Lightweight Winter Hammock Camping
To say that Alan Dixon surprised me when he told me he had converted to hammock camping would be putting it mildly. As the famed Editor at Large at Backpacking Light, Alan had already made a name for himself as an experienced and dedicated ulralight backpacker and I never would have imagined him adapting to hammocks so quickly. His three-part primer on hammock camping is a must-read for anyone researching hammock camping and I highly recommend it. Recently, Alan surprised me again with an email about using his hammock in the winter. It isn’t that winter hammock camping is unheard of, it’s that Alan jumped in with both feet so quickly. Alan also used his lightweight backpacking techniques and applied them to hammocks, showing that it’s not only possible to use a hammock in the cold, but you can do it lightweight as well.
I would like to thank Alan for agreeing to pen this guest post on his latest hammock camping adventure in sub-freezing temperatures in Virginia.
NOTE: Winter camping is more demanding in general, and winter hammock camping has its own sets of challenges. Alan is an experienced, professional, all-season backpacker who knows the limits of his gear and skills. Before you take your hammock gear into the backcountry in the winter, it is advisable to test your system in a low-risk environment first. Like your backyard.
Exposed camp on a high ridge in the Appalachian Mountains near Roanoke, Virginia. I used a Dream Hammock FreeBird and Hammock Gear top and under quilts to sleep down to 12°F (-11°C). I had a 9.9 lb (4.5 kg) base weight pack for winter conditions. Everything fit in a small Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack (at my feet).
by Alan Dixon
The Next Challenge—Winter Hammock Camping with Lightweight Gear
In the last year I made the switch from ground camping to hammock camping (for the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast/Northern Midwest). I chronicled my transition to 3-season hammock camping in a three-part, guest blog on Andrew Skurka’s site: Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems.
While I had great success with 3-season hammock camping, I had misgivings about using a hammock in the winter. There is a buzz, even among some members of the hammock community, that “hammocks do not work in the winter.” Suspended above the ground, exposed to convective (wind) heat loss both top and bottom, protected only by a tarp, and the vagaries of getting an under quilt to fit and work properly, things can get cold in a hammock when temperatures go below freezing.
I was also curious if I could use very light hammock gear in the winter. I travel light in the backcountry—sometimes very light. I hiked most of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Shenandoah National Park with a 2.4 lb (1.1 kg) pack weight and wearing 2.2 lb (1 kg) of clothes and shoes for a total of 4.8 lb (2.1 kg) “from the skin out” (see 2.4 Pound Extreme Ultralight Pack–On the Appalachian Trail for more details). Could I apply a similar light approach to winter hammock camping gear?
Hammock Gear Selection
My first task was to adapt my lightweight camping techniques to hammock camping for Mid-Atlantic winter conditions. From years of ground camping experience, I know that I can get by for most of the Mid-Atlantic Appalachian Mountain winter with a tarp, a 12 oz (340 g) ground pad, and a 20°F (-7°C) to 30°F (-1°C) down quilt—approximately 3 lb (1.3 kg) total. The question was, could I do the same in an analogous set of hammock gear of similar weight?
In the vein of “keep it light and simple,” I selected minimal hammock gear with a weight similar (~3 lb/1.3 kg) to my ground sleeping system. I also decided to not use any winter-dedicated hammock gear, e.g. hammock over socks, under quilt covers, fully enclosed hammocks, or winter hammock tarps that look more like floorless tents than tarps.
Most of my gear was based on stock designs but custom-constructed for me. I took advantage of my smaller size—5’8″ (1.7 m) and 155 lb (70 kg)—to trim down the size of hammocks and quilts and to use lighter fabrics and hardware. I purchased all gear from the manufactures and am under no obligation to review or write about my experience with the gear.
Gear Summary Table[table “6” not found /]
For a hammock I used a minimal, gathered-end hammock without mosquito netting. I collaboratively spec’ed out the design with Randy Smith of Dream Hammocks. The hammock uses 1.0 oz (28 g) ripstop nylon and is 10 ft (3 m) long and 60 in (152 cm) wide. For suspension, I used 6 ft (183 cm) Dynaglide whoopie slings with captured DutchWare Dutch Hooks, and 68″ (173 cm) Tree Straps with titanium DutchWare Dutch Clips (this hammock was subsequently dubbed the “FreeBird”).
Top and Under Quilts
I worked with Adam Hurst of Hammock Gear to spec’ out lightweight quilts. I gave Adam my height and weight and he trimmed down the dimensions of his 20°F (-7°C) Burrow top quilt and 20°F (-7°C) ¾-length Phoenix under quilts to the minimum to cover my body. In addition, I ordered both quilts with non-stock, and very lightweight NB2 and M50 fabrics.
