Winter Hammock Camping: How to Stay Warm in a Hammock

Considering making the jump from a tent to a hammock, but worried about turning into an icicle overnight? Winter hammock camping can be comfortable and fun if you know how to do it properly.

Hammocks don’t lie on the ground, so snow is less of a problem than it is with tents. But unlike a tent, which provides a cocoon of warm air, a hammock hangs out in the open. This means cold air blowing underneath the hammock all night long, whisking away your body heat.

Unless you want to melt your hammock, you won’t be able to rely on a fire for this problem! But there are several other ways to keep yourself toasty warm in cold weather. One of the best things about hammocks is the potential for DIY and mixing and matching your own combinations. Let’s take a look!


winter hammock camping
© John I. PeaPod/tttrailgear.com

Where to place your hammock when winter camping

Nature can be unpredictable, so it’s important to choose your spot carefully when hanging your hammock. Aside from the obvious – sturdy trees or similar that you can hang from – here are some other things to consider:

  • Wind: Protect yourself from the wind by hanging your hammock in a spot near a natural windbreaker such as a boulder, a hill, a patch of trees, etc. /li>
  • Cold: Valleys trap the cold and hilltops are notoriously windy, so the best places to hang are usually in mid-level areas. Consider where the sun will rise when you set up your hammock so you can make the most of those warming rays.
  • Rain and snow: You’ll need to have a tarp/rain fly to protect you from precipitation. You can also keep under cover of an overhang, tree, etc. Be wary of dead or unstable trees and the snow from tree branches, which could fall on you during the night. Hang your hammock far from slopes that may pose an avalanche risk.
  • Humidity: Moisture can cause condensation inside your hammock, which can eventually lead to hypothermia. Try to incorporate some ventilation into your setup, and avoid setting up near bodies of cold water

Last but not least, always follow the “leave no trace” rule and leave the site better than you found it.

How to set up your tarp when winter camping

Hammock tarps or rain flies protect not only against precipitation but also against wind and humidity. A tarp or rain fly correctly pitched will be the most effective in trapping heat and keeping out the elements. Because hammock tarps are usually pitched higher up where the wind is stronger, you’ll want to invest in a hardy tarp.

You should hang your hammock tarp in a V shape above your head as if you were making a tent over your hammock. This will trap warmth and shelter you from the wind while providing enough ventilation to prevent condensation. Some tarps are so big they can also hang lower, to protect against sideways rain and win. Shug has a great video on how to hang your winter tarp:

Top layers: Sleeping bags vs. sleeping pods vs. top quilts

Hammocks pose unique challenges to staying warm in the winter. Each of the methods listed below has its pros and cons, so most hangers combine several methods to protect themselves from the cold.

Ordinary sleeping bags

Sleeping bags can be made of down or synthetic materials. Down is the best for protecting against freezing temperatures, but synthetic insulation is better in wet conditions. A compromise is silicon-treated down.

Mummy-style sleeping bags

These fit the contours of your body, and the cinchable hood will help keep your head warm. Use a sleeping bag designed to withstand cold temperatures, preferably rated several degrees below the coldest temperature you expect to encounter. For more details, see  how to choose a winter sleeping bag and watch Shug’s video on how to use a sleeping bag in a hammock:

Sleeping Bag Pros:

  • Comfortable and handy. Chances are you already have one in your garage, meaning no need to spend more money! They hug your body’s contours and prevent cold air from getting in the cracks.


Cons:

  • The biggest downside is that sleeping bags get compressed against the hammock, leaving your back and shoulders cold. They can also be hard to climb in and out of when hanging.

A note on Sleeping Bag Liners

Sleeping bag liners take up almost no space and vastly increase the warmth of your sleeping bag. You can also use them to pad out cold spots or as a pillow.

Sleeping Bag Pod

A sleeping bag pod is like a giant sleeping bag that wraps completely around the outside of your hammock. You can cinch the ends and fasten the hood to avoid letting in cold air.

