First Night in the Hennessey Ultralight Hammock

I wish I could tell you that my first night in my Hennessey Ultralight Backpacking Hammock was a success.  I went out on a solo trip on a Friday night in late March after work and I'd have to rate my experience at a 5/10.  Some parts were great while others made me wishing I had made some changes.  But here's the part to remember - I pulled away 7 Great Lessons Learned that will make my next Backpacking - Hammocking night out so much more enjoyable.  And even though those lessons were hard learned, that means they'll stick with me.

I guess if I have some advice for myself it's to write everything down so I can recall accurately what the conditions were and what equipment I had with me.  At least I can make some educated guesses as to the equipment changes I'd need to make it more comfortable next time.

Date: 3/25-3/26
Location: Naples, NY - Beaver Pond Lean To Campsite
Start Time on the Trail: 7PM
Arrival at the Campsite: 7:30PM
Weather Conditions: Clear, Low Winds, but cool 35F
Ground Conditions: Damp but not wet from a Morning Rain
Overnight Low: 32F
Sunrise: 7:02AM
Sunset: 7:29 PM

Hammock: Hennessey Ultralight
Mattress Pad: Cabella's Instinct
Sleeping Bag: Teton Sports Tracker +5 Degree
Backpack: Teton 35 Liter
Camera: iPhone

Dinner: Venison Bacon Cheeseburgers with Rice
Breakfast: Venison Breakfast Sausage with Pancakes and Maple Syrup

First off, the transition from the car to the trail didn't go quite as quickly as I had hoped.  I was actually about 30 minutes getting my pack together which was a big time waster.  I had a few items that were last minute adds - a larger cook kit, a mini iPad, a seat cushion, a small camp chair and my mini Growler.  This entire 30 minutes was a mistake.  I should have pre-packed all this at home the night before and realized that the limits of my pack were going to be exceeded.  Packing it at home gives you more time to re-arrange and re-think the list of necessities versus wants.  I ended up trying to pack on the fly and re-arrange in the backseat of my car and because my pack wasn't big enough I ended up arranging and re-arranging to try to make it all fit.  Mistake.

Lesson #1 Learned: Make a list, commit to it and pack it at home.

My hiking experience was a 10/10.  The sun had not set yet when I hit the trail and since I'd been that route a few times I wasn't concerned even if the light faded. Overhead was completely clear and the low winds made the 35 degrees feel like 45 once I got going.  Visibility was high which meant I could enjoy all the sights - awesome.  It looked like there had been a lot of trail activity since I'd been here last with my youngest Madeline but all was still super clean and easy to navigate.  It's nice to know that there are folks who like taking care of what others have worked so hard to create and maintain.

It was about a mile to the Lean To from the Parking area and in about 30 minutes I had arrived.  My pace was slow so I could absorb the peace and quiet of it.  I knew when I started out that I didn't want to think about the destination, but to stay focused on every step of the journey to get there.  That's the fun part, too.  Focusing on the destination should happen back at home to help prepare for the contents of the backpack.  I was glad of the weather, the visibility and my ability to take it all in.

Lesson #2 Learned: Don't concentrate only on the destination, but also the journey.

When I reached the site it was around 7:30PM and I knew I didn't have a ton of daylight left thanks to my debacle at the car with the last minute adds to the backpack so I had to get right after choosing a site for the hammock and getting a fire going.  The closer I could get my hammock to the fire the better I would feel and the easier it would be on me to get up during the night to re-stoke the fire.

My hammock set up site was about as perfect as I could have hoped for - about 10 feet from the fire.  How I wish I would have taken a few photos as I was super proud of how it turned out but the cold made my iPhone inoperative.  Bummer.  I found three trees right at the site that were the perfect distance apart and that would allow me to see the fire right from the hammock.  I used my new cord locks and setup was super fast and rock solid.  One thing I'll have to pay attention to next time is to remember that the bottom entry of the hammock needs to point at the foot end.  I had hung it reversed and had to switch it around.  Secondly, if possible look for a site with trees at the head, foot and both sides.  The trees to the left and right are nearly as important as the head and foot because you'll use those side trees to pull out the hammock sides and to tie out the rain tarp.  No trees on left or right means that the tarp would have to be staked to the ground and you'll seriously impede your view outside the hammock.  I'm not entirely comfortable with not being able to see outside from the hammock but maybe that just takes some getting used to.

Lesson #3 Learned: Pick a hammock site with trees at head, foot, left and right if at all possible.

After the hammock was up I knew my next priority was fire.  Thankfully, the lean to was chock full of firewood so hunting around for logs wasn't going to be a necessity.  After my hammock was setup, the wind starting picking up which means I was going to use a lot more firewood and that I'd have to be up every few hours to feed it.  But there was plenty in the lean to.  In retrospect I should have brought a bunch of it down by the fire, as it would have made it a bit easier on me during the night.

