Five years ago this summer, I spent my first night in a hammock. Sometime in the wee hours, I shifted off my pad and got lazy-camper cold. (Lazy-camper cold is the kind where you contemplate how much effort will be required to get warm again and how much more awake you will be after making that effort, and decide you are better off just trying to fall back asleep.) Consequently, I entered lazy-camper sleep and alternated between looking up at the stars peeking through leafy branches, watching the moon slowly drift across the sky, and catnapping, shivering myself awake every half hour or so to think about how warm and comfortable my bed back home must be on this chilly night in the Stansbury Mountains.
So no, I wasn’t sold at first. But by the end of my second night in a hammock, I had seen the light, converted, and was baptized by nylon. Since then, I’ve spent many nights hanging beneath stars or tarps everywhere from the High Uintas to the Grand Canyon.
For people who’ve never slept in a hammock before, a lot of questions arise. Many answers are subjective and best learned by experience, but I’ve included some general advice to help make your first hammocking experience a pleasant one. The tips provided here recognize that hammocking, like any other outdoor activity, carries some inherent risk. And just as with other activities, that risk can be seriously mitigated by common sense and doing your homework.
Buying your first hammock
Clearly your height, weight, and style of camping play into this, but with so many models and options available, the decision can be daunting. Over the last few months, I’ve published a series of hammock reviews on the Outdoor Sports Guide blog. Use these posts as a baseline, and do your research from there. If possible, borrow a hammock from a friend or see if your local retailer will allow you to set a few up and try them out.
Ask lots of questions: What do I need to hang the hammock? Does the tarp require a ridgeline and/or stakes? Should I buy a separate bug net or buy a hammock with one already attached? Asking now will save headaches later.
Setting up your hammock
After making your purchase, set the system up in your yard or a public park, familiarizing yourself with what you need for a good pitch. Most hammock companies provide printed instructions with their products, and many have set-up videos posted on their websites. Trust me, you should watch them.
Generally speaking, you’ll be setting up your hammock between trees, though other things will suffice, including soccer goals, should you happen to run across one of those on a hike. The trees should be alive, at least eight inches in diameter, and at least as far apart as your hammock is long. Inspect the site to make sure that no large, dead branches or other hazards loom above your resting place–lest it become your last.
If your hammock does not have an integrated ridgeline, hang it so the straps sag at about a 20–30° angle. Strung too tight and the sides of the hammock will close over you, too loose and the sides will sag as you lie down. Hammocks with an integrated ridgeline don’t have this requirement because the ridgeline ensures the hammock has the same sag every time it’s pitched. Both kinds of systems work well though, so go with what you like.
Pitch your hammock high enough that you don’t touch the ground after getting inside. Waist-high is generally OK, but keep in mind that your hammock and suspension will stretch a bit when they are new. Be prepared to adjust the pitch as needed.
Getting inside your hammock
The quickest way to fall out of a hammock is by getting in feet or headfirst. Unless you are trying to entertain your friends or end your camping trip with a visit to the local urgent care center, get in by sitting down. Face slightly away from the hammock and take hold of the front edge with one hand. With the other hand, smooth out the fabric to create a landing spot. Then sit down, rotate your body just diagonal of being in line with the hammock and lift your feet in. The diagonal lie will create a flatter feel than if you hang directly in line with the hammock.
Sleeping in a hammock
The first night is the hardest, but it gets easier, and the very minor struggles at the beginning are more than made up for by the increased comfort and decreased pack weight you’ll enjoy because of the investment. Airflow around the hammock keeps you comfortable when it’s hot outside, but you’ll need extra insulation, like a sleeping pad or underquilt, underneath your sleeping bag when the temperature drops.
If you find that the back of your knees ache after lying in a hammock for a few hours, lie in a figure-four position, with one foot under the knee of the opposite leg, or stuff clothing beneath your knees to keep them from hyperextending.
There’s a lot to learn when you start hammocking, but it all comes quite naturally and over time these skills will become second nature to you. I predict that hammocking is going to explode in this country, and that in two to five years this article will be obsolete, as hammocks will be nearly as common as sleeping bags.
Our Top Hammock Picks
Not sure how to begin picking out a hammock? Here are our favorites to get you started. But what’s better than buying your first hammock? Winning it! Eagles Nest Outfitters and Outdoor Sports Guide are teaming up to give away their Double Nest Hammock and Atlas Strap set to a lucky reader. To enter, visit our blog at sportsguidemag.blogspot.com before September 1, 2013.
The OneLink from Eagle Nest Outfitters is an all-in-one solution. Although it’s a little heavier than some hammock systems, the separate components provide a great deal of flexibility, so you only pack what you need. $220 eaglesnestoutfittersinc.com
Hennessy Explorer Ultralight Asym Zip
An integrated bug net and ridgeline, combined with the asymmetric cut and durable, yet lightweight, construction make the Explorer a hammocker’s dream. Set-up takes a bit of practice, but helpful online videos make it easy. Tarp doesn’t require separate suspension. $270 hennessyhammock.com
Grand Trunk Air Bivy Extreme Shelter
The best value of all hammocks in this review. One hundred fifty dollars gets you a complete hammock system, albeit with a slightly narrower hammock. But the integrated bug net and enormous tarp make it a pretty great shelter. Set-up isn’t quite as elegant as other systems, but you can’t beat the price. $150 grandtrunk.com
Warbonnet Blackbird XLC Double 1.1 with MamaJamba Tarp
My favorite of the bunch. This system has it all: an assymetrically cut hammock with integrated ridgeline and bug net (removable or substitutable), customizable suspension system, and a massive (but superlight) tarp. The tarp requires its own suspension, but you can easily make it yourself. $285 warbonnetoutdoors.com
Why? There are almost too many benefits to list. Greater comfort, lower pack weights, easier packing, and leave-no-trace advantages, just to name a few. So hop on board now. In a few years you’ll be able to say that you were hangin’ before hangin’ was cool.