This is the fourth part of a series.
The second “Big Four” item is shelter. You should NOT go build yourself a shelter out of tree branches except in survival situations. It devastates the environment, is time consuming, and takes a lot of energy. There are three basic approaches to shelter. The minimalist tarp, a tent, or hammock. I started my outdoor adventure with a tent as many people and it is probably the easiest way to go camping for the beginner. A quality tent for the occasional camper can be really affordable and easily picked up at a number of stores or ordered online.
Some people prefer to sleep on the ground under a tarp. I call this the minimalist tarp. It’s not fancy and it works in nice weather. However, when it begins to rain or the temperature drops, I’m not sure how they stay dry or warm. Others just cowboy camp or don’t set up anything and sleep under the starts. These are not for me, but they are the lightest option.
Which is better, a tent or a hammock? Tents can be set up nearly anywhere and hammocks rely on having two trees or two things to attach each end of the hammock and tarp. Tents are easier to assemble while hammocks take some practice to get right. Tents are more readily available from just about any outdoor outfitter and generally cheaper for the beginner. Tents systems can be lighter. If you have never camped before, I would suggest starting with a tent.
One thing to consider is a way to insulate against the cold on all sides. In a tent this is done by using a sleeping bag and a ground pad. Sleeping bags are filled with either a synthetic material or down. Synthetic bag are usually cheaper, weigh more, don’t compress as much, and aren’t rated for really cold weather. Sleeping bags are more expensive, weigh less, compress down very small, and some models are rated for below zero degrees Fahrenheit. As with all down products, a down sleeping bag is nearly worthless if it gets wet so you must ensure it stays dry so it can keep you warm. The sleeping pads come in many different styles and prices, but generally are either inflatable or semi rigid foam. They are really there to prevent the ground from stealing all of your body heat, although there are thicker models that are actually comfortable. Of course, the thicker and comfortable models cost and weigh more than something simpler. You will need a ground pad if you are sleeping on the ground in all except very warm temperatures. A closed foam pad is much cheaper and you don’t have to worry about air leaking out in the middle of the night. The can be pretty cheap and some models fold up to save space in/on your backpack. Keeping warm in a hammock can be done by using pad and sleeping bag or down quilts on top and under the hammock. Of course, the down quilts are much more comfortable but more expensive.
IF you want to plunge into hammocks, they do have some advantages. Hammocks don’t care about uneven or rocky ground. When it rains when using a hammock, all of the mud and rain are a foot or two beneath you. I think it is easier to set up/take down a hammock system in the rain while staying dry. The biggest plus is hammocks are much more comfortable (once you get it figured out). I would suggest make a commitment in one direction (tents or hammocks) before you buy too much expensive gear. You can buy a cheaper hammock and tent and see which one you think you will prefer before investing a lot of money.
After a few years of sleeping on the ground, I began sleeping in a hammock under a tarp. The possibility here are nearly endless. There are many different styles, vendors, and ways to hammock camp. If you are interested, the best source I have found is www.hammockforums.net and nearly every question can be answered there. I personally use a tarp, hammock, and down quilts. I have several different items from different vendors that I mix up and use depending on the conditions and temperatures. I have been dry in driving rain and warm down to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but it does take practice to get it right. If you consider a hammock, I suggest getting a long and wide gathered end to start. These can be easily made with very little/no sewing on your own. There is one brand of hammocks (ENO) that are very popular and sold at many outfitters, but if you are over 5 feet tall they will be too short. A long and wide hammock allows you to lay on the diagonal and nearly flat. I often sleep on my side just as flat as my bed.
My wife makes fun of me, but regardless of your gear, ALWAYS try out/test your gear before taking it to the woods. I would rather it fail (not keep me warm or dry) where I can just go inside rather than miles from my car. Miles from the car is not when you want to realize your new tent is missing the main tent poles or your hammock setup is missing a critical component. It has happened….
There are lots of options (and prices) when it comes to shelter. It is helpful to know the temperature/weather conditions you intend on experiencing the outdoors as that will give you a great starting point. Get out and experiment, ask questions, and find what works for you.