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?

Maryland’s Rocky Run Shelter is one of the oldest on the AT. The Civilian Conservation Corps finished it in 1941. Photo via.

“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.)

READ NEXT – How Backpacking Gear Has Changed Through the Decades.

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

Virginia’s The Priest Shelter is popular among hikers for its funny logbook. Photo via.

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

Vermont’s Melville Nauheim Shelter. One study suggested that shelters with picnic tables have smaller areas of disturbance. Photo via.

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.

Camping near Georgia’s Plum Orchard Gap Shelter. Shelters in relatively flat areas tend to see a lot of user-created site expansion.

“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.”

Finite Resource

Pennsylvania’s Kirkridge Shelter. The shelter system is a finite resource. Photo via.

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 is a tool to do that. They can look up a particular campsite and see if other people are staying there.”


Shelters can get too crowded for comfort. Photo via Stubbs.

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.

Pennsylvania’s Tumbling Run Shelter has separate snoring and non-snoring structures.

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.

READ NEXT – What You Need to Know About Camping and Shelters on the Appalachian Trail.

Boorish Behavior

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

New York’s Wildcat Shelter. Some AT thru-hikers rely on shelters exclusively and don’t carry tents. Photo via.

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.”

Wildlife Impacts

Rangers had to tranquilize and relocate this black bear for entering a shelter in the Smokies in 2013. Photo via Maggie Wallace.

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

Bear lockers, like this one at Virginia’s Lamberts Meadow Shelter, are expensive and hard to install. Photo via.

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

Icewater Springs Shelter in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Size and building materials greatly impact shelter cost. Photo via.

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?

Connecticut’s Limestone Spring Lean-to. Photo via.

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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Comments 46

  • Stephen : Sep 29th

    His attitude explains why the ATC was so cooperative in taking the pump handles off instead of lobbying for an exception for the trail.

    I had wondered about that.

    Otherwise, I love the shelters in the off season but really understand everyone who avoids shelters in peak periods.

  • Greg : Sep 30th

    Great article. Most of us probably live by the LNT credo (or try to), but which shelters most definitely do not represent. But they’re there, and I think a lot of them could even be considered architectural works of art. Encouraging camping in relatively few dispersed locations by setting up and maintaining shelters seems like a good way to minimize impact along a heavily used trail like the AT. I’ll confess I certainly enjoy seeing them come into view after a long day’s slog. Looking forward to paying back by helping maintain them as soon as I retire.

  • Joshua "NatureBoi" Ciresoli : Sep 30th

    Just my two cents here as a LASHer: Most of the time, I don’t shelter, mainly due to my own snoring, desire for solitude and/or that I sleep better in my tent than I do in a shelter. That being said, sometimes, especially after four consecutive days of rain (like I hiked through in Southern Maine, 2018), it is just nice not to have to stretch out your soaked/frozen tent just so you can hit the hay. The biggest problems, generally speaking, have been at shelters close enough for townies. Usually, they have the most graffiti, bigger issues with trash and/or food left behind, and usually has glass or metal in the firepits. Granted, I try to take the townie garbage out of I run across it, but that is just a tiny dent in the problem and I frankly do not have the patience to babysit city folk.

    • Cb : Oct 15th

      Frikkin townies. Stay away!

  • Pete "Smokestack" Buak : Sep 30th

    Just a couple of comments from a Georgia trail/shelter/privy maintainer. In the spring, generally late February thru mid April the shelter areas and tenting areas are overrun by thru hikers. But over the rest of the year we have day hikers, overnighters and section hikers which exceed the thru hiker counts. LNT – if you bring it in take it back out. Although thru hikers are less prone to leaving gear they will leave their trash bags and food in the bear boxes. We do supply local scout troops with sleeping bags, tents and other gear which has been left behind. Aluminum foil is a constant problem in fire pits – it doesn’t burn. Plastic packaging melts but lasts forever. Abandoned wet clothes are always a pain to carry out.
    Privies help to avoid poor or lack of cat hole construction but are not the place to dump trash, soiled clothes, wet wipes etc. All of the foreign objects have to be manually removed by maintenance crews.

