What You Need to Know About Camping and Shelters on the Appalachian Trail
Sleeping in the woods is a regular part of any thru-hike. Aside from the occasional town or hostel, the majority of a thru-hike will be spent sleeping outside. While traveling the AT, hikers generally have two primary options to choose between when it’s finally time to settle in for the night: utilize one of the established AT shelters, or resolve to set up their own traditional campsite. Here are the basics for camping and shelters on the Appalachian Trail.
Appalachian Trail Shelters
AT shelters, also known as huts or lean-tos in some areas, are a feature on the AT that is rather different from many other long-distance hiking trails. They are generally three-sided wooden structures with an overhanging roof and a slightly elevated wooden floor.
The intention of these shelters is to help minimize and manage the impact of dispersed camping on wilderness areas by attempting to localize camping activities to specific locations on the trail.
There are more than 250 shelters spread out along the AT, with most conveniently positioned near reliable water sources. Distances between shelters vary, but hikers will typically run into a shelter every five to 15 miles.
Like much of the AT, shelters are built and maintained by local volunteer trail clubs. Shelters vary in size, with some holding as few as five hikers and others as many as 20. However, shelters operate on a first-come-first-serve basis and are open to all AT travelers, not just thru-hikers. That means if a shelter is full by the time you arrive, you’ll need to either pitch your own tent or hike on to the next available campsite.
Additional amenities at shelter sites vary as well. Some may be equipped with an adjoining picnic table, established fire pits, overnight food storage systems, and privies. Many, but not all, shelter sites are equipped with additional space for tent camping should the shelter already be full for the night. However, shelter life doesn’t come without its issues, so here are some things all hikers should consider before taking up shelter space.
8 Things To Consider Before Sleeping in an AT Shelter
1. There is a proper social etiquette involved when accepting space in a shelter. If you’re not willing to adhere, then you probably should just pitch your own tent.
2. The majority of AT shelters are free to use. There are some that require a small fee. Such shelters tend to be found in high-use areas and often have an on-site caretaker.
3. Shelters’ convenient locations along the trail, coupled with their many backwoods “luxuries,” make them popular stops for AT hikers. Many thru-hikers utilize them as checkpoints for lunch breaks or for ending a day’s hike. As a result they tend to become social hubs for hikers, particularly if you are traveling a typical northbound hike. This makes shelter sites a great opportunity to meet and engage with other hikers.
4. Bring earplugs. If you intend to sleep in shelters, expect to deal with other hikers’ nighttime quirks, such as snoring, sleep talking, and even night terrors.
5. Sleeping in a crowded shelter can be aptly compared to sleeping in a sardine can.
6. Shelters are highly sought after on rainy days and nights as their overhanging roofs often provide the best protection from the elements on the trail. As a result, they tend to fill up fast when it starts to get a little wet.
7. Many shelters have become a hub for rodent and pest activity. Years of hikers cooking/eating inside/around shelters have attracted resident mice and other critters bent on getting into your packs and food bags.
8. Do not assume you will be able to sleep in a shelter every night on the AT. Many circumstances may arise that can make shelters inaccessible or unavailable. Therefore, it is important to be able to supply your own shelter in these situations.
For a better view of shelter locations along the trail check out our Interactive Map of the AT.
READ NEXT – Shelter Etiquette
If an established shelter is full for the the night or if shelter life just isn’t your thing, then you must rely on traditional camping. According to the ATC, there are at least 100 designated campsites scattered along the AT in addition to the camping available near shelter sites.
Much like shelters, they are often positioned close to a water source but tend to lack other amenities found at shelter sites. Some more well-traveled campsites may come equipped with wooden tent platforms and, in a few cases, also privies. Some campsites located in high-use areas may also require a small fee.
Apart from designated sites, there are areas along the trail where hikers are allowed to choose their own campsites. This practice is known as “dispersed camping.” While the term essentially describes the practice of setting up camp wherever a hiker wants, hikers will often find popular “established” dispersed camping sites that have been regularly used by hikers in the past.
Popular dispersed campsites are often marked in AT guidebooks and apps. If at all possible it is desired for hikers to reuse existing campsites as opposed to clearing new ground to establish a new sites.
