The Place With No Name




This article is available for publication.  For information, contact Shane Steinkamp.  You may freely link to this article.

To Hammock, or Not to Hammock: that is the question

Re-evaluating sleeping systems with an eye on comfort

by Shane Steinkamp

Page 1 of 5: A Historical Perspective

In 1993 I met a man, "Chief", in the Cascades under rather unusual circumstances: I mistook him for a monster, and he mistook me for a ghost.  We hiked together for the rest of the season, getting used to one another's quirks and having interesting conversations.  

One early conversation was quite brief: (Chief) "What's that?"


"What for?"

"Sleeping in."

(Picture very large man of Italian descent, trail name "Chief", laughing hard.)


Three weeks later, Chief wasn't laughing.  He was hanging a hammock too, and he still does.


The use of hammocks in the backcountry has, over the past few years, become more and more popular.  People are abandoning their tents and traditional tarp setups in droves for this newest setup, which some still see as a fad.  While hammocks are a boon to a large number of backpackers, many tent and tarp users disregard them entirely.   Words like "gimmick" and "novelty" are commonly applied to them.  The use of hammocks, however, has always made intuitive sense to me, and I started "hammocking" around 1985.  From the start, I occasionally had offers to buy my rig for many times what it was worth from poor souls desperately tired of sleeping on the ground.

Mayan HammockMuch as I would like to, I can't claim that I invented the hammock; nor can I claim that I introduced it to the backpacking community.  The original inventor is lost in antiquity, and the history of its use by outdoorsmen is similarly vague.  Columbus, in the Narrative of his first voyage, wrote: "A great many Indians in canoes came to the ship to-day for the purpose of bartering their cotton, and hamacas, or nets, in which they sleep.''  This is, evidently, the first noted introduction of hammocks to Western Civilization.  Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés came to America in 1514, where for over thirty years he compiled detailed ethnographic descriptions of the goods, products, peoples and customs of the Caribbean and Central America.  Of hammocks, Oviedo noted, "The Indians sleep in a bed they call an 'hamaca' which looks like a piece of cloth with both an open and tight weave, like a net ... made of cotton ... about 2.5 or 3 yards long, with many henequen twine strings at either end which can be hung at any height. They are good beds, and clean ... and since the weather is warm they require no covers at all ... and they are portable so a child can carry it over the arm."  Oviedo's illustration can be seen above.  Hammocks were also installed in huts and homes, and there actually wasn't a bed to be found in the country.  This style of hammock has come to be called a Mayan Hammock, but its use certainly was not limited to the Mayans.  Here was an entire civilization that slept, made love, conceived, gave birth, and died in hammocks.  Properly hung, the Mayan hammock sags quite a bit, which makes it stable.  You lie at an angle to the centerline, and this allows you to lie flat while still being comfortably cradled.  The Indians had perfected their sleep system over many centuries, and your Sealy mattress would have seemed, to them, a strange and uncomfortable way to sleep.

The hamaca was not, however, a single-use item for pre-Colombian cultures; it was also used as a fishing net, and the word "hamaca" literally means a throwing fish net, although the word probably derived from the name of the tree from which the fibrous bark was taken to weave the original hamacas -- the Hamak tree.  The Spaniards wasted no time in adopting the practice of sleeping in "fish nets", however, and began installing them in ships.  The benefits of this new sleeping device were obvious: here was an economical, sanitary, comfortable, healthful, and space-saving discovery.  Used sails, instead of the original woven netting, could be used to make hammocks, and this provided a cost savings.  Hammocks could be stowed during the day, and by moving the sleeping quarters into the dry and spacious upper decks, crews avoided illnesses caused by the unsanitary, wet, and crowded quarters of earlier times.    

