When I started backpacking, tents were all I knew. My world revolved around researching and choosing the lightest tents until it all got turned upside down. At Appalachian Trail Days in Damascus, VA in 2010 I stumbled into the world of hammock camping.
Hammock camping tends to be a world divided. Proponents love sleeping above ground and skeptics abhor it and won’t be afraid to tell you. I’ve participated in many hammock vs tent debates on – and off – the trail.
Whether you use a tent vs hammock, like all other gear decisions, depends on the situation. Only you can decide what’s best for you in any given situation. By the end of this discussion, you’ll know for sure if hammock camping is worth a shot.
What You'll Learn
- Establishing a Baseline: Hammock vs Tent
- Tents as a Shelter
- Hammocks as a Shelter
- Comparing the Limitations of Tents and Hammocks
- A Brief Comparison to Bivy Systems
- Summary of Hammock Camping Gear
Establishing a Baseline: Hammock vs Tent
We’re going to compare the hammock to the classic outdoor shelter – the tent. For the purpose of this article, we need to establish a benchmark against which to compare hammock camping. So, first, we’ll summarize a few key analytical criteria of the tent as a shelter.
These comparisons are both factual and empirical. I am attempting to address many of the common arguments you’ll see from manufacturers and users alike. Plus I’ve thrown in my two cents from hundreds of nights on the trail using both tents and hammocks. Enjoy!
Tents as a Shelter
Overcoming the learning curve is simple and quick. This is exactly how tents are designed: foolproof and fast. Finding a tent campsite is usually easy except in specific situations. Mastering the art of setup and site selection, however, may take time.
Tents are dead simple to keep comfortable. They keep bugs out and rain off (provided you purchase a decent one). They may, however, struggle with condensation issues. Most tents have ample flat space and room to stretch and move around.
Well designed to protect from wind, rain, and even driving rain. Usually, rainflys come down plenty far enough to keep out even the worst weather. Tents protect you from convective heat loss – or heat lost to air moving under you. However, you must use a sleeping pad to prevent conductive heat loss to the cold of the ground.
Are practically endless. Tents have been well-loved for years and every manufacturer produces variations with different features. If you can think of it, chances are very good that it’s available.
Compared to hammocks the size and weight of tents can vary dramatically. When we compare high-end tents to high-end hammock setups, tents tend to weigh about the same or just a bit less. We’ll get into this in detail later.
In the field, tents tend to be simpler to set up than hammocks. For users short of expert status tents are going to be far easier and faster to achieve a consistent setup. In all but the rarest cases, finding a tent site is often easier than finding a hammock site.
Tents are limited in several ways. In areas with vegetation or sensitive ecosystems, you must set up your tent in existing sites only. Many high traffic areas become rapidly destroyed because users set tents up haphazardly and impact the environment around the trail.
Tents are also limited when the ground is rocky, rooty, uneven, or heavily sloped. This can be avoided simply by using existing campsites in most cases. When trails are so heavily trafficked that this is not practical, users should consider postponing their trip until trail use levels fall to reasonable limits.
See the segments on LNT campsite selection and setup.
Taken with these considerations, tents very rarely have insurmountable limitations.
Tents are so widely made and competition in the marketplace is so fierce that generally, they’re quite affordable. For ultralight hikers seeking the utmost of performance and weight savings, lightweight tents can skyrocket in prices.
Buying a complete tent setup (including sleeping bag/quilt, ground pad, and tent) can range from $250 to $1,000+ depending greatly on personal gear choices. Tents for cold weather and winter use can get pretty expensive too.
Hammocks as a Shelter
Hammocks have a steep learning curve. You will spend time tinkering with your setup, learning how to pitch taut, fix slack after you weight the hammock, and estimate distances between trees. You’ll have to master hang angles, and keep your top quilt and underquilt dry among other tasks.
Hammocks inherently provide a very comfortable surface to lay on. Camping hammocks actually cause the user to lay sideways, generally, creating a lying position that is more flat than banana-shaped. Because you don’t have to deal with roots, rocks, and lumps the hammock is usually a very pleasant sleeping system.
I have even heard backpackers with back problems claim that hammocks are, “the only reason they’re still able to sleep overnight on the trail”. Therefore they may be a very attractive option to those who have trouble sleeping comfortably on the ground.
Comfort level is, by far, one of the biggest advantages of a hammock camping system.
