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.
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.
For these reasons, the shelter systems hikers ultimately used were almost the same as those they started with.
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
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.
Hammock Brands and Models
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.
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.
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
Notes for the nerds
- Thru hikers N = 131, section hikers N = 83.
- 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.
- Bivariate correlation for shelter system protection level and sex, r2 = -.156, p = .040.
- Bivariate correlation for shelter system protection level and age, r2 = -.160, p = .034.
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.
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.
Cool survey. At what point in the trail did you survey people?
Does the “TarpTent” category only refer to the actual brand TarpTent or to any tarp-style shelter?
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!
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?