Updated: Aug 14
Avoid these mistakes to make all your hammock camping adventures more comfortable!
Hammock camping is increasing in popularity. This is drawing a large number of novice hammock owners - and novice campers - into The Great Out There. Unfortunately, this also means thousands of dissatisfied campers.
In the Part One of this series, we discussed How To Make Your Hammock MORE Comfortable Than A Ground Tent. In Part Two, we discussed The Proper Pitch of Your Hammock to Achieve the "Ultimate Hang". In this third installment, we want to discuss protecting yourself from the elements. Specifically, we want to discuss how to stay dry while hammock camping, and adapting to challenging weather conditions.
There is a myth that hammocks are ALWAYS drier than tents - or ground tarps.
Many people choose hammocks after having bad experiences in ground tents. They endured a rainstorm when the tent floor became a bathtub, and everything was soaked. Then they had to pack the soggy, muddy mess in the morning. That afternoon, they unpacked the wet, stinking pile and erected their noxious home for the night! Obviously, hanging your bed high above the ground eliminates this problem! Or maybe not…
Often, solving one problem creates another challenge. This is the case with hammocks and the tarps most campers use. They have experience of being completely enclosed in a tent. But exactly how to stay dry when hammock camping requires some experience. While you have a thin covering of fabric overhead, the wind and rain can come from any direction. The idea of providing shelter from rain isn’t helped by the sales images most brands feature. It’s possible that the marketing department has never been hammock camping or slept under a tarp during driving rain!
Many hammock campers start with a tarp that is TOO SMALL!
The tarp shown below is only 8’ by 8’. When hung from opposite corners, or in a diamond shape, the ridgeline measures about 10-feet and barely extends past the ends of the hammock. In theory, when lying diagonally in your hammock, this is plenty of coverage. The diamond angles conveniently match the open areas above the hammock. In truth, this small tarp is mostly decoration and will not protect you from more than a light mist of rain. You get what you pay for!
The diagram below shows the increased coverage of a slightly larger 10’ x 8’ tarp. Note that the ridgeline length is now 12.8 feet, allowing it to extend about 1-foot beyond the ends of the hammock.
If you want to get by with the absolute minimum weight, and you will only sleep on one side of the hammock, this basic rectangular tarp might be sufficient. This asymmetrical tarp is intended to cover only the open areas of the hammock. Your pack, shoes, and other gear will be largely exposed underneath. The hammock is typically not waterproof material so any exposed surfaces will get wet. The good news is that the nylon hammock will dry quickly. The bad news is that if your sleeping bag gets wet, it will require sun and wind to restore its insulation and comfort.
To stay dry when hammock camping with a small tarp, my main suggestion is to mount it as low as it is comfortable to provide better protection from both wind and rain.
In fact, you should routinely attach the ridgeline of the tarp BELOW the hammock tree straps. Remember, the tree straps to the hammock slope down at a 30-degree angle while the tarp ridgeline is horizontal. Also, the hammock will sag when you climb aboard so it will be lower than the tarp when in use. In heavy rain you can pull the side guy ropes and let the tarp hang down tight to the sides of the hammock.
For a penalty of only a few ounces (and a few more dollars), I prefer a tarp that is one size larger, like the hexagonal tarp (shown above) that measures 12-feet at the top ridgeline. Worst case, when threatened by extreme weather, you can pitch this tarp as a lean-to against a solid tree, minimize the open space, and maximize your protection against strong winds.
For the most protection in cold and damp weather, I choose a larger 12' x 10' tarp.
This is a 12’ x 10’ square tarp that is lightweight Silnylon with waterproof coatings on both sides of the fabric. As shown, it has stake loops along the side. In severe weather, only the two center loops will be staked to the ground and the ends folded in to form doors at both ends of the hammock. In warmer conditions, the "doors" can be folded back (inside or outside). The doors can be closed temporarily for privacy. You also have dozens of options if you choose to pitch this as a ground shelter. See the full review HERE).
Bonus tip: tarps are usually supplied with thin guy ropes that are shown attached to the tabs or grommets. These short, thin lines are fine for the corner guy lines. But my preference is a continuous rope ridgeline. I run a paracord ridgeline above the hammock and connect the tarp to Prusik loops with toggles – actually, just sticks off the ground. For a full description, see this related article about the advantages of the continuous ridgeline.
This method allows for the ridgeline to be tighter while removing the stress from the tarp fabric and the sewn tabs. With the ridgeline in place, you can slide the tarp back and forth until positioned exactly where desired. The paracord has some stretch that prevents damage to the tarp if storm winds get the trees swaying.
There is one other difference between hammocks and sleeping in tents. While you may be high and dry, parts of the hammock suspension will be exposed to the rain. Every exposed rope or webbing will create wicks that transmit water downhill toward your warm nest. Some of the tag lines, loops and clips on the suspension will break this water flow. Still, it is good practice to add several drip lines. Simply tie a few short lengths of paracord or thin webbing to the exposed ropes to deflect this flow of water before it touches the fabric of the hammock.
When hammock camping in groups, there may be competition for the best hanging trees. The prior discussion about tarps is immaterial if perfect weather allows sleeping under the stars, without tarps. This is one of the greatest attractions of hammock camping – the minimalism and openness of the campsite. On the other hand, if you have multiple hammocks and rain is in the forecast, the position of hammocks must avoid overlapping tarps. You will likely need to add more separation between hammocks and/or use smaller tarps. Families may have just one large square tarp in the group, with the rest of the campers getting by with smaller diamond tarps. Some hammock campers have also been known to “stack” two or more hammocks from the same trees under one tarp!
Finally, all these tips also apply to tarps used for cooking shelters.
Camp cooking is always easier if you can block the prevailing breezes. Even stopping for a meal at midday may benefit from quickly erecting a tarp. My standard practice is to always erect the tarp first when we reach camp. It may be hours before we are ready for bed. In the mean time, the gang can relax with protection from the sun, rain, and/or wind under the tarp. All this means - when hammock camping - I often pack TWO tarps!
In the next part of this series, we will discuss Myth #4: Hammocks are warmer than tents
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