Photos courtesy of Ashley Alleway
It's been about a decade now since the hammock camping craze began. Hammocks are wildly popular in backpacking circles. There are web forums and YouTube channels dedicated exclusively to hammocking. Proponents rave about the versatility of hammocks: Suspended between two trees and protected from biting insects and rain, you'll have a good night's sleep in the lumpiest of terrain. What's more, niche pursuits like hammock camping tend to attract innovators; full-featured hammocks are seriously light and, with a little practice pitch easily.
But for some reason, hammocks aren't so common amongst paddlers. Hammock camping enthusiast Brandon Waddy, the founder of Colorado-based Warbonnet Outdoors, sees hammocks as a perfect match for paddlers. All you need to set one up are trees and a bit of space. "Even in a desert there are trees along the waterways," says Waddy, who started Warbonnet in his garage as the hammock trend caught fire in 2008. "A nice sandy beach is nice and probably ideal as far as tent sites go, but you don’t always have sandy beaches. There are almost always a couple of trees."
Waddy highlights the other advantages: Great comfort and "no more having to deal with a flooded tent because of water pooling on heavily compacted and overused tent sites," he says.
I've spent thousands of nights tent camping in wilderness areas from the Canadian arctic to the Florida coast, but I hadn't experimented with hammocking until Waddy provided me a Warbonnet Blackbird XLC ($195-315) to test on an early season sea kayak trip on Lake Superior. My first impressions? The Blackbird XLC is impeccably constructed and easy to set up, even without tuning into Warbonnet's YouTube channel. A simple system of straps, carabiners and clever friction-based buckles pitches the hammock in a hurry. To ensure a level sleeping platform, Waddy recommends attaching the foot portion of the hammock at least 16 inches higher than the head. You'll want to give yourself plenty of time to climb in and out of the hammock, fiddling with the set up. Best to do this on a sunny, bug-free day. Ultimately, the goal is to sleep on a diagonal, with your feet tucked into Warbonnet's specially designed footbox.
"Don’t be afraid to keep getting in and out to make more adjustments before calling the setup done," advises Waddy. "Little things, like having your head too high or low in relation to the rest of you, can really hinder getting a comfortable night's sleep so pay attention to those little things during setup. When you do get a really comfortable setup try to take a mental picture of everything so you can replicate that next time."
In the field, a side-sleeping tester loved the Blackbird's combination of headroom and coziness. However, we both shared one concern: The insect netting (that comes standard with the hammock) would benefit from a two-way zipper, to allow faster entry and exit in bug season. Most users will want to accessorize with a tarp for protection from the elements. The one-pound, three ounce Superfly ($140) is truly a work of art, cut from wispy sil-nylon and featuring plenty of tie downs for a taut pitch. With an 11-foot ridge, it's plenty big for gear storage, cooking, or even setting up a second hammock.
The Warbonnet XLC is available in multiple constructions, depending on the user's weight and whether or not a sleeping pad (recommended when temps dip below 40 degrees F) will be used inside.
Two More Favorite Hammocks for Backcountry Paddling:
Therm-a-Rest Slacker The sleep-gear manufacturing giant has jumped into the hammock trend, with a fully modular design that quickly morphs from a simple, lightweight campsite lounger to a weather- and insect-proof overnight shelter. The basic Slacker hammock ($69.95 single, $79.95 double) is woven from a soft, comfortable fabric. At first, we weren't too sure about Therm-a-Rest's Bug Shelter ($79.95), which encompasses the entire hammock and extends right to the ground. But when we tried it in bug season, we were impressed at how the design enables quick entry. Hammocks with built-in mosquito netting force you to rush in a cramped space; not so within the larger confines of Therm-a-Rest's design. This sense of space makes the hammock feel less restrictive; adjusting one's position is far easier. Finally, the entire rig is protected by a moderately sized tarp ($89.95).
Hennessy Asym Classic Canadian manufacturer Hennessy came on the hammock scene early, well over a decade ago. The Asym Classic ($159.95) is Hennessy's trademark model, with clever design features and an all-in-one package that have stood the test of time. The obvious different between this model and the Therm-a-Rest and Warbonnet is the means of entry, through a slit in the bottom of the hammock. You simply stand up through the slit, sit down and slide your legs inside. Body weight then seals the hammock tight. I recall the first time I used a Hennessy hammock on a winter sea kayak trip on Vancouver Island in 2005. My first night's rest was blissful, but after that rain driven by 50 mile-per-hour winds soaked my cocoon. Hennessy has since introduced a larger rainfly to offer better protection from the elements.