Today, there is numerous variety when it comes to choosing a shelter - dozens of pads, hundreds of sleeping bags, thousands of tents... Im going to show you how and why to choose a hammock as your 4 season, all weather and all night sleeping solution to sore muscles, aching back and uncomfortable sleep.
One of the first and foremost discussions that will arise once you are a full time "hanger" will be stemmed from the statement made by ground dwellers such as "yeah, they look ok as long as you can find trees" (as if there are no trees, anywhere to be found)
I urge you to understand right away: hammocking will give you Blue Car Syndrome. That is, you never notice Blue Cars until you buy one. Trees are everywhere, and when you have the trained eye that comes with hammock use, you will find more campsites than you could ever put a tent on. I promise, finding trees is easier than finding a suitable flat spot. Another "should be" obvious but often overlooked aspect is that most of us here in the desert SW tend to make a habit of choosing a campspot, or other destination close to a perennial water source. Where there is water, you will more times than not find a few nice trees. Cottonwood, Sycamore, Willow, Ash, and other riparian trees are found almost everywhere in the lower desert's washes. Pine, Juniper, Oak and other large trees are found in the higher elevations. Sure, there may be times when you have to go to the ground, but they are not as common as you may have previously thought. We'll discuss more on ground options later...
There are so many advantages to hammock camping, that they are too many to list here. I'll start with the top ten, in no particular order:
When properly fit, they are far more comfortable than any ground pads (this means ANY, downmat, BA air core, any of them)
Fantastic views: camp at locations that allow you to wake with beautiful sunrises, breathtaking scenescapes and other wonderful areas void of flat tent "spots".
Zero overhead condensation issues. Most models have "floating" tarps that can be pitched very low and tight for cold weather/wind blocking, or airy and high for shade and light rain -or- go with no tarp at all when the weather permits.
Unlimited, crowd free campsites in forested terrain
(this also makes for camping on slopes, above roots and rocks, along the lee side of hills for wind protection, stealth camping, and trees generally offer a nice degree of protection from the elements.)
Quick set up and take down. Once you get the hang of your specific model, you can be fully pitched in as little as 2 minutes.
Hammocks with bug netting keep the flying bugs away, and the general position of the shelter frees you from mice, rattlesnakes, ants, scorpions (yikes!) and anything else that crawls around at night.
Hammocks make a great camp chair. Sit in your hammock, cook your dinner or make your coffee in the morning, all while relaxing. You cannot cook in a tent. Most the vestibules in even the fanciest backpacking tents are only large enough to store a pack. No cooking there either!
Back, side, and ¾ sleep positions are all possible. (3/4 being a hybrid side/stomach position, youll see what I mean when you try it) Fetal position is especially nice in a hammock.
Light weight. You can have a suitable tarp, with coverage worthy of 4 season camping, a hammock body and a sleeping pad (or underquilt*) for under 3 lbs. Some UL tents come in under this weight, true - but you have to sacrifice many of the creature comforts and try to be content in a tight sleeping space, no views, limited pitching options.
Finally, hammocks allow you to better practice the highly important ethics of "Leave NO Trace" by allowing you to camp without clearing a site, without leaving a scar on the ground, without having to break branches/grasses/trees or camp in already beat down, overused spots in high traffic areas. The majority of hammock suspension systems allow the use and/or include the straps necessary to wrap around trees and other solid objects without doing harm to the fragile bark or branches. They are endearingly called "tree huggers" and come in various lengths depending on your needs.
HOW do I make the transition?
Remember, sleeping on the ground away from your bed at home required a learning curve, and the idea of sleeping all night, not to mention all year, in a hammock is foreign to most but let me quickly explain the basic idea, starting with the pitch:
Hammocks in most cases are "end gathered" meaning that the fabric is a giant rectangle, then the ends are gathered or bundled together and tied, sewn or held in place by webbing or rope. This is the most common hammock shape and one youre probably familiar with. This will probably also be your first choice for the style of hammock you buy. This being said, the primary objective to laying in your hammock is to be as flat as possible. Despite the look of it, a hammock with a greater "banana" shape actually allows you to lay flatter, wider and more comfortable than one that is pitched very tight. When you pitch your hammock with enough "sag", you will see that your head will lay to one side, and your feet will find their way to the opposite side. This is the first lesson in hammocking: every body has a different comfort level and you may have to play with your pitch to get the right "sag". Once you find the "sweet spot", on the diagonal, you'll know it!
Arent hammocks COLD? How do I stay warm?
