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How to Choose the Right Hammock

All of these colorful bananas  which one is right for you? And are they actually different from each other?
Tuesday May 7, 2019
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You've been less and less excited to stay overnight in the backcountry because you have a hard time sleeping well. Maybe you've been through every sleeping pad on the market and can't get comfortable. Or possibly you just want a cool spot to read in the shade on a steamy summer day. It's hammock time! We're here to help! We've compiled helpful information to aid in your search for the perfect hang. See our Hammock Review to discover what models we liked best.

Hammock vs. Tent?


While most people will be content using a hammock as a way to relax during the day. Those willing to trade in their tent in the backcountry will be rewarded with a comfortable, typically lighter weight, and often a less expensive alternative. You will also enjoy an open view of the world and the ability to camp on the most uneven terrain in comfort. 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 inside as you can in a typical tent. For camping in mild weather, they are 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!

Some hammocks  like the REI Coop Flash Air  only span a maximum of 20' while others could easily stretch 30'. Throwing some extra webbing in your pack expands your hanging options.
Some hammocks, like the REI Coop Flash Air, only span a maximum of 20' while others could easily stretch 30'. Throwing some extra webbing in your pack expands your hanging options.

For those looking to head out on longer trips where the weather can't be as easily predicted, or changes in elevation make for colder nights, fully-rigged backcountry versions can help reduce pack weight and add comfort and versatility to your camp set-up. By using a sleeping pad or underquilt for insulation against drafts, adding a bug net if needed, and a rain tarp depending on weather, a hammock can become a viable and versatile alternative to a 3-season tent.

Probably the biggest benefits to suspended camping are the added comfort of not sleeping on hard ground, and (in forested areas) the ease of campsite selection. When you no longer need flat, open terrain to sleep, you can perch your home in more solitary locations. As long as you can find two trees, your spot isn't limited to the widely spaced topo lines on your map.

Are you excited to get cozy in a hammock? So are we!
Are you excited to get cozy in a hammock? So are we!

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 an important thing to keep in mind is that a heavy model likely has more features for weather and bugs, while lighter ones without those features can weigh less in your pack. So how then, do you choose? Keep reading.

Backyard or Backcountry


First, decide where and how you will most likely use your hammock. Determine if you will be using your set up as a primary means of sleeping on backcountry trips of mainly for lounging around.

Day Use


Why do you see one hammock that costs $20, one that costs $35, and another that is a whopping $70 and they all look identical? We wonder that ourselves. There has to be some difference. Right? So we "gathered" up a variety of end-gathered models ranging in price to answer this question once and for all. We dug into the nitty-gritty and got picky about materials and measurements. Spreadsheets were our friends that helped us rank these admittedly very similar options.

We turned some kids loose on the hammocks and really put their durability to the test (not to mention swing height!)
We turned some kids loose on the hammocks and really put their durability to the test (not to mention swing height!)

When it comes to end-gathered models, their comfort varies based only on length and width, and material softness. Ease of setup varies based on whether straps come with a hammock and whether knot tying is required. How versatile they are comes down to their tree span range, which depends on hammock length, strap length, and strap adjustment options.

Of all the metrics we consider, weight seemed to matter the least in these day-use hammocks. We did include it in the ranking though because many people want an option comfortable enough to lounge around in all day but light enough to be able to take it on occasional backpacking trips. Some of our tested models that fall into this category are the Kootek, Wise Owl and ENO Doublenest.

While most options designed for day-use use the end-gathered construction, we tested one unique day hammock with a completely different design. Check out our Editors' Choice for Day Use, the ENO Skyloft to read more about how the spreader bar style stacks up against end gathered hammocks.

Longer trips or less predictable conditions call for more serious shelter.
Longer trips or less predictable conditions call for more serious shelter.

Shelter


If your plans include using your hammock as your backcountry shelter, you will want to be a little more diligent in your research. Think about whether you will sleep in areas where bugs are a problem at night. Will you always want the bug net with you or only some of the time? Some of the models we tested have integrated bug netting, which is a lighter weight, less fuss option but doesn't give you the flexibility to save weight and ditch the net when you don't expect a lot of flying pests.

