There are lots of people who view camping in hammocks as a passing trend or as an odd place to sleep when outdoors. While that may be partially true, correlation does not always mean causation. In truth, hammocks have a long history of being used for camping that dates back to early Native Americans. The first record of the word hammock being used in western speech dates back to a diary entry by none other than Christopher Columbus. The word is thought to be derived from the Native American word “hamaca”, meaning fishing net. It’s further suspected that the word was originally adapted from the word “ hamak”, which is the name of the tree that was used to make the fiber used in fishing nets.)
The Mayans used these fishing nets as a multipurpose tool for both sleeping and catching fish. Covering two of the most important basic human needs, with nothing but a bit of tree fiber, isn’t bad. As was often the case with native technology, the subtlety was completely lost on Spanish invaders who originally mocked the set-up as primitive. However, one adventurous Spanish sailor must have eventually tried it because the practice was eventually adopted, wholeheartedly. The Spaniards then proceeded to put hammocks to use on practically every floating bit of wood the Spanish crown owned. Since then, the hammock has taken on a variety of roles. Most recently, hammocks are being used by long-distance trail hikers.
What’s different when camping in a hammock?
There is a tendency to treat sleeping in a hammock as if it were its own branch of camping. In reality, it isn’t as much of a change in camping style as it is a change in sleeping gear. In fact, tarp camping enthusiasts who are intrigued by the idea of hammocks are in luck. The only significant change is to go from sleeping on the ground to being suspended from a tree. Most of the same gear is used (tarps, mosquito netting, sleeping bag) but now you are gently cradled to sleep in the breeze.
What are the benefits?
So if the gear is mostly the same, why bother switching? Well, because you don’t have to sleep on the ground! Compared to tent camping, hammock camping is lighter and more compact.
Not only is sleeping above the fray significantly more comfortable, it might even be better for you. Once they adjust to the change, most people assume an “orthopedically correct” posture when sleeping in a hammock. Aside from being naturally relaxing, sleeping in this position has also been shown to be beneficial for people with joint, bone, and spinal problems.
Of course, trees are a hammock user’s best friend, but why limit yourself? As a prospective hammock buyer, the options seem limitless. It seems that anyone I talk to about making the switch to hammocks makes a mental checklist of the assorted vertical objects you will be able to use as sleeping aids. However adventurous and creative you are, it is safe to say that hammocking will provide you with a greater diversity of camping locations. Even if there are no trees to from which to suspend your hammock, you can use your trekking poles and two stabilizing lines per pole to suspend the hammock in between.
Editiors Note: Trekking poles generally are not strong enough to hold the weight of a person nor tall enough to suspend a hammock off the ground. However, trekking poles are perfect when you need to use your hammock on the ground. The poles work to suspend a tarp, and the hammock can clip up to provide a bivy like shelter.
Are there any cons to hammock camping?
Of course there are pros and cons, as one would expect. For starters, adherents to the “lightweight or bust” philosophy of backpacking will already be pointing out how we haven’t mentioned weight. While they vary substantially, hammocks range on average from a few ounces to a few pounds heavier than your standard ground tarp. Cold from underneath the hammock is an issue in colder months, requiring the use of either an underquilt or a high R-value sleeping pad.
Couples also may not be keen on the idea of hammock camping. Sharing a hammock with another person is not the same as sharing a normal, spacious bed. Practically sleeping on top of each other, suspended 3 feet above the ground, is out of the question for many couples.
There is also the problem of trees. You may find hammock camping difficult in the arctic, in the Sahara, or anywhere above the tree line. Even the most creative will have a hard time setting up a hammock if there is absolutely nothing to tie it to. However, if you find yourself in such a situation, many models of hammocks allow you to skip the hanging bit and revert to lowly ground dwelling, using your bed swing as a ground tarp.
So the next time you are looking to change up your hiking routine, consider the comfort, flexibility, and serenity of a camping hammock.
Share your hammock camping stories
Have you tried hammock camping or do you on a regular basis? Any tips you can share with a first timer?