Hammock Safety 101

I hear about hammock accidents and deaths reported in the news thanks to a Google Alert I have set up “hammock,” which emails me a daily list of what the media are saying. Sometimes it’s unrelated news from a town or politician named Hammock. Most of it is relevant hammock-related articles. And, occasionally, and sadly, it’s a death or injury caused by hammocking.

Last week, I was getting lots of alerts for stories about two sisters from Ohio who died after the brick pillar they attached their hammock to collapsed onto them. They were just 12 and 14 years old. News like this is absolutely heartbreaking, and it goes mainstream because people can relate. They have hammocks. They have kids…

Friends and family text me these type of articles, and I immediately think of the precarious places I’ve hung a hammock in the past six years and am so grateful to have escaped similar situations. While I’ve never hung from a brick structure—please don’t—I have made some questionable hammocking decisions.

Last night, I got an alert for this story. A 23-year-old Boston woman is suing Eagles Nest Outfitters (ENO), one of the most popular hammock companies, after becoming paraplegic in a 2017 accident. I remember hearing about this when it happened. Another brick pillar (this time a chimney) buckled under the weight of the hammock and tumbled down, crushing college student Erin Field.

The story is harrowing, but the 10-minute video of Erin’s journey to recovery—including years of therapy and, happily, her college graduation—is just heart-wrenching. It’s one thing to read about hammock accidents. It’s quite another to watch a sliver of her reality from the years after the accident documented on YouTube.

Despite Erin’s positive outlook and determination to get stronger and more self-sufficient following her 2017 accident, she shouldn’t be in this situation. (Side note: Erin also explains often how grateful she is to be alive, and I think that’s an incredibly inspiring outlook. Gratitude is something we can all apply to our lives. Not to get too deep or all woo-woo on you, but I’ve been reading some philosophy books lately that would make the case that Erin is in the exact position/situation she should be in. “Loving What Is,” for example, explains that acknowledging—and embracing—reality versus the stories you create about what you think reality should be, can free your mind from the could’ve/would’ve/should’ves. It seems Erin’s been able to do that, which is awesome. And as with any tragic story or experience, hopefully hers serves as one of warning to others.)

The complaint Erin filed against ENO, which you can read in full, alleges that ENO’s marketing department created a social media campaign with “a photo caption contest which encouraged individuals to share pictures of hammocks hanging in unusual places, including rooftops or other areas where there were no trees.”

As part of an ongoing photo contest on ENO’s website, where you can enter submissions, the rules state: “Keep it safe. Responsible hammocking is our number one priority, so please no stacked hammocks or photos of hammocks hung too high. Check out our set up guides on each product page if you have questions about proper set up.” Here are more safety instructions from ENO’s website, which includes, “Check your surroundings, above and below, and make sure to choose a suitable, stable tree.”

In 2017, Erin’s brother hung his new ENO DoubleNest hammock from his apartment building’s rooftop chimney, tagging the photo “no trees no problem” after seeing ENO’s marketing campaign, which, he says, didn’t properly “warn users of serious risk,” and though ENO “knew or should have known of the risks of hanging its hammocks on certain items, such a brick columns, it did not sufficiently communicate those risks to users.”

Another slap-in-the-face reality is reading the complaint’s list of previous hammock injuries and deaths. Several accidents are the result of hanging from masonry/brick pillars (or what the document calls non-weight bearing structures), as well as a few tree-related accidents. 

While trees are the safest and most secure from which to hang a hammock, there’s no guarantee that any given tree can actually hold the weight. Sometimes trees are less healthy or sturdy than they may appear. If a tree is rotting from the inside or bottom, you may not realize it by looking at it. This would be considered a freak accident, as the media often like to call these tragic events.

But hanging from a brick pillar or other non-weight bearing structures can’t really be called freak accidents. It’s not the unfortunate result of an otherwise completely normal and presumably-safe situation. It “shouldn’t have happened” because hammocks should not be hung from these structures in the first place, where the strength and stability are completely unknown.

Alas, a lot of people don’t know better. A brick chimney or pillar that holds up a roof sure does look strong.

So, this is my attempt to help spread the word…

God knows I’ve hung in unsafe situations. After hearing all these stories and seeing Erin’s journey, I will absolutely take more precaution. I always think “what’s the worst that could happen?” and base my decisions off that. An epic photo is not worth your life. Most of the time your life isn’t in jeopardy, but if it’s possible that it is, as the worst case scenario, perhaps reconsider.

As portable, lightweight hammocks have become so popular over the past decade, I’ve seen some crazy photos of people hanging in dangerous-looking spots. Whether it’s high off the earth, over a deadly waterfall, hanging from a thin metal railing on an apartment balcony several stories up—you have to consider the worst case scenario before you hop in.

The worst case being that either the structure you’re attached to can’t hold the weight (and you fall or it collapses on you) or the hammock and/or straps rip or tear (also resulting in you falling).

While the chances may be slim, they’re still there, and it’s not worth risking your life over.

How to safely hang a hammock while respecting trees

General safety reminders for hammocking from trees:

  • The higher you hang, the harder you fall. While I won’t give specific measurements, I will strongly encourage you to use your best judgement, just like everything in life. For example: ENO explicitly says not to hang higher than 18″ off the ground, whereas Grand Trunk says to hang at least 18″ off the ground. Not sure I agree with that, but they do offer some other smart suggestions. 
  • What’s underneath you? Because that’s what you’ll fall on. Rocks and sharp objects = ouch. A hillside with a 20′ drop? Hmm.
  • Make sure your gear is in good condition and the hammock/straps/carabiners/etc. are properly attached.
  • Test some weight on the hammock before plopping in completely to make sure it’s secure.
  • Don’t be aggressive, jumping around or rapidly swinging in the hammock.
  • Don’t stack hammocks. You may feel safe climbing up to the top hammock, but this goes back to the weight capacity of trees. 
  • Two hammocks per tree maximum. Referring to hammocks hung in opposite directions, off other nearby trees, but sharing one anchor point. Two straps max per tree.

Avoid widow makers. Dead trees or branches have earned this nickname because they’re dangerous and can kill you. Simple.

Find and attach to thick, healthy, living trees. A good rule of thumb when looking for appropriate hammocking trees is that the trunk/branch should be at least 8″ in diameter. The bigger, the better. If the tree or branch sways as you apply pressure or sit in the hammock, find another option. 

Do not hang from protected or endangered trees. I learned this the hard way, but knowledge is power, so I’m spreading it. Pay attention to park rules and signs on where it’s safe to hang a hammock, as many public places do have protocols in place.

Don’t mess with wildlife. Trees are home to so many animals. Don’t bother a bird’s nest and watch out for ants! I’ve also been attached by ants and you do not want that experience. Neither do the ants.

Proper straps are key. This is more about the tree’s safety, but some hammocks are sold with thin rope, which should never be used to hang from trees. The rope digs into the bark, which can damage the trees. This is why hammocks are banned from parks. You want thick hammock straps, at least 1″ wide. 

Make sure the strap is in place and doesn’t slip. I’ve gotten into a hammock—after testing with a bit of body weight first—and fallen to the ground because the strap slipped. It doesn’t happen often, as the weight creates tension and typically helps keep the strap in place, but it is very possible. Be aware of worst case scenarios like this before/as you’re hammocking.

Read more about how to hang a hammock straps, including the best hammock straps and tree protectors.

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