Wednesday, August 12, 2009
The Warbonnet Blackbird Hammock
This is a gear review I almost hate to write because it is about an absolutely top notch product that I decided to return. Sorry to ruin the suspense. Hopefully this is obvious, but I generally don’t write about hammocking so I hope you read this as a really special item worth the attention.
In the east, hammocking makes a lot of sense because most of our trails have an abundance of trees (and few laws which prohibit hammocking). Most of my time is spent on the Appalachian Trail and anyone who has hiked on the AT will confirm that it is often tough to find a level spot for a tent or tarp because the AT is like a never-ending stairmaster. With this in mind, hammocking offers a legitimate solution to solve this problem.
Several years ago I went through a phase during which I tried out nearly every hammock on the market. My wife still reminds me now of all the money I lost in shipping costs alone. At the time, enough people used a hammock to let my mind wander from the traditional shelter methods and I found the concept of using a hammock to be intriguing. After all, I’d be off the ground and away from the bugs and moisture. Riding out a storm, horizontal rain, and ground water would also be easier to deal with.
The problems with a hammock are fairly obvious. First, they aren’t very spacious when compared to a tent or tarp, they are hugging you 100% of the time, there is very minimal gear storage, they are often heavier than lightweight tent/tarp options, generally hammock users need to be creative to keep themselves warm due to heat loss from the bottom side of the hammock, and lastly, many do require the user to sleep like a banana which isn’t always comfortable.
So I don’t receive nasty-grams by hammockers, yes certain hammocks can compete with lightweight tents and tarps as far as weight is concerned. Those that can are generally meant for summer use only (single layer) and they are often for persons around 150 pounds or lighter (fabric durability). And also yes, hammockers can stay warm by using everything from a closed cell pad, inflatable mattress, or even an underquilt which can be strapped to the bottom of the hammock itself which is plenty effective. And yes again, being bent like a banana can be mitigated to a great extent by lying diagonally or by putting something under the knees. Sag (taughtness) of the ridgeline also plays a role as does personal preference.
Anyway, during my search for a lightweight hammock, I learned several things with the most important being the fact that at 6’6” and 280 pounds, there weren’t very many options. By default, I was either too long to be in the actual sleeping pounch of the hammock and hammocks which could hold me generally needed to be double layered which increased its weight to the point of it no longer being truly lightweight (in my opinion). Generally, double-layered hammocks are either used to support big people like me, for others who wish to use their hammocks in the winter as it gives them a place to store insulation (pad), or by some in jungle climates who are attempting to find greater protection from biting insects who can otherwise bite through one layer.
To make a long story short (something I’m not generally known for), I tried hammocks by Speer, Claytor, Jungle, Jacks R Better, Mosquito, Eagles Nest Outfitters, and Hennessey. Most of these were quite good in quality, but none were comfortable to me. Truthfully, some were flat out annoying. With that, I gave up on any hope to use a hammock and that was that.
This changed in spring 2009 when I met Brandon Waddy of Warbonnet Outdoors (http://warbonnetoutdoors.net/blackbird_h.htm) at Trail Days in Damascus, VA. I had heard about his “Warbonnet Blackbird” hammock as he challenged the typical design of hammocks by integrating an extended piece of fabric to serve as a footbox which effectively allowed the user to stretch out his/her feet almost entirely flat without being bent like a banana. To me, this is a H-U-G-E innovation in hammocking and truly mitigates likely the biggest concern most people have with hammock comfort. One other innovation he included in his product was a little wing on the side which can be effectively used as a gear shelf, again, something no other manufacturers offer. The Blackbird also includes a ridgeline (to ensure the same lay each time and to keep mosquito netting off the user). To date, no one other than Hennessey Hammocks uses a ridgeline because Tom Hennessey, the owner, has a patent on it (amongst other things which is why there has been little innovation in the hammocking industry as a whole). Brandon is challenging the patent in court, so he included it in his design (hopefully this won’t be the wrong decision legally). Like other manufacturers, the Blackbird can also be used as a chair which is a truly wonderful option for use in the backcountry. This alone also made me think twice about a hammock as it sure was a nice thought to be able to sit and rest without getting dirty or needing to carrying a seat pad (or chair for those of you who don’t count ounces).
