A Hostel by Any Other Name is Not a Hotel

I’m working at a Hostel on the AT!

In February I got the opportunity to return to the Appalachian Trail, which I still missed desperately four years after my thru-hike. After talking to Bob “Sir-Packs-Alot” Gabrielsen, I jumped in my beat up Toyota and drove myself and my cat 2,000 miles to work at Top of Georgia Hostel and Hiking Center, which is 1/2 mile from where the Appalachian Trail crosses Dicks Creek Gap, 69.6 trail miles north of Springer Mountain.

What kind of a hotel closes at 7:00 pm?

The direct quote is somewhere online in a negative review of a hostel because, among other things, it wasn’t open 24 hours and there were no linens (gasp) on the mattresses. As I imagine is true for most Americans who don’t spend much time traveling by foot or bicycle, I had never stayed at a hostel before my AT thru-hike. Working at a hostel (especially in Georgia during thru-hiker season) is an experience I couldn’t have prepared for, no matter how much Bob tried to warn me over the phone, but I’ll write more about that later. After witnessing several encounters with hostile people, who obviously don’t understand the difference between a hostel and a hotel (even though there is clearly an “s” in the word hostel that isn’t in the word hotel), I decided to start with the basics.

What is a hostel?

“A hostel is a budget-oriented, shared-room (“dormitory”) accommodation that accepts individual travelers (typically backpackers) or groups for short-term stays, and that provides common areas and communal facilities. To be considered a hostel, the property must provide short-term, shared (dormitory-style) accommodation for individual travelers, though many hostels also provide private rooms. The word “dormitory” refers to a room where travelers independently book individual beds in a shared room as opposed to booking entire rooms like in a hotel or guesthouse.”


Hostels versus Hotels.

“Some hostels will allow guests to work in exchange for a discount or even a night’s stay. When staying at a hotel on the other hand, visitors best not attempt to check in without cash or a valid credit card. Also, the management may turn away guests who are less than clean, while hostel owners are used to backpackers and long distance bicycle riders showing up in need of a shower.”

“Some hostels don’t supply linens, which means that guests are required to bring their own. In addition, many, especially youth hostels, require their guests to abide by their rules, which include a curfew. This may also include no drinking or smoking. Since the accommodation is more communal, travelers might need to guard their property and may want to sleep with their cash and credit cards.”


There were many definitions online, but these fit the types of hostels you’ll typically find on the Appalachian Trail. The types of AT hostels run the gamut. Many will allow “work-for-stay,” which is just as it sounds, a chance to work for a free stay, and most don’t have linens. Many don’t have mattresses or even bunks to put them on. You might get a couch in a garage, or just a bare room where you can use your sleeping pad and sleeping bag. Some are clean and run like a business. Some are dingy, dirty or strange. Most are somewhere in between. Regardless of the type of hostel you end up in, you’ll definitely be sharing small spaces and limited resources with other smelly hikers. If you want privacy or fresh air, get a hotel or rent a cabin. You won’t find it in a hostel.

Hostel tips:

  • Bring earplugs. People snore. If you snore, bring extra earplugs for everybody else.
  • Use shower shoes. Hopefully your camp shoes are something like flip flops or crocs that can get wet. It may not prevent you from getting your own foot fungus, but maybe from getting somebody else’s foot fungus.
  • Use your own towel and shower supplies. Most hostels provide them for you, but not all.
  • Bring your own bedding. Basically you’ll be using your own sleeping bag, pillow, and sometimes sleeping pad as well. A sleeping bag liner can be a nice addition because there are rarely sheets.
  • Be considerate. Most hostel “employees” are actually volunteers who live on site and work 15+ hours a day for food and board. They may or may not get a day off during hiker season. They’re not getting paid to be your servant, chauffeur, maid, or trip planner. Even after the hostel closes they are still working- cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, or otherwise preparing for the next day. If they go out of their way to help you with some of these extras, consider tipping them. Can you imagine dealing with 3,000 smelly, needy hikers in two months? If they’re a little grumpy sometimes, give them the benefit of the doubt. They’re chronically sleep deprived and, like a parent of a new infant, can get overwhelmed with constant neediness. A little kindness goes a long way.
  • Clean up after yourself. Just like shelters on the AT, don’t trash a hostel and then leave. Practice leaving no trace in a hostel, too.
  • Hostel shuttles are not cabs. Often they are free at specific times or to specific places with your stay. They have a schedule for a reason, and are not at your beck and call, but you may be able to pay extra for a “custom” trip to town. Just ask, and don’t be a jerk about it if they can’t accommodate your special needs. Hostels usually have a list of shuttle drivers local to the area who you can call and pay to set up something on your schedule.
  • Your forgetfulness is not their emergency. If you forgot your trekking poles, your phone, your charger, your boots, or whatever it is you left behind, it is not the hostel’s emergency. You’ll have to pay for extra/return shuttles, or to have them ship something ahead to you, and if it’s in the height of the thru-hiker bubble, you may have to wait a bit, too.
  • The hostel is their home. Respect their boundaries. Don’t go in “staff only” areas, eat food that’s not yours, or otherwise assume that everything you can see is yours to use. It’s amazing to me that people will just walk into somebody’s house (the hostel), open a fridge that says “Staff Only” and eat the food in there. Because of this behavior, some hostels actually put locks on their refrigerators. Even if the food was for hikers, if it comes from the hostel, expect to pay for your food.
  • Bring or buy your own food. Mark your food with your name and date and if you leave it behind, mark it as free, so other hikers know to eat it or the hostel staff can throw it away. Some hostels provide meals either included in the cost or for an additional price. If a meal is offered, make sure you know if you’re supposed to pay for it before you eat it.
  • Respect the rules of the hostel including open and closing hours. Many times I saw hikers smoking directly outside a main door to a hostel, with the smoke blowing in through the windows, while standing next to a “No Smoking” sign, or drinking openly next to a “No Alcohol” sign. Hostels who make these rules do so for a reason, usually bad behavior by hikers in the past. Don’t be that guy.
  • Don’t call your dog a service dog if it’s not. Too many hikers lie about this, and now it’s even becoming a crime to do so. Don’t make this problem worse.
  • Never leave your dog unattended. Your dog is your responsibility, not anybody else’s, and it’s stressful for the dog to be left behind, so they often cause damage. If this means you can’t go to town with everybody else, you should have thought of that before you brought your dog on the hike with you.
  • Start your laundry right away. Do not put it off. Who wants to be up until midnight doing laundry? Sometimes the facilities are closed, and some hostels do your laundry for you. If you wait until the last minute they may say no, or they will be doing your laundry at 2:00 am. Don’t do that to yourself or the hostel staff.
  • If you’re sick, go to a hotel. Don’t expose twenty other hikers in a shared space with a shared bathroom to your illness. Go isolate yourself where you can’t contaminate everybody else.
  • Turn the oven off. I know, this sounds obvious, but because of the number of times hikers have left the oven on all night after cooking a frozen pizza, I feel the need to say this. Use your common sense. If it makes sense in real life, it probably makes sense on the trail, too.
  • Do a final sweep before you leave the hostel and the shuttle. Check the bathroom, under the bed, the kitchen, the outlets, and anywhere you have been. Help each other out. Remind each other to check for the common things left behind like phones, chargers, wallets, and trekking poles.

Finally, enjoy the opportunity to meet hikers of all ages, careers, and countries. Make new friends while saving some money and getting the full range of experiences the Appalachian Trail has to offer. You might even learn something.

Happy hosteling!


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Comments 2

  • SoaknWet : Jul 16th

    It all boils down to a forgotten art and rule, The Golden Rule, such a simple thing! Treat people and their property as you would have them treat you and yours!

  • Greg : Jul 20th

    Carry-on , hello from Shatterproof. Just stopping by to show some love


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