Pros of a Sleeping Bag Pod:

  • Unlike a sleeping bag, the pod doesn’t get compressed between you and the hammock, because it’s located on the outside of the hammock.


Cons:

  • These are tricky to get in and out of and it’s usually a two-person job to zip the pod up once you’re inside.

Top Quilt

Top quilt: A top quilt is basically a blanket (quilt) that lies on top of you in the hammock. Most top quilts are sewn together at the end to keep your feet warm. Some people use unzipped sleeping bags as top quilts.

Pros of Top Quilts:

  • Top quilts require virtually no setup and they are easier to get in and out of than sleeping bags. They’re cheap and they pack well. They’re also lighter than sleeping bags, as they have no zipper and no bottom.


Cons:

  • Top quilts usually don’t trap as much body heat as mummy sleeping bags, as they don’t wrap all the way around you. Most people use top quilts in combination with an under quilt or sleeping pad.

Underneath: Underquilts vs Sleeping Pads

Under quilts

Under quilts wrap around the outside of your hammock, blocking wind and trapping your body heat to help insulate against the cold air underneath you. They can be made of down or synthetic material.

Because of their position on the outside of the hammock, under quilts don’t get compressed like sleeping bags do. Waterproof under quilts also help protect against moisture. For maximum effectiveness, under quilts should fit snugly around your hammock.

Pros of Underquilts:

  • Under quilts are comfortable because they move with your hammock instead of bunching up. They’re lightweight and usually sold with a compression sack for ease of packing. They prevent heat loss from below: the main cause of being cold in a hammock


Cons:

  • Under quilts are an expensive investment. Some people complain of feeling cold in the gaps where the under quilts are not 100% fitted to the hammock.


The combination of a good under quilt and top quilt is arguably the most effective for keeping warm. However, it’s also the option that involves shelling out the most money, as you’re unlikely to have either of these lying around from that time you went camping in a tent. Some people opt to use an under quilt with a sleeping bag.

  • Pro tip: If you don’t want to invest in an under quilt, you can use a normal blanket or a Mylar emergency blanket instead. The disadvantage of these is that since they are not purpose-made, they can be harder to tie.

Pillow

It never hurts to have a pillow to add extra comfort and keep your head a little warmer. Use a wad of rolled-up clothes if you don’t feel like packing a pillow.

Sleeping pads

Sleeping pads solve the problem of compressed sleeping bags, adding a layer between you and the hammock to keep you warm. The longer and wider they are, the more warmth they provide. Some sleeping pads even come with “wings” which wrap around your shoulders.

If it’s really cold, you can use two sleeping pads – we suggest putting the CCF one underneath to avoid condensation issues. Check your sleeping pad’s R-value before you go. The higher the R-value, the more insulation they provide.

Pads can shift out of place during the night. If you have a hammock with double lining, slip the pad between the layers to keep it in place while you sleep. Sleeping pads fall into three broad categories: inflatable, self-inflatable and closed-cell foam (CCF).

Inflatable sleeping pads: Inflatable sleeping pads fill with air, creating a cushion to insulate you against the cold.
Pros: Inflatable sleeping pads are comfortable, and you can choose how much to inflate your pad in order to have more or less insulation. They are relatively lightweight, compact and easy to carry.
Cons: Inflatable sleeping pads can be expensive and they run the risk of getting punctured, which can ruin your night! Always bring a repair kit with you.

Self-inflatable sleeping pads: Self-inflatable sleeping pads are reinforced with a layer of open-cell foam and inflate automatically when you open the valve.
Pros: Self-inflatable pads provide a relatively good amount of insulation and cushioning. They’re lightweight and convenient as you don’t have to inflate them manually.
Cons: Like inflatable sleeping pads, self-inflatable pads are susceptible to punctures. They’re also bulkier than inflatable sleeping pads (but less bulky than CCF pads).

