6 Things to Consider Before Thru-Hiking Without a Tent

Last summer, I completed a thru-hike and slept in my tent less than 10 nights. I even hiked an 800 mile stretch, from Shippensburg, PA to Hanover, NH, without carrying a tent with me. Hiking without a tent reduced my pack weight by around 20% which made my days more enjoyable and easier. I slept in shelters almost every night and never had to cowboy camp (except for one night due to shelter snoring.) Because I started at the end of May, I never had any problems finding space in a shelter, since I was behind the “bubble” of hikers for most of my hike.

All in all, I learned on the trail that…it is possible to thru-hike without a tent.

If you decide to do so, consider these points…

1. If you start in March or April, shelters will be crowded.

If you don’t get to a shelter in time, you will have to cowboy camp, keep hiking, or try to get someone to leave so you can have space. None of these options are good, yet they might occur frequently if you start when most other thru-hikers start. Solution: start after May 15th.

2. Shelters can be gross.

During my hike, I noticed that a lot of the shelters in the south had mice running around them. Although these creatures are mostly harmless, they can get annoying. If you can’t overcome the fear of waking up with a rat on your face, you probably should hike with a tent.

3. People can be gross.

Snoring is inevitable. I was amazed by how powerful a lot of people snored on the trail. If you plan on shelter dwelling, like I did, bring earplugs. The snoring can be unbearable.

4. Planning can be difficult.

When I gave up on using my tent, I had to plan my days out where I would end up at a shelter each night. Every morning, I would plan out 1, 2, or 3 possible shelter destinations. The 1st, being around 10 miles just in case I was feeling lazy or ran into trail magic (beer) that day. The 2nd, being around 15-20 miles, which was an average hiking distance for me. The 3rd, being 20+ miles, just in case I randomly felt like putting in a big day. The trail is unpredictable, so having a tent can be nice for flexibility. In my hike, I was able to get by without one just fine with the right amount of planning.

5.  A Gamble in the Whites

You need to get lucky in the White Mountains if you don’t have a tent. I actually picked up my tent in Hanover, NH, before the White’s, anticipating that I would need to use it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to as I was able to work-for-stay in huts every night I was there. There are shelters in the Whites, but they cost money and no one likes to spend money. If you learn the ways of the hut system, and manage to sweet talk (or flirt with) the crew, you will hopefully be able to work-for-stay every night in the Whites.

6. When you’re in a bubble, you need to hike fast.

Thankfully, I was in pretty good shape on the trail and was able to finish most of my hiking days around 5:00. When I hit the bubble of hikers in Pennsylvania, finding crowded shelters was a concern but I managed to make sure that I made it to the shelters faster than everyone else did. If you like to hike slow, you should probably bring a tent.

Remember, you can hike the AT without a tent. It’s not the smartest thing to do, but if you really want to drop your pack weight, it is a viable option. Just be smart with planning, hike fast, and dwell in shelters.

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