Obviously, there are several ways you can shelter, but far and away my favorite is hammock camping! If you use a hammock, or have already looked into it, you already know the advantages/disadvantages over other sheltering options so I won’t belabor the point here. But in the backcountry, the conditions (terrain and weather) are as varied as the people. So because you don’t always know what your campsite will look like, you need to be ready to adjust and even improvise the shelter [options] you brought. I always bring an ultralight waterproof bivy in case I want to camp cowgirl-style (you can still use a bivy in your hammock or tent to add a little warmth or waterproofness). But my hammock system is SO light I sometimes bring a tent as well.
But here’s all you REALLY need to go hammock camping: An ultralight hammock (of course), a good r-rated sleeping bag/quilt (I use a Big Agnes, Roxy Anne, 15-degree, goose down, hybrid bag/quilt), and a good r-rated sleeping pad (I use a Thermarest, Extherm, rated 6.9). You still need a tarp, but I just use a few yards of nylon rip-stop from a fabric store, WAY cheaper! That’s pretty-much it!!
You DON’T an under-quilt, an over-quilt, a “pod”-style bug net, a specially made/designed tarp system, or even an over thought, over built suspension system! I’ve had my system in TWENTY-degree temperatures, winds up to 50/60 mph gusts, and downpours and I have always been warm and toasty. In fact, I almost look forward to those conditions! (especially wind!!). Of course, there are some basic pro-tips to know…
First, be SURE you have good clothing layers (base, outer, thermal, rain), particularly your thermal layer. Your clothing IS your insulation (and shelter in an emergency), so whether you choose fleece or down, don’t skimp on this layer when shopping! I always bring TWO goose down jackets (which I can layer). When temperatures approach the 20s, I stuff them into my bag and use one to cover myself from the waist down, and the other the waist up. Then my 15-degree bag becomes a 5-degree bag.
Next, I never stake-out a tarp, I use the nylon rip-stop (it’s not particularly thick, you can’t see through it, but it is thin and breathable) to go over my ridge-line and tie the corners under the hammock. DONE! The result is something akin to what I call a “suspended bivy” or cocoon. The value of a tarp, is NOT to “insulate” you from the cold, it’s to keep the wind/breeze off you! I can actually feel the variations of temperature between me, my down jackets, my bag, my tarp and the outside and each difference is significant!
My suspension system consists of a single length of Spectra cord. That’s it. It’s about half the width of standard 550-paracord, but it has TWICE the strength, and it was designed for wet conditions! (sailing). I pre-hang the hammock with the suspension loops already set and attached, so all I have to do is tie onto a couple of trees. That’s it. Hammock straps? You DON’T need them! “But what about protecting the tree?” If the bark is wet, yes, anything less than a 1-inch strap may leave an impression in the bark IF the bark absorbs water. Some trees are hard as rock, so you don’t have to worry about it. Oak tree bark may show a slight impression, pine tree bark more so. HOWEVER, it’s been my experience that as long as you don’t hang on the exact same tree in the exact same position, the bark WILL bounce back (especially if you’re only there for a night or two).
“But where do I put my stuff?” Once I get into my hammock, I use a little carabiner (which I keep on one of my boots) to hang my boots on the ridgeline, under my tarp, then I just slide my boots out of the way toward my feet. I often add another line under my hammock, with two loops pre-tied, and hook my pack onto it with a couple of carabiners. Now, everything is off the ground, protected and within reach.
“But what about the ants?” There are FAR more ants, spiders, bugs and beetles on the ground than on any tree trunk! Besides, there are things you can do; You can make an “ant bridge” to allow ants to avoid your lines, an ant bridge is just a [solid] stick or two placed next to the ant-trail, place your line across the top of the stick/s creating a bridge over the ants; You can also apply petroleum jelly to your lines, about 99% of the ants have NO interest in exploring your lines (particularly if they have an ant bridge), but occasionally a stray or two will start walking your line. That’s where the petroleum jelly comes in.
I start by wrapping some toe-tape (like masking take) over a few inches of my line just before the hammock (this helps keep your line free of petroleum jelly), then I smear the petroleum jelly on the tape. Ants H-H-H-ATE petroleum jelly!!! Even the most persistent ants won’t cross more than about an inch of this barrier. A mosquito net? I find once I’m inside my hanging “cocoon”, bugs like mosquitoes are blocked by my tarp. I sometimes use a good no-see-um headnet as an alternative.
However the tarp does more than “keep you warm” by keeping the wind off you, it protects you and your gear from bird droppings, falling bugs (like ants), falling branches (within reason) and even butter-fingered squirrels dropping acorns on your head. Of course, there’s nothing that says you can’t sew a little window into the sides so you can see what’s going on around you.
Rain? (a dangerous condition if combined with wind and cold!) Here you have to understand that no matter the sheltering option, when you use waterproof materials, condensation becomes an issue Because my hammock and tarp are breathable, I don’t normally have that issue. However, rain presents a tricky problem, if I anticipate rain, under my tarp and over my ridgeline and hammock, I place a specially folded plastic tarp (cut from a 2mm plastic from a paint store). The head and foot are attached by loops secured with duct tape (only the foot of the plastic tarp is secured at this point). When the rain begins, because of the way it’s folded, it allows me to draw the plastic tarp over me like an awning, then I secure the head of the tarp over me. To address condensation, I use a “spreader” to allow airflow.
There are additional finer points, to be sure, but these are what I consider the more essential recommendations and observations. Done correctly, and well, a hammock is a GREAT [ultralight] addition to any pack which gives you a fantastic sheltering option.