Also consider weather — some folks may be perfectly happy to go rambling about in downpours and windy snow storms while others check the daily forecast up to the last minute. You should purchase a shelter that allows you to camp the way you like. Some systems include a minimal tarp that needs to be pitched just right and doesn't protect from gusty winds. Others have options for rain flies that look almost like an A-frame tent and can block out whatever the weather can throw at you.

The Hennessy Backpacker was the lightest system we tested and still one of the more comfortable hammocks for getting a full night's sleep.
The Hennessy Backpacker was the lightest system we tested and still one of the more comfortable hammocks for getting a full night's sleep.

While comfort is important for day use, it's critical for overnight applications. If you have never spent an entire night in a hammock, 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 tarp as a backup.

Weight becomes a more critical factor if you are using your 'mock for overnight shelter and carrying everything else on your back too. Many ultralight models can really shave ounces but sacrifice size and therefore comfort, but we did find some pretty impressively comfortable options that kept the weight lower than most lightweight tents.

The models we tested that fit this category are the Warbonnet Blackbird and Ridgerunner and both Hennessys.

The a la carte components by Sea to Summit allowed us to put together a light  comfortable  and well protected sleep system. Leave un-needed pieces behind to save weight.
The a la carte components by Sea to Summit allowed us to put together a light, comfortable, and well protected sleep system. Leave un-needed pieces behind to save weight.

Crossover and Mix&Match


Some of the styles we tested performed well in a variety of settings from hanging out with friends at a park to long-distance backpacking where weight and protection are a top priority. These are the hammocks that allow you to pick and choose components, have removable netting, keep the hammock light yet wide enough to be comfortable, and offer a variety of features that you can select to make your system as unique as your varying trip plans.

The Dutchware Chameleon, Dream Hammock Sparrow, Sea to Summit models and ENO Sublink, offer the most versatility in how you use them and the components available to pair with them.

The addition of spreader bars in the Ridgerunner creates a wider  flatter sleeping surface that is comfortable for side sleepers too.
The addition of spreader bars in the Ridgerunner creates a wider, flatter sleeping surface that is comfortable for side sleepers too.

Body Type and Sleeping Positions


Next, consider your preferred sleeping position and body type. Your height and weight are the best parameters to think about, 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 who's petite may feel suffocated by excess fabric draping over their face in a larger model. Manufacturer's specifications will give you absolute weight limits and physical dimensions, which can be misleading.

Back sleepers, side sleepers, fetal position, leg bend? Most of us have pretty strong preferences in how we position our bodies to sleep. Switching to hammock sleeping is an adjustment, but you don't have to change everything about how you sleep. Hammocks tend to be best for those who are somewhat flexible and willing to adjust their sleeping position to back or fetal position. But with the variety of hammocks we tested, we found options to accommodate almost any position. The goal is to get your body as flat as possible, and versions with spreader bars do the best job here. If you are 100% committed to your side or even face-sleeping position, finding one of these is your best bet.

Larger hammocks give you more options to get cozy. The Warbonnet Blackbird is large and provides an asymmetrical cut to cradle your head and feet.
Larger hammocks give you more options to get cozy. The Warbonnet Blackbird is large and provides an asymmetrical cut to cradle your head and feet.

Size of Hammock


Labels can be misleading. Two "double" hammocks from different manufacturers are likely different sizes, such as the 8' 9" by 6'1" ENO DoubleNest versus the 9'8" by 6'6" Kootek. 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.

In traditional hammocks without spreader bars  you'll find the most comfort when you lie on "the diagonal".
In traditional hammocks without spreader bars, you'll find the most comfort when you lie on "the diagonal".

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 it's still a more comfortable back position.

Some models like the Warbonnet Blackbird and Hennessy Backpacker Ultralight Classic are built asymmetrically to better accommodate this position. The Dream Hammock Sparrow and Dutchware Chameleon both have incorporated asymmetric bug netting to pull the fabric into the optimal position. It's also easier to achieve this diagonal angle in wider models like the Kootek Camping Hammock and Sea to Summit Pro Double, which is one of the reasons why roomier designs can be more comfortable.

