Does a hammock offer a superior alternative to a lightweight, single tent for kayak-camping?

“An optimist is a man who plants two acorns and buys a hammock.”
Jean de Lattre de Tassigny

Kayak-tourers are continually seeking ways to trim down and simplify their camping kit to save space, weight, and time. One of the most bulky bits of gear we carry is a tent, especially if each member of the party prefers his own domicile.

As backpackers figured out years ago, a fully-enclosed camping hammock may be just the ticket.

Here we’ll look at one option, the ENO (Eagle’s Nest Outfitters) DoubleNest hammock, Guardian BugNet, and DryFly rain tarp, to see how it might be a viable substitute or addition to a conventional solo backpacking tent. (Full product review here.)


Modern camping/backpacking hammocks are designed to be compact and lightweight alternatives to a small solo tent. They are essentially comprised of the hammock proper (usually a large sling made of nylon or other synthetic fabric, with loops or rings at each end for hanging), a water-resistant rain fly or tarp made of similar material to shed rain and wind, and an optional enclosure made of netting to offer protection from flying insects. In some hammock designs, these are all separate components; in others, they may be integrated as one unit.

The primary advantages of most hammocks are their ability to be set up over rough or wet ground, their compact shape and size when packed, their modular versatility, outstanding ventilation and, many campers believe, superior comfort. Of course, a hammock requires two appropriately spaced trees, but in steep or heavily overgrown environments like much of the upper Great Lakes region, this can often be easier to find than a suitable tent pad.

In addition, with or without a sleeping pad, the natural arc of a hammock offers full-body support that’s most welcome at the end of a long paddling day, and eliminates the usual uncomfortable pressure points of sleeping on hard, rough ground. Though the complete package—hammock and straps, bug net, rain fly—can weigh more than a comparable backpacking tent, weight is generally less a concern than space in a kayak, and the modular components are more easily packed in a cargo hold. And, depending on the expected climate, one can take only the needed parts, making it quite adaptable.

Hammock-camping is inherently low-impact, making it easy to follow Leave No Trace practices. Since a hammock is suspended between trees, it does not flatten fragile vegetation or require harmful trenching around a tent pad, and the sleeper will always be high and dry above soggy ground.


There are a number of manufacturers offering hammocks designed specifically for camping, with a variety of options; some are simple, frameless slings, while others boast fully-enclosed ‘floating tents’ suspended above the ground. I have extensive experience only with ENO’s hammock line, which allows one to piece together a hammock system suited to your needs. When shopping, look for a modular system which can adapt to a variety of conditions, is easy to set up, and offers protection from wind, rain, and bugs.

Packing in a Kayak

Altogether, the DoubleNest hammock, BugNet, and DryFly rain tarp weigh in at 4.5 lbs., about 60% more than a compact one-person backpacking tent, and about the same as a similar two-person tent. Depending on the season or climate of your backcountry trip, you can pack only the bits needed, making the system very modular and versatile, adapting to the circumstances. Each part is packed in its own small stuff sack, making it easy to cram into small crannies inside your kayak’s cargo holds. The synthetic fabric is easily dried if wetted, so doesn’t require packing in drybags.

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Using a Sleeping Hammock

Paradoxically, one of the best things about hammock camping is also the weak link of hammock camping: you’ll need two sturdy trees spaced about 10-20 feet apart. In the majority of established campsites I’ve found, from Great Lakes shorelines to inland forests, this has not been a problem. In fact, when using truly backcountry wilderness sites, it is often easier to find a couple of trees from which to sling a hammock than to find a reasonably flat, smooth, and level area to pitch a tent, and this is one of the primary advantages of hammock-camping. In those rare locales where I’ve found only sand dunes or bare, exposed Canadian Shield bedrock, a self-supporting tent will be better than a hammock.

Hanging a hammock is as easy as finding two trees large enough to take the strain and spaced 10-20′ apart. Most hammocks can be hung from simple ropes looped around the tree trunks, while some offer webbing straps to minimize damage to fragile tree bark. Once the hammock is hung, a lightweight ridgeline is usually rigged from the same two trees but mounted a bit higher than the hammock. A separate bug net may be slipped over the hammock, then clipped to the ridgeline, for insect protection. An upper rain fly is usually suspended by the same ridgeline and attached to the trees, and additionally deployed outward by guy lines staked to the ground. Rig the rain fly broadly for increased sun and rain coverage, or more narrow and snug for better protection from wind and sideways rain.

To save setup time, I’ve taken to packing my hammock already slipped inside its bug net, with the carabiners hanging out of each end, all packed in my own medium stuff sack. It’s quick work to cinch the webbing straps onto a pair of trees and clip in the hammock-with-bugnet. Rigging the ridgeline and staking out the fly adds another few minutes; the whole thing takes little more time than a compact tent, without the need to look for a suitable flat, level spot.

Once rigged, it’s a simple matter to unzip the bug net to gain access to the hammock. Many commercial hammocks include handy cargo pockets for flashlights, eyeglasses, and other personal bits, and you may consider tossing an empty portage pack just below the hammock entrance as a sort of ‘welcome mat’ to keep dirt out.