Lawn LoungerWhat happened next isn't as clear.  Hammocks are no longer found on most ships, and until recently the hammock seems to have been relegated to a role as a back-yard lounger.  Clues can be found, however, that show otherwise.  The founder of the Boy Scouts, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, slept in hammocks when out of doors and recommended them highly. He even had one permanently set up outside his home,Ashanti Hammock where he slept often.  This was actually the Ashanti Hammock, which was less like a Mayan Hammock and more like a suspended cot.  In Young Knights of the Empire, page 184, he wrote, "Another form of tent which I used in Mafeking and South Africa, and still use for sleeping out in, in England, is one which you would hardly call a tent.  It is really a slung cot, with a moveable canvas roof to it.  It is called the 'Ashanti Hammock'.  It packs up quite small, and is put up in a few minutes.  Requires no pegs.  Keeps you off the wet ground.  And when the gale comes and all the tents in camp blow down, you lie there swinging gently in the breeze, the envy of all the rest.  It also forms an excellent stretcher if you are ill and have to be carried; and if you die it also makes a very satisfactory coffin, being laced over you as you lie in it.  Very complete, isn't it?"  In 1947, John Rowlands published his book, Cache Lake Country -- Life in the North Woods, in which he described the use of a hammock for camping.  A modified form of the Ashanti hammock, the so called jungle hammock, as designed and constructed by the U.S. Military, has been around since at least WWI.  Early versions are an unfortunate travesty, however, and possess none of the virtues ofJungle Hammock the Mayan or the Ashanti hammocks.  This attempt at engineering a hanging bed was expensive, unstable, and sometimes downright dangerous as it has a tendency to flip over.  I bought one at surplus several years ago, and after trying it out, I promptly discarded it -- though in all fairness, a few manufacturers have greatly improved on this design.  As late as the Vietnam War, the U.S. Military was still issuing the jungle hammock as pictured here.  Somewhere between the Korean War and the war in Vietnam, the U.S. Military also started issuing Mayan-style hammocks.  These were 92- by 32-inch nylon 'beds' with a few feet of rope for each end.  Sgt. Jack Krohn reported, "When we had a place to hang them, our hammocks were the most comfortable way for us to rest/sleep. ... We would use our ponchos as a rainfly and wrap ourselves in our poncho liners (camo blanket)."

Backpackers have inherited this legacy, and with space-age materials and a few recent refinements, we have a sleep system that is comfortable, lightweight, and easy to use.  The only question remaining is, "Why hasn't everyone switched?"  

Page 2 of 5: Should you switch?

No TreesI am always surprised that some people reject hammocks as some kind of novelty, without any real thought about the subject, because they think that using a hammock is a radical departure from their tent or tarp system, or that hammocking is hard to do.  It's that assumption that prevents people from trying hammocks and being much more comfortable than they are now.  While there are some reasons not to use a hammock, if you aren't hiking exclusively in the Sahara desert or in Antarctica, don't hike with a pet, and don't mind being separated from your significant other while sleeping, then a hammock is probably a good choice for you.  

To be honest, there are a couple of reasons why -- and a few situations where -- you should not use a hammock.  The first, as illustrated by the cartoon, is any area where you won't find enough trees to hang one properly.  (There are ways around this, but for that you'll have to wait for Part II of this article.)  In some desert terrain, and most of the Arctic, you will find a tent more suitable.  Similarly, when you hike in extremely cold conditions, or when you camp mostly above the tree-line, you will be better served by a tent.  Cold is seen as the main deterrent to the use of hammocks in such places.  Even here, however, there are creative ways to rig your hammock, and ways around the cold, and we'll cover those in Part II as well: you can be just as warm in a hammock as in a tent.  Hammocks have been around for millennia, and backpackers are just catching up; but even when everyone who can use a hammock is doing so, there will still be a need under certain circumstances and conditions for tents and 'normal' tarps.

While it is possible to sleep with a partner in a large hammock (as the Mayans surely did), this involves sleeping pressed up tight against another warm body.  This isn't something most people are used to in our king-sized-bed society.  People who backpack with dogs, and who wish to have their pets in their shelters with them, also may not want to use a hammock.

Using a hammock isn't a new-fangled fad, and it isn't even a different shelter system.  In reality, there are still only two main systems -- tents and tarps -- and hammocking isn't a radical change from these at all.  Before we go any further, however, I want to add a few caveats.  Sleeping in a hammock can take some getting used to, but it is worth the small effort.  Remember that the Mayans slept in hammocks all their lives, yet if you had put them in one of our nice comfy beds, they would have gone crazy with discomfort.  Secondly, what works for me won't necessarily work for you. You may have to find out what works for you no matter how unorthodox it may be.  For all the preaching that I do in this article, I will be the first to admit that hammocking may not be right for everyone; but if you never try it, you will never know whether or not it's right for you.

