For most casual campers and backpackers, it would be wild to consider sleeping in anything other than a tent in the backcountry. While car and trailer camping are great options for people who need a little more comfort or want to cover serious ground, tent camping is the gold standard for spending a night in the embrace of the great outdoors.
You may be surprised to learn however that tents aren’t the end-all, be-all of great camping and backpacking. You don’t actually need a tent to stay comfortable and secure in the wilderness. In fact, many of the most experienced backpackers have cast off the traditional tent for much lighter and versatile options, like a hammock or bivy sack.
Is a Tent Always Worth the Hassle?
One of the main reasons you might go out into the wilderness on a camping trip is to get away from the hassles and complications of modern life. Enjoying the simplicity of outdoor living is a major motivation for plenty of backpackers and hikers. So why put up with the hassle and expense of a tent? After all, if the idea is to go without anything that’s not absolutely necessary, you might eventually find you can eschew even a tent!
For those unfamiliar with alternative sleeping arrangements for an outdoor or backcountry trip, it might sound scary to stay out in the woods without a tent to protect you from the elements. The truth is, though, that options like a modern hammock, a bivy sack, or even a well-planned ground sleeping situation can be plenty comfortable for your next trip.
As you might guess, hammock camping is especially popular among ultralight backpackers and anyone else trying to reduce the weight they need to carry. Even a simple one-person tent can get heavy when you consider the weight of tent poles in particular.
Another advantage of the hammock setup or similar sleeping setups is that they often combine your sleeping gear with the protective gear into one unified sleep system. This way, you can be comfortable and secure while carrying very little gear, and this less weight.
Basics of Hammock Camping
The good news is that hammock camping is a lot easier than you might imagine! The modern hammock camper has many options to choose from and a lot of high-quality and cozy alternatives. Plus, you can combine elements of different sleeping options to figure out the right system for you.
No matter what equipment you’re using, everyone’s needs are going to be different and you should experiment with different alternatives to find what works best for you. We all have different tradeoffs between the amount of weight we want to carry, how comfortable we want to be, and the kind of weather we plan to be camping in.
It goes without saying that hammock camping in a temperate climate on a dry night is much different from winter camping with the same equipment. So, if you’re going to try hammock camping, the hammock gear you’ll need will depend somewhat on the conditions you’ll be using it in, your own personal comfort level, and other factors like weight limits, how many people you need to provide shelter for, and more.
To start designing the perfect hammock system for your next trip, you should start by familiarizing yourself with different sleep system options for backpacking and camping. Beyond basic hammocking and a traditional tent, there are ground camping alternatives as well, like bivy sacks and simple tarp set-ups.
A bivy sack is a bit like a super-insulated sleeping bag, with a raised portion above the head to provide some space and protection from bugs. While they’re usually not waterproof on their own, adding a tarp or rainfly can solve this problem easily.
You can also simply combine a sleeping bag, tarp, and maybe a mosquito net to achieve a pretty comfortable sleeping situation right on the ground. That said, most people are a bit more comfortable with space between their back and the flat ground. So camping cots are one way to provide a bit of space, although hammocks are both lighter and generally considered more comfortable than a cot.
Hammock vs Tent Camping
What is it that makes hammocking so comfortable and popular? To put it simply, flat ground is often very uncomfortable. You can try to make up for it with sleeping pads and thick sleeping bags, but the fact is the ground is hard on your back. A hammock, when used correctly, can take a lot of pressure off your back. This is really important if you’re trekking quite a long way and need to carry a pack for days on end.
But it also allows you to carry more of other things, go longer without restocking, and be less burdened by everything you need to carry. This makes hammock camping an especially great option for anyone who needs to carry along additional equipment, such as photography equipment, fishing poles, or whatever else you need to bring with you ut to the backcountry.
So if you’re ready to get a good night’s sleep on your next camping trip or save your back a little bit of strain, consider switching out your standard camping gear for a hammock. Ground camping can be a fun and effective option, but after you try hammock camping for the first time, it’s unlikely you’ll ever go back. Especially after learning how to combat bugs, rain, wind, and more effectively in a hammock.
When You Might Need a Tent
There are, however, some camping situations where a tent is the better option. In particular, hammocks are usually only designed for one or maybe two people. If you want to sleep more than that in one place, hammocks aren’t the best option. You should also consider whether you’re up to climbing in and out of a hammock as they can be difficult for people with hip or back issues.
It’s also true that hammocks just don’t provide quite as much protection from the elements as tents do. For some, this is part of the appeal, as it allows you to be closer to the natural world. However. This means there are limits to the conditions in which you can use a hammock.
For bad weather or extended camping, you may be more comfortable in a tent. Still, there are definitely ways to make hammock camping possible in even the worst of conditions. In fact, we’ll cover winter hammock camping a bit below.
If you need a tent, though, and don’t find the tradeoffs worthwhile in order to switch to hammock camping, that’s totally fine. Everyone has different needs and desires when it comes to camping and backpacking, so figure out what works for you. Just don’t count out hammock camping without considering it first!
Setting Up the Ultimate Sleep System
Now that you’re ready to try an alternative to traditional tent camping, how can you design a sleep system that provides comfort, ease, and security? The first question to consider is whether you want to go for an alternative ground camping option or a hammock. One way to decide is to think about your sleeping position. Do you commonly sleep in your back? On your side?
