My Camping Hammock ‘Big 3’ on the AT
With exactly one month until I hit the trail, here’s my list of explanations and gear: why I choose a hammock and my “big three.”
Why make a hammock?
I made the decision quite early in my preparation for the trek to start the trip as a hammock camper for a number of reasons. Growing up in New England and camping exclusively on the East Coast allowed me to appreciate many of the strengths of a suspension-based setup:
The “green tunnel”
The Appalachian Trail has trees. So. Many. Trees. (Let’s face it – Maybe too much trees for those of us who find ourselves motivated by sightseeing and spacious vistas.) While there are rare “treeless” portions of the trail, the longest of these is a 13-mile stretch above above the treeline between Mitzpah Hut and Mt. Madison in Whites. Although I could go either way with a choice between tent and hammock, I’d like to use this feature of the trail to my advantage.
Rocks, roots and vegetation, Oh my God!
From my childhood of brief backpacking nights at summer camp, I have been deeply familiar with the difficulty of finding the perfect place to pitch a tent on our rocky, rooty, and rarely flat terrain. Am I fully aware that the nature of the AT means there are many previously used tent sites along the trail? Yes. Do I want to pick up any stray sticks or stones in the area of my tent footprint (or risk crushing young vegetation that I may not have noticed under the leaf canopy) after a long day of hiking? Absolutely not.
The east coast receives rain. Just like trees, we could safely say that we get too much rain. The ubiquitous (often downright oppressive) humidity means it’s very possible to lay down for the night only to have a massive, unforeseen storm before morning. While it’s unlikely that I’ll ever find myself dry out in a storm, my years of experience find it comforting to have myself (and my stuff) off the ground, rather than trusting my site selection and to my tent. bathtub floor.
All of these things being said, I also find being in a hammock very comfortable. (Wicked = “great” for non-New Englanders reading this.) There seems to be a belief in the hiking and camping world that only back sleepers find hammocks truly comfortable. As a finicky sleeper who exclusively sleeps somewhere between what first aid calls the “recovery position” and a full prone “ballerina pose,” I disagree. I’ve come to discover that the cradle effect of a hammock applies gentle pressure so that I find more positions that are comfortable enough to fall asleep in than in a bed. Maybe I’m just a freak of nature? *-Insert shrug gesture here-*
I wouldn’t be surprised.
All the logic and reasoning in the world wouldn’t make much sense if I didn’t think that a restful night’s sleep in a hammock for six months straight would be sustainable. In my case, I suspect it may be far better.
The “Big Three”
For those not already familiar with the concept, the “Big Three” are usually a backpacker’s shelter, sleep system, and backpack. In addition to being the largest gear a hiker carries in terms of physical size, they are also the “biggest” in terms of weight, expense, and importance.
All of the information in my “why” section above means that the first item on my list is also the least traditional:
My Kammok Mantis UL hammock tent.
I found this hammock tent system to be exactly what I was looking for as a 5’2″ backpacker who has no trouble getting a flat lay in most plug-and-play hammocks. ( Although I suspect this hammock is likely to be surprisingly roomy for anyone around 5’10” or shorter.) I love the gear pockets/shelves near the exit points, although I could do without the sewn-in storage bag. For the price and weight, this has served me phenomenally as an all-in-one system over the past year.
I use a small stuff sack to hold my tent pegs rather than the built in peg slots on the outside of the bag (I started to worry about their long term durability). I also added a small piece of tape to each of the tent pegs after some experiences where I found them hard to locate during morning cleanup.
Since this is a reasonably cheap shelter (as far as hammocks and backpacking tents go) that I was able to list for an additional discount, I also feel I can be a bit more flexible should I decide to change my mind at some point along the trail. I doubt I’ll ever make that decision, but I’m glad to know I have that leeway if it becomes necessary.
Item Weight: 37 ounces
I will be wearing a quilt (“topquilt” in hammock lingo) during my hike instead of a traditional sleeping bag. If you’re curious about duvets and how they differ from sleeping bags, The Trek has just published an article that might interest you.
My quilt is a custom Bandit UGQ (0F/-18C) in Regular/Regular size.
