Hammocks for Thru-Hiking

Every once in a while I receive emails about hammocks and thru-hiking. It is a subject about which I know very little. That being the case, I asked a hiking buddy of mine with extensive hammocking experience, to put together an article about the hows, whys and wherefores of using a hammock on a long distance trail. Take it away, Brian “Beardoh” Ristola, with a big assist from his wife and hiking partner, Alison aka “Sweetpea“:

Beardoh and his Uncle Bill on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Hammocks have been an integral part of our backpacking kits since thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2011. Since then we have used hammocks on all our long distance hikes.

On a couple of occasions, myself on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2012 and both SweetPea and I on the Arizona Trail (AZT) in 2015, we started our hikes on the ground and then switched to hammocks midway through our journeys. In hindsight, we could have just taken hammocks for the entire trip – which is what we did when we hiked the PCT together in 2016 – as even desert terrain can be hammock-friendly.

Over the past seven years, we have that found that hammocks consistently provide us with a restful night’s sleep while out on the trail. There is a slight learning curve in regards to the gear setup and positioning oneself in the hammock for maximum comfort, however, once that is overcome (usually after a couple nights), we have found that hammocks are pretty luxurious, and plan to use them on our upcoming thru-hikes in 2018 and beyond (Ed’s Note: Beardoh and Sweetpea will be hiking the Grand Enchantment Trail and Great Divide Trail this year!).

Colorado Trail, 2017.

Advantages

Here are five things that we really like about hammocking:

  • Up in the Air: When you are sleeping in a hammock, both you and all your gear are off the ground. Everything that goes inside your pack is dry because it is under a tarp. If it rains, everything stays dry. If there is a lot of condensation, everything stays dry as there is plenty of air flowing through the tarp. Generally speaking, we have noticed that our need to dry out gear is significantly less than other hikers that camp on the ground.
  • Campsite Flexibility: Flat or smooth ground is not necessary when you are using hammocks (see photo below). This often allows us to avoid established camping areas, and in general makes it easier to find campsites in most environments.
  • Leave No Trace: When employed with care and a tree-friendly suspension system, hammocks are minimum impact shelters. They require no ground clearing, and the wide nylon/polyester webbing straps “minimize girdling and damage to the bark and cambium layer, which can cause wood-tissue death.” (Source: REI.com: Hammocking Responsibly).
  • Do-it-Yourself: Great opportunity to get into DIY gear building. Hammocks and tarps are not too complex to build, and are a great gateway to sewing one’s own gear.
  • On-trail Health: When using hammocks, neither Sweetpea or I feel the usual morning back-stiffness that we do when sleeping on pads.

Bunking down on a steep slope | Pacific Crest Trail (above Seiad Valley), 2016.

Challenges

  • Location: Once in a while we need to walk further to find a camp spot. That being said, the same holds true for when we are hiking with ground dwelling friends, when occasionally we will need to push on a little longer in order to find a flat spot for their shelters.
  • Skills: Hammock setups are a bit more complex and nuanced. Getting the right angles, positioning, and tension of the gear can all be a challenge when starting out. When employing an ultralight hammock setup, some basic knots will need to be learned (Note: We use a Marlin Spike Hitch, and a knot that the hammock community calls a “J-Bend”, which employs a Marlin Hitch, finished with a Becket Hitch).
  • Sleeping Position: If a person is a stomach sleeper, it may be difficult to learn to sleep on their back or side. That being the case, finding comfort sleeping in a hammock will be a challenge.
  • Weight: In comparison to an ultralight tarp or single wall tent setup, using a hammock will be a little heavier. However, it is not too difficult to attain a lightweight sleep and shelter system when hammocking. For example, SweetPea’s current system weighs in at 3.93 lb (1.78 kg). This includes a short sleeping pad and ground sheet in case we need to go to terra firma. See below for more details on our All-Terrain setup.

Going to ground on the Colorado Trail during the 30+ mile section above tree-line | 2017.

All-Terrain Set-Up

Here is a full breakdown of our sleep and shelter systems for our upcoming thru-hikes in 2018. Note that for hikes such as the Appalachian, Wonderland, Long and John Muir Trails (i.e. Trails that have an abundance of trees), we will swap out our Z-Lites for 1/8″ Gossamer Gear Thinlight Pads (2 oz modified) and also leave the polycro groundsheet at home. The stakes are still needed for the tarp. The GG Pad will be used under our legs if it gets cool at night since we do not use full body length under quilts. Click here for more information on our All-Terrain Setup:

Beardoh (6’5″)Hammock Sleep & Shelter System:

  • TOTAL4.73 lbs / 2.15 kg

 

Sweetpea (5’4″)Hammock Sleep & Shelter System

  • TOTAL –  3.93 lbs / 1.78 kg

Sweetpea on the John Muir Trail (JMT), 2014.

Recommendations

There are many great lightweight hammock manufacturers that are constantly evolving and improving their gear as new materials become available. Here are just a few of the companies that build great hammocks, tarps, under quilts and top quilts:

And don’t forget, you can build some of the gear yourself!

And that’s a wrap!

More Information: You can follow Beardoh and Sweetpea’s hiking and hammocking adventures on Facebook, Instagram, or their website, Longdistancehiker.com. The site contains trail journals (AT, PCT, CT and many more), hiking interviews, and one of the most informative planning guides on the internet for Vermont’s classic Long Trail


Comments

Hammocks for Thru-Hiking — 7 Comments

    • Hey Tony,

      I think in sheltered pockets of forest the hammock/tarp combo would be ok. That said, having spent quite a bit of time in the SW of Tassie over the years, I’d be opting for a tent. There isn’t always a sheltered campsite around when you need one, and as you are no doubt aware, the weather down that way can get pretty wild at times.

      Cheers,

      Cam

    • We have dealt with strong winds in Arizona, the Sierra Nevada Mtns, along the Mississippi River and even Washington state. Sometimes it can be challenging for sure. I’ve never had to go to ground because of it though. I have had to put stakes back in the ground when the wind has kicked up hard overnight and popped the stakes. If it is not raining, and I don’t expect rain to come, I will often set the tarp up on just one side and a bit lower to the ground, to become more of a windshield where my whole body is protected. I fully agree with Cam that sheltered areas becomes a high priority during windy times. This past summer on the Mississippi River canoe trip, we had very high sustained winds. A few times, we walked a 1/3 – 1/2 mile inland from the shore to find a slight depression that was sheltered. Extra effort, but we slept better 🙂

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