Hammock vs. Tent?
While most people will be content using a hammock as a way to relax during the day. Those willing to trade a heavy tent for a hammock in the backcountry will be rewarded with a comfortable, lighter weight, and often less expensive alternative that allows for a unique open view to the world. Of course, a hammock isn't as hardy as a full-blown tent (don't expect to see any perched on Everest anytime soon), nor can you store as much gear in a hammock with yourself as you can in a typical tent. Yet for camping in mild weather, hammocks are durable and more than sufficient to keep the cold and bugs at bay. But don't forget to consider the availability of trees within 10-20 feet of each other! Sleeping in a hammock on the ground is not nearly the same experience.
For those looking to head out on longer trips where the weather can't be as easily predicted or changes in elevation can create colder nights, fully-rigged backcountry versions can still help reduce pack weight and adding comfort and versatility to your camp set-up. By using a sleeping pad for insulation against drafts below, adding a bug net if needed, and a rain tarp depending on weather, a hammock can become a viable alternative to a 3-season tent.
So Many Options
The decision to leave the tent at home and hike into the hills with a hammock is a bold one, but more and more people are discovering the benefits. However, a camper heading into a winter storm has a completely different set of problems than a desert hiker posted up at a bug-infested watering hole. The most basic thing to keep in mind is that a heavy model likely has more features for weather and bugs, while lighter ones without those features weigh less in your pack. So how then, do you choose? Keep reading.
Backyard or Backcountry
The first decision you should make when choosing a hammock is to decide where you will most likely be using it. Determine if you will be using your setup as a primary means of sleeping, or mainly just for lounging around. If you have never slept in one, lounging in camp and taking mid-day naps is a great way to get used to it and determine if you could actually get a good night's sleep. If you are starting out, we suggest bringing an ultralight model on your next short backpacking trip along with a lightweight tent or shelter as a backup.
As a general rule, bigger, more featured models are going to be best for camping trips. Usually, these come equipped with a mosquito net to keep insects out and are a bit wider in order to accommodate a sleeping bag. On the other hand, models that are best for lounging at a campsite typically don't need a bug net and are often smaller, making them easier to fit into a daypack. With a totally different style of relaxation than a typical backpacking chair, hammocks are great to add to any outdoor adventure, and if you do find you need or want accessories like a bug net or rain fly, they are readily available from various manufacturers.
Body Type and Sleeping Positions
Next, consider your preferred sleeping position and body type. Your height and weight are the best parameters to work with, as bigger, heavier people will want wider, more durable models and smaller users who want to reduce bulk in their pack may want a lightweight option. Despite the best tension and body-position adjustments, a narrow, minimalist model is unlikely to feel good for a broad-shouldered, 200-pound person. Likewise, someone that's petite may feel suffocated by excess fabric in a double-person model that they're using solo. Manufacturer's specifications will give you absolute weight limits and material dimensions, which can be misleading. Our testing results fill in the rest with perspective on suitability for different body types.
Single or Double?
Labels can be misleading. Two "double" hammocks from different manufacturers are likely different sizes, such as the 9.3 foot by 6.17 foot ENO DoubleNest versus the 10 foot by 6 foot Bear Butt Double. Additionally, the weight-bearing capacity of a hammock isn't necessarily an indicator of how many people you'd feel comfortable sitting with on it, like the tiny Sea to Summit Ultralight with a 300-pound weight limit! For that reason, rather than label each hammock as "single" or "double" (unless it's part of the name of the hammock, of course!), we've measured each hammock end to end and side to side so there are no surprises about how large the sleeping area is. Instead of focusing on those kinds of specifications when picking out your sweet new hang, we think it's much more helpful to focus on what/where/how you intend to be using your hammock.
The Diagonal Lay
One might assume that the best way to sleep is lengthwise, head and feet in line with the anchor points. While that might be comfortable for a short while, it puts the body at an odd angle and can create uncomfortable overextension of the knees during a full night's sleep. The ideal way to sleep is to angle the body at a slight diagonal, with your hips and shoulders at the same height. This will usually end up with your feet slightly higher than your head, but a more comfortable back position. Some models like the Warbonnet Blackbird and Hennessy Expedition Asym Zip are built asymmetrically to better accommodate this position. It's also easier to achieve this diagonal angle in wider models like the Bear Butt Double and Grand Trunk Skeeter Beeter Pro, which is one of the reasons why roomier designs can be more comfortable.
