Integrating Hammock Camping into your Scout Troop

patrol-hammock-camping

A snapshot of our troop during a 50-mile backpacking trip. You’ll note that there are two hammocks under each tarp. Our scouts liked to bunk together as buddy teams. The whole patrol was also able to camp close together by picking the right site.

 


 

I’m often asked questions from scout leaders who are trying to integrate hammocks into their troop. I thought I’d share some of my responses to help leaders navigate this new and growing trend in hammock camping.

Policies and Practices

Some troops feel pressure to create their own policies and safety standards for hammock camping. I understand that this new and growing trend is unknown to many Scouters, and the desire to contain it somehow feels appropriate. Let me just start this off by saying that the Boy Scouts already has a lot of great safety and resource guidelines, specifically the Guide to Safe Scouting. I firmly feel that these policies adequately cover hammock camping without adding anything new.

The Guide to Safe Scouting includes the “sandwich” principle that bookends every approach with “discipline” and “qualified supervision.” To me, this is sufficient guidance to call out unsafe practices or make judgement calls for a specific situation.

While some troops may feel it necessary to create new rules or prerequisites before a scout can use a hammock (e.g., requiring a scout earn a certain badge or rank), I caution that these rules can create traditions and practices that often become entrenched dogma that some confuse with official BSA policy over time. Before creating new rules, I recommend reviewing the current BSA Guide to Safe Scouting, and using the best practices that Scouting outlines in the Official Boy Scout Handbook on camping and hiking. These sections provide great resources for advisors and scout leaders to preserve the essence of Scouting without introducing arbitrary and restrictive policies that aren’t uniform across the movement.

Training

Every troop should already include a rotating training program for teaching and refreshing camping skills to new and veteran scouts (even adult scouts need a reminder now and again). Knots are quickly forgotten, and safety is routinely ignored. Including hammock training into the troop meeting plan is a great idea. Experienced Troop Guides and even adult leaders can serve as trainers.

I would limit and focus training on essentials such as:

  • Hanging correctly
  • Hanging safely
  • Site selection
  • Staying dry and warm

Hanging Correctly

In my own experience, young scouts are less concerned about the physics of hammocks, the proliferation of accessories, and all the varying methods to suspend a hammock in the air. Some scouts don’t even care about mosquito netting (at least for the first few trips). It can get really confusing for scouts to see multiple suspension systems. First, teach the importance of using webbing straps to protect the trees. I restrict what I teach to two simple methods that I can make sure everyone understands (including adults) and can be reproduced without a lot of hand holding (e.g., dead simple):

  1. Daisy chain webbing strap. Many manufacturers now sell them and they work with very little to no training.
  2. The Slippery Becket Hitch (e.g., the Sheet Bend) is a common Scouting knot that my scouts have picked up very quickly. This method I teach scouts is mostly to accommodate a low-cost, DIY method, and to reinforce some basic skills.  When our troop has made hammocks, we cut 10-foot lengths of webbing, sew a loop or tie a Figure-8 on a Bight, and use this as our suspension system with the Slippery Becket Hitch.

Next, I limit the instruction to two tips: hang with a good sag, and sleep diagonally. It can take some time to master hanging a hammock perfectly, but these two tips seem to help the most (I leave the rest for teachable moments in the field).

Hanging Safe

Hanging safe means hanging to secure anchor points (no dead trees), checking for widow makers, and not hanging too high or near risky areas (cliffs, sharp objects, etc.). This is where adult leaders can provide the most supervision and discipline. Personally, I instruct the scouts that the hammocks are not swings or toys, so I do not tolerate roughhousing in hammocks.

Site Selection

Site selection can be very similar to tent camping, and covers topics such as using Leave No Trace (LNT) principles to pick durable locations, not altering a site but finding a good hang area instead, staying away from watering holes, and being respectful to other visitors. This ties in nicely with hanging safe as you can blend in the topics of widow makers, dead fall, etc.

Staying Dry and Warm

Staying dry and warm are part of health and safety and apply equally to tent camping. Pitching a tarp is a great skill for any scout and can be a topic all on its own. This is a great opportunity to teach or reinforce basic rank knots such as the Bowline,  Two Half-hitches, and the Taut-Line hitch. Ensuring scouts use appropriate sleeping bags and insulating pads are about as technical as you need to go. The same principles apply to ground or tent camping with regards to insulation, and I recommend not getting any more complicated than that.

Teachable Moments

As a Scoutmaster, I’ve also seen (actually, nearly ever camping trip!) at least one scout who comes under prepared for a trip, tent or hammock. Sometimes, these issues are resolved in pre-camp shakedowns, but sometimes they just slip through the cracks. Our job as advisors and mentors is to let the boys “fail” in a safe and responsible manner.