    • Barragin : Sep 30th

      Boys scouts are the worst. After all of these decades, you would think the organization would adopt better LNT practices and policies.

      • Karen Young : Oct 1st

        BSA has gone to great lengths in the past several decades to provide education and training (outdoor ethics is mentioned over 50 times in the scout handbook) but it helps significantly if leaders are trained as OE Guides, LNT Trainers or Master Educators. It is a required part of rank advancement for 3 ranks to know and practice LNT and BSA also requires conservation service hours. Many Eagle projects have been done on the AT as well as other trails. Our troop recites the Outdoor Code every week and we correct them if we see them cutting switchbacks on hikes. I volunteer to teach scout groups about LNT. Once they understand how it can effect them they tend do better.

        • Jim in Las Vegas : Oct 1st

          Thanks for your efforts Karen, I’m sure it helps, but my experience agrees with Barragin.

        • Dom : Oct 1st

          I recently took a LNT trainer course at a local scout camp and half of the attendees were scouts and SPLs. I was so pleased. I think bag to my days as a scout and how we dug tent trenches, etc. Yikes. Kellyn you must write 50% of the trek articles – always a pleasure to read. Thank you

  • Russ1663 : Sep 30th

    Well thought out, researched work. I have seen the trash but not too much
    I’m a section hiker in Va. I use a hammock system so the shelters arent a spit for the night but a waypoint on my maps, I still use them. I take a picture and make light book entries. There are in fact interesting folks showing up there. I met at least on NOBO thru hiker I was following on The Trek near one.The shelters to me are more historic landmarks and well as waypoints. Expensive to maintain and keep clean, absolutly. The trail clubs, NPS and other entities doing the maintenance are to be commended. The hikers or all classifications who observe LNT and pick up behind others are also commended. Hang on to our nostalgic little hiker houses, keep them clean, as a community of adventurers within the mountains it’s up to all of us to make the adventure worth the effort.

    • Mark Stanavage : Oct 2nd

      I agree wholeheartedly with you. I hammock too. Shelters are great for privies, a table to eat at, and bear poles. Socializing with other hikers, cool. They are worth it, but unless there is a downpour, I’d just as soon sleep in my hammock.

      • Izzy : Oct 3rd

        I have to agree. I don’t sleep in shelters and use a hammock too. I must admit to really liking the opportunity to use a privy instead of digging a cat hole, particularly in VA and WV where the ground is often rocky and difficult to dig a proper cat hole. Socializing is also a great benefit of the shelters. I try to clean up if someone’s left a mess. It’s never fun taking out other people’s garbage, but it won’t clean up itself.
        I think shelters are one of the charms of the AT. They make the trail unique when compared to the many other trails in the U.S. that do not have a shelter system. The logs are usually entertaining and I often find that, except during the bubbles, the shelters are not particularly overcrowded. In June I stayed near three shelters. The first had one occupant. There was a thru hiker and two section hikers at the campsite adjacent to the shelter, and I enjoyed socializing with them at dinner. We had one guy come in after dark. He also slept in his tent vice the shelter. The next two shelters were empty, as were the adjacent campsites. I did make use of the privies, one of which I had to clean up as someone obvious thought the building was a garbage can.
        Earlier in the year during the NOBO bubble I skipped the shelter area entirely, as it WAS overcrowded. Well I didn’t skip the privy, and was happy to stop for water before moving on to a campsite a couple of miles passed the shelter. I would miss them if they were gone.

  • TBR : Sep 30th

    Good article, Kelly Floro.

    I like the concept of the shelters, but not so much the experience. I now consider them shelters of last resort, mainly due to mice.

    I got “moused” my first night on the AT, in a shelter just north of the Massachusetts-Vermont line. I learned how to hang my pack with a homemade mouse guard (an empty can of Hormel chili!), but the idea of sleeping among of horde of rodents … I gave up on that. I did leave a few mousetraps in shelters in NH & Maine.

    I did grow fond of the “baseball-bat” floors of the older shelters in Maine (likely those floors no longer exist). They were loved/hated by hikers, no in-between opinions.

    If I were on the trail and the weather were fierce, I’d take shelter in a shelter. Otherwise, nowadays I’ll stop, look around (I like to see how they are put together, as each is unique) maybe take a quick snack, then … move along.

