When you think of a hammock, it may trigger images of swinging under palm trees with a pina colada or deep in the woods, staring up at the forest canopy. We often view hammocks as a place to relax, rest in nature, or comfortably read a book.
Hammocks weren’t always used for leisure, though. The first hammock was used as a form of protection, dating back nearly 1000 years. It originated in the Mayan civilization and the word hammock roughly translates to fishnet in Arwaken. By suspending their bed above the ground and surrounding themselves in netting, the Mayan people could protect themselves from animals and insects while remaining cool and comfortable. Similar types of beds were used by indigenous peoples in America as well.
As the story goes, Christopher Columbus came across hammocks when he traveled to Central America and the Bahamas and brought them back to Europe. In Spain, they were then made using cotton and canvas, transforming them into the hammocks we commonly see today. During the mid-16th century, hammocks were quickly adopted as the preferred type of bed for sailors and soldiers. For those on ships, it was said that hammocks could help sailors avoid seasickness and as portable and comfortable beds, they were used during both World Wars, the Civil War, and Vietnam War.
Later in the 19th century, prisons in Britain replaced traditional beds with hammocks as they were much cheaper. In the US, they were also commonly used on farms and as leisure beds for wealthier families.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and hammock use is on the rise. In 2016, a market research group known as NPD found that market demand for hammocks had doubled in just two years. They saw groups of millennials were going “hammocking,” a leisure activity where people would put up hammocks and spend the afternoon enjoying the outdoors. Universities have also jumped on this trend. A University in British Columbia, Canada, actually has an unofficial club called “hammock and beer” where they hike into the woods, set up hammocks and enjoy local craft beers. Though not always approved by the college, similar clubs have popped up at universities across the country like Kansas State and Michigan State University.
Businesses have also jumped on the trend. Major companies like Google, Hubspot, and Box Inc. have set up hammocks in their offices for employees to nap, work on their laptops or just relax. Those who are a little more adventurous are even substituting their tent with camping hammocks! Providing shelter and a bed all in one, it has become a comfortable and lightweight alternative.
Types of Hammocks
Just as there are different types of beds, you will also find different types of hammocks.
Each culture has its own interpretation and use.
In southern India, hammocks that are mounted to the ceiling are traditionally used as a baby bed. Like a 5 meter Sari, one piece of woven material is hung from the ceiling reaching just above the ground. The distance from the ground makes it safe for babies and toddlers, and the fabric provides them with a cooling effect, allowing air ventilation in the hot climate.
Hammocks are still widely used in Mexico, Central, and South America as well. In Mexico, you will find many villages surrounding Merida and Yucatan using hammocks made from hand-woven thread. They are a big part of the culture and history and may be used to sleep or as a symbolic piece of home décor.
El Salvador is one of the largest exporters of hammocks in the world. San Salvador City has been coined “The Valley of the Hammocks,” and were initially used to repel earthquakes. Just like the Yucatan culture, hammocks are also a significant part of Salvadoran culture. Today, they were used for an afternoon nap or a way to spend the day. They are not only found outdoors but inside the house, fastened to walls and doorways.
In Venezuela, you will find many villages that exclusively use hammocks for beds. Due to the jungle environment, there is an increased risk of venomous snakes and scorpions, which makes a hammock a much safer alternative. A Venezuelan hammock has panels made of breathable material and often includes a mosquito net to keep out insects. If used outdoors, a waterproof shelter can be applied overtop to keep the user dry.
In the US, you will find several different types that are designed for other uses. For example, some backyard hammocks are attached to an existing frame, so you don’t need to fasten it to anything to enjoy the comfort of a hammock. For a more aesthetic look, there are also crocheted hammocks or nylon hammocks.
Are hammocks suitable for sleep?
Many cultures use hammocks instead of beds, making many wonder if a hammock is better for you than a mattress. A group of researchers in Switzerland tried to answer this question with their own study. In 2019, their study was published in the journal Current Biology. They had several participants sleep in their lab in a bed that rocked mechanically, similar to how it would with a hammock. The results found that the rocking sensation increased their amount of deep sleep as well as restorative sleep.
You may have found this yourself if you’ve ever had the pleasure of taking a mid-day nap in a hammock. Yet, despite many people enjoying them leisurely, they aren’t ready to swap out their mattress for a hammock.
If you are curious about how it would feel to sleep in a hammock each night, try a camping hammock. Many people will sleep in a bed at home but use a hammock when camping. When paired with a camping pillow, you may find that you have a better night’s rest. This is a great way to determine if you want to take a more permanent approach.
Sleeping in a hammock has been found to have several benefits. Dr. Steven Park, a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says your head should be elevated by about 10-30% when sleeping. When in a hammock, you will be put in this position. For added support and comfort, you can also add a pillow to your hammock. Try a shredded latex pillow or even a neck roll to help with alignment. When you do, you may find you fall asleep faster.
One study found that hammocks help people fall asleep faster because of their body’s position and the gentle swaying feeling. This swaying motion can also alter your brain waves, making them stronger. It is said to induce slow oscillation and spindle activity which is an effective brain hack!
A good night’s rest will also improve brain activity, and when you are comfortable, you sleep better. Traditional mattresses can cause pressure points that may cause pain and discomfort. These pressure points don’t exist when you are suspended from the air. With the right pillow, like a camping pillow, shredded latex pillow, or neck roll, you can ensure you get the perfect amount of support and comfort so you can be rocked to sleep like a baby!
Hammocks are also much cheaper, more versatile, compactable, and take up less space. If you are always on the go, living the #vanlife, a hammock can give you the comfort of sleeping in the same place every night – even when you aren’t! You also have a great deal of control over your temperature. If nights are warm, you can go without a blanket and simply surround yourself with the breathable fabric of the hammock. Alternatively, if it is cool, you can add blankets.
It’s important to note these sleep-inducing benefits are only received when your hammock is set up correctly. It must be in the correct position, with tightened cords to prevent any sagging.
If the hammock isn’t set up right, it can cause your spine to sink, causing back pain and stiffness the following day. Also, if you are someone who moves a lot in their sleep, a hammock can be a dangerous place to be. There isn’t space for tossing and turning in a hammock, and you could risk falling out. Lastly, if you don’t have it firmly attached to a beam or wall, it could come loose, risking injury and damage. And as you can imagine, falling from a hammock is not a pleasant way to wake up!
Hammocks aren’t great for sleeping with another person, either. Although you can purchase a 2-person hammock, any movement would significantly impact the other person. The tight space also makes it risky for an injury like an accidental elbow to the rib or flying hand in the face. So, if you like to sleep next to your partner, a hammock likely isn’t the best choice.
You can test out the benefits of a hammock on your next camping trip (don’t forget your camping pillow!) or put one in your backyard. You, too, may find the gentle swaying motion and proper alignment of a hammock rocks you to sleep like a baby.