Archival Gear: Old Vs New Camping Hammocks

1942 US Jungle Hammock on the left - weighs in at 3.5kg. 2003-ish Hennessy Hammock on the right - weighs in at approx 0.85kg. Swiss army knife for scale.

1942 US Jungle Hammock on the left – weighs in at 3.5kg. 2001-ish Hennessy Hammock on the right – weighs in at approx 0.85kg. Swiss army knife for scale.

In this post we’ll be looking at camping hammocks. Specifically, we’ll be looking at a 1942 canvas jungle hammock and an early-noughties nylon Hennessy Hammock. The Hennessy is their first true ultralightweight option, the “Ultralight Backpacker A-sym” with a silnylon canopy.

Item #1 – the WWII US Jungle Hammock

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII - AWM collection

Australian soldiers using American Jungle Hammocks in the Pacific during WWII – AWM collection

Developed over a period of several months in early-mid 1942, the US Jungle hammock was an ingenious piece of equipment designed for soldiers operating in the disease-ridden “green hell” of the Pacific islands. It was intended to provide shelter from rain, protection from flying disease-carrying insects, protection from crawling insects and vermin, all with the happy side effect of supplying the user with a comfortable place to sleep in all weathers.

Thousands of Jungle Hammocks were rushed to the Pacific Theatre in late 1942. Here’s what the Official History of the US Quartermaster service had to say about the jungle hammock.

“Conspicuous among the pieces of equipment shipped from San Francisco in late 1942 was the jungle hammock, which was expressly designed for soldiers entering a combat area. This hammock was optimistically expected to take the place of tent, shelter half, canvas cot, and mosquito net in regions where these essential items could not be taken either because they were too cumbersome to carry or because of unsuitable terrain. One of the chief virtues ascribed to the hammock was that it permitted men to sleep off the ground and so avoid insects and dampness. Made of a lightweight duck fabric, it had a false bottom that provided a dead air space and prevented mosquitoes from biting the occupant’s back. Attached to and over this bottom was an enclosed zipper-opening mosquito net, which in turn was fastened to a rainproof canopy stretched over sticks placed in the ground. The hammock itself was suspended between neighboring trees. This ingenious piece of equipment never fulfilled the high hopes of its originators.

Light though it was, it still was too bulky to be carried easily. Most important of all, it proved impractical in operational zones. The Sixth Army reported that front-line troops did “not like to sleep above ground because of possible aerial bombing” and hostile infiltration, and “soldiers behind the line” wanted “to keep out of the way of
shrapnel.” In combat areas, the Sixth Army pointed out, it was “essential that troops sleep in fox-holes, dugouts,” or slit trenches.

Despite such reports, which flowed in from all parts of the Pacific, the OQMG continued to improve the hammock, simplifying its zipper opening and reducing its weight by increased use of nylon. More than 700,000 hammocks were manufactured in 1944, and 600,000 were scheduled for 1945 procurement. These articles, though not widely utilized by the combat troops for whom they had been developed, nevertheless proved valuable in other ways. Rear areas, recurrently afflicted by severe shortages of tentage and cots, found hammocks satisfactory substitutes. During the wet season, when rain fell incessantly for hours, flooding bivouac areas and preventing tents from being pitched, jungle hammocks kept the troops “high and dry during the sleeping hours.” Some men in rear areas, Lt. Col. D. B. Dill, OQMG observer, noted, consistently preferred them for the better protection they gave against crawling and flying insects and slept in them as often as they could. When constantly employed, jungle hammocks had one conspicuous disadvantage—speedy deterioration, which limited their life, according to Dill, to about forty-five days.”

