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
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. 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. 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.
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 hammock is now slung correctly and ready for use.
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 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.
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. A surprisingly difficult photo to take.
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. 3.5 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hennessy Hammock complete with canopy.
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.