Photograph courtesy Kammok
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Kammok's Sunda tent hammock

Photograph courtesy Kammok
AdventureGear Review

Getting the Hang of Hammocks

New materials and innovations are making the art of relaxing suspended between two trees more attractive to active adventurers.

The word “hammock” derives from a term in the Taíno language meaning fishnet. And that’s just what my first hammock looked like. It was a diamond weave of thin nylon army green cord. It served me well in my ignorant youth at Scout camps for overnighting, as well as (literally) just hanging out during the day. Now, a number of manufacturers are building hammocks for lounging and sleeping.

Common Variations

For the most part, hammocks are made of nylon or polyester and come in single or double sizes. For some users, the big choice comes down to what color or pattern best expresses their personality. For that, Grand Trunk takes the cake with one of the widest selections of color options. Most camping hammocks hold 300 to 400 pounds and weigh about a pound, though Eagles Nest Outfitters, Inc. does have the ultralight 6.5-ounce Sub7. Other variations to look out for include whether the stuff sack is attached to the end, middle (which makes for a nice pocket while hanging in the hammock), or not at all. Then there are hammocks made to be extra-wide or extra-long, made with insect-repellent fabric, or made with built-in bug netting. More about bug nets below.

No-Knot Slings

In their simplest form, hammocks just need to be strung between two anchors. But tying up a hammock can be daunting. For that, many hammock manufacturers also offer sling straps that make it incredibly easy to connect to the anchors, usually trees. Part of the reason for using straps is to help minimize the damage to the trees. Simple round rope can put so much pressure on the tree that it damages the bark and can inhibit nutrient flow, sometimes to the point of killing the tree. Straps provide a wider surface area to distribute the weight load and avoid that damage. Most manufacturers' straps use a loop system to adjust the tension of the hammock between the anchors. Therm-a-Rest just came out with a clever buckle system, the Slacker Suspenders, that is lighter than most strap systems at nine ounces. ENO’s Helios system snags the ultralight title at 4.1 ounces. Naturally, there are some tradeoffs when choosing among these options.

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The author's Eagles Nest Outfitters hammock setup

Rain Fly Options

In those perfect camping environments where the lows don’t dip below 50°F, it never rains, and there are no bugs, hammock campers are all set if they can hang their sling. But since those camping conditions are rare for most parts of the world, accessories make camping in a hammock a bit more comfortable. Trees big enough to hang from need lots of water and that usually comes from the sky, so hammockers often seek a good rain fly. Each of the hammock manufacturers has its own take on rain flies. Therm-a-Rest, having just entered the hammock game, went with a standard square fly. A few clever extras on this model, like little pockets at the corners to stuff the guy lines into, help avoid the frustration of dealing with tangles. Most of the rain flies from ENO have a little bit of shape added to an otherwise rectangular fly to make it easier to get underneath, while Grand Trunk flies are diamond shaped and are designed to bring a corner down to the ground for increased lateral protection. Kammok has gone to the extreme in the shape of its fly, the Glider, because it resembles the shape of a sugar glider while in flight. Also unique to the Glider is a built-in method to collect rainwater into bottles for drinking (though this seemed a little excessive during my testing process).

Bug Nets

The next major hurdle in hammock camping is how to deal with flying insects. There are a few ways to incorporate bug nets with hammocks. One is to connect the bug net right to the top of the hammock. Grand Trunk, Kammok, ENO, and other manufacturers take this approach. The advantage is the one-piece construction and faster setup. The disadvantages, as compared to an all-encompassing bug net, are that bugs like mosquitoes can poke through the underfabric of the hammock if you’re not using a pad or sleeping bag. And once you’re inside the net, grabbing items underneath the hammock can be difficult. The other style, mentioned above, is a bug net that goes around the whole hammock. This requires feeding the hammock suspension through the bug net as well as suspending the bug net separately from the hammock itself. Most manufacturers have a very similar approach to this style, the major variation being how the zipper is set up. Kammok goes with a long horizontal zipper; ENO has a vertical zipper, a zipper-less option, and a full bug net tent; and Therm-a-Rest combined the horizontal and vertical to make an L-shaped zipper. Therm-a-Rest also lined the bottom of its bug net with lightweight water-resistant nylon to act as a floor to the bug net shelter. Grand Trunk has a fully enclosed bug net system with a nylon bottom and vertical zipper.

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Kammok's Glider rain fly

Insulation Innovation

The final element hammockers find they need to defend against is the cold. Being suspended in the air does not provide much insulation, even in a sleeping bag, since your body weight crushes the insulation and wipes out its insulating ability. For that, there are two main solutions. First, put a sleeping pad between the sleeping bag and the hammock. Ideally, it’s a foam pad of some sort, but an air pad might be able to make the needed difference. The other option is to suspend an insulating layer under the hammock. This is usually in the form of a down or synthetic blanket known as an underquilt. Again, most of the hammock manufacturers make some version of underquilt while Therm-a-Rest makes an underquilt as well as a hammock-specific shaped pad.

Tent-Hammock Hybrids

The beautiful thing about a hammock is the ability to sleep anywhere you can hang it. This can be over very rocky and uneven ground, on a steep slope, or over a wet or marshy surface—basically anywhere setting up a tent would be very inconvenient. But without a vertical anchor system handy (trees), most of the items in the hammock system become nearly worthless. Enter the tent-hammock. As it sounds, these hammocks can be set up on the ground as tents when trees or other anchors aren’t available. Lawson Hammocks based in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been making the single-person, 4.25-pound, Blue Ridge Camping Hammock for a number of years for a very competitive $169. Kammok, out of Austin, Texas, is developing the next generation of hammock tents with more versatility into their design. The Kammok Sunda has five different configurations and can weigh from 1.5 pounds in its minimalist form (just the hammock) to almost five pounds in full tent-and-hammock form. For this sort of versatility, they are competitively priced against other two-person lightweight backpacking tents. It looks like people have been wanting something like this, because Kammok's Kickstarter campaign has pre-sold more than 600 units of the product and nearly tripled its fundraising goal.

Are you a hammocker? Have you invested in the full kit? Does a hammock tent sound like the full package you’ve been waiting for?