Up in the Air: Hammock Camping How-to

June 16, 2014
EnoBy camping in a hammock one can minimize the impact on a natural resource.

Lightweight. Low-impact. Usable almost anywhere trees grow. Hammock camping has a lot of advantages over tents and shelters—but what do you need to know before stashing one in your pack and heading for the backcountry?

First, you want to make sure that a hammock is right for you, and that you’re comfortable with each piece of equipment. Chris Fithian, a member of AMC’s construction crew, found a hammock to be perfect for his Appalachian Trail thru-hike. “I didn’t want to be tied into shelters and I didn’t want to carry a tent,” he says. “I did a lot of research at home before I was depending on this in the woods.” That meant sleeping in his yard and, through trial and error, refining his knots, figuring out what extra items he’d want, even extending the rain fly when he decided it was too small.

Not everyone will find the hammock experience comfortable. People accustomed to sleeping on their stomach, for example, may have trouble adapting. And unless you’re packing a lot of insulating layers, a hammock probably isn’t a good cold-weather option because of your 360-degree exposure to the air. But for sleeping on your back, or even side, hammocks can be remarkably comfortable.

If you decide to try a hammock, here are the next steps.

All you really need is a hammock and a means of tying it between two trees—this can be done with two lengths of rope or a strap system with carabiners. Beyond that, you’ll want to consider adding:

  • Bug netting and a rain fly/tarp. These are built into some camping hammocks but are add-ons for others.
  • Tent stakes will ease anchoring the tarp, or you can rely on tying the tarp to rocks or roots.
  • A sleeping pad will add some rigidity to the hammock and improve comfort. More importantly, it will provide insulation beneath you. Instead of carrying a sleeping pad, Fithian slept on a reflective shield designed for a car windshield. This provided a small amount of padding but helped keep his body heat in the hammock.
  • Drip guards on the ropes or straps will help to keep you dry in wet conditions. You can use a store-bought product or fashion your own by tying a piece of string (a shoelace works well) just above where the rope attaches to the hammock. Leave a few inches of string dangling down, to direct drops to the ground.

If you’ve mastered a couple of basic knots, setting up a hammock should be much easier and faster than setting up a tent. Fithian recalls hiking long days through the Mahoosucs near the end of his thru-hike. His hammock allowed him to stop as soon as he was exhausted, no matter how rocky, steep, or wet the terrain. “If I didn’t have that thing, I’d have had to keep going [to reach] a shelter,” he says. As it was, he only needed to find a pair of medium-sized trees—at least 6 inches in diameter—and he could set up camp.

You’ll almost certainly want bug netting. Some models include netting built-in, while for other hammocks it’s an accessory that you add during set-up.

Some hammocks come with proprietary systems that make set-up as easy as looping rope or webbing around two trees and fastening each end with a carabiner. Other hammocks—and the tarps used for rain flies—demand knowledge of knots.

For the hammock, you’ll want a knot that comes apart easily— even after bearing your weight for a night. Fithian recommends a quick-release bowline knot.

How high above the hammock the tarp is stretched is a matter of preference. If the tarp is tied off slightly above the hammock’s ropes on each tree, then staked off to the sides (or tied to roots or rocks), that should keep a camper dry. A taut line hitch (many online tutorials are available for learning this) will make it easy to tighten the tarp once it’s tied off.

Once you’ve hung your food or sealed it in an animal-safe container, you can stash your pack and remaining gear beneath the hammock. Then it’s time to climb in for the night. For the right person, a hammock can be the perfect option. No more searching for campsites or tossing and turning on rocky, rutted ground. Instead, you’re gently swinging from the trees. “You sway a little, the wind blows you, and boom, you’re asleep,” Fithian says. Simple as that.


Read this tutorial to learn how to tie the bowline knot.

Make this a quick-release bowline by pulling a loop, rather than the rope end, through the knot in the last step.

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Marc Chalufour

Marc Chalufour, a former senior editor of AMC Outdoors, contributes to the trail-running blog Running Wild.

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