The second lesson is just as important: you have to use some type of under insulation. Remember, on the ground you used a sleeping pad, so above the ground is no different. Actually, it is. A pad on the ground is usually not wide enough to cover your torso and arms and keep you warm enough in weather below 50° (that is dependent on your metabolism, hydration, etc..) but that is only a basic middle of the road temp estimate. You may be able to use a 20" wide pad down to freezing. You may find you want additional coverage when temps dip below 70°. Like said, it depends on you. Therefore, many of the hangers have started using CCF (closed cell foam, ccf from now on) pads that allow you to answer the cold arm syndrome so common in hammocks. The primary reason is that in your hammock, the sides will envelope your body and when it wraps around your torso, you'll need something as wide as your hammock, not just your back, as a ground pad only provides.
A few examples of a great system;
1) use a standard 20" wide pad and then a section of CCF about 30" wide to form a "T" at your shoulders. This takes care of cold arms.
2) Use a full length, 24-30" wide CCF alone
3) Use a "segmented pad extender" which will hold a standard pad in a sleeve, usually made of nylon, and slide smaller strips of padding into outside sleeves that cover the arms torso, and even the legs. An SPE can be made or purchased from its inventor, Ed Speer. This is an affordable and easy to use option when you need extra coverage.
But, you may ask.. "doesn't a pad sort of take away the whole point of a hammock, you know, to lay unencumbered by clunky pads and hard objects in general?"
Well yes, the whole point of the hammock is to let it contact your body at all points, so its as if you are sleeping on a bed of air. This is where the option, the best option IMHO is where underquilts (from now on UQ's) come into view.
The UQ is a synthetic or down filled "quilt" much like a comforter or blanket used at home but is designed to hang from the bottom of your hammock. It is capable of being hung just right so that it is not too compressed, which would cause loss of warmth, or too loose which would cause gaps to form. Gaps let in cold air. We don't like gaps, so a bungee system or stretch cords will hold it snug, but not tight, against your underside.
Underquilts come in a variety of thickness, or temp ratings, and fabrics. Most are made of a breathable nylon or ripstop, and the most popular option is down. Down is the lightest, most compressible and warmest insulator known to man. Nature rules!
They also come in different sizes. Many are full length, some as long as 8' and wide enough to cover all the way up and over your body. 4' is the average width. They have drawcords at each end that will allow you to snug up the ends, to follow the contours of your slung hammock. In warmer weather these drawcords can be loosened to allow more air to enter and keep you cool. But like I said earlier, almost all hangers will need some insulation under them in cooler temps. An UQ is the easiest and most functional option, because although you can add or subtract CCF pads dependent on your local weather, its much faster to loosen/tighten a drawstring. There are many companies owned and operated by veteran hangers that make not only UQs, but top quilts, tarps, hammocks and other accessories.
Pads do have a place in the hanging world, for instance in the event you just have to go to ground because you are too cold on your bottom side, or there are no suitable hanging spots, going to the ground is easier with a pad(s). You can still remain inside your hammock on the ground, and it may be used as a "bivy" if you can use hiking poles or sticks to hold your netting up (if applicable)
I have been hanging for about 2 years, (thats at least and likely much more than 2 dozen times) and have only gone to ground once. I was using just one 1/4" CCF pad and the outside air temp dropped below 40 degrees. Since then, I use an underquilt. Sometimes there will be no trees where you are going. Thats ok, you have planned accordingly and decided to use a tent. No harm done. You will quickly start planning your trips around tree filled campsites, I promise you. :)
Top quilts, or TQ's are much like sleeping bags in the sense of keeping you in a cocoon of warmth. The main difference, most top quilts are just wide enough to cover your body with a few inches of fabric that you tuck under yourself, and since your bottom insulation is already taken care of, you simply use a top quilt wide enough to overlap the bottom pad/quilt. TQ's are relatively easy to understand. It's a sleeping bag, without the zipper and hood. Being sans-hood, a good beanie or similar hat is a must.. trust me. Although you can use a sleeping bag inside your hammock, you will find many are much too wide when opened up fully and without a full-length zipper they can be a wrestling match you don't want to participate in. They do work for many however.
TQ's usually have a sewn footbox, but many such as the models made by Jacks'rBetter can be used as UQ's , blankets, and some even come with a sealable head hole so you can wear it as a poncho. Jacks'rBetter models lay flat, and have a strip of Velcro and a tie so you can form a footbox if you want one, or leave it flat like a blanket/comforter if that suits you. Their 3 season models are rated to about 30 degress F. They also have winter quilts that will let you hang in temps as low as ZERO degrees!
Tarps... well not much to say about them. They are used to block wind, provide shade and keep you dry. They come in various sizes and are made by several companies. You don't even have to use a tarp intended for hammocks, you can buy a square tarp and string it up between your trees in a diamond shape, or an A-Frame shape, or a lean to. Many of the official hammocking tarps are suitable for all season hanging and have catenary cut edges to stop any flapping, wind noise, or sag. Obviously, your tarp needs to be larger than your hammock.
