Hammocks are a big topic on a lot of hiking/backpacking boards. You don’t have to scroll long to find the question, “What is the best hammock?” The truth is, there is no one size fits all hammock. A person’s comfort in a hammock is dependent on their size, weight, and sleeping positions. While manufacturers and hammock preachers will tell everyone all the benefits that hammocks have, nobody really wants to talk about the downsides. So let’s talk about hammocks.
First off, when people ask what the best hammock is, invariably there is a flood of answers ranging from the inexpensive Grand Trunk to the pricier Warbonnet Blackbird XLC. So many people get wrapped up in telling each other how much better one hammock is from another that we forget the details. Does it make sense to buy a $200 hammock if you are only car camping a few times a year? Does it make sense to tell someone to DIY a hammock if they have the sewing skills of a raging bear? Of course not! So then how do we match a hammock to a person?
- How often do you camp?
- Occasional outings? Do you really need top of the line gear?
- Thru-hiking? Your life depends on good gear
- Is weight an issue?
- Car camping? Who cares if it’s 30 pounds? That Tentsile Stingray is awesome!
- Backpacking? Let’s keep that weight to a minimum.
- Are you handy?
- Can you work a sewing machine? Do you have access to Sil nylon? Why not make your own gear!
- Do you regularly turn out Pinterest fails? Maybe it’s cheaper in the long run to just buy one.
- What conditions will you be camping?
- Are you a fair summer camper? Bugs love summer, consider a hammock with a built in bug net.
- Is deep winter hiking your thing? Have you considered a tarp with doors? Underquilt?
- Spring hiker? Larger tarps keep the rain out, and can be set in a porch mode that allows you more room.
- How much do you have to spend?
- Tight budget? Buy one piece at a time, but avoid buying twice. Borrow or rent gear when possible.
- Have money to burn? Go ahead and buy the hammock, tarp, and bug net at a bare minimum to get you started.
- Have you considered the peripheral gear?
- Dutch clips?
- Tarp line?
- Titanium stakes?
- The list goes on and on and on with hammocks!
I didn’t start off on the hammock bandwagon. In fact, the first few times I tried a hammock, I didn’t care for it. I tested an ENO (no ridgeline), and I felt like I was sleeping in a banana. Later I learned that a ridgeline would have given me a better lay, but that is a subject for a different blog. Someone let me borrow their Hennessy Explorer, and I didn’t sleep a wink, but the setup was really easy. Then I succumbed to a Warbonnet guy. Holy hell, that guy talked about his Blackbird like it was the cradle of heaven. I listened, I tried one, I listened, and listened, and listened and he finally convinced me that I would pull the trigger on a Warbonnet Blackbird XLC (WBBB XLC).
So I get on the site, and there it is. Wait, you don’t just order the damned thing, you have more choices? Whoopies? Buckles? Single layer? Double Layer? Multi-cam? 1.1? 1.7? Winter top cover? What the hell is all this crap? Back to the drawing board, I’m up over $200. Next paycheck I come back and put together my order. I’m good to go right? I’m getting whoopies; I’ll do the 1.7 because I’m a heavy guy, and double layer because I like that I can slip foam between the layers to keep me warmer. So that’s it… I’m pulling the trigger at… Oi! This doesn’t include a tarp? I’ll put this on hold; I need another paycheck to think about it. Ok, so a couple of weeks go by, now I’ve got enough for the hammock AND the $115 for the tarp. Let’s go camping!
So I get this beast out on the trail. Claimed weight was 1 lb 9.5 ounces for the hammock, 14 ounces for the tarp. 2 pounds 7.5 ounces right? Nope. Stuff sacks, tarp lines, and stakes weigh something too. By the time I added it all up, I was working in the same range as a Copper Spur UL1 tent. So about that weight savings. But it’s a hammock, and everyone knows you sleep better in a hammock right? No, not really. My first night’s sleep was fitful and my second night was only marginally better. What gives?
