In the winter of 2015 Mark Haughton was planning two very long walks when his mind turned to the equipment that would be needed for these adventures. The first walk was a 450 mile trek from northern France to Lancashire via the canal network; the second walk was a gentle stroll along the GR10 in the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coasts – a mere 950km. Given the distances involved the most important consideration for him was to have equipment appropriate to the job in hand, but it would have to be lightweight: he knew he'd feel every extra gram when carrying everything for weeks on end.
My budget was tight so I planned to camp out, just for a few evenings on the first walk but on the second walk all the time – over a month of sleeping out in total. Normally the automatic option is tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat; but such a setup isn't cheap. A mid-range one man tent can cost around £400 and weighs around 650g. Add a self-inflating sleeping mat, typically weighing another 600g, and you already have around 1.2kg of weight even before you factor in the weight of the sleeping bag. For me this was both too expensive and far too heavy, and after much research on the internet I decided that a hammock and tarpaulin would be the ideal solution for me.
A hammock setup can be extremely lightweight and is an increasingly popular choice, both in the USA and within the UK bushcraft community. There are plenty of suppliers of this equipment, but my budget was extremely tight so I decided to make the equipment myself. I found a supplier of technical fabrics and ordered some 1.1oz ripstop nylon for the hammock. For the tarpaulin I chose Silnylon – ultra lightweight ripstop nylon impregnated with silicone.
I already knew how to use a sewing machine, so once the materials arrived I got to work. The hammock was easy to sew and because the material was the correct width I had to do little more than hem around the material. The tarpaulin was more difficult: Silynylon is a very slippy material, its harder to sew and you have to be careful not to leave holes all over the place. The hammock, tarp and cordage all weighed in at about 700g.
So how does the system work in practice? The hammock is whipped at both ends, I loop a nylon cord behind the resulting 'knot' and so hang the hammock. I used nylon cord on my trips but since then have replaced the nylon with Dyneema, which is a little bit lighter. The hammock is hung between two points.
Normally I use trees, but not always. I have slept in perfect comfort suspended between fence posts, and in the corner of a galvanised metal sheepfold. On my way to the Pyrenees I also slept suspended between a tree and a fence down an embankment within half a mile of Bilboa airport!
The tarpaulin I normally hung above the hammock along a line of nylon cord between the two suspension points. The corners and middle of the tarp were held down with titanium tent pegs and a short length of cord to the webbing tails. In bad weather the best setup was to keep the tarpaulin low so that the sides protected the hammock as much as possible. Despite sleeping in downpours and storms I never got wet.
Because I was using the system in the summer I opted to use a 700g down sleeping bag. To insulate me I found that a thin foam sleeping mat was sufficient. I cut this down so that only my torso was insulated – this much was essential as bodyweight tends to compress the down in a sleeping bag, leading to poor insulating performance without something underneath.
As part of the preparations I used the hammock in my garden to check that everything worked as planned. It was fine, although I realised the importance of getting just the right tension in the cord – too much tension and you're limited to sleeping on your back, which I don’t find comfortable. It also takes a little while to get used to the idea of sleeping suspended in space – you keep thinking you're going to fall out, or that the cords will break.
The setup worked fantastically well during both walks, allowing me to sleep in places where using a tent would have been impossible due to the slope or the ground being uneven. I slept for a few nights in the UK, once at the top of an embankment, once in a wildlife park in Greater London and once between two fence posts next to a canal. The big test, however, was the Pyrenees – unknown terrain for me. That said, Cicerone’s GR10 guidebook suggested that there would be plenty of trees to hang the hammock from, and this turned out to be the case. I slept comfortably suspended above rocks and tree roots, above boggy ground and over a 30° slope at Lac D'Oo while a storm raged around me. I slept in great comfort in places where tents would have been useless.
One of the common misunderstandings of hammock camping is that you are obliged to sleep on your back bent like a banana. In reality, provided the hammock is slung correctly you can sleep slightly across the hammock, either on your side or on your back. It can be an extremely comfortable setup.
There was only one night when I failed to find somewhere to hang the hammock, and on that occasion I simply made a tent using the tarp and my trekking poles. Apart from this my sleep system worked perfectly – it was lightweight, cheap to make and supremely comfortable. I would certainly use it again, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a lightweight system. Thanks in part to this my pack was extremely light – on my Pyrenees walk I used a 40l pack weighing 7kg (without food and water), which made for a much more pleasant and less exhausting walk.
Fabric supplier in Germany: http://www.extremtextil.de
Mark’s two books recounting his adventures: