Hammock vs. Tent: The Great Debate

Camping expert Alex Dolan is here with some insight on whether a hammock or a tent is right for your next camping or backpacking adventure.

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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 they contour to the curves of the person lounging in them 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.

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) 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 ounces, 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 to protect you from rain or even accumulation of morning dew. Most backpackers will also need protections 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 that includes mosquito netting, a rain fly, support ropes, straps, and a stuff sack will weigh anywhere from two to three pounds. An ultralight backpacking tent will usually include 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 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 hammock strap, though this seems like a pretty easy one to avoid while through hiking. So, a hammock may actually be a more reliable trail sleeping system.

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 about as much room as a cocoon. 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.

Warmth

This 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 our bodies 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.

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 rain fly 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 rain fly will help you avoid rain coming from any direction and will be a superior in a wider variety of weather conditions.

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 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 to set up a tent, but it will be the perfect place to set up any kind of suspension system, like a hammock. Desert environments are full of flat surfaces and open areas, making them ideal for tent camping. 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.

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

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? Click the link to my expert profile below and live chat with me directly. I would love to hear any of your questions or comments you have about the subject.

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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 countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element, moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. I have also toured the San Juan Islands via kayak, and circumnavi...

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