Hammock Types for Camping
If you are using a hammock as a tent replacement, consider what conditions you will encounter frequently. Weather, temperature, environmental conditions and the creatures that live in them are all important considerations. Do you need a rain fly or a bug net, or is sleeping or lounging in an open model just fine? These hanging cocoons have been around for hundreds of years, and come in many different styles. Our review is based on lightweight travel and camping models, made with strong materials and cutting-edge designs. They are sleek, smart, strong, and safe. There are three general categories that our reviewed models can be broken down into:
These are models with a single or double human capacity, and an open boat-shaped design. Most have integrated suspension system attachment points (e.g., S hooks, carabiners, etc.). The double versions are longer and wider than their single counterparts and are great for couples to sit and lounge in, though unless you're a spooning fanatic, they only really comfortably sleep one. Doubles are also an excellent option for larger campers or people who just want more space.
All of these models, whether single or double, tend to be relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and durable. Generally, they do not include a suspension system and you will have to choose and purchase that separately. Our tested models that fall into this category are the Bear Butt Double, ENO Reactor, ENO Doublenest, Grand Trunk OneMade Double TrunkTech, Kammok Roo, Trek Light Single and several of the ultralight models mentioned in the next section.
These are extreme weight cutting options for backpackers looking for the lightest setup available in order to shave ounces from their pack. These models are usually less comfortable and less durable than a regular single hammock but are perfect for the right scenario. In this category, we evaluated the Grand Trunk Ultralight Starter, Grand Trunk Nano 7, and the Sea to Summit Ultralight for open models. On the expedition side of things we tested the Hennessy Ultralite Backpacker Asym Zip, and the ENO SubLink Shelter System with Sub7.
These are burly setups designed to withstand a variety of conditions and extended stays. Many of them offer a more specific, asymmetrical design that can add comfort but also typically involves a learning curve. They often come with features like rain flies and bug nets and will be heavier and more expensive than any open design. In this category, we tried the Warbonnet BlackBird, Warbonnet Ridgerunner, Hennessy Expedition Asym Zip, Hennessy Ultralite Backpacker Asym Zip, REI Co-op Flash Air and the ENO SubLink Shelter System.
Because hammocks have you floating above the ground, air naturally circulates underneath you. When it's hot and muggy outside this is a fantastic bonus, but when there's a slight chill in the air, not so much. It really doesn't have to be all that chilly — as soon as you reach more moderate temperatures, like 65-70°, you will notice a difference in the heat loss below you. This is especially an issue with ultralight models. The Sea to Summit Ultralight, ENO Sub7, and Grand Trunk Nano 7 are fantastic for shedding weight from your camping setup, but be forewarned that you will feel even the most delicate of breezes.
There are several options to combat this issue. The easiest fix is to line the base of your hammock with blankets, a yoga mat, or a sleeping pad. You can double or triple up on these things, too. Be sure to test this method out before you leave home, as some narrower hammocks can become quite unbalanced when you add your regular sleeping pad that's 3-4" thick! We found this particularly true of the Grand Trunk Ultralight Starter, Trek Light Single and Warbonnet Ridgerunner.
If you want to get fancier, many manufacturers sell underquilts — insulating sleeping-bag-like blankets (often down-filled) that hang right below you. These keep you cozy because your body weight isn't compressing the insulation like it is in just your sleeping bag. Underquilts generally come in full length and torso length. With the torso length models, you will need to insulate your feet separately. Some hammocks, like the REI Co-op Flash Air, even come with attachment points specifically for underquilts.
Slippery Sleeping Pad?
Sleeping pads are often made of smooth material, which can mean sliding off of them becomes a problem. It's not fun to wake up in the middle of the night cold and with your pad on your face or the ground. Many models come with a double layer of fabric to slide your sleeping pad into, such as the ENO Reactor and the Warbonnet Ridgerunner (the Blackbird can also be ordered this way, but we didn't test that model). The REI Co-op Flash Air has included two stretchy straps to combat this issue by holding your sleeping pad in place. However, if you find this is an issue and you don't have that extra layer or stretchy straps, you can stuff your pad into your sleeping bag to keep it from sliding around. If you're really taking the plunge into hammock camping, you might also consider an integrated sleep system where the sleeping pad slides into the back of the sleeping pad, that way you're always laying on top!
