Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail with a Hammock
I finished my thru hike this year, starting at Springer Mountain on March 12th and summiting Katahdin on August 30th. Before that, I had exactly one night of sleep in the woods inside a hammock, and that’s pretty stupid.
Why a hammock?
I like tents. They appeal to the kid in me. It’s like having your own little fort. Like many hopeful thru hikers, I spent many hours going through gear lists and reading forum posts, picking apart every lightweight and not so lightweight tent out there. I had even narrowed it down to a few contenders and had already picked up one of the best sleeping pads out there, the Thermarest Neoair Xlite. I’ve had 5 or so nights out with the Neoair, as well as other pads, and I’ve never really had what I’d call a good night’s sleep. It’s doable, but not exactly comfortable. Now, I’ll never bash tents. You will 100% get used to whichever option you choose to use, so I admit I could have worked on my comfort as a ground dweller.
During my time browsing gear, I came across the youtube channel of good ol’ ‘Shug’ Emery, a hammocking icon. His videos aren’t just good camping fun, quite a few are instructional as well. I found myself constantly drawn back to a hammock. The open space of hanging under a tarp, having a chair to lounge in, being off the ground in general, and, I soon found, the comfort of a great night’s sleep.
Certainly not least, YOU STAY DRIER IN A HAMMOCK. This was my experience, but being able to get to camp and set the tarp up first meant I could then take my time and work under the tarp, keeping dry. Likewise, in the morning, I would wake up and do all my chores and pack up all while staying under the tarp. The tarp came down last, only after that last sip of coffee, pleading glance to the dark skies, and resigning myself to the rain jacket. The tarp was then lashed to the outside of my pack and never came in contact with stuff that needed to stay dry. I saw lots of tents that were drenched from days of rain and invariably stayed wet for some time, inside and out. Nothing stays dry out there forever, and I had all my gear wet to some degree over the course of the trek, but I definitely think I was drier overall compared to my ground dwelling brethern.
The Warbonnet Blackbird XLC
I chose this hammock because it seemed to have it all. I really liked the idea of the foot box sewn in as well as the gear shelf. Of course the zip on bug net was absolutely mandatory, and I found it helped cut down on cold winds as well. There are other good options out there; Dutchware and Dream Hammocks both make excellent options for a thru hiker. I never really checked out a Hennessy but people seem to like them. I was very happy with the Blackbird, though. I’d toss my butt pad, puffy, water bottle, phone, book, and electronics sack onto the shelf and slide in then use the puffy as a head rest while I read at night. Being able to lean over and grab a bottle or maybe more clothes if the temperatures dropped was so handy. After having one I can’t imagine having a hammock without one.
A quick note, if you’re 6 feet tall or taller, opt for the XLC over the standard Blackbird. Or, if you are looking at other vendors, make sure your hammock is an 11 footer and not a 10. It makes a big difference.
A pair of Dutchware Cinch Bugs attached to 15 foot straps
I had been told by a few people that if you’re new to hammocking it may be better to stick with standard straps and buckles (like the Blackbird comes with) instead of going with whoopie slings. Looking back, I don’t see why, but at the time I figured I already had a lot to learn so I’d better listen. I swapped out the buckles that came with the Warbonnet and replaced them with closed loops, grey and red (red for head), that easily slip right onto the hooks of the Cinch Bugs. The bugs were very easy to adjust and after awhile on trail I got to the point where I would just eyeball a pair of trees, throw everything up, and usually I’d be good on the first try. I really liked that the straps and buckles were completely separate from the hammock. So after a long night of rain I’d roll up my hammock and stuff it in my pack and then wrap up the straps last, so they could be stashed on the outside of my pack, where they’d dry and not drip water (or sap) on anything important.
Were I to do it again I’d probably try whoopie slings instead because they’re marginally lighter but mostly because it would be something new to play with.
- Hammock Gear Cuben Fiber Hex Tarp
- 2 Dutchware Stingerz on the ridge line tie outs with 12 feet of zing-it line
- 4 Dutchware Fleaz on the corner tie outs
- A mesh ‘snakeskin‘ from Mountain Goat gear for tarp storage
- 7 aluminum MSR Groundhog stakes with ~6 feet of zing-it wrapped around them
Oh boy, this is a big one. Your tarp selection is an important step, as it will directly affect your level of happiness for the months to come. Hammock camping is tarp camping. I splurged and went with fancy cuben fiber because its much lighter, but also it doesn’t absorb any water. To me this ended up being much more important. After hours of rain a sil-nylon or sil-poly tarp will take on water and begin to sag. You’ll stay dry, but the tarp will weigh down and puddles can begin to form. There are ways to help prevent this, like adding tensioners to your guy lines, but I didn’t want to deal with them. I wanted the cuben fiber hotness, and I’m happy with my choice.