While permitted in some form in many areas along the trail, the rules and regulations regarding dispersed camping vary depending on what state, town, or park you’re within the boundaries of. The AT runs through lands managed by a plethora of different agencies, making identifying camping regulations sometimes difficult.
For example, dispersed camping is strictly forbidden within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All hikers are required to stay at designated shelters and campsites only. Similar regulations apply in places like New York, New Jersey, and the White Mountains in New England. There are also some areas that may permit dispersed camping but limit the use of campfires outside of established pits.
It is the responsibility of each hiker to be aware of the regulations of the various areas they travel through. The ATC organized this useful spreadsheet outlining camping regulations in different areas on the AT. If a specific area has imposed regulations on dispersed camping they are likely a safety effort, a conservation effort, or both. Limiting dispersed camping in well-traveled areas minimizes damage to the trail and its surrounding areas.
If at all possible, it is highly recommended to avoid clearing new areas by always trying to use established campsites, whether they be designated or dispersed. Doing so helps to preserve the ecosystem of the trail for the enjoyment of those who follow behind you.
Special Case: New Hampshire’s White Mountains
New Hampshire’s White Mountains are the most anticipated section of the trail for many thru-hikers. Notable both for their awe-inspiring beauty and their notoriously challenging climbs, the White Mountains also add a another logistical challenge for hikers to contend with as camping becomes a little more complicated.
First off, the AT in the Whites passes through many Forest Protection Areas (FPAs) – areas designated by the US Forest Service as “high use” that need protection from overuse. FPAs include any areas in alpine zones above treeline and around shelters, huts, and all other places where overcamping is considered a problem: this includes areas near roads, ponds, and other fragile ecosystems. As a result, camping of any kind is prohibited in these areas.
To help prevent camping in FPAs, there are there are 13 conventional shelters and designated campsites found within the Whites that hikers can utilize. However, in both instances, because of their high use, most shelters and campsites in the Whites are accompanied by a caretaker and often require a small fee in order to use (so make sure you have cash). Not to mention that some of these campsites and shelters can be upward of a mile’s detour off trail in some instances.
In addition, the distance between the shelters can also be quite large at times. For example, 40 miles separate Ethan Pond Shelter and Imp Campsite Shelter as the trail passes over the Presidentials. As a result thru-hikers have come to rely on the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hut system as an additional lodging option through the Whites.
AMC Hut System
The AMC operates eight huts along the AT through the White Mountains. These huts do not operate like conventional shelters. They are staffed by AMC crew members who provide lodging, home-cooked meals, and educational programs for paying guests. For thru-hikers to earn a place at one of these huts requires either a reservation with a substantial fee or a work-for-stay agreement with the hut’s crew.
Given the fluctuating nature of a thru-hike, it is highly unlikely a thru-hiker can successfully make and keep an advance reservation (much less want to pay for it). Rather, most thru-hikers rely on the work-for-stay option, but this is by no means a guarantee either. Work-for-stays are first-come-first-serve and are entirely up to the discretion of the operating crew. Also, space available for work-for-stay hikers is very limited, with each hut usually accepting only two to four hikers per night.
Naturally, there are some exceptions. In special circumstances a hut may welcome in more hikers, such as during bad weather. Also, Lakes of the Clouds Hut has a basement shelter called “The Dungeon,” where hikers can pay $10 for a bunk.
Hikers can expect to do several hours of work to earn their stay, whether it be sweeping, washing dishes, scraping ice out of freezers, or any other chore the crew deems necessary. In the end your hard work is rewarded with whatever delicious food the paying guests did not eat and a warm spot on the hut floor for the night.
Snagging a spot in a hut is one part planning and one part luck. Most huts will not start accepting work-for-stay hikers until close to 4 p.m., so you don’t want to end your day at a hut too early, or else the hut crew may turn you away. However, you also don’t want to arrive too late, or other hikers may have taken all of the available spaces. So if your plan is to end your night at an AMC hut, be sure to strategically plan your arrival.
Because there is no guarantee at a spot in an AMC hut, hikers should ensure they have a backup plan in case they miss the window to snag a work-for-stay. It is a realistic scenario for hikers to have to continue on to the next hut, shelter, or campsite down the trail.
Featured image: photo via Becky Boorojian. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
This article has been updated with new information since its original publication date.
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