  • Bud : Sep 30th

    Great article, brought back so many memories! Thru hiked wayy back in ’86. “Stuck” at Manassas Gap shelter for three days of drenching rain w/ everything soaked. Having Shenandoah practically all to ourselves because we went through so early, still snow on the ground. Hiking the AT was definitely a life changing endeavor, taught me so much about myself and how to live well in wilderness. Good to know the AT is still in good care. ?

  • Brett : Sep 30th

    There is a shelter near me on the AT that is fully enclosed and has a wood stove. It makes for a great winter snow hike that wouldn’t otherwise be as enjoyable or possible with students or less experienced hikers. Shelters like this improve certain experiences.

  • Justin : Oct 1st

    Get rid of shelters close to towns or heavy use roads (Newfound Gap and Icewater Springs shelter, etc). Maybe keep one up every 25 miles or so. Maybe would keep the non-LNT day-hikers and party crowd away. Crowded shelters are mice, bear, and snoring magnets.

  • Turtle Man : Oct 1st

    Another fine article by Ms. Floro. (Floro Fan here!)

    Aside from the shelters-or-no-shelters issue, itseems to me that the underlying issue (that almost no one appears to want to talk about) is overuse. The increasing number of hikers/backpackers is simply unsustainable, whether they overnight in shelters or “at large” over variously dispersed areas.

    The only real solution is—as is done in numerous natural areas out west—to limit the number of users in a particular area by some kind of permit system. In the Grand Canyon backcountry, for example, one must submit an itinerary for approval. Each “use zone” has a limit for how many people can stay overnight. Once the limit is reached, any further camping is denied. The PCTA has a permit system, and here in the east, you need a permit in the Smokies, though, as i understand it, there are no quotas or limits.

    Given the multiple points of access for a trail like the AT, and the predictable protestations from those who would grouse about their “freedoms” being impinged upon, this would be a challenge, but if the user experience and the environmental integrity of the trail is going to be preserved in a way that people get what they come to the trail for, i’m not sure there’s a more effective option.

  • Cosmo Catalano : Oct 1st

    Shelters were an idea that worked better when there were fewer trail visitors. Now many are overcrowded during popular times. Shelters allow the under-prepared and inexperienced visitor a chance to visit the Trail in a way that can be less challenging. For some this might be a means to enhance the opportunity for more diverse visitors–for others, this might negatively affect the remote, backcountry experience one is looking for. You don’t find many weekend warriors or party groups on the PCT/CTD and other extended trail systems–the AT is unique (for better or worse).

    What’s not noted in the article is that (most) people want to congregate at the end of the day with fellow travellers to share experiences, stories and information. Even if there were no shelters, the desire to do this would create large camping areas at locations with flat ground and water and perhaps another significant natural feature such as a view or water feature, so despite their shortcomings, they do serve to concentrate impacts to the natural resources, leaving the rest of the backcountry undisturbed. In some states, this is formalized by only permitting overnight camping at designated locations, and works well in places that have limited natural resources due to narrow corridor lands, rare habitats, or multiple road crossings.

    Another consideration is that the construction (and to some measure the maintenance) of shelters is attractive to volunteers. Many clubs found that building a shelter was a great way to get a fairly large number of volunteers interested in working on the Trail. The “beaver gene” runs strong in many of us, and it’s very satisfying to bring a little cozy “civilization” to the middle of the woods.

    Shelters should undergo a review process to assess their long term physical condition, appropriateness for their location, place in the local Trail community. Those that aren’t doing what’s needed should be removed and converted to tent sites–of course there may be considerable resistance to removal by the local trail club…

  • Kurt : Oct 1st

    I find it curious, what people consider “sustainable” and “too many.” A four-acre site is only 400 feet from end to end. Out of the entire forest, is that really “too big”? And by building an overflow site a mile away, you simply relocate the “impacted acreage.”

    How many shelters are “too many”? Even if the number were DOUBLED, they’re still 6-7 miles apart. Is this really “a stretch of shelters or campsites from one end to the other”? Better, just build a second shelter near the current locations.

