Hammock vs. Tent: The Great Debate

Camping & Hiking expert Alex Dolan shares insight on whether a hammock or a tent is right for your next camping or backpacking adventure.

Two people sit in a green hammock in the forest

Photo by Spring Fed Images

So you are going on a backpacking trip. Would you rather sleep swinging freely in the breeze, suspended in midair betwixt two of your arbor friends? Or, would you prefer to crawl inside a domed safe haven, where you can aggressively sleep starfish style on the flat ground? Of course, I'm referring to the heated hammock versus tent debate. They each have some very clear advantages, but there are some disadvantages that you may not have thought of. We'll discuss all the pros and cons in this article.

Let's start with the obvious. Hammocks look way cooler. Is it something about the way hammock campers' curves are silhouetted against the Blue Ridge Mountains that just looks sexy? Or is it how totally extremely radical their occupants appear as they dangle over death-defying heights like a trapeze artist without a harness or safety net below? Whatever it is, whenever I see someone in a hammock, I just can't help getting jealous. Hammock backpackers swing to the beat of their own drum and each hammock setup can reflect the personalities of the quirky campers.

So hammocks win, right? Well...let's remember that we aren't running for class president—we are backpacking. Backpacking isn't about looking cool. While trekking for miles, self-supported, into the great unknown wilderness is pretty awesome, most of the time there isn't a soul in sight to see just how cool you actually look. On a backpacking trip, the number one priority is practicality. So what are the criteria that need to be considered before deciding which sleeping system is best suited for your needs?

A person reclines in a hammock with their feet stretched out and their hat in their lap

Being in a hammock just makes you feel cool.

Weight

For someone who is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, weight may be the most important factor when choosing a sleeping system. If you are hiking 2,190 miles (the actual length of the AT) and carrying all of your equipment on your back, every fraction of every ounce going into your backpack is going to make a difference.

At first glance, a hammock system appears to be much less involved and lighter weight. But while an ultralight hammock alone can weigh as little as 10 oz, you will need more than just a hammock to create an effective backpacking shelter. First, you need some strong rope or webbing to hang the hammock. Next, you'll need a rain fly (aka a rain tarp) to protect you from rain or even the accumulation of morning dew. Most backpackers will also need protection from insects while they sleep, in which case bug netting is a must. Support ropes are also an addition that add some extra stability to the hammock to prevent it from swaying wildly while you sleep.

A decent hammock setup will include hammock accessories like mosquito netting, a rain fly, support ropes, straps, and a stuff sack will weigh anywhere from 2-3lbs. An ultralight backpacking tent will usually include tent stakes, cord, a repair kit, stuff sack, and a full rain fly. Since a hammock can realistically sleep only one person comfortably, we'll compare it to the weight of a one-person tent. The Nemo Hornet 1 (a fairly high-quality tent) weighs a mere two pounds, which is virtually the same as our lightest lightweight hammock option. Weights of backpacking tents do increase as their prices decrease, but overall I would still say that backpacking tents and hammocks are probably tied in the weight category.

A group hikes through trees with packs on their backs

Carrying all of your gear on your back is hard work!

Reliability

Okay, maybe hammocks aren’t that much lighter than modern backpacking tents, but they are still more reliable, right? Well…this is actually still open for debate.

The most fragile component of a lightweight backpacking tent is going to be the tent poles. Aluminum (a common material used for making tent poles) can’t take a lot of force before it bends or breaks, and if this happens on the trail there is very little that can be done to repair it and even less that can be done to replace it. A hammock, on the other hand, is probably most likely to fail at the carabiner. Considering it will be holding your entire weight while you sleep, I think it is safe to say that it isn’t as fragile as a tent pole that only has to hold the weight of tent fabric. Although, I can say (from personal experience) that it doesn't take long for a dog to chew through a pair of tree straps; although this seems like a pretty easy one to avoid while through-hiking. All in all, I would propose that a hammock system is more durable than a tent system, as long as you do not exceed the weight capacity of the hammock.

Three hammocks are strung between trees

Hammock village

Space

While a one-person tent won’t offer enough room to actually sleep like a five-point star fish, it will still be roomier than a hammock, which has about as much room as a cocoon. Some find comfort in being swaddled by their hammock, while others may feel like they have been strapped into a straight jacket. While the ENO doublenest will hold two average-sized humans for an afternoon lounge, sleeping in a hammock with more than one person overnight is virtually impossible.

Even if you are sleeping alone, consider opting for a two-person tent. A two-person tent offers twice as much sleeping space but doesn’t add very much weight or cost and it will give you room to bring your gear inside your tent. This will keep you from having to leave the tent if you need something and give you peace of mind that no one will walk off with it in the middle of the night.