DSC02104.jpg (52085 bytes)So, then, what is a hammock in the context of backpacking?  A hammock system is just a tarp system, like any other tarp system, that suspends the ground cloth in mid-air to create a sleeping platform. For tarpers, it isn't a change in their shelter system at all, it's a change in their sleeping system.  One of my hammocking systems (shown here without the tarp in place) is very flexible. It's just my old tarp system -- ridgeline, tarp over the ridgeline, bug net suspended from ridgeline, ground cloth, sleeping pad and sleeping bag. (I don't carry the bag in warm weather; I use a lightweight sheet instead.) When there are no trees around, I spread my hammock on the ground, lay down my pad and bag, and set the tarp. In good weather, I don't set the tarp at all.  When I have trees, I suspend the hammock between them and sleep in the hammock -- but my system has not changed, I am still a tarper.  A hammock system is just a tarp system with the addition of a much more comfortable sleeping platform.

I started out making my own hammocks, in true Mayan style, with nylon mesh.  This isn't hard to do, but then I found the BANA travel hammock (pictured above).  The Bana holds 350 pounds, weighs 11 oz (the website says 13, but mine is 11), measures 60 by 91 inches, folds tight, and is waterproof.  It works as a hammock, a ground cloth, an emergency shelter, and in a pinch even rain wear or a pack cover.  I replace it every three years or so, just to be on the safe side, because I abuse it so much. So, if you already own a tarp rig, you can add a hammock to your system cheaply and easily. If you already tarp, there is almost no reason not to add a hammock to your system. 

There are also a growing number of commercial solutions on the market.  Some of these have developed what can only be described as a cult following.  Commercial solutions are integrated systems that allow anyone to join the hammocking 'revolution' easily, but they are still just a tarp and a bug net integrated with the hammock. Some can even be thought of as hangable tents, because they have a roof, walls, and a floor. The hammock you use will depend on your hiking style, your geographic location, and your desired level of comfort, among other things. All commercial hammocks, except perhaps the antique Jungle Hammocks, are easily workable, but I have been recommending the Hennessy Hammock, and especially the Safari or Explorer models because they are so big -- and I like big.  Hennessy Hammock is also one of the manufacturers using the original Mayan concept of a droopy bed that allows you to sleep flat, which is the solution that works best for me.  Commercial hammock systems allow beginners to own an off-the-shelf rig that is faster to set up and easier to take down and pack than the do-it-yourself rigs.  What you decide to do will be influenced by how much money you can spend, and how industrious you are.  For beginners, a commercial solution is obviously easier -- and in most cases better -- because the hammock designer has overcome many hurdles for you already.  It can take some time to learn how to set up your own rig properly, but a store-bought setup is designed to be easy to use.  Of course, before you decide to purchase one of these pre-fabricated systems or make your own, you should read all the reviews, both on this site, on, and in the various references listed at the end of this article and make the choice that's best for you. (At the time of this writing, I'm testing the Hennessy Explorer, and you can read that review here.)  I prefer to have a palatial estate in case I get stuck in it for a few days due to bad weather, injury, or illness -- and I am a pretty big guy.  Small might be better for you, however, and hammocks come in many sizes and configurations.  Speer Hammocks are even customized to your weight and height, making proper selection easy. 

