Alabama native Zolen Boogaerts has been backpacking for at least 20 years, but in 2012 his back started to ache badly when he slept on the ground.
“Even with thick sleeping pads, I couldn't get a comfortable night's sleep,” said Boogaerts, who works for Mountain High Outfitters in Birmingham.
That’s when he decided to try hammock camping.
“The first night I tried a hammock, I was hooked,” he said. In fact, he immediately bought a sewing machine, taught himself to sew, and began making his own hammock camping gear, which he sells through exzogear.com.
Like Boogaerts, a growing number of people have taken up hammock camping in recent years because they believe it’s a more comfortable way to sleep outdoors. Some folks say it causes fewer aches and pains, while others love the exposure to fresh air.
When we caught up with Boogaerts, he shared three of his favorite places to go hammock camping in Alabama.
1. Cheaha State Park/Pinhoti Trail
With massive tracts of forest, beautiful lakes, streams, and even Alabama’s highest peak, the Pinhoti Trail is like a greatest hits package for hiking. Beginning at Flagg Mountain near Sylacauga, the Pinhoti runs for 171 miles across Alabama, and then continues for about another 167 miles in north Georgia.
In Alabama, a section of the Pinhoti near Cheaha State Park leads to McDill Point, one of the finest hammock camping spots in the state. At McDill Point, a west-facing outcrop provides dramatic views and serves as an excellent place to enjoy sunset. Near the outcrop you’ll also find plenty of trees to support your hammock.
To reach McDill Point, begin at the Cheaha Trailhead and climb for about 2.9 miles to the junction with the McDill Point spur trail. From here, it’s just another quarter mile to the overlook.
From McDill Point, you can take the Cave Creek Trail back to the Cheaha Trailhead, which makes a 7.5-mile loop. If you’re seeking a longer journey, the Pinhoti will connect you to an extensive trail system with several loop options. Just be aware that water can be incredibly scarce in the area, so plan accordingly.
Getting there: To reach the Cheaha Trailhead, take I-20 and exit at US Highway 431, east of Oxford, Ala. Go south 3.4 miles to the second right turn, which is past the bridge at the top of the ridge. Then, turn right at the brown Cheaha State Park sign and travel 0.4 miles to the stop sign at AL Highway 281. Turn left, and go 11.5 miles to the Cheaha Trailhead parking area on the left.
2. The Big Tree Loop in the Sipsey Wilderness
Imagine relaxing in your hammock as the white noise of a waterfall lulls you to sleep. Throughout the Sipsey Wilderness there are 45 miles of trails with cozy campsites that lie near wild streams and plunging waterfalls. Offering abundant shade and water, as well as lower-than-average temperatures, the tight canyons of the Sipsey support a lush, green forest that resembles the high Appalachian Mountains, and there’s no shortage of trees to accommodate hammocks.
One of the best hikes in the Sipsey is the Big Tree Loop that starts and ends at Thompson Trailhead. On this 13-mile hike, you descend into one of the deepest canyons in the area, with a spectacular 100-foot bowl that houses a beautiful waterfall as well as the state’s largest tree, a Tulip Poplar that’s 25 feet in circumference and more than 150 feet tall. With little elevation gain and loss, this is an easy to moderate trek, and water is abundant on about 70 percent of the loop. “The trees are plentiful for hammock camping, and there are excellent opportunities for fly fishing along the way,” Boogaerts said.
Getting there: At the junction of Alabama Highway 195 and Winston County Road (WCR) 23, travel north on WCR 23. Go 2.8 miles to the end of the pavement, and continue another 3.3 miles to the end at Forest Service Road (FS) 203. Turn right onto FS 203 and drive 0.4 mile. Turn right onto FS 208 and travel 3.8 miles to the trailhead parking area.
3. Oak Mountain State Park
If you’re new to hammock camping, Oak Mountain State Park is a perfect place for your first overnight trip. Many beginners like to get comfortable rigging their hammock and using other gear before heading to a remote wilderness, and Oak Mountain has several backcountry campsites. Because the park is minutes from Birmingham, civilization is never too far from your campsite, and you can easily bail if your outing goes sideways. However, the campsites give you the feeling that you’re far from city.
“Because they’re remote, the backcountry campsites are not overly used and abused, and most importantly, you feel like you’re much deeper in the wilderness than you really are,” said Boogaerts.
Also this park features high ridges with awesome views, so it’s a great place to chill out in a hammock. For an excellent overnighter, start at the North Trailhead and climb the Blue Trail to the Kings Chair overlook. At the top of the ridge near the overlook, you’ll see clusters of trees where you can rig your hammock and enjoy views of distant hills rolling to the horizon. Then, pack up your hammock and take the Blue Trail to the Orange Connector trail. Travel down the Orange Connector to the backcountry campsite near Peavine Falls. Because this site is near a water source, it’s one of the more convenient spots for camping.
The next day you can take the Orange Connector and the White Trail to return to the North Trailhead, completing a 7-mile loop.
Getting there: To reach the North Trailhead, take I-65 south to Exit 246. At the end of the ramp, turn right onto Alabama 119, and then take the next left onto Oak Mountain Park Road. Drive 2 miles to a four-way stop and turn left. Follow park signs and drive most of the length of the park to reach the North Trailhead parking area on the left.