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Part 3: Hammock Camping Myths and Common Mistakes

Updated: 4 days ago

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 break the myth that hammocks automatically offer better rain protection.

Myth #3: Hammocks are drier than tents.

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 using a flat tarp as a shelter is a new concept. 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.

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, instead of the high position in the photo above, 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 one above. This is a rectangular tarp that measures 11-feet at the top ridgeline. It has always been my practice to erect the tarp first upon getting to the campsite. If it starts to rain, all the gear can be sheltered. If necessary, several people can spend hours under the protective tarp before needing to assemble your hammocks.

In fair weather, the tarp can be hung higher above the hammock with one side extended like an awning – or simply unstaked and flopped back over the ridgeline. Even out of the rain, it is often helpful to have the windbreak of a tarp when cooking. In threatening weather, the tarp should be attached lower, and the sides staked tight to the ground.

For the most protection in cold and damp weather, I choose the larger tarp shelter shown below. (Actually, since Be Prepared is my motto, I use this tarp 99% of the time! See the full review HERE). 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.

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.

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!

In the next part of this series, we will discuss Myth #4: Hammocks are warmer than tents

Has this report only fueled your interest in hammock camping? Are you ready to make hammock camping a lifestyle? Hungry for MORE information? Then I recommend the “encyclopedia” of hammocks, The Ultimate Hang 2, by Derek Hansen. The NEW, completely re-written second edition includes hammock FAQs and basics for new hangers and an expanded advanced section for veterans. There is a DIY section to get you started making your own hammock gear. The Ultimate Hang 2 covers everything from suspension systems, hammock stands, staying dry, warm, and bug free, along with setting up hammocks indoors.

Visit The Great Out There for continued gear reviews and how-to articles on camping. Please also follow The Great Out There on Facebook and Instagram.

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