Notes on Bicycle Camping: Tent or Hammock? Dec 3, 2014

My setup

People have asked me this more than just about anything else when it comes to bicycle camping: tent or hammock? Before we dive right in, I want to clarify that those aren’t the only options. You can also use a bivy or just a sleeping bag on a tarp. I’ve done it all and over the years, I’ve dialed in what I would consider a great system for selecting which will work for you.


The first and most-used option is the tent. With options ranging from around $100, up to $500. I prefer to use ultralight backpacking tents. Why? Because like backpacking, I like to reduce weight where I can, to give me space and weight to allot elsewhere. FWIW, I carry a hatchet when I camp, so I’m not a super weight weenie.

Tents are great. The good ones, like the Big Agnes UL1 go up in seconds, weigh next to nothing at 2 lbs packed and are very durable. I’ve made it through pretty nasty storms with no issues. The UL1 is around $330. Not cheap, and not exactly roomy, but I camp to spend time outdoors and literally need a place to sleep.

For bedding, I use the Western Mountaineering HighLite bag. It’s good to 35º and weighs 16oz.

Sleeping pads are essential for tents and hammocks. They were developed not for comfort, but insulation against ice and snow. My pad of choice is the Thermarest NeoAir XLite. I’d rather use a Thermarest and no bag, rather than just a bag in moderate temperatures.

So, equipment is down, when do I prefer to use a tent?

Tent Use:
-If it’s going to rain or be below 30º.
-If I’m doing a multi-day trip
-If there are a lot of bugs, or other critters.
-If there aren’t a lot of trees in the camp sites.

Or, sometimes, I just want to get in some tent time. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with a hammock and none with a tent, so it’s one less component in the equation that could go wrong…


Hammocks are really incredible for bicycle camping. They’re even easier to setup, have a fairly low barrier to entry, as far as finances are concerned, pack somewhat light, have no poles to break and clean easily.

Hennessy Hammocks are balleur, and I’ve yet to buy one, so for the time being, I have the ENO system. Now, there are dozens of companies that make hammocks, but the Hennessy has been the best system I’ve used. The bug netting and rain fly is all included. They range from $99 and 3lbs to $250 and under 2lbs with variables all over the spectrum that determines the pricepoint. Bottom line: there’s a Hennessy for your needs.

My ENO system, as pictured, sans bug netting, weighs close to 4lbs all in. Yikes.

That may seem heavy, but I like the ENO system because you can distribute the weight throughout your bike. Your rainfly can go in a saddle bag, straps in a pannier, hammock in another pannier. Unfortunately, for what I paid for it, I could have bought a Hennessy, but I bought it over a series of weeks.

The ENO system is also nice because if it’s going to be warm and not rainy, you can just bring the $70 hammock and straps, without having to lug around extra accessories. I.e. pack what you need.

There are two cruxes to bicycle camping with a hammock. The first of which is the obvious. Trees. You must have trees to hang your hammock. I’ve had issues with this three times. Once, in the redwoods. Sure, there are trees, but the straps wouldn’t fit. Other times, the trees were all low-lying cypress, oak or cedar and weren’t strong enough to support the hammock.

Another crux is the loss of body heat. Since your back is exposed, the wind will wick away all your heat. A sleeping pad helps and an emergency blanket over the pad will help, but it won’t be as warm as a tent. I’ve frozen my ass off for many nights even with a pad, a sleeping bag and an emergency blanket. It sucks. Luckily, ENO makes a hammock with a built-in sleeve for a sleeping pad, so you don’t have to hassle with a sliding mat all night. I’ve stuffed all kinds of shit into that sleeve to keep me warm on really cold nights.

So, here’s when I select a hammock.

Hammock Use:
-If it’s a wooded area with lots of trees – you need trees approx 10′-12′ apart, so the tent doesn’t sag funny.
-The temperature range is between 50º and 90º.
-There won’t be bugs, mosquitos, etc. Never use a hammock by a lake… unless you have the bug netting.
-You’re doing a S24 and you just want a place to sleep.
-The ground at the campsites might be more ideal for a hammock.

I know none of this information is revolutionary, but it’s a good reference for people to think about when they’re selecting gear for their next tour or camping trip. Got any other points you want addressed? Ask in the comments. Got tips to share? Please do!