Budget and Weight
Depending on your level of commitment, our tested models range from simple models for under $30 to $485 for a serious backcountry setup with all the added bells and whistles for harsh weather. The contender's weights fluctuate between 5.8 ounces to just under three pounds, substantially lighter than all but the most ultralight tents. However, it's important to look into what accessories you'll need to add to your system to make them usable and comfortable - some require carabiners, suspension systems, rain flies and stakes as accessories! With all these add-ons some systems reached just over three pounds, comparable to many backpacking tents.
For some of us, developing the perfect pitch is the most fun part! There are numerous websites and forums dedicated to the best way to rig up your hammock for a variety of uses and scenarios. It is also a great idea to read what the manufacturer has to say regarding the specific model you end up purchasing. There are variations in the recommendations for things like how far apart your trees should be as well as tips and tricks for any and all accessories. As a general rule, you will want your suspension system to be about chest height and at a 30° angle; an overly tight suspension puts excessive and sometimes dangerous force on the anchors. However, each hammock and style is a bit different, and comfort is relative. Take the time to play with this and find what works for you before you head out into the backcountry!
Additionally, many of the models we tested require the additional purchase of a suspension system, something to keep in mind when considering how much your set up will cost you. Others come fully equipped but may still need a few small additions such as stakes, carabiners, or a ridgeline. Be sure to take a full inventory of your system before heading out, as leaving a piece at home can make the difference between an awesome trip and a sad tale to recount to friends after your return.
You have lots of options for how to hang your hammock. If your chosen model doesn't come with a suspension system, you can either purchase one (of which there are plenty to choose from, in varying lengths, materials, and styles), or you can rig up your own system. We definitely recommend never suspending your hammock on a living object with only rope. If you do decide to use a rope system, please generously pad your rope to protect the life of the tree that is providing you comfort, shade and oxygen. An easier solution is to upgrade your system to 1-inch or wider trunk straps, which are better for the tree. Regardless of where you're camping or what system you already have, it's never a bad idea to bring a few extra feet of webbing to extend your system in case trees and anchors aren't conveniently close together.
Climbing grade carabiners are ideal for connecting to a suspension system. Most hammocks are built with a short bit of cord at either end where the material is gathered, though some lighter models eschew the extra cord in place of threading a carabiner straight through the fabric, like on the Grand Trunk Nano 7. Consider how your system needs to be hung and who will be using it before buying a carabiner — you don't want to find yourself on the ground due to using a carabiner that wasn't properly weight-rated! Our favorite carabiners, which you can read about here, are lightweight wire gate models.
Ridgelines are an optional feature for most hammocks, yet can help keep the proper sag in your hammock. This is great when you can't find anchor points at the ideal distance apart for the length of your system. They can also take extra pressure off your anchor points, help provide a steadier/less tippy lay and give you a place to hang pouches or gear. The recommended starting point for the length of your ridgeline is 83% of the length of your hammock and shouldn't be so tight that you can't bend it. Did your eyes just glaze over at the mention of doing math? Don't worry, it's just a one-time thing to give you a measurable starting point. From there, you can experiment and adjust to your personal comfort.
Camping With Friends
Our favorite way to camp with friends is to find two or three trees that are equal distance apart in the shape of a triangle or rectangle. This allows several hammocks to be set up a few feet from each other, keeping everyone within earshot. It's also a great way to be able to easily pass things around!
Look Out for Widow Makers!
As a final note, be cautious with anchors before using them! Always avoid old, dead trees and branches, or "widow makers". Don't use them as anchor points and don't camp beneath them. Make sure every anchor point is bomber. We prefer trees at least 8" in diameter. If you are not sure if the tree is strong, throw the strap around it and give it a tug — does it sway much? If so, look for a new anchor. Consider how much weight will be stressing the tree before committing to a night hanging off of it.