People in South American have a tradition of sleeping in hammocks that dates back thousands of years. The traditional Mayan or Brazilian1-style hammock is simply a rectangular fabric or tightly-woven net that is gathered at the ends and hung with a low, deep sag that looks much like a smiling face. The suspension lines coming from the anchors to the hammock create a 30 to 50 degree angle. The sag creates a deep pocket that keeps the center of gravity low and stabilizes the occupant inside.
The amount of sag is determined by the size of the hammock. If the hammock is long, for example the KAMMOK ROO pictured above is 72 x 129 in. (183 x 328 cm), having a deep sag improves the comfort and diagonal lay. For smaller hammocks, for example the Grand Trunk Ultralight is 54 x 114 in (137 x 290 cm), a shallower sag is better.
To sleep in a Brazilian-style hammock, enter by spreading the fabric apart the fabric and sitting down in the middle. Next, swing your legs inside. Lay down in a diagonal position with your feet right of center and your head left of center (or vice-versa). The diagonal lay is the key. Again, the longer an wider the hammock, the deeper you can hang it, and the more diagonal you can lay until you can turn nearly perpendicular.
The design of the Brazilian-style hammock and the sleeping method are tried and true, yet most people I meet have never seen a hammock set up correctly, or think of the more modern spreader bar hammock with the thick ropes. Spreader bar hammocks are typically pitched tight to achieve a “flat” lay. The problem with this method, and the spreader bars that hold the hammock fabric or rope, is that it raises the center of gravity making the hammock prone to tip. In addition, most people instinctively try to lay end-to-end, just like on a bed, and end up in a “banana” shape and not flat at all.
If you try to pitch a Brazilian-style hammock with a tight pitch (nearly horizontal), you will create a “canoe” effect where the sides are pulled taut and the middle sags down. It is nearly impossible to sleep on the diagonal when you pitch a traditional hammock too tight. One side effect of a tight pitch is excessive shoulder squeeze as the hammock turns your shoulders inward. Another side effect is the excessive weight load you put on the anchor points. Hammock manufacturers and retailers conservatively rate their hammocks below their true breaking point as a liability protection, so some people mistakenly think it’s no big deal to have “excessive strain” because the hammock hasn’t ripped yet. Let’s just say I warned you.
Symptoms of a hammock that has been hung too tightly
- Extra shoulder squeeze
- Extra fabric flapping in your face
- “Canoe Effect” where the rails of the hammock are really tight but the center is loose
- The hammock is a little wobbly (the center of gravity is too high)
There are a lot of hammocks on the market today, and not all are created equally. While I haven’t done the math on hammock dimensions yet, I’m convinced there is a relationship between hammock width and length that makes a “perfect” hammock (could it be the Golden Ratio?). In my own experience I’ve found that longer hammocks are better, all things being equal. If a hammock is really wide but lacks length, the extra width is wasted as you won’t be able to hang the hammock deep enough to take advantage of it. In other words, the wider the hammock, the longer it needs to be.
- I use the terms “Mayan,” “Brazilian,” or “traditional” to refer to any hammock that has a gathered-end design. There are distinct differences in gathered-end hammocks in terms of materials or fabrics used, but they are pitched and hung in the same way. Some argue that the Mayan hammock with its tightly-woven mesh is the most comfortable gathered-end hammock since the material stretches in a unique way to provide more comfort in commonly strained areas like the head, knees, and ankles. Your mileage may vary. ↩