After WWII, hundreds of thousands of surplus jungle hammocks appeared at army disposal auctions and in surplus stores, particularly in the US and Australia – two of the main wartime users of the jungle hammock. Extremely popular with hikers, bushwalkers and scouts throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s the jungle hammock soldiered on for decades. Although not quite extinct in 2013, the reputation of the original jungle hammock has suffered due to the proliferation of poorly-designed Chinese copies sold as a “GI Jungle Hammock”. Make no mistake, these knock-offs are pure crap – I say this from personal experience. They are too short, they are too narrow and the rain canopy isn’t big enough to provide protection from anything other than morning dew.  They might be OK for kids to use in the backyard, but they are not suitable for adult use in the wilderness. The original jungle hammock was.

Jungle Hammock available as army surplus from Lenn's in Sydney in late 1948 for the princely sum of 37/6

Jungle Hammock available as army surplus from Lenn’s in Sydney in late 1948 for the princely sum of 37/6. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s pre-decimal inflation calculator, that 3 pounds, 7 shillings and 6 pence would be worth A$185 today. That’s a fair chunk of change for 1948 and goes to show just how popular these hammocks were.

When I was kid in the late 80s and early 90s I inherited my uncle’s original WWII jungle hammock which he had used in the scouts throughout the 60s and 70s. He swore by it and after using it in scouts myself it forever converted me to sleeping in the air while out bush. Sadly that original hammock has been lost over the years, but in 2013 I became the proud owner of not only one, but TWO original WWII jungle hammocks. One is an absolutely brand new 1944 second pattern hammock which is going into storage until such a time as I can have a pattern made from it, while the other is one of the originals – a 1942 first pattern which is a little rough around the edges, but remains serviceable.

Denis, the nice old bloke from whom I purchased the one seen below, bought it as a kid in 1953 as brand new army surplus. He had to save up for months to pay the 7 quid the disposals store was asking. He and his mates used them for many years for camping and bushwalking and it had been in storage for a couple of decades before I bought it off him. The hammock had a 3-inch tear in the rain canopy and a few small rips in the cotton mosquito netting. These I fixed with waterproof cloth “sniper” tape, which is a completely reversible fix that won’t harm the originality of the hammock in any way, while ensuring the hammock stays serviceable.

Here’s a walkaround of the 1st pattern WW2 jungle hammock in pictures.

Prior to hanging the jungle hammock. Since it was dry weather, it's laid out on the ground prior to slinging it.

Prior to hanging the jungle hammock. Since it was dry weather, it’s laid out on the ground prior to slinging. Note how it’s folded in order to protect the relatively fragile waterproof canopy.

The hammock is slung loosely using two lengths of thick manilla rope. The suspension is original to the hammock and still works perfectly.

The hammock is slung loosely using two lengths of thick manilla rope. The suspension is original to the hammock and still works perfectly.

Hammock slung and unfolded, giving us our first glimpse of the rain canopy and insect netting. At this point, it's important to tie off the canopy to the hammock's main suspension rings. If one were to tie off the canopy to the trees, they'd rip the insect netting out as soon as they lay down in the hammock.

Hammock slung and unfolded, giving us our first glimpse of the rain canopy and insect netting. At this point, it’s important to tie off the canopy to the hammock’s main suspension rings. If one were to tie off the canopy to the trees, they’d rip the insect netting out as soon as they lay down in the hammock.

The instruction tag (missing with this example) states that locally cut sticks should be used to spread out the ends of the canopy. I used some deadfall sticks and tied them off to the corner loops of the canopy.

The instruction tag (missing with this example) states that locally cut sticks should be used to spread out the ends of the canopy. I used some deadfall sticks and tied them off to the corner loops of the canopy. The hammock is now slung correctly and ready for use.

In fine weather you can tie the canopy up to give better visibility. I've done that here in order to show the zippered entrance to the hammock.

In fine weather you can tie the canopy up to give better visibility and a nice breeze. I’ve done that here in order to show the zippered entrance to the hammock.

The original factory spec tag is still intact (along with the original repair kit). According to the tag this hammock was made on the 30th of October 1942, which makes it 71 years old at time of writing.

The original factory spec tag is still intact (along with the original repair kit). According to the tag this hammock was made on the 30th of October 1942, which makes it just over 71 years old at time of writing.

