After sleeping in a tent a few hundred times, I know at least one basic truth: No matter how much I toss and turn during the night, I’m never going to fall out of a tent door and crash to the ground. That can’t be said of my recent introduction to sleeping in a hammock. Whoops.
The mishap occurred (fortunately, a solo maneuver) when I turned to lie on my side and the hammock rolled and flipped me out. A bit of a surprise? Yup. But I had to figure that were this a regular occurrence in a hammock, there wouldn’t be hordes of people switching to them from tents — outdoor gear retail giant REI, for example, told me its sales of sleeping hammocks have doubled in the past year. (According to The NPD Group, a retail tracker, sales doubled from $26 million to $53 million from 2013 to 2015.)
Of course, I could have avoided my awkward moment; I was not required to sleep in a hammock to report on these swinging shelters and their proponents. But I thought I needed to find out what the fuss is all about, simply because so many hammockers are nothing short of evangelistic about their choice of outdoor sleeping quarters.
“Yes, sometimes we proselytize,” said Diane Seger, 62, with a laugh. She is a dedicated “hanger” (the term some hammockers prefer) from Plymouth.
To my relief, Seger confirmed that I was not the first person to fall out of a hammock, or to have trouble finding a good sleeping position. “When I started hammocking, it took some time for me to be able to change positions without feeling like a bag of kittens,” she confirmed.
And, in fact, it didn’t take me very long to figure out how to lie in the hammock in a way that stabilized it, even when I went from my left side to my right. (Back sleepers generally will have no such problems.)
Once stabilized, I could see why so many hammockers contend that comfort is one of the main reasons they switched from a tent.
“I find a hammock much better than sleeping on the ground, even with a really good mattress,” said Seger, who tented for many years in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness before discovering hammocks. “The big thing is that there are no pressure points.”
“There are a lot of people who can never get used sleeping on the ground no matter what sleeping pad they use,” said Tony Yarusso, 30, of Mahtomedi, who has been hammocking for five years. “Others find it harder to sleep on the ground as they get older. For a lot of them, discovering hammocks can make the difference between calling it quits and being able to go camping.”
Making the switch
Still, there’s more to it than that, said Keith Myrmel, 61, of Arden Hills, a hanger since 2006. “To me, it’s the ease of finding a good camping spot — rocks and roots are not a concern,” he said, “and when you’re off the ground, there are no worries about rain coming in under your tent.”
“If I’m setting up a hammock in the rain, I can put up the rainfly over where the hammock is going and be dry while doing the rest of the setup,” he added. “With a tent, all you can do is hope to get it up and the rainfly on before you get soaked.”
Weight is a factor in choosing a hammock, too, especially for backpackers who are counting ounces. While not all hammocks weigh in lighter than comparably sized tents, many hangers switch from tents to shave ounces off their load. The quilts used by hammockers weigh less than most sleeping bags, and sleeping pads are largely unnecessary. On the other hand, to stay warm without the insulation of a pad, an “underquilt” is often attached beneath the hammock — but they usually weigh less than a pad.
Finally, hammocking also seems to attract gear junkies and do-it-yourselfers. While there are ways to customize tents, there is much less tweaking that can be done with a tent compared to all the moving parts of a hammock — straps, spreader bars, ridgelines, rainflies, etc. — that can be modified or switched out.
“I don’t know if gear junkies become hammockers or if hammockers become gear junkies,” Seger said, “but hammockers do seem to love to switch stuff up and talk about what they build. Some of it is that people trying to find their own sweet spot are coming up with things that are new and cool, and they can say, ‘This is cool and it’s mine and it’s better than yours.’ ”
Seger started out buying her hammocks retail, but she dug out a sewing machine that had been sitting in her basement for 15 years, and now makes all of her own hammock gear. “I started doing that because I thought it would be interesting, but it’s cheaper as well,” she explained. “Mostly though, it’s about design, trying to come up with improvements — kind of like building a better mousetrap.”
Of course, as Myrmel admitted, you do need something to hammock camp that a tent doesn’t require — trees.
“If I happen to be in an area where there are no trees to hang from,” Myrmel said, “I just set the hammock up on the ground and use trekking poles to hold up the rainfly.”
Other hammockers, such as Yarusso, are not opposed to sleeping in a tent if the conditions warrant. “I camp in a lot of places I’ve been to before, so I know in advance if there’s going to be a problem with trees,” Yarusso said. “If that’s the case, I just don’t bother with a hammock. A tent will work better.”
For me, the jury is still out on how often a hammock may replace a tent when I hit the backcountry. I do have to say that one of Myrmel’s reasons for using a hammock is very appealing, even if it has nothing to do with a good night’s sleep.
“When hiking on the trail, there is always the option to stop, attach the hammock to two trees and take a nice break or nap, while taking in a fantastic location or overlook.”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.