Hammock camping set up in the Darien Gap

Hammock Camping 101 with Rick Morales

Secret Compass Expedition Leader Rick Morales talks all things sleeping in a hammock

Rick Morales is an expedition leader in Panama, who leads Secret Compass Darien Gap expeditions. If there’s anyone who knows about how to sleep in a hammock, it’s Rick. “I lead primarily trekking expeditions, but also packrafting expeditions in some areas as well. I started back in 1999 as a naturalist guide, but then moved more towards expeditionary types of adventures. One of the areas that I find myself in a lot is the Darien Gap, which is a rainforest area between Panama and Colombia.”

An Introduction to hammocks

A very comfortable hammock set up, captured on our Darien Gap expedition

It all started with a hike in 2002. “I come from a mountainous area of Panama. The elevation is a little bit higher there, about 1600-1800m higher. So I was more used to sleeping in cooler temperatures and therefore I did a lot of camping in a tent, like most people do. But when I moved to Panama City the terrain and the environment was more lowland tropical rainforest.”

“I met an older guy who had been in the military and he invited me to go hiking with him. I remember the first time, we went to an area that was infested with mosquitoes. It was not very far from the Panama Canal actually, and we camped in the jungle there. 

“We had a downpour that night and I remember being in my tent, miserable. The tent was on a slope and because of the rain it was getting really really muddy. And then I looked up to where this guy was in his hammock.” Rick’s camping companion was short enough that his hammock was small and his rain poncho could double as a tarp. “I was so jealous. Being in my tent, getting wet and also very hot because the tent at the time didn’t have a lot of ventilation. I thought: I should investigate if I can get my hands on a hammock.

“It felt like a hose and I immediately thought: this could be a snake.”

“So I asked this guy where he got his hammock and he said he made it himself.” Rick’s friend showed him how to make his own hammock. “And I remember the first time I slept in that hammock I had DIY-ed was very very uncomfortable. It was a tiny hammock for my size. I’m not a very big guy but certainly bigger than the hammock! And it was very bulky because the mosquito net completely surrounded the hammock, so it was a big bundle that occupied maybe two thirds of the volume of my backpack. But even though it was very uncomfortable, I saw the potential.” He kept experimenting.

“But my main camping shelter still remained a tent. Until one time in the Darien Gap – must have been about 2005 – I was leading a trip with some bird watchers. I remember it had been a very, very exhausting day, but we had a full moon and we had a look out and I just, I don’t know what happened. But I got carried away having a conversation with someone and it got really, really dark. But before going to bed I thought I should go and look at the moon. The terrain was very technical just to get to the lookout. So I go and unzip my tent and I start feeling the interior of the tent, looking for the headtorch… and I happened to touch some kind of rubbery and cold hose. It felt like a hose and I immediately thought: this could be a snake.”

“So,” Rick laughs, “I called someone to help me out and bring a light so we could shine a light inside the tent. And sure enough, sitting right on top of a pair of trousers, was a mountain viper. Small, but still a viper. The concern I had was that the tent had obviously been zipped up, I had been very careful not to leave it open at any moment. So the snake must have got through a hole in the floor of the tent or something. From that moment on, I decided I was going to get more serious about sleeping above the ground.”

Hiking up river on the Darien Gap expedition

A Most Memorable Night

What followed was years of sleeping between two trees – and in many ways, it came full circle for Rick. “This must have been 12 years ago or so. I had my hammock, of course, but the company I was working for at the time didn’t do a lot of camping to be honest. We did more nature and natural history tourism, so there was a lot of wildlife watching. But people would always go back to a lodge or cabins or a hotel – some kind of infrastructure where they could sleep in a bed.

“But there was one time,” Rick chuckles, “where we went to look for a harpy eagle. We needed to get there with high tide. We were going up the river and the river was tidal, so we needed to go up there with the tide. Then we’d go and camp near the harpy eagle nest – not too close because you don’t want to disturb the eagle, but close enough. So that the next morning we could hike to the nest, watch the eagle if it happened to be there and then hike out before the high tide of the next day.

“A downpour that must have lasted like three or four hours. Every single item that we had outside got completely soaked. These people slept in a puddle of water.”

“So we camped there and I remember my hammock at the time was not very high end. I was still trying to learn my way around hammocks. And we had a great evening. I think there was a full moon as well, or the moon was really bright even when we were in the jungle. The clients were all in tents. And I remember some of them were making fun of my hammock because they had never seen one and they were very sceptical that I was going to be able to sleep. 

“Low and behold, that night we had a huge downpour. A downpour that must have lasted like three or four hours. Every single item that we had outside got completely soaked. These people slept in a puddle of water. The water got inside the tents and the air pads they had were basically floating inside the tents. The next day they asked me how I had slept so I said, ‘Oh yeah it was terrible, I got wet.’ And that was a complete lie. It wasn’t the most comfortable night, but I was completely dry. I had to lie to the clients because they really were miserable. Obviously they didn’t sleep but they also had to spend the night in the puddle.

“The next day we went to see the harpy eagle: we saw it and everyone forgot about the bad experience in the tents. But that just made the decision even more clearer to me that I needed to sleep in hammocks instead of tents.”

When to choose a hammock

“I am biased. I hands down would choose a hammock every time. But the areas where I work and play are mostly tropical, so definitely a bivvy is out of the question. It would be too hot, too constrained, too claustrophobic for me. The tent, I think I would only consider in areas that have absolutely no trees at all. And where they have high winds. Where wind is going to be a problem then definitely a hammock is not the most suitable shelter for me. Not only because of the hammock but also because the tarp is going to be flapping all night and that’s just going to be miserable.”