My fire starting skills need some serious refining as I couldn't make a fire as easily or as quickly as I wanted.  I was using dryer lint as tinder and although it started easily with the flint and steel, getting the small wood that I had gathered on the ground going was another story.  I was running out of daylight so my setup was rushed.  That definitely had something to do with my failure here.  Luckily I had three different ways to start fire with me or I would have had a super rough night.  Flint and steel will stay on the list.  I picked up a butane lighter in case the flint and steel wasn't working.  It's small and lightweight so I'll continue to pack that as well.  Since neither of those was going to get a fire going for me in short order, my alcohol stove came to the rescue.  I brought it along to play around with since I had just made it two weeks ago.  I had my MSR Pocket Rocket and Butane fuel with me for meal cooking so the alcohol stove wasn't a necessity and I knew I'd now have to sacrifice it in the middle of the fire.  No big deal.  I made it out of a cat food can and it's easy to replace.  It worked like a charm and inside of 5 minutes the fire was cranking.  Whew!

Lesson #4 Learned:  Practice, practice, practice your fire making skills and always bring a failsafe backup.

Once my fire was cranking my attitude really skyrocketed.  It was a little unnerving for me with not being able to start it as quickly as I hoped. And for me, the campfire makes the trip.  But all that aside it was now around 8:30PM and nightfall had hit.  Luckily I had a huge lunch so I wasn't even really that hungry but again, another lesson learned here about dinner when hitting the trail late.  I had brought along an uncooked yet thawed package of venison bacon cheeseburgers [about 1 pound] and I didn't have the will to cook it up.  At around 20 minutes to cook, 20 to eat and 20 for clean up I'd be looking at 9:30PM before I was done.  So, I bagged dinner, hung my food bag, prepped my hammock and fed the fire.  The lesson for next time is to have an easier yet satisfying meal on hand.  I've brought along freeze-dried meals before and was looking at them at the store the night before but decided against it since I wanted the venison cheeseburgers.  Well, here's some great things about freeze dried meals:  They're lightweight, only require boiling water, are ready in 10 minutes and have zero cleanup.  Next time, I'll be bringing one of those for sure.

Lesson #5 Learned:  Always bring a pre-prepared meal for dinner.  Preferably one that is freeze dried.

One quick note on hanging the food bag: At around 8:30PM it was pretty dark so finding the right tree with limited light was proving to be very difficult.  And I found myself wandering farther away from the site than I was comfortable with.  My head light is good but I was pushing it's limits in trying to find a good hanging tree.  I found one soon enough albeit a little closer to the camp than was probably good but with the limited light it would have to do.  Next time I'll want to eat much earlier and hang the food bag while its still light out.

Lesson #6 Learned:  Prepare the evening meal with enough daylight left to clean up and hang the food bag.

The hammock setup was perfect.  And I had brought along some extra paracord in case any of the hammock cord needed replacement.  The tarp that comes with the Hennessey Ultralight Backpacker is barely big enough to cover the hammock.  I can imagine that it would keep me dry in the case of a light to moderate spring rain.  But in a downpour I'm betting I would be wet [speculation here - maybe I'm wrong].  My extra paracord came in handy as I used it to run an extra long tie out for the tarp to keep it raised up high enough for me to view the fire.  Hey - one for the good guys!  I actually had a good thing happen.

After a few more hours in front of the fire the temp was dropping.  It wasn't dropping much, but with the added wind I knew it was going to be a cool night.  I wasn't feeling all cold since I had been sitting about 2 feet from the fire, but now that I was going to call it a night I wondered how the hammock setup would work.

I  had done a fair amount of research on keeping warm in a hammock and to be honest I was a little suspect of my setup but I was hoping for the best.  I perhaps overestimated how warm my +5 Degree Sleeping Bag was going to keep me.

First off, the Hennessey Ultralight is a single layer hammock which is not ideal for winter camping.  That's not to say when it's paired with the right support equipment it won't be effective, but the double layer style hammocks allow you to slip a mattress pad in between the layers.  That extra layer, I read, is a big necessity when winter camping.  Since I didn't have the double layer, I just put my Cabella's Instinct Mattress Pad under me and surprisingly it stayed in place while I was in there.  And maneuvering it around under me was also fairly simple.  I was thinking that this setup just might work.

The bottom entry of my Hennessey Hammock is a unique, kinda cool feature that took a little getting used to at first, but after a few times trying it out earlier, I got the hang of it.  I slipped into my sleeping bag first then entered the hammock.  I had already put my mattress pad in there and it was pretty simple getting situated. I didn't have a ground cover down which meant my sleeping bag was in direct contact with the ground and took on a little ground dirt and dampness from having to stand in it to get in/out of the hammock.  I'll have to noodle that around a bit for next time.  There's a lesson learned here but not a biggie.