Experience is often the best teacher. I’ve had boys endure a cold night since they brought a lightweight sleeping bag. They usually don’t make that mistake twice. Scouts who don’t tuck in a ground cloth/tarp under a tent and wake up in a lake of water after a nighttime rain storm often learn the best. That experience also becomes what we call “the authority of the source”—a living example of what we try to teach in the classroom.

When a tarp isn’t pitched well, it becomes a teachable moment for a Troop Guide or an observant adult Scouter. Use these moments to build confidence and skills instead of as a policy to restrict or punish a scout who did it wrong.

I’ll admit that there have been a few times when a scout was not adequately prepared and slipped through any pre-camp shakedowns. I’ve made judgement calls to insist that a scout sleep in the ground, or used those moments to help the scout think through other options to stay warm, such as pulling out a mylar emergency blanket from a first aid kit, or wearing all the extra clothes mom packed, etc. Helping the scouts think through a problem and find a solution is what Scouting is all about. To me, this is more important than creating a policy.

Preserving the Patrol

Some larger troops have multiple patrols that work and function like the ideal. Other troops are comprised of a single patrol. In either case, preserving the patrol structure is an important method to Scouting. Sleeping as a patrol is often one way this is manifest, although it isn’t always practical.

Where I find it most difficult to keep a patrol together with hammocks are at organized camporees or long-term scout camps where camping areas have been designated. Sometimes scouts rush to claim available trees, even though that may break the patrol group.

3-person-hammock-stand-2

One reason I developed the 3-person hammock stand was to accommodate those camps where we were confined to an open field or designated camping spot. Our camporees in Virginia were all this way. I’ve also seen some really cool structures built out of bamboo or lodge poles that could accommodate an entire hammock village in a small space. To me, this is a great application of camp craft and helps reinforce skills such as pioneering and knots and lashings that scouts learn but often neglect and forget after earning First Class. Hammocks, just like tents, are provide great opportunities to build teamwork and patrol cohesion as they work together to pitch shelters, build stands, and find ways to or locations to stay together. Instead of restricting hammock use to older scouts, it may be beneficial to require that patrols or buddy teams bunk their hammocks together or pitch them together, just as you would with patrol tents.

lashed-hammock-stand

Plan Ahead and Prepare

The first LNT principle is to plan ahead and prepare, and my recommendation would be that during your Patrol Leaders Council (PLC) when you plan out an upcoming trip, you make the determination on whether or not hammocks are appropriate for a specific location or what we can bring to make it work.

Our troop recently finished a trip into a canyon where we knew trees or other suitable anchors would be limited or non-existant. Prior to the camp, the PLC ruled no hammocks for that trip. This is no different than if you were to go to a location, such as Philmont, or the Grand Canyon, where certain shelter types (or other gear such as stoves) are limited or prohibited. Sometimes hammocks just aren’t the right choice for a certain location.

Make it Fun!

One thing that I have really appreciated about hammocks is how they have been able to rejuvenate a troop or even select scouts to be more energized in getting outdoors and camping. For some reason, hammocks are just more “fun” to take out and use. I often have scouts ask when we can go on another camping trip and whether or not they  can bring their hammocks.

In an age when computer games, mobile devices, and binge videos are taking the attention of our youth, I am happy to encourage hammock camping as a way to entice the scouts. As you consider integrating hammocks into your troop, make it a fun and safe experience.

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19 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    I encourage our Scouts to hammock camp and it has been fun watching the number of boys and adults increase every year. I am even thinking about buying a basic setups as a loaner to allow the boys to “check out”, just like they do our troop tents so they can try before they buy. If a new scouts wants to hammock camp, I generally sit down with them and review safety, warmth, keeping dry, etc just enough to ensure they will have a positive experience. If they are a very young scout, I will also ensure they have a patrol tent with an extra spot just in case something goes wrong. I want to ensure they have a good mix of learning, but not such a bad experience they do not want to camp or hammock again. As far as the older boys, I don’t think anything bothers them. I had a life scout show up this past winter for a below freezing campout. His insulation consisted of a beach towel. He was happy as could be and didn’t complain once…go figure!

    • Derek says:

      Terry, I love this comment! Thank you. This is, in a nutshell, what I took 1,500+ words to say 🙂 In other words, it doesn’t have to be too complicated or restrictive. Make it fun and approachable.

      I really like your idea of having a patrol tent handy. I do this for resident camping for changing clothes as an option. I don’t know about your own experience, but usually at a resident camp, changing clothes is often only done when a scout goes swimming, and then they change at the facility. Often, each campsite has its own outhouse/bathroom where the boys change. Still, I like having a tent for that reason. Some of the camps we’ve attended have platform wall tents that become changing rooms, even when our entire troop is hammock camping.

