I have a problem when it comes to camping. The inevitability of time and my natural tendencies have led to me to being both middle aged and overweight. This has led to the situation whereby sleeping on the ground is no longer fun. ‘Cause it hurts. Now, to be honest, sleeping on the ground hurts most people, but when I was young there were easy ways to overcome this issue. My personal fav was an old canvas beach raft, but by the time I was in college, Ryan and I had discovered Therm-a-rest sleeping pads.
They did the job for several years until a campout with my bride. I assured her that the pads were surprisingly effective. Then we got in the tent and she informed me that I must have fallen somewhere and bumped my head because they were no such thing. Being no-longer-20 at the time, I had to agree. I looked at other pads down at REI, but they weren’t much better unless you want to spend A LOT.
We soon invested in one of those giant queen-size mattresses that can float a squad of Navy SEALS to a beach, but that created a new issue. While I don’t hike to a campsite often these days, there are times when I just don’t want to car camp and a SEAL assault mattress isn’t backpack friendly. Even if you’re overlanding, I’m sure there are times you’d rather not bother unfolding the Skyrise/Hi-Vis/Tepui or trips where you don’t want to hook-up the trailer or pull out the jacks to drop in the Hi-Lux. So how can somebody sleep comfortably without dropping a couple of Grants on a sleeping pad or dealing with the hassle of hauling 15 pounds of mattress?
This brings us to the idea of hammock camping. A few years ago I bought one of those portable hammocks the hip, young kids are so fond of these days. Or at least the kids who get out of the house and away from their computers and Playstations so that they can hang between two trees and play on their phones.
Why couldn’t I sleep in a hammock while camping? Not only would this solve my mattress dilemma, but I could eliminate the need for a tent. Even if I bring a tarp to hang over me as a rainfly and stakes to keep it from flapping, my overall backpack load would be less.
As it turns out, I’m not the first guy to think of that. In fact, it’s an actual thing, with Youtube videos and everything. Ryan’s brother-in-law tried it once on a trip, and he enjoyed it. Ryan and I talked about how cool it would be to use hammocks on a minimalist trip. I watched a few videos to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and decided to try it out. I picked a weekend trip that was just cool enough that bugs wouldn’t be a major problem and I could get by with a fleece blanket. We got to the site, I got the hammock strung up, and when it was bedtime I crawled in.
So how’d it go? To begin, there is a bit of a mental shift that needs to be done. You’re used to having walls and a roof, even if they’re nothing more than the thin nylon of a tent, so you have to get over the feeling of being exposed. Let’s be honest, being in a hammock is no more likely to attract a bear or mountain lion than being in a tent—and a tent is not going to stop either of those intent on doing you harm—but it sure feels that way.
Second, you have to make sure you plan carefully for the weather. While the temperature didn’t bother me, I was not aware of just how humid the area was. As the temp dropped, the hammock became coated with condensation. In fact, we were high enough in elevation that a few banks of low lying clouds blew through the campsite, which didn’t help. Luckily it didn’t soak through my blanket, but it could easily have been worse.
Third, I began the trip with a tweaked sciatic nerve. I’d been in the hammock several times before, taken long naps in it, and never had a problem. So of course I stupidly thought I’d be fine. Unfortunately, the pain was just enough to keep me from finding a comfortable way to lie in the hammock. And when I got up the next day, the best word to describe the pain is ohmyGodpleasehelpmebabyJesus!! So I wound up sleeping in a ground tent the rest of the trip on a surprisingly comfortable sleeping pad Ryan had from REI which I should probably review later. I still hurt, but things didn’t get worse.
And yet, I wouldn’t say it was a failure. Like I said, while the hammock got wet I didn’t, and it dried out in a few minutes once I got up. My back hurt, but it was already hurt and past experience leads me to believe that the hammock didn’t cause anything that wasn’t already present. If I’m not hurt to begin with, I’m confident I’d be fine. And it did save significant space and weight.
More important was the experience. More than any tent, I had a strong, visceral sense that I was out in nature. And it wasn’t just psychological. I had fresh air on my face, could feel the wind, and swung in the breeze. I watched as the moon moved across the sky. I woke up around dark thirty and while trying to shift to a comfortable position I noticed the moon had dipped below the horizon and I just gazed up at the stars for what seemed like forever. I’ve never had that in a tent and it’s something I want more of.
So yeah, despite the back pain it was totally worth it and I am planning on doing it again; I’ll let you know how it works out. But not if my back is acting up and I would definitely use one of the old Therm-a-rests to help keep things copacetic in the Lumbar region. All in all a worthwhile experience and a method that might just appeal to those looking for a lighter-weight overlanding excursion, especially those who are biking the trip.
See you between the trees.
Some things to consider if you plan to try a hammock:
- Make sure you hang it high enough that it won’t drag on the ground. They do stretch.
- Don’t hang it too tight/straight (let it sag a bit) or it will wrap around you like a cocoon. Lying at a slight angle helps avoid this too.
- You don’t need to drop a ton of money on an ENO, although they are really good hammocks. There are several brands that might be a bit heavier but are well made yet inexpensive. I personally like the Equip two-person hammock.
- If you live where bugs are really bad (like Florida or Maine), you may want to buy a hammock with a built in mosquito net. If not, try Deet wipes to keep mosquitos away.
- If you have an old tent you no longer use, try using its rainfly. It would pack a lot smaller and be lighter than a tarp.
- Speaking of tarps, U-Haul sells bright orange ones that could act as a signal if you happen to get lost while out on a long hike. There are also large survival blankets—orange on one side, silver on the other—that could do the same and would help with heat retention.