Let the lullaby of the woods rock you to sleep
Hammocking, the practice of ditching the tent and sleeping in a comfy sling, may provide a better night’s sleep, but what’s certain is its real benefit for the environment. A smaller human footprint means less harm to delicate plants as well as less disruption to ecosystems and waterways. Setting up your hammock at an established campground may be less than ideal as far as privacy is concerned, but out in the backcountry, a hammock is an easy, lightweight way to spend the night.
Studies show that a swaying hammock is better than a sleeping pill; it lulls you to sleep off the ground in a comfortable cocoon. So far, only anecdotal evidence shows that sleeping in a hammock helps back problems and cures insomnia. Hammockers leave smaller footprints on the environment because they don’t need to clear a space for a tent, dig a trench for water runoff or drive tent stakes into the ground. Hammocks, typically made from lightweight, breathable nylon, are cooler than tents in the summer. Avoid cotton hammocks intended for home use. They’re heavy and slow to dry.
Choosing a site
When hammocking in the backcountry, look for an existing campsite to prevent further damage to the landscape. Hang the hammock from two sturdy live trees; you don’t want a tree or dead branches falling while you’re sleeping. Set up 200 feet from water to protect habitat, and check for insect nests and poisonous plants around the campsite. Hang the hammock from the thickest part of the trees’ trunks so the lowest point is not more than 18 inches from the ground. Make sure there’s sufficient room between the hammock and campfire.
Hammocking in cold or wet conditions requires carrying a little extra gear. Attach an underquilt or a sleep pad to the underside of the hammock. If it's on top of the hammock, body weight will compress it and reduce its cold-fighting properties. If you use a hammock because it’s less constraining than a tent and sleeping bag, use a top quilt. Some hammocks come with a screen or net to keep bugs away, and you can always fashion rain protection from a tarp.
When camping in an area where predators might be attracted to food, carry a bear canister or length of rope so you can hoist food out of reach. Don’t sleep in clothing that smells of food, and clean up cooking gear and trash before going to sleep. Leave the cologne and perfume at home; they attract insects and animals. To prevent children or animals from getting tangled in the hammock, take it down before leaving the campsite. Remember that you’re almost certainly safe when following these practices, but if you’re easily startled by every snap of a twig, wear earplugs at night.
Responsible hammock camping
Before settling in, make sure hammock camping is allowed. Backcountry campers should register if it’s required by a state or national park and should let someone know where they’ll be. Only use straps designed for hanging a hammock from trees. Wide polyester straps protect the tree’s bark and underlying layers. Never use plastic, and don’t use a hammer to drive nails or a screwdriver to place screw eyes for hanging the hammock. Steer clear of tender lichens, moss or endangered plants. Clean your campsite every day, and make sure the campfire is out before leaving.