“I’M SO nervous,” says my fiancé, Anton, on our way to the campground where we’ll be hunkering down and slumbering in a hammock overnight.

“Why are you nervous?” I ask, because really, it should be the other way around. I’m about to enter uncharted territory. Until recently, my idea of a hammock was a woven net of multicolored ropes slung between two palm trees somewhere in the Caribbean. (Cue the pulsing beat of tamboras and the rhythmic rattle of maracas.) But of course, Google was quick to tell me that image was far from reality.

Even though Anton’s never “hammock camped” before, either, he has many indelible memories of camping trips with his family and a boatload of experience on me. I, on the other hand, have never been the perfect candidate for such adventures. I’m painfully indoorsy, directionally challenged, moderately entomophobic and, as they call it, a “freeze baby.” Not to mention, public bathrooms are my worst nightmare.

“Because I want it to be perfect; otherwise, you won’t go again,” he says. The truth is, he’s been trying to get me to camp ever since we met. Six years on, my firm “no” had softened to a “maybe” but hadn’t advanced past that. It wasn’t until a week ago that I decided, with more than a little trepidation, to bite the bullet and go camping. Hammock camping, to be precise—but at this point, for Anton, any sort of camping will do. (Full disclosure: I did have to write about the hammock-camping trend for this assignment, but it was my decision to actually go out and try it out for myself.)

“I thought camping was all about having an imperfect experience,” I respond. He pauses to consider this. “Well, I hope it’s imperfectly perfect then,” he says as we pull up to our destination.

At the entrance to the campground, we’re greeted by a park ranger, who hands us a slip with the location of our campsite scribbled in giant red numbers. We pull up near our spot—what’s going to be our overnight home—and begin unloading our car. If binge-watching Naked and Afraid has taught me anything, it’s that setting up shelter should always be the first order of business. I pull my rental Hennessy hammock from its sleeve and am immediately socked in the face by a fist of smoky aroma. Whoever rented this before I did must’ve slept a wee bit too close to the campfire.

“What about right here? Between this tree and that tree?” Anton says. “I’ll be bumping into Ernie all night,” I reply. He throws me a confused look, and I point to a tree that’s about a foot to the right of where my head will be. It has the name “Ernie” engraved under a stump that juts out like a doorknob. No last name, no plus-significant-other, no explanations. Just Ernie. Like Cher or Beyonce, but minus the cool factor. “Nah,” Anton says. “You’ll be fine.” I wag a finger at Ernie, as if to say, You be nice now, OK?

I read somewhere that we shouldn’t hang the hammocks higher than we’re willing to fall, so we take that into consideration as we wrap my hammock’s webbing strap around the two trees. We pass the rope between the two loops of the strap, then work on our figure-8 knots and half-hitches, which we mastered the night before. (Thanks, YouTube.) “Go on,” Anton says. “Try it out.” I enter it slowly and steadily, with the same caution I would use before sitting on a chair with a rickety leg. It sags to the ground under my weight. Judging by this first attempt, I’m not willing to fall far at all.

It takes us a couple rounds of knotting and unknotting and adjusting and readjusting, but we finally get the hammocks to hover at a proper height. Next, we tackle the tarp. Correction: We attempt to tackle the tarp. Turns out we haven’t the foggiest about how to rig it up because we spent too much time researching how to set up a hammock, and totally and utterly neglected to study up on tarps. We’re not quite in the thick of summer yet, and we know the temperatures are going to hover at bone-chilling degrees tonight. (For me, at least. I’m the spineless one; he’s Russian, hardwired to withstand a snowstorm in just shorts and a T-shirt.) And so, we’ve come prepared, armed with underquilts, sleeping bags and my secret weapon—a grelka, aka the Russian word for a hot-water bottle.

After we fiddle with the tarp, I try getting into my bed again. As I lie there, suspended and faintly swaying, I think, This isn’t so bad. There’s a cool, dewy breeze filtering through the hammock’s mosquito net. There’s the sound of Britney Spears’  rendition of “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” blasting from our campsite neighbors’ RV. It’s kind of nice. In fact, I could almost—just almost—fall asleep right here, right now. But we have dinner to cook, and I’ve been told s’mores are kind of a thing I need to do.

Anton slaps carne asada on the grate above the fire ring, and we crack open a few cans of beer. After dinner, when it starts to get colder, I add another layer of clothing and scoot in closer to the fire. A few marshmallow-slash-chocolate sandwiches later, it’s time to turn in for the night. In my mind, I’m hopeful that the combination of food and booze will knock me flat.

