Monday, June 23, 2014

Hammocking the PCT: Review for SoCal & the Sierra

Readers of my blog might notice that I'm a hammock enthusiast.  I've posted photos of my hammock nearly every night that I've been out on the Pacific Crest Trail (I only went to ground once).  "You really love your hammock, don't you?" I've been told when I gleefully climb out of my hammock bright-eyed after another awesome night's rest. My hammock has been my favorite piece of gear on the PCT- I sleep soundly and comfortably, which ensures I'm ready for hiking the next day.
Breakfast in my hammock on a cold morning in the Sierra.
So in writing a review about using a hammock on the first 940 miles of the PCT (including Southern California and the Sierras- the most questionable sections for hammock hanging), you might expect me to recommend a hammock unequivocally to everyone.  But that is NOT the case!

Especially in Southern California (and to a lesser extent in the Sierra- see below), hammocks are rare for good reason.  Hanging there takes a certain type of backpacker with particular priorities.  It certainly is possible to hang, and I was surprised that there were more trees than I expected.  But for those of you trying to decide if you want to take a hammock on the PCT, you need to figure out if the costs are worth it for you.   If you are an experienced hammock hanger willing to hike extra miles or camp alone, then definitely go for it.  If not, you might be much happier (gasp- I can't believe I'm really saying this!) on the ground.

I know of only three other hammock hangers on the PCT this year.  Out of something like a thousand or so PCT hikers. I read online that there are section hikers that hammock more frequently in the Sierra.  But in SoCal, we are rare. Or crazy.  Or both. 
SlowBro and I camping together in the Sierra- No Problem hanging here!
For now, I believe this rarity of hammocks in SoCal is a good thing.  There just aren't that many hang sites, and establishing new hang sites by clearing away underbrush or branches is not keeping with Leave No Trace principles and so should be avoided.  I would cringe if there was an influx of hammockers in SoCal that cut down branches or made an obvious impact on the environment.  The really wonderful thing about the PCT is how unspoiled it appears- campsites tend to be small and have defined boundaries.  They are pristine.  This preserves the illusion that we are hiking through the wilderness.  When I couldn't find a hang site in an already disturbed site, I would go pretty far off the trail to camp, and then I would leave the site looking like no one had ever been there (at least to my best ability).  This is effective leave no trace practice as long as it's infrequent.  Too many people doing this is not sustainable.
This hang site in SoCal was at least a 5 minute fast walk off the trail.
Back to the question of how to decide if you would like to bring a hammock on the PCT in SoCal and the Sierra.  If you want to hang on the PCT and you don't mind putting in some effort to make it happen, you will really love it.  But it is important to understand what you are getting into in bringing a hammock.  I don't want to be discouraging, just realistic.

When I started planning for the PCT, I was told "there are no trees in the desert!"  This makes me laugh now because it's just not true!  Lack of trees is NOT the main problem for a hammock hanger in SoCal.  Trees can be found in SoCal- at higher elevations and around water sources, and there are sturdy bushes, gully hangs, horse corals, and other anchor points if you expand your ideas of suitable spots.  You do have to be creative, but if you spend enough time looking, there are anchor points out there.