      Sounds like we’ve had similar experiences with our scouts 🙂

  2. Andrew Lee says:

    We started using hammocks for Scout camps here in UK a couple of years ago. It really took off, first making their own simple hammocks / bivi systems learning all the skills you describe (and failing is important!). Then lately we invested in DD scout hammocks and tarps. Loads better then tents! Although tents still have a place in some situations

  3. Ed Persky says:

    What is LNT principles. We are not all boyscouts or in my case it has been over 50 years. Using abbreviations in the middle of a blog that has no meaning is very frustating.

  4. Ely Gale says:

    Never involved in the scouts, but had the awesome opportunity of going to and working/volunteering at both a church camp with my family each summer and different YMCA camps. At both camps going “on trail camping” in national forests was a significant part of the experience and it gave me great tools and taught my life lessons that have and continue to influence how I live in the world and the kind of person I strive to be. Its wonderful to read about you being a scout leader and spending time taking youth out camping and giving them a chance to learn all sorts of important skills and life lessons. i just wanted to thank you, because I think it’s adults like you who have some of the most positive influence on young people’s development and I’m so grateful that even with the amount of screen kids are in front of these days, there are still many also getting the chance to connect with the land and learn to derive enjoyment from human interactions and the wilderness around them. Hammocks or tents, I’m just glad they are outside engaging in the real world!

  5. Neruda says:

    I’m going to text this link to all my parents and fellow scout leaders. We’ve got a new crop of boys to introduce hammock camping to. Great write up again Derek.

  6. Heather Darnell says:

    Derek, what is that awesome boat-net contraption under the green tarp in the upper right of the introductory photo? Did you rig that up, or did you buy it?
    Also – our Boy Scout troop has lots of avid hammock campers, of which my son is now a strong advocate, as am I! I remember one trip where the wind chill was low 20s here in coastal South Carolina, and I wondered all night whether my son would be blue when we got up the next day, but he – like the “beach towel” camper mentioned above – was perfectly fine and never complained. I ended up rigging and extra sleeping bag under my hammock for warmth and it worked great!
    There was another trip that got literally rained out, as our camp ground was flooded. Only myself and 10 boys were in hammocks, while all scout leaders and 13 other boys were in tents on ground that turned into mini-ponds. No “high ground” here in the Low Country! Again, a win for hammocks!

    • Derek says:

      Great stories! Thanks for sharing. I’ve had similar experiences. The green tarp is the Nemo Bug Out 9×9 shelter. I’ve got a review of it on my blog.

  7. Scott says:

    Great timing for me on this article.

    Question regarding the tent policy for BSA in regard to hammocks. I assume, since I have read from multiple sources about hammocks and scouts, it is not an issue, but… With tents there has to be at least two scouts in a tent, and adult leaders cannot share a tent with youth. Is the hammock ‘community’ OK because it is not an enclosed area and is visible to all around? My son and I have converted to hammocks, and at the next campout (this Friday) I assume some of the other boys may start leaning that way as well when they see us in the trees. Our Scoutmaster is getting a hammock for his birthday at the campout as well. tablecloths are cheap. 🙂

    And a second question regarding summer camps. How much pushback have you had in trying to use hammocks in established camps? Do most require portable stands? Any problems with gear security?

    thanks

    • Derek says:

      Ever since you posted, I’ve been looking for references in BSA policy about a requirement that there must be at least two scouts to a tent. No where in BSA policy is this mandated. I’ve heard of troops that do this as an in-house rule, but I don’t see a legitimate reason for it. In my own experience, I’ve had scouts who needed to sleep solo. I’ve also seen and read about scout-on-scout abuse (verbal, sexual, emotional) in these situations and honestly, I’m much more a proponent to have ALL scouts have their own sleeping arrangements, whether hammock or tent. I know you can teach scouts the importance of teamwork, camaraderie, patrol spirit, etc., in so many ways that don’t require sleeping in the same tent as another scout. In fact, the most common thing I find when scouts bunk together is that they keep each other up all night talking and goofing off! 🙂

      Okay, off my soap box 🙂 In short, my personal preference (backed up by official BSA policy) is that scouts are not required to sleep together. The only rule is that they are not permitted to sleep with an adult unless that adult is his parent.

      As to summer camps, I’ve seen two extremes in my own council. At one camp, they prohibit hammocks. At another camp, they sell hammocks in the trading post and don’t seem to care about how they are used. I’m working with the restrictive camp to educate the ranger and commissioners so they can teach and require safe and sustainable hammock hanging. We’ve also been working together on camp-provided hammock stands or structures that can accommodate hammocks. It’s been a fun process.