The view from inside the hammock. Once you're inside, the hammock is a fair bit wider than it looks from this image.

The view from inside the hammock. Once you’re inside, the hammock is a fair bit wider than it looks from this image.

Sniper tape repairs to the 71 year old cotton insect netting. I found this to be a relatively unobtrusive fix.

Sniper tape repairs to the 71 year old cotton insect netting. I found this to be a relatively unobtrusive fix.

To pack up the jungle hammock, you remove the spreader sticks from the canopy and untie one end. Fold the canopy up and start rolling while the other end is connected to the tree. This gives a nice tight roll and means you don't have to lay the hammock in the dirt/mud when you're packing it up.

To pack up the jungle hammock, you remove the spreader sticks from the canopy and untie one end. Fold the canopy up and start rolling while the other end is connected to the tree. This gives a nice tight roll and means you don’t have to lay the hammock in the dirt/mud when you’re packing it up. A surprisingly difficult photo to take.

To tie up my jungle hammock, I use an army surplus 60s-era sleeping bag carrier. This is a mess of straps that are perfect not only for the jungle hammock, but also for my canvas swag (bed roll).

To tie up my jungle hammock, I use an army surplus 60s-era cotton webbing sleeping bag carrier. This is a mess of straps that are perfect not only for the jungle hammock, but also for my canvas swag (bed roll).

Jungle hammock packed up. 3.5kg of 71-year old awesomeness.

Jungle hammock packed up. 3.5 kilograms of 71-year old awesomeness.

Item #2 – the Hennessy Hammock Ultralight Backpacker Asym (now sold as the “Ultralite Backpacker Asym Classic”)

Hennessy Hammock Ultralite Backpacker Asym Classic - image courtesy of the internet.

Hennessy Hammock Ultralite Backpacker Asym Classic – image courtesy of the internet.

So what’s a modern ultra-lightweight camping hammock got to do with a blog which is devoted to vintage gear and “old ways”? When Tom Hennessy designed the Hennessy Hammock it was based in part on his experiences with the WWII jungle hammock above. That makes the Hennessy Hammock an important evolutionary step forwards from the old school canvas jungle hammock. Besides, I’ve used mine for years and love it, and that’s enough.

On the Hennessy Hammock website, Tom Hennessy, designer and inventor of the Hennessy Hammock tells his story – and it all started with an army surplus WWII Jungle Hammock. Here’s an excerpt:

At the age of 16, I would make 200 mile, weekend bicycle trips out of Washington D.C. into the Appalachian Mountains. I carried a minimum of food & water, a light sleeping bag and a WWII surplus U.S. Army jungle hammock. I loved this old thing because it rolled up so small and weighed so little and had no poles or stakes, perfect for moving light and fast.

Later at university, I loaned my hammock to a “friend” who never returned it. As the years passed, I continued to miss that little piece of gear and finally decided to duplicate my old army hammock from memory during my winter vacation.

The duplicate of the army hammock took less than a day to finish. As I was cutting and sewing, I began to see ways to overcome some of the army hammock’s shortcomings. The prototype needed to be more spacious inside to eliminate any sense of claustrophobia. It needed to be wider to allow resting or sleeping on the diagonal without curving your back. The netting had to be increased to improve air circulation and the weather fly needed to be adjustable and removable to create an open and airy feeling during good weather and yet close up for protection at night or during inclement weather.

The rectangular army shape evolved into a sleek diamond shape; the cord assemblies at each end disappeared to create more interior space by attaching the hammock fabric directly to the suspending ropes….

The rest is history.

Here’s a photo walkaround of the 860 gram Ultralite Backpacker Asym Hennessy Hammock –

Please note that for the photoshoot I stupidly forgot to bring the “treehugger” traps which protect the tree from the hammock’s main suspension cords. This is particularly important when tying to smooth-barked trees such as these scribbly gums. If I had slept in the hammock overnight, the trees would have been scarred for years. Leave no trace. 

How is that even a hammock? This mess of... I don't even know what it looks like... is a Hennessy Hammock and silnylon tarp.