The Learning Curve
I’m hundreds of dollars into this now, and I’m not going to be defeated before I give it every chance. So off to the internet I go. There are dozens of rabid hammockers out there with videos and entire blogs dedicated to hammock camping. They run the gamut of crazy, from clown noses to drunken hicks, and an occasionally normal-seeming person who suddenly breaks out in song. Yeah, hammockers are kinda nutty, but that’s ok, so am I. So I learned all kinds of things that I didn’t know before, from proper hang angles, adjusting ridgelines, and what kind of hardware to use. My WBBB XLC is built for me to sleep in at an angle! That means that I can sleep as flat as if I were on a bed. Yeah, I am a big dummy and did not know that this is why people buy asymmetrical (Asym) hammocks. I eventually built an arbor in my backyard under the auspices of making a nice entryway to the garden, but the reality was that it perfectly fit my hammock. I tried one thing and another, adjusting a line here, adding a clip there, and finally… Success! A good night’s sleep in the hammock. But wait! There’s more! Now it’s getting chilly out, and it’s too damn cold for this little foam pad.
Emptying the Wallet Again
I hike and camp year round. That means that when it dips down to the teens, I’m the big bearded galoof who still enjoys a good wander in the mountains. Unfortunately, the way a hammock works, the sleeper doesn’t have insulation from the ground, so it is a naturally cooler sleep. Air circulates under the sleeper, whisking away your warmth. This is perfect in August when the mercury blows out the top of the thermometer, but in January, it can be a bit of a problem. The answer to this is in an underquilt. I had no real clue what I was looking for, but fortunately I live a few miles up the road from Jack’s R Better. Jack and Jack are really helpful folks who have been hanging for years. Go to their website and you can read how they started, but the bottom line is, when I asked questions, they answered. So once again, my wallet sighed as it coughed out three more big bills and change just before a cold weekend at Sherando Lake. Lo and behold, the Mount Washington 4 underquilt kept me toasty. At this point though, my pack is bursting with down. I’m carrying not just my Sierra Designs Zissou 12 DriDown bag for a topquilt, but also the Mount Washington 4. Back to Jack and Jack I went. We talked about my size, my sleeping comfort, and my plans to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, as well as the gear that I already carried and we decided that rather than go with the most expensive and expansive sub-arctic rated quilt that I would be able to do well with a much lighter (10 ounces lighter) and much less expensive (by $100) Hudson River quilt. So for another few hundred dollars, I dropped my pack weight by a full pound and gave myself more pack room.
Skipping to Now
I grew up with a tent and a sleeping bag. It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered the joy of a sleeping pad. Sleeping on the trail was never going to be as good as sleeping in a bed, but by day three of hiking, I would always be tired enough to sleep anyways. After moving through the learning curve of the hammock, I have changed my mind. I’m a tried and true hammocker. In fact, I have even gotten the rest of the family in hammocks. I wouldn’t dream of sleeping on the ground again! It wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t easy. All the tutorials in the world could not have prepared me for the journey, it had to be hands on. I learned how to make whoopee slings, tarp lines, prussic knots. I learned a whole different way to camp. I have learned that I can wake up on the trail after a refreshing sleep. Now that I am here, I’m glad I made the switch. I really do understand why my WBBB XLC is considered a Cadillac, and why it was the best choice for my situation. I know why whoopee slings are a faster and easier method for hanging. I totally get how tree straps affect the health of a tree. I don’t regret any part of the journey.
Where does this leave you?
I’m not here to make your mind on jumping into the hammock or staying on the ground. I’m not here to tell you the benefits of not having a flood of water through my tent, or how a hammocker doesn’t need to find flat ground. Nor will I debate with you the ease or difficulty of finding two trees that are the right distance apart. I want to make you think about what you are doing. If you are curious, then give it a shot, but don’t give up your tent right away. Buy something within your price range and set it up in your backyard. Go through the learning curve yourself. While I am most comfortable in a hammock with a ridgeline, you may find yourself perfectly cozy in a Wal-Mart special. At 6’3”, I found that an ENO was too short, but if you are 5’3”, it might be just right. Borrow a setup if you can. You might know on day one that you love swinging in a hammock but don’t get discouraged if you haven’t found your comfort spot on day 3.
Most hammocks are still coming from small cottage industries. Often they are available to answer questions on Facebook Messenger. As I am writing this, I checked with the guys at Dream Hammocks, their response time was 3 minutes. Randy popped on and we chatted for a few minutes. He says, “It can be tough at times, but we try to be responsive as possible. Sometimes though, you just gotta ignore the computer and get the hammocks built.“ I’ve had similar times with Warbonnet and Hennessy. Ask these folks the questions, chances are that they have heard them before and can answer right away, or they will get you the answer. Of course, you can always message me; I’ll be as much help as I can!