Camping with kids has its own set of struggles and stresses, but it doesn’t need to be avoided, just planned for. There are a lot of articles available that talk about camping with kids, such as when is too early, what type of gear to bring, etc. etc., but I want to focus on my own preferred camping method, so here are a few tips on hammock camping with kids.
Play it Safe
Kids tend to love hammocks. Almost immediately they are playing, overturning, or swinging. The biggest challenge is to keep them from going crazy, especially the younger ones. So my first tip is almost obvious: play it safe.
- If possible, pitch hammocks over clear areas and at a safe height for entering and exiting for their size. Falls and dips should be expected, but you can minimize the hurt.
- Use hammocks with sturdy material, such as parachute nylon, that are more durable.
- Use no-nonsense suspension to make set-up easier but also eliminate the possibility of failure if done wrong. Whoopie slings, toggles, buckles, rings, and Marlinespike hitches may be all the rage with die-hard hammock campers, but they can be tricky and prone to error if done incorrectly, especially with young kids or inexperienced hands. Instead, use climbing carabiners and daisy-chained webbing straps that don’t require any cinching or safety knots.
When I first went hammock camping with my kids, I lost a lot of sleep because I had to tend to their insulation to keep them warm when top quilts, under quilts, and sleeping pads failed (usually kicked-off or flipped out). A few times my last resort was to bring them into my hammock, resulting in my kids getting some sleep, but leaving me zombified by morning. One thing I’ve learned about hammock camping with youth over the years is to minimize potential issues, particularly with insulation. When I know my kids will stay warm through the night, I sleep a lot better.
- Backless top quilts, for example, don’t work well with kids as they tend to slide out easily, especially if they’re not tall enough to tuck their legs into the foot pocket. One solution has been to use regular sleeping bags that can completely enclose them, making it difficult to “escape.”
- When I’m not backpacking, I prefer to have my kids use synthetic sleeping bags that don’t compress as easily as down, that way if they happen to roll or move off a pad or under quilt, the bag will provide enough insulation to keep them warm since they are light enough not to compress the insulation much.
- Under quilts can also be difficult with kids because they can slide off when they move around. One solution is to use quilt hooks that clip the under quilt securely to the hammock and prevent it from shifting or falling off. Shorter 3/4-quilts are nearly full-size for children, so there is no need to buy full-length quilts.
- Pads also work well, if used correctly. I slide the pad inside the sleeping bag, which prevents the pad from slipping or falling out of the hammock and ensures the occupant remains on the insulation through the night. Hammocks with double-layered bottoms that can hold a pad in place are also a good option.
- If you’re like me and you only have “big” sleeping bags for your kids, another thing you can do is stuff the end of the sleeping bag back into the bag. Not only does this shorten the bag, but it also provides a little extra insulation for the child.
- Having hammocks with zippered bug nets is another way to keep insulation from falling out or getting shifted in the night. When I’ve used simple gathered-end hammocks on family trips, almost without fail one of my kids will lose his sleeping bag off the side. One of the reasons is that all my sleeping bags are sized for adults (I’d rather invest in a high-quality sleeping bag/quilt my kids can grow in to than buy several “child-size” bags over the years), and the excess bag simply becomes a sinker off the side. A bug net helps keep these bags from falling out. The zipper entry is also more convenient to access than crawling up under a bottom-entry, or trying to open up a cinched tube net (see next tip).
- Avoid using zipper-less tube-style bug nets, for both you and your kids. Ultralight tube-style bug nets completely enclose the hammock and occupant but are difficult to get in and out of, particularly in a hurry. One of the reasons I designed the HUG bug net was to allow me to get in and out of my hammock quickly so I could attend to my kids (usually bathroom breaks) in the night.
- Add highly-visible zipper pulls to all your hammocks. If you need to get out and get in to a hammock in a hurry in the pitch black of night, give yourself a hand by marking your zippers clearly. In an “emergency” (usually a midnight bathroom break) I only have moments to react, so fumbling for a flashlight isn’t the first thing I’m doing. Most reflective string and zipper pulls still use black cord with a tracer, which are nearly invisible when it is dark and only work when light is shining on them. I prefer to use bright, contrasting colors that are more visible in the dark, and I keep the pulls long enough so I can grab them with ease.
- Everyone gets their own hammock. Solving the “warmth” issue was the major key to keep my kids in their own hammock throughout the night. While it may be tempting to snuggle up in a single hammock, I’ve found that lasts just a few minutes before arms fall asleep, insulation is stolen, or discomfort arrives in the form of a foot or shoulder in the back.
- Hang hammocks close together. In my experience, kids like to be close (just not in the same hammock), often for psychological reasons. Hanging close also makes it easier and quicker to address problems. I have stacked as many as four hammocks side-by-side and bunk style for my kids. There have been a few times when I was able to stay in my hammock and reach up to my kids to help them, even pulling one down for a bathroom break while I stayed in bed. Try that in a tent!
- Get a big tarp, maybe even a winter-style tarp with doors. It’s important to protect a child’s privacy, especially when changing clothes or getting ready for bed. A large tarp can also cover a few hammocks, keeping everyone close and snuggly. Finally, a full-coverage tarp can provide the psychological “wall” that some kids need to separate the scary outdoors from their imaginations.
While not particularly just for hammocks, these ideas have kept the outdoors experience enjoyable for my kids.
- Battery-powered LED lights are always fun on camping trips. Stringing them up on my hammock tarp creates a visual landmark in the dark so my kids can find camp if they’ve been out playing. The “nightlight” is also comforting and a distraction before going to bed.
- Some hammock vendors sell brightly-colored quilts (sometimes by request) and hammocks that appeal to kids of all ages, and may make the experience that much more enjoyable.
- When appropriate, have breakfast in bed! I usually do this when it is cold outside and won’t be staying another night in that spot (food smells can linger, so it’s not a good idea to cook meals at your bedside if you’re staying multiple nights in one spot). I’ll let my kids snuggle warmly in bed while I serve them a hot meal. Leaning over the hammock while eating prevents food spills from getting on sleep gear.