Tuesday, 11 September 2012



        Given the choice I usually take a hammock-tarp combination for sleeping out; especially for multi-day trips, and for pretty much all landscapes and climates and seasons. Why? Well, mainly because the system is more flexible. You can use a hammock and tarp combo on the ground, but you can't string a bivvy bag up as a hammock. Under nearly all conditions a hammock-tarp combo is more comfortable and more weather-proof. 

That said – and despite the point I make below about being able to find two uprights to swing you bed from in most landscapes – if I was just heading out for a night or two and going up high or into country where finding trees or similar uprights was going to prove challenging then i'd take a bivvy bag. And, too, if I was going in for some clandestine stealth camping across busy countryside; though i've strung hammocks low to the ground in cover so they are almost invisible.

So, there's a point. There's no one-size-fits-all outdoor sleeping arrangement. When heading out I'll chose between a bivvy bag or a hammock depending on the conditions I can reasonably expect. I'd use a tent if that was the smartest move. But I'd also have the confidence, gained from experience, that whatever kit I had with me, even if not ideal, i'd still get the most comfortable night's sleep possible out of it.

It's the Pareto Principle again. 20% of your comfort comes from your kit, and 80% from your experience and skills.

I had quite a few false starts in swinging whilst sleeping; I started off with a cheap, lightweight 'Commando' netting hammock but they're not ideal, as things get caught up in the thin-string mesh and it requires too much other kit to insulate you and keep warm. The cotton fabric hammocks I used in South America were fine for sleeping in but too big and heavy to carry on foot trips. Though in Venezuela, riding with local vaqueros in forested country that was thick with snakes, alligators, and insects, and was flooded for half the year a hammock carried on your saddle was next to your machete the most essential piece of kit. One of the handiest hammocks I saw in South American was a bit of cowboy-tech, and made from a large oblong of rawhide with lines of two-inch long slits made along its length in parallel lines each about an eighth of an inch apart right across its width so that the whole opened out into a mesh when strung between two trees and climbed into, (have I explained that well enough so you can see how it would work?).

Making hammocks is easy. I've thrown up hammocks in a few minutes for garden parties and festivals. A long piece of strong fabric is what you need; an eight or nine foot curtain from a charity shop, or somebody else's window, is ideal. Tie a rope to either end – folding the end of the fabric back on itself and using a double sheet bend is easiest – string it up between two trees or whatever and lie back.

But for sleeping out on lightweight trips you need something a bit more sophisticated but just as simple. I tried different hammock designs, learnt a lot more about techniques and then unlearnt a lot of what i'd learnt as being over-complicated and finally settled on a core kit of a lightweight double-skin poly-cotton hammock (a Travelproof, see below for details) and a super-light poncho-tarp. This was light and compact enough to carry as minimal kit on horse and walking trips in all weathers and use in everything from scorching Andalusian summers to below-zero winter trips in northern Europe and through night after night of rain in Ireland and Patagonia.

So, the pros and cons of hammock sleeping:

  •  Hammocks keep you off wet ground, snow or rocks. And defeat most crawling things, including snakes and scorpions, making them popular in the tropics.
  • They're always comfortable if you set them up right.
  • And you can sleep comfortably and flat on slopes and on ground you couldn't comfortably use a bivvy bag, let alone a tent.
  • It's really unusual, if you keep your eyes open, plan ahead and use your imagination, not to be able to find two uprights of some kind or other to sling your hammock between. Not just trees; think bushes, fence posts, rocks, two Jeeps.
  • One upright works if you can make an A-frame for the other end and run the hammock rope over it and peg it to the ground.
  • A double-skin hammock is stronger, and lighter, and lets you put a mat or other insulation between the two skins where it won't slide around. If insects are bad you can get between the two layers as an improvised net. Though it's better to carry a full net in seriously insect-ridden lands.
  • This is important: To stay warm you need a good layer of insulation under you. A foam mat, layers of spare clothing or dried leaves or grass will do. Your sleeping bag won't be enough, nor anything that compresses under you.
  • For really cold climates you will need a LOT of insulation under you. One technique in sub-zero conditions is to have a quilt – down or other insulation that is hung loosely under the hammock, and then just use an upper quilt above you
  • Counter-intuitively, you need to sling your hammock so it's fairly loose. If you pull it tight, you'll only be able to lie, constricted up and down the hammock's length. And you'll be tipped out if you move much or roll over. Experiment but a good technique under normal conditions is to tie the ropes to the uprights at about chest height, and leave the hammock loose so it hangs to only a few feet off the ground. You then can then lie almost diagonally, sleep on your side, roll around, and curl up, all in complete security and comfort.
  • You can tie any knots you like, but the kicker is if you can untie them the next day with cold fingers. At least two turns around the upright, as a clove hitch ideally, before taking the rope back to tie a bowline onto itself is my preferred method.
  • A hammock needs a tarpaulin to cover it. Whatever the weather, unless you can guarantee no rain, no dew and no burning sun waking you in the morning. Which you can't! So, get a tarp, and learn how to set it up over the hammock.
  • There will be some nights when you actually won't need to put up the tarp. Or won't bother because it looks fine. But have it ready. I'd tend to at least string the ridge string for the tarp, even on the most balmy night.
  • A poncho is good as a tarp, as long as it's big enough - longer than the hammock by a foot or two, and has tie-loops or eyelets along the hem. And it serves two purposes, which is always good.
  • To set up the tarp, stretch a ridge string tightly above the hammock but keep separate from the hammock ropes. Stretch the poncho/tarp out along the ridge and tie off, then peg out either side; ideally steeply down on the windward side and more open on the sheltered side.
  • You won't get the hammock/tarp combo set up either quickly or well for the first times you do it. It's that 80/20 thing again. Practise, try different systems of knotting and various heights for the tarp. Do this in good or moderate weather not bad weather.
  • As with bivvy camping, hammock sleeping is a lot about recognising a good spot and that takes practise. An hour or so before you plan to stop start looking for good places; if you see somewhere ideal why not stop and just start an hour earlier in the morning. At least note where it is so you can turn back to it if there's really nothing up ahead. But there nearly always will be, especially if your read the landscape and a map so you can predict what's to come.
  • With experience you'll be able to set up camp in ten minutes or so. Keep the tarp in the top of your pack (if it's also your rain gear it'll be there anyway) and set that up first – it should take a couple of minutes – and then you've got a shelter to set the hammock up under, and to fiddle around with kit. And to cook under, as well, if pushed. Reverse this when you break camp and you'll keep yourself, your clothes, and all your kit dry.
  • The above techniques makes hammock camping a viable way of sleeping out night after night even in foul weather.
  • In windy weather suspend the hammock and pitch the tarp, both, as low to the ground as possible. In really stormy weather you might be better using the whole lot as a bivvy and sleeping on the ground so you can pin the tarp down tight all round.
  • Once you're really confident in your hammock and tarp technique in all weathers you can use a down bag; a hammock/tarp combination is really that much better and weatherproof in most situations than a bivvy bag. There's a great saving in weight/increase in warmth using a down bag, but if it gets wet it's virtually useless. A down sleeping bag is lovely for winter hammock camping in snow, when there's also less risk of it getting wet.
  • Use spare clothing to keep warm if travelling light – remembering to insulate under you more than above.
  • If there are mosquitoes and flies you'll need a bit of mesh for your head at least; a silk sleeping bag liner adds warmth in the cold and can make an adequate fly net.
  • Store your bag and boots and kit under the hammock so they're doubly
  • During the day a hammock can be strung up in minutes to give you somewhere to lounge and laze and siesta. You can also make a seat by suspending the hammock from a single-point.
  • In really vile weather, given the choice, the best place to sleep whether hammocking or bivvying is, arguably in a bothy, or a cave, or a hotel...
  • ...but not always. Sleeping out with minimum kit, being comfortable and dry whatever the weather, and with the least stuff getting between you and the night is an elemental pleasure, and makes every night a small, slow adventure.

