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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Smoothing It

Hanging Out in a Hammock

By Tamia Nelson

April 3, 2007

The Québec river meandered through a soggy waterscape of sphagnum and alder for as far as I could see, even when I balanced gingerly on the gunwales of the heavily loaded freighter. The 1:250,000 quads that were our only maps weren't much help, either, especially as Farwell was being a trifle evasive on the subject of our present position. Truth to tell, he'd daydreamed through the afternoon, with the predictable result that he was more than a little "confused." Now we were paying the price. At least the water weeds whispering under our keel pointed the way downstream. We knew we were headed in the right direction. Still, we hadn't seen a single attractive campsite all day, and like Dickens' feckless Mr. Micawber, we were reduced to waiting for something to turn up. It looked like it might be a long wait. Then, just when we thought we'd have to spend the night in the boat, something did turn up. As we rounded a bend in the lazy river, a stand of young birches appeared on a low whaleback ridge dead ahead, their white trunks brilliant in the evening light. Few sights could have cheered us more. We were hurting: bone-weary, sunburned, and parched. But none of that mattered now. I knew the world would look a lot better after a bowl of soup, a mug of tea, and a good night's sleep.

We made landfall in a tiny cove. Lush ferns grew among the birches. Farwell fussed about in the bow of the boat, searching for some stray item of gear or another. I was too impatient to wait one second longer, however. Swinging my legs over the rail, I stepped ashore. And there I stayed, both feet sunk deep in spongy earth. It was obvious that our high, dry refuge was neither dry nor high. Oh, well, I thought. At least we won't have to curl up in the bilge of the canoe. I also congratulated myself on having the foresight to seal the seams of our tent's bathtub floor. But it promised to be a mighty damp night, nonetheless. If only we could sleep off the ground and out of the wet, I lamented, not really expecting a reply. I got one, though. Farwell grunted something inaudible, then swatted a mosquito. (It was a pointless exercise. There were at least a hundred queuing in the air to take her place.) I cocked a quizzical eye in his direction. He cleared his throat and repeated what he'd just said. It was a single word: "Hammocks." I understood immediately.

I shouldn't have needed a reminder. Even as a kid I found the idea of "sleeping high" attractive, and when I started climbing, I figured that I'd be bivouacking in a hammock before very long. But it didn't happen. Maybe that's just as well. Back then, I couldn't afford the expensive single-point suspension hammocks in the climbing catalogs, and my one attempt at a making a hammock from scratch wasn't a great success. It taught me a valuable lesson anyway. I learned that a rotten canvas tarp makes a poor bed. It let me down spectacularly. Luckily, I was only a few feet from the ground when the canvas split. Later, a few surreptitious forays into a neighbor's yard to sample the joys of a lawn hammock confirmed my fears. This hammock, too, let me down. Not literally, of course. It was too well made for that. But it gave me a stiff back every time I used it. From then on I was a confirmed groundling. While I continued to climb high by day, I always slept low.

Years passed. I headed off to college. One afternoon I walked into the office of my anthropology professor only to find him reclining comfortably on a hammock — a lovely artifact from his days as a missionary in the (then) Belgian Congo, cunningly woven from brightly colored cotton. No, he wasn't lazy. Far from it. He was doing battle with cancer, and he needed short naps to get through each day. But there was no space in his office for a cot, or even a sofa. There was just enough room to swing a hammock, however. As I said, he looked comfortable. That surprised me. I remembered how my neighbors' lawn hammock had goaded my back into painful protest. What was I doing wrong, I wondered? So I asked. And my professor told me the secret: Don't stretch out in a hammock like you'd lie on a bed, he chided. That guarantees misery. Sprawl across the bight of the fabric, instead, lying on the diagonal. I was skeptical. Surely such a simple thing couldn't make any difference, I protested. My professor only smiled. He struggled up from his comfortable berth, grimacing as he felt the weight of his disease settle on his fleshless frame yet again. Seconds later, though, he'd shrugged it off. He had a class to go to. But as he left, he invited me to try the hammock for myself. "There's nothing like an empirical trial to settle a disputed question," he said, winking. Then he was gone.

I approached the hammock gingerly. I stretched out, being careful to lie on the bias. Bliss. The professor was right.


