Is the Appalachian Trail’s Iconic Shelter System Obsolete?
The Appalachian Trail has the best-developed shelter system of any long trail in the world. A network of more than 250 primitive lean-tos serves the 2,200-mile footpath, providing gathering places for hikers who want to sleep out of the elements.
Although the AT shelter system is iconic, I sometimes wonder what the point is. Thousands of people manage to thru-hike other long trails, like the PCT and CDT, without the benefit of lean-tos. To me, the shelters seem more like expensive trash magnets / five-star mouse hotels than the rustic backcountry lodges Benton Mackaye envisioned when he first proposed the AT.
So is the Appalachian Trail shelter system obsolete? Could the huts actually be doing more harm than good? I spoke to Morgan Sommerville, Director of Visitor Use Management with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), to find out.
Why bother with shelters in the first place?
“The AT shelter system is an archaic solution to a problem that no longer exists,” says Sommerville. The Appalachian Trail was first proposed 100 years ago, he explains. Back then, lightweight camping equipment simply didn’t exist.
The shelters, then, were a logical solution to a very real problem of the time. They would give hikers a place to sleep without having to haul a 10-pound canvas tent through the mountains.
(In contrast, Congress didn’t establish the PCT and CDT until 1968 and ’78, respectively. By then, purpose-built packs, tents, and other gear had helped popularize autonomous backcountry camping sans-shelters.)
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Back when the AT was getting started, Sommerville guesses that installing shelters was “the obvious thing to do from the perspective of the day.”
Dedicated trailside accommodations weren’t a new idea. When he first envisioned the AT, Benton Mackaye cited hiker huts of the White and Green Mountains, as well as Swiss chalets, as his inspiration for the trail’s proposed network of “shelter camps.”
One hundred sixty-nine lean-tos were constructed along the AT by 1943. Once the infrastructure was installed, the model just kind of stuck. The ATC has continued adding shelters over the years as the footpath grows in length and popularity.
Popular With Hikers
Today, the shelter system enjoys widespread popularity among users. As part of my reporting for this story, I surveyed 45 AT hikers about their attitudes toward shelters. The vast majority (39) described themselves as “pro-shelter.” Sixteen said they preferred staying in shelters rather than in their tents as often as possible.
Convenience was a big draw for many hikers. Thirty-three of the 45 people surveyed cited bad weather as a key reason they would choose to sleep in the shelter.
“If I arrived to the shelter in really bad weather, or knew I was going to wake up to it the next morning, I would use a shelter to help keep things dry,” explained hiker Trishadee “Dandelion” Newlin. “Also, I would use a shelter if I had a really… early morning the next day, to help get out of camp faster.”
Beyond mere convenience, some hikers liked the lean-tos for their cultural value. AT hiker Deadpool would go out of their way to stay in a shelter “if it was a special one related to AT history or enhanced the experience.” They and several others mentioned North Carolina’s storied Overmountain Shelter (since closed) as a favorite.
Several respondents also mentioned enjoying signing and reading the hiker logbooks that live at most shelters. For instance, Virginia’s The Priest shelter has a famously hilarious log.
Shelters provide a focal point for the trail’s thriving social scene. “For me, the shelters were a gathering place,” said hiker Christine “Hazel” Taylor. “I did the first 1,700 miles by myself. I camped at shelters to feel safe and have time to chat with others.”
Leave No Trace
By concentrating hikers in designated areas, shelters may also reduce their impact on nature.
Research indicates that shelters could even be better at limiting hiker impacts than primitive campsites. That’s because six to 10 hikers sardined in a shelter occupy less square footage than they would if they were all in their own tents.
One 1997 study in Great Smoky Mountains National Park indicated that shelters accounted for 37% of overnight use but only 10% of camping-related environmental disturbance. Similarly, a 2002 study of shelters at Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park found that lean-to sites were, on average, 35% smaller than primitive campsites, despite greater popularity.
Interestingly, that research also showed that shelter areas with picnic tables tended to be smaller and less disturbed. Providing a designated area for hikers to cook and socialize kept them from spreading out and trampling the surroundings.
Granted, 1997 and 2002 were a long time ago. Backcountry use has surged since then pretty much everywhere. Regardless, research indicates that well-managed shelters at least have the potential to do a lot of good for natural surroundings.
But there’s a catch.
“AT shelters, in fact, do an excellent job of limiting impacts in the area, if—and this is a big if—they are not over capacity,” points out Sommerville of the ATC. “Once they’re over capacity, their ability to minimize the effects of people is gone.”
