- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
The yip-yip-yip of a pack of coyotes wakes me before dawn. I peel back an eyelid, feel myself sway gently and gaze out from inside the suspended burrito where I’m sleeping.
I’ve snoozed away the last eight hours in a hammock tethered to two sturdy trees in the Davis Mountains. Contrary to what I expected, my back doesn’t hurt, I’m not folded into a permanent paper clip, and I didn’t flip myself onto the leaf- and rock-strewn ground in the dead of night. Aside from getting a tad cold (temperatures dropped below freezing), I feel quite refreshed.
I unzip the mosquito netting surrounding my hammock and emerge from a cozy cocoon. Outside, five other hammocks — purple, turquoise and red — swing from surrounding trees.
Hammocks have been around for ages, particularly in places with warm and moist climates like Central America. But a lighter, stronger version of the old-school hammock is popping up in the back country lately, and Austin-based Kammok, which makes high-performance hammocks designed for camping, is at the front of the trend.
Greg McEvilly, 32, founded Kammok after spotting an opportunity during a whitewater rafting trip with his brother in 2010. The two slept in cheap hammocks along the way.
“The first night was great, but the second night my straps really stretched and I ended up on the ground, which is a fail when you’re in a hammock,” McEvilly says. “After that trip, I went on an overnight and my hammock ripped and I fell out. I very quickly realized this is a phenomenal experience, but there’s inadequate gear available.”
A business school graduate with a master’s degree in humanitarian work, McEvilly decided to develop a better product. He launched the Roo, which holds two people lounging or one overnight sleeping, through a Kickstarter campaign.
McEvilly worked out of his garage and didn’t take income for three years. In 2014 he hired his first three employees. Today the company employs eight, housed in a mural-covered office on East Seventh Street. As a 1 Percent for the Planet member, the company donates at least 1 percent of its revenue to environmental and social initiatives.
It bills itself as the only truly high-performance hammock on the market, and the Roo sells for $99, plus an additional $28 for the tree-friendly straps needed to hang it up. Other models, plus rain tarps, mosquito nets and insulating covers, are also available. One convertible model works as a hammock hanging from a tree and transforms into a tent that can be staked to the ground; there’s also a line of sleeping bags and trail quilts.
“First off, it’s incredibly comfortable,” McEvilly says of hammock camping. “One of the pitfalls of tent camping is finding a nice level spot, and if you want additional comfort you pack a sleeping pad to get off the rocks or twigs. With a hammock, you can put it on a downhill slope and still have a nice level place to sleep. The only limitation is you need two points to connect to that can support your body weight.”
Usually, that’s two trees, spaced about 15 feet apart. Rocks can work, or even a pair of vehicles. Just make sure you know the hammock rules before you strike out on an adventure.
We’d originally planned to hang our hammocks at Big Bend National Park, but about three years ago the park banned hanging hammocks from natural features like trees or rocks, according to park ranger and public information officer Jennette Jurado. Hammocks tied up on manufactured shade structures at campsites are still allowed.
“We’ve had a couple of trees get damaged by the straps and the weight associated with holding up a hammock,” Jurado says. “Most of the trees up in the Chisos are scrappy pinon pines — they’re old and don’t have a good diameter. Having seen bark removal on the opposite sides of two trees about 10 feet apart, I can see the impact hammocks can have.”
That’s why we headed to the Davis Mountains for our adventure instead. We also spent a few nights camping in that convertible hammock/tent made by Kammok, called the Sunda, which we could pop up on the ground.
I usually sleep on my side, and I wondered how it would feel to sleep in a giant sling hung from a tree. Travis Perkins, who works in operations at Kammok, showed me how to lay diagonally across the hammock to spread out the fabric, creating a relatively flat sleeping space. No problem rolling onto my side as needed. Some people even sleep on their bellies.
The hammock alone is easy to set up and take down, but it took me some time to add the mosquito net, rain fly and underquilt needed for cold weather camping. I’m sure I’d get more efficient after a few more trips.
I realized another benefit of hammock camping, too, after spotting both a red racer and a rattlesnake slithering across the desert floor. Snakes, scorpions and centipedes are less likely to barge into your sleeping quarters if they’re not on the ground.
Plus, it’s just fun to sack out while dangling in mid-air. It makes me feel like a monkey.
Hammock sales have shown significant double-digit growth over the past five years, according to figures from SSI Data and NPD Group, which track retail sales. They’re the second hottest category in the outdoor market, behind coolers. (Think Yeti, another Austin-based company.)
“It’s on trend with how people are getting outside these days — more recreational and less extreme,” says CEO Haley Robison. “It’s a really great social activity. The movement started in the festival scene, then moved into campuses and parks. We say we pioneered hammock camping — taking a recreational activity and creating a story around camping.”
Besides Kammok, companies like Eagles Nest Outfitters, Grand Trunk and Warbonnet, plus a number of small mom and pop operations, all make hammocks.
“We want Kammok to be Austin’s hammock brand,” Robison says.