A short length would probably have been enough for me… However, since stomach sleepers usually need a bit longer pack to be comfortable, I decided not to skimp just to save a few grams of weight . Likewise, I chose dynamic shock-cord tension control to help the duvet stay tucked around me at the sides to retain as much warmth as possible. In exchange, I chose not to have mine built with a draw neck, as I would need to have enough room to tuck the duvet itself around my neck and shoulders.
I love that this bag has the option of dynamic tensioning and has a zippered and drawstring toe box to allow ventilation in warmer temperatures and versatile use in the future. I know there are more popular quilts out there, but I’ve loved this bag ever since it arrived in my apartment, and I really couldn’t be happier with it so far.
As a hammock camper, I also have an underquilt to serve in place of the sleeping pad that a traditional tent camper would use. My underquilt is the now discontinued Western Mountaineering Slinglite (20F/-7C). This is a fairly long underquilt that measures 74 inches / 188 cm and completely insulates me in a super comfortable way.
Although my top comforter is a 0 degree bag, I found no need to upgrade to a 0 degree underquilt to match. This could be due to a combination of being a relatively warm sleeper, sleeping on your stomach, and using a longer underquilt as well as an underquilt protector (which some people say adds about 5 degrees heat). I’m not sure what’s going on there, but the balance I found worked well for me personally.
Miscellaneous (Underquilt Protector/UQP)
As for the under-duvet protector, it is 2QZQ from Dutchware Gear that I installed semi-permanently on my under-duvet. Although UQPs are fairly optional and I trust my Slinglite’s waterproofing, I use a UQP in order to keep my setup as mud and rain out as possible, as well as increase wind resistance ( and therefore the heat retention) of my under-duvet in the first cold months.
Item Weight: 49 ounces
Bandit UGQ: 30oz
Western Mountaineering Slinglite: 13 oz*
Dutch 2QZQ: 6oz
(*WM’s website lists it at 15oz, but mine is always underweight no matter how many times I put it on the scale.)
The bag I would take with me to the trail was probably the single piece of gear I spent the most time thinking about and thinking about from the time I finalized my decision to attempt this Trek. As someone with a short torso (I was measured between 13 and 16 inches, depending on which size measures me. Two different REI fittings even gave me two very different numbers.) and broad shoulders, I have had an unusually difficult time finding packs that are still comfortable for me.
(Since then, I’ve limited myself to being comfortable with 14″ and 15″ bag lengths. 13″ is too high on the hip, and 16″ bags tend to rise too far from my hips. shoulders.)
By chance, I happened to come across (literally) an older man who was hiking part of the Long Trail while I was camping and hiking in Vermont this fall. I asked him if he was carrying a ULA circuit (he was), and we had one of the most fun and enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had. He gave me a quick tour of his favorite features on the bag, explained that he had two other ULA packs at home, and enthusiastically endorsed how comfortable they were for him at a later age during frequent excursions before we separate. . Although this is one of the weirdest examples of how “the trail provides”, I couldn’t help but think about it for the rest of my hike –
I come be on a section of the AT, and I come come to meet exactly the type of person I hope to give me a down-to-earth review of what come being the exact bag that I had been drawn to repeatedly by searching online. It was either on this trip or very soon after that I ordered the pack crossing my fingers and thinking that if it didn’t work I would take the loss and send it back or try to sell it in line.
I wish I had caught this man’s name during our conversation because I wish I could thank him directly.
Hmm. Disjointed story over.
My pack is the Circuit ULA in small/medium with water bottle holder attachments.
As worried as I was about my torso being as short as possible for their small adult sizes (kids style wasn’t available at the time, otherwise I would have gone that route. Really my only small regret.), I didn’t have a bit of trouble with the fit. I won’t digress to turn this description into a full ‘review’ – but there really are no words for how much I love this pack.
(Thanks, random Long Trail man!)
ULA circuit (with water bottle holders): 39 oz
Total combined weight of my ‘Big Three’: 125oz (~7.8lbs)
There you have it, folks – A hammock camper’s explanation and the “Big Three” message. I still have a little tweaking to do with my full kit before I do a full description of the gear, but I hope you found this “part 1” informative. Feel free to ask me any questions you may have in the comments below!