Hammocks for Thru-Hiking

Every once in a while I receive emails about hammocks and thru-hiking. It is a subject about which I know very little. That being the case, I asked a hiking buddy of mine with extensive hammocking experience, to put together an article about the hows, whys and wherefores of using a hammock on a long distance trail. Take it away, Brian “Beardoh” Ristola, with a big assist from his wife and hiking partner, Alison aka “Sweetpea“:

Beardoh and his Uncle Bill on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Hammocks have been an integral part of our backpacking kits since thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2011. Since then we have used hammocks on all our long distance hikes.

On a couple of occasions, myself on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2012 and both SweetPea and I on the Arizona Trail (AZT) in 2015, we started our hikes on the ground and then switched to hammocks midway through our journeys. In hindsight, we could have just taken hammocks for the entire trip – which is what we did when we hiked the PCT together in 2016 – as even desert terrain can be hammock-friendly.

Over the past seven years, we have that found that hammocks consistently provide us with a restful night’s sleep while out on the trail. There is a slight learning curve in regards to the gear setup and positioning oneself in the hammock for maximum comfort, however, once that is overcome (usually after a couple nights), we have found that hammocks are pretty luxurious, and plan to use them on our upcoming thru-hikes in 2018 and beyond (Ed’s Note: Beardoh and Sweetpea will be hiking the Grand Enchantment Trail and Great Divide Trail this year!).

Colorado Trail, 2017.

Advantages

Here are five things that we really like about hammocking:

  • Up in the Air: When you are sleeping in a hammock, both you and all your gear are off the ground. Everything that goes inside your pack is dry because it is under a tarp. If it rains, everything stays dry. If there is a lot of condensation, everything stays dry as there is plenty of air flowing through the tarp. Generally speaking, we have noticed that our need to dry out gear is significantly less than other hikers that camp on the ground.
  • Campsite Flexibility: Flat or smooth ground is not necessary when you are using hammocks (see photo below). This often allows us to avoid established camping areas, and in general makes it easier to find campsites in most environments.
  • Leave No Trace: When employed with care and a tree-friendly suspension system, hammocks are minimum impact shelters. They require no ground clearing, and the wide nylon/polyester webbing straps “minimize girdling and damage to the bark and cambium layer, which can cause wood-tissue death.” (Source: REI.com: Hammocking Responsibly).
  • Do-it-Yourself: Great opportunity to get into DIY gear building. Hammocks and tarps are not too complex to build, and are a great gateway to sewing one’s own gear.
  • On-trail Health: When using hammocks, neither Sweetpea or I feel the usual morning back-stiffness that we do when sleeping on pads.

Bunking down on a steep slope | Pacific Crest Trail (above Seiad Valley), 2016.

Challenges

  • Location: Once in a while we need to walk further to find a camp spot. That being said, the same holds true for when we are hiking with ground dwelling friends, when occasionally we will need to push on a little longer in order to find a flat spot for their shelters.
  • Skills: Hammock setups are a bit more complex and nuanced. Getting the right angles, positioning, and tension of the gear can all be a challenge when starting out. When employing an ultralight hammock setup, some basic knots will need to be learned (Note: We use a Marlin Spike Hitch, and a knot that the hammock community calls a “J-Bend”, which employs a Marlin Hitch, finished with a Becket Hitch).
  • Sleeping Position: If a person is a stomach sleeper, it may be difficult to learn to sleep on their back or side. That being the case, finding comfort sleeping in a hammock will be a challenge.
  • Weight: In comparison to an ultralight tarp or single wall tent setup, using a hammock will be a little heavier. However, it is not too difficult to attain a lightweight sleep and shelter system when hammocking. For example, SweetPea’s current system weighs in at 3.93 lb (1.78 kg). This includes a short sleeping pad and ground sheet in case we need to go to terra firma. See below for more details on our All-Terrain setup.

Going to ground on the Colorado Trail during the 30+ mile section above tree-line | 2017.

