I’m lying in the hammock as I write this. The rain has mostly abated but comes heavily in spurts every now and again. The wind out on the water is blowing upwards of 50 mph but here behind the house and trees it whips through in weaker gusts. I think the worst of the squall has passed but the storm surge is predicted to be two to four feet above normal levels, when it seems the entirety of the Chesapeake Bay arrives to fill the Elizabeth River basin. The water of the harbor, last I checked, was already over the seawall and halfway up the street. But it ought to be receding soon.
Despite the wind, it’s strangely peaceful under here. The hammock is at a comfortable angle, I’m dry, and am watching streams of rainwater flow off the edge of the tarp where my guy-line is tied, marking the perfect place for an open bottle if I was in need. I’ve eyed the peak of the tarp and wished that I had let the hood’s drawstring fall down underneath rather than letting it lay loosely on the topside where it’s of no use to me. I’ve eschewed the usual ridgeline cord and so that drawstring would have been a convenient place to hang something.
What I’m calling a tarp is actually a poncho – one of the heavy, army-surplus types with snaps on the sides and grommets in the corners. Having a large hole in the middle of an adapted rain shelter might at first seem like a disadvantage until you consider that it 1) offers a central tie-off point to raise the eve a few inches as I’m doing now, and 2) presents a open place for the smoke to escape from a small fire underneath, should I choose to have one. That, and it’s a poncho, so I can stay dry while I’m hiking and while I’m sleeping.
Earlier this morning, we awoke cagey and sleepy-eyed after a full night of gusting winds and the repeated clapping of an outside crape myrtle against our window. Tropical storm Hermine approached from the southwest and was upon us by late morning, its cyclic drafts pounding us from the north as the eye passed somewhere out to sea. I spent those hours leaning into the wind with a couple of my neighbors, fighting to prevent a sailboat from careening into an adjacent dock, as it dragged its 240-lb mooring along the bottom of the Elizabeth.
We leaned on the edge of the Isabella, a Norwegian-built 30 footer, all wood and pointed stern, shoving the errant sailboat away from the hull with boathooks. The owner jumped into the bowsprit to loosen the mooring line so I could quickly tie it to one of the docks pylons. After another hour spent retying lines, hanging bumpers, and inspecting loose cleats, we retired to the porch to peel off wet cloths, sip coffee, and watch the passing gale. Dried out and caffeined up, I thought it a perfect time to stress test my hammock and tarp system in the usual proving ground—my backyard.
I’ve hammock camped maybe a dozen times before in varying conditions and find that it suits me best in the warmer seasons, especially in wet weather. The setup is simple and all in all weighs roughly two-and-a-half pounds, including the hammock, tarp, straps/ropes, and guy-lines. Unlike a tent, it doesn’t require a sleeping pad, unless of course the extra insulation is needed underneath. This is the first time I’ve used the poncho/tarp like this, diagonally, a common setup among modern bushcrafters. Clipping the corners to my hammock ends was a lucky discovery given the coincidental lengths of my hammock and my tarp. I haven’t seen an example of this, but I’m sure it’s been done before.
Another, arguably more critical, concern is how to secure the hammock ends to the tree. Ongoing debates on the merit of ropes and straps, cord material, and types of knots proliferate, as seen here, here, and here. Most agree that thin rope under load can damage a tree by cutting into the bark and, sometimes, the wood underneath. Straps composed of layered webbing or weave, nylon being the most ubiquitous, are readily available, but even a single experience with nylon straps will prove to the novice just how much stretch that material has (if you wonder why, just ask a rock climber). Many times in my own experimentation I’ve found my butt dragging the ground when only minutes previous I’d been a foot-and-a-half above it.
In my search for something dependable but light, I’ve broken my share of rope, secured stuff far too thick and heavy to take backpacking, and even used a dog leash in a pinch. Having done my research about straps, I had to try out the nylon anyway; of course, it performed true to form. Kevlar seems to be a popular material, though notably more expensive. Rather than bear any additional cost, what I’ve done instead is cannibalized an old baby car seat for seat belt straps, each measuring about four feet long, two inches wide, and already looped at one end. Constructed of a tight polyester weave, the straps are purportedly capable of withstanding over 3000 lb, will not shrink, stretch, rot, mold, mildew, or melt, and are even UV inhibited—possibly over-engineered for my application but, hey, the price was right. I had a loop sewn into each free end so that each end had a loop large enough to pass rope through and … voila! – custom “tree huggers.”
The next day offered a chance to try them out while I was spending some time up on a remote patch of Virginia’s eastern shore. I’ve shown them in the photo with a simple “U” around the trunk of a foot-thick Virginia Pine which, depending on angle, load, and type of bark is liable to slipping downward. A single wraparound solved that issue (I forgot to take another photo), though I had to modify my tie-off method a bit. In the future, such things will be dependent on the thickness of the trunk, but it’s nice to know the system can accommodate either.