Why I Will Rarely Choose to Sleep In a Shelter
Where Do Backpackers Sleep On the AT?
There are several types of sleeping sites in the AT, including about 260 shelters and 125 designated campsites. There are also non-designated campsites, referred to as dispersed campsites. What are the pros and cons of each?
What Is a Shelter?
Shelters are usually three-sided, wooden boxes lean-tos, comfortably accommodating six to twelve people. A few are enclosed huts. All have a healthy mouse population. A few have resident snakes which eat the mice!
Most have a broom standing in a back corner, often unused. I once arrived at a shelter late in the day where two men were already in their sleeping bags. Despite the presence of a broom, neither used it to sweep out a pile of vomit. After a brief conversation, I steered clear and promptly set up my tent.
Staying in shelters offer greater opportunities to spend time with others. Shelters also have amenities such as a nearby water source. Except in the south, most have a privy. Many have fire rings and/or picnic tables.
Below is a photo of a shelter on the Wonderland Trail in Washington State, where I hiked in 2022. Privies and nearby water sources are available. No open fires are permitted on the WT.
What Is a Designated Campsite?
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy encourages backpackers sleeping in tents to camp at designated campsites to minimize the impact on the natural habitat. Designated campsites, like shelters, generally have a nearby water source and may have a fire ring. However, they don’t usually have a privy.
Below is a photo of my Zpacks Duplex at a designated campsite on the Wonderland Trail.
What Is Dispersed Camping?
In some areas of the AT, dispersed camping is permitted. With dispersed camping, also referred to as stealth camping, hikers may choose where to camp, as long as the spot is a distance from the trail and water sources. The distance varies, but is typically 200 feet. In addition, dispersed camping may be prohibited above treeline or specific elevations because of the impact on the fragile environment. Similarly, campfires are prohibited at dispersed campsites because they would impact the area.
Why I Choose To Sleep In a Tent
I am a very light sleeper. I have difficulty falling asleep in a shelter and often wake up when someone snores or stirs. I also dislike the sounds of mice running on the floor, in the walls, or overhead, and the buzzing of insects in my ears. Although a shelter provides protection from the elements, rain may blow into the opening of a lean-to and pound loudly on its roof. Wind and cold air may also penetrate.
Granted, setting up and taking down a tent (or a hammock for that matter) takes time and is a nuisance in the rain, but I usually don’t mind. I enjoy privacy. I find sleeping in a tent to be warmer than a shelter. In addition, tenting at a dispersed campsite offers greater flexibility to stop at a secluded or scenic spot or when I am simply tired.
In three weeks I will be on the trail. Let’s see where I end up sleeping!
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