Hammock vs. Tent for an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

Creamy peanut butter or crunchy? Fiscal responsibility or new ultralight quilt? Gale or Peeta? These are the dilemmas that keep me up at night. Back when I was getting ready to hike the Appalachian Trail, the nightly debate topics were a little different: trail runners vs. boots, foam vs. inflatable, Bronner’s vs. CampSuds (a real thing I agonized over for days in the lead-up to my hike).

And of course, the all-important shelter debate: is a tent or a hammock better for thru-hiking the AT? After extensive research, passionate pro-hammock rhetoric swayed me to the Way of the Hang, and I purchased a Hennessy Ultralight Asym Zip from REI a few days later. But was it the right call? Looking back, I’m not so sure.

There are many arguments on both sides of the great hammock vs. tent debate on the Appalachian Trail. The arguments for using a hammock are convincing, but looking back, I sort of wish I’d thru-hiked the AT with a tent and have rarely used my hammock since. Here’s why.

READ NEXT – Hammock, Tent, or Tarp: A Flowchart

Hammock vs. Tent for the Appalachian Trail: Which Should You Carry?

Photo via Olivia Plumb.

The Case for Hammocks (aka the Case Against Tents)

There were many things I loved about hammock life, and these encouraged me to stick with it as long as I did. For me, these upsides ultimately weren’t enough to outweigh the drawbacks listed above–that’s why I eventually bailed to Team Tent and haven’t looked back since. Still, it might be different for you. These are the things I liked most about using a hammock on the AT.

Campsite Flexibility

Photo via Rhys Hora.

One of the biggest reasons I chose a hammock was that I was anxious about being able to find a suitable campsite each night. What if I fell short of my goal or tent pads were in short supply when I arrived? Unlike a tent, you don’t need flat ground to set up a hammock. All you need is a pair of trees to hang between, and the AT is basically nothing but trees from Georgia to Maine.

Hammocks definitely beat tents when it comes to campsite flexibility. It doesn’t matter if the ground is sloped or rocky or muddy or overgrown when you’re suspended several feet above it.

Counterpoint: I found that this flexibility didn’t matter as much to me as I thought it would. Once I got comfortable on the AT and got a sense of my hiking pace and the distances I could realistically cover in a day, my anxieties about not being able to make it to camp faded. And tentsites are abundant along most of the AT.

Throughout my hike, I never struggled to find someplace to set up, and I found that even in my hammock, I still preferred to set up at proper campsites rather than tying off to random trees on the side of the mountain like I thought I would. Sure, you’re suspended above the ground, but you still have to walk around on the ground outside your hammock when you’re in camp. It’s so much nicer to do this on relatively flat, brush-free ground.

I spent virtually every night at an established tentsite or camped near a shelter; if I’d brought a tent, I could have kept the exact same itinerary I kept with the hammock and it would have made no difference.

Very Fast Set-Up and Take-Down

Photo via Rhys Hora.

As I’ll mention below, it takes time to master the set-up of your hammock. But once you get the hang of it, hammocks are a snap to set up. When arriving to camp with a group of people, my hammock was always up long before everyone else’s tents took shape.

I used Snakeskins to speed up the whole process. Snakeskins are essentially long silnylon tube-shaped stuffsacks for your hammock. Leave them on the hammock lines, and furling or unfurling your hammock is as easy as sliding the Snakeskin on or off.

Although I often missed the mark when tensioning the underquilt, I suppose if I’d stuck with it I’d have figured it out eventually. And my dubious underquilt setup was at least fast and easy compared to puffing up an inflatable pad, which is my least favorite camp chore.

As an added bonus, hammocks are conducive to fly-first pitching. You can put up your tarp first on rainy days, then hang the hammock underneath it so it doesn’t get wet. You can stow your backpack beneath the tarp while pitching the rest of the hammock too.

