During 2014 I started to get interested in hammock camping. When I first started backpacking in the early 2000s I primarily used tarps, more recently I’ve begun using tents because I like the extra protection and simplicity, but until last year I had no experience with hammocks. I didn’t want to spend too much(in case I hated it), so I purchased a Grand Trunk Ultralight Hammock($20, 12 oz), an 8 x 10 tarp from Tractor Supply ($9, 24 oz), a set of Eno Altlas Straps ($30, 12 oz), and some cheap Wal-Mart paracord for a ridgeline ($2.50, 2 oz). Including 8 stakes (which I already had) the whole setup cost about $60 and weighs 53 oz or 3.3 pounds.
I’ve had quite a few chances to try this setup out and I’ve learned a lot about Hammocking in general over the past year. My Eureka Spitfire 1 weighs about the same as this setup, and I want to spend at least another winter switching between a hammock and tent to really figure out which one I like best before I invest in a lighter tent or a lighter hammock setup. There are tons of resources regarding hammocks vs tarps for backpacking, and I don’t intend to rehash all of those ideas. I just want to share my personal take on the advantages and disadvantages of each as a shelter in the Southern Appalachian Mountains based on having used them both for an extended number of trips.
Warmth and wind protection: Because a tent is more enclosed it offers more protection and traps body heat better.
Simplicity: A tent can be pitched the same way every time making it quick to set up and tear down. Time spent pitching and breaking camp is a big deal to me. I usually hike in cold weather, so I don’t want to spend anymore time than is necessary being inactive in camp. A 3 minute setup for a tent is impossible for me to match in a hammock with all the various pieces of equipment.
Fewer suitable sites: It can be really hard to find a flat spot in the mountains. Even when you do, it’s often choked with vegetation.
Less usable space: Even a small tarp over a hammock is going to give me more room to stand up, dress, move around, and pack gear than I have in a tent.
Less comfortable (for me): No matter how hard I try to find good sites there are always times when I’m going to have to sleep at a slight angle.
Condensation: The protection that a tent offers is a double edged sword. It can be great in a storm, but the temperature differential creates a lot of internal moisture.
No condensation issues: Even with the doors open my tent isn’t going to be as airy as a hammock.
More livable space: Even a small tarp is like a palace compared to a one person tent.
More site options: With trees everywhere it’s easy to find a campsite in the Southern Appalachians with a hammock.
Better in extended wet conditions: Because a hammock has more livable space and less condensation I find that extended periods of rain are easier to handle. I’ve got a shelter area to cook, sit, dress, pack, and unpack. I can also pitch just the tarp during meal breaks while hiking.
Piecemeal changes: This one is often overlooked, but with a hammock setup you can make incremental changes in your gear. Most tents are an all or nothing deal, there isn’t much customization. But with a hammock you can add gear a piece at a time so there aren’t major changes or expenses all at once. I may not want to drop $500 for a new Zpacks tent, but I can spend $70 for a lighter tarp, or $30 for lighter suspension and slowly build a hammock kit that I like.
Colder: There’s no way around it, I need more gear to stay warm in a hammock during cold weather than a tent.
More complex: There are just more moving pieces and variations in the setup and tear-down, which increases the time it takes to make and break camp.
Expensive: This is also true of a good ultralight tent, but even more so of an ultralight hammock setup. Underquilts and top quilts can be extremely expensive, and a good Cuben fiber tarp is going to take a bite out of your checking account.