Hammocks leave something to be desired when it comes to protection. They’re extremely vulnerable to convective heat loss – the loss of heat due to breezes and winds moving under the sleeper. For this reason, something called an “under quilt” must be used to insulate you.
Hammocks also struggle to protect from driving rain unless you choose to use a generously sized waterproof tarp (which I recommend).
In an effort to save weight and make the hammock camping system a viable lightweight system for myself, I struggled for years with a small waterproof tarp which simply makes the experience more annoying than enjoyable.
Despite their loving nickname as “bear burritos” (see: how to handle bear encounters), hammocks are not any less protective against wildlife or insects than tents are. Hammocks purposed for camping usually have a bug net of some fashion integrated for protection just like a tent.
For camping hammocks, the options are simultaneously staggering and yet limiting. There are relatively few manufacturers of hammock camping gear compared to tents. Most hammock campers who stick with it for the long haul end up making or modifying their own gear.
In some ways, this means there are really unlimited options with hammock camping. However, it’s really a negative factor for most users who want a simple to understand and easy to use system. This rabbit hole ends up just getting deeper and can rapidly consume your time and money!
For those interested in deep diving into the world of MYOG and DIY gear, hammocks can be a fun and rewarding journey!
Hammocks generally come out in a wash with size and weight. While they don’t have bulky, heavy tent stakes, they do require a generous rain tarp, tree huggers, toggles, and underquilt. When you compare this with lightweight tent setups, hammocks are usually about on-par.
However, there is a ton of variation in size and weight depending on which hammock and tent you’re comparing. Be careful to compare ‘apples to apples’ or you’ll get a very skewed perspective.
Hammocks, compared to tents, require significantly greater setup time and effort. The learning curve for setup can be steep and you’ll get it wrong many times before you perfect your hang.
The reason setup is difficult:
- Hammock and tarp must be set independently
- Hammock hang angle is important
- Tree distance and size is important
- There can be sensitive knots and setup procedures involved
But once you master the setup process it’s not that much different from ground-based setup. You’ll quickly master the knots and processes needed and you’ll put your own spin on things.
Getting a consistent hang is something that may take several seasons of practice, however. I always find myself having to adjust and fiddle with setup. Innovations like whoopie slings and toggles make the process easier, but not as easy as a quick-pitching tent.
Hammocks have their limitations such as:
- Finding trees the correct distance
- Certain areas restrict hammock use (GSMNP in the US is one example)
- If hung wrong they can damage trees
- They need trees around them
- They’re vulnerable to cold weather
In areas above treeline or in tundra environments lacking sturdy enough trees to support a hammock, you could be out of luck. Of course, knowing this before embarking is part of responsible trip planning.
Despite these limitations, the fact is that the majority of popular hiking and backpacking areas will have viable hammocking locations. Some people even hang and sleep in their hammocks strung between vehicles!
While the suspended nature of a hammock is often cited as a benefit for avoiding impacting sensitive ground vegetation, I’m not so convinced. We’ll talk about this a bit later.
Even with a good underquilt, hammocks are susceptible to heat loss. They’re particularly crippled in cold and windy weather where you’ll need the best (and priciest) underquilts to stay warm due to the wind blowing under and around you.
Price, when compared to high-end tents, tends to be about on-par for an equal quality hammock. When we’re going for the lightest, smallest, highest performance hammock camping setup it can easily cost ~$1,000 or more. The same is true of finding an exceptional quality lightweight tent made from cutting-edge materials.
Remember when calculating a price that you’ll need all of the following gear in order to compete with a good tent setup:
- Hammock with bug net
- Generously sized waterproof tarp
- Under quilt
- Top quilt
- Treehugger hammock straps
- Hammock suspension (usually whoopie slings)
- Stakes (optional)
Don’t be fooled – if your hammock costs just $250 that’s great! But you’ve still got to factor in the costs of very pricey top quilts and underquilts which can run $300+ each.
Comparing the Limitations of Tents and Hammocks
Hammocks are often cited as solving several drawbacks of tents and ground-based shelters. However, there are a few drawbacks which limit or negate many of these benefits.
Can you really sleep above unusable spaces?
Yes, you can sleep over the top of places where otherwise a tent wouldn’t work. However, it’s very rare to find an area where there are no viable tent sites due to slope or obstructions, and this is usually due to poor planning on the part of the hiker.
Do hammocks help with Leave No Trace?
