I love touring on a motorcycle, and I love camping. But if you want to go on a camping trip on a motorcycle, you’ve got to pack a tent, some tent pegs, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, maybe a tarp or ground sheet, and so on. And, that still doesn’t guarantee a good night’s sleep in bumpy or wet terrain.
Is there any way to lighten the load? In the past few years, I’ve seen a growing number of motorcycle travelers singing the praises of camping hammocks as a way to get a good night’s sleep on the road, while also potentially cutting down on your load. Intrigued, I decided to find out for myself how well they worked, and got three manufacturers to send me hammocks last year.
Since then, I’ve been testing them on trips as short as overnight fishing expeditions a few minutes down the road, to my cross-country jaunt to Arizona in the spring. I’ve slept in them in mid-summer heat at Shubenacadie, to falltime chill in Newfoundland.
Here’s what I’ve observed about the three hammocks I tested, but first, let’s take a look at the concept of hammock camping, as a whole.
A lot of people are put off by the idea of trying to sleep in a hammock – they’re worried because they think they can’t get to sleep while lying on their stomach, with their left foot draped over the backboard and their right foot resting on the floor, with a pillow over their face and two under their heads … you get the idea.
It’s true the hammocks might require a bit of adjustment from sleeping on a bed, but the fact is, there are countries all over the world where massive chunks of the population sleep in these things. And, if you’ve been riding a motorcycle all day, chances are you’re going to be tired enough you should be able to sleep soundly anyway.
I’d never slept in a hammock before last summer, but quickly came to love them. Overall, all three of these hammocks provided bedtime comfort far superior to any other mattress I’ve ever tried in the woods, whether it’s an air mattress or one of those self-inflating pads. Even the least comfortable hammock, in my opinion, far outshines a mattress.
The ability to make camp no matter what the terrain looks like is very rewarding. Thanks to my hammocks, I’ve been able to camp out on rocky shorelines right next to beautiful lakes, with a beautiful view I never would have gotten with a tent. If the ground has a puddle or large boulders, it’s no problem – your hammock will give you a comfortable sleep.
However, there are also some limitations.
The biggest drawbacks to any of these rigs is their lack of insulation underneath. When you’re sleeping in a tent, the wind is unable to blow under the tent, and if you’ve got a mattress keeping you off the ground, you can stay fairly warm.
But, when you’re in a hammock, the wind cuts right through the bottom of your sleeping bag, as all the bag’s loft is compressed due to your weight. This can make for some very chilly evenings; on my trip across the US, I ended up spending some very cold nights in my hammock in Arizona. For several nights, I actually slept in my riding gear, in an only slightly successful attempt to cut down on midnight wind chill.
Of course, a hammock also needs two points to hang it from. You can usually jerry-rig a way to use the hammock as a ground-based tent (some are intended to work both ways), but then you’re most likely going to wish you had a mattress and you’ll wonder why you never brought a tent in the first place. One advantage of using the hammock as a tent, though, is that it keeps that cold breeze from giving you midnight hypothermia.
The other major issue I see with the hammocks is a lack of space to hang out. No, that’s not a pun. Think about it – if a few people are going on a bike trip, a tent can be a space to eat or play cards or whatever, safely out of the weather and away from the bugs. Not so with a hammock!
So, if you’ve read through all those highs and lows and decided you still want to give hammock camping a try, here are my experiences with three of the most common hammocks on the market today – the Lawson Blue Ridge, the Hennessy Deluxe Explorer A-Sym Zip, and the Warbonnet Double 1.7 Blackbird.
Lawson Blue Ridge
Many hardcore hammock campers sneer at the Lawson Blue Ridge, as it doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as some of the other popular options on the market. But for many users, especially those who are reluctant to move away from tent camping, the Blue Ridge has some features that make it worth checking out.
The Blue Ridge is a “bridge” hammock, similar to what you’ve probably seen at cottages or resorts, with spreader bars at each end. This makes it a little tricky to pack compactly (it packs to 22 inches by six inches), but when you add in the rainfly (held over the hammock by lightweight aluminum poles), you’ve basically got a bivy tent that’s hung from the trees. It’s very similar to old army surplus jungle hammocks.
The Blue Ridge’s waterproof cover is made of nylon, and so is the hammock body. It has a weight limit of 250 lbs. It weighs around four lbs.
The great thing about the Blue Ridge’s design is that it also works as a tent very easily. Simply stake out the ends of the hammock, instead of hanging it in a tree, and everything works the same. Of course, you’ll be sleeping on the ground, but when I camped in Minnesota in May, I wasn’t complaining about that – I was happy to be able to sleep without the wind blowing underneath me.
A feature like this could be particularly useful if you were planning a trip to a spot where trees might not always be available – say, the barrens of Newfoundland and Labrador, or perhaps a Wal-Mart parking lot … Of course, then you might want to pack a mattress as well, so it might not make sense. But at least the option is there
I had an issue with the original Blue Ridge hammock I was sent; while assembling it in the dark, I think I might have gotten the suspension system tangled. All I know for sure is that the spreader bar broke in the middle of the night. They sent me a new hammock, and I was more careful when assembling it, and the problem didn’t happen again.
I think the Lawson isn’t quite as comfortable as the other hammocks, but I still had plenty of great sleeps in it, once I was accustomed to it. I don’t think build quality is quite as nice as the Hennessy (it’s made in China, like the Lawson), and certainly isn’t as good as the Warbonnet (made in the US), but I used it quite a bit during my ride to Arizona, and nothing broke, frayed, or otherwise self-destructed.
The Lawson Blue Ridge costs $140ish; the straps to hang it from a tree cost extra. I used a set of tie-down straps during my cross-US trip; they cost about $4 and seemed to work fine.
Tomorrow: The Hennessy Explorer
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