When I first started camping in a hammock, I had a beginner’s inclination to hang it quite high, and I reveled in sleeping far above jagged boulders, crevices, and other rough ground. But I began to reconsider that approach the first few times the rigging creaked and stretched out a half-inch or so, with a sudden jerk in the middle of the night. Though I’ve never experienced a fall, it could happen, so I’ve now adopted the motto, “Never hang your hammock higher than you’re willing to fall.” It’s also a good idea to leave a bag of clothes on the ground over any rocks or roots, just as extra padding in case of a fall.

Hammocks which lack a rigid frame, like the ENO DoubleNest, are most comfortable when lying somewhat diagonally in the hammock, with your head near, say, the right side, and your feet near the left. This offers a flatter sleeping surface, prevents the hammock from closing around you like a peapod, and helps prevent swaying.


The first several trips I used my hammock rig, I was fortunate to have no rain. So, when my brother and I paddled out to camp on Lake Michigan’s North Manitou Island, and ‘scattered showers’ were predicted, I looked forward to seeing how the hammock would fare. The winds arrived, the rain fell in buckets, and by midnight our sheltered dunetop campsite was being blasted by 45-mph wind and rain howling in off the open lake. The hundred-foot-tall white pines supporting my hammock swayed and creaked, smaller trees nearby cracked and fell in the dark, and we got up twice during the night to haul the kayaks higher above the pounding surf. But snug in the hammock, beneath the fly, my down sleeping bag and I stayed high and dry.

Depending on the season, a hammock can be a cool way to sleep. On hot summer nights, the airy, open design allows any available breeze to flow through and provide more ventilation than a stuffy tent. Early in the spring, however, and late in the fall, when nights grow chilly, the hammock can suffer from this same breezy attitude; hanging a couple of feet above the ground, with your back pressed against the fabric, allows cool winds to draw heat from your body far faster than if you were ensconced in a tent on the ground. Though normally not needed for sleeping in a hammock, I often use an inflatable air mattress during cooler weather to provide a thermal barrier. As mentioned above, rigging the rain fly a bit tighter can offer extra wind protection. With good synthetic fleece sleeping garments, a decent sleeping bag and liner, and insulated air-mattress, I’ve slept comfortably down to about 40ºF.

In the case of a good, hard blow, when a paddle-camper might be pinned down, a hammock may not offer the desired comfort. For hunkering down with hot cocoa and a tattered paperback in foul weather for a long day or two, or for couples, the cozy spaciousness of a tent may be preferable.


Taking proper care of a hammock rig requires little more than periodic cleaning (remove stubborn tree sap with rubbing alcohol), and annual waterproofing of the fly using the same spray as for a tent fly. Occasionally inspect the hammock, rigging, and hanging straps for wear and tear.


The comfort, versatility, compactness, and ease of setup of modern hammocks make them an attractive alternative to a solo tent, especially in those backcountry environs where established or suitable campsites may be hard to find.

Besides sleeping, a hammock is a comfortable place to simply laze around the campsite. Even when I plan to spend the night in a tent or Adirondack shelter, I often sling my hammock between a couple of nearby trees or out on a solitary point of land overlooking the water for a bit of afternoon loafing.

Aside from bedding down in the dirt like a woodland beast, there is perhaps no more immersive way to sleep than in a hammock. Cozily nestled in mine, I’ve watched distant lightening storms moving over the open water, seen the lights of passing Great Lakes freighters, and witnessed eerily silent displays of the aurora borealis.

Consider using a camping hammock for your next kayak tour.

Additional Resources

Just Jeff’s (no relation) “Hammock Camping Overview”
Sgt. Rock’s Hammock Camping 101
Hammock Forums

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below!

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  1. It is possible to sleep comfortably handing in a hammock in temperatures well below 0 degrees F using down under quilts etc and in temps over 100F and humid in a cotton Amazonian hammock with a battery powered fan. As long a there is something to hang from rarely any reason to sleep on the ground and risk getting washed away, or a sore back etc. Check out discussions and videos posted at hammock forums. I’ve been sleeping in hammocks for almost 50yrs.

    1. Yes, many avid hammock-hangers use goose-down under-quilts beneath the hammock in order to conserve heat during cold nights. After my first cold night, I learned about under-quilts and briefly considered one but decided against it for a couple of reasons:

      1) The added bulk and weight of this additional piece soon push the entire kit beyond that of a comparable tent-and-sleeping-pad combo, thereby negating most advantages of a hammock, in my opinion.
      2) Expense. Like hammocks themselves, under-quilts have not yet found mainstream acceptance; most are either homemade or offered by small niche mfr.s with low production volume, hence high prices ($100-250).

      Obviously, these considerations are unique to each camper’s particular environment and situation, which may even differ from one trip to the next. So one must weigh the relative advantages and drawbacks of each, and decide accordingly.

      1. I use a hammock for kayak camping on the Oregon coast. For the seat of my kayak I use a 13 cm closed cell foam pad. This pad becomes my mattress when I get into the hammock. I also use a space blanket under the pad to reflect up any heat. So I’m able to sleep warmly even when the temperature is near freezing.
        cost: pad 30 usd, space blanket 3 usd.
        weight & space requirements are negligible as I sit on the pad while paddling & the space blanket is simply left in the hammock.