Due to our usually great Arizona weather, tarps are primarily used in late summer and the winter months. That means there's a lot of stargazing to be had, my friends!
Your hammock of choice may be just a nylon "travel" hammock. These have no mosquito netting to speak of. You may find full netting to be necessary, and many companies provide these as well. You might find you want removable netting. You may find you want many things, but once you have chosen to try a hammock the hard part is over...
I use and am very fond of the "bridge" style hammock, which in effect operates much as a suspension bridge. There are webbing channels that run the length of your hammock, and from those your suspension lines/webbing form a triangle that is spread apart on the hammock by a spreader bar on each end. You have probably seen the spreader bar style hammock, but usually those are made from knotted rope and don't really make much sense for camping. A true bridge style hammock will support your body in a near-totally flat lay. Many people have fallen in love with this specific design, and for good reason. It does have some drawbacks however, one being you cannot really pull your legs up tight in a fetal position, and two you are limited to using a much larger (and heavier) tarp to overcome the width of the spreader bars. Most bridge users will find a 28-32" spreader to be sufficient, unless you are a very large and/or broad shouldered individual.
The wonderful thing about some bridge hammocks, such as the one sold commercially by the Jacks'rBetter company, is that the hammock comes with a built in pad sleeve that is under you, which prevents the pad from sliding around, and actually helps "open" the hammock body up slightly. Their model of bridge hammock is also especially sized to accept the UQ models they sell. It truly is a fantastic system, and if you get the chance to use one, do so immediately.
How to buy a hammock:
Choose a solid fabric hammock for proper suspension, weight distribution, comfort and safety
Choose a hammock with bug net and rain canopy (optional in both cases, but worth the protection when you need it)
Hammock comfort in general is dependent on length. Longer is more comfortable, so avoid short hammocks (8' or longer will suit most)
Some extra features may be desirable for some uses, for instance car camping, canoeists or backyard users may not be as concerned about weight and storm protection as long-term wilderness trekkers
I'll make it easier for you, and provide the names of some of the best, functional and quality camping hammocks in the world.*
Never use a hammock that shows any signs of wear. A small tear, fraying in the body, suspension lines or tree straps must be acknowledged immediately. Most durable camping hammocks have interchangeable, replaceable suspension components. If not, a little sewing practice goes a long, long way.
I think that pretty much covers it. Sites are easy to find, there are even dozens of great spots to hang in dry barren areas like the Superstitions. I camp there all the time. Keep your bottom side warm with pads and/or underquilts. Keep you top side warm and dry with sleeping bags/top quilts and tarps. Stay out of pests' reach with a bug netting hammock. Stay on the cutting edge of backpacking, car camping, canoeing, or just reading a good book in the back yard. There is nothing as comfortable. There just isn't.
*companies, that are veteran hangers and outfitters that supply the worlds best items to get you off the ground for GOOD:
Outdoor Equipment Supplier - tarps for any environment
Warbonnet Outdoors - the most lay flat, radical design for gathered end styles
Jacks'rBetter - UQ's, TQ's, hammocks, tarps, guylines, clothing, accessories
Speer Hammocks - a veteran master who sells DIY kits or fully complete
Clark Jungle - Family hammock makers in business since WWII
Claytor hammocks - a variety of styles, one for anybody out there
Hennessy Hammocks - bottom entry, fully functional ready to go from the package
Grand Trunk - a few inexpensive, entry level to mid level hammocks
Ticket o the Moon - affordable hammocks
Byer of Maine - more affordable hammocks
Crazy Creek - make all sorts of crazy stuff, chairs, slings, hammocks
Make sure to understand that there are as many variables to hammocks as there are to new cars... you can purchase one item from this guy, one from that guy, and some other stuff elsewhere. A great entry level setup would be a MacCat standard tarp from OES, a Grand Trunk Travel Hammock, and a CCF pad (to supplement the ground pad you USED to use) from Speer.
A more radical, cutting edge and completely 'overwhelming the competition' setup would be the complete Warbonnet. Just the name frightens me!
The Warbonnet Blackbird hammock, with a Warbonnet tarp, and a Warbonnet underquilt can all be purchased at once. It is, in effect, the most user friendly and deadly hammock known to man.
For bridge style, like a suspended cot hammock, the JrB Bear Mtn. Bridge hammock cannot be beat. They also sell UQ's and tarps to match it. It's a formidable item in any hanger's arsenal.
Well I hope I covered everything, if not, do some browsing. There are a couple of places where hangers "hang" out - search the web for "hammock forums" and let the games begin. Thanks for your time, Mike