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For traveling in warm climates, a hammock is the way to go. There’s no cheaper, lighter, more comfortable and useful piece of gear. Here’s everything you need to know.
First you need to decide on the material. Depending on where you are, you may have locally-harvested materials / options (ixtle hammocks—scratchy but beautiful—are available in Chiapas, for example), but the most common hammocks are either silk, nylon, or jute.
A silk-thread hammock is the most luxurious—softest, coolest, lightest. But you’ll have to pay for that luxury—a silk hammock can easily run you over one hundred dollars.
Nylon-thread hammocks are most readily available in most areas. While the nylon thread can heat up uncomfortably in the sun, it’s much more affordable than silk—a nylon hammock should cost you around fifty dollars—but check the quality of the thread before you buy.
Run a fingernail over a single thread—if tiny threads pop out, it’s not high quality, and if your hammock is going to be a souvenir and not just a temporary bed while you’re on the road, you might want to look somewhere else.
If you’re in an area where jute hammocks are available, they’re an even cheaper option, and jute won’t heat up like nylon. However, they tend to come in more open weaves that give you less support when you lie down, so if you’re planning to get your eight hours a night in a hammock, they’re probably not your best bet.
When you’ve decided on a material, if you’re going with silk or nylon, you have to decide on the weave. There are many different local and regional designs, but be aware of whether the weave is single, double, or triple.
Look closely at the pattern—if it’s only two threads deep at any point, it’s a single weave, and should be somewhat less expensive. If you can find places in the pattern where three threads cross (one sandwiched between two others), it’s a double weave. More than three, triple. The thicker weaves give you most support and are most comfortable to sleep in, but they cost a little more.
Finally, consider the size and type. A double hammock will theoretically sleep two people, though that’s less sexy in practice than it sounds—especially in the heat. If you like to stretch out or spread-eagle in you sleep, a double can be worth the price, even if you’re sleeping alone.
Because it gets you off the ground, a hammock is an ideal lightweight shelter when used with a tarp. Photo: Henri Bergius
Some hotels and hostels in costal areas have designated hammock areas. Otherwise, look for two trees or other sturdy objects about three meters apart.
If you’re planning on using a hammock while you’re traveling, a pair of Cam Straps can be very helpful. Cam Straps can be used for quick and easy hammock hanging and also for things like strapping your surfboard or backpack to the tops of buses or taxis.
There are all different ways of hanging hammocks with knots, but over the last decade, I’ve ‘evolved’ to the following method, which allows you to quickly adjust the height at which the hammock is hung. It uses two very simple knots, both of which are easy to untie even after putting a lot of weight on them.
The key is to have two ropes, each approx 3 meters long, and to tie loops into the ends of them. Here’s how:
1. Tie a Figure 8 on a Bight at the end of each rope. Instructional video below.
2. Wrap the rope around a tree or branch and then pass the other end of the rope through the loop and cinch it tight around the tree trunk or branch.
3. You can now use the free ends of each rope to connect with the hammock using simple sheet bends. [Note, in the video here, the thicker rope–the one in her left hand–represents the end of the hammock. The rope in her right hand represents the rope you’d have coming off the tree.]
Keep in mind that even the hottest day can cool off significantly late at night—if you’re sleeping in a hammock, keep a sheet, sleep sack, or at least a towel handy to ward off midnight chills.
Sleeping two to a hammock—while a pleasant way to spend an afternoon—is only a viable all-night option if you’re a pair of extremely deep sleepers. Your every movement will send the hammock, and thus your partner, swinging. If you do go this route, try sleeping with your heads at opposite ends to give yourselves a little more room to maneuver. (Attempt hammock sex only if you’re willing to risk your neck for exotic nooky.)
Hammocks strung up on the deck of a boat on the Amazon. Photo: Bruno Girin
For ultimate comfort, get a friend to tie the long sides of the hammock together above you. Enclosed in a cool, breezy bubble, you can toss and turn as much as you like without worrying about falling out (though that’s pretty hard to do, anyway).
However, never (never never never!) sit down on a hammock without unfolding it under you. A hammock is not a bench. Try it, and you’ll go over backwards, land on your head, and no one present will ever let you forget it. Also, it will really hurt.
But—here I speak from experience—even that trauma will not sour for you the sweet, sweet sensation of swinging to sleep in a hammock on a warm tropical breeze.