How is that even a hammock? This mess of… I don’t even know what it looks like… is a Hennessy Hammock and silnylon tarp.

Nope. Still doesn't look like a hammock. One of the options which comes with the Hennessy is a set of "snakeskins" which are a silnylon sleeve which protect the hammock and let it pack up REALLY small.

Nope. Still doesn’t look like a hammock. One of the options which comes with the Hennessy is a set of “snakeskins” which are a pair of silnylon sleeves which protect the hammock and let it pack up REALLY small.

It's only when we slide back the snakeskins that it begins to look like a hammock - sort of.

It’s only when we slide back the snakeskins that it begins to look like a hammock – sort of.

My leave no trace philosophy extends to pegging out the sides of the hammock. I use deadfall timber (as seen here), rocks or adjacent vegetation.

My leave no trace philosophy extends to pegging out the sides of the hammock. I use deadfall timber (as seen here), rocks or adjacent vegetation wherever possible.

The hammock slung - minus tarp. It doesn't seem like it, but this hammock has far more room inside than the old jungle hammock.

The hammock slung – minus tarp. It doesn’t seem like it, but this hammock has far more room inside than the old jungle hammock.

Pitching the stock silnylon tarp doesn't require any extra tie-outs or pegs. The nylon rings at each end clip to the prussik'd hooks on the main suspension ine...

Pitching the stock silnylon tarp doesn’t require any extra tie-outs or pegs. The nylon rings at each end clip to the prussik’d hooks on the main suspension ine…

While the sides clip to the hammock-body's tie out cords - so long as you replace said cords with elasticated shock cord and tie a loop into them. The aforementioned is a useful mod for any camping hammock.

…while the sides clip to the hammock-body’s tie out cords – so long as you replace said cords with elasticated shock cord and tie a loop into them. The aforementioned is a useful mod for any camping hammock.

The view inside the hammock. OMG the bottom's torn out! That's because it's a bottom entry design, silly. This is a velcro slit which allows easy entry and easy exit. It snaps shut with your bodyweight with zero risk of falling out in the middle of the night. Sheer genius I tell ya! As Rick from http://brushnsoapnblade.wordpress.com/ says, " you get to be 'born' every time you get out through the Velcro slot!" What can I say? it's weird but it works.

The view inside the hammock. OMG the bottom’s torn out! That’s because it’s a bottom entry design, silly. This is a velcro slit which allows easy entry and easy exit. It snaps shut with your bodyweight with zero risk of falling out in the middle of the night. Sheer genius I tell ya! As Rick from BrushnSoapnBlade  says, ” you get to be ‘born’ every time you get out through the Velcro slot!” What can I say? it’s weird but it works.

With the canopy rigged for bad weather like this, you stay perfectly dry - even in a tropical downpour.

With the canopy rigged for bad weather like this, you stay perfectly dry – even in a tropical downpour.

Hennessy Hammock complete with canopy.

Hennessy Hammock complete with canopy.

When you're done you can put it into your pocket and away you go. Seriously.

When you’re done you can put it into your pocket and away you go. Seriously- that’s the complete Hennessy Hammock in a cargo pants pocket with room to spare.

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11 thoughts on “Archival Gear: Old Vs New Camping Hammocks

  1. Have you read “Jungle Snafus and remedies” by Cresson H.Kearney? He designed the US ww2 Jungle Hammock. He covers a lot of the same things that your great site does. How the 18inch collins machete was adpoted by the Army ect.. You must have seen the book by now? If not, get it,, you wont be dissapointed. Larry Nyland

    • The original WW2 GI Jungle Hammock is still one of my favorite gear items. I fell in love with them in the early l960s as a Boy Scout in the Panama Canal Zone. I still have one stashed away. The nylon verson we were issued in Vietnam was a pathetic attempt to update it. I havent seen one yet with the false bottom which to me is a essential element of a good hammock. There is nothing like the sense of well being and comfort one has lying in a jungle hammock while the rain pours down around you. C.H.Kearney designed a classic if his book is accurate. He also answered my question about the 18inch Collins machete and other US issue gear items.

