Hammock camping is very different from other types of camping because you are generally going to be suspended in the air for long periods of time. This has many advantages, such as being out of the reach of crawling bugs and being better protected from other potentially dangerous animals. However, one major disadvantage is the fact that you will no longer have the ground to insulate you from the cold air.
If you have ever used a bed tent, you’ll have a slight idea of what it is like to need insulation and protection from above. Bed tents block out the wind and allow warmer air to build up and not escape as easily. But when you are hammock camping, you are suspended in the air between two trees and you often have only a thin piece of fabric separating you from the cold air. If the surrounding air temperature is lower than your body temperature, it will pull the heat right out of your body in a thermal phenomenon known as convective cooling. This makes hammock camping perfect for hot summer nights but it can be so much more uncomfortable in the cooler months.
However, hammock camping in cooler weather isn’t necessarily a problem if you know how to stay toasty in a hammock. One of the most common questions about hammocking has to do with how to stay warm when you don’t have the insulation and shelter that you would usually have in a tent. If you have ever tried hammock camping, then you’ll probably know that you also need something below your body to reduce the chill and provide shelter from the wind when the temperature drops. The best way to retain your body heat is loft, which basically refers to the thickness of your insulation. In general, the thicker your insulation, the more heat you will tend to retain and the longer you will be able to stay warm.
There are a few ways to improve your insulation and make sure you stay even warmer when you are out camping in the backcountry. There are a wide variety of styles, colors, and insulation options available. Some people like top quilts, some like underquilts, and others like self-inflating pads or down-filled inflatable mats, closed-cell foam (CCF) pads, or even sleeping bags, which can be the simplest and most useful of all of these solutions.
What are some of the major benefits of a top quilt? Even if you’re only an occasional camper, you will want to be as warm as possible during the night, especially if you are camping in the backcountry. Most hammock campers will confirm that you will really need to get a good night’s sleep (every night) to make it through your backpacking trip as comfortably as possible.
A quilt will help you do that by protecting you from the elements all through the night. It will also help keep you warm all night long so that you can sleep soundly all the way through the night. Without a warm quilt on top of you, you may find yourself waking up in the middle of the night (or even several times during the night) because you are just too cold.
Overall, a top quilt should help you experience a more enjoyable trip and also keep you protected from the elements. No matter how many times you have been hammocking, your comfort remains of primary importance. You won’t really want to go hammock camping again after a miserable experience.
Hammock underquilts refer to lightweight fabrics that provide insulation and serve as a wind barrier when they are hung beneath the hammock. There are a wide variety of underquilt designs in all different shapes, colors, sizes, fabrics, temperature ranges, attachment methods, and insulation choices. The two most popular types of insulation used to trap heat are goose down and Climashield synthetic material.
Underquilts hang directly below the hammock and there is usually some method of adjustment in the form of small shock cords and cord locks. The general idea is to provide as much insulation and wind protection as possible to your exposed underside. Underquilts work best when hung properly and snugly against the bottom of the hammock. The adjustable shock cord attachments allow the underquilt to give and move with the weight of the user.
Most manufacturers of underquilts usually provide some sort of compression sack, too. These can be used to compress the quilt into a sack as much as possible to come out with the maximum amount of storage space. Many of the quilts available today are lightweight, easy to compress, easy to fluff, easy to hang, and they provide very good protection from cold and wind.
Self-inflating Pads or Mats
Inflatable sleeping pads or mats are easy to inflate and deflate. There are deluxe models that are made of goose down and they are very long and wide, which provides a great deal of warmth and wind protection. Inflatable pads made by any of the major hiking or camping gear manufacturers use top-notch materials and craftsmanship. Some have insulation, some just use the air in them as the barrier between the user and the cold ground or cold air, and some use a combination of air and insulation to prevent a lot of heat loss.
The idea of inflatable pads or mats is to provide a barrier. Instead of being attached below the hammock, like underquilts, pads or mats are placed in the hammock. Inflatable pads or mats can be adjusted accordingly. Each user can decide just how much or little air to use in the inflatable pad or mat. Some people like to pump them up really firm while others like just a little inflation. As long as there is a warm air barrier, that is the most important thing.
You can also use foam sleeping pads as another layer of insulation. These are generally easy to carry and stow in your backpack. In addition, some hammocks have a double layer of fabric on the bottom and it is often possible to slide your pad in between the two bottom layers of the hammock. This can help keep the inflatable pad or mat from sliding around but you can also just place it on the hammock and lay on it directly to stay warm and comfortable all night long.
Closed Cell Foam Pads
You will find many different closed cell foam (CCF) pads on the market. Some are made by major outdoor equipment manufacturers and others can be bought from retailers like Home Depot or Walmart. CCF pads can also be used to provide a thin layer of protection from cold air or wind. CCF pads are cheap, durable, and very light.
Like inflatable pads and mats, a CCF pad can be placed directly in the hammock. Some CCF pads wrinkle up which can be irritating and sometimes lead to condensation issues with certain types of CCF material. While CCF still insulates when wet, it can be uncomfortable to wake up with small pools of sweat everywhere. While CCF pads are very light, they can be bulky when they are rolled or folded up. Many hikers and campers use CCF pads on the ground and don’t have to worry about the punctures that can commonly be associated with inflatable pads or mats.
