Shelter on the Appalachian Trail: To Pack or Not to Pack?

Long distance hiking requires many hours of resting, an irony that illuminates the fragile resilience of the hiker’s body and the critical necessity of shelter. Hiking from Georgia to Maine along the AT (Appalachian Trail) in 2011, I witnessed the various methods hikers used to stay as warm and dry as possible. Hypothermia remains the greatest danger and most prolific killer in the back country, which is hardly comforting knowledge when you’re freezing your ass off. Most serious hikers have a stoic tolerance of the cold, but potentially deadly mixtures of precipitation and brisk winds occur somewhere along the AT in all four seasons. Except in the most extreme winter conditions, a hiker in proper clothing can generate enough body heat simply by strenuous hiking to keep warm. However, fatigue or injury can slow a hiker in bad weather, and in such critical moments, personal safety demands a reasonably quick and easy way to stay sheltered from the weather.

Reliable, durable and light weight tents cost more than many hikers would like to spend. I suspect many aspiring long distance hikers outfit themselves with boots and packs first. It is only natural to imagine that hiking trip of a lifetime as an upright affair, but sooner or later, the aspirant wonders what happens when the walking day is done. So a good sleeping bag is purchased, brand new, and for a king’s ransom. Maybe an expensive stove and other gadgetry is purchased. Sooner or later though, the aspiring long distance hiker shops for a tent and discovers that a good one that is both lightweight and durable is an additional significant financial investment in gear.

Those hiking the AT on a tighter budget may be tempted to forgo the purchase of a good tent and instead use the many standing shelters along the trail. Much of the time that is not an unfeasible plan, but I should strenuously emphasize here that each individual hiker should carry an emergency portable shelter. Standing shelters fill up (especially in bad weather) and although some groups of hikers will accommodate an over capacity shelter, others will greet the unprepared hiker with a rejecting finger pointed out toward the cold rain and fog. I once saw a group wrap a hiker in plastic bags and duct tape on top of a shelter picnic table. The poor guy looked like Frankenstein’s monster as the lightning streaked down the sky and lit up the torrential rain in the night. Stories like that are only funny because nobody died. I noticed that same hiker weeks later camped out with a proper tent. Not everyone has to have a tent, but every hiker needs something that will keep their sleeping bag dry. A wet sleeping bag in the wrong weather may as well be a body bag.

Along the AT in Georgia, I met two young guys who joined the trail with the barest equipment shared between them. Each had his own older, bulkier sleeping bag. They slept each night rolled up together in a cheap plastic tarp like a giant human burrito. The method maximized their body heat and lasted for as long as each could stand the other one’s company. Heavy rain would drive them into the standing shelters or into town. Neither one of them made it to Maine, but one of them (the guy starting with the poorest equipment) made it to Harper’s Ferry.

Of course, I’ve met several hikers who made it all the way to Katahdin carrying only a fly to break the rain if they camped out. A hiker named “John f’n Wayne,” from Massachusetts slept on the ground near his fire each night, so called “cowboy camping” which resulted (among other shenanigans) in his nickname, but he made it to Katahdin all the same. A journey along the nearly 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail will require improvisation from time to time. Most any sheltering method which harbors the hiker from wind and precipitation will suffice for one night. No tarp, tent nor ergonomic hammock will protect a hiker from a calamitous tree fall. I like to remind critics of the standing shelters of the hazards of blow downs. Then there is the cranky (but wise) observation of old timers who remember hiking with heavy 1970s gear: “Ultra Light means ultra uncomfortable.”

In 2011 I hiked with a North Face pitchable bivy sack. I found it online as heavily discounted overstock, and I especially appreciated that it weighed only one pound. There was just one problem though. The bivy was like sleeping inside a coffin or a body bag. I stubbornly used it anyway. This meant that I avoided camping out along the trail and was bound to the spacing of the standing shelters. Hiking shelter to shelter, or the shelter after or more, was a perfectly fine way to hike the Appalachian Trail. Eventually though, I found full shelters, and in more remote parts of the trail (Maine, especially) some of the lovely campsites fit my daily mileage goals better than the standing shelters. I found it  difficult to fall asleep in my bivy, at first. I did sleep warmly in such a small space. I even got to feeling comfortable inside of it, so long as I was tired. I learned to leave my boots away from where I unzipped the bag when I rolled over to pee out the side in the middle of the night. Rain during setup or when I awoke meant all my stuff inside got wet when I unzipped the bag to the variances of the sky. Basically, the bivy was an emergency shelter, it kept me alive a few nights, but it certainly wasn’t ideal.

Some hikers dislike the standing shelters, and for good reason. For the northbound season, they are crowded, full of random strangers and their perversely individual snoring and farting. The shelters are almost always infested with mice, and although hantavirus is not a serious risk in the east, recent outbreaks of norovirus (spread by microscopic bits of human fecal matter) is a genuine risk when the numbers of hikers on the Appalachian Trail spikes. Standing shelters and their nearby water sources are likely areas where norovirus is spread from hiker to hiker. Still, there is a wonderful social atmosphere at shelters. Crowds and outbreaks of illness are far less common if a hiker stays ahead of the bubble. Thruhiking northbound from Georgia in 2011, and again on a long section hike in 2014, I began in February. Nobody snowed in with single digit temperatures in the Smokies complained about another hiker adding body heat to the shelter.

In 2011, I continued to stay in shelters as the spring gave way to summer and mosquitoes. I would go to sleep with cheap bug netting wrapped around my head– I suppose I looked like a burn victim or a bank robber. In the dark of night I could hear the buzzing whine of mosquitoes and feel them probing my netting. In Connecticut one night I couldn’t stand the mosquitoes anymore, they were like clouds of tiny vampires. I set up my wretched bivy by headlamp and sealed myself away from the mosquitoes, so thick in the air, I heard them bumping into the vent all night. I was awfully happy when cooler nights in Vermont relieved me from torture by miniscule bloodsuckers.

Recently I hiked and camped in the back country along the Sheltowee Trace, “Kentucky’s Long Trail.” My hiker friend had gifted me a used Big Agnes single person tent. It didn’t weigh much more than my bivy– and what a luxury! I set the tent up and discovered I could sit up. It had a vestibule to shelter my boots and pack from the rain. It occurred to me that I could be quite comfortable hunkering inside this tent for many hours provided I had good reading material. One way to find free or cheap used equipment is to get out and meet hikers in the back country. I gave away my gators to someone who absolutely loved them. Many experienced hikers have a cache of old but still effective gear they don’t mind donating. And yes, I’ve seen parts of, or even complete tents, in hiker boxes along the AT.

Ultimately, shelter is about staying dry and not dying of hypothermia. Whether you avoid a disoriented death by getting your spoon on with another supposedly heterosexual hiker inside a burrito tarp, or whether you set up your swank new ultra awesome tent straight from the outfitter, it’s the practical matter of staying warm (ish) and dry (ish) that counts. I love my new used tent and enjoy being inside of it. I wonder how much better my quality of life could have been had I hiked with this tent in ’11 and ’14. I guess it is time for me to plan another long hike. I’m a tent guy now.

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