[Book Review] First Book Dedicated to Shelters is a Gorgeous, Informative View of the AT and its History

The Appalachian Trail: Backcountry Shelters, Lean-Tos, and Huts

Author: Sarah Jones Decker
Publisher: Rizzoli International, 304 pages with color and black-and-white photos
MSRP: $27.50
Where to buy: Available through Amazon, and autographed copies are available from sarahjonesdecker.com.

Since the Appalachian Trail (version 1.0) was first completed in 1937, there have been scores, even hundreds, of guidebooks, memoirs, coffee-table books, and even illustrated children’s books published about the trail.

So kudos to anyone who comes up with a new idea that’s not just original, but necessary, which is exactly what AT thru-hiker (class of ’08), photographer, writer, mother, and farmer Sarah Jones Decker has done with her deeply appealing, highly informative new photographic survey of shelters.

appalachian trail shelters sarah jones decker

Cover photo by Sarah Jones Decker.

Although it’s fair to describe The Appalachian Trail: Backcountry Shelters, Lean-Tos, and Huts as a coffee-table book, if you are at all interested in the trail, it’s never going to be one of those attractive, oversized volumes gathering dust in a corner of your house. Infused with the spirit of the trail on every page, the book serves as everything from a kind of magic carpet for AT veterans missing the trail to a genuinely useful introduction for newcomers to North America’s most famous long trail.

Jones Decker and her small stable of photographers provide gorgeous portraits of all 276 shelters (known in places as lean-tos or huts) recognized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, as well as a few unofficial structures, such as the two on the Approach Trail from Amicalola Falls State Park to Springer Mountain in Georgia. Each is accompanied by a brief description and a nifty, easy-to-read graphic with information about capacity, elevation, location on the trail, water availability, history, and more.

sarah jones decker joshua niven appalachian trail shelter zealand falls

Each shelter photo is accompanied by an easy-to-read info-graphic. Zealand Falls Hut, New Hampshire. Top photo: Joshua Niven (joshuaniven.com); inset, Sarah Jones Decker.

Scattered throughout the book are short chapters about everything from the trail’s history to bears, caretakers, privies, Leave No Trace principles, and even one dedicated to retired, lost, destroyed, or stolen (yes, stolen) shelters, Jones Decker’s “Shelter Graveyard.” There are also tons of photos of the trail’s countless breathtaking vistas, fascinating historical shots, and genuinely cool state-by-state maps.

Jones Decker first set foot on the AT at age 16 with her grandfather, Clint Jones, who took her on an expedition to Lakes of the Clouds Hut in New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains. That’s when she met a thru-hiker named Lorax, who sent her his Katahdin summit photo a few months later.

sarah jones decker appalachian trail shelter map pennsylvania

With help from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Jones Decker was able to include maps of states and sections showing shelter locations.

“And, just like that, I was hooked,” Jones Decker writes. “Eleven years later, in 2008, I thru-hiked from Georgia to Maine myself with my friend Kris ‘Scout’ Powers after we both finished graduate school.”

By the time they reached Lakes of the Clouds on her hike, the hut was closed, so they holed up in the infamous “dungeon” underneath, “as we listened to the wind howl outside.”

Jones Decker offhandedly mentioned to a hiker friend that someone should do a photo book about shelters, but waited until her 10th “trailversary” to get started. Over a two-year period, she hiked in to countless shelters, sometimes with her infant daughter (to whom the book is dedicated) Josephine in tow, snapping shots in every season. She recruited a dozen or so shutter-happy friends to fill in any blanks.

sarah jones decker morgan springer mountain appalachian trail shelter

Sarah Jones Decker and her daughter, Josephine, on Springer Mountain, Georgia. Morgan Decker photo.

It’s worth noting that the roster of shelters is in constant flux, for various reasons–trail relocation, dilapidation, retirement, in one strange case, theft. As Decker writes, the book is a “time capsule of the AT as it stood in 2018-2019,” during which four shelters were removed or closed.

“It was fantastic being out on the trail. I re-hiked hundreds of miles in all 14 states with my husband, family, and friends,” she writes. “It was truly an honor to put all of this information in one place and share it with the trail community I love so much.”

That love shines out from every page of this book. Since receiving the book in the mail, I’ve spent countless hours poring over it, highlighting (sorry, Sarah!) shelters where I stayed, noting others where I took a nap or stopped for water, and mostly just reminiscing. My copy already has coffee stains and I’ve hauled it around with me like a bible. It’s just one of those books I want to spend a lot of time with.

sarah jones decker appalachian trail shelters maine

The book features many non-shelter photos, offering plenty of AT eye-candy. Canoe photo by Melissa “Click!” Goodwin, melissagoodwinphotography.com. Other photos by Sarah Jones Decker.

Even if you haven’t yet hiked on the AT, I highly recommend the book. Cumulatively, the photos, essays, graphics, and maps come together for a surprisingly comprehensive portrait of what it’s like to be on the trail. Future hikers who study the book will have all kinds of fun and funky details with which to regale their fellows on trail. A few examples:

  • Local lore says that the ghost of Emmet “Ottie” Cline Powell, a boy who disappeared while gathering firewood in 1891, haunts Punchbowl Shelter in Virginia.
  • 501 Shelter in Pennsylvania, Partnership Shelter in Virginia, and RPH Shelter in New York are much loved by hikers because local restaurants will deliver food.
  • The “Your Move” privy at Piazza Rock Lean-to in Maine is a two-holer with a cribbage board between the seats, for those brave enough to share the experience.

Don’t expect a complete guidebook, but Sarah Jones Decker has packed it with plenty of information to inspire both fond memories and bold dreams.

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Comments 4

  • BlueBell : Jun 5th

    I bought Sarah Jones Decker’s, Appalachian Trail Backcountry Shelters, Lean-Tos and Huts. It has been one of my most enjoyed AT books. As a section hiker I have enjoyed revisiting shelters I have stayed in and previewing shelters for upcoming hikes. I now I have new goal: visiting every one of them. As I visit them, they get checked off in the book with a gold star like teachers used.

  • Moxy : Jun 12th

    I just bought a copy of the book to support the thru-hiking community. I purchased it via her website instead of Amazon so that she can have 100% of the revenue. Hike on Sarah!

  • Andrew Carter : Jun 15th

    I enjoyed this book immensely, so did my son. I’m a thru-hiker, class of 1977. He’s a thru-hiker, class of 2017/18. The book made vivid to me how much change in shelters there has been over the 40+ years since I hiked the trail — shelters removed (usually due to reroutes), new shelters created where before there were none, and shelters replaced or rebuilt. On the rebuilt front, some have been so rebuilt that they look brand new to me. For instance, most of the Smokey Mtn. NP shelters have been rebuilt since 1977 with completely new roof lines, two layers of bunks, no bear cages, etc. Reading the book made me want to hike the entire AT again. That probably will never happen. I’m a year or two away from retirement and my immediate goal is to hike the PCT plus certain shorter long distance trails like the Colorado Trail, the Arizona Trail, and the Long Trail. But who knows? Never say never. Depends on how long this old body will last and how willing my wife will be in letting me disappear to the mountains for long stretches of time. (Unfortunately, half-day hikes seem to be her limit.)

  • Brian : Jun 20th

    I bought this from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy site. Really enjoying making my way through it and reliving some of my favorite spots from my Thruhike. Also seeing that some of the shelters I stayed in or stopped at no longer exist! Thanks, Sarah!


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