How To Choose A Hammock For Backpacking
Updated: Oct 5, 2019
Over the last 10 years, hammock camping has taken off. The combination of comfort, versatility, and fun-factor have made it a popular method of shelter for backpacking.
As the demand grew companies took notice and start producing hammock-specific camping gear. Now we have countless choices in gear from both major brands and small custom makers. Figuring out the right option can be tough when faced with so much selection.
For those who aren't familiar with a hammock camping system it setups like a hanging tent. The hammock with bug-net will hang between two trees with a tarp hung overtop to keep out the rain and wind. You will also have some type of insulation in or on the bottom of the hammock to block out cold air swirling under your butt.
When looking for a hammock camping system for backpacking you want it to be light and compact while being comfortable and provide good weather protection.
Before we get into the specifics of choosing a hammock system let's look at the pros and cons.
Can be set-up anywhere you have trees
Can be very light
You need trees so not great in the desert or above the treeline
Generally only for one person so hard to share
Takes more skill to set up than a tent
All-in-One System vs Build Your Own
To make things easy some companies such as Thermarest or Hennesey offer complete hammock camping systems that include everything but insulation. Hammock, bug-net, tarp, and suspension all in one package.
If you are just starting out this may be a good option as you have everything you need and there is often a bit of money savings buying as a complete kit. On the downside, these packages tend to be heavier than if you chose individual components for your system.
There are two main types of hammock for backpacking.
First is the gathered-end or parachute hammock. This is just a big piece of fabric with suspension points on the ends. These are the most common and can be found from just about every company that makes hammocks.
Look for hammocks that are made from one piece of fabric as seams create pressure points and decrease the useable space. Since you lay in a hammock on an angle the seams can put pressure behind the ankles or behind your head. Thermarest and Hennessey hammocks are good choices for seamless fabric. I've owned both and find them very comfortable.
When choosing a gathered end hammock you need to get the right size for how tall you are. As hammocks get longer they get wider which you will need to lay diagonal. If you are 5'6" or shorter you can go with a small hammock such as the Hennesey Scout or Sea to Summit Ultralight. If you are taller than this then look for a hammock that is 10-11 feet long. This will give you enough width to be comfortable. Hammock companies list the length and width of their hammocks.
The other type is the bridge hammock that uses a frame to make the fabric hold tension. The Warbonnet Ridgerunner is an example of this type of hammock. The frame makes for a more traditional flat lay. As a side benefit, bridge style hammocks can be used with traditional sleeping pads for insulation. Bridge style hammocks are generally heavier since they have metal bars to add the structure.
I've tried both types of hammocks and find the gathered-end style the most comfortable and they are lighter.
Once you have a hammock it doesn't do much without a way to attach it to a pair of trees. The suspension system you choose will affect both the weight and how easy they are to set-up.
There are a number of styles of hammock suspension available commercially: Atlas straps, sliding buckles, whoopie slings.
These straps have a series of loops sewn into them allowing you to adjust the hammock on the strap by clipping a carabiner higher or lower on the strap. They are very easy to use but are on the heavy side.
Sliding Buckle Straps
Once you've slung the strap around a tree you attach the hammock end via a carabiner and using the buckle adjust the height of the hammock. Since it is a sliding buckle it allows for more fine-tuning than Atlas straps and is a little lighter.
This is the lightest option with an adjustable cord threaded through itself for adjustment. When there is no weight on the system you can lengthen or shorten the slings but locks in place once weighted.
I want to keep the weight of my kit as light as possible so I use whoopie slings.
Depending on where you live bug netting may or may not be needed. If bugs aren't a concern then consider getting a hammock like the Thermarest Slacker or Sea to Summit Pro Hammock. These come without bug netting but you can add an external bug net that cocoons the entire hammock if you need. This option is a little heavier than hammocks with bug netting built in.
