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