I hate messing with knots, especially after a long wet day on the trail. For this reason I consider the various Dutchware bling essential. They basically work like dock cleats, just pull it tight, loop around and it stays where it is. Quick to set and easy to adjust; I never had one come loose on me. I kept the fleaz larks headed onto the tarp and the cord permanently tied to my stakes initially because I thought that meant I could adjust the tarp from under it, therefore staying dry. In reality the few times I really HAD to do that was because the weather was so bad I got wet anyway, but in the end I liked keeping the line wrapped around the stakes because it make storing it (tangle free) a lot easier, plus made it harder to forget or lose a stake. Two bent on me and were replaced with smaller mini Groundhogs that I used to guy out the shelf and bug net of the hammock. Two nights I had my stakes ripped out from the ground due to crazy winds, and fixed this by stacking rocks on top of the stakes.
I would typically set my tarp up in “porch mode,” because its nice to see your buddies but also because it gives you more room to move around when you’re doing camp chores, grabbing clothes, or stumbling out in the middle of the night to pee.
- Mid-Atlantic Mountain Works 20 degree top quilt – the Marcy
- Loco Libre Gear 20 degree underquilt – the Habanero
- Thermarest Z seat butt pad
I used a 3/4 length under quilt, so my butt pad did double (triple? quintuple?) duty as my foot insulation as well. When I got all comfy in the hammock at night I’d take the butt pad from the shelf and make sure it was positioned correctly, then lean back and make sure the under quilt was in the right spot, and snuggle right on in. For the most part, I was warm and happy. There were a few nights, particularly early on, where my feet still got cold. I would often curl up and roll on my side and that would help. Other times it was almost too damn warm. But, all in all, it worked. After I passed into southern Virginia I swapped out my 20 degree quilts for their 40 degree equivalents and used those all the way through Vermont. It started to get cold enough that I wanted some more warmth, so I opted to have my warmer under quilt mailed back to me (thanks, mom) but stayed with the cooler top quilt. It ended up being perfect all the way to Maine.
Post hike musings
Everything pretty much worked out for me. The only item I had to replace aside from the few stakes I bent was a hammock strap, which I somehow left behind at camp on my third to last day on the trail. Luckily I managed to jerry rig an old carabiner and some cordage and get by for a few more nights.
Finding a place to hang was not really an issue. In fact, I found the hammock to be better suited to most camping conditions than tents, and would often try and find places that were bad for tenters just so I wouldn’t take a good spot away from someone who might need it. A few times when we were in a small town and camping in a field or some such I had to figure something out, or keep walking a ways to find a place with trees, but I only had to go to ground five times (twice in Smokey shelters).
That raises the question of using a pad for bottom insulation instead of an under quilt, and that’s a heavy question. You can easily argue that it makes sense, especially for a thru hiker, to be able to (somewhat) comfortably lay on the ground should they have to. Twice I had to sleep on a floor; a church in Massachusetts and Lake in the Clouds Hut in The Whites. There’s no good solution. It really sucked, and I got little sleep.
That said I’d still take an under quilt again. They’re much more comfortable (for me) and are worth it for the great sleep I consistently got. Then again, if you’re on a budget, having to buy ANOTHER down quilt is definitely not cheap.
I don’t think you can ever have enough tarp.
If I were to change anything about my setup, I would get a larger tarp. Having a tarp with doors would have been cool, but I’d go a step further and get a larger tarp such as the Hammock Gear Winter Palace or the Warbonnet Superfly. I was fine with my tarp, and I only really got alarmingly wet once, during a crazy storm while we were camped halfway up a mountain. The winds changed and the rain was blowing straight through the foot end of my hammock. Nothing got soaked, and the storm faded after 15 minutes (luckily I was sipping a beer or three and wasn’t as concerned as I otherwise would have been). Still, it was eyebrow raising.
Anything I left under my hammock, like my pack and shoes and such, would get drenched in a heavy rainfall. Mostly from splash but also from wind driven rain. It was one such time that I looked up and saw my buddy Houdini sitting happily in his hammock under his enormous Superfly that made me decide that the larger tarp is worth the weight, if for nothing else but peace of mind. Many a rainy night I would reach under my hammock and pat my under quilt and find that it was wet. It never affected my warmth (Loco Libre and MAMW both use treated down), but it still caused some stress.
Whatever you decide to run with, just make sure you take it out a few times and practice with it. Surrounded by heavy snow with shaking hands is definitely not the time you want to realize you can’t recall exactly how to adjust your straps or under quilt. And remember;
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