Keeps You Off the Nasty Ground

Speaking of rainy days, it sure is nice to be floating around above the earth in your magic hammock when the rain is hammering down and steadily flooding your campsite. I mean, you’ll still have to deal with the floodwaters come morning when you pack up, but at least you’re not down there laying in the puddle with the tenters. And your hammock will never (theoretically) be tainted by nasty mud and debris, nor will you have to worry about sharp rocks wearing holes in the thin material.

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Potentially Leaves Less of a Trace

Photo via Rhys Hora.

Conscientous hammockers leave very little damage or indication of their presence when they pack up their campsite. The hammock isn’t down on the ground disturbing the soil surface or smothering vegetation like a tent would (but also, always tent on durable surfaces / in established sites!).

It’s important that you use tree-friendly straps when tieing your hammock off as cord can dig in and damage the bark. There are many ultralight, tree-friendly suspension solutions out there, but simple nylon webbing straps will do the trick too. And it goes without saying, probably, but make sure the trees you’re hanging from are strong enough to actually support the weight of your suspended self without getting damaged.

Can Double as a Chair

Photo via Rhys Hora.

I’ll discuss this below in the “hammocks are not that comfortable” section, but it bears repeating because Chair Mode is pretty dang nice. How often, as thru-hikers, do we get to sit up in a proper seat off the ground? Hardly ever if you’re a tenter, unless you count picnic tables, which I choose to blatantly ignore because it’s more convenient for my argument.

But if you’re a hammocker? Every dang day, my friend. Or at least every day that biting insects aren’t actively attacking. So maybe about a third of the time. But those are good days when you can get them, and picnic table or no, your hammock will almost certainly be the comfiest seat in the whole campsite.

The Case Against Hammocks (aka the Case for Tents)

You Can’t Do ANYTHING Inside a Hammock

You can’t do anything in a hammock except lay down on your back. Side sleeping is sort of (but not really) possible in a hammock, while stomach sleeping is a hard no. Changing clothes? Stretching? Simply sitting still and looking out at the view? No. Forget about it. All of these things are officially Outdoor Activities when you live in a hammock.

I did manage to shimmy into a change of clothes inside my hammock a few times when the campsite was crowded, but only with a lot of wasted energy, weird contortions, and internal cursing. I’m lucky I didn’t pull a muscle.

“Front porch mode” allows you to sit up even when it’s raining. Photo via Wes Lauderman.

It is possible on a lovely spring evening to zip back the bug mesh and sit up with your feet dangling over the edge of the hammock. With one end of the tarp raised (“front porch mode”), you can even pull it off on a rainy day. Every occasion when I was able to do this was a sheer delight. These were the times when I felt like a genius for picking a hammock.

The trouble is, how often on the Appalachian Trail can you get away without the protection of bug mesh? Mosquitoes and flies are very much a thing in the warm months.

In a tent, you can sit up and stretch out all the time—not just when conditions are ideal.

You Can Only Fit One Person in a Hammock

On a related note, a hammock is really only good for one person. If sex is what you’re after, I’m warning you now: you are not going to have any in a hammock. Two-person hammocks exist (sort of), but they’re either designed for casual use or far too heavy for most thru-hikers. And even two-person camping hammocks are typically just two individual hammocks closely mated and sharing a single bug net/rainfly.

Whether you want to sleep next to your spouse, bring your friend on their first backpacking trip without them having to shell out for their own shelter just yet, or give shelter to a tramily member whose tent got blown to smithereens by a freak late-night windstorm, a tent is the way to go.

Not Shelter-Friendy

Photo via Peg Leg.

Hammocks work better with underquilts than sleeping pads. They just do. Some thru-hikers do manage to use a sleeping pad inside of a hammock (some hammocks even have a sleeve to hold the pad in place), but pads have a tendency to slide out from under you at night. And a sleeping pad’s 20- to 25-inch width often doesn’t provide enough coverage to keep all of you warm at night. (Klymit makes a purpose-built hammock pad, but it’s kind of heavy.)

