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.
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
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):
- Daisy chain webbing strap. Many manufacturers now sell them and they work with very little to no training.
- 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.