    As one person mentioned, people stay at shelters for the social aspect. Building shelters where it is too steep to camp anywhere nearby just sounds mean spirited to me.

    How many people is “too many”? People can be very elitist when they decide how many are too many for the rest of the world to enjoy. The AT is a very big place. A few hundred more campers spread over 2200 miles is not going to ruin it. But bad attitudes could.

    • Izzy : Oct 3rd

      I don’t want to play devil’s advocate here, but I’m sure most people are familiar with the famous 2019 photos of climbers at Everest. It is possible to have too many people in a single location in an otherwise isolated location. And they use permits. Economic reasons make it attractive for Nepal to issue too many.
      I checked ATC statistics and almost 4000 people attempted a thru hike in 2017 but only 20% completed it. Most of those people are NOBOs. The numbers I saw did not give a distribution based on where people quit, but I’d bet a good number of them do so in VA. So the number of thru hikers using facilities is uneven based upon how far north they are. With a lot of them In Georgia and likely fewer of them in the Whites, for example. I suspect many using the shelters are, like me, section or local hikers. So we’re not talking about a few hundred more spread over the 2200 miles of the AT, but many more non-thru hikers using the trail.
      But isn’t that what the original intent was? The AT was not originally created to support thru hiking, but to support locals having a place to be able to walk through nature, and camp outside the cities and towns. I remember reading about how the ATC at first didn’t even believe Earl Shaffer had actually thru hiked the trail, back in 1948. His walk came after many of the shelters were built by the WPA in the 1930’s. So they obviously weren’t built for thru hikers originally.
      I agree it’s a real balancing act between LNT, more usage (which is a good thing, because it means more people are getting out there) and conservation. Elitism shouldn’t have a place in the conversation and there’s no reason to be mean.

  • Jim in Las Vegas : Oct 1st

    I haven’t hiked the AT and an unlikely to do so, but thanks for bringing up interesting ideas that we can consider out West as we get over-run too.

  • CD : Oct 1st

    I think of the shelters rather like the 1920s cabins on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park: significant pieces of history.

    Moreover, having sheltered in one of these structures during terrible weather, when a tropical storm unexpectedly hit the part of the trail I was on, I really appreciate the safety they offer in times of stress and danger. Of course people need to be reasonable in their use, touch nothing, leave nothing behind, except the pure joy of being in the wonderful woods.

  • GroundHog : Oct 1st

    I like the shelters… if all the shelter people tented out there would be a huge shortage of tent sites. I love stopping by at lunch time, reading the log book, making hot soup out of the rain. Doing a little stretching or yoga out of the dirt, mud, bugs.
    I don’t see the point of a no shelter purist ethic on a trail that goes right behind peoples backyards, right past abandoned cars and trucks, along roads & down the Main Street of several towns.
    All love all those quirky things, they break up the green tunnel, add color, and a welcome surprise now & then.
    In my view what’s needed is more & better maintenance… usage is up 2-3 fold and the existing maintainer pool is getting stretched to capacity.
    I don’t know where all those donations go but in NY NJ way too much money is going to wine & cheese parties and very little shows up on trail where it’s needed.
    In contrast Connecticut gets real value for its trail dollars. Excellent mouldering privies that aren’t overflowing & don’t stink. Compare that to the disgusting outhouse at wildcat shelter in NY possibly the grossest thing on the whole AT.

    • Bill "55 SOG" : Oct 2nd

      I agree with you concerning ATC and local chapters. Every time I go to an event it seems I am an outsider, even though I am white, educated, have served our country and have actually hiked the ENTIRE Trail. But perhaps that is the population that is giving endowments to the local chapters or leaving estate’s as their legacy (screw our children! Ha!). Connecticut, the particular Chapter I belong to, does take Trail maintenance serious. Look at our shelters and having a Ridge Runner between CT & southern Mass (well, at least they did….thanks to the ‘Vid’). And when you meet a Maintenance party, they actually listed to my observations (a widow-maker after Sandy) and agreed some century-old pine trees had outlived their time (while dropping branches, pinecones and other debris on the metal roof all night!).
      There is a A.T. Day in CT on 16 Oct. Planning to be there; I’ll be the one bringing kids from Gateway CC’s outdoor club and/or I will be the one with a therapy GSD. If you can make it, introduce yourself.