If those clouds move in for rain  the ENO's large tarp will keep you well protected. Pitch the windward side low and use trekking poles to lift the other side to maximize your views.
If those clouds move in for rain, the ENO's large tarp will keep you well protected. Pitch the windward side low and use trekking poles to lift the other side to maximize your views.

Rain Protection


If you will be using your hammock for things like BBQs and cragging, you probably won't need a rain fly. But if you plan to make a shelter of it, protection from the rain is something you will want to have on hand even if there's no precipitation predicted. Some of the options we tested are sold as a package with a rain fly specifically designed for that model included. Others have the option to purchase a variety of tarps. Even if the model you choose doesn't offer rain protection, that certainly doesn't mean you can't shop around the other brands and get a great tarp for your use.

This diamond shaped tarp shaves weight but sacrifices some rain and wind protection.
This diamond shaped tarp shaves weight but sacrifices some rain and wind protection.

Tarp Size and Shape


Tarps are not all created equal. We tested a variety of shapes and sizes, and there are many more out there on the market. The smallest type of tarp used to protect a hammocker is the diamond shaped tarp. This style has two pointed ends that attach to the tree or suspension straps and then two other pointed corners that are meant to be staked out to the ground or tied to nearby trees. This style provides the least protection from rain and very little protection from wind.

For wetter and windier conditions, a rectangular (or modified rectangular) tarp gives extra coverage from blowing rain. Instead of two corners staked to the ground, four are spread out for a traditional tarp shelter. Sea to Summit makes an ultralight version that we like because of its wider side that you pitch into the wind and smaller side to increase the views (and decrease the weight). This still doesn't account for rain potentially blowing in at the ends of the hammock though.

Warbonnet offers a variety of tarps that include a "beak" designed to overcome the unpleasant surprise of a wind shift that blows rain in the end. (Shown over the Ridgerunner)
Warbonnet offers a variety of tarps that include a "beak" designed to overcome the unpleasant surprise of a wind shift that blows rain in the end. (Shown over the Ridgerunner)

So, for the best coverage in the worst conditions, some companies make tarps that are rectangular with added "beaks" on either end. These "beaks" fold around the suspension straps and provide rain and wind blocks at the far ends of the hammock. The length of these beaks ranges from around 12" to all the way to the ground.

The worse the weather, the farther down you want your tarp to come. If you will camp in colder climates, a larger tarp will not only stop the rain or snow but will help keep you warmer by blocking more of the wind.

We appreciate the REI Flash Air's built-in bug protection.
We appreciate the REI Flash Air's built-in bug protection.

Bug Protection


Many hammocks designed for backcountry shelter use come with bug netting either permanently attached or included. For relaxing in areas with lots of flying pests, you may want to pick up a bug net for your day use hammock as well.

Nets can be added a la carte to any model. ENO makes two models, some stripped down to be ultralight and some with all the luxuries (like spreader bars and zippered entry). We also like the Sea to Summit Hammock Bug Net because it is lightweight but also features a zippered entry, making it much easier to use than those that you pull on like a sock.

Slide in a pad for warmth. You will be able to hammock further into the fall or earlier in the spring without having to pack an underquilt.
Slide in a pad for warmth. You will be able to hammock further into the fall or earlier in the spring without having to pack an underquilt.

Insulation


Because hammocks let you float above the ground, air circulates underneath you, not just over you like in a tent. 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 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.

There are several options to combat this issue. These range from simply sticking a blanket under you to double layered hammocks to high-performance options like down filled underquilts.

A 4" sleeping pad in this narrow hammock from Grand Trunk made us unbalanced...
A 4" sleeping pad in this narrow hammock from Grand Trunk made us unbalanced...

Sleeping Pad


The easiest fix is to line the base of your hammock with blankets, a yoga mat, a car's windshield heat reflector, or a sleeping pad. You can double or triple up on these things, too. For backcountry use, weight and bulk are concerns, so a lightweight sleeping pad or reflective heat shield are good options. Because the pad primarily adds insulation rather than comfort in this use, a super thick pad isn't necessary and is often a bit more difficult to use in a hammock, making it hard to balance.

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 with your torso completely off your pad. Some models have the option of a double layer of fabric to slide your sleeping pad into, such as the Warbonnet Ridgerunner, Blackbird, Dream Hammock Sparrow, and Dutchware Chameleon.