CCF sleeping pads: CCF is a kind of semi-dense foam. These simple mats are a classic in the camping world – in fact, you probably have one or two gathering dust in your closet.
Pros: CCF sleeping pads are a cheap and durable way to protect against the wind and cold. You won’t need to worry about punctures, and they won’t compress under you like a sleeping bag would.
Cons: CCF doesn’t breathe very well and many people wake up to find themselves soaked in condensation. CCF sleeping pads are comparatively thin and provide less insulation overall. They’re quite bulky to pack and they can move around and wrinkle during the night. They aren’t usually purpose-built so they won’t contour exactly to your hammock.

  • Pro tip: If you don’t have a proper sleeping pad, fashion a makeshift one out of your car’s window shade or a foil blanket. The disadvantage is it will be noisy and not as comfortable. If your sleeping pad doesn’t have wings, you can make some by cutting out foam and attaching it to the pad.

I don’t want to invest in expensive gear – how can I cut corners?

We certainly don’t advocate freezing to death in the wilderness, but there are a few ways you can save on materials if conditions aren’t too harsh. Consider:

Mylar blanket or car window shades: The reflective properties of Mylar blankets and car window shades trap heat, allowing them to function as a makeshift sleeping pad. They won’t be as effective as a purpose-built sleeping pad, and you’ll have to get used to the crinkling sound, but they are a cost-effective solution if you don’t have a proper sleeping pad.

Clothing: Even with the ultimate combination of sleeping equipment, it’s important to dress properly for a cold night. You and all your clothes should be bone-dry before getting into your hammock, as any moisture will freeze during the night!

Layer up and avoid cotton in your base layers, opting instead for mid- or heavyweight thermal underwear made of moisture-wicking synthetic or merino wool. Fleece/microfleece sweaters and warm pants work wonders.

Sleep in clean, dry clothes to protect your sleeping bag and prevent any moisture freezing against your body. We recommend changing into clean socks and base layers for the night and using these same ones the next day, as they will already be warm.

Another option is to store tomorrow’s clothes in the sleeping bag with you to keep them warm and dry. Don’t forget extra gloves and woolen socks, as well as a hat, neck warmer and balaclava if needed.

Hot water bottle: Hot water bottles are a great a way to pre-heat your sleeping bag. Sleep with the bottle between your legs (with a layer of clothing to shield you from the heat) so it’s touching your femoral artery. Use a BPA-free hard plastic water bottle and let it cool before tightening the cap; or use a metal bottle with hot, not boiling, water and wrap it in a sock to avoid burning yourself.

Tip: Consider using a separate, clearly marked bottle as a bedpan to avoid having to get out of your hammock to use the washroom in the middle of the night. Women will need to add a pee funnel.

Keeping your feet warm: Standing on your CCF pad instead of in the snow, or even resting your feet on the pad when you’re sitting, helps keep your feet warm. You can also use hand warmers or neoprene toe warmers to keep your digits toasty. Another common technique is to zip your jacket over the outside of your hammock at the foot end and slip a small extra pad under your feet inside the under quilt.

Hammocks vs. tents: Is it worth the extra effort?

Hammocks are an increasingly popular option. Despite the challenges posed by swinging in the air surrounded by the elements, hammocks are a great way to spend the night outdoors, even in cold weather.

They’re lightweight and easy to carry, they don’t require flattening out the snow or even a flat ground, and they are super comfortable! All you need is a place to hang them. Are they better than tents? We’ll leave that up to you to decide…

That being said, always be 100% prepared before you spend the night outdoors in the wilderness, especially in winter. Do your research, practice first in your front yard, stay updated on the weather conditions and know when to quit before you give yourself hypothermia!

Be prepared for avalanches if necessary – carry and know how to use an avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.

Keep warm, don’t get warm. Eat a snack, stay hydrated and do some light exercise (i.e. jumping jacks) before getting in your sleeping bag to generate more body heat – not so much that you’ll sweat or it will defeat the purpose!

Store your fuel and water bottles upside down overnight as liquid freezes from the top down. And after your trip, make sure your gear dries properly. Happy hangin’!

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