  • Bill "55 SOG" : Oct 1st

    IMHO, I think the ATC should take their payout from big business energy companies and rebuild shelters to match the ‘lincoln log’ versions in MD & PA. Those were the best on the Trail, and a constant caretaker ensuring what Hikers did not do daily to clean up after themselves. One in MD even had hanging plants and lawn decorations he hauled up. He was very proud of his shelter and his efforts. I agree keep them more than a mile from a road; that is about the distance kids can’t hump a case (or worse a keg!) into the shelter on the weekends. Using newer materials may take the rustic look away from the shelters of old; but Trex-style decking, columns and composite roofing will last much longer than natural wood and reduce maintenance crews which seem to be disappearing with the ‘greatest generation’ entering assisted living facilities, and the younger generation not leaving the perimeter of their cellphone signal. I like shelters for cooking, social activities and networking; but I slept in my tent to reduce meeting-mice-at-midnight, snoring and farting (mine and my shelter mates!). Just MHO, thanks for reading.

  • Kevin : Oct 1st

    Section hiked the AT through Smokey Mountains National Park several times as a 9 – 11 yr old kid and really enjoyed the shelters. Section hiked MD & NoVA years back with my young teenage sons and was amazed at how busy the trail had become. Passed a woman in street shoes, wearing a dress, and talking on a cell phone walking along the trail in a fairly rugged location miles from what the guide said was the nearest access point. Actually wondered if I was hallucinating for a split second. Both sons were as amazed as I was and commented aloud ” where the heck did she come from?’ after we were out of earshot. No real issues with shelters…either cleanliness/condition or other hikers. Did have spend on night at a shelter where a group of 6-8 hikers camped close by and kept everybody at the site up late due to their partying.

    I still want to thru hike the AT. Gave up on section hikes years ago except for the trip with my sons. The last several decades or so I’ve chosen to take the trails less travelled. Yes they’re often shorter and don’t carry the glamour or name recognition of the AT, etc but then I’m usually guaranteed a lot more peace and quiet and less of the hassles of the more “civilized” trails.

  • Skip : Oct 2nd

    I was a section hiker trying to do at least 30 miles over 3 days in every state the trail passes through. So far, I’ve hiked 6 of the 14 states. My experiences at shelters has been OK. I try to stay away from social gatherings at shelters. I do look forward to stopping at a shelter once along my 30 miles. I found most other hikers to be helpful with suggestions to make my experience more enjoyable. Nevertheless, I get a little apprehensive when staying at the shelter.

  • Alex McKenzie : Oct 2nd

    It is a good, balanced article, but in my opinion it leaves out of consideration the hikers who don’t have the cash to buy lightweight gear. As the ATC strives to make the AT attractive to classes of people who have not traditionally been users, keep in mind that they may not be able to afford modern lightweight tents and other modern gear. If they have a tent at all it may be an old fashioned heavy canvas job. On the other hand, I agree that shelters requiring less than a 5-mile walk from a paved road are probably going to attract too many parties.

  • David Smith : Oct 2nd

    I wrote an article in my blog for The Trek about a bear encounter at Grounghog Creek Shelter (TN) that occurred during an October 2020 LASH The bears were attracted by dirty pots and a stove that a couple weekend warriors left on the picnic table. A bear actually pushed its nose into the side of my friend’s tent. It was his second ever night backpacking and his first night on the AT. That shelter is currently closed due to bears.

    I don’t think it is unobserved that nuisance bears are often associated with shelters that do not have food management systems. Although each hiker is responsible for their own safety, the land management agencies, the ATC, and the trail management organizations hold a major piece of this problem by not making placement of food management systems at EVERY shelter on the AT a top priority.

    The idea of bear cans is great but how is that realistically enforced on a trail that has so many access points? I support the requirement of using a bear can or ursack but honestly think there will be poor compliance. Shoot, there are still many backpackers who sleep with their food on the AT. Cooking in shelters is common. Hanging packs with food in shelters is common. Let’s be honest.

