The Truth About Hammock Camping: Claim #2 – Hammocks Are Comfortable
It wouldn’t be honest not to admit that I occasionally have a bad hang in a hammock. Some comfort issues are common enough to become regular complaints among avid hangers. So, without further delay, let’s jump into the next claim.
Claim #2: Hammocks are comfortable.
The Truth Is: They are, most of the time. But I would say that hammocks are a kind of learned behavior. Unlike sleeping on a flat bed at home, hammocks have a way of moving, especially if you’re hanging it in different places every night, say on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Differences in hang height, distances between anchor points, and the angle of the hang can all influence the shape and lay of the hammock bed. Hammocks are still new entrants in outdoor recreation, so the learning curve is a little high compared to more “traditional” shelters. Here are the most common complaints regarding hammock comfort:
Cold Butt Syndrome — One of the most common complaints and challenges to a comfortable hammock’s night’s sleep: your backside gets cold when you should be warm. Even with that 20°F (-7°C) rated sleeping bag can’t keep you warm when it’s 40°F (4°C) at night.
Shoulder Squeeze — That nagging problem when the sides of the hammock wrap too tightly around your shoulders causing discomfort through the night.
Calf Pressure — Some hammocks can create a stiff ridge of fabric right in the center line that puts pressure on your legs.
Ankle Strain — In some positions, the hammock will provide a lot of support directly under your feet, putting pressure on your heels and ankles, and can lead to the next discomfort: leg hyperextension.
Leg Hyperextension — When you have great support under your feet, but not under your legs, you’ll feel pain in your knees and legs.
Fear of Falling Out — Some folks worry about staying securely in a hammock all night, especially for those who toss-and-turn a lot.
Motion Sickness — When demonstrating hammocks to a group of friends, one of them got in and immediately complained of getting sick from the swaying. His stay in the hammock was short-lived.
Claustrophobia — That trapped, close feeling you get when the walls are pushing in toward you.
Multiple People In One Hammock — Almost anyone who’s tried to sleep with a companion longer than a 5-minute nap will agree that discomfort level correlates with the number of people in the hammock: more people, more discomfort.
I’ve experienced almost all of these discomforts while hammock camping, yet I still prefer hammocks over sleeping on the ground. Why? Because most of these discomforts can be resolved, though some more easily than others. When hung correctly, hammocks offer superior comfort over a range of conditions. Indeed, overall comfort is the number one reason people stick with hammocks, even if they experience one or more of these problems. Comfort is the main reason people pick hammocks in the first place. At all of my hammock presentations, it only takes moments for investigators to convert once they get a chance to lay in a properly hung hammock. However, therein lies two weaknesses for hammock newcomers: getting a perfect pitch and having a guide nearby to coach them.
Do you need a coach in order to hang a hammock correctly? Of course not. In fact, many camping hammocks today have simplified the process with daisy-chained tree straps, such as the KAMMOK® Python Straps™, or fixed-length ridge lines, which allow you to quickly attach and hang a hammock. I won’t deny that practice helps perfect hammock hanging, and having a mentor can really help. More often than not, the universal solution is proper hanging technique. As I mentioned before, hammocks can be finicky, and for some there is a learning curve that makes it difficult to consistently get a good hang. Here are some quick tips and solutions to the problems stated above.
Cold Butt Syndrome — Whether inside a hammock or sleeping on the ground, you compress the insulation under you. A closed-cell foam pad or self-inflating pad are low-cost solutions to insulate you underneath. Purpose-made under quilts that hang under the hammock ensure fluffy insulation keeps its loft and keeps you warm. Around 70°F (21°C), you’ll start to feel cool beneath you. Depending on the conditions, sometimes a sleeping bag is enough, or maybe a fleece bag liner. I find that when I am warmer underneath me, I stay warmer overall and often need less insulation on top. Fight cold butt syndrome with adequate insulation and don’t rely on a sleeping bag alone.
Shoulder Squeeze — When a hammock is strung too tightly, it pulls the edges tight, creating what I call the “canoe” effect. I literally cringe each time I see this happen because it can cause other problems like a high center of gravity and a tippy hammock. Some people actually don’t mind that tight, snuggly feeling, so your mileage may vary, but hanging a hammock with a nice curve (a.k.a. “deep sag”) is one key to getting a good lay and avoid the “squeeze.”