Page 3 of 5: The benefits

The benefits of hammock use are legion. The first of these is, of course, comfort.  You are off the ground, which is much more comfortable than being on the ground, even if you are carrying your air mattress. That's the most important benefit, especially for older folks like me (33!) with bad shoulders, bad hips, or a bad back. A further benefit is less tossing and turning.  Once you find the "sweet spot", you will sleep like a dream.  Sleeping in a hammock is beneficial for those with bone, joint, and spinal problems.  In a properly suspended hammock, your body assumes an orthopedically correct position.  If you try it, you will not want to go back to sleeping on the ground.  Second, hammocking gives you more campsite options, and you will be able to camp where no traditional tenter or tarper could ever dream of camping.  You won't be stuck sleeping on wooden tent platforms.  You can camp on terrain that isn't level. You can camp in damp and wet conditions -- even in a swamp -- with no risk of getting wet. You can even camp between two elephants, or over water, which isn't something you can do in a tent or with a regular tarp set-up at all.   You no longer have to worry about rocks, roots, thorns, cactus, poison ivy, or little critters.  A hammock allows flexibility.  Home-made rigs and most commercial solutions can set up as a protected tarp or even as a tent if you have no trees - so your tarping system still hasn't changed and isn't compromised.  Hammocks are also Leave-No-Trace compliant.  Hammocks do not cause compaction of campsite areas as tents and regular tarp rigs do.  You aren't sleeping on the ground, and the ground appreciates that.  If you use webbing straps around the trees, the trees aren't damaged in any way.  A hammock is fast to set up and easy to use, although the learning curve can be steeper and less forgiving than with other systems.  Once you learn how to set up your hammock properly, you will often set it up during breaks.  Why?  Well, it only takes two minutes, and a hammock has multiple uses.  One of my favorites is as a camp chair, or camp swing.  Sometimes it's nice to sit down, and my gluteus maximus, despite being rather maximus, doesn't always appreciate being parked on rocks, logs, or on the ground.  My back doesn't always appreciate it either.  A hammock can also be safer for overnight camping in several respects.  You aren't in danger of waking up at 3 A.M. only to find out that your once-dry camp site is now a small stream or large puddle due to a light rain.  Ants, snakes, and myriad other little critters that scurry on the ground won't bother you either -- and you won't bother them.  For even more benefits, and some excellent tips, check out Ed Speer's website

Page 4 of 5: The Good, The Bad, and the Heavy

I know that all the gram weenies are chanting, "Yeah, but how much does it weigh?" so this section is for them.  Some hammocks are, of course, lighter than others.  The heaviest is the old military Jungle Hammock, coming in somewhere around five pounds (some even had chains!), and the lightest are mesh hammocks that weigh just a few ounces.  I will admit at this point that I am not a member of the ultralight movement, nor do I subscribe to the philosophy that lighter is always better.  Rest is second only to nutrition as the most important aspect of remaining physically and mentally fit on the trail.  Many long-distance hikers quit the trail because they wear down, and then they wear out.  For me, it is clear that sleeping well is worth an extra few ounces -- and it would be worth a few extra pounds; but fortunately, hammocks made of modern materials are extremely light.  Light enough, in some cases, to be considered ultralight!  Hennessy Hammock makes an integrated hammock system that weighs in at 15 ounces!  Below are a few different rigs that might work for you.  Feel free to mix and match elements as you see fit.


These are all shown with the Bana Travel Hammock, which is my preference for the do-it-yourself setup, but any hammock will do: and there are other excellent choices available, and you can even make your own.


Bana Travel Hammock   11 Ounces
20 ' of 11/16" Webbing for hanging 8 Ounces
Bug Net (Face Only) 1 Ounce
Silnylon Poncho 8 Ounces
TOTAL 28 Ounces


Bana Travel Hammock   11 Ounces
20 ' of 1" Webbing for hanging 10 Ounces
Bug Net (Full Body) 5 Ounces
6x8' Silnylon Tarp 9 Ounces
TOTAL 35 Ounces


Bana Travel Hammock   11 Ounces
20 ' of 1" Webbing for hanging 10 Ounces
Bug Net (Full Body) 5 Ounces
8x10' Silnylon Tarp 13 Ounces
Stakes 3 Ounces
TOTAL 42 Ounces


Bana Travel Hammock   11 Ounces
20 ' of 1" Webbing for hanging 10 Ounces
Bug Net (Full Body) 5 Ounces
6x8' Silnylon Tarp 9 Ounces
Sleeping Pad 14 Ounces
TOTAL 49 Ounces


Bana Travel Hammock   11 Ounces
20 ' of 1" Webbing for hanging 10 Ounces
Bug Net (Full Body) 5 Ounces
8x10' Silnylon Tarp 13 Ounces
Stakes 3 Ounces
Sleeping Pad 14 Ounces
TOTAL 56 Ounces


Bana Travel Hammock   11 Ounces
20 ' of 1" Webbing for hanging 10 Ounces
Bug Net (Full Body) 5 Ounces
10x12' Silnylon Tarp + Wedges for 'Tammock' 25 Ounces
Stakes 3 Ounces
Sleeping Pad 14 Ounces
TOTAL 68 Ounces


The list below is not exhaustive, nor even very representative in some cases, and it is meant only to show weights.  Please refer to each manufacturer's web site for complete details when selecting a hammock.  These weights are as stated by the manufacturer, but be aware that you may have to add a sleeping pad and/or tent stakes for various setups.