He cites Georgia’s Hawk Mountain Shelter, which is just a few miles from Springer Mountain, as an example. The shelter and adjacent campsite had ballooned to roughly four acres by 2015 as usage increased. Land managers ultimately added another campsite less than a mile away to reduce pressure on Hawk Mountain.
Sommerville says that thanks to the new site, the area is slowly healing.
Part of the problem, he explains, is that many shelters were built decades ago in sites chosen for convenience over sustainability. “They’re mostly flat places near water, and that is a really poor place to put a shelter because… there’s no natural barrier to user-created expansion of the site.
“Recreation ecologists have taught us that when and if we do build a new shelter or a new campsite, it needs to be in a location that resists user-created expansion. That usually means digging it into a side slope that’s too steep to camp on.”
Although the new campsite near Hawk Mountain has helped that area recover, Sommerville says it’s impractical to continue adding new sites ad infinitum.
“In the past, the philosophy for the AT has been twofold. One is to have as minimal regimentation as possible, which we believe in strongly. And the other is to harden the trail to meet whoever comes along. And that, in particular, is not sustainable.”
In other words, shelters are a finite resource. If the ATC were to keep building them indiscriminately, in the end “there would be too many of them,” Sommerville explains. “It just would be a stretch of shelters or campsites from one end to the other. I don’t think that’s what people come out to the AT for.”
He says educating trail users and encouraging them to spread out is more effective in the long term. “The key is to do a constantly improving job of educating users, primarily before they get to the AT.”
Hikers can use the Conservancy’s ATCamp platform to register their thru-hikes and see when others plan to hit the trail. “At the moment, we’re really focused on trying to get campers to spread out,” says Sommerville. “And ATCamp.org is a tool to do that. They can look up a particular campsite and see if other people are staying there.”
Overcrowding also makes for worse trail experiences. In peak season, shelters tend to draw huge crowds that detract from the trail’s wilderness feel.
“The AT is intended to provide a natural, if not primitive, experience,” acknowledges Sommerville. “And that’s in juxtaposition with the facilities we provided.”
Bad Night’s Sleep
More to the point for many hikers, packed shelters often lead to a bad night’s sleep. In a small, cramped space, there’s no escaping the discomfort of “big time snorers and people who haven’t showered in a week,” as hiker Patrick “Mulligan” Devlin puts it.
Pennsylvania’s Tumbling Run Shelter has done its best to address the snoring issue. It famously features separate “Snoring” and “Non-Snoring” structures to cut down on noise. The ATC even advises snorers to sleep in their own tents as part of good shelter etiquette.
Noisy sleeping pads, bright headlamps, and strong personalities are also frequent complaints. Meredith “Kicks” Snyder recalls the time “a very obnoxious man started calling to owls at 6 a.m. from… inside the shelter.” The man also lit a portable wood stove inside the lean-to, sending sparks into her partner’s gear.
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Many lament fellow hikers’ boorish behavior—such as abandoning food, gear, and trash or lighting cigarettes inside the shelter. “There’s nothing quite so discouraging (as) to have a really big day and come to camp completely spent, only to discover that you need to push on because the shelter is trashed,” says hiker Trishadee Newlin.
Just as shelters attract hikers, they also draw locals and weekend warriors—especially when they’re near roads. Newlin says interactions between hikers and locals sometimes create friction. “It breaks my heart to come across a shelter that has been used as a party house by locals,” she says.
Encounters can sometimes turn dangerous. As the ATC puts it on their Shelters page, “you cannot choose your shelter mates.” There’s no guarantee that the person who comes into the lean-to after you won’t be aggressive or unstable.
For instance, in early September, three Long Trail hikers at Vermont’s Pico Camp shelter (which is also on the AT) alleged a sexual assault by a man who apparently frequents the area.
False Sense of Security
Most AT shelters are between five and 15 miles apart, well within the range most thru-hikers cover in a day. They’re generally free and unregulated, so hikers don’t have to plan their stays in advance.
Because of this, some thru-hikers rely on the shelter network exclusively and don’t carry tents—though the practice isn’t common, according to our annual thru-hiker surveys. Hiking sans-tent saves significant weight.
However, it also leaves hikers vulnerable if they can’t reach the next shelter or find it full when they arrive. Tent-less hikers are also at the mercy of shelter crowds, with little option to get away from loud, obnoxious, or aggressive shelter users.
Lotus, a 2018 thru-hiker, recalls when two fellow hikers showed up at Roan High Knob Shelter only to be turned away by a group of partiers who had occupied it and refused to make space. The women had no tent and ended up sleeping outside, where one of them ended up with severe windburn by morning.