  • Spencer Olinek

    Questions: Can you write me a doctors note to get me out of work? Can you make Michigan winters better?

    • John Watson

      Yes and yes.

  • panda

    Have you considered an underquilt for the hammock in colder weather?

    • John Watson

      Yeah and then it’s even more weight though.

      • scott

        Not really. There are down underquilts that weigh ~13oz that are very competitive with the weight of your neo air. And if you use the underquilt you don’t need the neo air.
        Yeah, for cold weather a ground setup will always be lighter than a hanging setup. But most hangers do it because they sleep better in the air than on the ground. The point that needs to be made is that hangers have developed products that are UL and that address all of the cold weather hammock shortcomings mentioned above.

        • John Watson

          You need a warm an underquilt rated to temps lower than 20º if you’re not using a pad. The pad insulates wayyyy more than a quilt.

          I sleep much better on the ground, even in a small UL tent.

          • scott

            If you sleep better on the ground that pretty much ends the discussion. But I’d have to disagree with your comment above regarding underquilt temperature rating. A good down underquilt such as the warbonnet yeti that is rated to 20 degrees will keep you warm in the 20s, and that is without a pad under your torso. Pads are potentially warmer but don’t always fit the shape of a hammock well, making them uncomfortable. I sleep much better in a hammock with an underquilt and no pad.

          • michaelvsShark

            I watch a lot of this guys videos and he has a rad custom pad he built for himself which conforms to his body a little better. Albeit he still uses an underquilt, but I bet he can sleep regardless of the temp based on his setup:


          • CabotLerue

            Holy shit… this dude is awesome.

          • michaelvsShark

            He’s like the Jim Varney of the hammock world.

  • Fraser

    Somewhat off-topic, but for bike camping a sleeping quilt, rather than bag, is often a lot more adaptable. They usually strap around your sleeping pad, and you’re less constricted (plus down needs to have loft to be properly insulating, so when it’s crushed under your body it’s pretty ineffective). It’s a little easier to regulate temperature in the night. Enlightened Equipment makes great ones, USA made, ethical down.

    • John Watson

      I’ve used one and loved it. The biggest difference I noticed was the lack of fart-smell the morning after. ;-)

    • colavitos_ghost

      +1 on Enlightened Equipment. i use their 20* quilt and cannot say enough good things about it. so light and compact and made in USA for a very fair price. the EE quilt, along with a NeoAir Xlite and Tarptent Rainbow makes for a sub-5 LB, 100% MUSA sleeping set-up.

  • Nicholas Erickson

    Love this honest article because after reading about the hazards of the hammock I’m gonna just stick to my tent although it is definitely time for an air pad.

    • scott

      Nothing wrong with sticking with your tent but just know their are much better options if you decide to dial in your bikebacking setup.

      Its funny to see this interaction of the cycling and backpacking world. Saying that Hennessy hammocks are balleur is the equivalent of saying shimano105 is balleur.105 is great stuff but you wouldnt use the word balleur to describe it once you’ve seen dura ace and red.

      Not trying to be an ass here. John’s quiver of bikes is dialed and his bike adventures are second to none. It’s just fun to see him begin to scratch the surface of the world of gear that is avsailable for UL bikepacking or backpacking.

      • michaelvsShark

        I’ve gone cross-eyed reading hammock forums for the past few months.

        • thebennonite

          LOL there are hammock forums?

          • michaelvsShark

            Bro, do you even passion?

          • thebennonite

            Ha! Is that hammock enthusiast lingo for “sleeping in a hammock”?

          • michaelvsShark

            It’s my brain repackaging shitty internet memes in an attempt to feign some sense of humor, hehe.

            But in case you couldnt tell by this rapidly expanding comment section, Hammock users are a passionate and responsive bunch.

          • John Watson

            There are forums for everything!

          • thebennonite

            So pronunciation wise, is the consensus “hamok” or “hamik”? Or is this
            quandary a source of eternal debate on the hammock forums?

          • Ian Stone
      • John Watson

        So wait, 105 isn’t balleur?

  • scott

    I would second the under quilt recommendation for hammock for cold temps. YMMV, but it’s probably fair to say that the majority of experienced hammock hangers find it easier to get comfortable in the hammock with an underquilt compared to getting a bulky rectangular pad to conform to the rounded shape of the hammock or hammock sleeve.

