It's 2:30 in the morning. Will this night ever end. I feel like the princess sleeping on a pea. The difference being that she had a mountain of bedding between her and the pea, and I had only a thin pad between me and the ground. My hips and back are hurting so bad that I can't bear laying in one position for more than about 15 minutes and am thrashing about so much that I feel like a noodle in a stir fry.
It's night 4 of a 6 night trip and the ground isn't getting any softer; if anything it had gotten harder over the years. I was using a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core that year, and even its 2.5 inches could no longer cut it. The combination of hard ground and bruised hips from a too heavy pack conspired to make my nights endless.
But the next day was life altering, at least as far as my backpacking was concerned. One other guy was staying at the lake with us and he was in a hammock from a company called Hennessy. He claimed to love it and that it was very comfortable to sleep in. I had tried several cheap hammocks over the years, and had looked at ads for more expensive ones. But the cheap ones were uncomfortable after a while, and I was not willing to spend the money on a more expensive one without some assurance it would work.
One of the first things I did after getting home was to do a bit of research. I found the Hennessy web site and looked at their offerings. I also found the Hammock Forums and spent a lot of time there, reading about hammocks and accessories, watching how-to videos, and trying to digest all the material I had found. I would have never dreamed that there was so much to know; definitely had my head spinning for a while: hammocks, ridge lines, suspension systems, tarps & other weather protection, under quilts, top quilts, pads, etc.
Ultimately I pulled the trigger and bought a Blackbird, a hammock from a small company called Warbonnet. This seemed to be the most popular hammock on the forums and, more importantly, promised that I would be able to sleep on my side. I am not much of a back sleeper and was apprehensive about being able to lay flat of my back all night.
My Blackbird finally showed up in the mail (at the time they were individually made when ordered) and I set it up out on the back deck to give it a try. The Blackbird is indeed a very nice hammock. It has a double bottom (at least mine does) for inserting an insulating pad, along with a fully enclosed bug net. The sides can be staked out to expand the living space and create a storage shelf on one side. It was indeed a fairly comfortable hammock and I could lay on my side without much issue. One thing I did note right away is that turning over is a bit more complicated than when laying on the ground. A hammock moves along with you when you move, so you have to grab hold of it so that you can kind of hold it still while you flip.
It took a lot of reading and experimentation over that winter, and to some extent over the following couple of years. But I now have what I consider to be a good setup that will keep me warm down to freezing (I am seldom out colder than that), dry in inclement weather, and is fairly simple to setup and tear down. In addition to my hammock, reconfigured to use whoopie slings, I have a Phoenix under quilt and a foot pad to keep me warm on the bottom, a now discontinued No-Sniveller top quilt from Jacks R Better to keep me warm on top, and a MacCat Deluxe tarp to keep the weather off of me.
This setup is about comparable weight wise to my solo tent/20 degree bag/Big Agnes pad setup, but it offers a much more enjoyable camp experience, assuming you are below tree level: hammocks are not of much use if there are no trees to hang from. I find that I no longer dread the nights and anxiously await first light. Instead, snuggled down into a warm hammock can make it difficult to face a cold morning.
A hammock also makes a nice camp chair. If I have much camp time I find that I spend a lot of it sitting it my hammock, sometimes snuggled up in the quilts and sometimes not. I can even pull the bug screen over me to have a bug free environment. It definitely beats any other camp chair I have tried for comfort, although it is not really movable.
The covering tarp gives me a nice work area as well if the weather is wet, which is not uncommon here in western Washington. The tarp is generally strung about 4-5 feet high at the ridge line in order to be higher than the hammock. While that is not high enough to walk under, it does offer plenty of room. I generally have the back side staked down fairly close to the hammock, but will frequently stake the front further out and then prop up the two tie-out points in front with my trekking poles. This gives me a nice porch to work under. At bedtime, if it is windy, I can drop the poles, re-tighten the guy lines and cut the amount of wind blowing across me.
Site selection can be the biggest problem when using a hammock. I need to find of pair of trees with diameters between 5 inches and 3 feet, spaced 13 to 20 feet apart and with a minimal amount of low branches and brush between them. Most established camp sites are configured for tents or tarps and many of them do not have the needed trees. Sometimes trying to put a hammock into the established site can take a bit of creativity; other times it is just not possible.
But, if you are willing to venture away from the established site, I have found it easier to find spots to hang than to sleep on the ground. With the hammock I don't care about rock, roots, level ground, where water might pool: find two trees with a clearing between them and hang in comfort.
I have traveled throughout the Olympic National Park and on the PCT through all of Oregon and 1/3 of Washington with a hammock. I have yet to find a place I could not hang. I realize that there will be some place I will eventually go that will require sleeping on the ground, but for every other place I will continue to enjoy the luxury of swinging between two trees in my bear burrito.