    The shelter system is part of the unique nature of the AT. The AT is rarely a wilderness experience. How can it be with millions of visitors each year and parts of it running very close to suburban areas in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

    I love the AT and have been backpacking on it for 40 years. I wish all the various agencies that manage it would be more reality based. It isn’t wilderness like the CDT or the PCT. That is not a value judgment. It is a fact.

    Start managing the AT realistically. In my view that would include bear cables, bear pokes, or bear boxes at every shelter and a significant increase in the ridge runner program.

    • Turtle Man : Oct 4th

      I know boxes and cables, but what is a bear poke?

      • Bill : Oct 6th

        Looks like a Typo. Should read, bear POLE.

  • Sean Wilson : Oct 2nd

    I managed 1800 miles in 2016 before I ran out of time. There was a lot of trail diversity. I chose my tent over a shelter every chance I could. It seems shelter use had a strong cultural aspect to it. Dry camping requires a level of experience alot of hikers aren’t familiar with. I could see some stretches not having any shelters, and some requiring even more. The pit toilets were terrible, and the mulching toilets were really excellent. I took the time to talk to the trail crews along the way. A trail like the AT needs federal funding to handle the challenges of the future whatever that might be.

    • Izzy : Oct 3rd

      I tend to disagree. Federal funding means some overseeing agency will suck funds into whatever is beneficial to the bureaucrats running it instead of what the trail needs. What the trail needs is a more aggressive private donation efforts to raise funds needed to keep the trail going into the future. Hit the corporations for donations too. Remember it’s much easier to get people to open their wallets to improve a specific shelter, for example, then to give money for general trail maintenance. This is particularly true when trying to squeeze money out of a corp. Offer to put a plaque on the shelter with their name on it. Heck outdoor companies like REI and camping equipment makers would probably be glad to donate something if they thought the money was being diligently spent to make real improvements. Most of them use the trail too.


    As a 77 year old section hiker (took me 15 years–1974-89–to complete the AT!), I enjoyed many of the shelters as well as “nights alone” simply on the ground or in a tent away from shelters. As many have mentioned, shelters also offer a safety net during inclement weather. My concern is that some of the suggestions to limit impact also limit access to many, average folks. Who can afford $300/night for 2 at an AMC hut?! If folks would camp responsibly off trail 1000+ feet or more, I cannot see how the trail would be negatively impacted, the exception being alpine or sensitive areas. Other than the mass of annual thru hikers and the impact the large number have on the trail, it seems that this discussion is “much ado about nothing”.

    • J. H. Potter : Oct 3rd

      After reading Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery I have very little sympathy for anybody who walks the trail. Read the nook. You will understand

  • WD : Oct 4th

    As one who just completed an At Thruhiker, personally, I would love to see all shelters turned into waysides, like in the Shenandoah, so that as a long distance hiker I wouldn’t have to carry any food, could shower, and wash my clothes 🙂

    This is a tough topic, as there are so many caveats. As you mentioned, by 1943 there were a sizable amount of lean-tos constructed. And these were to address early 20th century issues. Now, in 2021, everything is so different, from the size of hiking parties to even the culture. And it’s easy to point out where these older shelters may have created some new problems, like overuse and overcrowding.

    It used to be that when I read articles about AT overuse, my first thought was… “remove the shelters, and you will reduce the traffic”… but after COVID, and hiking this year, I’m not sure that would truly help address that issue. A lot of hikers actually tented, even in bad weather, as they were trying to maintain so social distance.

    I really did like the waysides in VA. Those made my hike through the Shenies much more fun for me. I enjoyed all the road exits and delis in NJ/NY. And in NH, I loved the huts. I didn’t stay in many of them and I did find them a little pricey, but they also feed you all you could eat, and drink, and there was a level of organization to the whole process. On a larger scale I could see where this might be an option to address some of the issues of the current times. Because of the huts, and the managed tenting sites, I want to go back and do the Whites again, and carry little to no food, while using the entire hut system.

    I could go on for hours about some of these things. Thanks for writing the article!