Thanks to the internet, I anticipated this and went with an underquilt. Unfortunately, when making this decision, I severely underestimated how often I would want to sleep on the ground. On many wet, windy nights, I’d have loved to sleep in the shelter with everyone else and skip the struggle of setting up and taking down my hammock in the rain.

Shelters are awfully convenient, but there were other times when I’d have liked the flexibility to be able to go to ground. Churches and trail town businesses sometimes allow hikers to stay inside but don’t have bedding to offer, and work-for-stays in the AMC’s White Mountains hut system typically sleep on the dining room floor. Despite the AT’s notorious weather, there were even a few nights when I’d have loved to cowboy camp.

Since all I had was a down underquilt, sleeping on the ground wasn’t a realistic or comfortable prospect for me. I was desperate enough to try it a few times, creating a sort of nest for myself out of every soft thing I owned, but it was less than ideal.

Hammocks Are Tough To Master

Photo via Wes Lauderman.

It took me a long time to get the hang of setting up my hammock (no pun intended). You have to know at least a small handful of knots and lashings and be able to judge whether a pair of trees is suitable for your setup. You have to be able to estimate how far up the trunk to tie off and then tension everything correctly to achieve a balanced hang. And don’t get me started on tarp configurations .

Worst of all, at least for me, was getting the underquilt strung up underneath. Tension the underquilt too much, and your butt will sink onto it and flatten the insulation, leading to cold spots and suffering. Give it too much slack, and there will be a giant air gap between your bottom and the quilt, also leading to cold spots and suffering.

In contrast, freestanding tents are pretty foolproof. After setting one up a time or two, you’ll be a pro. Trekking pole tents require a little more skill but are still easier than hammocks, in my opinion.

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Hammocks Are Cold

Photo via Wes Lauderman.

All that air circulating around you when you’re sleeping suspended in the air sucks the heat right out of you. A decent underquilt/topquilt setup goes a long way toward mitigating heat loss to the surrounding air. Skilled hammockers can sleep comfortably in shoulder-season and even four-season conditions. I’m not what anyone would call a “skilled hammocker” and had a harder time with it.

I’m going to be really honest with you guys right now and admit that I never really mastered the underquilt setup. Maybe if I had I wouldn’t have been so freaking cold all the time. A careful pitch and adequately rated under- and topquilts can keep a hammocker warm even in freezing temperatures.

But skillful or not, you simply have to work that much harder to stay warm in a hammock than you do in a tent. I am lazy and I don’t want to work hard. And I sleep cold to begin with. When choosing my shelter, I should have been more honest with myself about what I was prepared to handle. It worked out OK in the end, but I would have probably had more comfortable nights in a tent.

Also, Mosquitoes

You’re probably thinking by now that a hammock would be the perfect ultralight solution on balmy summer nights: it’s warm enough that you don’t need much insulation under you, and you don’t need any cushioning from the ground since you’re several feet above it anyway, so why not just ditch the pad/quilt altogether and save yourself a pound or two?

Maybe that works for someone, but the problem I found with this approach was twofold. First, even in summer, you can still encounter cool nights in the mountains (especially as you move northward). As mentioned above, I sleep cold and would have felt a bit drafty without my underquilt.

Second, mosquitoes. You’ll have bug mesh protect you from above. But in the absence of an underquilt or pad, there’s nothing between your backside and a horde of bloodthirsty miscreants besides a thin layer of fabric. All too thin.

Not as Comfortable as Advertised

Photo via Sam McClintic.

Word on the street was that hammocks are pretty dang comfortable. No pressure on your back, they said. Just sleep on a diagonal and you can get nice and flat, they said. Try it. You’ll like it.

I didn’t have much backpacking experience at that time, but I’d spent enough restless nights on a closed-cell foam pad to be worried about my prospects in the sleeping department.

Unfortunately, between the aforementioned inability to sleep on my side or stomach and the aforementioned cold spots (admittedly probably the result of operator error), I didn’t find the hammock all that comfortable. With no ability to sit up and the hammock material seeming to crowd in on me from all sides, it was also a bit cramped inside. I never felt claustrophobic, per se, but I could see that being an issue for someone who’s already prone to it.