All-Terrain Set-Up

Here is a full breakdown of our sleep and shelter systems for our upcoming thru-hikes in 2018. Note that for hikes such as the Appalachian, Wonderland, Long and John Muir Trails (i.e. Trails that have an abundance of trees), we will swap out our Z-Lites for 1/8″ Gossamer Gear Thinlight Pads (2 oz modified) and also leave the polycro groundsheet at home. The stakes are still needed for the tarp. The GG Pad will be used under our legs if it gets cool at night since we do not use full body length under quilts. Click here for more information on our All-Terrain Setup:

Beardoh (6’5″)Hammock Sleep & Shelter System:

  • TOTAL4.73 lbs / 2.15 kg

 

Sweetpea (5’4″)Hammock Sleep & Shelter System

  • TOTAL –  3.93 lbs / 1.78 kg

Sweetpea on the John Muir Trail (JMT), 2014.

Recommendations

There are many great lightweight hammock manufacturers that are constantly evolving and improving their gear as new materials become available. Here are just a few of the companies that build great hammocks, tarps, under quilts and top quilts:

And don’t forget, you can build some of the gear yourself!

And that’s a wrap!

More Information: You can follow Beardoh and Sweetpea’s hiking and hammocking adventures on Facebook, Instagram, or their website, Longdistancehiker.com. The site contains trail journals (AT, PCT, CT and many more), hiking interviews, and one of the most informative planning guides on the internet for Vermont’s classic Long Trail

25 Replies to “Hammocks for Thru-Hiking”

    1. Hey Tony,

      I think in sheltered pockets of forest the hammock/tarp combo would be ok. That said, having spent quite a bit of time in the SW of Tassie over the years, I’d be opting for a tent. There isn’t always a sheltered campsite around when you need one, and as you are no doubt aware, the weather down that way can get pretty wild at times.

      Cheers,

      Cam

    2. We have dealt with strong winds in Arizona, the Sierra Nevada Mtns, along the Mississippi River and even Washington state. Sometimes it can be challenging for sure. I’ve never had to go to ground because of it though. I have had to put stakes back in the ground when the wind has kicked up hard overnight and popped the stakes. If it is not raining, and I don’t expect rain to come, I will often set the tarp up on just one side and a bit lower to the ground, to become more of a windshield where my whole body is protected. I fully agree with Cam that sheltered areas becomes a high priority during windy times. This past summer on the Mississippi River canoe trip, we had very high sustained winds. A few times, we walked a 1/3 – 1/2 mile inland from the shore to find a slight depression that was sheltered. Extra effort, but we slept better 🙂

  1. Thanks for this insightful post. I’m definitely still in the beginner stage when it comes to hanging my hammock. You’re right about getting the right angle and tension. I’ll try your tips about the right knots to use and I’ll report back with the results! Thanks again!

    1. Excellent, Peter. I have been experimenting with ultralight webbing this winter, and the J-Bend and Becket Hitch Knots for connecting the hammock directly to webbing. Let me know if you have any questions for me.

  2. I have tent camped and Hammock camped and hammock camping is my main choice since the late 50’s. Primarily for all of the reason you have listed plus some of my own. The hammock offers 360 degree ventilation which is nice in Florida’s heat and humidity. The versatility of hammocks are something else , I have one that weighs 7 ounces for ultralight backpacking and I have others heavier and up to the 32 ounce category ( hammocks only ). Camping in mosquito country which I do most of the time. A double bottom hammock will protect your body parts from becoming a buffet line for the bugs. The double material stops them from biting threw it and the bug net over the top keeps then out. Most of all I can let my buddies have the good ground for their tents while I can hang anywhere irregardless of the ground condition. Plus I can have my camp ready before they have theirs.