Meeting Brandon really caused my mind to churn about hammocks again. I wasn’t particularly fond of the weight, which with even a lightweight tarp would be slightly more than my lightest two person tent at around 46 ounces. My theory was that a good night of sleep was worth the extra weight and I had high hopes. With that said, I asked Brandon to build me a Warbonnet Blackbird made of double-layer 1.7 ripstop nylon (31 ounces) as this was really the only option for someone my size. If you were wondering, someone lighter and smaller can get a Blackbird as light as 17 ounces (just the hammock, not including a tarp). A mosquito-proof shelter at 17 ounces with, say a 6 oz Cuben fiber tarp or 9-10 ounce tarp of Spinnaker fabric, would make a nice 23-27 ounce full coverage shelter which makes a lot of sense to someone who enjoys the comfort of a hammock and wants to do it in lightweight style. Heck, that’s plenty light by most shelter standards. In case you were wondering, the lighter version is made of 1.1 ripstop nylon and costs $150 versus $160 for the heavier and double layer that I purchased.
Dealing with Brandon was great and his product reflected impressive craftsmanship and outstanding design. Flatly, it also looked cool which for someone who bears a striking impression to Big Bird (me), I welcomed any help I could get. The hammock was very easy to hang, and really for the first time in my attempt to find a hammock, I found it plenty long enough, plenty wide enough, and extremely comfortable. All-in-all, the look, comfort, and quality were all top notch. I even thought the price was very reasonable compared to other options I saw from other vendors. Basically, I was convinced (and I still am) that it is the best hammock on the market with nothing even close.
Unfortunately, after quite a bit of testing, I just couldn’t get comfortable enough in the hammock to sleep. I could doze off and lounging was great, but as far as legitimate “sleep”, I just couldn’t do it even after trying hard to wear myself out so I had no choice but to sleep. There was always something that bothered me such as the need to put something under my knees and head, and the fact that a minor shift of an arm or leg seemed to cause a ridge in the fabric which made me adjust other things. I just kept adjusting and adjusting and it was all such a fuss that it just didn’t work for me despite it honestly being the best, most comfortable, and most lay-flat hammock I’ve ever tried. I was also surprised to see how much heat was lost through the bottom of the hammock and it made me realize that at temperatures of anything less than about 70 some kind of pad or insulation would be necessary. I think my failure is far more broad than just the Blackbird however, meaning I simply don’t think I’m a “hammocker” because if I was, this would be the one I’d choose and I wouldn't cite the Blackbird as being the issue.
So, for those of you out there in bloggerland who ever thought of giving a hammock a try, I simply can’t say it more concisely or honestly that the Blackbird is the best option I’ve tried. If you choose to go that route, consider a nice tarp by another great cottage industry manufacturer such as Outdoor Equipment Supplier (http://www.outdoorequipmentsupplier.com/) or an underquilt from Jacks R Better (http://www.jacksrbetter.com/) or Te-Wa (http://www.te-waunderquilts.blogspot.com/). Like I said, I can’t say enough nice things about the Blackbird or Brandon and this is one of those backpacking purchases I truly regret not working for me.
(UPDATE (9/24/09) - After returning the Blackbird, I simply couldn't stop thinking about it. I then started thinking that testing a hammock in the humid summers of Virginia when I couldn't sleep on a mattress in college was probably not the best conditions to test the Blackbird. So, I sold a couple backpacks and I purchased it again, this time with the Yeti 3/4 length underquilt also sold by Warbonnet Outdoors. I then added a MacCat Deluxe Spinn UL. So now I have the complete system and only time will tell if it is something I will keep.)