Darien Gap teammate relaxing in a hammock

Rick has even slept in a hammock in places where there is only one tree, bringing along a collapsible stand that can fit inside a rucksack. “And the reason for that is the comfort. I like my comfort, so I would choose the hammock every time.” He explains, “What hammocks can provide, above all else, is comfort. To the point that some people, myself included, find hammocks more comfortable than their own bed at home. That’s how good it is. 

“But there are trade-offs and one of the biggest trade-off is that hammocks can be a bit fiddly. If you compare it with a ground shelter, those types of shelters are designed to be deployed in one specific way. Once you learn how to set up a tent, that’s how you are going to set it up always, so it is very easy to learn. There is no learning curve there. You just learn it once and that’s it. But the disadvantage is that the tent has to conform to the ground and the environment around it. You have to look for a flat area to pitch a tent – and when I say flat I mean get rid of all the rocks and avoid areas that have roots on them. But also look for areas that don’t have too much of an incline because you might end up rolling off to one side or the other. 

“Specifically the tropical jungle, usually places that flat are very uncommon. But even if you can find a spot that is very very flat then that place could become a puddle if it rains a lot. Which is what happened to me on that first trip. The thing about the hammock is that, because it is suspended in the air, it is basically resisting gravity by holding your weight, so you can find a sweet spot and you can sleep in it.” Not least that you don’t have to worry about lumps and bumps on the floor.

4 Tips for Hammock Camping for Beginners

The team in the Darien Gap

1. Practice in imperfect conditions

“Having said that,” continues Rick, “you’re not always going to find the same conditions to pitch your hammock. Sometimes the trees are too close. Sometimes they’re going to be too far apart, so you have to deal with that. The ground again shouldn’t be a problem. You can set up your hammock on a slope, over a root, you can set it up over rocks. You really don’t care what the ground is like below you. I’ve set up my hammock over a stream before, because that was the only place I could set it up. Everyone else had taken the best spots. And I slept quite comfortably over that little creek.

“But of course the downside to that is that you have to fiddle with the other variables: the spacing between the trees, the area that you’re going to enter, to get it right. So one of my main tips is get good at rigging up your hammock in different conditions. If you are going to practise, don’t practise always in places that are perfectly flat and have very nicely spaced trees. Because in the real world those are probably not the conditions you are going to find.”

2. Think about insulation

“The other tip that I would give to people starting with hammocks is to think about insulation. Depending on where you are, if you are going to start using hammocks, start in areas where the temperature is a little bit more mild. In other words don’t pick the dead of winter to start! Start in the summer time, or maybe in the fall – or in the autumn as you call it over there. 

“You are going to need insulation on top of you, so something to cover yourself from the top.” But a sleeping bag is not the best solution for a hammock, “When you get inside the sleeping bag, that sleeping bag is going to be sandwiched between your body and the hammock itself. That will compress the insulation and the consequence of that is you are going to get cold. Because the insulation that you have in there doesn’t have the necessary loft to actually do its job of insulating your body. 

“Some people use inflatable pads and sleep on top of the pad. I think most people start out like that. But, you know, sooner than later they realise that the pad has its own quirks and disadvantages. Usually it kinda slides out of place and then you’re left in the cold. If you need to get out of the hammock to, for example to go for a wee in the woods, then when you come back you have to place the pad under you again. So as soon as you can, I would recommend getting insulation that protects you from the outside, namely an underquilt. Think of it like the bottom side of a sleeping bag but it goes on the outside of the hammock, so it still retains that loft that we were talking about. There are hammocks now that are being manufactured that already come with the built in insulation so you don’t need to worry about it. But if you don’t have access to those hammocks, then starting with an underquilt for the outside and then a top quilt on you, inside the hammock, that would be the way to go.”

3. Stay Dry

“Obviously you also need to think about rain protection, so a tarp is really necessary as well. I would say go with a tarp that is longer than the length of your hammock. In order to cover the entirety of the hammock body, the tarp needs to be longer – and of course the length of the tarp is going to dictate the space between the trees when you rig it up.”

A hammock village on the Darien Gap expedition

It’s also very important to get the spacing right between trees for your tarp. “It needs to fit really nice and taut between the trees when you deploy it. And then the hammock would be very well protected from the rain underneath.”

4. Be patient and keep playing

“And my last tip would be, if you try out the hammock first couple of times and you haven’t dialled it in quite well enough, but you see that there’s potential, I would say be patient and keep playing with it. Keep trying to make it better. 

“But if you feel that you know it’s just not comfortable for you, or that there are too many moving pieces that you need to keep track of and its just something that’s going to give you more stress – then hammocks are probably not for you. Nobody said that hammocks are suitable for everybody. There are some people who love them and there are a lot of people who just can’t figure them out. And even when they do figure them out they don’t feel as comfortable in them.” That is completely okay.

“I think that the community of hammock enthusiasts is growing around the world and I see a lot of creative people doing great stuff with hammocks… [But] we are not trying to convince everyone that the hammock is better, it’s just better for us!

“The hammock for me is not just a shelter or a necessity when I’m out leading these expeditions: it’s really a hobby for me, and I feel that that is the case with most of the members of the hammock community at large. They do it not just because it’s comfortable but because it’s a hobby. Much like people who are into motorcycles, for example, or sports cars. So if you’re interested or curious about sleeping in a hammock, just give it a try. Even if you fail the first time, or the second time, like I said before: if you see potential in it, keep trying. At some point you are going to dial it in.”

If you’d like to try sleeping in a hammock, take a look at our Wales Mini Expedition weekend that includes hiking, packrafting and sleeping in a hammock. You’ll also get to meet Secret Compass expedition leaders, like Rick, who have led groups and personal expeditions across the globe.