For side sleepers, a bivy sack or cot may be a better option than a hammock. Hammocks, on the other hand, are ideal for people who sleep on their back, although I’ve heard plenty of side sleepers also find them comfortable.
If you go with a hammock, the only components you’ll truly need are your hammock and a suspension system. There are a few different suspension systems out there, but most rely on straps, ropes, and carabiners to attach your hammock to trees or other suspension points (such as rocks).
This is an important thing to consider: if you use a traditional hammock, you’ll need something to attach it to! Hammocks with a stand are going to be heavier and, at that point, you may just want to use a tent. Some suspension systems also require stakes for tie-outs just like a tent.
From there, setting up sleeping space in a hammock is similar to what you’d do for a tent. You’ll generally need an under-quilt, a top-quilt, and a sleeping bag to sleep comfortably. Unlike ground camping, however, you won’t need a sleeping pad to reduce the pressure from the ground. This is one real advantage of hammock camping, you can set up camp even in areas where the ground would otherwise pose an obstacle.
Waterproofing and Bug-Proofing
With both hammocks and bivy sacks, you’re also going to want some sort of waterproofing to help keep you dry in a sudden rainstorm. You can buy a rain fly made for a hammock or bivy sack rather than a tent, or use a rain tarp to stay dry. Some bivy sacks are waterproof on their own, but it’s always a good idea to use a rain tarp underneath as well. You’ll sometimes see rain flys for hammocks called “hammock tents” too.
Finally, if you’re camping somewhere where there are lots of bugs, a mosquito net might make sense to add. Many bivy sacks and camping hammocks come with bug nets included, but you should make sure to get one if the hammock you’re using doesn’t. You can often find rain tarps and mosquito nets combined, and a lot of the newer camping hammocks come with all of these things as well as self-contained suspension systems.
Hammocking and Ultralight Backpacking
As you can see, hammocks are a great option for ultralight backpacking. Since they weigh very little, are easy to set up, and even cost less than the average tent, they make a great option for anyone looking for less hassle in their next camping trip. Some suspension systems are much more complicated than others though, and you can certainly set up a hammock sleeping system that’s just as complicated as any tent.
In choosing the right type of hammock for your trip, you’ll want to consider material, size, suspension options, and more. When it comes to suspension options, you have many, many choices. You’ll probably need to experiment a bit to figure out what works best for you. It’s good to know some basic options and terms to start.
The “ridgeline length” refers to the distance between the two ends of your hammock, and it’s important to make sure you get the right sag in your hammock to lay comfortably above the ground. You can achieve this by using just ropes, special tree-hugger straps, webbing, and more. For those just starting out, the daisy chain strap is the easiest to use, although many hammock campers swear by webbing-based suspension options.
Setting Up Your Hammock
At the very basic level, there are a few things you’ll want to do to make sure your hammock is set up correctly for a good night’s sleep. The first thing to do is locate the right spot to set up your hammock. You want to find two trees the right distance apart, as well as making sure there’s nothing sharp or dangerous below. You should also try to use tres that aren’t rotting, dead, or harboring any animals that might be disturbed by you.
In fact, hammocks make it much easier to live out the “leave no trace” principles of responsible hiking and camping. So you should avoid setting up your hammock near active water sources and use established sites whenever possible. You can also use special tree hugger hammock straps to avoid injuring the trees you’re using.
From there, you want to hang your hammock with the straps at about a 30-degree angle from the ground. It can be tricky to get the angles and sag right the first few times, but eventually, you’ll figure out the best way to set up your hammock. In general, you want to create a sort of diagonal space for your body so you’re laying across the hammock. The bottom should be about 18’ from the ground.
Using a Hammock in Cold Weather
So I promised we’d also talk about how to use a hammock in cold weather. These days you can get a hammock that’s well suited for whatever weather conditions you need. As it’s gotten easier and easier to produce effective lightweight winter camping gear, the camping season has extended for many people who enjoy trips to the wilderness.
Hammock camping is no different. You can now buy hammocks specially created for winter camping. Just like winter sleeping bags, these hammocks use advanced insulation materials to keep you warm even in the harshest of weather. In fact, hammocks are going to be cheaper than full tents with similar temperature ratings. In particular, Hennessy hammocks come with lots of options for increased insulation, reflective rain flys, and more.
Again, keeping warm in a hammock in the winter is going to require a bit of experimentation to get it right. Try different insulation options, like hammock pads, and inflated layers. One tip you might not expect is that mosquito netting can actually help keep you warm. It provides something of a windscreen and, when used with other forms of insulation, can keep you quite comfortable in cold weather.
While there is definitely a learning curve involved, anyone can learn to use a hammock or another alternative sleep system to explore the backcountry. In fact, if the point is to get as close to the natural world as possible, it’s amazing that anyone camps any other way.
A hammock can help you save money, protect your back, get more in touch with nature, and even live out your values more fully. After all, it’s much easier to “leave no trace” when you don’t have to set up a tent and everything involved in that.
But hammock camping is especially great if you’re trying to go further, carry more, or challenge yourself to camp with less. With the modern materials and technologies now available, it’s easier than ever to stay warm sleeping in a hammock. Once you get rid of all that weight taken up by your tent, you’ll be freer than ever to explore the world around you.
Bonus tip: Check out this video on how to set up a hammock on a slackline for an even more extreme challenge!