Hanging Around ... in my Hennessy Hammock

by Richard Munn|Published 00-00-0000

Sometimes a product comes along that forces us to think "outside of the box," and in the case the box we're encouraged to think outside of is the tent we're used to sleeping in.

Oh, My Aching (Aging) Back!

As the years go flying by, I'm finding myself paying more attention to the weight I'm carrying while I'm canoeing, hiking or snowshoeing. Not that I'm not able to carry the food pack across the portage any more, but as I find myself beginning to look at the backside of fifty moving quickly away from me, I think about what I'm going to be doing five, ten and twenty years from now. It's just a fact of life that a sixty year old frame isn't as adept at load carrying as a forty year old frame, and since I'm not willing to even consider giving up on outdoor activities, I'm beginning to think long and hard about how to reduce the weight of the gear I'm carrying. Of course, one of the items that adds significant weight and volume to anyone's pack is their tent.

With this in mind, the concept of sleeping in a hammock caught my eye when I saw an article about the Hennessy Hammock. I saw a product that packed up to the size of a five pin bowling ball, and weighed less than three pounds. Did it pique my curiosity? For sure!

So What Is This Thing?

Hennessy HammockThe Hennessy Hammock is a sleeping system that includes a specially designed nylon hammock with attached bug screen overhead. The bug screen is stretched over a "ridge line" that runs from one end of the hammock to the other. Over the entire hammock and bug screen goes a silnylon rain fly to keep the system weatherproof.

I read the material on Hennesy's web site, and I have to admit that I had some reservations when I was finished. My main concern was that I'm not a back-sleeper. My pre-conceived notion of a hammock was that laying flat on your back was the only possible position, and I wasn't convinced that I'd be able to do that. I was also a bit worried that laying in a hammock might permanently twist my back into a hammock-shaped arch.

I did a bit of further research on the web, and most of the reviews I read were positive, even from those who, like me, were not back-sleepers. Deciding to give it a shot, I phoned Hennessy Hammocks in BC and ordered a hammock. The model I was considering was the "Explorer Asym," which is one of the larger models of Hennessy's product line. There are two choices in this line - the Explorer Ultralight Asym and the Explorer Deluxe Asym. The Explorer Ultralight is rated for 250 lb. and over 6 ft. and the Explorer Deluxe is rated for 300 lb. and over 6 ft. Since I didn't need the weight rating of the Deluxe, I ordered the Ultralight.

The Hammock Arrives

The hammock arrived within four days, and I unwrapped the package to inspect my purchase. The hammock came in a stuff sack with silkscreened instructions, and the entire system was about the size of a large canteloupe. Weight of the hammock with accessories was 2 lb. 4 oz, as specified on Hennessy's site.

Not being able to resist an immediate test, I headed across the street to the park, hammock in hand. Finding two suitable trees, I began to hang the hammock. Hennessy supplies two webbing straps called "tree huggers" as part of the system. These webbing straps have a sewn in loop at each end, and are used to wrap aroudn the tree, preventing bark damage that the hammock ropes themself might cause. It takes a bit of practice to get the hammock centered between the trees, level and at the right height, but after a couple of tries it became second nature.

The first time you get into a Hennessy Hammock is an "aha" moment, when you realize just how ingenious the design really is. The hammock does not have a traditional side "over the edge" entry. Rather, it has a split in the underside right down the centreline that runs for half the length of the hammock. You poke your head and upper body into this opening as if you were entering a normal tent, then turn around and sit on the fabric at the end of the split. You then lift your legs and feet in through the split and lay down. As soon as you do this, the opening snaps shut and supports your lower legs quite nicely.

There is a Velcro closure along this opening, but it isn't really necessary to keep you from falling out. The tension in the fabric caused by your weight takes care of that. The Velcro is just there to prevent a foot from wiggling out during the night, and bugs and other critters from wiggling their way in. Even so, the opening pulls shut tight enough that it's unlikely any bugs would get in, even if you weren't too contientious about sealing the Velcro.

Field Testing

Laying in a hammock for five minutes is not the same as spending the night, so when I took the hammock out on a canoe trip for the first time, I carried a small solo tent as insurance. We were heading up northeast of Sudbury for a five-day loop through the Chiniguchi area in early September. I enjoy (and need) a good night's sleep, so I didn't want to risk tripping with the hammock only.

