I’ve been tent backpacking for several years and it wasn’t until a recent trip to Tsali Rec Area that I began to consider the alternatives. A list which includes: on the ground, on the ground with a tarp, or above ground in a hammock.
I’ve slept on the ground in a sleeping bag. It was fine, but the conditions were ideal (i.e. moderate temps, no bugs, and we were on a bald with little wind). However, I had not crossed off tarp or hammock from my backpacking bucket list.
At Tsali, I noticed a lot of people choosing hammocks over tents. Curious, I asked one camper to let me give their hammock a try. It seemed comfortable enough that I thought I could use a hammock on a future backpacking trip. To the Googles!
Turns out, hammocks aren’t all that expensive. Prices ranged from $40 on up to $200 depending on material. I also found that most backpackers recommended using a bug net, rain fly, and sleeping pad along with a bag, quilt, blanket, or bivy. So let me back up. The hammock is between $40 and $200 while the accessories to keep bugs out, rain off, and heat in will collectively run you an additional $400-$600.
I also took a close look at the weight difference between a tent and a hammock. My REI Quarter Dome T1 tent with footprint, poles, stakes, and rainfly weighs 3 pounds 10 ounces. The ENO DoubleNest Hammock (19 oz), bug net (16 oz), rain fly (22 oz), straps (11 oz), and stakes (2.8 oz) weigh in at 4 pounds 4 ounces. Six ounces isn’t a lot, and in the winter months I’d be 16 ounces lighter since I wouldn’t need a bug net. Plus, factoring in how a hammock packs compared to how a tent packs, I was sold on giving the hammock a chance.
With my REI 20% coupon in hand, I purchased an ENO DoubleNest and the above accessories. I then gave it a whirl at a family car camping trip. Set up was a breeze and sleeping was, in my opinion, better than in a tent. I took the hammock with me on a couple day trips with my son and he loved it as much as I did. The real test, however, would come in an upcoming backpacking trip to Panthertown Valley in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Panthertown is a 6,700 acre tract of high-elevation Forest Service land within the Nantahala Forest. The trails, open to hikers, horses, and bike riders, are well marked and well maintained by volunteers.
There are a dozen waterfalls and plenty of established campsites. The elevation ranges from 3,660 feet to 4,210 feet, and if you traverse the majority of the trails you’ll definitely feel it in your quads and calves.
Oh, Panthertown is also a black bear sanctuary (contrary to the name). Yeahhhhhhh. Bear City!
Right, so, prior to heading out to Panthertown I called the Nantahala District Ranger office. The ranger said the last reported bear encounters were two months ago noting that hikers had reported bears climbing trees and tearing into stuff stacks. One of the groups said a bear destroyed a backpack. He followed up the tale with some advice, “Bring bear spray.” And that’s exactly what I did.
The night before I left I packed my Osprey Kestrel 48 pack with the essentials as well as my new ENO hammock, a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad, and a fleece blanket. Once I added my water-filled 2 liter Platypus my pack weighed in at 26 pounds (or about 1.5 pounds less than previous tent trips).
Day 1 (8.5 miles)
I met my buddy, Coop, at the Cold Mountain Gap parking lot around 10AM (where there were at least 30 other cars parked due to the Fourth of July holiday weekend). By 11AM we were on our way down Panthertown Valley TR 474; a combination of trail and gravel road. It didn’t take long before we saw our first pile of berry-filled bear poop. At first sighting I was all, “BEAR POOP!” An hour and 20 piles of poop later I was all “Oh, come on!” Seriously, there was a ton of bear poop on every trail we hiked. In fact, I bet if I scooped up all the poop and weighed it I would’ve hit 2,000 pounds by the trip’s end <– mild hyperbole.
For the first two hours we saw a lot of people. Probably more than any other trip. There were people hanging out at their campsite, people in the water, people on day trips, people on horses, people with dogs, and people forcing their children to hike with ridiculously loaded packs.
Before long we arrived at a parking lot off of SR1121 just shy of Blackrock TR 447. At this point we could’ve taken the Blackrock spur and cut time off, but we were hiking about 2 miles per hour with plenty of daylight remaining so we skipped the spur in favor of the longer path.
Once on Blackrock trail human sightings dwindled to four. We did, however, continue to see piles and piles and piles of bear poop. I was anxiously waiting to see if we’d encounter a black bear, but either our talking or that annoying bell I had strapped to my pack was keeping them at a safe distance.
Within a half an hour we came to Overlook TR 491 and opted to continue north towards Poplar Mountain where we’d hope to set up camp. At the trail’s end we came to an intersection where Turkey Knob runs north to Rock Bridge Road parking lot, and Powerline Road TR 451 splits east to Rattlesnake Knob or west to Turkey Knob. We hung a west.
We hiked the rolling, winding trail and saw nothing but trees and thick patches of Rhododendrons. About an hour in we crossed a creek that ran under a concrete bridge. Looking around there was still no good place to camp so we kept on keeping on. About a 1/4 mile later we found an access point to a creek on the right (north), and an unmarked spur trail to the left (south). Even though we didn’t see any other creek crossings up ahead on the map, we hiked the length of Powerline Road in the off chance a better option would be found. Turns out, there was no off chance find. So, we turned around, went south on the spur trail we saw earlier, passed a creepy abandon shack, and about two hundred yards in from Powerline Road we happened upon a spot where the vegetation was low and clear enough for us to call home.
