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Why Do My Knees Hurt When I Camp in a Hammock?

When camping in a hammock, you want to make sure you don’t hyperextend your knees in order to avoid knee pain the next morning.
When camping in a hammock, you want to make sure you don’t hyperextend your knees in order to avoid knee pain the next morning.

I had a reader contact me about knee pain after they camped in a hammock that was so severe that it forced them off the trail early to recuperate.

This is a fairly common ailment when sleeping in a hammock and is caused by hyperextending your knees. Imagine that you’re lying in your hammock, with your feet in the middle of the sling, and your knees relaxed. Chances are that your knees are bending backwards a bit, perhaps imperceptibly so, but not at all in the way they’re intended to bend! This is what happens when you hyperextend them. I can relate to this issue because I’ve experienced it myself.

There are a couple of ways to prevent hyperextending your knees in a hammock, even asymmetric camping hammocks like the Warbonnet Blackbird where you can lie with your feet off-center of the hammock sling.

Assuming you lay flat on your back or perhaps slightly to the side, you can put a stuff sack full of clothes under the back of your knees so that they remain normally flexed at night while you sleep. This works well in warmer weather when you’re not wearing those clothes to stay warm. In colder weather, I bring a small inflatable pillow with me. Big Sky makes a nice lightweight one that I inflate and tuck under my knees. Works like a charm.

The other option is to arrange your legs differently, either curled up if you’re a side sleeper, or with the bottom of your feet pointing toward one another, so that your knees turn sideways and fall off the center of the hammock sling. However, it can be difficult to maintain these two positions at night when you’re out of it and using a pillow is much more foolproof.

The Jacks R Better Bear Mountain Bridge Hammock provides a much flatter lay than traditional sling an
The Jacks R Better Bear Mountain Bridge Hammock provides a much flatter lay than traditional sling an

The third option is to get a bridge-style hammock, such as the Warbonnet Ridgerunner or the Jacks R’ Better Bear Mountain Bridge Hammock, which provide sleepers with a much flatter lay at night than a traditional gathered end hammock. Both of these hammocks are heavier than most sling-style camping or backpacking tents, however, although they can be much more comfortable to sleep in, especially if you’re a side sleeper.

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  1. Hi Philip! When you camp, do you prefer a tent or a hammock? Thanks!

  2. For taller people a longer hammock suck as the Blackbird XLC may help as well.

  3. Hmm. I’ve never experienced this. Interesting. I’ll have to remember this in case it ever happens to me.

  4. Good advice, also lois makes a great point an 11′ hammock solves this issue for a lot of people. You can also try to make sure your hang angle and the amount of tension on the ridgeline is correct.

  5. #1 reason why the Military stopped issuing them to the ground troops as standard equipment in the Tropics years ago and why so many were on the Surplus market for years…They are still issued in limited numbers to Special Operations Units now but not in mass issues..

  6. Another spot-on conversation Phillip. Using the largest pillow you can make with your gear placed under your knees helps. Use the “knee” pillow for both back and side sleeping. In medicine we call this an abduction pillow; frequently used with hip patients. . I use both the WB Bridge and an 11ft DIY gathered end and do this with both. This can work even in the UL mode. If your backpack is frameless (and without shellable-bearables) use your pack. On some treks I use the Big Agnes air core pillow as well as rain gear, and other soft items in a large stuff sack.,75861401540,big%20agnes%20pillow&gclid=CjwKEAjw7O6vBRDpi7O-8OWSkwESJACNFsgx80mIfnNAGOP9XJJE282tx6-8txYGSGBqbSs-MxnvZhoCbvDw_wcB

    A quick search of “Knee Pillow” also lists some great remedies.

  7. Excellent info. I appreciate your many hammock reviews, tips and insights. Now if hammock use would only catch on in a big way! Still very little in Backpacker magazine for example. Most people are still painfully ground sleeping in a standard expensive down bag, all they know to do. Hammocks are so much better for me I’d never go back.

    • Todd, I think hammock use is reaching a tipping point. We are seeing hammocks being manufactured and sold by more outdoor brands, and more hammock vendors are being represented at Outdoor Retailer shows. Hammocks are huge on college campuses these days, and more and more people are using them for outdoor recreation and camping.

      Backpacker magazine is still pretty entrenched in traditional techniques, but we are starting to see more niche markets gaining prominence in articles and gear reviews, but so much of that magazine is fueled by big box brands, which are still dominated by traditional tent camping. I’m sure we will see more hammock-related info as these manufacturers adopt the trends in the market.

      Hammocks are getting noticed. More and more state parks and even some national recreation spaces have begun banning hammocks because the volume of hammock users (and, unfortunately, bad hammock practice) has had a negative impact (perceived and real) on the environment. It is vital that we promote good hanging practice by using webbing straps to protect trees, for example.

  8. Hyperextension is most often relieved when the hammock is properly sized to the occupant, is hung correctly, and is slept in correctly. This underlines some of the challenges inherent to hammock camping that are often overlooked or undervalued. Too often folks get into hammocks that are too small for them. It is also common to hang hammocks too tight. These two factors force the body into “less optimal” sleeping positions that exacerbate hyperextension because the body is laying in a more curved position.

    As Phillip mentioned, this can put strain behind the legs, often because the heels are striking the fabric ahead of the legs.

    Two tips can fix most of these issues:

    1. Hang the hammock with a good sag
    2. Lay diagonally across the hammock

    If the hammock is too short (around 9.5 feet or shorter) it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for a six-foot tall person to lay diagonally. Hammocks that are this short are better for lounging, short naps, or sitting, but you’ll have to sleep on your side with your legs tucked in to avoid hyperextension.