CCF pads are an inexpensive solution and they can also be multi-purposed. You will find that they can also be used in combination with underquilts, sleeping bags, or inflatable pads to increase the level of protection from the elements.
So why not just use a sleeping bag with a sleeping bag liner to stay warm? Well, sleeping bags are designed for the ground. They work really well at insulating your top half and then a sleeping pad insulates your back half. When you get in your hammock with your sleeping bag, your backside compresses the insulation against the hammock fabric and basically makes the insulation useless. Remember, the primary factor in staying warm with insulation is loft and if your sleeping bag has no loft on your backside, you’ll be cold, miserable, and not getting any sleep.
So sleeping bags are not always the best solution since the insulation is compressed by the weight of the user, which reduces the value of the insulation material. However, sleeping bags remain popular insulation solutions for many hammocks and they can be a cheap alternative to underquilts.
Some sleeping bag systems can include military modular systems and army surplus bags. The modular systems consist of a lightly insulated bag inside an intermediate insulated bag, which is then inside a heavy insulated bag and finally inside a waterproof bivy shell. With so many layers, you can use all the bags, some of the bags, just the shell, or any combination, depending on your specific needs.
Some sleeping bags and their inside shells can also be used as top insulation layers to help reduce the chill in the air. Check out this quick list of some of the most highly recommended sleeping bags for hammock camping.
- Best sleeping bag overall for comfort, price, and quality: REI Co-op Magma 15 and Magma 30 (women’s Magma 15 and 30)
- Best warmth-to-weight ratio: Western Mountaineering Alpinlite 20°
- Best backpacking quilt overall for weight, versatility, and price: Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt 10°
- Best budget sleeping bag: Kelty Cosmic Down 20
- Budget-friendly bags that offer the most options: REI Co-op Igneo 17 (men’s) and REI Co-op Joule 21 (women’s)
- Best women’s sleeping bag: Feathered Friends Egret UL 20°
- Best synthetic sleeping bag at a very good price: Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 20
- Affordable quilt with an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio: REI Co-op Magma Trail Quilt 30
- Most versatile ultralight quilt: Feathered Friends Flicker 30 UL Quilt
- Luxurious bags: NEMO Disco 15 (women’s Disco 15)
- High-quality ultralight quilt with the best seasonal performance: Katabatic Flex 22 Quilt
A Few Other Ways to Stay Warm
Some very useful things to have in your backpack are a few packs of compact and lightweight hand warmers, which are single-use air-activated heat packs that provide real warmth and can be perfect for keeping your body warm when the temperature gets cold while you are lying in your hammock. These hand warmers are available in a wide variety of styles designed for your hands, feet, and body. Hand warmers like HotHands have been used for over 20 years by professional athletes, outdoor sporting enthusiasts, spectators, skiers, and everybody else who needs safe, convenient, concentrated warmth in cold weather conditions.
Another good thing to use when you are hammock camping is an insulated hot water bottle. These types of bottles are designed to hold warm liquid (usually water) and they can be kept under your sleeping bag to warm it up before you go to sleep. They also have a screw stopper that prevents leaks, and they are made from durable material so that you can use them over and over again. The insulating rubber material keeps the water inside warm for a long time, so it is perfect for hammock camping. The rubber water bottle includes a textured surface to make sure it doesn’t roll around, and it also has several holes for easy hanging and drying.
Clothes, too, are excellent things to use to keep yourself warm throughout the night and they can be easily discarded in layers if you happen to get too warm. If you have a windbreaker or even a heavier jacket, you may want to sleep with that on as well as with all of the other covers, just to provide you with yet another layer of insulation and to add to the overall comfort of your hammock camping sleep system.
Some Final Considerations
The reality about staying warm is that your body is actually like a heater. It converts the caloric energy that you consume when eating food into energy and heat, which stabilizes your body at the ideal body temperature of 98.6°F. When your body is surrounded by cold, you have a few ways to retain your body heat.
Most importantly, you will need to trap the heat you are creating with as many layers of insulation as possible. Try to surround your body with layers and space from the cold to make sure your heat stays with you longer. You should also eat more heavy food and then convert that energy into heat by doing strenuous exercises like jumping jacks or sit-ups to warm your body as much as possible.
Also, you can always turn to an outside heat source like a fire or an electric heater to warm your body effectively before you even get in your hammock. There are even tents with stove jacks that you can use to warm up in the morning after you have been exposed to the cold for a few hours.
Another factor in insulation is the amount of dead space between your body and all of the insulation layers. Having a lot of extra space to freely move around inside your insulation layers may be exactly what you prefer at first, but keep in mind that all of that space will first have to be heated by your body as well before it even makes it to any of the insulation layers.
These are just a few of the basic options you have for staying warm when it’s cold. Always remember that insulation is really just a barrier between hot and cold. Ultimately, there are a lot of methods for staying warm in a hammock during the cooler months. A solid understanding of all of the advantages and disadvantages of each method can really help you make some good decisions upfront and let you experience backcountry camping comfortably in your very own hammock.