My 22 USD Sustainable Backpacking Hammock

17 August 2011

I’ve been a camper and backpacker since I was about 10 years old, although I certainly haven’t done as much of either of those two things as I might have liked in my life. Lately, however, there has been an idea nagging at me about the state of art when it comes to the sort of gear on offer. It seems somewhat contradictory to me that most all the gear manufacturers and retailers promote an image of ecological consciousness that goes hand in hand with the very idea of outdoor recreation, yet when I walk into a store such as REI or Campmor, I find myself bothered by the fact that practically everything in the store is made from non-renewable materials, particularly plastics derived from petrochemicals.

I also confess to having a fascination with tales of camping and trekking that were published in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, prior to the invention of plastics. In books from that era, it is quite apparent that the concepts of lightweight gear were well-established before the modern era. Pack weights of 30 lbs or less for one’s basic kit (including consumables!) were easily reachable in those days. Today we would consider such a load a very light outfit, indeed.

For many years now, I have been contemplating trying to put together a basic kit that would cover as many situations as possible while remaining under the limit of 1/5 of my body weight, which is about 160 lbs, so my limit is 32 lbs. I would like this kit to be composed of, as far as is possible, out of renewable materials. Sadly, many common items that were available in natural materials are no longer made, but many items can be easily made by oneself at home.

Another thing that informs this stance is that much of the gear on offer these days is quite expensive, and as a transsexual woman who is effectively unemployed, cost is a major concern for me in a way that it was not when I was working and before my transition.

Fortunately, there are many avenues available for acquiring suitable gear at relatively low costs. Discount stores and thrift stores often have items which can be put to perfect use as backpacking and camping gear, particularly if one is not too style-conscious on the trail, but even this little problem can be surmounted if one displays a bit of patience.

My latest project has been to consider using a hammock for a sleeping system. Let’s face facts, no one really wants to sleep on the ground if they can avoid it, and for the past few years, all of my camping has been of the variety where I drive my truck in to a fixed campsite, so I have been able to use my 8 lb Byer of Maine Allagash AL cot to keep myself suspended. While backpacking, though, a cot is just not going to be an option, but a hammock fits the bill quite well.

While there are many purpose-built hammock systems available for backpacking and camping, all of these are made from synthetic fabrics, save two models from Amazonas. Unfortunately, the Amazonas products are quite heavy and fairly pricey, weighing in at 5 lbs and 70 USD for the single width “Barbados” model (58 x 89), and 6 lbs and 100 USD for the double width “Paradiso” model (68 x 101). Another drawback, in my personal opinion, of the Amazonas hammocks is that they tend to come in colors that I would consider garish in the woods, but rather appropriate at the beach. The Amazonas hammocks are made in Brasil, and distributed exclusively in the United States by Byer of Maine.

A basic Brazilian-style hammock is very easy to construct, and there are excellent instructions for how to do so at Just Jeff’s Hiking Page ( ). Jeff’s site contains a wealth of information, and you can find the information about making your own hammock at ( ).

I decided to comb the local discount stores to see what I could come up with. My first idea was to use a bed sheet, possibly one made out of cotton twill for extra strength, as most sheeting fabric is not very strong. The biggest problem I ran into, other than not being able find anything made in twill, was the fact that bedsheets are generally sold in sets until you get to the higher end. That said, it is possible that the higher end stuff is exactly what you would want for a hammock, as a 700-thread count fabric is likely to be much stronger than a 200-thread count fabric. For the time being, I have set aside the idea of using a bed sheet, because I couldn’t find anything that looked promising for less than about 30 USD for a single sheet. Once I prove my concept here, I’ll try out an expensive bed sheet.

I did, however, come across something that might be just right. A table cloth! I found a nice 100% cotton tablecloth in a nice woodsy green color that measures 60″ x 120″ in its finished state, which is just the right width, and possibly a little too long, but since I’m over 6′ tall, I think I might just appreciate the extra length. The tablecloth weighs, according to my kitchen scale, just over 2 lbs. Given that there is some extra fabric involved in the seaming, I estimate that the weight of this fabric is approximately 5.5 oz/yard. Not quite the 3-4 oz range that I was hoping to end up with, given descriptions of Egyptian cotton “balloon silk” I have read about in Horace Kephart’s “Camping and Woodcraft”, but I feel comfortable about this fabric’s strength. Oblong (rectangular) tablecloths are commonly available in 60″ x 120″ size and 60″ x 108″ size, which is probably perfect for a hammock.

Here is my total shopping list:

1 ea.    Cotton tablecloth, 60″ x 120″        cost = 10 USD
2 pr.    Waxed shoelaces, 27″ long            cost = 2.50 USD
2 ea.    5/16″ stainless steel shackles        cost = 9.50 USD

I happen to have had a bit of 5/16″ nylon kernmantle (braided) utility cord hanging about that’s never been used, so I didn’t have to buy any rope that day. In the future, I will investigate replacing this with some marine-grade pure hemp rope (not that rough manila stuff, but the real Cannabis sativa sort you might see people using for shibari 😉 ).

