Can a Hammock Make a Good Extreme Winter Shelter?
Yes. Well, sort of. Several hammock systems have been proven suitable for witner use but, just as with other gear, a hammocker must have a full range of backup skills to be safe in extreme winter conditions.
First of all, I think a hammock system can be designed to handle any temperatures on earth. Several individuals have successfully hammocked in temperatures below zero Fahrenheit, with at least one claiming to have slept at -45 F. One night in the Sierras, I was so warm at -10 F that I had to vent my sleeping bag down to my waist a few times during the night. And my shelter, bag and pad combined for a weight of only 7 pounds. So it can be done.
But extreme winter camping is more than just cold temps. The next night, I had to go to ground because the wind was blowing snow under my tarp. The tarp was pitched broadside to the wind, low and tight, but the snow was so dry and light that it floated up from underneath tarp’s edges…then it landed on top of me. If it had melted there, my insulation may have gotten wet...bad news in those conditions. The temperature wasn’t even as low as the previous night, but I still had to go to ground because the shelter wasn’t adequate. In many locations, winter hammockers must be prepared for storms in addition to cold temperatures.
Other considerations become important for winter hiking, as well. Preparing for the worst is an absolute necessity. Consider how you would set up your shelter if you lost a mitten. Many hammockers enjoy using compressible insulation like underquilts, insulated hammocks, or sleeping bags that cover the entire hammock; they provide a very comfortable sleeping surface and resolve many of the comfort and condensation issues that some people experience with pads. However, a lost mitten may lead to frostbite and steal the dexterity needed to hang a hammock, so the option of going to ground in a waterproof bivy with a thick pad may save a life.
So why not add a waterproof bivy to a hammock? On my trip in the Sierras, a simple water resistant hammock bivy would have surely enabled me to stay the night in the hammock. But what if I had to hole up the next day? In those winds that topped 100 mph, a mountaineering tent with a vestibule suitable for cooking would have been very helpful for melting snow into drinking water. Creating a tarptent large enough to hang a hammock inside is one solution, but even this has disadvantages. First, the profile necessary to provide adequate coverage is quite large, and the boxy shape does not spill wind as efficiently as geodesic mountaineering tents. This can lead to shelter failure in high winds – an inconvenience in many conditions, but a possible disaster in four season hammocking. Second, mountaineering tents generally have a separate vestibule so that cooking does not create condensation inside the primary living space. A hammock tarptent for four season camping would have to accommodate for these issues. Still, the hammock tarptent would provide an adequate solution for a range of cold and windy conditions.
Another viable solution is to dig a snow trench between two trees and hang the hammock inside the trench. Since a snow shovel is standard gear in many winter hiking environments, pitching a tarp over a snow trench provides a reliable shelter, albeit with more planning and effort than most hammock sites require. However, this highlights the next issue: the benefits of hammocking.
In snowy environments, two of the major benefits of hammocking are neutralized. Perhaps the greatest benefit of hammocking is that lumpy ground covered with roots and rocks has no effect on the hammocker. However, a thick layer of snow provides enough cushioning to remove this from consideration. Running a close second, the hammocker does not need to look for level ground to set up camp; many times I have slept over a steep slope where no tenter could be comfortable. Again, since a snow shovel is standard gear, cutting a level shelf into most surfaces would not be very difficult. Obviously, in fair weather hanging a hammock would require much less effort than digging a sleeping shelf with a snow shovel, so the hammock retains a slight advantage in that regard.
So as I said, a hammock can make a safe and effective four season shelter in many locations. Current hammock setups can handle a range of temperatures and most weather conditions, and having the skills to build a snow shelter can make up the difference if a severe storm hits and going to ground is an option. For a hammocker without these skills, however, I still have not found a commercial system that I would feel comfortable using as a stand-alone shelter on a winter trip with the possibility of a severe storm. It’s a very small niche market, but we’re getting there!
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