“Going to ground” from a hammock when backpacking

Recently, there have been several post in blogs and forums about “going to ground” from a hammock. If unfamiliar with this concept, it is the idea to go from hanging in a hammock to sleeping on the ground. Most often this is portrayed as an unplanned event – a backup plan. The only unplanned scenarios that would cause one to “go to ground” include failure of the hammock, failure of the suspension, or the inability to find suitable supports (normally trees) to suspend the hammock. Another (user error) reason could be leaving part of the hammock or hammock suspension at the previous night’s location or failure to pack one of these items.   

There may be some planned reasons to “go to ground.” One could be camping above the tree line or in an arid environment where there are no trees or suitable structures readily available. In some locations, attaching anything from a tree is against the rules such as in some National Parks and/or certain campgrounds. There may be other rules and regulations in effect. For example, all section hikers on the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains must sleep in a shelter. (If the shelter is full, thru hikers can set up outside the shelter.)

Let’s first address the planned scenarios that would cause “go to ground.’ As planning begins for a trip and before the first item is put into the backpack, do research. The rules and regulations of the intended destination should come before mileage, packing list, planned route, or anything else as it will determine what needs to be taken. The rules should never be a surprise. Most of the time, there is a phone number and/or email address available if the answer isn’t online. Is going to ground going to be a rare occasion or a possibility often? The rules, regulations, and/or plan may dictate the need to sleep on the ground every night from the beginning.

On a recent trip, there was going to be one night out of three that I had to “go to ground” in the Smoky Mountains. The first and last night were using backcountry campsites where hammocks are allowed, but the second night was going to be on the Appalachian Trail and we had to sleep in the shelter. The obvious decision was to decide between taking my hammock setup or taking a tent and sleeping pad.  I did neither…. I sleep much better in my hammock, so I decided to take my hammock and down quilts and borrow a sleeping pad for the one night. Yes, I carried the sleeping pad the entire trip…. The night in the shelter I used the borrowed sleeping pad and used my top quilt for insulation. I did sleep in the shelter, but not very well. I am a side sleeper so I was not comfortable as the pad was way too thin. The lesson learned was to save up and invest in a thick but lightweight sleeping pad. They do exist but are fairly expensive. This one from Big Agnes is on my wish list in the regular and wide size: https://www.rei.com/product/105158/big-agnes-q-core-slx-sleeping-pad. It weighs 20 ounces but to get great sleep it is worth the penalty to my wallet and pack weight when it is needed.

That is the only time since 2012 when I began sleeping in a hammock that I had to “go to ground.” I have NEVER had an unplanned “go to ground” experience. A quick caveat: there are plenty of trees and camping sites where I spend most of my nights outdoors.

The obvious questions are: “How is this possible?” and/or “Well, you never go camping so that is easy to say.” It is possible and I do go backpacking/camping at least several times a year. Here is the secret: I do have a small backup plan (or two), I pay attention to detail on the condition of my gear, and I’m sure a little bit of good luck has helped, too!

In the beginning of my hammock camping, I used an inflatable sleeping pad for insulation between me and the hammock. This was my backup plan if something failed. I would use the inflatable sleeping pad and the sleeping bag I was using as my top insulation. When I upgraded to down top quilt and a down under quilt, things became a little more interesting regarding “going to ground.”

The first thing I do is ensure I have all parts of my hammock and suspension before it is placed in my backpack. I never assume both of my tree straps are in the bag with my hammock. I always check to make sure. This is good for the first night or location. The second thing I do is taking care of my gear while I’m out in the woods. I make sure nothing sharp is beneath my hammock when I set it up such as thorns or small branches with pointy ends. I also make sure I have nothing that could puncture my hammock in my pockets or in the hammock before I get into it. The third thing I do is when I preparing to leave each location. As soon as my backpack is fully loaded, I check back over my area to make sure I don’t leave anything. I check for stakes, tree straps, or any other small item that may have fallen out of my pack or one of my pockets. Before I hike off, I often turn around and do a final check. Yes, I have found a thing or two on several occasions. The fourth thing I do is after the backpacking trip. As I’m airing out my gear and/or cleaning it, I pay close attention to the integrity of my hammock and suspension to see if there are any parts that are wearing or needing replacement.

While I think the last paragraph can go a long way to ensure you are not surprised, things happen. I carry two items that can help if I ever have to “go to ground.” The first item is my belt. It is a cinch belt that can be used to extend my tree strap if needed or replace a broken (or lost) tree strap. It cost $10 USD, weighs 2.0 ounces, is 48 inches long, and is made of 1” polyester with a breaking strength of 1500 pounds. I purchased it several years ago here: https://www.dreamhammock.com/shop.html#!/Cinch-Belt/p/27766923/category=4019214 I have never had to use it but one of my hiking buddies did once and it saved the overnight trip.

The second thing I carry to help if I ever have to “go to ground” is a small piece of closed cell foam from a cheap sleeping pad such as this one: https://www.walmart.com/ip/Ozark-Trail-Closed-Cell-Foam-Blue-Camp-Sleeping-Pad/634956813  I use an ULA Ohm 2.0 which is an internal frame backpack with a VERY thin piece of foam that comes with it. I took out the thin foam, traced the shape onto the sleeping pad foam and cut it out. I use the thicker foam in my backpack and it has several uses. It prevents sharp edges from poking me in the back as I am hiking. Once I’m at camp and my backpack is unloaded, it can be used as a large sit pad. I could use it in my top quilt for extra warmth if needed. In the event I have to “go to ground” the foam will provide some insulation from the ground for my torso and the backpack would do the same (probably to a lesser degree) for my legs.

Would I be comfortable using the two items listed above? Probably not. Would it work in keeping me warmer than laying on the ground? Yes. Do these items I’m carrying have multiple uses? Yes.

There is an expression that people “pack their fears.” From my experience, the need to carry anything extra for the sole purpose is “what if” I have to sleep on the ground unexpectedly is absolutely unnecessary.  If research is done before the trip, care is taken to ensure everything is packed before you leave as well as repacked before you leave each location, and your gear is regularly inspected, there will be a very small chance that scenario would happen. If it is a concern, just a few small changes could be made to your current gear to allow for some degree of preparedness.

What are you doing to preparing for “going to ground” from a hammock?

About jnunniv

I like outdoor activities including hiking, camping, and scuba diving.
This entry was posted in Backpacking, Beginner Series, Hammock Camping, Helpful information. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “Going to ground” from a hammock when backpacking

  1. mrbream says:

    Just replaced a gathered-end hammock after noticing a couple of small holes along in the fabric at each end. Would much rather pay a few bucks and replace a worn hammock than hit the ground due to a fabric failure. The old hammock isn’t a total loss. I can pull the continuous loops out of the ends and use the fabric for stuff sacks.

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