Now, years later, I'm thinking about hammocks again. The spring crop of catalogs litters my desk, and nearly all of them have several pages devoted to suspended shelter. It looks like the time is ripe for anyone who's thinking about sleeping high. Are you among us? Then the first question to ask is…

Do You NEED a Hammock?

The answer? Probably not — unless you're planning a multi-day climb on a vertical wall, that is. Moreover, most paddlers' closets are full of gear already, and no matter how deep your pockets, there will always be other things competing for your dollars. That said, though, there are good reasons to write "hammock" at the head of your most-wanted list. Comfort is one. The young and fit can put up with almost anything, but those of us with more than a few miles on the clock and a couple of fender-benders in our history have a keen understanding of the virtues of smoothing it. And as my anthropology professor showed me, whenever comfort is your objective, a hammock is the nonpareil.

Wait. There's more. While your companions struggle to pitch their tents in wind and rain, executing low crawls through mud and mire to exit and enter cramped fabric cells, and wondering if the spot they picked is likely to flood, you can rise above the fray — not to mention any sharp sticks, hard rocks, and broken beer bottles that you missed when you scouted your campsite. This is reason enough for many. All in all, no bed better embodies the KISS principle. It's also the ultimate low-impact shelter. (If you take steps to protect the bark of the trees that support you, that is. But I'll have more to say about this later.) And a hammock will fit into the smallest getaway pack with room to spare.

OK. Do hammocks have a downside? Sure. Nothing's perfect. A hammock needs two anchors, and nature doesn't always put a tree where you want one. If you're heading out over the tundra or across a desert, you'll need a tent. Everywhere else, however, you'll find that a little ingenuity — and a couple of extra-long pieces of webbing — will go mighty far toward solving any problems. What about bugs? Easy. Just tell them to buzz off. It's not hard to find a mosquito-proof hammock these days. The venerable jungle hammock showed the way, and modern materials have made this time-tested design even better, while also putting you out of the reach of many critters that go bump in the night. (Not black bears, though. Unless you like unexpected company, don't eat in bed!)

Or maybe you're worried about getting cold feet? Hammocks are airy beds, ideal for the tropics. But what about Canoe Country? Do you think it's too chilly to sleep suspended between trees in the places where you paddle, even in high summer? No sweat! Foam pads and insulated hammock liners keep your bottom half toasty, while your sleeping bag does the rest. Rain? A strategically placed tarp stops all but a deluge from dampening your spirits. Are there any other drawbacks? Yep. A few. You can't live large in a hammock. But small is beautiful, right? (Use a separate tarp to shelter your kit, or carry a second gear hammock.) A final caution: Getting in and out requires a little practice. If you dive in headfirst you're likely to find yourself back on the ground before you know it. Want to avoid an unplanned roundtrip? Then just settle your butt in the bight before swinging your legs aboard. Piece of cake!


Convinced? Me too. Now the only thing left to do is to…

Make Your Choice

There's the usual trade-off between durability, weight, and price. You can't expect any item of gear to be bombproof, light, and cheap — not all at once, anyway. A hammock's no exception. Two out of three is the best you can do. So set your priorities and then go shopping. You'll find you have a lot to choose from. Just make sure the hammock you pick is big enough to allow you to sprawl across it on the bias. (There are double hammocks for couples, by the way.) And take a test snooze before parting with your cash if at all possible. Hammocks have personalities, and you'll want to know if you and your bed are compatible. You'll be spending a lot of time together. Make sure the suspension system is kind to tree bark, too. Rope is bad. Webbing is good. And wide, soft webbing is better still. You can get ready-made suspension kits, or you can make your own. (You'll find the figure-eight loop invaluable for this, and a couple of carabiners won't hurt, either.) You can even buy a bipod and guyline for the times when you can't find two trees to hang from. It's an intriguing idea.

Still undecided? No problem. Backcountry hammocks are becoming more popular. See if you can borrow one from a friend. Then take it on an overnight somewhere close to home and sleep on it. There's no better way to reach a decision.

Most paddlers have a Goldilocks moment sooner or later, a time when every bed they try seems either too hard or too soft. But don't despair. If you keep looking, you'll find one that's just right — and it might be a hammock. After all, hanging out is sometimes the best way to spend a little quality time. Don't you agree?

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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