It took about an hour for us to clear the area of poison ivy, vines, and thorns (so much for established campsites). Once our initial task was complete I was able to focus on the moment I had been waiting for—setting up the hammock. First, I wrapped the Atlas Straps around trees about 10 feet apart. Next, I clipped the hammock’s carabiners to each of the straps keeping the hammock about chest high. Lastly, I ran the ridgeline for the bug guard from one strap to the other and pulled the guard over the hammock. Since the forecast called for 0% chance of rain I left the rain fly in my pack. In all, the hammock took about 7 minutes to set up.
With plenty of sunlight left in the day, Coop and I gathered wood and stones for a fire. Coop took charge of the fire, and I waited for my role as cook. Normally I’d carry a grill grate from a little half barrel I own, but for this trip I opted not to pack it in since I didn’t want to carry a greasy, flesh-covered invitation for bears. Instead, I whittled sticks, and attempted to skewer the brats. Surprisingly, brats aren’t that easy to skewer (but if you’re motivated enough by hunger they can be). Eventually (and thankfully) the brats cooked and we were filling our gourds with fresh meat.
After dinner, we hung our bear sacks and backpacks using a technique I learned from Black Owl Outdoors’ YouTube channel. Seriously, if you’re heading to bear country I highly recommend this technique. It’s super easy to do and is way better than just throwing a rope over a branch.
With bags hung we built a bench, hung out at the fire, ate some S’mores, and turned in around 11PM. Within a couple of hours we were both awoken to the sound of something sizable nearby. Coop clapped, I hollered, and whatever it was clumsily, and quickly ran away. A couple hours later we repeated the scenario and fell back asleep until we finally woke around 7:30AM.
Day 2 (8 miles)
The bear bags lasted the night (and the bells we attached to them never rang). To celebrate, I ate a hearty breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, and broke camp. By 9AM we were back on the trail. East on Powerline Road, south on Blackrock, and then east on Overlook TR 491. The latter trail is kind of steep, but the view at the top of Blackrock Mountain is pretty awesome.
We could see Big Green Mountain to the southwest and Little Green Mountain, our next stop, to the southeast. Back on Overlook we caught up with Powerline Road again (that trail snakes like no other) and hiked it down to Panthertown Valley where there are four enormous group campsites just shy of the intersection of the two trails. Panthertown Valley trail took us to Green Valley trail and a good view of Little Green Mountain from the bottom.
We were making great time and decided to stop for water before ascending to the top of Little Green. We hung a west at Mac’s Gap towards a creek we had seen on the map. As we did we noticed an established campsite just 30 yards from the water. We talked for a moment and determined that having water near us would be better than not having water on top of the mountain. So, we set up camp.
It was pretty early, and it didn’t take long for us to set up. After shooting the breeze for a bit, Coop went off exploring and I started moving things over towards my hammock in preparation for the night. One of those things was the canister of bear spray. Unfortunately for me, the safety on the spray was loose (after I had fastened it AND LOCKED IT upside down) so when I attempted to secure the canister the spray misfired and I managed to get a patch the size of a half dollar on my hand, a little bit under my left eye, and some under my nose. Holy F&*! it burned like nothing else I’ve ever felt before.
Why so hot? The contents of the specific bear spray I purchased include 2% Capsaicin, other Capsaicinoids, and red pepper derivatives. And…AND…capsaicin is hydrophobic which means you can’t use water to wash the spray off your skin (which is what I continually tried to use).
To make matters worse, the capsaicin mist was traveling in the direction that Coop had gone. In an attempt to warn him, I covered my mouth with my shirt and headed out on the trail. Unfortunately for him, I was a little late and he had to put up with a short amount of discomfort. Sorry Coop!
So how long did the ridiculous 8-alarm pepper fire last? The pain under my left eye and nose lasted for about two hours. And it would be almost six hours before the pain in my hand began to subside. The good news, I could definitely see how this is a bear deterrent, and I now know that rubbing alcohol and soap help to wash away capsaicin. The moral of the story, make sure your bear spray safety is securely fastened.
With the red hot chili pepper adventure running its course, and with 30 minutes of daylight left, we threw on our headlamps and headed up to the top of Little Green. Within 16 minutes we were overlooking a beautiful sunset. Eleven minutes later we were back at the campsite swapping stories and fixing for bed (but not before I cooled down my face and hand in the creek one last time).
The night was completely uneventful. We didn’t even hear bugs chirping let alone black bears stomping about. As for night two in the hammock, it was a wee chilly. While the temps were in the 60s during the day, they were in the 40s at night. Unfortunately for me, I was in shorts and had only brought a fleece blanket. I realize now that I should’ve put on my rain pants prior to hanging my pack in the tree. Whatever, live and learn.
Day 3 (2.5 miles)
We woke at 5AM, broke camp, and booked it up Little Green TR 485 to the top of the mountain where we took in some really great views from Tranquility Point. See for yourself…
Even better, there were loads and loads of wild blueberries ripe for the picking. Coffee and oatmeal is good, but coffee and oatmeal with fresh blueberries is fantastic!
After breakfast we followed Little Green trail to Schoolhouse Falls, a really pretty waterfall just off of Panthertown Valley trail.
A few photo ops later and we were back on the PVT headed for the car.
Panthertown is a great place to hike and backpack. While there are plenty of bears, their presence should not deter you from checking this place out. As for the hammock, I loved it, and I look forward to more hammock camping trips in the future.
BTW, if you want to hear Coop’s account check out his side of the story.
Got thoughts on hammock camping in Panthertown Valley? Share ’em below or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.