Sleeping on the ground certainly can get uncomfortable sometimes. But a decent inflatable pad is a far cry from the worn-out foam number I used on my earliest backpacking trips. And if my back gets a bit stiff overnight, at least I can rotisserie chicken myself throughout the night to keep from getting too sore in any one spot.

I don’t feel right ending this section without acknowledging that for many people with back problems, hammocks do seem to be a better solution. It didn’t work out that way for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a shot. Just maybe approach hammocking with a grain of salt and give it a good shakedown to see how your back actually feels before committing to living in one for six months.

Not Ultralight

The lightest tents weigh a lot less than the lightest hammocks. I thought my Hennessy Hammock, at 31 ounces, was pretty good weight-wise—many freestanding tents weigh about that much. But some cottage manufacturers offer spacious trekking pole tents that weigh scarcely more than half that amount. Just look at the 18-ounce Zpacks Duplex or the 16-ounce Six Moon Designs Deschutes Plus tarp.

At 36 ounces, my freestanding Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum weighs a little more than the Hennessy Hammock did, but I share the tent with my partner, so we only carry about 18 ounces apiece. At almost 20 ounces, my 3/4-length Hammock Gear Phoenix underquilt also weighed more than my 15-ounce Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm (the latest version weighs an even pound).

You don’t need a groundsheet and only need two stakes for a basic hammock setup, which helps to offset the extra weight compared to a tent. Still. It’s definitely heavier.

Are Hammocks or Tents More Expensive?

A lot of people say hammocks are more expensive than tents once you add up all the components: hammock, tarp, underquilt, etc. But it really just depends. My setup, a Hennessy hammock with a Hammock Gear underquilt and a $30 Amazon flat tarp, cost about $450 all up. Many popular tent setups cost that much or more, especially if you add in the cost of a sleeping pad.

Admittedly, tents may have a somewhat lower budget floor than hammocks: for instance, if you can get comfy with a closed-cell foam pad and a quality silnylon tent (Six Moon Designs has some great, budget-friendly options), you might spend less than $300 for the tent/pad combo. So if you’re on a tight budget, you may do better with a tent.

Final Thoughts

If I were to do it over again, I would opt to hike the AT with a tent instead of a hammock. I thought the hammock would give me more flexibility in terms of where to set up camp, but in reality, it limited me in many other ways.

Although underquilts are the best way to stay warm in a hammock, I wouldn’t use one if I were doing another AT thru-hike with a hammock. I’d get an extra-wide pad and figure out how to make it work so that I could at least sleep in the shelters from time to time.

And again, don’t get me wrong: many people thru-hike with hammocks and love it. The lesson here is that it’s really important to do as many shakedown hikes as possible before the big dance. Only through real experience on the trail will you discover which system is best for you.

Featured image: Top photo via Wes Lauderman. Bottom photo via Anne K Baker. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 16

  • Mike : Apr 5th

    I do mostly quick overnights, bike camping, often setting up after dark. I have similar weight tents, but if not staying at camp more than 8 hours, I find the hammock much faster and easier. I’ve been using the Hennesy Deep Jungle asymmetric for several years. It has the pocket, a double layer that stops mosquito bites when not using any pad ( for me above 65 degrees). 55 to 65 degrees, I use a Klymit inflatable pad (x frame or Ozone) in the pocket. The gaps in the pads seem to allow lofting of down. Below 55 I use the foil thermal barrier by Hennesy. (And yes, I fell for the klymit hammock pad. It’s super comfy and warm, but too heavy to bring most of the time).
    I’m not saying you are wrong about tent vs. hammock. It’s clearly personal opinion. But I do think choosing the right model could have solved several of your concerns.

    Reply
  • Smschaf : Apr 5th

    Thru hiker of AT in 2019. Used a hammock gear system the whole way. Highly recommend over tent. Carried inflatable pad for staying in shelters option too. Pack was 16 pounds plus food and water. Highly recommend hiking fast to get in front of bubble and avoid heat.

