The Ugly Truth About Hammock Camping

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

The non-believers will tell you it was the most miserable night of their lives. Their back hurt and their legs went numb below the knees. The sleeping pad slid out from under and their butt was freezing and they couldn't sleep on their side. They fell out of the thing when they got up to pee. They felt they were lucky to get out alive. 

Believers will go on for hours about how comfortable, snug and cozy they feel. They sleep like a baby on a cloud and wake up rested and relaxed and pain free. They would never, ever consider going back to an obsolete style of camping requiring them to sleep on the ground in a tent so small they cannot sit up to change clothes. 

Who is right? 

Well, they both are. The first group had a miserable night because they had not yet learned the language of hammock camping. It's not like you can just walk out in the woods and tie the thing to two trees and sleep like a baby. 

There is a learning curve. It's not real steep nor is it difficult, but there are a few things the novice needs to learn and practice, such as sag, ridge line, cold butt, diagonal lay and widow makers.

The second group, the believers, have learned hammock language, and practiced and improved their technique. They find their two trees, hang their hammock, set up camp and start cooking supper in about 5 minutes. 

Meanwhile, the tent campers are wandering around the woods looking for a level spot without boulders, mud holes, underbrush or snakes.

This is well known Canadian outdoor writer Kevin Callan pensively contemplating backcountry life from the deck of an Exped Scout Hammock. After his first night as a hammock camper Kevin remarked, ¨It was like my first kiss. I'm not sure I did it right, but I darn sure wanted to do it again!¨

Here is the link to the video featuring Kevin and the Exped Scout, with paddling music by singer songwriter Jerry Vandiver.

My own love affair with hammocks began about 15 years ago when I read an article in Blue Ridge Outdoors about a Canadian guy named Tom Hennessy who was making hammock tents that were revolutionizing camping for thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail. 

The things weighed less than a one-man tent, didn't require tent poles and could set up in minutes on any kind of terrain, whether the side of a mountain or a rocky, briar infested shoreline. 

All they needed was two trees from 12 to 20 feet apart. I went online and bought a Hennessy Hammock Expedition Asymmetrical that afternoon.

Imagine being able to pitch camp wherever I wanted without worrying about level ground ever again. It was a blinding glimpse of the obvious. A paradigm change so profound I predicted within ten years all campers would become hammock campers.

Mine was the Classic model that had the bottom entry and the non-removable bug net. (The new Zip model has a zip bug net and top entry).

I used the Hennessy Classic on river camping trips all summer and was happy enough with the Expedition Asymmetrical. Except I was not charmed by the non-removable bug net which made it impossible to use the hammock as a sling chair. Then came the end of summer when I didn´t need the bug net, but I still had to carry it around. 

Then as colder nights arrived, I added the optional under quilt. That's when I decided the bottom entry was not my best friend. 

A third concern I had for the Hennessy was the skimpy rain fly. The diagonal shape was intentionally small to save weight and bulk. Both good reasons. Unfortunately, the asymmetrical-cut rain fly didn't offer as much privacy as I wanted, and not enough protection for me, nor for my gear piled underneath.

The following spring I added a new hammock, the Eagles Next Outfitters (ENO) Double Nest. Now I have a top entry and a removable insect-treated bug net

The new hammock is much roomier and more comfortable because I now have a full-coverage ENO House Fly that has doors. Wow, it was like moving out of a closet-size walk-up to a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. 

The ugly truth about hammock camping is that my prediction that all of us would be hammock campers in ten years didn't happen. I'm still not sure why. It is an easy decision. 

Tents just have serious drawbacks. They have to sit on the ground. If they aren't level, you will flop around and slide to the bottom overnight, or wake up with your head downhill and a headache and nasal congestion. One remedy is to lay your spare clothing across the incline, like a dike, and sleep above it. That is only partly successful. 

You also need a campsite free of briars and underbrush. And rocks. And mud. Sometimes you can trim the underbrush and move the rocks but there is not much you can do about mud, other than pray your tent floor and ground sheet don't leak. 

When you come to the river, or a bathtub in the hotel room, give your tent and ground cloth a bath and hang them to dry. If you don't have time for it to dry, or if it is raining, then you sleep in a wet tent tonight. 

The rain fly on a tent is only useful for one job, keeping the rain out of your tent. It gets wet, your tent gets wet, and you pack all that wet stuff in your backpack. Then pull it out tonight and sleep in it.

The rain fly on a hammock set-up is multipurpose. It is the only part of your camping set up that gets wet. The rain fly protects everything else. 

I carry my rain fly in a dry bag outside my main pack, even when it is wet it doesn't matter because it contacts nothing else in my pack. 

When I want instant shelter from a coming storm, or a place to cat hole out of sight of the other hikers or to set up camp at night I find two trees, install my rain fly in about a minute, and have privacy and shelter.

