Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Only Fools Hammock the Arizona Trail


That’s the answer I got when I asked other hammock enthusiasts if I should bring my hammock on the Arizona Trail.  You’ll only be able to hang 50%, maybe 80%, of the time.  I ignored this advice.  If you saw the photos on my blog, you'll already know that I slept in my hammock every night on my 300 mile section hike of the southernmost part of the Arizona Trail (southbound from Superior to Mexico, Passages 1-17, in March 2015).
Hanging on the Arizona Trail.
But if asked that same question by someone thinking of hiking the Arizona Trail, I would give the same recommendation:  You’d be a fool to bring a hammock.

Here, I'll attempt to convince you NOT to bring a hammock on the Arizona Trail.  I'll explain why I brought my hammock.  And for other hammock-hanging fools, I'll give some tips for hanging in Arizona.

Why hammocking is impractical on the Arizona Trail
There are long stretches at low elevation with vegetation not conducive to hanging- cactus, ocotillo, palo verde.  Sure you go up into forested higher elevations, but not for long before going back down again into the desert sea.  Fierce winds will steal the warmth right out of your hammock.  Trees you do find are too widely spaced to hang- you wouldn’t be able to get your tree straps high enough to not be dragging your butt on the ground.  Spine-covered undergrowth and cactus further limit available hang sites.
Scrub and cactus— this why you don’t want to hang on the Arizona Trail.
My advice is to stick with a tent or tarp, and try cowboy camping on the Arizona Trail.  You, dear readers, should embrace the challenge of learning to be a more versatile backpacker by learning to sleep on the ground.
Jan and Farwalker made smart shelter choices.  Be like them.  Sleep on the ground.
But, I'm a hammock-lovin’ fool!  
Are you an avid hammock hanger who wouldn't think of going backpacking if you had to sleep on the ground?  Have you already spent hundreds of dollars on customizing your lightweight hammock setup and sewing your own hammock gear?  Do you not even own a tent?  Are you a creative hammock hanger with desert experience?  Do you have a keen ability to “see” unusual hang sites and to spatially visualize the shape of your setup?  Do you have a go-to-ground option for your rig?

I answered "yes" to all of the above.  Last year, I hammocked the southernmost 1500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail though Southern California and the Sierra.  I've done desert hanging in Utah.  I can't sleep if I’m not in my hammock, and I really value the ability to sleep.  I am willing to make sacrifices to hang and I don't mind letting the hammock dictate my hike.  I am OK paying the steep price in time and energy and getting poked with spines to sleep in my hammock.

If that sounds like you, then keep reading...
Chillin' in my hammock while Jan sets up her tent.
My experience on this section of the Arizona Trail was that finding sites was difficult but not impossible.  It was more difficult than hanging on the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California.  But if I were to do this Arizona Trail section again, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring my hammock.  The costs in extra time to find a site were far outweighed by the benefits of a good nights sleep for me.


Know your elevation
The hardest places to find hang sites were at low elevations and anywhere water was scarce.  Higher elevations have trees, but can be prohibitively steep.  Use your topo map.
High elevation hang near Summerhaven.
Develop spatial skills
Learn how to judge the negative space required for your hammock.  You should be able to pick out a hang site far in the distance, and see hang sites from the corner of your eye.
How many hang sites can you spot?
Know how low your hammock will stretch, and have a sense of how much tiny branches will bend under your weight before your butt lands on the ground.  Know how to measure the minimum spacing required for your hammock (I hold out my hiking poles to judge exact distance- if the tips of my poles barely touch while my arms are fully extended, I know I can hang there).
These cholla are the perfect distance apart for my hammock!  Too bad they bend prohibitively.  Not to mention the spines.
Creative hangs
Be creative in finding anchor points. Practice one-tree hangs, gully hangs, and hangs from fences or corrals.

I've done lots of creative hangs, but still can't always judge if a hang will work (i.e. if my butt will end up on the ground).  Even with all my experience, several times I'd set up my hammock unsuccessfully, and then had to find another spot and move.

Do you want to be spending your backpacking trip with this type of nightly hassle?  Or does that sound like your idea of fun?