    Reply
    • John Spies : May 13th

      Hi, any chance I can get a gear list from you? Sounds exactly what I’m looking at myself.

      Reply
  • Robb : Apr 6th

    Hammock’s are like learning to enjoy beer or coffee. Time must be invested in it to eventually fall in love with it. As an experienced hammocker, I still make mistakes with tree selection, not setting underquilt properly or even tarp mistakes. That being said, on the vast majority of my trips, I do get it right and its wonderful. I’ve avoided being flooded out in rainstorms, not struggled to find a flat spot of land and even come to cherish the privacy of my own shelter for the night instead of sharing with another human. Looking at it right now, the only two reasons I’d consider a tent instead of a hammock on the AT is that first, it is safer to use a shelter during a huge wind or thunder storm and second, I can keep my pack weight lighter by up 1-2 pounds. I can address the risk of the first one though, by bringing an inflatable pad but then I take a second weight hit unless I mix pad+underquilt to try and hedge the weight penalty. Either way, the comfort factor – among the other benefits (for me at least), outweigh the penalties.

    Reply
  • richard : Apr 6th

    Good comparison. I completed the trail SOBO in 2000. During that hike I used 2 different tents and finished up with a tarp and trekking poles. Setup camp in some strange places when I “over-hiked” into darkness. BTW, lovemaking in hammocks needs more research. ?

    Reply
    • BeenThereDoneThat : Apr 15th

      Hammocks make amazing sex swings too

      Reply
  • Dan : Apr 6th

    I have used a Warbonnet Blackbird hammock for over 500 miles of the PCT in California. It has a “pocket” for your feet that helps you lay flat and a shelf for storage. My entire shelter/sleeping system weighs 3 pounds 9 ounces including the Blackbird (16.3 ounces) and suspension system (2.8 ounces), a generously sized DCF tarp, guy lines, 8 stakes, a top quilt, 3/4 length under quilt, and a thin foam pad (for under my legs). In terms of weight it compares well with my Big Ag Fly Creek 1 Platinum sleep system. I find at my age (68) I sleep no worse in the hammock than the tent, but the hammock has so many other benefits, many identified in this article, that on balance it works best for me. At my (inflexible) age I actually find I can dress and undress better in the hammock than in a small one person tent. I can sit in the hammock and put on my shoes. Most significant it is way easier to get out of the hammock in the middle of the night when nature calls. The other big plus for me is that I can hang it in middle of the day and get a nice nap. If I needed to be prepared for ground sleeping or (in the AT case) shelter sleeping I could trade out my Goss Gear Thinlight pad for a shorty NeoAir Uberlite for an additional 3 ounces. The only compromise I see with the hammock is that I can’t camp above tree line or enjoy an open canopy night sky in the high Sierras.

    Reply
    • Beentheredonethat : Apr 15th

      It is easy to enjoy the night sky from a hammock if you unattach half of your tarp and flip it over the side on dry nights… In the case of a freak storm, just slide out tarp side and pull it over your head as you attach it to the prestaged stakes.

      Agreed with all of your benefits… Can’t ever go back to a tent

      Reply
      • Shardik : May 15th

        Agreed but hanging under trees doe inherently block your view…need to select carefully

        Reply
  • Tucson Tom : Apr 7th

    Good article. I think you put the pros and cons together in a good balance. I have been hammock backpacking for years and am now tending to go back to tents more and more often. And I don’t have the bugs to deal with here in Arizona. Underquilts are the bomb when you get them right, but I have had plenty of nasty cold nights when I didn’t get it right. And what do you do above timberline (not an issue on the AT obviously)? So I carry a short pad and when the night promises to be a cold one or if there is no tree anywhere in sight, I am on the ground! If you are into nighttime social activities and there are bugs, wind, cold, a tent is clearly the option of choice, but for the solo hiker, just get into the hammock and get some sleep — if you get that underquilt rigged right! In rain and mud though, hammocks kick tents out of the park.

