In the next couple of blog posts Iâ€™ll go through the pros and cons of using a hammock as opposed to a tent. In this post Iâ€™ll go through the practicalities of taking to the trees and review the equipment. In part 2 I'll look at tips from the trenches (or trees in this case) and share some experiences having used them for several years.
Iâ€™ll be honest from the start, Iâ€™m a hammock fan. Itâ€™s a completely different way of sleeping and I find it much more flexible than traditional tents. As with anything there are lots of factors in choosing equipment and everybody is different but I think these things are seriously cool bits of kit.
Why a hammock?
I first starting using hammocks simply because I was finding I was often moving through areas of large forests and couldn't find anywhere to pitch a tent. I have spent a lot of time in central Norway, along the fjord sides where trees are not a problem but tent sized pieces of soft ground are hard to find. Even if Iâ€™ve been hiking above the tree line I normally drop down to it at night, the trees providing shelter and firewood.
This is the sort of terrain that is very common along the shores of Sognefjord.
When all your camp sites look like this itâ€™s a lot easier looking for somewhere to sling a hammock than somewhere to pitch a tent!
Say hammock to most people and they will imagine a large brightly coloured piece of cloth hanging lazily between a couple of palm trees with a warm sea lapping on a white sandy beach behind it. Nice work if you can get it but this is not going to work so well if you are in a Scandinavian forest with the temperature dropping and the midges starting to rise for their evening meal. Even if it could, if youâ€™ve ever tried to sleep in a beach hammock for the night you will know that after a couple of hours without being able to lie flat your back will be giving you so much trouble you will end up sleeping on the sand with the hammock wrapped around you.
However, hammocks have evolved and can now cope with all these challenges, read on dear tent dweller and prepare for a shock.
The modern technical hammock
Today's hammocks are complete sleeping systems that aim to replace the tent in most situations. They can provide pretty much everything that a tent can and in some cases more. They can be used in tropical and temperate regions alike, anywhere where you can find somewhere to support them and sometimes even when you can't.
Iâ€™ve been using the Hennessy Hammock Explorer Deluxe, an innovative system hailing from the islands off Vancouver. You can find all the information on the systems on the Hennessy Hammock website but I will summarise the features.
This is one of my Explorer Deluxe hammocks on a trip to South Island New Zealand. I use the Explorer Deluxe version as Iâ€™m over 6 foot tall so it gives me a bit more space. There are several different models for different sizes but it's mostly about reducing the pack size and weight of the hammock itself, all the hammocks are the same design.
Deployment wise hammocks havenâ€™t changed, you still tie them to trees or anything else at the right height. Once up, the hammock provides a sealed sleeping space, a nylon base that you sleep on and an integrated mosquito net on the upper part. This is kept taught and out of your face by a line running the length of the hammock along the ridge. You enter the hammock from the underside through a Velcro sealed slit that automatically closes when you get into it under your weight. This is great as it means no insects can get at you while you are sleeping but they canâ€™t get in when the hammock is empty either.
There are now zipped versions available which provide a different method of sealing the hammock but I have found the Velcro system very efficient, I havenâ€™t tried one of the zipped versions yet.
The hammock is asymmetric so you donâ€™t lie along but instead across itâ€™s axis. This means you can lie out flat, essential for a good nights rest. I can actually sleep on my side which amazed me the first time I did it. Sleeping in a hammock does take some getting used to but once you do itâ€™s incredibly comfortable.
They are really comfortable as obviously it doesnâ€™t matter at all what sort of ground you are sleeping over, no hard uneven ground or rocks, no streams of water during an overnight deluge. Happy days.
Weather protection is provided by an asymmetric flysheet that matches the layout of the hammock. It is stretched between the hammock ropes and provides protection from rain and bird droppings. The fly can be removed separately but most of the time you will want to leave it on overnight. Bird droppings are more common than you would probably think. Most trees seem to have a few birds roosting in them overnight or maybe they just aim for you. Either way it's where they live I suppose so you canâ€™t complain.
Both the hammock and the rain fly are stretched out sideways with lines of para-cord or elastic in the case of the hammock itself. This keeps the shape of the fly and the volume of the hammock intact. When you sit in the hammock you donâ€™t feel claustrophobic, in fact compared to a tent you feel quite open and exposed. The first time I pitched one in fairly windy conditions I thought it would be too windy inside but the fine mosquito mesh actually baffles the wind significantly. You donâ€™t suffer from clammy feeling of a small tent though, there is always fresh air.