Embrace mesquite

Mesquite trees (shrubs?) provided me frequent hangs.  They are surprisingly sturdy for being such small trees and didn’t bend much.  Most important, they were present down at lower elevations, where there is NOTHING else but cactus.  Mesquite were sharp and scrubby with lots of low hanging branches.  They will poke you with spines when you set up and when you get out of your hammock to pee.  I went in early spring before the mesquite leaf out, and I've heard the new growth has needle sharp thorns which are probably even more vicious.  Cows love mesquite, so you will hang over cowpies, and you will get poked and scraped up.  But to hang on the AZT, you will learn to love mesquite and when you cross the cactus-dominated landscapes and see will see the shadows of mesquites in the distance, your heart will sing with joy.
I'm taller than this mesquite tree, but look I can still hang from it!
Find a wash
Hang sites can be found in washes.  I virtually “scout” ahead to find washes using the topo maps I’d downloaded to my iphone using Gaia GPS.  I'd often have to hike for several miles to find a possible hang site.
A rare good hang in Sabino Canyon.
Washes sometimes have cottonwoods, sycamores, or other trees.  Sometimes, vegetation isn’t tall enough to hang from, but you can try for a gully hang.  Gully hangs are when you anchor off small bushes across a gully, and then span the gully.
Gully hang over an animal path.
The downside of being in a wash is that cold air sinks, and these places are wet so you risk being covered in condensation and freezing in the cold damp air.   Animals frequent gullies and use them as paths, so you also risk having critters running around your campsite.  Sounds fun, right?

Trees near water sources
Many beautiful trees are found near water sources, and you will see lovely hangs near water.  Do NOT hang near water sources (especially springs and potholes).  I repeat DO NOT HANG NEAR WATER SOURCES.  Animals and other wildlife rely on these scare sources and come and drink at night.  If you hang there you could prevent them from accessing water.  This is their home.  You are just a guest.  Act with respect.  Find another place to hang.

Escape the wind
The wind is a huge problem because it will suck the warmth from you in a hammock.  Wind on the Arizona Trail is fierce and unrelenting.  Learn to find sites that are sheltered from the wind in the lee of a hillside.  Or you will spend sleepless nights getting shaken and listening to the roar of your tarp flapping in the wind while you freeze to death.
This site ended up being too windy, and I had to move my hammock further down the hillside.
Go-to ground setup
Carry a ground setup so that you will be able to sleep on the ground when you do not find a suitable hang site.  I carry a polycro ground cloth and torso pad that I use as insulation under my legs in my hammock.  Know how to set up your tarp on the ground (in high winds, in rock-hard soil).

Spine management practices
If you aren’t careful, it would be really easy to get spines in your hammock.  Always check yourself for burrs, briars, and spines before getting into your hammock. I lay out a ground cloth under my hammock as an extra layer of protection. 

Shrubs and bushes will tear you up when you go scouting for hang sites off the trail and when you go to set up your hammock.  I wore tall gaiters and long sleeved shirt to protect myself and kept my sunglasses on to protect my eyes.

Practice leave-no-trace
Leave No Trace guidelines say to not break branches or clear away undergrowth to make a place for your hammock.  This can be nearly impossible, but try your best to avoid harming trees and killing vegetation.  I tied back branches with rope to make space for my hammock.  When I left my campsite, I tried to make it look like no one had been there.

I know I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: you’d be foolish to hammock on the Arizona Trail.  But if you are a highly experience hammocker, it can be done and you will learn more skills than you could ever imagine about finding trees and hang sites.  You will annoy those around you by taking photos of all the trees and gleefully shouting “oh look at that gorgeous hang site” as you hike down the trail.  You will hug trees and touch their bark and they will poke you back and scrape you arms and legs.  But it will all be worth it, when you climb into your hammock for the night and quickly drift off to sleep.
After the sun sets, where do you want to be sleeping?

Further information
I wrote a detailed review of hanging on the PCT in Southern California where I go into more detail on certain hammock-related topics.

I used the same hammock gear as I did on the PCT.

If you have any questions about hanging on this part of the Arizona Trail, please ask away!  I’d be delighted to talk to you!
Celebrating another hang the last night of my section hike.


  1. Joan, Just finished catching up on you blog and your amazing trip. And as a dedicated hammock enthusiast, I am in awe of your hammock prowess and ability. Definitely hats off to you for hammocking above and beyond the call. Happy Trails

    1. Thanks so much, SlowBro! This was a really fun trail to hang.

      Almost forgot to say that I used that water scoop with the steripen prefilter attachment that you showed me on this trail. It was really useful for the algae-choked water sources and shallow puddles. Using that scoop always makes me think fondly of those few days on the PCT with you and MeToo. Good memories!

    2. Good memories, indeed! Glad that scoop worked out for you. Lost mine on the trail somewhere in northern CA. Felt so lost without it. Finally was able to get the parts sent to Seiad Valley and put another one together. Crisis over :^)