Under my Feet – dealing with a ¾ length under quilt
To insulate under my feet and lower legs, not covered by the substantially trimmed under quilt, I used the back pad from my Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack, a 2 oz (57 g) Sitlight Pad. I shoved this into the gathered foot box of my quilt hold it in place under my legs and feet.
I brought a light down jacket and pants (Western Mountaineering Flash jacket 10.0 oz/283 g, and Flash pants 6.5 oz/184 g) as well as down booties—no different than when I ground sleep with temperatures expected in the single digits. These are standard items for me to stay warm and comfortable in camp when the temperature drops to single digits. I also use them to supplement my 20°F (-7°C) sleeping quilt (ground or hammock) when temps drop below 20°F (-7°C). In addition, for hammock camping, the down pants and booties provided extra insulation for my lower legs and feet not covered by the bottom quilt.
I selected a 0.7 oz (20 g)/yard Cuben fiber hammock tarp from Mountain Laurel Designs. This was a completely stock item. Given the large size of hammock tarps and that they are pitched higher off the ground where the winds are stronger, I wanted the heavier fabric (vs. 0.5 oz/14 g)/yard for strength and durability.
For testing this system, I chose a 3-day trip with the “DC Ultralight Backpacking Meetup Group.” The distance was right and the Appalachian Mountains outside of Roanoke, Virginia provided good testing terrain. Temperatures were forecast to be in the single digits the first night and below 20°F (-7°C) the second night with a good chance of snow for the second half of the trip. We were going to sleep high and exposed on a ridge our second night.
First Night—Success Down to 12°F (-11°C)
The weather was pretty much as predicted. Temperatures went down to 12°F (-11°C) the first night, but no snow and only light winds. I did not bother to set up my tarp and it was still was warm enough to sleep. A resounding success for such light gear!
The most noticeable difference between three-season and winter hammock camping was the need to stay exactly positioned over the under quilt. When 3-season hammock camping, if you move off the under quilt you might notice in 30 minutes to an hour that you are cooling off. When winter hammock camping, if you move even a smidge off of the under quit, within seconds you’ll notice heat rapidly leaving the exposed portion of your body.
My socks froze board flat Saturday night in the time it took me to put on down pants & booties. Since I had a spare pair of dry socks for the morning, I just let them be rather than taking them to bed.
Second Night—Success in Snow, Wind, and Temperatures Down to the Upper Teens
The second night had worse conditions. Even so, I got a good night’s rest. I managed to side sleep for much of the night. Temperatures hovered in the lower 20’s °F (~-7°C) dipping into the upper teens. We were camped on a knob, high on an exposed ridge, the highest place in any direction. There were strong winds and blowing snow—it had been snowing since mid-afternoon. I was glad to have the tarp. We had a long day—hiking from dawn to well after dark under headlamp. I was tired and my clothes slightly damp with the day’s exertion. Compared to the first night, I was in an inferior condition to generate body heat to stay warm overnight. In addition, there was no water on the ridge and my 2 liter water bladder had semi-frozen into a big slushie. I had to take it to bed to me to thaw it out to have water for the morning. My shoes froze solid while I setup my tarp and hammock. I opted to also take them to bed so that I wouldn’t have to un-freeze them in the morning. (I have chronically cold feet.) Even with these cold bedmates I still managed to stay warm overnight.
For winter camping I want to explore an enclosed or semi-enclosed hammock design—something in the vein of the Dream Hammock DangerBird but without the mosquito netting. I think that a solid top fabric may have advantages over a simple gathered end hammock. First, the solid-top fabric would provide significant wind and draft protection similar to what a bivy sack does for ground sleeping—particularly important when using a top quilt. Unless it was very windy or precipitating, one could skip setting up a tarp. Second, the solid-top fabric would “control” things in the hammock, e.g. keep the top quilt from flopping out over the hammock edge, give me something to lean my head against, prevent water bottles from falling out, and keep my feet from popping off the side when sleeping on the diagonal. Of course, one would need to ventilate this design or it could be a condensation trap, potentially fouling the top quilt and clothing with moisture.
Summary—Hammocks Work Well for Winter Camping
1. Hammock camping works in the winter.
Winter hammock camping is compatible with ultralight camping. I managed a 9.9 lb (4.5 kg) base weight pack for winter conditions. My whole pack for the three-day trip with food, fuel, and water was 15 lb (6.8 kg). Everything fit in my small Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack. Most of the advantages I outlined in my three-part, guest blog on Andrew Skurka’s site: Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems also apply to winter hammock use. It certainly is pleasant not to sleep directly on snow.
2. Winter hammock camping is not difficult.
While there are a few tricks to dial in your gear, in particular getting your under-quilt working, it seems clear to me that most people could easily master winter hammock camping. I managed to get it right the first night out, setting up in the dark at 12°F (-11°C).