thin mattress in the hammock bed and sleep like a baby

  13. Michael Furman says:

    I grew up in South Florida where we used jungle hammocks mostly. This kept the ground critters out and the flying biting bugs out as well. We did nearly all backpacking as the trails were not available even by air-boat. Later on my mission to Venezuela I bought and slept in a hammock for my entire time there (1988-1990). Then I continued to sleep in it until I got married 7 years later. People used to come by and ask where the bed was. Getting used to sleeping on the flat bed was tough at first. I would suggest that folks who don’t take to the hammock right away try sleeping in it at angles and such. I can lay on my stomach and all angles. Also I suggest one not scrimp on the rainfly. Get the thickest plastic you can, I chose clear. Discourages mosquitoes from hanging inside (they like the shadows) when it rains. If it is big enough you can keep quite a large area dry and still be carrying less weight than your fellow “tenters”.

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    We may give the writer his creative license, but there is a certain tension in urban
    areas that never completely lets up. S’mores Stuff (chocolate, graham crackers, marshmallow) & Skewers for roasting the marshmallows (toddlers should always be supervised when around flames or sharp instruments). Find more information, about Deer Hunting in Alabama here.

  15. Norman Van Wye says:

    Brother Allen-Lots’s of good information however much in the way of technology has transpired since your posting. I understand working with Scouts can be challenging and they need good information when starting out. Camping without trees i.e. the desert, isn’t as difficult as it once was. As an avid Hanger myself, it’s a minor challenge to rig up a portable system. I applaud your efforts and I’m sure the Scouts came away with lasting memories and positive survival skills.
    Respectfully,
    Brother Van Wye, Canyon Springs Ward, Moreno Valley, CA

  16. John Sanders says:

    Just wander which type of hammock did you find better for your hiking activities? Do you prefer ones with the wooden crossbar? Is a simple rope hammock with some bed linen enough or you need a more professional heavy-duty one?

  17. Paul says:

    What would you advise for hammocking in the uintah, rocky mountain area near Salt Lake City?

    • Paul says:

      without spending a lot of money?

    • Allen says:

      My article describes the hammock I used in New England. It cost about $15 (1980s money) for a double hammock. The only requirement was to have two trees or other supports about 12 feet apart. I used it on a camping trip to Bear Lake (northern Utah) and it worked fine.

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