When is a hammock not a hammock?
Obviously the main requirement for pitching a hammock is two fixing points the right distance apart that will support your weight. Iâ€™ve had several times when Iâ€™ve not been able to find such places. A couple of years ago on Barra in the Outer Hebrides was such a time. I donâ€™t think there were more than a few trees on the whole island, and there certainly weren't two less than 8m apart! The good news is that the rain fly makes a perfectly good basha and as I always have a mat and a bivi bag for my sleeping bag, you can make do.
This was my camp site set up in a 30 knot onshore wind on a remote beach with just sand dunes to work with. I weighed down the forward edges with rocks and dug them into the sand. It made for a pretty calm nights sleep while a storm raged above me.
The use of a couple of hiking sticks or bivi poles can be used to make the fly into a basic shelter. Here is another night, again on the South Island, New Zealand.
The Hennessy site does show how the hammock can be rigged as a basic tent as well.
Iâ€™ve found that rigging the hammock up under the fly on the ground is a bit of a hassle as the entry point is on the underside of the hammock. I guess if there were lots of biting things around then it would be worth it though just for the mosquito net.
Temperate and tropical usage
Clearly being suspended in a thin envelope of nylon and mosquito netting a few feet above the ground is not exactly ideal for staying warm overnight if you are a temperate zone. Unless it's really hot the hammock material feels cool where you are lying on it as there is such a thin layer between you and the air below. In the jungle of Sumatra just sleeping in a t-shirt and shorts was sufficient, the cooling effect there was so welcome as was the netting that saved me from the rainforest nasties that tried to feed on me. Sadly though, most of my time Iâ€™m in cooler climes and need more insulation.
There are several ways of staying warm while using a hammock. Initially I though it was obvious, just take your mat and sleeping bag in with you. However, try positioning and keeping your mat under you while you are in your bag and swinging in the air, not easy! Hennessy sell an add-on, the Supershelter, a system which fits under the hammock allowing you to both stay dry if it rains sideways but also to insert a layer of insulation between the hammock and the outer skin. This is the better way round because any insulation you put between you and the hammock is compressed by your body weight and so reduces itâ€™s efficiency. By keeping the insulation outside the hammock you solve the problem of positioning while staying warmer.
The new Deep Jungles model hammocks have a double skin base built in so you can insert a pad or other insulation into the hammock itself. This is personally something I would like to see on all models. In the tropics this second layer will also increase the protection against mosquitoes biting you through the nylon.
I use the Supershelter on most of my trips. On a moderate European summer night with the included foam mat under the hammock and the outer cover layer stopping any wind you can often quite happily sleep with just a very light sleeping bag. As it gets colder the system performs well, just increase your sleeping bag rating to match he conditions. You can also supplement the insulation. Iâ€™ve found one of those reflective mats for putting inside car windscreens makes a big difference. If you donâ€™t want to carry extra gear on a long trip you can always use clothes such as down jackets etc or just dried moss and grasses if available.
There is also an OverCover for sale from Hennessy. This goes over the netting section and makes a complete cocoon out of the hammock. Iâ€™ve not used this but imagine it would be useful if it really got wet and windy. Normally by being in the forest you get a certain amount of protection from lateral rain. A decent Scottish forestry block will almost certainly remove the need for this add-on.
Is there anything it doesnâ€™t do?
Of course there are times when a hammock is not the answer and there are a few times when ditching your trusty tent and heading for the trees is not a good idea.
One of the biggest is that you canâ€™t cook in the hammock. Not so much of a problem in mild climates as you wouldnâ€™t want to in a tent either but if you are using the hammock as a shelter as well then this is a problem.
Itâ€™s not very tactical. Being suspended a couple of feet off the ground in a pine forest is not really where you want to be if you came under fire! There are a couple of woodland pattern fly sheets available but I haven't tried them out.
For normal use, being married is a problem! Hammock sleeping is a lonely experience. On a more serious note if you need to share body warmth, for instance with a case of hypothermia then itâ€™s no good either.
Overall though the Hennessy system is a very flexible, lightweight tent replacement for a wide variety of conditions. I have used my tent since Iâ€™ve had the hammocks but I would always a hammock if conditions allow.
In my next blog I will go through a few changes Iâ€™ve made to my equipment list to make the hammock even more practical.
If you have any experiences please let me know, always good to meet more tree dwellers!