The Info:

The hammock I use is a Travelproof Tropical Hammock. I bought it more than ten years ago from Nomad Travel in the UK, and it's still fine after a fair bit of use. Nomad Travel are a good company to deal. Careful, though, they've got lots of desirable kit, that's well thought out and often hard to find elsewhere, and you might be tempted to add to your check-out cart. I'd advise against going for the more expensive and more complicated hammock-net-shelter combinations they also sell, certainly when you're starting out. As pointed out above, starting simple will teach you a lot about hammock camping with minimal outlay, and what it teaches you will then probably mean you don't need to get anything more complicated in the future unless you're heading into really extreme conditions. (Which fool themselves as they will, very few people actually do). Despite the 'Tropical' bit the Travelproof isn't just for warm climates; it's the one that i've used down to minus five Centigrade on multi-day trips, and in night after night of rain and wet across Patagonia, Ireland and the UK in all seasons. http://www.nomadtravel.co.uk/p-129-travelproof-tropical-hammock.aspx

The shelter I use with my hammock is a Sea-to-Summit poncho-tarp. The one I gave details for in the previous post on bivvy bags. It's well designed, super-light and strong, has enough tie-loops around the hem, and is just big enough in length and breadth to cover the hammock adequately. The link, again:-http://www.seatosummit.com.au/showdetail.php?Code=PONCHONY But you could also look at Nomad Travel's ponchos – cheap, cheerful and tough enough to make an adequate shelter tarp over a hammock.

http://www.hammockforums.net/ is one of the most comprehensive forums for hammock camping discussions. Covers everything you need to know, and often far more than you need to know.

Google 'hammock camping' and you'll see how much stuff there is on the internet: A lot! A huge number of discussions centre on which is better, a hammock or a tent. And there are huge-r amounts of chat about the merits or otherwise of different systems. These can be good to read; there's some good advice from people who have hammock camped in all kinds of situations. But keep in mind that the point of minimalist kit for sleeping out – whether tents, hammocks, bivvies or tarps – is to keep the kit minimal. When you get to the rigs for sale – tens of different hammock-shelter-quilt-underquilt-socks designs, all of differing cost and complexity – bear in mind that you'll learn more by starting off with a simple double-skin hammock with a separate tarp/shelter sheet. And that will probably do you for the rest of time in most conditions.

The rest of the equipment you'll need, like under-mats, sleeping bags and so forth you probably have already or doesn't need to be specially designed for hammock camping. If and when you start pushing hammock-camping to extremes, and that really means into sub-zero temperatures, or some of the more challenging jungle environments then you can buy a few extras like fitted mosquito nets, or under-quilts, and a more shaped shelter-sheet to keep in warmth.

But it is all about keeping things simple. 


  1. I love nature, but don't know any this about camping. What precaution I have to take while I am doing camping.

    Kellys Camping

  2. Your blog is full of entertainment and helpful information that can allure to anyone anytime. Continue posting! fitzgerald

    1. Glad you're enjoying the posts. There's been a gap since i last posted as i've been working on other projects - books and long walks and kayak trips. But will be posting about them soon. J

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About Me

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I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.