Hammock Camping and Adventure Riding

There is nothing like adventure riding with all the gear you need to travel for a week, a month or a year never returning to the same place. If you are like me and are fiscally challenged (some hurtfully call me mean) then camping has a whole new money-saving dimension.

Whatever the reason for camping, fitting all that gear onto one bike presents a challenge. You’ve got to be ruthless about what items you take and careful about the selection of those items. One of the major essential items is accommodation.

I have used both tents and hammocks over the years and each has its benefits. With the advent of new hammock designs, the balance has shifted. Where a tent was the only practical long-term option, hammocks are now very attractive for summer camping.

So what has changed?

Initially, the only hammocks available were string hammocks from Asia or ex-military hammocks (from WWII). The string hammocks were for resting, not sleeping and the ex-military hammocks were short and very heavy, being made for tropical downpours and not having the advantage of modern materials. Specialist manufacturers like Hennessey Hammocks now produce a full range of hammocks and accessories at competitive prices.

Photo 1 of Hammock Camping and Riding
Figure 1: A view of the camp with one side of the fly flipped back. Note the angle of the hammock ropes. The sides of the bug netting have been zipped open with the head-end nearest the camera. To get in, sit down in the centre of the hammock and then swing your legs in

What could possibly entice me to try a hammock?

How about weight, comfort and versatility? A tent is all very well and there are even some light-weight ones about if you can shell out $500. But then the ground is pretty rough so you need a self-inflating mattress. You need to search out level ground that is generally even. The floors are generally fairly fragile so a bear’s paw (a heavy duty groundsheet to protect the floor from damage) is often used. With all the mandatory extras, you have a large, possibly heavy, package. Contrast that with a hammock. The hammock itself is about 1.5kg including the bug netting and the fly about 0.3kg. That’s it. There is no groundsheet or mattress required. You can sleep on a 45 degree slope full of sticks and rocks, all you need are two trees between 4 and 5 metres apart. They don’t even need to be big trees. The sideways force on each tree is less than your body weight so a 100mm diameter tree is fine. I find plantation pines to be perfect for spacing and I just love the smell of them. The hammock/fly combination is smaller and lighter than my 1 ½ person, high performance tent by itself (without the mattress and groundsheet).

What about comfort?

Traditional hammocks used large tensions on either end to attempt to pull the hammock straight.  A rudimentary knowledge of geometry can show that no matter how tight the hammock is stretched, the application of a 70kg body will cause it to bend. Hence when sleeping in a traditional hammock, it is common to sleep diagonally so that the body is as straight as possible. This is what Mr. Hennessey calls the “sweet spot”. It is however not easy to sleep on your side, your feet and head are very near the edge and your sleeping bag falls out all the time.

There is a new hammock available that overcomes the problems inherent in a traditional hammock. The hammock is designed so that the edges form a deep curve between the supports (trees) but the base where you sleep is flat. In fact it is so flat that you may need a small pillow. Being flat, you can also sleep on your side. Because you now lie along the centre-line of the hammock, your sleeping bag and everything else stays inside. The hammock is made from a textured nylon material so it never feels sticky like normal nylon. It has double walls so that if the weather becomes cold, you can tuck any spare clothing between the two layers and it keeps you warm. I tuck my riding trousers down one side and my riding jacket down the other. They act as insulation and keeps them off the ground. They are also warm to put on in the morning.

What about rain?

The fly is quite large (about 3m x 3m) and arranged so the diagonal of the fly is along the centre-line of the hammock. This leaves a large triangle on either side of the hammock that is covered. Normally the fly attaches to either end of the hammock ensuring that the hammock is always covered regardless of the wind and rain. The sides are pegged to the ground. I often raise up one side to a greater or lesser extent which gives me a huge area in which to cook.  I have camped in exposed situations in rain (one of the dangers of searching for a campsite at night) and always stayed dry. And what is more all my gear was dry as well.

When it is really wet, I set up the fly first (tied directly to the tree) so that I have a dry area in which to work. The hammock is stored in its own lightweight dry bag and only comes out when the fly is up. The reverse applies when breaking camp. The fly doesn’t ever need a dry bag because it is often wet from dew anyway.

Photo 2 of Hammock Camping and Riding
Figure 2: Set up for high winds from the right-hand side. I have used a poncho as a windbreak. The windbreak will be a part of the fly in the next incarnation enclosing all four sides.

What if there are no trees?

I certainly wouldn’t pack a hammock for the Gobi desert. In New Zealand trees are a given. Like all motorcycle camping, it is always best to turn off the main road to find a camp-site. I have seldom gone down a side road that didn’t have a camp site of some kind.

There are two distinct times of day when finding a campsite. During daylight, one tends to be quite choosy about aspect, locale and exposure. Never leave it too late, it is better to be all set up by sundown so that you can enjoy the vista. If you do end up searching for a campsite after dark, then there is more pressure to find one. Don’t be disheartened. Get beyond the city limits and then turn down a side road. All you are looking for is two trees at roughly the right spacing. You barely need to be off the road. Because you arrive at night nobody has time to take offence (and I have never been approached about camping on the verge). I have camped in, what turned out to be, full view of houses but never had problems. Like all camping, never leave anything behind, not the least scrap. The only thing I will leave is tea leaves (never tea bags) and coffee grounds. I always discard it in long grass out of view.

If there are genuinely no suitable trees or the wind is really strong then the fly converts into a rudimentary tent using the hammock as a groundsheet. It can be used as a normal rectangular fly but I use it as a delta tent, one point of the diamond attached to the bike and the other to the ground. The normal peg-down points are then set to give a taut surface. Alternatively there is a 3rd fiberglass pole section so that in conjunction with the two spreader bars they become a 1500mm tent pole. If there are bugs, then sleep inside the hammock on the ground, otherwise on top of it.

Why would I not use a hammock?

The major drawback with a hammock is the illusion of security. A tent completely encloses your belongings keeping them out of sight. The tent is very flimsy so there is no real security but people don’t steal what they can’t see. A hammock fly is generally open underneath, exposing your stuff to others. This especially true when you are sleeping soundly and you can’t have the day pack inside the hammock with you. I generally camp in out-of-the-way places so that security is not a problem.

If I am in a camping ground, I put as much gear back on the bike and turn on the burglar alarm (which has a motion sensor). Your wallet and watch can be in your pockets either in the hammock or between the two layers. Because the outer layer is larger than the inner layer, they won’t press on you and disturb your sleep.
The hammock is quite cool to sleep in because there is air flowing all around you. You don’t sleep in a still-air zone like a tent. This is good is hot weather but not so good in cooler weather.

The next version of fly cover will have walls (but no floor) to provide the same illusion of security as a tent. The walls will also provide a still-air zone making it warmer. Unlike most tents, the walls are intended to be raised for ventilation because the bug netting is only around the hammock, not the whole fly

Photo 3 of Hammock Camping and Riding
Figure 3 Up close and personal. Excuse the camo bug netting, it is all I could find. Either end of the hammock uses a 500mm fibreglass spreader bar
Author of this article: IanMeyle