      I’ve got another post queued up that talks specifically about privacy with hammocks, but in short, our troop usually sets aside a platform tent for the scouts to change clothes. Many change in their hammocks. Larger tarps do a pretty good job of screening for privacy.

      Gear security? Honestly, I don’t think tents provide any better security 😉 I will say that a lot of theft is opportunistic. In other words, if there is gear hanging out in the open, it’s the first to go. We instruct scouts to keep their packs/bags closed and “secure” under their hammocks. We usually have an adult in camp that watches over things. We also set aside a platform tent for gear (sometimes it’s the same as the changing tent). There are lots of ways to secure gear and provide privacy with hammocks.

      • Scott says:

        Thank you for the reply, and education about the actual POLICY. I did not intend to bring up any controversial subjects, and a quick search shows there is a lot of discussion/opinion on it out there. So my 2 cents on it and support that hammocks can help there as well. My experience is it was always required (local rule I know now). I have seen abuse by boys, and that is a real risk. A campout several years ago 12 year olds with new camera phones were a real issue with real consequences. The buddy system can give protection against false accusations against leaders or scouts, but more realistic protection from predatory leaders or others is why it has always been a local rule for us (I have seen it in 3 different troops). Hammocks remove that problem to a degree by being more open except when changing clothes or trips to the latrine (primitive or improved). I totally support the youth protection which protects leaders just as much. NEVER be where I can be falsely accused of anything. Always a witness and in public. (just a short digression – on a district camp a couple years ago I was walking with just my son for a half mile or so through the woods to get other scouts. Several leaders I did not know passed us, and not once was I challenged. Scary)

        We do have a BIG problem with scouts getting no sleep and staying up all night thinking the tent keeps their voices contained, and some scouts who want to wander at night (we have some challenging youth in our troop). Again, hammocks help leaders to monitor night time excursions more easily in my opinion.

        Gear security – my intent was along the lines of your answer. opportunistic losses. Tents are not secure and can even give someone shelter while rifling through a pack. I had the thought of putting the closed pack in the hammock under a closed bug net to keep it more out of site and create more steps to get into it. A gear tent would not be a bad idea either. I am going to check with my sons camp for this year and see what the guidelines are for hammocks in general.

        I will add my thanks to the many before me. Your site has made my learning curve much more comfortable, not having to learn the hard way outside, but reading and studying principles first. My first sleep in a hammock I was 12. 3 days into a scout camp leaders figured out they gave me another troops tent, and they gave me a net hammock for the rest of the week after taking the tent back. Learned that even in Sunny CA in the summer, you can get CBS. 🙂 had no clue what it was back then. Oh the memories.

        • Derek says:

          Thanks for your insight. Youth protection is serious and I think you and I are on the same page. No one-on-one contact and the rule of witnesses. I’m glad I could be of help! Ask anytime.

          • scott says:

            Just a quick follow-up. We had 4 hammocks at our campout Friday night. My scoutmaster was tired and not sure he wanted to try his gift out and risk a bad night, but he decided to at least lay in it. He left his tent and air mattress in the trailer. Said the thing he like the most was not having to get up off the ground in the morning, instead being able to stand from a chair height. Another Dad heard about our hammocks and bought one for his son to bring. That scout made it a couple of hours before the bugs sent him into a tent. Next on the list – Bugnets, All the scouts wanted a turn laying in them the next morning. We camp at our scoutmasters property about half the time. We cut underbrush and made room for a dozen hammocks, so anyone wanting to try it now has room.
            Hope you enjoyed your trek. My kids have done that in the past…

  8. Bean says:

    Hello Derek. we have just returned from out Scout District Camp and are now seeing more and more Hammocks, we are fortunate to have a local Scout Campsite that is made from small clearings in the wood. The scouts love the hammocks and it also makes life a little bit easier when you also have girls in the troop and there’s only one going on camp. The ‘canoodle’ patrols at night can be easier for the leaders too. The teaching opportunities are there and they are a real practical application of those boring knots we do at the HQ and as the nights were cold enough without posing a danger the lessons learned from CBS were also valuable.
    Many thanks for the great blog

  9. Pierre Bilodeau says:

    Hi there

    First, i apologize for my english. I’m a scout leader from Québec and since my last Jamboree, where i past my entire and first week in hamac in nature. I must say, i have learn a lot of what and not what to do… more the not… lol

    Now, 3 years laters, i’m with a new group and older kids 12-17, it took me a year to let the idea make is way… but this summer, it’s a start. Unfortunately, they are not very prepare. I will do a training day, but i’m pretty sure it won’t be enough… any tip for not making that a failure, or at least they will want to retry at the next camp?

    Say, does in your book it speak about camping in winter with hamac ?

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