      • G’day Larry, thanks for the comments.

        I haven’t yet read Kearney’s “Jungle Snafus and remedies”, but I have been lucky enough to have a digital copy made of the first real US Army jungle training manual, which was written by Cresson H Kearney himself while part of the Jungle Training team in Panama at the beginning of WWII. He’s very switched-on when it comes to living, working and fighting in the jungle (as well as post nuke survival).

        I’ll definitely take your recommendation and get hold of a copy of Jungle SNAFUs. As for whether he did design the hammock, I remember reading somewhere that he designed not only the Jungle Hammock but the rubberised jungle food bags, the jungle pack (which is very close in form to the modern internal frame packs we all know and love) as well as the rubber and canvas US jungle boots of the WWII era – all classic stuff,

        Cheers

      • I havent looked at the book in a number of years, but I do recall the mention of the jungle food bags. I have one, also, and its still usable unlike the vietnam issue models. I wasnt aware of the jungle training manual he wrote. The jungle pack is a nice item, as are the other classics you mentioned. Its a shame that we keep on trying to re-invent the wheel when it comes to practical lightweight gear for our troops. The currrent US military load bearing gear and uniforms are a abomination. I have to think that they are designed by commitee’s who make changes just to justify their existence. I had a WW2 USMC camo shirt some years ago. I was surprised at how comfortable and practical it was. All cotton to be sure. Well, as you can see I’m a vintage gear nut also. I was gratified to find someone else with the same interest. You are going to love his book. Should be able to find it on Amazon for a reasonable price. If not, let me know and I will look for my old one. Keep up the good work.

  2. One item I found interesting in his book was his claim that the NVA were issued a more practical uniform in Vietnam than US forces. Evidently a very high count cotton material that was mosquito proof. Also I was surprised to discover that the USMC ww2 camo shirt I had was designed to hold two air bladders in the “Map pockets”. But I dont think they were were ever used in that manner. The ww2 jungle boots were not very durable or supportive. The model1944? Jungle boots of canvas and brown leather were a improvement. I recall my father was issued them in the early 60s in the Canal Zone. The Vietnam jungle boot was one of the best items developed as was the poncho liner. However the poncho liner was worse than useless when wet. I think the British late war issue light wool jungle blanket might have been a good alternative. My favorite classic camo jacket is the French Airborne TAP 47/56 smock. Shootersguide is offering repro sets at a very reasonable price although the colors are a little off. Too red.

  3. Hi Larry,
    I was able to find a copy of Jungle Snafus and Remedies on Gumtree which I’ve ordered.

    I’ll dig out Kearney’s jungle manual and upload it here to the blog – it’s great practical reading.

    I’m too young to have had access to a lot of useable surplus WWII clothing, but your thoughts on the USMC camo shirt remind me of the Australian shirt of the same era. It was a pullover jersey design (only had buttons halfway up) and was made of a thick, soft cotton drill, originally in khaki and later in jungle green. I think What Price Glory sells repros of them. Aside from taking too long to dry in the hot stickiness of the monsoon/wet season, the shirts were super comfy, very durable and of a tight enough weave to protect against mosquitoes. The later Australian jungle greens of the Vietnam era feel a little thinner, but still had most of the comfort and ruggedness of the WWII model.

    The US WWII rubber and canvas jungle boots were revolutionary for their time, but were only really suited for raiding parties and special forces on short operations since they would apparently “blow-out” within a week or so if the wearer had to move over any sort of complex terrain. Australian forces were issued an ankle-high pair to carry as “camp” shoes which was a nice idea in theory, but wholly impractical for line infantry operating in the tropics. In most cases the jungle boots were ditched due to the weight and the Diggers continued to rely upon their heavy, cleated leather ankle boots, American gaiters and good foot maintenance (foot powder, blister tape and dry socks) instead.

