A combination of people asking me questions and people not asking questions when they should have, has prompted me to write this article. Experienced temperate campers sometimes fail to adapt to jungle and/or hammock conditions aderquatly. The following are 12 key factors to consider:
1) “Widow makers” is a term I was taught for branches that may fall down during the night. This applies to all camping and are easily missed as we spend most of our lives looking at a range from head height to ground. Make camp before dark, check canopy, dislodge any widow makers or find a new site.
2) Avoid palm trees of any variety as a general rule, but for different reasons. Some palm trees are only a lattice of a honeycomb-like structure inflated with water, such as banana palms. They collapse easily and banana palms will be private property. Exceptions suchs as coconut palms with stirdy build have a different issue, for 150 people die a year from falling coconuts and most of those wouldn’t have been sleeping under one. Another sturdy palm is the peach palms or chonta, is a common palm in the Amazon growing thirty meters high and covered in rigid spikes over an inch long. They regularly shed branches which also have these spikes, making the widow maker scenario more gruesome.
3) Liners made of silk are slept in inside of a sleeping back with many advantages. Silk deters insects, they’re easier to clean (of body odour) than sleeping bags and if it is too hot you can sleep in only this. I would always carry a one season sleeping bag with me however as nights can be cool during high pressure systems and should the inside of the hammock become damp (or wet!) it can absorb the moisture.
4) Leaf cutter ants can cut holes through synthetic fabrics like they were foliage. Although my hammock with it’s duct tape repairs has proven it is at risk, the greatest risk is to ground dwelling tents and bivies. A story I have heard is of a camper waking up to a flooded tent finding an ant highway had gone in one side, shredded the sleeping bag and gone out the other side, which allowed water in. Tents and tarps labelled as fire retardant seem to ward of the critters. Preventives I have heard of include charcoal and spider webs (silk!), so coating the hammock string in either may deter them. I’m still conducting tests as it is only an issue 1 in 30 nights for me.
5) Elven forests are dwarf versions of ordinary trees, forming at the highest altitudes for rainforests. These forests can be little more than large shrubs, making finding suitable hammock sites difficult (but not impossible). If your research of an area indicates such rainforests, or you are sleeping above 3,000m, I personally would ditch the hammock in favour of a bivy. You’ll need to machete the area well and likely lay down broad leaves to protect the bivy. Some people raise the sleeping area by digging to reduce flooding risk (I don’t) and others put charcoal around the site to deter insects (I haven’t).
6) Mosquitoes can bite through plastic where your body is snug to the material. A thermarest (a brand of camping air mattress also used as a generic term) will prevent this and insulate from a rare breeze. I use a thin hulled Neoair Thermarest, as it is not exposed to the prickly perils of the grounds and packs down remarkably tight.
7) Suspend the hammock as far and tight as possible for the most comfortable sleep. Manufactures always advice to sleep diagonally in a hammock to reduce the banana shape, but I still find this uncomfortable. A thermarest will provide added rigidity but should be placed in the sleeping area rather than slid in the “designed” space such as a DD Jungle Light has, for it constantly slips from under you and is IMPOSSIBLE to rectify from within the hammock. Pay attention to how level the hammock is as well because a that-will-do attitude (that I have been guilty of) will lead to restless nights of periodically shuffling back to the sleeping position.
8) Tarp or not to tarp is another act of laziness I am nearly always guilty of. Rigging a shelter above your hammock, even if it has it’s own waterproof layer, has two main benefits. Firstly it provides a dry area for you to setup and pack away in should there be rain. Secondly, waterproof hammocks are seldom waterproof. Any camping shelter that is one layered (hammock, tent, bivy, etc.) will be damp inside in moderate rain. This said, I have been in a couple of storms considered heavy even for the tropics, without a tarp and my aforementioned one season sleeping bag has been able to handle the damp to retain my comfort. Consider though that if you are in the rainforest for more than just a couple of nights, any damp will rot, so for any long trips or expedition with a base camp I always tarp.
9) Machete the foliage low because you’re fatter than you realise. There is the obvious factor that an innocent twig may damage your expensive hammock but do not underestimate how annoying the sound of a repeated sway over a blade of grass is.
10) Bivy bag belongings that you are not keeping within the hammock, which I’m surprised not more people do. I hear the argument that “I’m always under a tarp so my belongings do not get wet”, which is particularly shortsighted. Not only does rain angle with the wind, it also flows with the hill. Another consideration is that it prevents nasty creatures creeping into your bergen or boots, which some people from temperate climates seem to fail to consider. A cheap bivy is all that is needed (observe header photo to see bivy underneath hammock).
11) Red light I find useful for more than being able to retain your nightvision. A head torch with a red setting goes almost completely ignored by insects, which can be insatiable around dawn and dusk. I do find myself feeling oddly disorientated after ten minutes as everything is monochromatic, temporarily turning back to white light for tactile tasks.
12) Urinating from your hammock does not only facilitate laziness but is also safer. You eliminate the [albeit very small] risk of fumbling in the dark and being bitten, or stabbed by a peach palm. Enter the hammock from one side and plan to urinate from the other (sharing this plan with others on the site!). Ladies, you would have my eternal respect for pulling this manoeuvre off, which is difficult even with gentleman anatomy.
In a subsequent artilce I will review what equipment I use for hammock camping in rainforest.