Taking in the wild side outdoors can mean more than paddling frothy rapids or barreling down killer single-track. Nod off in a lightweight hammock, and you'll see. Even adventure buffs will have to concede that lying on your back with eyes sealed is an authentic way to take in the great outdoors.
In fact, all kinds of folks are taking hammocks more seriously these days, and I'm one of them.
After all, the Egyptians dabbled with similar contraptions, and some indigenous South Americans hung their fishing nets above the day's catch and slept in them (the nets, not the fish). But it's only in the last few years that outdoor enthusiasts have jumped into the swing of things: There's a book dedicated to hammock camping, and numerous American companies make hammocks, including an outfit run by two brothers, Paul and Peter Pinholster.
On the hunt for a lightweight, outdoor hammock, I checked out the brothers' Asheville-based business, Eagles Nest Outfitters. Having grown up in Key West, the Pinholster duo have certainly seen a hammock or two, but in the late 1990s, most models available in the U.S. were the bulky type you might find in a patio-furniture catalog and best suited to sipping lemonade out on the back lawn. "We realized no one in the U.S. was doing them well and marketing them to the public," Paul recalls.
But while on a 1999 trip to Central America, he discovered a Costa Rican hammock that was simple and light. About the same time, Peter turned up a New Zealand model made of durable, but airy, parachute nylon. Inspired, the two learned to sew — using their mother's Singer — and they engineered a prototype. The Pinholster brothers hit the road in a minivan, hustling their hammocks up and down the East Coast at festivals and on the arts-and-crafts-show circuit.
The venture was fairly successful. But, says Paul, "we were getting awfully weary on the road."
Then in 2003, their Virginia-based headquarters — a doublewide trailer — went up in flames, roasting their entire hammock stock. Rather than return to Florida, the two accepted a friend's invitation to regroup in Asheville. They've been here ever since, and the business is rockin'.
And that's a good thing. Being in the woods equates to a certain amount of bug-slapping, back-aching suffering, so the Zenlike, eye-drooping sensation of rocking in a hammock may make you feel like you're cheating. The back-and-forth rhythm as you're suspended in the air is innately soothing, I find; the cadence seems to activate a sense of harmony with the movement of nature.
Though really, I'm sold on the idea that hammocks are downright useful too. From a backpacking perspective, using a nimble one (ENO's lightest version is a mere 13 ounces) eliminates the need for a ground cloth and a sleeping pad. And one of the benefits of using a hammock is its light-footed impact: Come morning, it's much more difficult to detect the former presence of a hammock than it is a tent. The contraptions also have the advantage of lifting you above the fray of muddy, overused campsites, or ones that are rooty, rocky or steep.
Of course, a hammock isn't limited to overnight excursions. It's an ideal piece of furniture for an outdoor nomad, which is exactly what the Pinholster brothers had in mind. Using a hammock may have a place in a backpack for day-hikers, paddlers or fisherman. They've also been showing up on campus quads, and, at the July 23-26 FloydFest in southwestern Virginia, several dozen ENO hammocks were hung around a single stage.
Still, sacking out in a hammock isn't for everyone. Older sibling Peter says: "It boils down to a personal preference. Camping with a hammock is totally different." For some, sleeping nested in a curve may seem unnatural, and restless snoozers may feel like a flounder snagged in a fishing net. The brothers also concede that using a hammock can be challenging when it's cold, since the fine material doesn't provide the thermal barrier of a sleeping pad. And while ENO and other makers have designed a two-person hammock, being smashed against your gamey hiking partner may keep this fad a largely solitary endeavor.
For me, though, my most memorable experience in a hammock came on a recent afternoon when I tried to read while hung between two sycamores on the banks of the French Broad in Asheville. While fighting off sleep for a couple of hours and completing not a single page, I realized that I should do this more often.
Jack Igelman lives in Asheville.