Sommerville says backcountry travelers need to be responsible for their own safety at all times. “Depending upon an AT shelter to be there is not a good plan, because it may be full when you get there. Or it may have had a tree fall on it or burned down.”
The same goes for food storage and bathroom needs. “Food storage may be provided, but it may be broken or full. Privies could be full… or blown over or something like that. And so for people not to be prepared to deal with camping without those facilities is a bad choice to make.”
Human-wildlife encounters are common at high-use campsites, including shelters, because of food smells. Many hikers sleep with their food or eat inside shelters, and the resulting odors attract everything from rodents to bears.
The AT’s notorious shelter mice are mostly an annoyance, though they can damage gear and food supplies and may pose a health risk. Thirteen of 45 survey respondents cited mice as one of the largest drawbacks to staying in the shelters.
When black bears learn to associate shelters with food, the problem gets more serious. For instance, the Forest Service temporarily closed some shelters in Virginia’s Grayson Highlands due to bear activity in 2018. They ultimately reopened with expensive electrified fences and bear lockers.
The following year, the Forest Service shut down and dismantled Tennessee’s Watauga Lake Shelter after repeat temporary closures did nothing to discourage bear activity.
In the worst-case scenario, land managers may relocate or euthanize problem bears for the safety of the public—hence the saying “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
Responsible Food Storage
We’ve established that shelters concentrate users in smaller areas. That’s great for limiting disturbance, but it also draws critters by concentrating food smells.
So what’s the answer? Dispersing campers over a wider area might reduce the smell problem, but would increase the total area disturbed. Given shelters’ potential benefits in that department, the ideal solution would be for hikers to do a better job storing their food.
While hikers often request more food storage infrastructure, Sommerville suggests that a personal bear canister is a better solution. About 30% of the shelters already have food storage solutions, but bear poles and lockers are expensive, hard to install, and easily defeated by rodents.
Food storage systems at shelters from Georgia to the Smokies proved so difficult to maintain (largely due to misuse and vandalism) that most have been removed.
“It’s just very frustrating,” says Sommerville. “Everybody needs to produce their own bomb-proof food storage, which is a bear canister.” The ATC strongly recommends that all AT campers carry canisters, he says, because they are the most reliable option available.
Costs and Maintenance
It’s difficult to pin down the price tag of an Appalachian Trail shelter. The initial cost varies widely depending on the size, building materials, and location.
Some cost the Conservancy next to nothing because they were donated, according to Sommerville. Others have been built in remote locations where building materials had to be airlifted in (such as North Carolina’s Wayah Bald Shelter). In those situations, they can cost upwards of $30-45K.
Once installed, shelters need varying levels of maintenance. Volunteers do most of the upkeep. According to the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, the current value of one volunteer hour is $28.54.
Some shelters run themselves with little input, while others, often ones in exposed or high-use areas, require more love. “They tend to be reasonably well looked after,” says Sommerville, “so that minor repairs…keep them operable for a long time.” Even then, there’s no accounting for freak incidents like falling trees and forest fires.
The good news? Once built, shelters are typically long-lasting. Some original Civilian Conservation Corps shelters from the ’40s are still standing today. “New shelters aren’t happening too often these days because the shelter chain is essentially complete,” says Sommerville.
So is it worth it?
The shelter system has many benefits, but it’s a double-edged sword. It’s convenient for hikers but can also degrade the wilderness experience. It improves hikers’ social experiences, but it also ups the frequency of negative encounters.
It can help limit environmental impacts, or it can make them worse by drawing too many hikers (and wildlife) to the area. And on top of it all, shelters can be costly to build and maintain.
“If we were starting from scratch here in the 21st century, I think there would be a vigorous discussion about whether to have shelters or not. I would be on the side of not having them,” says Sommerville.
Still, they’re unlikely to go away any time soon. The infrastructure is already in place after all. Sommerville also points out that much of the AT’s governing philosophy is long since codified. Much of the trail is on National Forest land, and Forest Plans have specific guidance on how the AT should be managed. “People think that we’re just making this stuff up. We aren’t.”
Even if shelters could be removed, it’s probably too late to backtrack. “Should we remove a site, we need to provide a better alternative,” explains Sommerville. The AT is simply too crowded to start walking back existing camping options.
Anyway, the infrastructure is overwhelmingly popular with hikers. Far from wanting to abolish the shelter system, Sommerville confirms that hikers often request that more be built.
“A good question for people to consider is, do the shelters… damage the AT experience overall? If there were more of them, is that really contributing to a desirable experience?”
Featured image: Photo via. Graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).
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