    You mentioned sleeping bag on a tarp but have you ever considered replacing your tent with a tarp. A good tarp + bivy sack combo takes a little more skill to set up but will is cheaper, more versatile, lightweight, and packable than a tent, yet provide identical protection from the elements.

    Also, if you check into UL backbacking scene and dig a little deeper than the big brands like BA and WM (which are great brands) you will find quite an extensive little cottage industry with some cutting edge MUSA products.

    • Chrue

      i also find the thermarest+sleepingbag+tarp option the best (most versatile+lightest) way to go. one rarely ever needs all the protection that a tent offers. except maybe in scotland ;)
      even if it starts to rain at night the tarp is set up in seconds.

      tried the hammock for quite some time, but had to pass too many nice spots because they didn’t have ‘good’ trees.

      • John Watson

        see above.

    • John Watson

      Well, my ENO has the pad sleeve, and I move so much in my sleep that I always came out of my quilt. The bag, however, I could just scrunch up inside it and I’d usually wake up in the bag still.

      I’ve done the tent tarp before, the Poler Magic Tarpent works, but at that point, I’d rather just use my UL1, which sets up in a minute and I can spend more time cooking, drinking and hanging out.

      On my MTB, I just strapped the tent to my bars and roll out the door.

    • charlesojones

      How do you pitch your tarp when bikepacking? I’ve used a tarp for backpacking and pitched it using my hiking pole(s). I’ve seen pics of people pitching their tarps using their bike or just a wheel, but it never looked that solid IMO. In the western US, trees aren’t always an option for pitching a tarp or using a hammock, so a tent has proved most versatile for my travels. My tent weighs in at a hair over 2 pounds. How much weight am I really going to save with a bivy/tarp combo and is that worth the loss of simplicity and versatility?

  • jeff

    Z packs tents! if you like cuben fiber frame bags, why not a CF tent with carbon poles? – I used one on both a Transam tour and the Divide. Works great.

    • John Watson

      They are nice, but I don’t use a tent enough to merit $500… I did see something rad Scott from Porcelain Rocket made for Rick Hunter tho’

  • Broken and Coastal

    I bought a UL2 for BikePacking. Purchased used in excellent condition for $225. The tent fits in my Revelate Pocket and still leaves me room to stash some goodies. Poles are wrapped with the fly and ground sheet which fits it between the bar bag and Rev Pocket. If I were to do longer trips I’d reinvest in a UL1. John what did you bring on the Outback?

    • John Watson

      Brought my hammock and froze my ass off every night as the temps dipped to the mid 20’s…

  • D.J. Bolles

    Ho ho holy shit I love this write up and the comment thread is sweet!

  • lite104me

    The set-up that has worked for me going on 5 years and used on about a dozen tours of 1 – 5 weeks in length is the ray jardine tarp/net-tent and quilt. My wife and I cut out the material and sewed them and both items have held up great including about 120 days on various river trips. The thermarest Pro Plus pad rounds out the system. The tarp/tent weigh about a pound and the quilt is about 1.5 lbs. The quilt is much less likely to cause me to wake up with the night-time sleeping bag sweats and it has kept me warm down into the low 30’s on the Icefields Parkway. The downside with the tarp/tent is there is no frame so you have to find two trees to string between or find a couple sticks for poles. I have always found a way once even using a picnic table and my bike when no sticks or trees were around. Pros: cheap, tough, flexible set-up, light, tent has small footprint when packed, no condensation, tarp provides a huge space underneath Cons: do-it-yourself construction, camp set-up can take longer and you need to know various knots, quilt does not pack down as small as a light down bag, net-tent when used barely fits two peoples pads.

  • Matthew Cole

    I own both a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 and a Hennessy Backpacker UL. I agree with a ton of points above. I’d add a couple points though.

    – if you’re going more than S24, consider going N+1 where N is the number of people/dogs you want in the tent. This is especially true for long tours where you’re living out of the tent. With the BA tent, the extra space only costs a couple of ounces.