If you are backpacking with a hammock, it is quite common to hang your backpack, but this will leave it exposed to the elements. If you are short enough, you may be able to tuck your backpack at the foot of your hammock space. Most hammocks come with an integrated pocket or internal storage shelf, which is pretty convenient for things like your headlamp or a paperback. Most tents also come with at least one pouch as well. The amount of space in your pack that each setup will occupy can vary wildly depending on the model.

Warmth

Warmth is the biggest advantage to a tent, in my opinion. Hanging in the breeze leaves you much more vulnerable to wind, which carries warm air away from your body and replaces it with cold air. This makes someone sleeping in a hammock highly susceptible to cold-butt syndrome. The first night I slept in a hammock overnight, I had no idea how cold my back would get. I was so chilled that I had to get a fire started at 3am to warm myself back up. That being said, there are some really cool underquilts that are light, warm, and prevent cold-butt syndrome. A quilt is a warm bed covering made of padding enclosed between layers of fabric and kept in place by lines of stitching. If you are car camping, a thick foam pad in your hammock can provide enough extra insulation to achieve the same effect.

It is critical that you sleep with an insulated sleeping bag if you plan on sleeping overnight in a hammock. If you have never experienced cold-butt syndrome, it is not nearly as funny as it sounds, and you can pretty much guarantee that it will keep you from getting a good night’s sleep. Again, considering that a hammock can only comfortably sleep one person, you are limiting the amount of body heat that can be contained in your sleep system. Camping in a tent leaves the option to add a snuggle buddy for extra warmth. All in all, a tent is going to be much warmer than a hammock.

Rain Protection

While the canopy-style rainfly on a hammock system can be very effective at protecting you from rain that falls vertically, it won’t keep you completely dry in heavy rain that combines with wind to create horizontal rain. If you are in a place where puddles build up quickly during a rainstorm, you may notice that rain falling into those puddles will splash water up, creating a rainstorm that seems to defy the laws of gravity.  A tent with a full rainfly and a footprint will ultimately give you better coverage and help you avoid rain coming from any direction. Tents will generally be superior in a wider variety of weather conditions; until your campsite floods, in which case a good hammock system will make you feel like a weather prophet!

Shelter Placement

One advantage that a hammock may have over a tent is that it does not require open space or level ground to set up. It will, however, require two study objects (most likely suitable trees) at the right distance apart that can support the full weight of a person. In a dense forest it can often be hard to find an open space without thick vegetation to set up a tent; but it will be the perfect place to set up any kind of suspension system, like a hammock. Just make sure that you have appropriate tree straps to avoid damaging tree bark. (Stripping a ring of tree bark all the way around a tree will kill it very quickly.)

Desert environments are full of flat surfaces and open areas, making them ideal for tent camping, but sometimes impossible for hammocking. If you are camping at a designated campground, a tent platform is usually provided. If you are backpacking a new section of trail, however, you won't know what kind of campsite you'll have until you get to your destination. We’ll call this one a tie!

Sleeping Posture

You’ll notice that an occupied hammock always has a U-shape. Many people have noted that sleeping in this shape for more than a couple nights can lead to a sore back. Others don’t mind it at all. If you are a side sleeper, you will probably find it especially uncomfortable to sleep in a hammock. I have wide shoulders, and I find that sleeping in a single hammock for extended periods of time squeezes my shoulders together, leading to soreness in the morning. I have been able to remedy this with a wider sleeping pad and a double-wide hammock.

Some hammocks feature spreader bars to accommodate for this, but they do add more weight. There are also some brands that are making asymmetrical designs to provide better sleeping posture as well. In a tent, you can sleep on a flat surface on your side, stomach, or even curled up in a ball if your sleeping bag will allow it.

So which is the best option for a backpacking trip? Based on parts of this article, you may think that I despise hammocks, but that’s not true at all. I actually set mine up regularly. Hammocks make an awesome place to lounge during the day on a short hike or car camping trip.

(Pro Tip: get yourself a pair of wide NRS cam straps for your hammock. While they aren’t as light as other strap systems, they are great for quick set up and easy adjustment.)

On a long backpacking trip, however, I can’t help but prefer a tent that will keep me warmer, dryer, and give me space to stretch out with a flat place to lay down that won’t leave me feeling sore after a couple nights. But this is all a matter of opinion. If you are still curious, I encourage you to try both out for yourself.

Car camping with a hammock set up to hang out in during the day

My personal preference when car camping is to bring along a hammock setup to hang out in during the day and a tent shelter system to crawl into when I'm ready to head to bed at night. Day hikers also might like to bring along a hammock suspension system to lounge around their peak destination.

I hope this answered any questions you had about the pros and cons of tents and hammocks. For those of you who have tried both, do you think I gave hammock camping a fair shake? To further explore whether a hammock or a tent is best for your next adventure, please feel free to reach out to me or another Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated for free advice and recommendations.

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I have years of experience planning and executing multi day river trips for up to twenty customers at a time, and I've spent countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element. I love moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. ​ I have also toured the San Juan Islands via...

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