Some hammocks like the Hennesey Expedition or Warbonnet Blackbird have zip up bug netting attached to the top of the hammock meaning you have it with you at all times. Since it is only on the top of the hammock it doesn't weigh a lot. If you are just lounging around you can unzip and flip the net out of the way.
I personally like the hammocks with the built-in zip-up bug net as it is lighter and easier to set up. The downside is you can't leave the bug net at home but I've never found this to be a problem.
To protect from rain and wind you will need a tarp to put over your hammock, cord to act as a ridgeline and tent pegs to stake it out to the ground. When over the hammock it will look like an A-frame tent.
Depending on the material of your tarp you can get them as light as 150 grams. Hammockgear.com makes tarps from Dyneema fabric that are light and strong. The downside is the price. A Dyneema tarp will cost you about $300.
If you want reasonably light with a lower price tag consider getting a siliconized-nylon tarp which will weigh about a pound for around $100 or less.
Many companies are making hammock specific tarps but most of the time I use a lightweight 8x10 foot siliconized nylon tarp. Just make sure that the long length is at least 9 feet long to fully cover your hammock. You want it wide enough that when pegged down it comes low enough to block wind and rain from blowing in the sides.
If you want a tarp that is both lightweight and durable don't use the vinyl tarps with grommets from the hardware store. They are heavy, bulky and tear apart in windy conditions.
To suspend your tarp you will need some cordage. I use a 2.5 mm accessory cord in a 35-foot length, constructed into a continuous ridgeline. I also use the accessory cord for the guy lines on the tarp to peg it to the ground.
Instead of needing a sleeping pad to insulate yourself from the cold of the ground, in a hammock you need insulation to protect you from the cold air swirling under you.
This can be accomplished in a few ways. You can put an insulated sleeping pad in your hammock or use an under-quilt.
The sleeping pad works but has a tendency to move around in the hammock. This can lead to waking up with a cold spot where the pad as moved. If you are going to use a sleeping pad try something like the Thermarest Z-lite foam pad as the egg carton texture helps the pad stay in place better.
Klymit and Thermarest make pads designed for hammocks which aim to combat the sliding around so this may be a good option. The bonus of using a sleeping pad is if you are in terrain where you may not be able to find trees every night you still have a pad for sleeping on the ground under your tarp.
Think of an under-quilt as a blanket made similar to a sleeping bag. Down or synthetic insulation is sandwiched between a lightweight nylon shell. The under-quilt straps to the outside of the bottom of the hammock. The benefit of being on the outside is that your weight won't compress the insulation and it wraps up the sides insulating a larger area than a pad.
Under quilts are available from widely distributed brands like Thermarest and Eagle Nest Outfitters as well as a number of small custom makers. My personal favorite is Hammockgear.com. The make a variety of styles in a number of temperature ranges to cover whatever season you want to camp in. With both an Econ and Premium line, you have the choice of which fits your budget.
The Ultimate Hammock Set-up
Bear in mind this is just my opinion. I'm basing it on gear I've had a chance to use or check out in person.
Warbonnet Blackbird Hammock with whoopie slings $200
Hammockgear.com Dyneema Hex Tarp $250
Hammockgear.com 20 degree Incubator Under-quilt with 950 fill down $329
This combination is ridiculously light while being super comfortable. It is just very expensive.
When hammock camping you have a lot more choice in campsites since you don't need to find a piece of flat ground. All you need is two trees that are 15-20 feet apart. The trees should be alive, well rooted, and be at least 6 inches in diameter.
Since you are in the trees always look up to see if there are any dead trees or branches that could blow down on you.
As someone who wakes up sore when I sleep on the ground, even with a nice sleeping pad, hammock camping is a back saver.
We are blessed with a ton of good options just make sure you get a hammock that fits you. It's okay to have a hammock that is too big but if it is too small you will probably not find it a comfortable night sleep.
If you are a hammock camper, let us know in the comments below what your favorite set-up is.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard