Earlier this year, I asked Cathy about the possibility of starting to camp out, and somewhat to my surprise she said “yes”. Previously she had never shown any interest in camping out, and in fact seemed somewhat closed off to the idea of sleeping outside without any facilities and amenities available. However, since we started trying to “get off the couch” last November, she has done many things that used to be outside her “comfort zone” and camping outdoors is one of the leaps she has made.

So why have we chosen to sleep in hammocks when we camp, and not a nice cozy tent? I have one word for you- COMFORT. Cathy has never spent the night in a tent, laying on the ground, so she really has no comparison to make at this point. However, I served in the USMC and spent many nights sleeping on the ground. Here’s the thing: as a late teen/twenty something year old Marine, it really didn’t bother me so much. I could drop down in the dirt and go right to sleep. However, as an almost 50 year old man, the thought of sleeping on the ground is not appealing, to say the least. The span of years between my days as a Marine and now have made me appreciate comfort, and even the best and most comfortable of nights can find sleep hard to come by these days.

Back then, when I was deployed overseas, we spent some time in Thailand. While there I picked up a hammock, and still have it to this day. I never used it much but I did remember how comfortable it was to sleep in, compared to sleeping on the ground. Then recently, I was on campus at KSU and saw that several of the students had hammocks strung up and were lounging around in them. I thought that was pretty cool, and I knew it was very comfortable.

So, back when we started this particular journey, riding our bicycles and getting out for day hikes, I had talked Cathy into purchasing some hammocks. My thoughts at the time were we could take a break, have lunch, and lounge around in the hammocks for a little while before resuming our activity. It would make a nice mid-day respite. And, it really is nice in practice. We have taken several mid-day “hammock naps” while out hiking. Afterwards we typically move along refreshed. I kept thinking “Why couldn’t we sleep overnight just as easily and comfortably as we do when we just nap?” So I asked Cathy, she agreed to try it, and we planned a trip and tried it out. We both enjoyed the trip and since then we have camped out several more times, most recently our first multi-night trip as we hiked along the Appalachian Trail.

Some frequently asked questions about hammocks

Q. Are hammocks lighter than tents? A. Not necessarily. You can get really lightweight tent systems, and really lightweight hammock systems. You won’t necessarily save weight by hammocking as opposed to tenting.

Q. What about bears? Aren’t you afraid you’ll be eaten in your “bear burrito”? A. No more afraid than if I were in a tent. All a tent is ultimately is a thin piece of fabric between you and the outside world. It would not stop a hungry bear any more than a hammock would, and I can get out of a hammock much faster than I could a tent.

Q. Are hammocks easier to use than tents? A. That depends. There are some hammock setups that are very simple, and some that are not so simple. The same is true for tents. If you use something enough, ease of use comes with familiarity. We can set up and take down our campsite fairly easily, but we are still learning how to be more efficient.

Q. Aren’t you afraid of falling out? A. No. I have never even come close to falling out of my hammock. I have tried to sit down and missed the hammock, and fallen over it. That’s user error and not inherent danger. It was pretty funny. Also, the type of suspension we currently use is very particular. If your strap isn’t configured correctly you could get “dumped” when you sit in your hammock. This has happened once to me, and once to Cathy. You simply fix the error and get back in. Is it fun? No, but it does make you more cautious!

Q. Doesn’t it hurt your back to lay like a banana? A. The simple answer is “no”, because I don’t mind laying that way. However, you can lay much flatter in a hammock than one would think possible by simply laying on a diagonal, instead of straight down the middle of the hammock.

Q. What about privacy when changing clothes, etc? A. Once your campsite is set up and your tarp is pitched, there is typically plenty of privacy to change clothes and the like. Plus, trust me it is MUCH easier to change standing under a tarp than it is laying in a tent!

Q. I’m perfectly happy sleeping on the ground in my tent. Why should I change? A. You shouldn’t. I freely admit that hammocking isn’t for everyone. If someone is happy in a tent, that’s great. If someone wants to just drop and sleep in the dirt, more power to them. If someone wants to sleep in a tree like a cat, go for it. Cathy and I will stick with our hammocks!

Some benefits (other than comfort) hammocks offer

Versatility: When you’re in a tent, you have to have a nice, flat level spot relatively free of vegetation to set it up. If there’s a little bit of a slope, you will be fighting gravity all night to try to stay in one place. If there is a rock or root, you will feel it all night and it (seemingly) will grow larger as the night progresses. If there is a small shrub or tree in the middle of your desired tenting spot, forget it. When you are hammocking, none of these things is a deal-breaker. All you need is two appropriately spaced trees, and where we typically camp in Georgia that hasn’t been a problem. Is there a slope? No problem, once I’m in my hammock gravity is my friend and not my enemy. Are there rocks and roots? All the time, but suspended above them, I give them no thought as I comfortably slumber. Small tree/shrub in the way? A strategic piece of cord will tie it out of the way until I’m ready to break camp the next day, no need to uproot it. We have had challenges finding just the “right” spot to hammock, but that’s more a function of being picky than it is being driven by necessity.

Openness/observation: When in a tent, you are enclosed and cannot really observe what is happening all around you, even with the door open. When you hear something outside your tent, especially at night when chipmunks sound like bears, you are stuck with either your imagination or getting up, unzipping your tent and trying to figure it out. Not only that, if the sound is behind your tent, looking out the door isn’t going to help. Last week when we were camping, I heard noises that sounded like they were nearby. I simply raised my head and shone my flashlight in the direction I heard the noise. Of course I saw nothing. But, it was reassuring to know that it was actually nothing, as opposed to being “trapped” in a tent and wondering about it.

Adaptability/customability: When you set up a tent there’s pretty much one way to do it. You follow the manufacturer’s instructions and set it up with their recommended configuration. With a hammock, you get to choose what you like and don’t like. You choose your hammock material, suspension method, the tarp you sleep under and the method you use to hang it (if you choose to use it), how it is pitched, you choose what type (if any) of ground cover you want to use, You choose your insulation, whether it’s a sleeping bag and pad inside the hammock or an underquilt and topquilt or peapod type setup, or other different ways of setting up. You can even choose different colors for all your different gear to express your personality, while typically tents are only available in a couple of different color combinations at most.

In sum, hammocks are much more comfortable (in my opinion), much more versatile and more easily customized to fit our particular needs and wants. In a follow-up article I hope to discuss the minimum needs someone who would like to start hammocking will have to consider before using hammocks to lounge in or camp in. Thanks for “hanging” in there with me through this article!