    – if you’re trying one for the first time, try to go with someone who’s an experienced hammocker. There are skills to setting them up and knowing which positions are stable and comfortable.
    – you can overcome the no trees/wrong trees problem, but it requires accessories that don’t come in the standard Hennessy pack. I’m a huge fan of the self tensioning “Figure 9″ carabiner by Nite Ize, for example.
    – another advantage to the hammock is I’ve been way more successful stealth camping in the earth-colored Hennessy stuff than most tents (which are often made of brightly colored fabrics for some reason). You can also pitch in more inconspicuous places that won’t work with tents. If being unnoticed is important then hammocks are the way to go, in my opinion.

  • stefanrohner

    Hilleberg Tent, bit more heavy but will last forever. All that ultralight stuff, will last 3-5 tours.

    • John Watson

      My UL1 is fine after a year’s heavy use.

      • stefanrohner

        John, then your a lucky man, cool. My cousin is specialist for outdoor equipment, he sells tents every day, in Germanys biggest outdoor shop. Some weeks ago I had a chat with him what tent to buy. Big Agnes, Vaude, all that light stuff, clients coming back with faulty, and not strong enough build tents, broken poles, broken fabric…. he told me.

  • Scott

    Great discussion here, nice to see a comments section that isn’t full of haters moaning about tire logo alignment.

    As far as my backpacking adventures are concerned, I’ve been going down the ultralight path and have to say, it really compliments bike camping. While many people feel that they should carry a ton of weight in gear because the bike will allow it, you [and your bike] will have a much more pleasant trip if you can shed some weight.
    I love my hammock for warmer weather [down to zero Celsius with CCF pad] . A simple hammock/tarp system is probably the easiest to set up, once you’ve practiced it and gotten it down. I would not want to bother with an underquilt. by that point its less heavy/expensive/complicated to just bring a tarp and sleep on the ground. I may also go the tarp route if I’m going to be camping in the alpine above the tree line where the terrain will cause me to have to go hike a couple hundred meters from my buddies at the perfect tarn site, to the patch of trees that can support a good hang.

    When making a recommendation to someone getting into camping, I usually suggest they get a light, sil-nylon tarp first. Why? Because a tarp is really all the shelter you need for three-season camping [just practice setup in the yard a lot or you’re gonna have a bad time.] If you want to try hammock camping, there are tons of no-sew diy instructions out there that go over how to make a really cheap/easy/functional hammock. You will need a tarp anyway, so it’s a good first investment. Take that money you would have spent on a fancy hammock/tent and spend it on other UL gear.

  • colavitos_ghost

    to everyone trumpeting the ease of setting up a hammock: are you serious? what tents have you used that make you think hammock set up is easier? i own a number of backpacking tents as well as an ENO hammock/tarp; the tents are, across the board, easier and quicker to set up. a lot of it comes down to finding good trees, which can be somewhat tricky.

    • michaelvsShark

      You make a good point about the dangers of speaking in absolute terms, then “the tents are, across the board, easier and quicker to set up” contradiction.

      You mention one type of strap set up. There are more than a few ways to hang a hammock, and the same can be true about setting up a tent. I think it’s safer to talk about pros and cons (see article above) rather than arguing which is better.

  • Nik Wells

    In a pinch on the GAP trail and C&O tow path. Trees preferred but not necessary. 180lbs

  • Jake Kruse

    down bag, thermarest z-lite, and a military surplus bivy sack. durable, works well, and follows the over-arching principle i seek in all outdoor gear: simplicity.

  • Jake Riehle

    Anyone have experience with lightheart gear tents? I just bought their solo on black friday and am stoked to try it out.

  • wunnspeed

    Tent, hammock or bivvy is as personal of a choice as which saddle or tires you use. I can’t sleep in a hammock at any time so that’s out, a bivvy tends to give me claustraphobia which leaves a tent and my Six Moons Lunar Solo happens to be lighter than my bivvy anyway. The best way to find out, is to try them… just like you would a contact point on your bike.

  • Lace Thomas

    i prefer traveling with my bicycle, a Serac Hammock is my number
    one choice when I manage to go outdoors. because of its lightweight material.

  • Marco C

    True about the body loss in a hammock. Also in summer, specifically during the night. You really need to sort that out, with an insulated layer.

  • dc13

    One thing about the Hennessy and the integrated net is that you can actually use it on the ground with hiking poles or with one tree and the other end staked to the ground. It basically becomes a bivy–best of both worlds!