Shelter Etiquette on the AT
Here you are: living in the woods, freed from the constraints of society, liberated to be as filthy and disgusting as a dung beetle in a privy, and yet what is that you hear? What is that howling racket that has followed you straight from your parents’ dinner table and now rakes at you with its talons like some pedantic banshee? Manners. Shudder at the word.
You thought you were finally far enough away from civilization that the Emily Posts of the world couldn’t hear you burp. Unfortunately, there are still some etiquette rules to follow, even in the woods. This is a little breakdown of some issues that arise when you are sharing a dingy eight foot square space with smelly strangers – and how to handle them with some grace and class.
The Big Question: Is there any room left?
The big answer: there’s always enough room. Until there isn’t. Most people who start in April or March have experienced one, or both, sides of this. The weather is awful, everyone is rushing to get to the shelter, and when you show up – it’s full. Not just full, but stuffed like a morbidly obese cat eating its way out of a swimming pool filled with tuna. Hikers are packed together like little rolls of sushi, ready to pop out of line with the slightest shift.
What you imagine when you hear the word ‘shelter’:
What you actually get:
What people used to get:
Unfortunately, shelters work on a first come, first serve basis so you will have to make a decision sometimes about whether or not you want to push for more miles or secure a spot. It’s just one of the many logistical growing pains you will suffer with trail life. But since shelters are communal, I’ve never been foisted out of a packed shelter for trying to change into dry clothes, hang wet ones, or simply cook in a dry space during a thunderstorm. It’s safe to assume that if you’re one of the lucky ones who nabbed a shelter spot during the Spring rush, you will also be sharing with tenters who just want a dry space to complete their camp chores.
Speaking of your wet underwear…
I have very few memories of shelters without sweaty, moist hiker clothing adorning every protruding nail and beam and I’m alright with keeping it that way. I was usually one of those hikers who would immediately seek a spare notch of wood to stick my soaked shirt on. There will often be a grotesque clothesline hanging across your shelter space and it’s pretty common to see hikers string up their own rope if there is not already a rope in place. The smell is not fantastic but you will grow used to it and associate it with being dry, warm, and blissfully separated from that pit-stained garment you are wearing holes in.
This is another one of those areas where you should try to simply be aware of each other’s space. Try not to hang your dripping rain coat over someone’s sleeping bag and they will probably extend the same courtesy to you. It’s better that you are dry in the shelter than wet, after all (we once named a hiker ‘wet spot’ because he burst in after a flash storm and created a puddle in the shelter. Don’t be that guy.)
To the sleep talkers, sleep walkers, and sleep screamers:
Probably the only advice I can give to you is: give people warning. Being woken up by a hiker who is repeatedly bumping into the shelter wall in a somnambular haze is confusing, so giving the incident a little context can go a long way. I have heard a lot of strange mumbled conversations from sleep-talkers in shelters, although few compare to the story of the aptly named Talker, who reportedly woke an entire shelter in the Smokies by singing “Aaaanimals. There’s aaaanimals in here”. After a few groggy minutes of frantic headlamp retrieval, his neighbors realized he was sound asleep.
I missed this incident so perhaps I am biased when I say that my own experience with sleep talking, or sleep screaming to be more precise, was worse. A small shelter of people including myself, several hiking companions, and an ill-fated honeymooning couple were woken up one night by the desperate screams of a fellow hiker who was traumatized by a Harry Potter inspired nightmare. As he screamed for Dobby to live one more day, a second sleep screamer ‘awoke’ on the other side of the shelter and began screaming back. We were unclear on whether or not he agreed with the verdict that Dobby’s death was untimely, but no one slept well that night. As I drifted back into a shell-shocked sleep, I recall thinking that some prior warning would have been nice.
On coming in late to a shelter:
I am certainly guilty as charged on this account; during the long summer days in the middle of the trail we pushed our daylight and regularly found ourselves arriving at dusk or after dark to a shelter. Night hiking is a popular pastime in the warmer months, but it comes with a few responsibilities as far as propriety is concerned.
The number one rule is: try to be quiet. Of course there are extenuating circumstances you can’t always control. I’ve blackened my toe, run headfirst into a beam, and heard a friend yelp when he nearly peed on a copperhead after dark. But if you’re thru-hiking, you probably know about ‘hiker midnight’, which is a magical time occurring somewhere between when the Aleve reaches your joints and the first time your bladder wakes you up – or roughly whenever it gets dark. If you should show up later than this, try to keep your voice respectfully low, cook away from people’s heads, and shine your headlamp over the other hikers as little as possible. It sounds like common sense, but it is easy to overlook when you’re still full of adrenaline from your own hike.
On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to make a few human noises or quietly whisper your arrival. Once a friend turned on his headlamp during some shelter commotion to find a fellow thru-hiker poised and ready with her bear spray – and aiming at a late-arriving 89 year old German man who she mistook for a bear.
On a related note, you should always look before you spray. That’s not just shelter etiquette; that’s also good life advice.
A Note for the ‘Snorechestra’:
Oh, contentious topic of the trail! Wars have been fought over less. Some people will tell you to camp out if you don’t want to hear snoring, and that’s not bad advice. Others still insist that the snorers are the ones who should have to camp out (and I have seen some exhausted hikers close to physically enforcing this). I would suggest walking the middle line and looking for compromise.
