As the temperature drops, the amount of gear you need to stay warm goes up. Hammock campers are all familiar with the phenomenon known as “ice-butt”. It’s that feeling you get when you wake up in the middle of the night shivering because your butt feels as if it’s been put in a freezer. Even though you’re suspended away from the cold ground, the cold air will still sap away your body heat over time unless you are well insulated. An hammock under quilt with a top quilt is the best choice for keeping warm in your lightweight hammock, but both of those are expensive and some people don’t like having to devote all that extra pack space for the two quilts. Luckily there are plenty of ways to stay insulated without the use of an expensive under quilt and top quilt.
When you’re camping outside, insulation is necessary at night to keep you comfortable. The same breathable properties that makes a hammock so comfortable in the summer heat also lets cold air flow right through when camping at night. Having a sleeping bag is standard camping practice. But when lying down, your body weight compresses the bottom portion and significantly reduces the insulation it provides.
This is also true when you’re in a hammock. Your body and the fabric of your hammock compresses the sleeping bag underneath you. An under quilt is designed to be suspended on the outer part of the hammock, providing an insulating layer that won’t be compressed between your body and the camping hammock itself. The folks over at Hammock Gear and Enlightened Equipment both make great underquilts and topquilts. However, a well designed under quilt will run you hundreds of dollars, a steep barrier for most people just getting into hammock camping. Here are few cheaper alternatives that will do the job.
1. Use a sleeping pad
While you won’t need a bug net for your hammock in the winter, proper insulation is even more important. Using the same principle as tent camping, simply place a sleeping pad underneath your sleeping bag before settling in for the night. While both foam pads and air pads will work in a hammock, foam sleeping pads are cheaper and more durable than their inflatable counterparts. Normally, the major advantage that an inflatable pad has over foam is comfort. However, since sleeping in a hammock is already much more comfortable than sleeping on the ground, this advantage is largely irrelevant and the main determining factor is price and size.
Some people have difficulty with staying on top of their sleeping pad while in their hammock shelter. The pad has a tendency to shift around underneath when sleeping in the hammock. One easy solution is to put the hammock pad inside the sleeping bag, thus ensuring that no matter how much you toss and turn, you’re sleeping pad will remain tethered to you.
Another annoyance with a standard sleeping pad is that it only insulates the underside of your body. If your hammock is tight on the sides, it will compress the sleeping bag and make your shoulders cold. Many people like to add “wings” to their hammock pads which flare out to the sides and keeps your arms warm at night. There are sleeping pads designed with these extra flaps, but you can easily attach your own by cutting up pieces from a standard foam board and attaching it with some duct tape.
Foam pads are a vapor barrier and can cause condensation at night. I rarely experience this, different people report different results.
2. Use a reflective blanket
Having a mylar blanket placed under your sleeping bag will reflect heat back at you. Mylar emergency blankets are cheap and are used by marathon runners, emergency personnel and many outdoor enthusiasts as a very lightweight source of heat retention. It’s a thin, plastic material which will act as a heat shield under your body. In a hammock, you can wrap the entire blanket around you and your sleeping bag for maximum heat retention. If you have enough mylar, you can also use it to build a rain fly, keeping out light rain while also retaining even more heat within your hammock. Similar to a pad, mylar is a vapor barrier and can cause condensation.
3. Use your car’s old sun shade
If you have an old reflective sun shade lying around you can use it as a cheap sleeping pad for your hammock. While it does not have a thick layer of foam or air like a traditional sleeping pad, the reflective material acts similarly to the mylar and will help reflect any ambient heat back to your body. This technique works fairly well and is very inexpensive provided you already have one of these in your car. However, the sun shade material is loud and you will need to get used to the crinkly sounds it makes when you’re moving around on top of it.
4. String your hammock through your sleeping bag.
Most sleeping bags have two zippers – one that is normally used to open and close the bag, and another at the foot of the sleeping bag. You can open the sleeping bag from the foot area a little bit and have your hammock run through it. This creates kind of a sleeping bag-hammock wrap where you and the hammock are both inside the insulating layers of the sleeping bag. The resulting burrito-like shelter will provide you with the same properties of a top quilt and underquilt, but be warned that set up is more difficult, often requiring at least another person to help you zip it up once you’re inside. It is also helpful if you have some rope to help fasten the ends of the sleeping bag to keep it wrapped tight. The trickiest part is to make sure that the hood of the sleeping bag is securely fastened to the hammock – if it is kept dangling, it will let cold air in freely.
If you’re camping in very cold conditions, you can combine these techniques for maximum insulation. However, if you’re a true winter hammock enthusiast, having an under quilt and a top quilt are still the best options!
Now that you know how to stay warm, make sure you learn how to use a hammock rain fly and other hammock camping tips for beginners! If you’re a DIY type of person, learn how to make your own low cost underquilt and top quilt