The hammock is a fabric sling used for sleeping or resting while suspended above ground. It normally consists of one or more cloth panels, or a woven network of twine or thin rope stretched with ropes between two firm points such as trees or posts. Hammocks were developed by native inhabitants of tropical regions for sleeping. Later, they were used aboard ships by sailors to maximize available space, and by explorers or soldiers traveling in jungle regions. Today they are popular around the world for relaxation; they are also used as a lightweight bed on camping trips.
Other sources claim that the hammock was invented by Pre-Columbian native inhabitants of the Amazon Basin of South America. It continues to be produced widely throughout that region, including among the Urarina people of the Peruvian Amazon. Though it is unknown who exactly first invented the hammock, many maintain that it was a device created out of tradition and need. The English language derivation of hammock and various European equivalents is borrowed from the Spanish hamaca or hamac around 1700, in turn taken from a Taíno culture Arawakan word (Haiti) meaning "fish net".
Hammocks were first introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus when he brought many hammocks back to Spain from islands in the present day Bahamas. The earliest hammocks were woven out of bark from a Hamack tree, and later this material was replaced by Sisal plant because it was more abundant.
One of the reasons that hammocks became popular in Central and South America was their ability to provide safety from disease, insect stings, or animal bites. By suspending their beds above ground, jungle inhabitants were better protected from snakes, biting ants, and other harmful creatures, while avoiding the discomfort of sleeping on the wet jungle floor. The hammock's elevated position also completely exposed the occupant to cooling air currents both above and below, improving the body's ability to cool itself through the unrestricted evaporation of sweat.
Around 1590, hammocks were adopted for use in sailing ships; the Royal Navy formally adopted the canvas sling hammock in 1597. Aboard ship, hammocks were regularly employed for sailors sleeping on the gun decks of warships, where limited space prevented the installation of permanent bunks. Since a slung hammock moves in concert with the motion of the vessel, the occupant is not at a risk of being thrown onto the floor during swells or rough seas. Prior to the adoption of naval hammocks, sailors would often be injured or even killed as they fell off their beds. The sides of traditional canvas naval hammocks wrap around the sleeper like a cocoon, making an inadvertent fall virtually impossible. Many sailors became so accustomed to this way of sleeping that they brought their hammocks ashore with them on leave. The naval use of hammocks continued into the 20th century. During World War II, troopships sometimes employed hammocks for both naval ratings and private soldiers in order to increase available space and troop carrying capacity.
Hammocks have also been employed on spacecraft in order to utilize available space when not sleeping or resting. During the Apollo program, the Lunar Module was equipped with hammocks for the commander and lunar module pilot to sleep in between moonwalks.
The Venezuelan hammock's panels were always made of breathable material, necessary to prevent the onset of fungal infections caused by constant rain and high humidity. Fine-woven sandfly netting was eventually added to provide more complete protection from mosquitoes, flies, and crawling insects, especially in regions notorious for malaria or screwworm infestations. A waterproof top sheet or rainfly could be added to protect the occupant from drenching by heavy nighttime rains, along with drip strings - short pieces of string tied to suspension lines - to prevent rainwater running from the tree trunk down the hammock cords to the hammock itself. A breathable false cotton (later nylon) bottom panel was frequently added to these jungle hammocks, allowing air to pass through while still preventing mosquito stings to the occupant. The Venezuelan hammock, as modified, eventually became known as a jungle hammock. The jungle hammock even gave protection against crawling insects with mandibles that could bite holes through the insect netting, simply by wetting the hammock suspension ropes with insecticides or insect repellent.
The U.S. Army eventually adopted their own version of the jungle hammock, complete with rain proof fly and sandfly netting for use by U.S. and Allied forces in tropical jungle regions such as Burma during World War II. While at first reluctant to accept the idea of its men sleeping in hammocks, the U.S. Marine Corps later employed jungle hammocks in New Britain and later Pacific island campaigns where heavy rain and insects were prevalent; concerns over injuries from machine gun and artillery fire were overcome by first digging a slit trench, then staking the hammock's support lines to suspend the hammock beneath ground level.
Later U.S. Army hammocks issued during the Vietnam conflict, such as the M1966 Jungle Hammock, were mistakenly fitted with waterproof bottom panels, which often became filled with water overnight. On the other side, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces regularly employed jungle hammocks fabricated from scavenged or captured US parachute cloth and shroud lines. Hung well off jungle trails, the hammocks kept down the incidence of disease and illness, which NVA commanders generally regarded as a greater threat than shrapnel injuries caused by sleeping above ground.
Hammocks are very popular in the Brazilian northeast region, but not only as sleeping devices: in the poorest areas of the sertão, if there is not a cemetery in a settlement, hammocks may be used to carry the dead to a locale where there is one; also, they frequently serve as a low-cost alternative to coffins. This custom inspired Candido Portinari's 1944 painting Enterro na Rede ("burial in the hammock").
The spreader-bar hammock is easily recognized by wooden or metal bars at the head and foot of the hammock, spreading its width and allowing for easy access for casual use, such as in a backyard. This style is generally considered less stable and less comfortable for sleeping than other styles.
While the various styles of hammocks available today are similar in form, they differ significantly in materials, purpose, and construction. Mayan and Nicaraguan hammocks are made from either cotton or nylon string that are woven to form a supportive net. Mayan Hammocks have a looser weave than Nicaraguan hammocks, and the supportiveness of the hammock “bed” depends on the number of strings and quality of the weave.
Brazilian hammocks are made from cotton fabric and usually more durable than the string varieties. While Mayan and Nicaraguan hammocks are considered by some to have the potential to be more comfortable, the Brazilian hammock’s comfort is less dependent on its construction and therefore less likely to vary as highly from manufacturer to manufacture.
Venezuelan or Jungle hammocks made today are generally of breathable nylon or polyester, and use dacron or similar non-stretch suspension lines. They are 'inline' hammocks; like the canvas naval hammocks of old, the occupant sleeps along the length of the hammock, rather than across it. With their breathable false bottoms, drip strings, sandfly netting, and optional rainfly, they are one of the most secure hammocks against not only water entry, but also insect stings or bites.
Travel or camping hammocks are popular among Leave No Trace and Ultra Light campers, hikers, and sailing enthusiasts for their reduced impact on the environment and their lightness and lack of bulk compared to tents. They are made of sturdy nylon fabric, some feature a mosquito net and storage pockets. Some types offer a ridgeline to make set up easier, and may also include a slit for entry through the bottom of the hammock. Special ropes or cords are used to loop around trees in order to create attachment points for the hammock.
Though one can lie in a hammock lengthwise or across its width, most hammocks are best used with a diagonal position, as it provides the most room and support. Users with back and joint pains often report some relief from these problems when sleeping in a hammock in this manner.