“Underquilts are expensive! Do I really need one?” When considering camping in the cold, the question of
So, Is an Underquilt Necessary?
No, it is not necessary to have an underquilt for hammock camping. However, you do need to have some type of bottom insulation on/or in your hammock. A sleeping bag alone will not keep you warm enough throughout a cold night. Alternative insulation systems to underquilts include a sleeping pad, blankets, or some type of heat reflective shield.
Why do you need bottom-side insulation in your hammock?
When you are in a hammock, there is 360 degrees of airflow around you. On a hot summer day, it feels amazing to have a nice cool breeze blowing beneath you. However, if it is 70 degrees F or below, you will get cold. This is due the convection heat loss that is happening below you. When you lay in your hammock your body is compressed against the bottom side of the hammock. The heat loss from both conduction (from your body into the hammock material) and convection (the air current taking the heat from the bottom of the hammock) can make you extremely cold because the air below you is drawing out all the heat from your body in an attempt to equalize the temperature to the outside air. The only way to combat the cold on your backside is to create a buffer to separate your body from the cool breeze below your hammock.
When I first started hammock camping, I read all about heat loss and all the ways your body loses heat. I sincerely thought that my sleeping bag would keep me warm enough on a 50 degree night. After all, I had spent colder nights than that tent camping and my sleeping bag kept me nice and toasty. To say I underestimated how cold I would actually get in my hammock would be an understatement.
I did not heed the advice that I read from others who were much more experienced at hammocking in the cold weather. I thought I knew better and could get away with just my sleeping bag. Boy, was I wrong. About 2 hours into my night I quickly discovered that 50 degrees might as well have been 20 degrees. Needless to say, I was freezing and had to put on several layers of clothes hoping and praying it would help. It barely did, and I learned a hard lesson that night.
You don’t need an underquilt to keep warm, but you will need something to create a buffer. For my first few years of hammock camping I didn’t have an underquilt. Let me tell you a little of what I did that worked out well to keep me the warmest. Here’s some alternatives to an underquilt and insulation methods that work.
Alternatives to underquilts
When I first started hammock camping and realized I had to have some type of insulation, I didn’t want to buy an underquilt right away because, let’s face it, it’s an investment. I also really didn’t know if I was going to like hammock camping and I didn’t want to invest the money if it turned out I didn’t like it.
So I decided to go the cheapest route possible. I tried a few different things and they worked out alright, but now that I do have an underquilt, there’s no going back for me. In the case that you are just starting out on your hammock camping adventure and, like me, don’t want to invest a ton into something you don’t know if you like yet, stay tuned for some great alternatives to get you by.
Sleeping pads are one of the most popular, and in my opinion, excellent alternatives to get around not having an underquilt. There are a few different options out there when it comes to styles of sleeping pads that your need to be aware of though.
The primary type of sleeping pad is a camping sleep pad. It’s essentially a blowup mattress that is a little skinnier than the regular blow up mattresses you’re familiar with. You know, the ones you use in your house when you have someone sleeping over for the night. This type of sleeping pad is not usually thick and they are very basic. They have about the class of a pool floaty – nothing fancy at all.
You don’t want to buy this type of sleeping pad. I’ll give you two reasons as to why I don’t recommend them.
The first reason is that you inflate it using your own lung power by blowing into it. This is the last thing you want to have to do is blow up your sleeping pad, or anything for that matter, at the end of a physically exhausting day of hiking or whatever else. Not to mention if you are on a multiple day hike or camping trip, blowing up your sleeping pad multiple times will become annoying and you will enjoy your time outdoors much less.
The second reason, and this one is the most limiting factor, is this type of sleeping pad doesn’t really offer very much protection from the cold air below you. Convection still occurs with the sleeping pad and the air inside the sleeping pad cools down to match the temperature on the outside of the hammock – leaving you cold. Now you are back to square one. What went wrong? Well the short of it, your buffer insulation also needs a buffer in order to keep you warm. Granted you won’t be as cold as you would be without the sleeping pad when your back is right up against the hammock material, but in the middle of a cold night it certainly feels like it is. I only mention this because I want to make sure if you determine that a sleeping pad is the right insulation for you that you get the right kind of sleeping pad. I honestly wouldn’t want you to buy an air mattress for a hammock.