Snoring is a fact of life, and hopefully if you get saddled with a snorer (which you inevitably will on a cold, windy, rainy night after you’ve hiked twenty miles) you will be so tired you won’t even notice. I personally don’t think it’s rude to ask someone if they snore. I also think it’s not a bad idea (although not mandatory) for snorers to warn other campers (especially in the case of a gentleman I met with sleep apnea whom we could hear from our tent forty feet away. He has since been smothered with a dry sack.) That being said, shelters are certainly an optional part of the hiking experience so it’s good to keep in mind the warning ‘sleeper beware’.
On spraying cologne in shelters:
I only witnessed this once on the trail, but it left me with a profound feeling of confusion. I know we all smell bad, but adding Axe to the existing potpourri of lonely single men, B.O., and unwashed clothing was the final way to ensure that we were reminded of a high school boy’s locker room.
Setting up a tent in shelters:
Yes, this does happen. And I have actually been guilty of it, too. On particularly rainy occasions when we had a shelter completely to ourselves and the bugs were awful, we set up inside. My only advice is that if you do this make sure you are really truly alone. If you’re sharing with anyone or you suspect hikers are coming in later it’s better to ensure that there’s enough space for everyone in the shelter than to keep your tent from getting wet.
On using electronics:
When in doubt, I would suggest thinking of the shelter as a more social library. Feel free to use your electronics, but it’s always thoughtful to ask people if they mind before you blast music, read late into the night by headlamp, or make a loud phone call. And don’t take all the outlets! They’re in high demand.
The Dirty Deed:
Is it OK to have sex in a shelter?
…Really? Do we need to talk about this? Doesn’t at least one of the two people have a tent? Or decency? Or a serious lack of interest in their naked body parts making contact with mouse poop?
All judgment aside now, I wouldn’t suggest this for obvious reasons of trail etiquette. Shelters are still a public space. I’ve heard several stories of people being woken up to amorous noises and it always results in one really awkward night for the other people in the shelter. Don’t be that person who gets the trail name ‘moaner’ or ‘shelter clearer’. Just be smart here and bring a two person tent.
On hanging food in the shelter:
This is an area with divided opinions… On the one hand, there are those who view hanging their food in the shelter as a convenient and obvious solution because of the common sense reasons that:
- Black bears have no interest in entering your shelter because they are afraid of you
- Food needs to be hung to avoid little mouse holes in your dry sack, and
- The widespread fear of bears on the AT is reactionary and due to misinformation.
Of course, there is also another side which is comprised of people of the common sense opinion that:
- It is foolish to take risks
- Bears are in the woods and they have been known to enter some shelters, and
- Hanging food in the shelter can be a danger to everyone.
It is a good idea to never dismiss the thought that you might be sharing a shelter with a strong advocate for side one or side two. So here is a black and white guide to help you keep the peace:
- If there is a bear pole or bear cable system, just hang your food. It takes very little time and if the structure is there it probably indicates that there have been bear sightings near the shelter. Also, your twiggy little hiker arms will thank you for actually getting some use.
- If there is no structure available and you think it’s safe to hang in the shelter, simply ask your fellow shelter inhabitants if they mind. Usually they will look at you and say, ‘uh, sure.’ And if they really do mind, they might even offer to bear bag your stuff along with theirs, saving you from having to throw a line.
Problem solved without any glares, passive aggressive shelter notes, or actual confrontations.
Is everything on here fairly common sense? Yes. Does that mean we’ll all think of it? Well, no. We are living in the woods, after all, and growing further and further from societal norms. It’s not unusual to lose a little civility along the way.
You will already have to adjust to plenty of subtle social cues when you return to society. When I got back from my hike, it took me about a month of shocked looks in public before I realized I couldn’t be freely flatulent whenever I wanted to anymore.
I can’t make that transition any easier, but I can give you a basic guideline to remind you of your humanity while you’re out in the wild. That person next to you in the shelter is also sore, cold, and hungry. You could dismiss them – or you could offer them some hot cocoa and a joke because you know that you’re both in this together. So go be a good neighbor.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
My favorite etiquette infraction came from an early riser who had recently quit smoking. She’d wake every morning between 4:30 and 5am, sit there among our sleeping bodies and cough her lungs out. For Two Hours. Every. Morning. Whyyyyy??? If you’re up and hacking, move along! I finally lost her but it took a few days.
The potheads who think it’s ok to send their smoke into the shelter with abandon drive me crazy. I actually left a shelter early one morning with my throat and eyes burning from someone else’s morning high.
As a smoker i cant stress this enough ! be respectful and take it outside, also try not to get the giggles once everyone is asleep lol
Good grief. Carry a bivy sack or a tent just in case you need a backup.
Don’t tag shelters. Just… Don’t.
What about pets in shelters ?
Only with the agreement of everyone sharing the shelter.
Thanks for the information and the laughs. I’m a first-time hiker and love all this, I read and ask questions when I can.
A couple of my favorites:
Gear explosions in the shelter. Keep your shit together people!
The picnic table is where people eat. Not the place to leave your boots and socks., or anything.
Nice answers in return of this matter with firm arguments and describing all regarding that.
If you use a Hammock , please dont string up in the middle of the shelter.