In SoCal, I sometimes had to be willing to hike further to find hang sites (I was really glad I could hike over 20-25 miles) or I had to go further off trail wandering around in the bushes. But often, especially in some of the more forested parts of the PCT like in the San Jacinto or San Bernardino mountains, it was no harder than finding a good tent site was for my ground dwelling friends.  
Hanging in a horse coral.  One of my more creative hangs.
In the Sierra, I planned my hang sites around the passes, so I did not have any difficulty finding a site  There were large stretches of forests between each pass, which worked well for me because I traveled over just one pass a day.  I camped each night right below treeline, climbed up and over a pass in the morning (which was also ideal for snow conditions and avoiding postholing), and then descended below treeline in the afternoon and hiked through the forest until I got close to the treeline for the next pass, which is where I'd camp.  This strategy worked well for me because I wanted to stay warmer at night by camping at lower elevation, and there was enough snow on the passes that I felt it was safer to time the passes for optimal snow conditions.  Other hikers may choose to camp above treeline for the views or because they wanted to do more miles, and might have been more confident about traversing the snow and ice, and more tolerant of postholing.  In that case, planning your days to end below treeline might have made for a less flexible hike.  It really depends on your priorities.
Camping close to treeline before Glen Pass in the Sierra.
Another problem of finding a hang site is that there were often bushes, branches, or poison oak in the way of where the hammock would hang.  And it's not in keeping with leave no trace practices to move these (though I admit to breaking dead branches and to using a rope to tie live branches out of the way, and to using my ground cloth to hold down undergrowth).  Sometimes even if I identified good anchor points for my hammock, I had to not use a site because of the amount of brush or branches- which was really frustrating!
Dense thicket with lots of branches makes for a tight hang.
But the biggest difficulty I found in hammocking in SoCal was the WIND.  Ground-dwellers are usually low enough the wind doesn't get to them or they hide behind rocks.  But in a hammock you are exposed to the wind.  You may think, well I don't care, but let me tell you the wind is fierce, it is unrelenting.  It will shake your hammock so hard that it will vibrate and toss you around violently, keeping you awake all night.  The wind will steal all your warmth, and leave you shivering in the cold.  It will drive you absolutely mad.  I spent a lot of time looking for sites out of the wind.  I learned to tuck my hammock into the bottoms of ravines or inside dense thickets.  Not easy places to find or access, but well worth the effort for the shelter from the brutal wind.
Tons of wind farms on the PCT = HIGH WINDS
So in order to hammock in SoCal, you might need to spend extra time time finding anchor points for your hammock that are reasonably free of undergrowth AND out of the wind.  Phew- and getting all that is not easy.  Sure I was lucky sometimes and a great site just appeared when I was ready to stop.  But more often, this required extra time and walking.  And typical PCT hikers don't like to hike any extra miles, especially at the end if the day.  The reason I didn't mind was that I knew I'd sleep really comfortably once I found a suitable site.  Sleep is everything on the trail.  If you are already a hammock hanger, you know what I mean.  It makes it worth it.  Plus, I enjoyed the challenge of looking for the sites and took joy in hanging in some unusual, super-cool places.
A one tree hang in SoCal near Cottonwood Creek Bridge.
If you want to hike with other people, then sometimes you might end up camping away from your friends if you have a hammock. Sometimes I missed out on socializing at night or had trouble finding my hiking buddies in the morning.  On the other hand, sometimes I wanted to be by myself and rather enjoyed camping off by myself.  But overall, the social aspect of hammocking was less of an issue than I expected.  Especially when I started making some really great friends who didn't mind spending extra time to find places with flat spots for them and trees for me.  One friend even got good at figuring out what tree spacing I was looking for, and would scout on ahead for hang sites for me.  So, I wouldn't make a decision about not bring a hammock based on the social aspect unless you absolutely need to always camp with other people.  It's really not that big of a deal.

I would really consider your experience level with hammocks and the priorities of your hike.  You have to decide how much you want the hammock to dictate your hike, and how much you value flexibility.  If you don't have a hammock already, then it might not be worth it to get one for the PCT in SoCal- if you can sleep comfortably on the ground, then it might be easier to stick with that.  Maybe get one for the Sierra where hang sites are plentiful below treeline.  If you really want to learn to hang on a long-distance hike, go do the Appalachian Trail where hammocks are common and well-suited.  On the other hand, if you are already a die-hard hammock hanger  and are willing to spend the time to find sites and don't mind camping alone sometimes, then go for it and bring your hammock.  That extra energy to find a site will be more than compensated by the quality of your sleep.  Especially if you get a thrill out of the challenge of finding hang sites.  I know I loved bringing my hammock in SoCal and the Sierra.  It made me really happy each day to take that nightly photo of my hang site and feel the satisfaction of knowing that I was able to keep an 'elevated perspective' on the PCT.

For more information:
If anyone has any questions about hanging on the PCT in SoCal and the Sierra, please don't hesitate to ask me.  There are lots of great resources that I have links to on the article I wrote before I started the PCT (link here).  I also wrote up a review of the hammock gear that I used in SoCal and the Sierra and the link to that is here.


  1. Replies
    1. You're welcome! Hope you found it helpful and thanks for commenting.

  2. YAY I am so glad to have found your blog. I just don't like sleeping on the ground. I sleep better and enjoy my down time so much better in a hammock. I have been concerned about the PCT but it is looking like my 2016 thru hike is going to be a success with just a little extra and well worth it effort. I am enjoying your blog and looking forward to reading all of your hike journal here. Thanks for sharing! You have encouraged me so much!

    1. How exciting that you are starting the PCT next year! If you are already a hammock hanger and know you sleep much better, then go for it! Be sure you are prepared to go to ground just in case though. Let me know if you have any questions or if there is anything I can do to help you out.

      Also be sure to check out the "Hammock Camping on the PCT" facebook page started by Daniel Hepokoski-- he's got a great podcast (Trailside radio) and brought his hammock on the PCT this year.


    2. Thanks for the FB suggestion. I will follow it too. I have enjoyed Daniels podcast this year.

      Love your energy and your super great information you have shared in your blog. Again thanks!