  3. Great article, thanks! I have an old (8 yrs or so) Clark TX-250 tropical that I use for hiking in Florida, primarily Tate’s Hell and Apalachicola NF which is my backyard. The ventilation is a huge benefit, while being off the ground allows camping in areas almost completely off limits to ground shelters. I’m 6’6″, 240 lbs and have more than enough legroom/shoulder room with this hammock. While I’ll sometimes hear folks talking about the weight compared to other shelter systems, I’ve found since I don’t carry a sleeping bag (oversized silk sheet instead) or pad, it’s largely a moot issue. Incidentally it was my chiropractor who initially pointed me towards hammocks. I sleep alot better aloft. Thanks again for your tips and suggestions.

    1. I also have a ( old ) Clark tropical which is really a great hammock. It’s been to a lot of different places and has never failed me. I think the biggest mistake Clark hammocks made was when they stopped producing them. When someone has a lot of questions or is starting to hammock camp I suggest getting “The Ultimate Hang ” by Derek Hansen. His new book is the same title but Volume #2 and has a wider amount of information. Even a how to do it yourself section. Amazon has them.
      I have been camping in hammocks for most of my life and reading is book I learned a lot of new things about hammock camping. ( I just celebrated my 77 birthday ) YES … You can teach an old dog new tricks. lol.

      1. Thanks for the heads-up on the book, I’ll check it out. And, Happy Birthday! I just passed the 55 yardstick myself. Agreed about Clark. I was a little dumbfounded when I learned that they went out of business. Is “Oldsparky” an allusion to radio? Reminds me of the man who taught me CW as a kid, he was a retired merchant marine radioman, sparks.

        1. Oldspakey is a name I got on one canoe camping trip. You know how camping buddies are . lol I have a implanted defibrillator/pacer and one of the guys said. Toss Chuck in the water and when his unit goes off all the fish will float to the top and we will have supper. That was a long time ago , right now I’m on my 5th unit.
          I was a retired Deputy Sheriff in Florida ( now retired ) and folks take for granted it’s referring to the Old Sparkey ( The Electric Chair ) at the State prison since it’s the chairs nick name.

  4. Great article. I have three hammocks – a Byer Moskuito with netting, a Grand trunk lightweight single and a Costco Eno double knock off. I have yet to have a solid night’s sleep in any of them. I try to sleep at an angle, keeping my back relatively straight, but usually end up curled up like a banana, with my feet freezing. I’ve tried each time using my inflatable pad beneath me, as I’m reluctant to drop any more money on an underquilt. I’ve had the opportunity to read the first edition of the ultimate Hang, and tried implementing some of Derek’s tips on my last couple trips, but to avail. Any thoughts or advice would be sincerely appreciated.

    1. Hey Matt – thanks for the kind words on the article, but sorry to hear that it has been tough to get a good night’s sleep. Couple questions:
      1 – have you tried a warm inside hang where outdoor temps/environment are taken out of the equation? This could isolate a physical comfortability issue in the hammock from cold forcing your body to curl up (that happens to me when it is really cold).
      2 – do you use a pillow? I hung for years without a pillow, and would sometimes get some neck stiffness that could last for a few days (pretty much on-going on a thru hike). I grabbed a cheap inflatable camp pillow from Amazon and that changed my experience quite drastically.
      3 – cold feet…I am guessing they are hanging over the end of your inflatable pad? My wife suffers from this, and she uses the same type of small inflatable camp pillow I use for my head, but under her lower legs and ankles. This elevates the lower legs and feet giving the top quilt the ability to loft underneath a bit. That will work for her down to the 30s. For Christmas this year, I ordered her a pair of down socks from GooseFeet Gear…That should help with temps that go lower. Personally, I put the the folded up z rest in my top quilt..that keeps me good, and it cannot slide around (wife puts the pillow inside her top quilt as well for the same reason).

      Regarding the money on an under quilt. Most likely you can buy used, and sell it for little loss of money as long as it is in great shape. I buy new and sell mine every couple years, and I don’t lose more than 25-30% of new value. They are easier to keep clean than a sleeping bag. I’ve used both Hammock Gear Phoenix 20 degree and Warbonnet Yeti 3/4 under quilts and both are excellent. The HG is a bit better suited to taller people.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I need to try the warm hang – I was pushing it the last few times, with temps in the 50s to low 40s – not really the time to be experimenting.

