Winter Hammock Camping — Staying Warm On Top
by Derek Hansen, author of The Ultimate Hang: An Illustrated Guide to Hammock Camping
Learn more about hammock camping at theUltimateHang.com
Just a few months after converting to hammock camping, I found myself on a winter
trek with the Boy Scouts in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia.
It was mid-February and very cold. Up to this point I had only used my hammock in
the summer time and I absolutely loved it: extremely comfortable, low impact, and
lightweight. I had been winter camping before (in a tent) and figured my same
regimen of cold-weather gear would be sufficient: a 20F, synthetic-filled sleeping
bag and a closed-cell foam pad, along with a few layers of warm clothing.
The overnight low turned out to be a chilling 15F. I was so cold I eventually gave
up the hammock and spent the last remaining hours of the night in my vehicle with
the engine running and hot air blasting. The cold conditions had given me a headache
and I worried I had chilled my core temperature. This was my first winter hammock
camping experience and it was miserable. What had I done wrong? Frozen, but not
deterred, I was determined to make winter hanging work.
Winter hammock camping is not only possible, it can be a wonderfully warm experience
(for examples of extreme winter hammock camping, be sure to see Shug’s -26F
hang in Minnesota, or his -19.8F group hang). But you can’t just jump
into winter hammock camping, like I did, and expect traditional tent-based
techniques to work automatically. Hammocks have their quirks and one distinct
disadvantage in the cold winter months compared with tents: hammocks are hanging out
in the air. What makes hammocks heaven in the summer makes them cold as hell in
winter. The cooling convection saps essential heat at an alarming rate, and without
proper protections, a hammock camper will be chilled in moments.
Staying Warm On Top
There are a lot of great tips and techniques for staying warm in a hammock that I
cover in my book, but in this post I want to focus on some specific tips on
staying warm on top. Why just on top? Don’t get me wrong, staying warm below is
just as important (or more so), but there are some tricks and techniques for top
insulation that I just can’t take for granted any more. For example, I loaned a
hammock to a friend who returned from a backpacking trip absolutely frustrated by
the experience. I discovered that he had entangled himself in his sleeping bag to
the point where he was nearly trapped by “sleeping bag strangulation.” I want to
address these concerns.
First, A Note On Compression
Sleeping bags derive their warmth from trapped air that holds in the heat. Loft, or
the thickness of a sleeping bag, correlates to the warmth rating: a thicker bag
equals a warmer bag. However, all that loft and warmth is lost if it is compressed
or flattened. This is especially true on the bottom of a sleeping bag: the portions
of a bag you lay on are flattened and the insulation is rendered nearly useless.
Synthetic-filled sleeping bags compress less than down-filled bags but it’s not
enough to make them warmer.
In short, don’t expect a sleeping bag alone to keep you warm in a hammock. If you
intend on sleeping in a hammock, don’t expect the sleeping bag to keep you warm
underneath. Cue: Cold Butt Syndrome. Alright! On to the main event.
Avoiding sleeping bag strangulation
To get into a sleeping bag when you use a hammock, try unzipping it and laying it
down in the hammock first. Trying to wiggle or snake your way into a zipped-up
sleeping bag is hard enough on the ground in a tent, let alone in a hammock. This
“inch-worm” technique is one reason folks end up wrapped up and strangled by their
bag. By opening up the bag you can sit down in the middle and swing your legs into
position before zipping yourself in.
If you prefer being zipped-up in a sleeping bag, I also recommend using a wider bag
that allows more movement.
Photo courtesy www.golite.com
Sleeping bags with zippers on the top, like the GoLite Adrenaline series, are a
little easier to manage in a hammock. Side-zipping bags work, but you need to twist
the bag a little more to access the zipper pull.
Another technique is to pull the bag over you while you’re standing up. Stand in the sleeping bag and pull it up around you so your feet are in the foot box, and then
zip up to about your waist. With your arms still free, you can spread out the hammock, sit down, and situate the sleeping bag around your chest much easier. Zip to close.
Sleeping Bags as Quilts
Even with the previous tips, traditional sleeping bags–particularly mummy-style
bags–are manufactured with a contoured, tight fit to minimize extra air space your
body has to heat up. A simple turn in a hammock while zipped into a mummy bag can
quickly contort the material and twist into “strangulation” mode.
My preferred method when using a traditional sleeping bag (including mummy bags) in
a hammock is to unzip it down to the foot box (some mummy-style bags only zip down
that far anyway). With the sleeping bag unzipped, you can use it like a quilt or
blanket. Get into the hammock and tuck your feet into the foot box. Next, pull the
sleeping bag over the top and tuck in the sides around you. Not only does “quilt
mode” allow you to to get in and out of your hammock and sleeping bag easier, the
extra insulation and material on the top can add some warmth but also allows you to
turn and roll without getting entangled in the sleeping bag.
Wearable Sleeping Bags and Quilts
Speaking of quilts, a few manufacturers sell designs specifically for hammocks.
Quilts are built without a back side or zipper, so they save some weight while still
maximizing warmth by putting all the insulation on the top and sides. Most quilts
have foot boxes that are either sewn or can be closed up. If you’re in the market
for a new sleeping bag with your hammock kit, I highly recommend the quilt style.
But in the winter, even regular quilts won’t motivate you get out of your cozy
hammock when Mother Nature calls. All that heat you’ve built up is quickly lost when
you get out, which is why most of us fight the urge as long as possible.
Enter the wearable quilts and sleeping bags! Only a few companies offer sleeping
bags you can actually wear. Wearable bags and quilts are great for hammocks because
it further simplifies the getting-in-and-out predicament, allowing you to answer
Mother Nature on your own terms while keeping that precious heat.
- Jacks “R” Better Sierra series, Shenandoah, Hudson River, and Old Rag
- Exped DreamWalker series
Keeping Your Feet Warm
Even with your feet in a dedicated foot box, these extremities tend to get cold
first. Here are a few ways to keep toasty feet in a hammock:
- Foot pad
A small pad can pull multi-duty as a sit pad, a foot insulator when standing on the
snow, a pack pad, and an insulator for your lower legs and feet in a hammock. To
keep the pad from jumping out of the hammock, insert it into the foot box of the
sleeping bag or quilt and place your legs and feet on top.
- Put your insulated jacket to good use
A lot of folks bring a down jacket or insulated coat when winter camping but rarely
sleep in it. Put that jacket to use while you sleep by wrapping it around the foot
end of the hammock and zip it up. Tuck the arms back into the jacket to finish this
- Down booties
You can pick up some great down booties from Arrowhead Equipment Supplier,
REI, Sierra Designs, Feathered Friends, and even Western
Mountaineering (to name a few). Down packs down small and is very lightweight,
yet offers superior warmth.
Putting It All Together
Winter camping with a hammock is, in many ways, no different than in a tent, but
you’ll need to adapt some techniques. It’s still important to focus on core skills
like site selection (protecting or pitching against the wind), hydration, nutrition,
metabolism, and insulation for example. Figuring out the other tricks to stay warm
in a hammock is just a tiny blip in the process.
Thank’s Derek sharing this informative and interesting article with our readers. If you want to know more check out his blog The Ultimate Hang and his book The Ultimate Hang: An Illustrated Guide To Hammock Camping. You can also catch up with him on twitter at
@TheUltimateHang and on FaceBook here facebook.com/TheUltimateHang And don’t forget to leave a comment below!
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