Pass / Fail: Camping hammock

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A backpacker does not need an excuse to backpack. But this trip seemed more urgent to me than others. I worked at a crowded biological research station in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, eating, sleeping, and snoring with a dozen other people nearby. Spilling 12 servings of boiling spaghetti on my lap was the last straw. I needed to apologize for living together for a while.

I grabbed a map and highlighted the 53 mile AT-Bartram trail loop that I had my eye on for weeks. But with only two days for the whole hike, I needed to go fast and light. Attempted? Pah! I had a 1 pound hammock that I wanted to take on a serious trip.

Using the hammock would save both volume and weight. And without having to search for flat land, site selection would be a snap. If it rained, as the forecast suggested, I would be suspended above the damp ground, not lying in a puddle.

I had used my hammock for summer car camping and figured the only real difference would be adding a fly. Easy. My tent flysheet was longer than my hammock, and the raincoat is waterproof. I was sure that would be enough.

Dusk set in as I parked at the Wayah Bald trailhead. The coppery beeches signaled the end of autumn. Steel clouds hovered over the distant mountains, but the sky above the bald man was clear. I closed the car door. I was there: a woman, a hammock and a long way to go.

So I walked 5 miles and congratulated myself on reducing my weekend goal to 48.

I searched my first stop, Cold Spring Shelter, with a headlamp. The area near the shelter seemed more hospitable than the stale ridge designed for overflow camping. Nearby I found two torso-sized poplars about a body length apart. The spacing was not ideal, but compared to their neighbors – dead trees, spindly or too far apart – they seemed to be the better choice. I tightened a loop of accessory cord around each trunk and tied the ends of the hammock to each loop. I put down my sleeping bag and lay in my bed and closed my eyes.

And began to shiver.

My sleeping pad lined the hammock and my sleeping bag was rated at 30 degrees, but I was wrapped up and down in chilled October air; without the earth underneath, my thin pillow could not withstand the heat. So I put on my puffy sleeping bag. And my rain pants, my raincoat and my hat.

The warm-up only allowed me to focus on other ailments. I had selected trees that were a little too close together and my butt was bending the hammock in half. Gravity won out over all efforts to stay horizontal. Whichever position I started out in, I ended up having a bunch of limbs at the lowest point of the hammock. I fell asleep in a very small ball.

Without tent walls to protect me from the sunrise, I woke up with it. I was happy to find only a minor crack in my neck. Granted, I had slept badly, but not enough to dissuade me from trying again.

After a 30 mile day that ended with sore feet and rainy weather, I was desperate to find a good place to hang out. The forest floor sloped like the deck of a sinking ship, but what does the slope matter for a suspended crosspiece? I hung up my rig and draped the fly with my hanging rope.

The dome-shaped fly was puckering in the wrong places. The shrouds did not reach the ground, so it was impossible to stake the thing. I was hoping for a breeze-free night and lay down to go to bed.

Naturally, the wind started to howl around 1 a.m., repelling the fly until there was nothing left to stop the horizontal rain. I fumbled through the haze of sleep and the real fog, pulling on my rain pants and jacket, then retreated into my absorbent sleeping bag.

My body was still unwillingly descending into the hammock, but now it was no longer alone. Water, of course, is also apt to find the low point. At 4 am, my butt was submerged. I couldn’t sleep, so I packed my bags and started walking.

The next 18 miles were slow mainly due to the extra 5 pounds my gear had taken in water weight.

I got to the car, tired and scruffy. A woman, a hammock and a feeling of wet disappointment.

The verdict: FAIL

I should have looked for appropriately spaced trees, properly set up my hammock, and brought a tarp of the size needed. Instead, I turned the strengths of the hammock into drawbacks.
Use these tips (right) to avoid my mistakes.

Hammock Camping 101

Stay warm. Sleeping pads are useful, but they tend to slip or come out of the hammock overnight. They can also compromise comfort by preventing your hammock from hugging your body the way it is supposed to. If you expect temperatures below 40 ° F, invest in an undershirt ($ 100 to $ 250, depending on temperature rating), which hangs under you and provides an insulated air pocket to keep you warm.

Look for sheltered sites.The wind will cool you faster in a hammock than in a tent.

Improve your fly. Your best bet for weather protection is a specific silnylon hammock fly (not a tent fly). A tarp will suffice if it is long and wide enough. To mount a tarpaulin, hang a taut “ridge” rope between your two trees. Tie the ridge line under the hanger straps so your tarp stays close even when your weight sags on the hammock. Put it on for safety. If it gets stuffy, turn on porch mode: Support one edge of the tarp with a pair of hiking poles.

Perfect your geometry. Your lines should point away from the tree at an angle of 30 degrees to the trunk. A sharper angle will amplify the lateral and vertical force, putting a strain on your equipment and the shaft. Look for wide (or taller) trunks spaced 15 to 20 feet apart. Opt for hanger straps rather than ropes that damage the bark.

Sharpen your sleeping technique. The hammock shouldn’t be a banana-shaped experiment. For a flatter pose, keep your body diagonally. Tilt your head to one side and your legs to the other.

Sally J. Minick

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