The first thing I learned in the real-world test is that it's a good deal more difficult to get into a hammock when you also have to get into a sleeping bag and try to keep a Thermarest in approximately the right position inside the hammock. I entered the hammock the normal way, then spent about five minutes squirming and flailing as I tried to get everything "in place" inside the hammock. Those who witnessed and listened to this from "the outside" confirmed that it was not a dignified process. Toss a couple of ornery alley cats and a grumpy junkyard dog into a burlap sack, tighten the drawstring, shake it up and stand back - you'd have a good idea of what I looked like trying to get comfortable.

The next night, I figured out that a simpler way to do this was to stand in the sleeping bag on the ground, holding the top up around my chest; then entering the hammock in the normal way and lifting legs and sleeping bag into the hammock one smooth motion. Live and learn.

The "asym" in the hammock name stands for "asymmetrical" and has a lot to do with the comfort of the system. Rather than being a straight diamond shape, the hammock is slightly "skewed" into a parallelogram-shape. You don't lay with your body running down the centreline of the hammock, but at a slight (10 to 20 degree)angle, with your head and feet going into the extra room supplied by the asymmetrical shape. Surprisingly, you can lay on your back, on your side or in a fetal position in complete comfort. Stomach sleeping still wouldn't be a possibility, though.

The ridge line that runs from end to end keeps the no-seeum bug mesh up high, making the hammock feel much less claustrophobic that it might appear to be. The Silnylon rain fly attaches to the outside of the hammock on the supporting ropes with a set of easily-tensioned clips. Depending on the expected weather, you can leave the fly quite open to get a good view of the stars, or you can batten down the hatches and pull it down tight if you're expecting rain. The ridge line also provides a handy place to hang small items like sunglasses, watch or headlamp. Hennessy even thoughtfully supplies a small mesh pouch divided into compartments that hangs on this ridge line.

My back isn't the greatest. No matter what type of mattress I sleep on in a tent, I wake up in a bit of pain. I generally crawl out of the tent and walk around looking pretty crooked for the first few minutes. To my surprise, when I emerged from the Hennessy Hammock in the morning, I was on my feet and walking around pain-free immediately. I also surprised myself a few times during the night when I woke up laying flat on my back. Whatever the position, I was just delighted that I'd had one of the soundest, most comfortable nights that I'd ever spent in the backcountry.

Bad Weather

I was curious to see how the Hennessy Hammock would handle bad weather, and I had a good opportunity to test it out on that same trip. We were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm one night, complete with strong winds and a driven rain. In particular, I was concerned that rainwater would run down the ropes and seep into the hammock; and that the fly might not be big enough to keep the rain off the mesh top. Both fears were unfounded. I made it through the storm without a drop of water on me or my sleeping bag.

Final Thoughts

Is the Hennessy Hammock the be all and end all of sleeping systems? That depends what season your're using it in, and who you talk to. Three people tried out one of the two hammocks we had along on the trip. Two people were in love with the system by the trip end. The other found it too confining and claustrophobic, and gave up after one night. I also found on one of the cooler nights that you knew as soon as you slid off your Thermarest. When you're not on your mattress, there's only a compressed sleeping bag and a sheet of thin nylon between you and the cold night air. This isn't an issue in typical summer tripping, but it might become important in the spring or fall when temperatures are lower. Still, I managed to sleep comfortably in conditions that dropped down to 4 or 5 degrees C. I've since learned to slip my Thermarest Ultralite inside my sleeping bag before I get in - that solves the problem of it moving around.

I haven't slept in a tent since that first night. I'm now brave enough to leave the tent behind, relying on the Hennessy Hammock as my sole shelter on canoe trips.

What are the main advantages I've found?

  • No need for level ground. Anywhere you can find two reasonably sized trees, you can set up your hammock.
  • Light weight - you're not likely to find a tent that weighs just over two pounds.
  • Compact size - because the hammock is so small, and because you aren't carrying poles, you're going to free up a lot of room in your pack
  • Speedy setup - after a few trips, I can find a good spot and have the hammock set up in about three or four minutes. I'm generally sitting down having a cocktail while the rest of the group is still putting up tents.
  • Comfort - this is a subjective thing, but if you like sleeping in a hammock, there's nothing that'll match it
  • No Mattress - if you're out in nice summer weather, you can leave the mattress at home, eliminating even more weight and bulk.

I'd still recommend that you borrow one and give it a one-night try before taking the plunge and purchasing, but I'm guessing that this one night will make you a convert and like me, your tent will be lying on a shelf in your camping gear room, gathering dust from that point on.