    Here are some tips for best fit of a gathered-end hammock:

    Hammock Length. . . .Best Fit Height
    <9 ft . . . =6’3″ tall

  9. I had significant issues with hyperextension and cramping in both my eno doublenest and hennessy exped asym which finally led me to take the plunge and get an amok dramuer. Problem solved. I am a back sleeper and in it I can sleep flat, roll around and am generally more comfortable than I am at home. I love hammock camping and not having a sore back in the morning so the cost was completely worth it for me and now I try to get all of my friends to try it. So far I’ve converted 3 others into amok lovers. Its heavier than my other two systems and a bit bulkier but almost as easy as the hennessy to put up and take down and for the comfort I love it.

    I haven’t done much back packing with it yet so my reports are mostly from camp grounds and visiting relatives but I don’t see any huge problems in the back woods. Just get a top quilt or open a square sleeping bag. Mummy bags are fun/amusing/not practical in a hammock like this since you will slide around.

  10. No mention of the diagonal lay in the article, for shame!

  11. Wondering how long it takes you to set up a hammock? I am all about going light but for me it must also be simple and fast. I have been using a tarp with the gossamer tarp poles and its super simple fast and pretty light (Although I’m sure not as comfortable as a hammock). I see the appeal of comfort for a hammock where I do a lot of backpacking in the Adirondacks. Also anyone ever sleep in a hammock with a dog? (she would never sleep outside if she wasnt with me) The tarp is just easier for this as well.

    • Different hammock set-ups are quicker than others. I can set-up my hammock in about the same time as most people set up a dome tent.
      Even quicker if you consider that some places can be difficult to pitch a tent, especially when flat ground turns into small ponds in the rain.

      I use a knotless set-up that shortens set-up and tear-down time.

      A hammock is much more flexible in places like the Adirondacks and is uniformly comfortable every night.
      This is especially true in The Catskills where you are not allowed to camp near the trails, roads or streams, the only flat ground in many sections. This can make it very uncomfortable unless you are willing to take the chance and break the law.

      As far as a dog goes, there are hammock companies that make hammocks for dogs that can be hung under or next to the human hammock. Dogs seem to like them from what I understand.

  12. Interesting. Thank you, Philip. I have been thinking about a hammock, but have also been made acutely aware of knee care recently :-( Something more to factor into the purchase decision.

  13. There is a couple things that have to do with legs in a hammock.I had a little calf pain at first . I am now in a wbbb xlc and I sleep till I have to go to the bathroom,I am talking 12 hrs at a shot. I was on the ground for 40 years and would wake 5 or more times a night with discomfort and would be up at first light unless I was car camping on a cot with a air mattress .
    And yes a pillow or something under knees dos help for that.Also a 11ft. hammock and the angle you are hanging and make sure the ridgeline is right or those two things can cause leg pain like we are talking about……

  14. Thanks Philip,
    I was hammock camping shortly after knee surgery when I read this post. I was able to mostly relieve the pain by staying on my side, but things really improved the last night on the trail after using your advice and rolling up clothing under my knees.

  15. Hi I hammock camp in the UK and i have gone every week for the last one and a half years .I mainly use a Exped Ergo which is a flat diagonal lay with my Staffordshire bull terrier with no problems. When going lightweight I use my Exped travel hammock which is not as good but OK.

    • Are you saying that lying with a Staffordshire bull terrier in your hammock is the reason your knees don’t hurt? Sure sounds like it. We have laws against that in the USA.

      I think what you’re trying to say is that the Exped hammock which has a side suspension and is not a gathered end hammock prevents these knee problems. Unfortunately they’ve been unobtainable in the US. Exped didn’t make enough to keep up with demand.

      • I know this is old but we don’t have laws preventing snuggling our dogs! My service dog often leans against me for support and under my legs. It doesnt harm her AT ALL and she’s such a cuddle bug that if my little hammock would fit her we would o.o

      • Ps, we also do NOT have breed specific bans in most places.

  16. Practice with your hammock before you go out into the woods, or go into the woods to practice with it! Most gathered end hammocks benefit from having the foot end raised higher than the head. If you have both ends at the same height you may pool in the middle and thus get your legs raised in an uncomfortable position. A structural ridge line helps many dial in their preferred setting.

  17. Hi Philip I didn’t realize you had a sense of humour in the USA. But your right, the Ergo is brilliant I have a made a double ended whoopie sling and connected it directly to the hammock using clove hitches leaving a ridge line of 2.3 mtrs. and 2.5 mtrs loops per end. Total weight with stuff sack 650 grams. I have tried using a stuff sac with my traveller and it works great.

  18. Even a $18 Chinese parachute nylon hammock off eBay that’s none-too-long will sleep well with a structural ridge line.

    You’re looking to create sag. The sag allows for a diagonal lay. That is what gives all-night comfort with no fuss.

    Even dirt cheap Mason’s twine is enough. Knot it if you can do some initial experimentation in the yard. Otherwise, make it into a whoopie sling. Braided line is require for the whoopie (as is a loop of light gauge wire to make the splice/bury).

    Anyhoo – sticking with a large hammock (11’+) and shortened by ~18-24″ via either a precise hang or a ridgeline…and lay diagonally and you’re good. Got a crappy shorty, oh ’bout 8′, (like me)? Fire up that ridgeline, keep ‘er sagging like a smile, and hang your feet pretty much right over the edge.even then…

    Pain from sleeping in a crappy setup isn’t something that certain people are susceptible to. It’s an issue with how the hammock is hung, it affects everyone, and it’s completely avoidable.

  19. This only seems like a problem if you are in a hammock that is too small for you. Good advice for dealing with it though if you run into this issue. Thanks for sharing!

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