The REI Co-op Flash Air has 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 bag, that way you're always laying on top!

Adding an underquilt to your setup is a fantastic way to insulate yourself and stay noticeably warmer.
Adding an underquilt to your setup is a fantastic way to insulate yourself and stay noticeably warmer.

Underquilt


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. This option can be a little more forgiving of your nighttime tossing and turning because the quilt often extends to the edges of the hammock, rather than just the 20"-25" width most sleeping pads come in.

They also eliminate the cold shoulder that you'll get using a sleeping pad. This phenomenon has nothing to do with your friend ignoring your repeated invites to go hammock camping but is a result of the fact that your sleeping pad doesn't wrap around your body, but the hammock does. It compresses your sleeping bag insulation in the process. 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 Dream Hammock Sparrow and REI Co-op Flash Air, even come with attachment points specifically for underquilts.

If you're in the market for an underquilt, we really like the ENO Vulcan Underquilt for moderate temperatures because has an adjustable shape and a moderate price to weight ratio.

Budget & Weight


Depending on your level of commitment, our tested models range from simple versions 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, 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.

Now that's a satisfying site at the end of a long hike.
Now that's a satisfying site at the end of a long hike.

Getting Pitched


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 accessories.

As a general rule, you want your suspension system to be about head height and at a 30° angle when weighted, putting the seat at chair height. 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!

A 30° angle is ideal if you plan to sleep in your hammock.
A 30° angle is ideal if you plan to sleep in your hammock.

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 "type 2 fun" tale to recount to friends after your return.

Some hammocks  like the REI Co-op Flash Air  come with clips and suspension systems  while others you have to purchase separately.
Some hammocks, like the REI Co-op Flash Air, come with clips and suspension systems, while others you have to purchase separately.

Suspension


You have lots of options for how to hang your 'mock. If your chosen model doesn't come with a suspension system, you can either purchase one (there are plenty to choose from, in varying lengths, materials, and styles), or you can rig up your own system.

Never suspend your hammock on a living organism (aka tree) 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.

A few wire gate carabiner options: The Grand Trunk Nano 7 Mad Rock carabiner (left)  a generic wire gate climbing carabiner (center) and the lightest of the three which ENO includes with each of its products (right).
A few wire gate carabiner options: The Grand Trunk Nano 7 Mad Rock carabiner (left), a generic wire gate climbing carabiner (center) and the lightest of the three which ENO includes with each of its products (right).

Carabiners


Climbing grade carabiners are ideal for a hammock 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 isn't properly weight-rated! Our favorite carabiners, which you can read about here, are lightweight wire gate models.

A ridgeline can help keep the proper sag in your hammock at all times which means more comfort and consistency in your hanging experience.
A ridgeline can help keep the proper sag in your hammock at all times which means more comfort and consistency in your hanging experience.

Ridgelines


Ridgelines attached to either end of your hammock are an optional feature for most models. They can help keep the proper amount of sag. 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.

A ridgeline can also be as simple as a piece of cord tied to the trees at either end to give you something to drape your tarp over, hold your bug net off your face, or hang accessories from like a pouch for your headlamp and book.

If you find two trees by a creek  deep in a canyon  you'll be happy you brought your hammock!
If you find two trees by a creek, deep in a canyon, you'll be happy you brought your hammock!

Heels Over Head


No, not head over heels! By reading advice on various forums and manufacturers websites as well as our hands-on testing, we found that that most comfortable pitch will come from having the head end of the hammock around 10"-15" below the foot end.

This is easily achieved by either hanging the suspension that much higher on the foot end or by tensioning the suspension so that the head end is farther from the tree. When you first look at it, you'd think you would feel upside down, but in reality, this pitch puts your torso nice and flat and gives your feet a wide section of the hammock which cuts down on the foot squeeze that end-gathered models often inflict on the user. We also found through many nights camping, when we hung both ends at equal heights, we would slowly slide down in the hammock, waking up to find our feet pinched in the end. Try it out with your favorite 'mock and see what you think!

Camping Tip 1 — 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 pass things around easily!

Camping Tip 2 — 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 enough, 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.


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