By the Numbers: The Top Shelter Systems on the Appalachian Trail in 2015

“Hammocks are cool … you can stealth camp just about anywhere.”  – Enthusiastic hammocker

“I started out with a hammock … then met a girl and we switched to a 2-person tent.” – Enthusiastic hammocker who has game

“I had a 2-person because I started with my girlfriend. After she left, I never switched it out and it was way too heavy.” – Oh. Unfortunately, that happens.

“SOBOs don’t really need shelters.” – Wait, what?

Choosing a shelter system can be an extremely tricky gear selection process. Options range from spacious two-person tents to relying on the lean-to’s and bringing no shelter at all (not recommended). There are pros and cons to each sleep system, depending on the terrain, weather, and personal comfort preferences

To get a better sense of what sleep systems work well on the AT, we asked 215 long-distance hikers about their sleep systems. Two thirds were thru-hikers and one-third had completed long sections. A third of hikers in the survey were women, and two thirds were men.1 Their ages ranged from less than 14 years old to over 70 years. The majority (55%) were in their twenties, 20% were in their thirties, and 12% were in their 50’s.2

Types of shelter systems

Generally, the shelter systems hikers chose at the onset worked well for them. Only 13% of hikers in our survey were dissatisfied, to some degree, with their initial shelter system. Compared to backpacks, sleeping pads, and footwear, the shelter systems that hikers started with were generally more satisfactory.

Satisf Initial Choice

Similarly, most hikers (76%) did not replace or change out their shelter systems. Long-distance hikers did not change out or replace their shelter systems as much as they changed out or replaced their shelter systems (or backpacks, pads, or sleeping bags) as much as they changed out their footwear.

Gear Changes

For these reasons, the shelter systems hikers ultimately used were almost the same as those they started with.

Shelter Type Final

Two thirds of hikers brought tents, 15 percent used hammocks, 15 percent used TarpTent hybrids, and a smattering used more minimalist systems. Shelter system choices in 2015 were roughly equivalent to those in 2014.

There was no relationship between the distance a person hiked and the shelter system they chose. However, there was a weak but significant association between shelter system and gender, as well as shelter system and age. In other words, men were more likely than women to use more lightweight, less protective, shelter systems.3 Similarly, younger hikers were more likely than older hikers to ditch the traditional tent in favor of lighter weight and less protective systems.4 The reason behind these associations is unclear; it could be that tents are more suitable for couples than other systems, and that women and older hikers are more often walking with a partner.

Related reading: The Best Backpacking Tents of 2017

The preferences and choices of 2015 hikers corroborate what we found in 2014: that the shelter systems hikers prefer from the start will serve them well over thousands of miles. Furthermore, considering the diversity of shelter systems preferred and used by long-distance hikers on the AT, it appears that these different shelter systems are all suitable for the Appalachian Trail. Unlike 2014, this year we were able to account for gender and age differences that may be related to shelter system choice.

In addition to type of shelter system, we also asked hikers about their favorite brand and model they used on their 2015 hike.

Tent brands and models

Tent Brands Pie Chart

The most popular tent brand was Big Agnes, followed by MSR, REI, and Lightheart Gear.

The most popular Big Agnes model was the Fly Creek UL series, used by 18 hikers in our survey. The Big Agnes series Copper Spur was also a common choice, used by 15 hikers.

Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 UL

Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 UL

The MSR Hubba Hubba (two-person) series was used by 7 hikers in our survey, while the 1-person Hubba series was also common (used by 6 hikers). Although the hikers who used MSR tents were generally satisfied, several described the MSR tents as both more spacious and heavier than others.

MSR Hubba Hubba NX

MSR Hubba Hubba NX

Similar comments were made about the spaciousness and weight of the REI Quarter Dome 2. The 1-person version, the Quarter Dome 1 was a popular option as well.

Hammock Brands and Models

Hammock Brands Pie Chart

The most popular Hammock brand was Hennessy Hammock, used by 50 percent of hammockers (7% of the overall sample). Most Hennessy users in the survey did not recall the exact model name, but the Ultralight Explorer was well-liked by those who specified a favorite model.

Hennessy Explorer UL

Hennessy Explorer UL

TarpTent Models

The TarpTent, a hybrid sold by Henry Shires, was used by 15% of hikers. The most common models were the Rainbow and Double Rainbow.

Double Rainbow TarpTent

Henry Shires TarpTent Double Rainbow

TL;DR and Implications for Future Hikers

  • Tents continue to lead as the most common shelter system, although hammocks and tarptents continue to attract a large minority of long-distance hikers.
  • Women and older hikers were more likely to use more protective shelter systems, especially tents, than men and younger hikers, perhaps because they are more suitable for couples.
  • A diverse range of shelter systems were used by 2015 hikers, yet nearly all hikers were satisfied with the system they chose. This suggests that hikers are already more informed and prepared to choose the right shelter system, compared to backpacks and footwear.
  • If you are uncertain what shelter system to use, you might find it helpful to follow this flowchart. Make sure to test your gear before setting out on a long hike.

¡Muchas Gracias!

Congratulations to all hikers who walked the Appalachian Trail in 2015 and many thanks to those who participated in the survey. Thanks also to Zach Davis for all his work in putting together and distributing this survey.

More By the Numbers

Want more AT By the Numbers? Check out my previous posts on backpacks and footwear, as well as last year’s post on shelter systems.

Notes for the nerds

  1. Thru hikers N = 131, section hikers N = 83.
  2. Men N = 107, women N = 68. Age and sex demographics of the sample were roughly equivalent to those reported by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy on thru-hikers.
  3. Bivariate correlation for shelter system protection level and sex, r2 = -.156, p = .040.
  4. Bivariate correlation for shelter system protection level and age, r2 = -.160, p = .034.


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Comments 9

  • JASH : Dec 28th

    Really love your Facebook posts. Guess since I’m a hiker I can’t get enough of your stories. FYI, I believe Miraposa means butterfly in Spanish. My dad’s boat was named that.

  • Craig : Dec 29th

    Cool survey. At what point in the trail did you survey people?

    • Mariposa : Jan 8th

      The survey was open from mid-October to mid-November. So, it is possible that a few SoBos or section hikers weren’t done yet when they took it, but most hikers were probably finished.

  • Ron : Dec 30th

    Does the “TarpTent” category only refer to the actual brand TarpTent or to any tarp-style shelter?

    • Mariposa : Jan 8th

      Tarptent refers to the actual brand. True tarps (rather than hybrids) were categorized separately and were used by 3% of hikers in the survey.

  • Steve : Jun 23rd

    Of the 15% that were not satisfied with there initial shelter system and the 25% that changed to a different system do you have the data that shows what shelter category people changed from and to? this is a super fascinating survey. Thanks!

  • Ginger Jesus : Jan 5th

    What was the idea behind “SOBOs don’t need shelters?” Also, I’m thru hiking this year and stuck between the copper spur ul1 and ul2. Any recomendations?

    • Mariposa : Jan 5th

      I think that person was referring to the fact that the trail is less crowded for SOBO’s than NOBO’s, so Southbounders have a better shot of getting spots in the shelters each night.

      This post is from 2015, so check out this years’ survey post for the most up-to-date information. I was able to add additional information about tents for solo hikers vs. couples. Plenty of solo hikers use 1-2 person tents, while couples tend to go with 2-3 person. So, it’s hard to say which would be better for you, unless you are traveling with a significant other. Here is the link to that post:

      Happy hiking!


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