As you can see, my total materials cost for this project, minus the rope, is only 22.00 USD. For a project like this, where the strength of your materials is of concern, I would recommend sourcing the fabric from a discount store rather than a thrift shop. That way, you know everything is new. The two shackles I bought at Home Depot. For this purpose, I don’t need to use the really expensive stuff they sell at marine supply places or rock climbing shops. These shackles have a breaking strength rating of 1320 lbs, which should be more than sufficient.

The total weight of all of this turns out to be 2 lbs, 11 oz. Not too shabby, if I don’t say so myself, even if it’s not the 1 lb, 2 oz of something like the 60 USD nylon ENO Singlenest hammock.

I even came up with a little treat for myself. I have given up on the idea of sleeping without a proper pillow. I have a couple of down travel pillows I got on sale at REI a few years ago, but really, they are far too small, and the down compresses far too easily for my tastes. The best pillows, in my opinion, are natural latex foam pillows, and I have four of these on my bed at home that I found at a discount store several years ago when my ex moved out and took the bed, leaving me to acquire a new mattress set and all new bedding.

Latex pillows last far longer than conventional pillows, and there is just nothing like them for comfort. The foam is very resilient, fairly lightweight, and has a springy character that you just can’t get from any other type of pillow. I honestly believe there is no better pillow out there than a latex foam pillow. The only strange thing about them, and this may just be the way I sleep, is that my pillowcases seem to work off of the pillows of their own accord after a few days. It’s a good thing I’m not allergic to latex, because I won’t sleep on anything else, now!

What I found on the clearance rack at Marshalls while searching for a suitable hammock material, was a Ralph Lauren 100% wool pillow sham, trimmed with actual suede, for only 10 USD! Yes, it’s true, from now on, I fully intend to pack a standard size pillow…some things you just have to have, right?

This is a boon for me, because I am also going to replace my Flight 3D 35 degree sleeping bag from The North Face with a wool blanket, and I was planning on getting a matching pillow sham for it. Although the best wool blankets out there are probably the ones from Filson, they are also extremely expensive, and only come in Twin size. I’m looking for a King size, which at 108″x96″ size, will give me three full layers of 32″ wide wool that I can alternately use to cover myself or pad myself underneath, and a full eight feet to stretch out in, minus what I may use to create a foot box, but I’ll write more on that topic another day.

Suffice it to say that my current blanket of choice is the Eco-Wise Easy Care series from Pendelton, which sells for 165.46 USD today at Now, this is an expensive item, but it should last many, many years, even in heavy service. Sadly, wool blankets are not very common in most shops, let alone discount shops or thrift stores. Eco-Wise Wool is Cradle-to-Cradle Certified, and if you haven’t read the book Cradle-to-Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, I highly recommend it. Come to think of it, I think my copy is in my storage unit, and I need to get it out and re-read it! In any case, check out the info about Eco-Wise Wool blankets at Pendleton’s website ( ).

The matching Eco-Wise Easy Care Wool pillow sham sells for 78 USD, so you can see that I got a pretty good deal finding the Ralph Lauren swag. That will have to do until I can afford the Pendleton gear. By the by, I weighed the RL sham at 12.7 oz. My new sham has a body made of a marled grey wool, the trim is a very thin tan suede, and it has button closures like a duvet cover. It has a very vintage and rustic appeal.

Following the instructions at Jeff’s page, it only took me a few minutes to fold my tablecloth into a “W” shape, whip the ends, and attach support cords. I used a Strangle Knot to attach my cords, and then a fisherman’s bend with triple overhand knots to form a loop with the remaining ends. These loops will be attached to tree huggers with the stainless shackles. Easy peasy!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This hammock, at nearly 3 lbs, is still only part of my sleep system, and I was talking about going lightweight. Well, I guess I’m just going to have to make up the weight someplace else, as I am committed to the idea of toting a hammock about in addition to a tarp-based shelter system, along with a large and heavy wool blanket. I’m not fully settled on King size for the blanket, I may just go with Twin Size.

I’m never again planning on going camping in cold weather, or in extremely foul weather. Cold weather camping requires a whole different way of thinking, and light weight just isn’t really in the cards when it comes to nautral materials and camping. Just you wait, though, because I’m not out of ideas just yet…I’ve got plans, big plans, I tell you!

The bottom line, though, is that in the old days, when the weather turned bad, people either didn’t go camping, or they didn’t travel that day if they were, and remained in camp. I like that wisdom, so I’m no longer going to contemplate carrying every possible item to face every possible scenario. I’m looking at warm and fair weather for my future for the most part, at least when I’ll only have myself to carry gear.

Of course, it’s been raining here all day for the past couple of days, so I haven’t gotten a chance to try out my new creation just yet. Hopefully, it’ll clear up soon. Hmm…the National Weather Service says clear tonight and sunny tomorrow with a high of 86 degrees, plus another mostly clear night tomorrow night with a low of 65 degrees…perfect!

See you around the campfire…XOXO, Gemma