Gimme Shelter: The Pros & Cons of Sleeping in Shelters on the Appalachian Trail

During your AT hike, you’re going to have to decide where you’re going to sleep at the end of the day (or the start of it if you’re a night hiker). Some people prefer the seclusion of their own private tent/hammock/bivy. Others gun it for the shelters (also called huts or lean-tos), every morning like a trail version of the Amazing Race hoping that a spot is available upon their arrival. There are many reasons to shelter up or to avoid them like the plague (no mouse pun intended!), and even if you prefer sleeping in your own device on the regular, there is a time and place where shelter sleeping is preferable depending on various factors.


Pros of the Shelters: Depending on your particular mood, the crowds can be a blessing or a burden whether you choose to sleep in the shelter or just want to be around it. After a long hike, a little distraction is nice from the aches and pains of body and hunger. My husband and I called it, “watching television” as we sat in shelters watching the night unfold.

Oh, Look! Food Network!

Oh, Look! Food Network!

You meet a lot of interesting characters and it’s nice to socialize after a day of being stuck inside your own head. It’s also nice to kick back and read through the log books for some added entertainment, advice, warning, and to read where your new found friends are planning on heading off to.

Cons of the Shelters: The Crowds! Maybe you just want to be alone after a tiresome hike, and the late arrivers gathering around the shelter to cook their pasta sides and ramen noodles are doing nothing but keep you awake when you’re exhausted and just want some shut eye.


Shelters can get crowded which can be a blessing or a burden depending on how you’re feeling.

In this case, find yourself a good stealth site. Depending on the people around you and the strength of your immune system, being in tight quarters can increase your risk of viruses (Norovirus, aka the stomach bug), if there’s an infected bunkmate. Other irritants may be the people who snore at the same decibel as a jet engine, in your ear no less, or those who insist on sleeping in the opposite direction as you who keep farting in your face.

Ahhhh... nature!

Ahhhh… the smell of nature?

Some shelter goers may be missing home a bit too much as my husband was awoken by an older gentleman spooning him in his sleep (awkward!). Some people lack basic shelter etiquette as well, and may step all over your sleep mat while wearing their camp shoes, or may hang their 50 lb. pack on a nail directly over your head. You can only pray that nail is strong enough or else you may get an unwanted midnight surprise! Early risers may bother you if you are the type to sleep in, although you can’t really blame people for wanting to get a fresh start. If any of these cases seem intolerable and not something you may be able to laugh off later on, find yourself a nice little tent site!


Pros: There is nothing like finding availability in the shelter when it’s cold! You don’t mind cuddling up to strangers at this point because that body heat = feeling like laying in a basket of kittens!


#ShelterLife! (credit: Eli Duke)

Equally awesome, is shelter slots when you’ve been rained on all day or pounded with snow and you either don’t feel like setting up in the bad weather or your gear is already soaked. It’s one less thing to stress over when you’re already bummed out about the weather.

Cons: Cold can also be too cold however, and heat can be even more uncomfortable to sleep in when laying in a shelter full of sweaty hikers. You may also have the false security of finding shelter from an incoming storm only to find out when it arrives that you parked yourself under the one hole in the roof. Your attempts at keeping dry have failed you miserably!


Pros: You have one wall open to enjoy the fresh air nature provides, and can get naturally awoken by the sunrise to get your day started.

Cons: Starting with the obvious, MICE! Those little bastards will be keeping you up all night scurrying around trying to pick up every dropped crumb from everyone’s nighttime meal. They’ll also be scurrying around your gear as well looking for food and good smelling toiletries not properly placed in your bear bag. They’ll chew through your pockets if they suspect something yummy is inside and will poop all throughout your bag if they investigate it. If you’re really lucky, a ballsy mouse might scurry across you! Hooray! Or maybe you weren’t very attentive at where you parked your gear in the shelter and wake up covered in bird poop from the discreetly placed bird’s nest.

...and sometimes they give you a beautiful wake up call at the crack of dawn!

…and sometimes they give you a beautiful wake up call at the crack of dawn!

Then, there’s the situation where someone didn’t properly hang their food bag and now you’re woken up by every little noise for fear a bear might mistaken you for a burrito as you lay out as easy pickings. Did I mention the bugs? When the weather warms up, you may hear less from the mice (the snakes are on the prowl doing good deeds), but the mosquitoes, no-see-ems, and biting flies are in full swing! If you’re in the safety of your tent, you won’t have to worry about them.

The Shelter Itself

Pros: The shelter may be conveniently located along the trail which makes for a quick start in the morning. It may even be located close to town so you can run out to get your resupply and maybe bring back some cold brews or hot food to make for a relaxing nero (with a long morning in the privy!). The shelter might come with perks like swinging benches, a loft, even a solar shower or board games. These things can make for an enjoyable evening versus a secluded camp site.

The flower pots were a nice touch!

The flower pots were a nice touch!