Calf Pressure — Like shoulder squeeze, one culprit of calf pressure is the angle of the hang. I usually hang longer, wider hammocks with a deeper sag and narrow hammocks with a tighter pitch (but still with a good sag). When you run out of time or patience to get the perfect sag, one way I eliminate calf pressure is to sleep with my legs crossed. This creates a space for that hammock ridge to run without hitting my calf. Side sleeping also cures the calf pressure problem.
Ankle Strain & Leg Hyperextension — Just like calf pressure, you can relieve this problem with a good sag or by adjusting your sleeping position. However, there are some hammocks on the market that feature “foot boxes” and/or are created with an asymmetric piece of fabric. These hammocks require that you sleep in the same diagonal direction (e.g., head on the left, feet on the right), but the comfort is remarkable. Notable hammocks in this category include the popular Warbonnet Blackbird and the UK Hammock Woodsman X.
Another way to eliminate this strain is to place a pillow under your knees. Alternatives include a flexible water bottle (e.g., 2.5 L Platypus), extra clothing, or other soft items in a stuff sack.
Fear of Falling Out — This one is easy: hang your hammock with a deep sag! With a lower center of gravity, it is nearly impossible to just “fall out” of a hammock unless you really mean to. Laying on the diagonal also provides high walls that keep you centered in the hammock. I toss and turn sometimes in a hammock when shifting from my back to my side and have yet to involuntarily fall out. However, I also find that the hammock takes away the pressure points that are the cause of most tossing and turning, meaning you’ll thrash around less and sleep more..
Some people fall out before even getting in. I had this happen at a recent hammock demonstration because the person didn’t follow my instruction to sit in the center of the hammock. Consequently, this person leaned back off the edge and fell out. To avoid this “sit-and-fall” problem, make sure you spread the hammock fabric WIDE and sit in the CENTER of the hammock. Swing your legs in and lay on the diagonal. I can’t help irrational fears.
Motion Sickness — I’m one who can get motion sickness while sitting in a motionless car and watching nearby vehicles pass, yet I’ve never been motion sick in a hammock. Motion sickness can be such a problem for some folks that nothing can be done, however, there is medical evidence that the gentle swaying of a hammock is beneficial and contributes to a deeper sleep. Some hammocks have side tie-outs that help prevent swaying, and I’ve also reached out and grabbed the ground to stop the swaying when it was more than I preferred. If you have a serious medical issue with motion, it may be best to avoid hammocks.
Claustrophobia — This is an issue mostly with hammocks with integrated bug netting, or with add-on tube-style netting around the hammock. Sometimes it just takes some getting used to, but if the bug netting is just too close for comfort, I recommend getting a simple gathered-end hammock and use a large bug “tent” when necessary. There are some add-on bug nets that provide lots of room (e.g., Hammock Bliss Sky Tent, and the Grand Trunk Mosquito Net).
During times when bugs aren’t a problem, gathered-end hammocks are wide-open and very roomy. In fact, some people take issue with the openness of hammock shelters. People that are used to enclosed tents sometimes find the wide open view “less protected.” When I first transitioned to hammock camping, I preferred the closed in feeling of my Hennessy Hammock until I got used to the simple tarp tent concept. Now, I prefer having the extra room. In fact, hammocks can offer the most headroom of any tent since you can decide how high or low to pitch your tarp.
Multiple People In One Hammock — Unless you and your partner can sleep like synchronized swimmers, it can be very difficult to move without disrupting the sleep of your partner. On occasion, my kids have joined me in my hammock when they couldn’t sleep. In these cases I slept horribly while they slept soundly. If you want to be close to your camping parter when you hammock camp, I recommend you find a spot where you can pitch your hammocks side-by-side, in a triangle, or bunk bed style. In some cases you can even share a tarp. There is only one camping hammock on the market that is designed for two people that is even practical for backpacking: the Clark Jungle Vertex. If you are car camping, you might be interested in the Tentsile hammock line; they offer a few 2- and 3-person hammock platforms.
Hopefully you never experience any discomfort in your hammock, but if you do, there are solutions that don’t require you to go back to the ground (unless you really, really want to).
Have you experienced any of these issues? What were your solutions? Are there other discomforts you’ve experienced that didn’t make my list?