I stuff myself into my burrito—a sleeping bag inside a hammock tucked under a tarp—a feat that, at night, proves to be a challenge. Anton also struggles to get into his. Soon enough, he falls asleep. I listen to the cacophony of leaves rustling, raging cicada parties and the occasional random burst of children’s laughter, which was unbelievably cute earlier in daylight but is a little unsettling at night. As I stare through the mosquito net at some distant point in the sky, I’m suddenly startled by a loud howl.

“Anton!” I call his name until he wakes up. He groans. I’m immediately embarrassed by my cowardice, so I feign concern about his well-being. “Are you OK?” I ask. He assures me he’s fine. I’m not sure if he believes the authenticity of that question, but for the moment, he takes it at face value and falls back asleep.

I hug my grelka tighter. It’s pretty much useless by now. It was only hot for a hot second. I realize I’m just snuggling with a cold, rubbery lump. By midnight, I accept the fact that I’m wide awake. I pull out my phone from the pouch dangling above my head and begin entertaining myself with a game of solitaire.

It’s 4 a.m., and I’m not getting any closer to sleep. Also, I’m pretty sure a squirrel has been using my hammock to practice the art of tightrope walking for the last hour or so. And Ernie? I can almost hear him laughing—mocking me. On the bright side, I’ve gotten quite good at solitaire.

I’m about to wake Anton up and tell him I’ve had enough when I hear him shuffle in his hammock. “Hello?” I call into the wilderness, my voice coming out gravelly and cigarette-smoker-like. “Hey, I’m not really comfortable,” he admits. “I keep waking up. Do you want to move to the tent?”

And so, at a little past 4, we resolve to migrate to the tent we’d pitched earlier for emergencies. We inflate a mattress, wiggle into our sleeping bags and instantly doze off. A few hours later, I’m woken by the sun beating down on the tent’s canvas walls. I unzip the door flap and stumble out—a little tired, a little grumpy. While Anton makes breakfast, I pour coffee into two “Happy New Year!” paper cups we had leftover from our New Year’s Eve shindig, and we get to discussing how our carefully planned trip ended in such derailment.

Where did we go wrong? Was it the underquilt? Was it the mummy-shaped sleeping bags that were incredibly awkward to slip into while being inside a hammock? Was it just the wrong time of year? Were we the wrong kinds of sleepers? (Back sleepers, we read, have a better time.) Am I just destined to be an afternoon hammocker? How many mistakes could we have possibly made in one trip?

Quite a lot, we learned. Turns out, no matter how many hours you spend watching experts effortlessly rig up hammocks on YouTube, your first time—as first-times often are—will most likely be underwhelming. Uncomfortable, even. And it’s never going to be perfect.

In fact, hammocks aside, several other things went awry. I dropped a whole piece of steak into the ashes, scooped it up, cooked it anyway, and later learned a valuable lesson: If you’re dealing with ashes, the five-second rule is null. (I’ll just note that steak should never be crunchy and leave it at that.) We forgot to pack a lantern but were saved by an exceedingly luminous moon. (We reveled in its beauty.) Then there was Ernie, of course, whom we couldn’t classify as friend or foe, but who has become a regular fixture in our conversations.

It was, as we both had hoped, imperfectly perfect.


GETTING THE HANG OF IT

We asked an expert—aka Kirk Robinson of Lewis and Clark Outfitters in NWA—to give us the skinny on how to hammock camp with the best of ’em

Practice at home

Setting up a hammock is no picnic if you’re a first-timer. There are a lot of moving parts, and it takes a bit of practice and patience to appropriately (and safely) assemble everything. In other words, it’s all about trial and error. If you’re opting to tie your hammock to your straps manually, practice your figure 8(s) and your half-hitches—or study up on them if you don’t know what they are. It’ll take you a few tries to learn the, um, ropes, but tying strong, nonslip stopper knots is an essential skill to have. Try it out in your backyard. Even better than that, take a hammock camping 101 class, which Lewis & Clark Outfitters periodically offers for free—the next ones are on May 3 and 8.

Roll in early

If it’s your first time anchoring a hammock, trust us: You’re not going to want to do it in the dark. Make sure you have ample sunlight left in the day and give yourself a moment to find the appropriate anchor points for your overnight bed. No matter what that guy at Outdoor World told you, you’re going to make adjustments to suit your sleeping needs, and you’ll need a bit of time to tinker and fine-tune your hammock setup. (For reference, it took us a little over an hour to get two hammocks up.)