    2. Not sure about your Byer Mosquito hammock but the other two are straight line sleeping hammocks. I use a self inflating Therm-a-rest full length Mummy style mattress. I have it 1/2 to 3/4 inflated so it conforms to my body and the hammock. I like the Warbonnet Blackbird with the double bottom. I can slide the air mattress in there between them and then lay down. The Blackbird has a foot box so you know what angle you will be sleeping at. If you like the open hammocks then one of the Warbonnet Travelers will do the same and let you sleep at a true diagonal and flat. They ( Warbonnet ) also have a bridge style hammock ( Bar at each end ) which will have you as flat as a pancake and in a straight line. I don’t own one but there is a good chance I will from what I have been told about them.
      The cold feet , use a special pair of socks only for sleeping , thick one work really good. A top quilt also helps to keep the feet warm.

  5. I’m planning on section hiking the first 100 miles of the PCT (S to N) in the spring and am 100% sure I’ll be using a hammock but I am a little worried about finding trees in that first part. I’m looking at a Warbonnet hammock. Any advice is appreciated!

    1. From what I have seen ( YouTube Videos ) of the PCT’s south end , it’s mostly desert. Can’t really help any as far as that section about hammocks use. Concerning the Warbonnet hammocks , they are some really good hammocks. I have three of them. If you decide to get one get a double bottom one with bug netting. The Blackbird is one I really like. It has a shelf at the head end to put things on while in the hammock and a foot box at the other end to help you sleep flat. The double bottom keeps the mosquitos at bay , they can not bite threw the material. Want a lighter one then the Traveler with a bug netting.

    2. Hi Diana – In the first 100 miles of the PCT, there were couple of nights that we slept on the ground. Reading our journal for that portion of the hike may give some good insight – https://www.longdistancehiker.com/pacific-crest-trail-2016-posts/ –It really will depend on your daily miles. That first 100 miles is the hardest, but someone hiking fewer or more miles than we did per day can have a different experience. Guthooks guides is excellent on the PCT as you can use a US Forest Service background layer that shows tree cover. Additionally, since there are noted campsites on the PCT within the app, you can look at the images to see what trees are at the site….and could thus plan your mileage accordingly.

      in general, I’d recommend taking an all-terrain system like I in this post – https://www.longdistancehiker.com/hammocking-no-trees-all-terrain-setup/ which includes a lightweight go to ground setup like a z-rest (shown in the photos above on the ground) and a lightweight ground cloth.

  6. While I was waiting for my HG underquilt, a friend and I were anxious to get out there with our gear. I used a Costco down throw ($50 for two of them) and attached one to the hammock MacGyver-style (think ponytail band or shockcord holding fabric wrapped around a smooth rock or button or whatever we could find. I think we even used binder clips!) to rig it under the hammock. I had been sleeping indoors in my hammock all summer, but having that insulation was a game-changer. Even in temps as high as 70, you get heat loss from a breeze and end up uncomfortable. Then you instinctively curl up to stay warm. Flash forward: We have comfortably camped in temps (so far) as low as 30 with the under/topquilt combo and a properly placed tarp. With a proper lie, I can sleep on my side and, once or twice, even woke up face down, with no discomfort. Anything you can rig under there would be a cheap way to test if will help you. too.

    1. Here in Florida I have tried the under quilts and always go back to my original way. I like to use a self inflating full length mummy bag mattress. I inflate it 1/2 to 3/4 so it will conform to my body and the hammock. I start in the evening without anything , then as the weather cools I add the mattress. If i start with it , it’s over on the side and later slid under me. Our weather is 90% summer with a few weeks of winter tossed in for good measure. My main goal is staying cool when camping. I found a double bottom hammock make using the mattress a lot simpler. Plus the double layers help to stop mosquitos from feasting on you. A attached bug net over the top and the double layers keeps me safe and the bugs hungry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.