While there’s a case to be made for hammocks not flattening vegetation, it’s a bit of a weak point. Setting up your hammock and doing general nightly campsite activities will cause your boots or shoes to stomp down most of the vegetation around your hammock. Plus, the tree straps used to hang can damage or mar tree bark if not used carefully.
What about people with physical ailments?
I think the biggest issue that hammocks solve, and one which rarely gets debated is that of body limitations. As I mentioned earlier in this article I’ve run into hammock campers before who claim to be on the trail solely thanks to the soft, comfortable lay a hammock provides. People with arthritis or back pain may find this helps the issue of getting a good night’s sleep.
When you trade a ground-based shelter system for a hammock you’re taking on several new challenges. Are the new challenges worth the benefits? Think very carefully about what problems a hammock system is going to solve for you before you make the switch. Ultimately this decision has to be about you and your needs and not the pros and cons outlined on the internet.
A Brief Comparison to Bivy Systems
It’s tempting to see the hammock camping system and bivy camping system as nearly interchangeable. In fact, if you tied a bivy into a tree (which I don’t recommend) it would essentially become a hammock, right?
In many ways, this is true. There are two big factors which separate these systems though.
Bivy systems usually feature inherently waterproof fabrics which hammocks do not. This means with a bivy you can just crawl inside a body-sized tent and just let it rain on you (with the right bivy).
See my beginner’s guide to tarp camping for more information on a bivy and ground tarp set up.
A fully waterproof bivy has its drawbacks, so many are partially waterproof and require the use of a tarp above. In either case, the bivy system does not, necessarily need trees for setup.
The other major difference is in setup. Hammocks need specialized gear such as an underquilt and tree hugger straps, bivys do not.
Changing from a tent to a bivy requires less gear shuffling than the switch from tent to hammock. It’s also more familiar and intuitive. Just watch out for the claustrophobia effect!
It’s worth noting at this point that some hammocks, particularly those which are DIY or MYOG (make your own gear), can be set up on the ground in the absence of trees. The real issue at hand here is that, in the case of setting a hammock up on the ground, you need a ground-worthy sleeping pad.
Carrying both an underquilt and an inflatable or foam sleeping pad really negates the point of the hammock camping system. It’s extra bulk and weight that you really don’t want to be carrying for the “just in case” times.
Summary of Hammock Camping Gear
If you didn’t read through the in-depth comparison above I recommend doing so before buying a hammock. However, I’m still going to bring it all together for you here so that you can see exactly what you’ll need to get started hammock camping.
Think of this as your personal shopping list:
- Hammock: Can be purchased or make your own. See my guide how to choose a backpacking hammock.
- Suspension: I recommend Whoopie Slings (or purchase here from Amazon) or make your own
- Tree Hugger Straps & Toggles: You can buy these or make them. Check out our guide to hammock straps.
- Under Quilt & Top Quilt: I recommend Underground Quilts for both – I get all my quilts and tarps from them!
- Rain Tarp: Some hammocks have a tarp, others don’t. Avoid hammocks with tarps built into the suspension – a hammock tarp needs to be separate from the hammock or it will sag. See my choices of the best hammock tarp.
- Tent Stakes : Some hammocks have tie-outs to help hold the hammock body open and flat. This just prevents the hammock from feeling claustrophobic. For these, I recommend the MSR Mini-Groundhog stake (available from Amazon). Generally, you only need 2-4 (2 for the tarp, 2 for the hammock at most).
- Mosquito Net I very highly recommend getting a hammock with a built-in net. They’re easy to find among dedicated camping hammocks. However, if you buy a recreational hammock you’ll have to somehow add one.
There are tons of add-on goodies you can buy or make for your hammock as well. For instance, many hammockers like to create clips under the hammock where the backpack can hang so it’s not laying on the wet ground all night. This is just one example of hammock preference innovation.
Hammocks and tents are worlds apart. Moving from tents and ground shelters into a hammock is a total makeover of your gear and systems. However, for the right people, it’s a great move that can be fun and rewarding.
Be warned: hammocks are not all fun and games. They can be finicky, hard to setup, and may require tons of testing and modification to get them “just right” for you.I think that hammocks make the most sense for users who otherwise can’t find a good sleeping system for some reason. As we discussed earlier, hikers with back problems are one such example.
In order to get the most out of your hammock, do your research and learn from others. If possible borrow a camping hammock setup from a friend and try it before you commit to reworking your entire gear setup.