        1. Ryc, thanks for the suggestions!

          I haven’t tried a foam pad in my hammock yet, but I wonder if it might provide better insulation than an air mattress. Will also the mylar space blanket idea.

          I visited the Oregon coast several years ago and I envy your beautiful kayaking country!


  2. Usually a Top Quilt – one half a sleeping bag – is used on top because a full bag doesn’t work as well with your body compressing the bottom half. On the ground, the pad and earth, not the bottom of your sleeping bag, provide the lower insulation. So, to be fair, you should compare the top quilt and bottom quilt to a backpacker’s sleeping bag and not add the weight when comparing to a tent; unless you are adding the sleeping bag to the tent weight too.

    Also, you don’t need an under quilt (it’s a luxury item), you just need a light nylon sheet that acts as an under cover – hung close below the hammock – and put your pad there. Many camping hammocks are made as a double layer; they have a sleeve you slide your pad in and that keeps it from shifting around and provides protection from convection heat loss.

    So – using a pad – you only need half a sleeping bag – a win for hammocks
    The hammock material (I have one that is 7 oz.) is lighter than most tents – a win for hammocks
    The suspension rigging, compared to tent poles and stakes, is lighter – a win for hammocks
    The same pad is used both with hammocks and tents – a draw

    If there are no trees, the hammock can be used as a bivi bag (use a ground cloth)

    The tent can accommodate both you and your girlfriend on a rainy day – a BIG win for tents.

    You can sit up in a hammock (sideways – both legs outside) so it’s a camp chair.

    But it does take a while to develop hanging sense. Just as a tent dweller develops an eye for level ground and rain drainage, so it takes time to develop a sense of distance between trees, the angle of hang, and placement of other gear (which would normally be in a tent).

    There are subtle sociological difference too. A person might never consider going up to someone’s tent, but a hammock is a curious attraction and is so “in the open”. I can imagine other hikers, passing a site near the trail and seeing the hammock, walking just a little closer to bet a better look at this alternative. And if your gear is just stored under the hammock (rather than inside the tent) other temptations could arise.

    Last – if you are going to use your sleeping bag with the hammock, unzip it and use it like a quilt. Or get into it standing up outside the hammock, then sit down in the hammock and bring your feet in. Trying to get into a sleeping bag while inside the hammock is begging for staring roll in Americas Funniest Home Videos.

    1. Paul,

      Thanks for the advice and tips!

      I hope it’s obvious I’m a big fan of hammock-camping, but it sounds like you’ve got a lot of sack time in hammocks too. Readers will undoubtedly appreciate your added insights when deciding if a hammock is for them.

      Jeffrey Lee

  3. Hammock camping can get very technical and expensive or be very simple and cheap, it depends on your DIY skills, common sense and comfort requirements. A great way to start is to use your existing ground sleeping bag pad, such as self inflating, CCF, or ultra small Klymit for example. These give you the option of “going to ground” (bivy) if there is noting to hang from, i.e. above the tree line in mtns or on an ocean beach or sand bar. Long term if hammocks work well for you, an underquilt from one of over a dozen cottage manufacturers or a modified bed quilt or sleep bag (preferably water resistant treated down) will save you weight and pack/hatch space). But these are a luxury item, and also reduce condensation compared a pad or mylar space blanket both of which i have used, but not down to 0F due to condensation issues.
    There are pros and cons to all styles of hammocks, insulation, tents, tarps etc., i own and use a large variety of all these shelters the choice of them is much like kayaks, canoes and rafts. As a ACA instructor i select from a warehouse of over 50 diverse personal watercraft depending on the camping trip i am going on. Appropriate gear makes a huge difference in success and comfort, i would not enjoy paddling across a large lake in a 7′ WW yak or a river with class IV rapids in a 21′ sea kayak.

  4. “in foul weather for a long day or two, or for couples, the cozy spaciousness of a tent may be preferable.” This may be true for most people, but consider the flexibility of hammocks. Suspending 2 hammocks between 3 trees with an appropriate custom tarp (DIY from SilNylon or similar material) allows your to sit upright and possibly even stand up to change clothes etc, cook your food, burn wood/sticks in an ultralight titanium wood stove (some risk involved here, i prefer candles in wood stove if under tarp, well ventilated!). Most people in a 3 season tent with a nylon floor or even in vestibule should never attempt to cook on their camp stove. However it is possible under a tarp with one side open, porch mode for ventilation, but avoid affixation and the flammability of fabrics. Even under a SilNylon or Cuben Tarp it should be done with extreme caution and only if you are stuck due to hours or days of non-stop rain. Basically as the rain slows down i raise the suspension up on the trees and cook, then lower it down, shut down the stove if the rain picks up in intensity. i.e a flexibility not available on most tents. BTW hammocks built for two people are available from a few vendors, but i personally would not recommend them. I spent my summers in Amazonian indigenous villages with people who had many children, no beds and sleeping on the ground was something only dogs did. They did not require such huge hammocks, but it rained a lot there. 😉

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