Zipping the sleeping bag up all the way just was not happening easily.  My bag is a mummy style side zip and the zipper kept getting hung up as I tried to rip it all the way.  And as luck would have it, the wind was moving from left to right and my sleeping bag opening was on the left hand side.  Not good. A center zip style sleeping bag would have been easier for sure.

My hands and feet were immediately cold but after about 20 minutes, my hands felt a bunch better whereas my feet were chilled but not so bad I had to make an adjustment.  I wonder if skipping dinner had anything to do with my overall comfort being low here?  I've heard that food intake can help with keeping the body warm, especially on a cool night.  Next time I'll have something in my belly before hitting it for the night.

I found the hammock extremely comfortable.  Falling asleep in it was going to be a snap.  The cord stops worked perfectly and my tarp setup left me with a great view of the fire. I had a knit cap on my head and wool socks on my feet and I knew it was going to be a cool night.  I guess I had hoped that the sleeping bag would warm me up but after an hour it there wasn't a big change in my comfort level.  My suspicions about my set up were right.  It was not going to be warm enough to keep me comfortable.  I told myself that I was going to get through the night and chalk this one up to a good lesson in how not to do it...

I can't honestly say how much that I slept, only that I remember being awake, and cold, a lot.  I fed the fire at 1:30AM and decided that getting back in the hammock at that point just wasn't going to keep me warm.  I had read that it's the air space below the hammock that keeps it a challenge to stay warm.  I guess I hoped that the air mattress I put under me was going to isolate me from that cool breeze.  I'm sure it did to some extent but not at all to the point where I was comfortable.

I sat on my foam seat cushion next to the fire for an hour or so and did warm up reasonably and was thinking that the last solo trip out here that I took in December wasn't cold for me.  I had stayed in the lean to then so I decided to give that a go and pulled my mattress out of the hammock and moved my set up to the lean to.  I was up again at 3:30AM to feed the fire and hadn't felt like sleep had ever really set in.  This time the fire was down to just a few embers and it took me at least 30 minutes to get it raging again.  I crawled back inside the sleeping bag and got a few more hours of fitful sleep.

There are more alternatives out there to ensure a warmer night in a hammock.  I'll spend some more time researching them and add them before I venture out again with this system.  A few pieces I think are worth checking out - an under-quilt, a top quilt, and adding a second foam mattress layer underneath my air mattress.  A few more things to consider as well: Will a good meal before bed change my body temp??  I think so.  Last December's successful camp out might be proof of that.  Another method that I should have done in retrospect is filling my Nalgene with hot water and keeping it in my sleeping bag as I bed down for the night.  Madeline and I tried that a few weeks ago when when camped out in the backyard and it did make a big difference.

Lesson #7 Learned: Add one or more components to my winter hammock sleep system to keep me warm at night.

Around 8:00AM the campsite was well lit by the morning sun and the temp had come up a few degrees.  I decided to get up and get moving.  My MSR Pocket Rocket did a great job of boiling up some water but the Stanley Adventure Camp Cookset didn't fit well on the mini stove.  It barely fit, in fact and after it came to a boil it fell off the stove and spilled on the ground.  Fail.  I re-positioned it a bit, refilled and kept a closer eye this time.  Once I was up and moving and had a cup of coffee in me, my body temp rose and my hands and feet were no longer cold.

Breakfast was a great success too.  I premixed the dry ingredients for a pancake in a ziplock freezer bag and brought along an egg.  Once I had that all mixed up and my pan on the Pocket Rocket I was off and running.  I added a few tablespoons of olive oil to my MSR pan and noticed that the concentrated flame of the Pocket Rocket was going to burn my pancake unless I changed tactics.  So instead of leaving the pan on the flame, I held it about 1-2 inches above and kept moving it around in a circle so that the heat would  evenly cook my pancake.  One tip I heard from a co-worker was to pre-heat the pan before adding oil as this would make the pan surface as non-stick as it could be.  And he was right.  The pancake was fairly easy to flip and once it was done I added a few tablespoons of real maple syrup  Completely awesome!

Lesson #8 Learned: Even a tough night's sleep can be remedied with a great warm breakfast.

An hour more at the site to pack everything up and extinguish the fire was all I needed to get back on the trail.  By the time I reached my car, my mood was already better and I was ready to tackle the next trip.

As you too will find out, even bad experiences can be a good thing.  They teach us not that we're inept or incapable but rather inexperienced.  And I've learned 7 great lessons about my latest trip so that my next one will be even better.

If you've got any ideas for me on any of these lessons or have had similar experiences, I'd really love to hear about them.  I'm still hooked on this backpacking thing even when my experience this time didn't turn out all the greatest.  That's all part of the fun and the knowledge I've gained is worthwhile. Write me below or tune into my Facebook page here.  Thanks for reading!


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