Trials and tribulations of my minimal overnight set-up
The biggest difference between this mini overnight trip and the one I took before, was dispensing with the tent in favor of a camping hammock. This allowed me to use a considerably smaller Brompton Roll-Top Bag instead of the ginormous T-Bag.
Finding the hammock was a bit of a challenge, especially since I left this decision until the last minute. I own two ENOs Singlenest hammocks, however I don’t have a bug net for them, and camping without one in the middle of July seemed inadvisable. After some cursory internet research, I decided on a Hennessy Hammock, and —because of my failure to plan ahead— had to settle for one that Jeff Bezos promised to deliver within two days, which happened to be the Hennessy Explorer Deluxe Classic XL, which was possibly quite bit larger and more heavy-duty than needed.
Since it was the middle of Midwestern summer, I decided to forego a sleeping bag in favor of a compact Thermarest Proton camping quilt. For cooking, I brought the Vargo Titanium Hexagon Wood Stove, and a single GSI Outdoors stainless pot/mug (see my complete packing list here).
Setting up Hennesy Explorer Deluxe Classic Hammock
The immediate problem I discovered upon arriving at my bike-in campsite at Harrington Beach SP was that there were no trees. Since I arrived midweek, the lady at the camp office said I could choose any of the other non-electric sites, so I set off searching for a more wooded location. Tragically, almost all of the park’s trees were destroyed by the emerald ash borer, leaving only spindly skeletons rising sadly above the lush thicket of native shrubbery. This presented an unfortunate challenge to the would-be hammock camper. I circled the campground with increasing desperation, as the bag of ice slowly melted on the rear rack of the bike. I turned back to the original bike-in site to consider my options, hoping that they would not be reduced to getting a hotel.
I decided that ice tea would help, and while a tea bag bobbed releasing it’s amber essence into a cup of water, I went around testing spindly new trees to see if they could support a hammock with me in it.
The thing about the Hennessy Hammock that is very much unlike the ENOs is the attachment. The ENOs uses almost completely idiot-proof Atlas Straps, which allow you to set the hammock up virtually anywhere in a matter of seconds, while my first step in setting up the Hennessy was a lengthy consultation with Mr. Google.
Two points are necessary to make here. They may be obvious, but since I overlooked them, I will state them clearly for the benefit of anyone reading:
Test your equipment before leaving home
Do not rely on having cellular reception at your camping destination
Fortunately for me, the reception was adequate, and instead of dissolving into a sobbing heap, I poured my tea over ice, added lemon, and set about attaching the hammock to the spindly trees, doing my best to duplicate an intricate sequence of knots shown in the You Tube video. I tested the attachment, crawled into the womb-like opening in the hammock, and found myself with my back flat on the ground, spindly trees groaning under my weight. I tried retying the hammock, this time standing on my toes and reaching as high as I could to tie the knots: same result. I tried two more times looking for different, slightly less spindly trees, climbing into the thicket, and straining my arms to execute the complicated sequence of knots. Same result every time!
NOTE TO HENNESSY: Please, for the love of all that is holy, make your hammock attachment system easier! The whole point in bringing a highly adjustable hammock is that hanging options may not be ideal, and one may have to go through a few tries before the thing works. I could have hung TEN ENOs hammocks in the time it took me to complete just one try!
OK, back to the hammock. This was positively the last try I was going to make, and I didn’t know what Plan B was, but I was worried about losing daylight, and I still had a meal to cook over an untested Vargo Stove. I made another ice tea, and identified two more potential trees that were slightly larger than 4” in diameter. They were right at the mouth of my campsite, and on a busy weekend I would not have been able to use them, but since I was virtually alone in this section of the campground, I decided to give it a go. My arms now seriously aching from the effort, I attached the hammock, climbed inside the weird womb-like cocoon, and … it held! Not only did it hold, it was comfortable. I was able to stretch out diagnonally across its asymmetrical expanse flat on my back. Can your ENOs do that?
With that out of the way, I threw my blanket inside, and tucked other essentials —bike light, Advil, my glasses and phone— into a small gear pocket, and turned my attention to dinner.
