A friend I was tramping with introduced me to the world of hammock camping. While I was unrolling my foam mat in the dirt, he was selecting trees, measuring angles, and setting up what appeared to be a very comfortable camp. It took a while, but when he was done, he had somewhere to sit as he took off his boots, a roof over his head, and a sound night’s sleep.
I was intrigued, so ordered a Grand Trunk Single Parachute Nylon hammock from Amazon, and scoured the Internet for hints and tips. I quickly found Shug Emery’s excellent YouTube channel, where he espouses the glories of a good hang, and introduces the novice with charm, wit, and good advice.
With regular tarp camping, you need a flat, coffin-shaped area with a minimum of roots, rocks, and rivulets. Your tarp gets tied to anything handy, and you’re done. Hammock camping involves variables. I like variables. The mounting points (usually trees) need to be a certain distance apart, need to be sturdy, with not too much undergrowth between them, and with no dead branches or epiphytes to drop on you during the night. My back yard doesn’t have an overwhelming number of options for testing out a hammock. My first attempt ran from the porch to the plum tree, and turned out to be far too tight. I got a taut, tippy hang, and thought to myself, ‘Hmmm’. After a quick trip to the Hammock Calculator, I realised I needed my straps to be much higher, in order to get the requisite 30 degrees of sag at each end. Now the hammock was much more comfortable.
If you lie directly along your hammock, you’ll be in a typical ‘banana’ shape – head and feet up, bum down. But if you wriggle so what you’re slightly on a diagonal, you can get almost flat. I can lie comfortably on my back or on my side, and some tummy-sleepers can even find a comfortable ‘lay’ on their fronts, using this technique. The Grand Trunk hammock is prone to various squeezes and pressure points that fancier hammocks try to alleviate. It’s a simple ‘gathered end’ hammock, with no shelf, foot-box, or other considerations found on higher-end hammocks like the Warbonnet Blackbird.
A hammock has almost zero insulation, so you’ll need something underneath you, and the Grand Trunk is no exception. The fill in a sleeping bag will be crushed by your weight, and provide minimal insulation from below. Most people start out using a sleeping pad. This involves lots of squirming and wriggling, and can still leave you with cold shoulders. It provides an introduction to hammock camping, but those who catch the hammock bug tend to graduate to an ‘underquilt’. This quilt clips to your hammock suspension, and snugs up around the underside of the hammock using shock cord. At risk of drawing suggestive parallels, few people go back to wrestling with pads and mats once they’ve experienced the unadulterated freedom and bliss of an underquilt. The closest I’ve come to this is rigging a second sleeping bag below me. Floating in duck down as snow rasps through the trees is rather a nice way to be lulled off to sleep.
Speaking of bugs; during certain months in certain climes, bug management becomes necessary. Many hammock systems ship with a built-in bug net. The Grand Trunk has no such luxuries – which is fine – I mostly use it in winter. The downside of unzipping bug nets is that when you (inevitably) have to heed the call of nature during the night, the netting is another thing that’s in the way. And – yes – something about sleeping with your feet slightly higher than your head is a natural diuretic, and you will probably need a tinkle in the wee hours. The upside of this is getting to snuggle back into bed, the rain filtering down, the ruru calling, and everything right with the world.
Speaking of rain; unless it’s really teeming, a tarp pitched with a ridge line in a ‘diamond’ shape – the long axis along your hammock – should keep wind and rain at bay. If it’s really tipping down, water may be streaming down the tree trunks, onto your suspension, and then onto your hammock itself. Water breaks (in the form of knotted string or D-rings on your suspension) can help it drip off, before it causes any mischief.
There are as many ways to hang a hammock as there are hammock campers, but the one I settled on uses a simple overhand knot on a bight at the end of the strap that goes around the tree, and a marlin spike hitch to loop my hammock-end over. It does away with clips and carabiners, without completely negating the need for ‘hardware’. It’s easy to tie, easy to undo, and has never let me down (unlike my camera’s autofocus).
As far as weight goes, a hammock system is not likely to be lighter than what you’re using. You’re replacing a sleeping pad and groundsheet with a hammock and an underquilt (or simply adding a hammock and keeping the sleeping pad). The upside is that you’re riding high, nice and flat despite the sloping ground, out of the mud and snow, sleeping like a log. The Grand Trunk hammock is relatively light, because it’s relatively basic. There’s no bug net, no sleeping mat sleeve, and it’s fairly narrow. It stuffs away into an attached pouch, which becomes a bag for various essentials one my want handy during the night.
For trips (well) below the bush line, a hammock is a fun and versatile option. If you’re up among the pongas or leatherwood, you may struggle to find a good hang. On the tops, you may be able to rig something using walking poles and guile, but it’s more likely you’ll be experiencing the main advantage a sleeping mat has over an underquilt, as you bed down in the gravel.
My Grand Trunk doesn’t come on every trip. If I’m going somewhere new, I tend to leave it at home. If I’m headed to one of my regular haunts – and I know there’s a cosy campsite waiting for me, it’s likely the hammock will get an outing.