Hennessy Ultralight Backpacker  26 Ounces
Speer Hammocks 32 - 48 Ounces
Clark Ultralight 38 Ounces
Hennessy Explorer Deluxe 44 Ounces
Crazy Crib w/Tarp 46 Ounces
Clark Deluxe 56 Ounces
Crazy Crib LEX 65 Ounces
Lawson Hammock 68 Ounces

Page 5 of 5: Additional Resources & Conclusion

In addition to the manufacturers' and other web sites already mentioned in this article, I have found the following sites useful: -- Many useful reviews.

Ernest "SGT Rock" Engman's Hiking HQ  -- The Man when it comes to many things hammock.  A very informative site. -- A work in progress.  A book on hammock camping is available, and a free hammock camping newsletter has just been launched.

Hennessy Hammock -- Useful tips, good photos, and some original ideas.

Yahoo! HammockCamping group.  An excellent way to meet knowledgeable people.

How to use a Hennessy Hammock


In conclusion, were I to slip into a character from my 'other life' as a Reverend, I might climb upon the hammocking pulpit and preach to you this way... 

"In the end, if you aren't a hard-core tent addict, there's almost no reason not to add a hammock to your system. Some of the gram weenies may groan about the extra ounces, but there is a trade off because you can leave your standard ground cloth behind and replace it with a light-weight hammock. There will also be some additional weight for webbing and/or hanging ropes -- but that's only a few ounces.  The extra weight is definitely justified by the extra comfort at night. I have terrible insomnia sometimes, and the little sleep I do get has to be good sleep. A hammock gives me that little extra that keeps me going during the day -- and keeps me having fun.

"So, if you are still sleeping on the ground, you are encouraged to repent of your evil sins -- compacting already over-used and over-abused camp sites -- and join The Mystic Knights of Hammocking, or perhaps even one of the sub-cult orders like Clark's Stealth Bandits or the Followers of the Supreme Genius of Hennessy, then maybe you will find peace and joy (and comfort!) as the rest of us have. Those of us who have seen the Light (Praise the Holy Hanging Cradle!) know that our hammocking is a true faith, and that you sinners will eventually be tormented by marmots.

"Of course, hammock use pretty much keeps us out of arctic territory, below tree lines, out of some desert, etc., etc., etc., but this is a small price to pay for Restful Bliss.

"REPENT SINNERS! Join us, or languish in the floods to come! Join us, or be doomed to eternal damnation for sleeping on the plants and little critters that you crush mercilessly beneath your palatial abodes. You tarpers too! Wall-lessness does not excuse you. REPENT I SAY!"

...of course, rather than asking you to repent, perhaps I should be trying to lead you into temptation...

Shane Steinkamp

(Grand Archbishop of the Louisiana chapter of the Mystic Knights of Hammocking)


Shane Steinkamp, 33, now semi-retired from his life as a wandering bum, has sold out to the man and settled down in New Orleans, Louisiana where he works in the IT industry as a software engineer.  In his wandering days he could be found meandering all over the Western United States, among other places, searching for something he never quite found. He still searches for it on the weekends, and whenever else he can get a little time away to visit with the forest spirits. Besides being a hiker, Shane is a father, a dreamer, a husband, a writer, a Reverend, an American, a Buddhist lay-monk, an excellent cook, a martial artist, an iconoclast, a law enforcement trainer, and a certified Jack of all Trades. He has many and varied interests besides hiking, which include religion, politics, philosophy, his daughter Virginia, key-lime pie, dancing naked in the rain, and many others too boring to list.  He has published prose, poetry, and law enforcement training articles in international publications.  His hiking website can be found at



DESCRIPTION Hammocks by Tom Hennessy.  I highly recommend these, and you can read my review of the Explorer model by clicking here.
BANA travel hammock Add a hammock to your existing tarp system cheaply and easily!
Hammock Reviews hammock reviews.
Lay of a Lifetime - Hammock Depot of New Orleans Hammock Depot of New Orleans.  Founded in 1985 by Bea Crane, a nice lady knowledgeable about hammocks for indoor and backyard use.  Carries hammocks and chairs.  You need one of these chairs...





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