  • Dogwood : Oct 7th

    AT shelters are not root of the problem. It is the amount of usage the AT experiences. Contributing to this is the quality and habits of AT thru hikers – massing at AT shelters for ease of logistics. Thru hiking the Pinhoti Tr, Vermont Tr, and Quachita Tr, all with shelters, the magnitude of the issues observed on the AT are generally not observed. The come one come all ATC management approach at some point has to be amended. It already has caused conflict with land Mngrs at Baxter SP, GSMNP. Wildereness Areas, and Nat Forests. The AT has to evolve just as the JMT and PCT wisely have limited usage. One of the most beaten down parts of GSMNP is the AT and AT GSMNP shelters.

  • Hawkeye Johnson : Oct 10th

    Good to socializing and bad for sleeping. Good article.

  • Early Bird : Oct 11th

    Shelter have, in too many cases, become party sites. ATC and the maintaining clubs need to take a serious look at them. As Morgan says, look at strategies such as moving shelters to more remote locations so they are less likely to become party sites, build more tent sites rather than shelters, etc. Most thru and long distance backpackers have excellent tents to provide shelter. A separate but related issue is reducing or eliminating the food hang in favor of carrying a bear canister. Food hangs are difficult to execute properly and, even when done correctly, won’t keep your food from an experienced bear. We are seeing more and more bears coming back to their natural territory on and close to the A.T. That’s a good thing. We humans need to take some basic precautions like bear cans, LNT, etc. to make sure bears don’t become a nuisance.

  • Kerosene : Oct 13th

    I’m a long-time section hiker (GAME, ’73-’14; LT ’79) who made frequent use of lean-tos during my hikes and have experienced all of the challenges and frustrations of sharing sleeping space with others. Over time, I gravitated away from sleeping in lean-tos to just using them for meal prep before moving on. What I’d really like to see are covered picnic tables near reliable water sources, but of course some folks would end up sleeping on/under the darn table. I’m a proponent of dispersed camping, but campsites can prove difficult to find over long stretches of rugged terrain, and in many cases you would have to lug water for a long distance. Of course, eliminating shelters alters the social dynamic of the AT, but I’d prefer to see fewer people along the way during the thru-hiker bubble.

  • Jen : Oct 27th

    Personally I love using the shelters and plan my hikes around them.

    • Henry Latimer : Mar 8th

      Ditto. Shelters are super duper. Understand maintenance issues and habituated bears. But as even this opinionated article points out—they’re popular. Especially when it rains. It’s the east coast—it rains a lot.

      To think you’re going to turn the AT into the CDT of the east is just silly.

      One thing Mr Somerville just convinced me of though—to send the $1,000 I’ve been donating to the ATC to local trail clubs that take care of their shelters instead.

  • Charlie : Dec 1st

    Obviously late to this, nevertheless…

    First of all, excellent topic and well covered. Well done Kelly Florio.

    I favor eliminating Appalachian Trail shelters as much as possible. The negatives of the shelters far outweigh the positives. If you can’t be in the outdoors without a shelter structure, you probably shouldn’t be in the outdoors. Among other benefits, getting rid of shelters would reduce the number of people on the Trail and vastly reduce the number of irresponsible hikers and backpackers (e.g., partiers and what have you). This is akin to some campgrounds and parks deliberately eliminating trash cans, which get abused and overfilled and attract vermin. Getting rid of trash cans ultimately makes a place cleaner, prettier, etc. Getting rid of shelters would produce a similarly positive effect.

    Some areas naturally lend themselves to camping, such as flat spots near water sources. In those areas, tent platforms would likely be a good way to go to minimize impact and erosion where that may be an issue, while keeping the relatively irresponsible campers away as much as possible. Converting existing shelters to tent platforms in these places should be a top priority of the ATC. Privies should still be available to the extent possible for impact reasons which one presumes are obvious. Small, protected structures could hold registers (a la metal sign-ins at parks or the canisters atop western mountains) at tent platforms and privies. Food storage options could be provided at tent platforms or other obvious camping areas. Mandating bear canisters should probably happen sooner than later. Fire pits should be as few as possible, but only allowed in designated areas, ideally with metal rings to minimize impact. (Campfires apart from car-camping sites should probably be eliminated altogether but that’s even less realistic than getting rid of shelters, but they could at least be minimized.)

    (The White Mountain Huts should probably stay.; they seem well-managed.)


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