When most people think of hammocks, they think of the flimsy old cloth one that was in their best friend’s backyard-- you know, the one that tips over as soon as you think you're safely balanced on it. While those are great for backyards and commercials, it is not exactly something you'd want to sleep in (especially for a long trek). This article is geared towards real hammocks-- the lightweight, backpacking variety that are becoming more and more popular among campers, hikers, backpackers, and scouts!
Choosing a backpacking hammock is not as easy as it seems. Especially if you have used a tent your entire camping life and are just now graduating to a hammock, there are many aspects that should be taken into consideration. Many of the factors involved in choosing a backpacking or camping hammock can be easily overlooked by someone buying their first one, and you may not realize the importance of some of these features until you are uncomfortably hanging from a tree (or dragging your hammock on the wet ground) in the middle of the woods. Not to worry, that's why we created this step-by-step guide to help you learn more about all the big considerations and the more subtle factors that go into choosing your very first backpacking hammock.
Moving on From the Tent
Tents will always be the standard for outdoor sleeping, as they should be. These portable shelters provide everything one would need to camp comfortably, even in harsher elements. However, there are some drawbacks to tents that could make a hammock a better choice. The most obvious of these is their weight. Tents are perfect for group trips, but they can be a bulky and unnecessary burden that is difficult to carry and maintain on the trail.
This is not the case with a hammock. They are light and small-- some fold up to about the size of a softball-- making them a barely noticeable item to carry with you. If you plan to stay near a single campsite for most of the trip, this probably is not a big concern. However, if you plan on hiking and moving to multiple locations, the difference in weight (and the effort required to set up and tear down your site) will become noticeable very quickly. Any experienced backpacker can tell you the huge difference a pound-- or even a few ounces-- can make when traveling several miles with it on your back. Most hammocks weigh in at 6.5-12 ounces, with even the most durable two-person setups still weighing less than two pounds.
Many people understandably believe that you'll lose a level of comfort or security when going from a tent to a hammock, but this does not have to be the case. Most modern camping hammocks have specific designs that allow for a “flat lie” and are just as comfortable as sleeping in a tent! Many also include tarps, bug nets, insulation and other accessories that create a great cocoon shelter for sleeping.
Even if the weight of a tent is not your biggest concern, hammocks allow for an exciting new element of camping and backpacking. Many scouts and scouters are simply looking for something new to try, and something about hammocks makes your camping experience feel closer to nature. Perhaps it is the unique 360-degree open view of the scenery or the fact that you are literally one with the trees while sleeping, but sleeping in a hammock can be a fun, comfortable, and easy new wrinkle to throw into your hiking plans.
Types of Hammocks
While there are many specifics that one needs to consider and look for when shopping for a hammock, we first need to start with the basics. Again, these are not the old backyard hammocks with the wooden spreader bars and the knotted ends; these are the professional, practical hammocks that hardcore backpackers and hikers use for a camping experience that is as close to nature as it gets.
Parachute Nylon Singles
This category includes most of the standard backpacking hammocks. They are incredibly durable, light enough to carry for many miles and fold up small enough to fit into any backpack. The nylon material provides a small amount of stretch that makes them more comfortable and flexible to set up. They are great for a single camper and are comfortable enough for several nights' worth of sleep.
(Fun fact: this is the type of hammock we included in some of our Mystery Boxes in January!)
Parachute Nylon Doubles
Essentially wider, larger versions of the parachute nylon singles. While they are technically large enough for two people, it can be difficult for two people to comfortably sit (let alone sleep) in all night, even with the extra space. That is why many people buy the doubles just to have the extra space and material for themselves.
As the name would imply, the hammocks of the ultralight variety are designed with decreased weight in mind to make for lighter travel. Due to this, many of them do trade weight for durability and comfort. The lighter material means they can be carried more easily but may not be as good for sleeping, and many of the ultralight models are best used as daytime hammocks. They are great for a nice nap or just relaxing with nature on a day hike, but do not provide the comfortable shelter or stability of the other models.
These are the top of the line, heavy-duty backpacking hammocks that are designed for comfort and durability. Made of the same high-denier nylon as the most durable backpacking tents, these hammocks are made to last for many nights and even more miles. They often come with added features to make camping in your hammock more comfortable and practical like bug nets, tarps, additional straps, and sometimes an extra layer for sleeping pads.
Important Aspects to Consider
While all of these hammocks will be similar and follow the same basic concept, there are many differences between them that may make one better than the other. These considerations will vary from person to person, so it is important to decide which hammock is right for you specifically, based on these aspects.
- Dimensions: Obviously, you’re going to need to be able to fit in your hammock to comfortably sleep in it. Generally speaking, the wider your hammock is, the more comfortable it will be, and most hammocks range from 4.5 feet all the way to 8.5 feet. There is much less variation in the length, as most are between seven and nine feet long.
- Weight: One of the best features of sleeping in a hammock is the reduced weight when compared to a tent. Keeping your pack weight down is crucial to any outdoor adventure, especially if you plan to walk long distances. Because of the premium put on this, even the strongest, most heavy-duty hammocks usually weigh less than two pounds.
- Strength/Capacity: Another crucial aspect, the strength and weight capacity of the hammock completely determine how useful it will be to you. Most models have weight limits ranging from 150 pounds all the way up to 500 pounds (usually for double units). When buying a hammock, check the weight capacity and make sure it is made of a strong, durable material.
- Cost: Another great benefit of hammocks over tents is the reduced cost. There is no reason to have to spend an arm and a leg for a quality backpacking hammock. However, as with all products, you get what you pay for and many of the best hammocks do cost more, especially if they have some additional features or comforts. It is important to decide whether this will only be something you use occasionally or if you should make more of an investment for a hammock that will be used a lot.
- Suspension System: Hammocks are easy to set, needing only a suspension system and a couple of trees. However, it is important to note that many hammocks do not include these devices with the hammock itself, and the straps, slings or carabiners may be sold separately. While these provide convenience and security, some hikers simply use knotted nylon ropes to suspend their hammocks. If you choose this method, there are many instructional videos available on the subject to help you get started.
- Shelter: If you are buying a hammock for daytime use, this aspect is not important, but if you plan on sleeping in it, you will need some form of overhead protection. Many hammocks include tarps and/or bug nets to protect against the elements, but this is also something that may have to be purchased separately. You'll definitely want these added features if you'll be using your hammock in cold weather!
Additional Aspects to Consider
Aside from these basic considerations, there are some additional features of backpacking and camping with a hammock that need to be considered.
- Insulation: Similar to the Shelter aspect mentioned above, insulation is crucial when camping in certain situations, especially cold weather. The best option for this is sleeping on foam or inflatable pad. Many high-quality hammocks have double layers or an extra compartment for a sleeping pad. It is also possible to use an underquilt for insulation (do some research on these before buying!), and this is generally the preferred method for experienced hammock backpackers.
- Design: The goal for sleeping in a hammock is to create a “flat lay” or a natural sleeping position. To do this, some hammocks are designed asymmetrically to allow for more comfort.
There may be some other factors to consider depending upon your specific needs, but the considerations listed above will always be important. Before purchasing your hammock, think about how often (and in what environments) you plan to use it and how much of an investment you are willing to make. With that in mind and taking the above factors into consideration, you will be ready to buy a backpacking hammock that is perfect for all your adventures!