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.

Still smarter than the dog

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.

Yay Gear!

Hammock

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.

Suspension

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.

The Tarp

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.

Warmth

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.

lend me your butt pads!!

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;

hangers and ground dwellers can co-exist!

 

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Comments 23

  • Chris Guynn : Oct 7th

    Every time I saw a superfly I got tarp envy those things are like palaces for hammocks.

    Reply
  • Pete : Oct 8th

    Nice article! Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

    Reply
  • Steve Blouin : Oct 8th

    Great info. I’ve been wanting to get crazy all my life and take the thru-hike challenge. Now, at 62, I’m a bit nervous that time is wasting and if I’m going to do it, I should just go for it. I’m such a novice camper that the gear I would need intimidates me as I have none. I feel physically capable and have been testing the waters to see if I could find someone my age and situation to do it with me!! I love the time frame of your hike!! I’m just nervously seeking suggestions. Thanks

    Reply
    • Rhys Hora : Oct 8th

      Right on, Steve!
      Don’t you worry a bit about your age. You’re only as old as you feel. I crossed paths a few times with a gentleman who turned 82 on the trail.
      I’ll shoot you an email about gear soon

      Reply
    • Sandra Moore : Oct 11th

      Steve:

      I too feel much like you. I haven’t done an overnight and am sea4ch8ng for a hiking buddy, novice to some experience, to go with me. The AT is on my Bucket List. As 8s the NET, remote and beautiful trail? From MT to the Pacific Ocean. Only 18 towns to restock in but very few people hike it.
      I live in MT.
      I am a little older than you but can hike and carry my own gear and set up my hammock, etc. I am very Bear Aware from living in the Teton Mtns. By myself in a tent for almost 2 years ( Dad died and I needed solitude).
      Cell is
      email: [email protected]
      Think about a hike on the AT, PCT, John Muir, NWT or anywhere.

      Hope to hear from you.
      Sandra

      Reply
    • Kelly : Nov 18th

      Steve,
      I just finished a hike from Springer Mtn to Gooch’s Gap. I am 60 and my buddy was 62. You can do it! Lessons learned was you don’t have to run up the mountain, take your time. Also, every ounce in your pack counts. Go light. Can’t wait to go back in the spring.

      Reply
  • DEREK CAMPBELL : Oct 8th

    Great article…helps with the tent v hammock decision. And your specifics on brands and models was geeat…thanks foe sharing.

    Reply
  • Space jam : Oct 8th

    Great article bro, I summited the same day as you. I agree that the hammock was the best choice for the AT and I think I’ll miss it on the other trails. Oh by the way I hope you got your hammock strap back haha, old soul asked me if I wanted it before tracking you down.

    Reply
  • Butch Kolash : Oct 9th

    Steve, great info ! My wife and I (me 71, she 60) have been looking at changing over to hammocks and your info and experience is just what I needed. We have been trying to stay lightweight, but sleeping in a tent is starting to get pretty tough for me, so we are looking for any and all hammock info regarding the AT. Thank you again.

    Reply
    • Doctari : Oct 19th

      You aren’t going to save (much if any) weight going to a hammock & related gear. Granted it can be done, with a lot of cash and work! The “payoff” if you will, as stated above, COMFORT!!! And, for us seniors, getting out of a hammock is MUCH easier than getting up off the cold hard unforgiving rocky stick covered ground!
      Also, as mentioned above, Practice Practice Practice! Seriously, til you can literally do it blindfolded! I can, saved my life one winter! Hypothermia SUCKS! But as I practiced as above, I could do my set up im0aired.
      Have fun on your hike!

      Reply
  • BK Noonan : Oct 9th

    Great article. You can learn a lot about hammocks under the guidance of Shug. Not to mention his videos keep me in the woods when I’m not on trail. I myself hammock camp and although I go to ground for winter (due to lack of proper gear) I can’t see myself in a tent otherwise. I’m what you’d call an oscillating sleeping (side to back to other side and repeat) so I sprung for the Warbonnet Ridge Runner. Although I take the weight penalty with the spreader bars, I know I’m guaranteed a great sleep. And I will eventually get set up with a gathered end because hammocks are fun. In my opinion Dutchware is a must, making setup so easy and streamlined. As far as my tarp I went with the Cloudburst to save a little weight, and it honestly has a lot of coverage. Maybe one day I’ll spring for cuben fiber, but for now the Cloudburst is great. You did really well laying out the basics of hammock camping, and hopefully it inspired a few more to take to the trees.

    Reply
    • Rhys Hora : Oct 9th

      I’m an oscillator myself. I’ve eyeballed that same hammock a bmuch of times, glad to hear you can side sleep in it comfortably.

      People talk about “weight penalties” for things like that but I say if it makes you comfortable it’s worth it’s weight in gold!

      Reply
      • Sandra Moore : Oct 11th

        Wrote to you above. OCT 11th. Sorry for mistyped words. I have fat-padded fingers & have difficulties with texting.

        Sandra

        Reply
  • Billy Engelbrecht : Oct 10th

    Awesome article. A pity we do not have trails in South Africa that comes close to the ones you have over there. Maybe one day…….

    Reply
  • Kathleen Krause : Oct 10th

    Heyo!
    I’m a 2018 NOBO with my dog. Looks like your dog was on trail with you, where did he sleep?

    Reply
    • Rhys : Oct 10th

      I actually left the poor fella at home for the entirety of the hike. I’ve seen people have their dogs on the hammock with them but I don’t think I’d have liked that too much.
      I’ve seen some bug nets that hang from the ridgeline all the way to the ground, you could try that and get a small pad for the pup?
      Do a search over at hammockforums.net, lots of people there have talked about this before, and that forum is a fantastic resource for hammock information.

      Reply
  • Arnold "Bloodhound" Guzman : Oct 10th

    Great advice and well written, covering a myriad of concerns your average skeptic would have. As a trail angel, I often pass hikers going the opposite direction, asking me, “have you passed any good stealth spots lately”. On a few stretches I’ve hiked the good tent spots were few and far between. With hammockers this is rarely an issue. Yet, many hikers continue to holdout against hammocking citing the negative points; mostly of extra weight and being cold chief among them. Glad to see an article with a positive point of view.

    Reply
    • Rhys : Oct 10th

      Being cold? If you have good bottom insulation you’re old to go. Shoot I know people who had issues with their pads deflating that had way colder nights than I ever did with my underquilt.

      Reply
  • Bob T : Oct 11th

    Great article, thanks! I have a DD Superlight Jungle Hammock with an integrated rain fly, but I’m seriously considering adding a tarp just for extra protection. Hoping to do the LSHT and JMT next year, if my old bones will cooperate.

    Reply
  • Charles : Oct 11th

    Awesome read. I’ve been back and forth on using a hammock on the AT. I to have the B.B XLC. Reading this made me more comfly on making my decision and I thank you for that!!! And congrats on the finish!! What’s next??? PCT????

    Reply
    • Rhys : Oct 11th

      I don’t think you’ll regret it. The AT is like tailor made for a hammocker.

      I’d love to do the PCT soon but I need to get a job and save money!

      Reply
  • Robert : Oct 17th

    great info ! I’m gearing up now for March 18 departure, Superfly it is
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Rhys : Oct 17th

      Awesome man!
      Are you going to write about or film your trek? Always keen to check out another hammocking thru

      Reply

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