Unlike a tent rain fly, which is right next to the tent roof, I can stand and walk around under my hammock rain fly to take a cloth bath, do a cat hole, change clothes, cook and eat meals, hang my wet clothes and shoes to dry and store my pack out of the rain.

When I'm setting up or taking down camp the rain fly is above my head, sheltering me and my clothes and my sleeping system from rain or snow. I can even build a small fire at the edge of my rain fly shelter to dry out clothes, warm my body and cook my dinner. 

I only build fires if there is no risk of fire spreading. My campfires are about one or two feet in diameter and kept intentionally small so I don't have excessive smoke and sparks and a huge bed of coals to put out before going to bed or before leaving camp.

If I'm sheltering from a storm under my rain fly I whip out my water collector and harvest water off my roof. 

In a fifteen minute downpour I can catch two gallons of water if I want. 

I chuckle when I sit watching my water catcher fill effortlessly while other campers are lumbering down the slope in the rain to get water from the spring then slugging their way back up the slope, slipping and sliding in the mud. We both wind up filtering the water we collect, but I sit in dry clothes while doing it. 

I've hiked the Appalachian Trail and other trails in the Appalachian Mountains and canoed and kayaked hundreds of river miles, and I've decided that hammock camping is almost like cheating for finding campsites. 

When I was a tent camper, I remember searching for hours each trip trying to find decent tent sites. Now, all I need are two trees or some other anchor points to hold up my hammock. 

One night on the James River in Norfolk News, Virginia I anchored one end of my hammock and rain fly to a large limb thrusting skyward from a huge oak tree that had recently fallen. The other end I anchored to a piece of driftwood lodged in a rock face at the back of the campsite. 

If worse comes to worse and there aren't any trees, I can go to ground and use the rain fly as a tarp tent.

The Sea to Summit 8 liter dry bag stuff sack I use for the rain fly is multi-purpose, too. I use it for collecting up to 2 gallons of water from the rain fly or the river, and I use it for washing clothes. 

If my outerwear is wet and I know it will freeze overnight, I roll them up and put them in the dry bag and put it at the foot of my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. I really hate putting on cold, wet clothes the next morning, but it beats the heck out of trying to put on cold, wet clothes that are frozen stiff. 

I can use the rain fly as a shelter, privacy screen, water harvester. I can use the hammock as a bed or as a chair. It's a wonderful relaxing place to lounge in the evening and watch the fire burn down while I sip brandy and jot notes of the day in my journal. 

With the tent I have to set it up in the rain, then get on all fours in the mud to crawl inside where I have to scrunch around changing into dry clothes and there isn't any place to put my wet clothes or set up for cooking or even store my pack. 

With the hammock when I want to pee I step out of the hammock and stand under the rain fly and pee into the dark away from the hammock. With the tent I have to crawl outside, again in the mud, and stand up and pee away from the tent then get on all fours to get back in the tent. 

Stealth camping with the hammock is easy even if I have to walk off trail a hundred yards to be out of sight. With a tent I may walk many times that far in search of a flat, dry, boulder free site. 

The same if I want to put distance between me and the members of the crew who snore. Distance is a great preventative of annoyance. Sometimes you can't pick your neighbors, just put some distance between them and you. Gain privacy and sometimes a better view if you go uphill away from the water.

A tent has no windows. With the hammock and rain fly I can leave the doors open and tied back, or I can porch out the tarp either by tying the sides higher or using a paddle or hiking pole as a prop to give me a wide open view. 

It gives me a feeling of being more in the outdoors. If bugs are a problem, I hang the Guardian bug net and get inside. The photo shows the ENO House Fly and Double Nest Hammock and the ENO Ember 2 Under Quilt.

So, if you are ready to learn the language of hammock camping so you too can marvel at the ease and simplicity, then start with this book The Ultimate Hang by Derek Hansen. This is the bible for hammock campers. 

You will learn all the answers to the questions you did not even know you had. Techniques, equipment reviews, cautions, encouragements. Derek Hansen is THE hammock guy.  

For two years I lived in an older style house on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The house was full of black mold and it got in my lungs. I couldn't lay down to sleep without waking up coughing violently. The only time I could sleep peacefully was in my hammock. 

The slightly raised upper body position enabled me to breath and sleep normally. So, I did the obvious and installed the hammock in my bedroom. 

I slept in it for a year while getting cured of the black mold sickness, then another year just because I liked it so much. To say I am a true believer is an understatement. 

Andy Lee is the author of Five Hundred Miles to the Sea; Adventure Canoe and Kayak Camping Book 1 and he is the administrator of the Facebook group Adventure Canoe and Kayak Camping. He is the chief paddling officer at

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