    Reply
  • Miships : Apr 7th

    I have thru hiked the Pinhoti and the BMT with hammock set up and have hammock camped exclusively for the past 9 years. Planning to thru hike the AT in the near future. Some additional benes for hammocking that were not mentioned:
    1. You can set up and take down in the rain under your tarp. Huge bene in my book.
    2. You can easily throw up your tarp during the day during a rain storm to eat lunch or take a break from the rain without needing to find a shelter.
    3. Tarps, especially if Dyneema, dry faster than tents.
    4. I’m 52 now, and sleeping in a hammock is much more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. Better night sleep, no sore back.
    5. In a hammock, your feet are elevated which helps your feet recover during the night for the next day’s trek.
    6. For guys anyway, getting up to pee in the middle of the night during a rain storm is much easier, no need to get wet at all.
    7. During evening rain, easier to cook under the tarp vs. in a tent. Also, much rather lounge in my hammock than be stuck in tent in the rain. More room.
    8 If you get a tarp with doors, you do have some privacy for changing, and you can actually stand up easier to change. People are only going to see your feet/legs.

    Reply
  • Michael Chrest : Apr 7th

    I think the author was uncomfortable in her hammock because it was too small. My first hammock was a huge net one from the Yucatan. I truly could sleep on my stomach if I felt like it. I always slept at a diagonal. But it was much too heavy to bring backpacking.
    I bought a Hennessy Asymmetrical hammock and used it one night. It was a disaster compared to my old Mayan matrimonial.
    I searched the hammock forums, found the Blackbird xl and never looked back. I’m 5’11” but the extra length allows me to sleep more at a diagonal and is way more comfortable than an inflatable pad.
    The other points Kelly makes are true. But the comfort part for me makes up for the shortcomings.
    I did use a 1/8″ foam pad instead of an under quilt in the summer. This eliminates the mosquito and draft problem. It was not warm enough for the winter so I switched to an inflatable pad and slept in the shelters.
    I met a NoBo (Ice Bear) who started in December and was using a hammock and was very happy with his setup so I think I will work on a winter system.
    P.S. If you like your privacy get a tarp with doors!

    Reply
  • thetentman : Apr 7th

    Checkout Haven Hammocks. Too heavy to backpack but you can lay flat.

    Well written article. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Eli McAllister : Apr 9th

    The Wookie under quilt from Warbonnet eliminates a lot of the insulation concerns you had with your Hennessy set up. It pairs with the Blackbird XLC, but could be used with other end-gathered asymmetrical hammocks. Also – you might sleep better in a bridge hammock like the Warbonnet Ridgerunner. They have an easier setup and sleep differently (side sleeping is more of an option, but even sleeping on your back is just easier to get right!) It’s a little heavier with the two poles, but pairs really well with a pad – either foam or inflatable. I have a closed cell foam pad that works well and a large Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite NXT that is perfectly comfortable in there. I enjoyed the article and the various points you make, but I do think your hammock selection contributed to your issues with hanging.

    Reply
  • JB : Apr 17th

    Another Warbonnet user here. I got the double bottom option. Mosquito proof nylon. I fought the 3/4 underquilt on the outside and suffered the same issues. Once I put it in the double bottom no more troubles. I’ve also seen people setup their hammocks like bivies, and with trekking poles on the ground.

    Reply
  • Derch : Apr 2nd

    Overall this was one of the better comparisons I’ve seen, many are terrible. But I have a few things that are off.

    Weight, you mention the weight of your system and compare it to UL cottage tents, but there are also UL cottage hammock makers. Like the Trailheadz SUL poltergeist is 8oz compared to your 31 oz Hennessy. Hennessy is a fine brand but it’s mass market, almost the Coleman of hammocks. It’s like comparing a Ferrari to a Honda Civic.

    So many of these articles are comparing zplex or big agnes to eno and Hennessy. It’s not really a fair comparison.

    Reply

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