There are some inflatable pads out there that do have insulation built into them that will protect you a little bit, but there’s another option. An insulated, self-inflating sleeping pad. Let’s talk about those for a second.
Self-inflating Sleeping Pad
Self-inflating pads are definitely the way to go when it comes to sleeping pads. There are many various types of sleeping pads on the market right now and all of them differ in benefits and features. I’m not going to discuss specific functions of a particular pad, but touch more on the features that you need to consider when buying a sleeping pad. My goal is to hopefully prevent you from making the same mistakes that I did when I first started out. I learned some hard lessons and wasted a significant amount of money just because I didn’t do proper research on proper equipment.
Self-inflating pads offer a few benefits to hammock campers. Most notable being the built-in memory foam layer. Once you unscrew the nozzle to allow air into the pad, the memory foam begins to expand. This typically takes a few minutes so it’s always a good idea to unroll your pad and loosen the nozzles as soon as you get to your new campsite. This gives it plenty of time to fully inflate before you need it for bedtime. Even though most of the work is done, you will still need to give it a couple of good lungfuls of air to adjust the firmness to your liking. As an extra precaution, I would also advise against making your sleeping pad too firm. You definitely want it to have a little flexibility since you need it to conform the best it can to the shape of your body and the hammock.
Another ideal feature of the memory foam and insulation inside self-inflating pads is that it provides a good insulation buffer and padding between your body and the cool air flowing below your hammock.
The disadvantages of sleeping pads.
Of course we need to also talk about the not-so-great things when it comes to sleeping pads. Sleeping pads can be a little tricky to stay on top of throughout the night in your hammock. This can happen if the pad you chose is too small or if your sleeping bad is slippery. It does take some practice and adjustment to find what makes your pad work for you.
The other disadvantage is to backpackers. The extra weight of a sleeping pad in your pack can make a difference and may be heavier than some people prefer. Most rollup, self-inflating pads weigh about 1 ½ lb, but there are good options on the market that weigh less than 1 lb – not by much 15.9 oz, but it’s technically correct.
I know quite a few people who have put off buying an underquilt in favor of using self-inflating sleeping pads. They really are a solid option if you are looking for an alternative to an underquilt.
Using blankets is probably one of the most budget-friendly routes to go. My first hammock camping experience was with an Army issued wool blanket. You can get them at an Army surplus store. I lined my hammock with the wool blanket slept in my sleeping bag on top of it. I will admit that I did get a little cold that night, but it wasn’t unbearably uncomfortable. I still managed to stay warm enough to have a good night’s sleep. I don’t think I would ever want to try to use my wool blanket when it’s below freezing outside. I would recommend using it for a little warmer weather for sure. Just be aware that if you choose blankets as your insulation system, it may not be enough to keep you warm.
Emergency blankets are not by any means a permanent insulation solution. I just want to put that out there before I give this option. Emergency blankets can work well in a pinch. I always carry them on me no matter what I’m doing. They go by various names, but are all the same thing. Mylar blanket, space blanket, first aid blanket, emergency blanket, safety blanket, thermal blanket and heat sheet or heat shield. They have a ton of names, but these are the blankets that make you look like a burrito from Chipotle. The great thing about emergency blankets is that they are waterproof and windproof. This will help you to retain as much of your body heat as possible. The heat builds up in the air pocket between your body and the blanket to warm you.
So Do You Need One?
There are quite a few alternatives to having to invest in an underquilt right off the bat. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge and pick up an underquilt, I hope that I gave you some good ideas to use for your insulation system. Just make sure to use common sense and check the weather before you hammock camp. My biggest advice is to hop on the good ole interwebs and do your research. Also if you have the time, do some trial runs with whatever insulation option you choose. Keep in mind that you can have more than one system that works for you depending on the situation and weather. The mix and match of insulation works well and I’m confident that you will find your perfect fit.
I hope you stay toasty warm and have a great night’s sleep in The Wanderful Wild.