Cooking with Vargo Titanium Hexagon Wood Stove
The other untested piece of equipment I brought along was the minimalist Vargo wood stove, which packs down to the size of a small saucer, and uses only natural kindling and sticks for fuel, eliminating the canister disposal dilemma one faces with typical backpacking stoves. Although I didn’t test the stove prior to my departure, I did watch an instructional video at home, and paid heed to the advice I received from an acquaintance that the stove burns hot, so I should collect more fuel than I thought I’d need.
I walked around the road leading into the campsite and collected dry fallen branches and twigs no thicker that my finger. Every piece of wood I collected was from the side of the road and no longer attached to any living tree.
I carried everything into my campsite, poured myself a little wine, and began breaking the branches into small sections of no more than 3-4” in length that would fit into the stove. I arranged the pieces by size (just as shown in the Vargo video) —the tinder, the kindling, the fuel— before attempting to set fire. I built a neat little pyramid inside the stove, put in one wax-soaked firestarter, and lit a match. The flame caught, and soon I was able to set my pot of water on the flame. Water cooked quickly. I didn’t time it, but —once the fire was going— I don’t believe that bringing it to a boil was longer than with a conventional fuel stove. The fire did require tending and frequent feeding, corroborating the advice I received. Unlike a large campfire, the Vargo stove burns up its tiny thumb-sized “logs” to nothing, leaving no hot embers that can sustain a fire over time, so it was a good thing that I started out with a large supply of those tiny logs.
To avoid having to clean out my single pot/mug, which I would have to use for making coffee in the morning, I didn’t empty my meal into the pot, but boiled it in its microwaveable bag.
The Night in the Hammock
Although I would have liked to spend the evening hours gazing at the gorgeous rising full moon by the side of my diminutive campfire, the bugs would not have it. As soon as the sunlight faded, they came out in full force. A hammock is much less versatile in this situation that a tent: you can’t climb in and sort your stuff out of mosquitoes reach. I had to quickly pack up my cooking gear and packs, take off whatever I didn’t want to sleep in, while swatting my skin and waving a repellant-soaked scarf around my head.
At last, I crawled into the hammock, sealed the Velcro opening, and arranged the blanket around me. This is a good place to talk a little about Hennessy’s unique bottom-entry system. The bottom of the hammock features a long slit, that requires a little artistry on the part of a first-time user. You can slither in head-first, and the Velcro closure seals under your weight, blocking out insects. It’s a little weird, but it works. Here are my general observations about this hammock:
Because of the unorthodox entry, I don’t think it’s as good a lounging hammock as it is a sleeping one. Once you’re in, you’re in. Unlike in an open hammock, you can’r stick your hand out and rock yourself relaxed.
The asymmetrical design does allow you to lie in a a position that is closer to flat than to a banana. (However, I observed on a different trip, that if you use a sleeping bag inside, the slippery material does make you sink toward the bottom, making it harder to maintain the flat sleeping configuration.)
The Hennessy Hammock has a fully integrated bug net. But, unlike in a tent, where your head is some distance away from the netting, in this hammock your head comes in direct contact with it. Consequently, the mosquitoes buzzing around your head can sound exactly as if they were in your ear. This created an unexpected disturbance, and it took a few instances for me to accept that the mosquito was not inside the hammock with me.
The gear pocket at the peak of the hammock is small and weirdly shaped, so items were hard to secure up there and hard to retrieve. I would love to see a larger mesh pocket or two. They could easily hang down a little lower, as nothing in the pockets was even close to reaching my body as I lay down.
Exiting the hammock (as I had to do three times in the course of the night, the fact that you will not find surprising if you’ve kept track of all the liquid I consumed) has a bit of a learning curve. When the hammock is hung a sufficient distance from the ground, it’s easiest to sit on the edge of the opening, pull it apart, and lower your legs while holding on to the upper parts of the opening to pull yourself to standing. (I could not shake the birthing imagery no matter how hard I tried. Maybe not that hard. I want to try the zippered version of the hammock next…)
About the Thermarest Proton Blanket, I will say this: it is small, but surprisingly warm. Despite that daytime heat, night temperatures at this Lake Michigan facing state park got chilly enough for me to want to wrap myself fully in the blanket. It was a tight fit, but once I turned myself into a tidy little eggroll, I slept like a baby until 7 in the morning.