By the Numbers: The Top Shelters on the Appalachian Trail

Although tents are the traditional means of shelter in the backcountry, a variety of alternative shelter systems are used by long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail, including hammocks, tarps, and bivy sacks. In my “Hammock, Tent or Tarp?” flowchart, I outlined some considerations for the best sleep systems to use in different situations. For example, hammocks are impractical if hiking with a significant other or when camping in the desert, but for a solo hiker on the AT, neither of these considerations would be an issue. Tents can be problematic at overly crowded campsites or in steep areas, but for southbound or flip-flop thru-hikers, this would not pose as much of a problem as it would for northbounders setting out in the peak season. Unlike other backcountry campsites, most on the AT include three-sided shelters or “lean-to’s”  such that some hikers do not even bring their own shelter at all.

Clearly, even for long-distance hikers on the AT, there are many conditions and preferences to consider in choosing a shelter system, but prospective hikers may be wondering what shelter systems are the most popular choice on the AT.

To answer this question, we surveyed 80 former thru-hikers and 24 section hikers on the shelter system they used and how happy they were with their choice.

Shelter type pie chart

The vast majority of hikers used tents, and hammocks were the second most common sleep system. A few hikers brought both a tent and a hammock, just a tarp, a bivy sack, or no shelter at all.

Shelter brand pie chart

The most popular tent brand was Big Agnes, used by 48% of tenters, and the most popular models were from their Fly Creek UL series.

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1

Hennessy was the most popular hammock brand, used by 39% of hammockers (no particular model was especially popular).

Hennessey Hammock Explorer

Hennessey Hammock Explorer

Most hikers (82%) who used a tarp only opted for the Henry Shire Tarptent.

Henry Shires TarpTent Moment DW

Henry Shires TarpTent Moment DW

Only 1 hiker in our sample used a bivy sack (homemade), and only one brought no shelter at all (relying on vacancy in the lean-to’s).

Why do some hikers choose tents, others hammocks, and others tarps or bivy sacks?

Our survey showed no differences between section hikers and thru-hikers regarding choice of sleep system.1 We also found no differences in satisfaction based on sleep system type; most hikers (92%) across all shelter types were happy with their choice.2 So, it does not seem that a particular shelter type is better for longer hikes or in a different section of the AT.

Related readingThe Best Backpacking Tents of 2017

Recommendations for prospective hikers

The variety of shelters used by AT long-distance hikers, and their general satisfaction with their choices, suggests that different shelter types are optimal for different individuals. Because of the overwhelming popularity of tents, especially Big Agnes models, they are probably a good option for hikers with limited experience who are unsure what shelter system works best for them. That said, I also recommend that novice hikers walk themselves through the flowchart before making a decision.

More AT by the Numbers

This post is the third in my AT by the Numbers series. Check out my previous posts on footwear and sleeping bags and pads.

¡Muchas Gracias!

Many thanks to Zach Davis for creating and conducting this survey and to all 104 hikers who participated!

Notes for the nerds

  1. A chi-square test of independent samples showed no difference in sleep system choice by distance hiked (X2 = 7.31, p = .063).
  2. A chi-square test of independent samples showed no difference in sleep system satisfaction by sleep system type (X2 = 4.84, p = .183).


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Comments 3

  • David Maltby : Jun 24th

    I really enjoy the AT by the Numbers series. Next Stoves or Food. Keep up the good work.

  • Pink Floyd : Jun 24th

    I think you should differentiate between tarps, tarptents, and tents. If you want to lump tarptents and tents, that makes sense, but the difference between a tarptent and a tarp is astronomical. I used a tarptent myself, loved it, and my buddy had just a tarp. Literally a sheet of polyester strung A-frame style above him. He was devoured by mosquitoes and had to buy a hammock to save his sanity.

  • Frankie Lee : Jan 28th

    Thank you for all this research! It’s been fascinating to see what has ultimately worked for others. I hope you shared the results of the footwear study, particularly the dissatisfaction with the Cascadia 10’s, with the folks at Brooks. While I do not use that brand, I think the results from a scientific study will (hopefully) let them know that their customers do not appreciate the tampering with a proven system! I find it disheartening to go back for a return purchase of a product that I had been extremely satisfied with, only to find that the manufacturer has abandoned the fit, quality, style, etc.
    Keep up the good work!


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