Got Trees? Welcome to Your Next Campsite: Backcountry Hammocks

July 25, 2011
Backcountry Hammocks
Marc ChalufourBackcountry hammocks can turn almost any area with trees into a comfortable campsite.

Trees are everywhere in the Northeast backcountry. Good tent sites are not. Unlock the secrets of hammock camping and you’ll radically expand your choices for overnight sites. Plus you’ll save weight, stay dry, keep the bugs at bay, and enjoy a swinging good time in the process.

Today’s backpacking hammocks are marvels of lightweight packability, comfort, and protection. Used correctly, they offer one of the lightest weight sleep systems that fully protects from both rain and bugs. Made of solid nylon fabric below and an enclosed mesh canopy overhead, they weigh between 2 and 3 pounds and pack down to football size. A separate rainfly provides protection from the elements.

There is a learning curve to sleeping in a hammock. Fortunately, the curve isn’t in your back. Today’s styles allow you to sleep flat, on a slight diagonal off center, and are made from smooth nylon that cradles every part of your body. Most even allow you to sleep on your side. The bigger challenge is developing a system that keeps a sleeping pad positioned underneath you for warmth—your underside loses a lot of heat when the sleeping bag insulation is compressed and there’s nothing to protect you from the chilly air. Hammock enthusiasts recommend wide foam pads at least 25 inches across to prevent shifting; they often trim them to better fit the hammock’s shape.

Setting up a hammock is different from pitching a tent. The only site requirement is two trees an appropriate distance apart (10 to 12 feet for most hammocks), with no obstacles between them. A specialized knot—the hammock knot, naturally—is recommended for securing it to the trees. The knot cinches tight to the trunk and allows for easy tension adjustments, but does require some practice to get right. Accessories are available that make attachment easier, if a few ounces heavier.

The overhead rainfly is attached to the same trees used for the hammock, then tensioned on each side with a guyline and stake, or by attaching it to surrounding rocks or trees. Pitch it close to the hammock if it’s really storming, a few feet away for better ventilation in nicer weather.

There are some additional challenges to honing your hammock skills. Learning to gracefully get in and out takes some time; most hammocks have an opening on the underside to climb through that must then be sealed behind you to keep the bugs out. Space is limited inside the hammock for your gear. You’ll need to keep it protected with a waterproof pack cover or large garbage bag; placing it directly underneath you helps, but adds potential obstacles to your entry and exit. Some hammock rain flies can be pitched to create a sheltered “vestibule” on one side, a nice feature for cooking in the rain.

Expect to pay $150 to $250 for a quality backpacking hammock. As with most outdoor gear, you pay more for less weight, a feat usually accomplished with lightweight, less durable fabrics and smaller hammock dimensions. Choose the combination of price, weight, and durability that’s right for you, then swing on!

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.