    The boots your dad was issued are awesome. After Christmas I’m going to order a pair of the new repros from http://www.okiboots.com/. Known today as “Okinawa” boots due to their use by US advisers in the very early stages of the Vietnam war, the design evolved into the excellent leather and canvas black and green jungle boots which were issued from 1965 until the 1990s. If you rip out the toe and heel caps of US Jungles and over-oil the leather the comfort of the boots are enhanced about a million-fold with a little wear.

    The poncho liner is one of my favourite pieces of equipment, and one which I grew up with. I knew what a poncho liner was back when I was a toddler and thought a Poncho was a ChiPS motorcycle cop on TV. My dad’s an Aussie Infantry Vietnam Vet and the poncho liner he acquired in Vietnam is faded to an almost lime green now, but it’s still his prized possession. A few years back I was able to find him an almost new Vietnam-era poncho liner and he uses it in his swag when travelling. I have a couple of 90s-era ones and they are great for camping in a hammock in Australia’s tropical north. Apart from a commercial wool blanket in my swag, I have never really used woollen bedding for tropical camping but I might have to give it a try.

    • Good for your Dad. Vietnam Combat INFANTRY vets are a minority, even among Viet Vets. Tail to teeth was something on the order to 12 to 1 and I imagine he is even more a rarity in Australia. Ours was a noble cause. I have a CIB myself. 3rdBn 7th Inf, !99th LIB,in the Delta 1967. I had broken service and later became a USN Hospital Corpsman. Ship,Shore, and Fleet Marine Force. Just couldnt get enough punishment. I retired From the military and live in Spain. Get back to Texas every year or so. The poncho liner is a iconic item thats worth its weight in gold. Until it gets wet. I still love them. The earliest ones were in the WW2 parachute nylon camo. Very hard to find, I recall only seeing one in Vietnam. I recall trying to dry out the GI woolen blankets in the Panamanian jungle. They would be covered with those nasty green blue bottle flys who seemed to love them. I ordered a updated model from Wiggys at a very good price recently. I had it sent to my brother in Texas who says its very nice. Somewhat thicker than the issue model, but warmer and possibly functions somewhat when wet. Dont worry about replying to my comments, I have a lot of free time on my hands and this is the sort of thing that interests me. Actually I dont remember ever seeing the WW2 camo items for sale in the 60s. I found one WW2 USMC camo shirt at a flea market in the late 80s. I have found out that the French got ahold of them along with British camo items for their Airborne units. Thats where all the M3 trench knives went also. Larry

  4. Very interesting! Thanks for putting that up. I recall reading that the British put out something similar, “The Jungle Book”? for their troops in India training for Burma. Brings to mind how woefully unprepared the majority of British units initially were for jungle fighting. But they turned that around, didn’t they. What horrible conditions and fighting the commonwealth forces faced in Burma. Makes me glad I fought in Vietnam. and that was no picnic. My unit was in the Mekong delta during 67, so we didnt have a real jungle environment. But it was almost impossible to keep weapons from rusting overnight during the monsoon. I heard about a lubricant that was based on graphite, and the company was kind enough to send me a case of it gratis. It would turn your hands black, but it was the only thing we found that worked. Cant recall the brand name now. It wasnt just graphite grease, it was more of a fluid. Strange that .Kearney warns against using a file on machetes. Most of them are fairly soft steel, cant see how it matters.

  5. TJust a note on poncho liners. The Wiggy’s poncho liners w/ties are $48.00 and a continuious %20 off that sale price. Free shipping in the US. That is a great buy as it uses their Laminite filling that works when wet. Its somewhat bulkier though. There are other improved poncho liners out there, but they are a lot more expensive. They also list a zip model for $80.00.and I think they may have a hooded model also. Good stuff. A lot of SF have been using Wiggy’s products for many years. Although the new issue sleeping gear seems to be good and there are great buys on Ebay for GI surplus.

  6. Pingback: This Awesome Invention Just Took Camping To The Next Level. | Dani Simpson Blogsite

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