Cons: Perhaps the closest shelter is far from the trail. This would be an ideal time to find yourself a stealth spot. That is unless you’re in the Smoky’s where ridge runners will force you to sleep in a shelter regardless of how close or far the nearest shelter is from trail or proximity to you. Sometimes the condition of the shelter sucks altogether too. In the Smoky’s, I had to pleasure of sleeping in a couple shelters which had massive cracks between the floorboards, which wasn’t a big deal to those on the upper level, but for me on the bottom, it was miserable. I had to position my head out from the floorboards, risking my face being stomped on by those above, so I wouldn’t have mud, dust, and possible rodent droppings falling on my face every time someone up top moved. Some leak during bad weather as mentioned earlier, and others have gaping holes on them which are now corked up with plastic bags or various other found objects.

This shelter was such a gem, everyone slept out back!

This shelter was such a gem, everyone (~20 hikers) slept out back!

Sometimes the floor is warped or has holes in it as well which results in a rather drafty and uncomfortable night’s sleep. Times like these, you can only hope that there’s a decent amount of available tenting areas so you can make an escape route.


Personally, I enjoyed sleeping in the shelters, even though I am quite the light sleeper. At home, I tend to keep to myself, but have found myself to be more extroverted on the trail, and I enjoy the company regardless of the cons. What may be unpleasant or crappy at the time (whether it’s the company, the weather, the critters, etc), tends to make great conversation down the road, so I do my best to embrace the good and the bad in the hopes I’ll be laughing about it later.thumb_IMG_7067_1024However, to each their own, and some of these cons may be out of the question. In that case, find yourself a little privacy on the trail, curl up in that hammock or in a tent with a companion (preferable one who doesn’t snore or fart too much in their sleep), enjoy the sounds of nature (but keep unwanted wildlife away by properly hanging your food bag), and keep dry. Enjoy the seclusion, or at least know when some alone time is due when your mentality requires it! What do you prefer most? Shelters or privacy?

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Comments 14

  • TBR : Aug 23rd

    I used the shelters at first … then only as a last resort. Mice, and the general shabby conditions.

    I came to prefer sleeping out, without a tent if possible.

    Bad weather brewing, then I was grateful to find a hard roof to hide under.

    I left some mousetraps at a number of shelters. Those guys can become a plague and a health risk.

    • Stubbs : Aug 29th

      Ya I’ve found most people felt the same way as you do about the shelters. It started out everyone wanted in, then as time passed, people were fighting more over tent and hammock spots! haha!

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  • Mac : Aug 29th

    When I started in March in Georgia I chose my tent it was cold and snowing. I could make a better micro climate in my tent and it worked. Thinking about not taking a tent for my next hike. Any thoughts would be welcome.

    • Stubbs : Aug 29th

      Are you hiking the AT again or somewhere else? I think it’s always a good idea to have a shelter with you handy. Unless you’re hiking in the off season, then you have a better chance just going shelter to shelter. I remember an older gentleman who decided to hike a section without a tent or hammock and he was going shelter to shelter North of Damascus right after Trail Days. He got lucky and hikers let him in the already packed sardine tight shelter, but I thought he was insane! His argument was that he’s never needed one before, but has only sectioned hiked during the off season. Not a risk I’d take personally, but it can be done!

  • Gbnu : Aug 29th

    We started out sleeping in our tent instead of shelters but as the journey continued and the rains came it was nice to be in a shelter and get up in the morning not having to pack a wet tent. All the “cons” are true but who is actually out on the trail worried about it.

    • Stubbs : Aug 29th

      The cons seem less worrisome to a seasoned hiker, I agree! I enjoy the shelters when they’re available. 🙂

  • Cosmo : Aug 29th

    Nice to not have to add the tent/hammock set up and strike to your busy schedule–an advantage to the shelter choice. Shelter social ‘vibe’ and bug/rodent conditions usually guide my choice.

    Please also be aware that stealth camping (i.e., camping in places other than shelter or official tenting areas) is illegal in several state (NY, CT, Mass, parts of VT for example) and is not appreciated by Trail neighbors or club volunteers who have to restore impacted areas. Check the ATC website for state by state info.

  • Old Crow : Aug 30th

    I kinda like the best of both worlds. I prefer is sleep in my hammock, but like to camp near shelters. This way, I have access to the picnic table, fire pit, privy and bear poles, but don’t have to squeeze in with all the others like a can of sardines.

  • Donald : Aug 31st

    I leave headlamps on in the hut and the mice leave me alone … Doing 400 hundred miles this year and going back to do a sobo next year . going nobo now . at franklin budget inn as we speak ….

  • Bill K : Sep 16th

    Way behind on my blog reading . My wifeand I have done both shelters and tenting . If tenting, it is nice to cook in the shelters , if there is room . You get the social aspect while eating , and the freedom/privacy of tenting when sleep time comes. At the larger shelter/ camping sites many have had mice invasions into their tents , in which case a stealth camp was the better choice

  • Paul Boulay : Oct 8th

    I remember taking a double zero (straining hamstring) at a fairly miserable shelter somewhere in the ball park of Wahyah Bald. It was loaded with mice. But I had 2 mousetraps and cheese. I made a nice dent on the resident population, around 40-50 dead mice. Public service and all that….WHACK!

    • Stubbs : Oct 9th

      Haha! I hiked with someone who was on the same mission as you, but it sounds like you got him beat! He hiked ahead of us, and had taken “17 mini lives” according to his confession to the Priest. They aren’t so cute after they go rummaging through your stuff!


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