Find the right distance, height and angle

“It needs be set up at a proper height, and it needs to be at the right angle, about 30 degrees,” says Kirk. “If it’s too tight, it’s going to be really constricted. If it’s too loose, you’re going to wake up with a messed up back.” Pack a measuring tape if you have to—properly setting up your hammock makes a world of a difference. You can even download an app that’ll help you determine the right angle and force. (We wish we’d known this earlier!) After a few rounds of practice, we’re pretty sure you’ll just be able to eyeball it and get it right.

Sleep diagonally

Nothing says you’re a rookie hammock camper more than sleeping in the center of the curve. “Most people don’t realize that you want to sleep kind of diagonal in a hammock,” says Kirk. “You want it kind of loose, and you need a wider hammock so you can sleep diagonally. A lot of people think that you just lie down in the center of the hammock, in which case, you’re at the mercy of that angle. If [the hammock is] set up properly and you lie diagonally, you’ll almost be lying perfectly flat.” You’ll know when you’ve shuffled your way into the elusive sweet spot.


RESTING EASY

A gear guide for a good night’s sleep

 

Hammock

Are you a backpacker who’s counting every ounce of cargo, or a car camper looking to give hammocks a go? Define the purpose of your hang before you go off and buy your gear. “They have some really, really lightweight hammocks out there that are just a few ounces, but you’re definitely not going to be as comfy as in a big, two-person hammock,” says Lewis & Clark Outfitters’ Kirk Robinson. For a basic hammock at an optimal price point, Kirk recommends going for Grand Truck’s Starter Hammock (3). If you want to kick it up a notch or two, opt for a  Hennessy. It’s sturdy and lightweight, and comes with a rain fly, a sewn-in mosquito net and a complementary set of webbing straps.

Underquilt

Hammocks are inherently paper thin, and you’re going to find it hard to get some shut-eye with the wind slapping your back. (In the hammock community, this is called the “cold butt syndrome,” and it’s very much a real annoyance.) “One problem I see is people think, Well, I’ve got this awesome zero-degree sleeping bag, so I’ll be good,” says Kirk. “What they don’t take into account is that when you’re in a hammock and the sleeping bag is compressed, it’s really not doing anything.” Underquilts by Jacks ‘R’ Better (5) were hailed as a step above the mainstream on hammock-camping forums, even though they’re a pricier investment.

Sleeping bag (or top quilt)

A few things to consider: temperature rating, type of insulation and, if you’re a backpacker, weight. But as we mentioned earlier, because your weight compresses the insulation underneath your body, a sleeping bag doesn’t work perfectly to retain heat in a hammock. Not to mention, some sleeping bags, like mummy bags, are too restricting and awkward to slip into. If you can afford the splurge, choose a top quilt (4)—a sleeping-bag-like blanket designed with hammock campers in mind—that locks in heat in a more efficient manner.

Tarp (or rain fly)

The tarp may look like a useless accessory to you, but it works well to keep the wind away from your suspended bedroom. It’ll especially prove to be a lifesaver if you’re hit with unexpected showers of rain. “There’s a million different options with tarps, but you want something that has good coverage, is easy to set up,” says Kirk. “ENO makes some really cool asymmetrical tarps (2) that are designed for hammocking.”

Mosquito net

A lot of hammocks come with built-in mosquito nets, but if you already placed an order on a basic model sans bug protection, don’t fret. There are tons of standalone mosquito screens designed specifically for hammocks. Ranging from $25 to $40, they are wallet-friendly and beat smothering yourself in bug repellent.

Suspension system

A set of good, sturdy straps is arguably one of the most important items you’ll need for a safe and comfortable hang. It’s their durability and strength that really matter—in other words, don’t skimp on quality when it comes to your suspension system. “You definitely want some that are going to hold your weight, but also not dig into the tree too hard,” says Kirk. “ENO has some cool new straps called the Helios (1) that are made out of this thin rope that’s really strong. And it’s 6 ounces, so it’s super, super light.”

A ‘Plan B’ tent

A lot of folks prefer tent camping over hammocks—and for good reason. Side and belly sleepers have a hard time getting comfortable in the curve of a hammock, and the tight quarters might tick you off if you’re claustrophobic. If you come to the conclusion, in the wee hours of the night, that hammock camping is not your cup of tea—or realize that your setup could use some improvement—the last thing you’re going to want to do is roam around your campsite with no place to sleep, which is why having a tent with a mattress at the ready is a perfect plan B.