What Your Shelter Choice Says About You

Planning a thru-hike can be pretty stressful. There are a thousand and one things to consider, not least of which is your shelter. Will you kip under the stars, carefree and in constant danger of wet gear? Will you lug a tent all the way from Springer to Katahdin? Safe from the elements and with the extra weight to prove it! Is the next shelter a shining light guiding you through a day of blisters and grueling climbs, or is it your version of hell on earth: mouse-infested, loud and packed with other people? Maybe you did your research (and then some- admit it, 16 hours a day reading, thinking and talking about gear options is a little excessive) and decided hanging comfortably suspended 5 feet above the ground in a hammock is more your style. Better hope those straps hold! Whatever option you finally landed on, it says a lot about you as a hiker…

The Cowboy Camper/Tarper

No better reason to cowboy camp than the beautiful views from sunset to sunrise! Photo Credit: Steven Shattuck, "Twinkles"

No better reason to cowboy camp than the beautiful views from sunset to sunrise! Photo Credit: Steven Shattuck, “Twinkles”

If you prefer to cowboy camp or sleep under the most minimal protection possible (a tarp), you are comfortable with the natural world. You’re a born adventurer. Nothing stands between you and the next stunning view, Katahdin, or just another glorious day on the trail. Nothing, that is, except nature. You take life by the horns and to hell with the weather forecast (which you adamantly ignore every time someone foolishly whips out their phone to check and announce to the group at large). You’re more comfortable sleeping in a zero degree bag on top of Mt. Garfield than in your own house, and if bad weather rolls in at midnight (which it will), you can set up a waterproof A-frame is 5 seconds flat (in fact, you go to sleep half-hoping Mother Nature will throw just such a test at you each night).

You will undoubtedly make it to Katahdin with an attitude like that! However, due to frequent town stops to dry out your gear that could have been safely tucked away in a tent, you’ll blow through your money too quickly.

Shelters Only (with the “just in case” tent)

Tent + Shelter = Super Safe! Photo Credit: Tyler Shultz, “Tin Man”

If you prefer the comfort, ease and (presumed) safety of a shelter, but you keep a tent tucked away at the bottom of your pack just in case, you’re a pragmatist. You’re determined to reach your goal, whether it’s long term (Katahdin) or short term (the next shelter 8 miles away). You understand your own need for a little comfort (say, a picnic table to lounge around as you make a well-deserved dinner or the ability to roll out of bed, pack up your sleeping bag and hit the trail as quickly as possible in the morning), and that understanding will help you on your way to success. You’re also not afraid to admit possible defeat. You might not beat the NOBO bubble to the shelter, so you keep that one-person tent hidden in your pack for just such emergencies.

This is not a bad idea; you will miss the shelter some days and having that safety net will keep your morale up all the way to Katahdin! However, you’re carrying a lot of extra weight which will certainly slow you down, causing you to need more food between town stops… So, you’ll blow through your money too quickly.

Shelters Only (the “I’ll make it there first” philosophy)

The shelter life is the comfy life!

The shelter life is the comfy life! Photo Credit: Jon Kreykes, “Pack Mule”

If you rely solely on shelters to keep your pack weight down in the teens (no tent, no problem!), you’re an optimist. You know you’re tough, steady and fast! You’re up first in the morning, packed and out of the shelter before the rest of those suckers know what hit them. You break through early morning spiderwebs like it’s your job, just pleased that you’ll be the first to make it to the next shelter.

That optimism will pay off in the long run; Katahdin, here you come! However, hiking that fast with such limited practice and build up will cause serious injuries, some plantar fasciitis or a stress fracture. Thus, you’ll be town-bound to recover more frequently than planned, and you’ll blow through your money too quickly.

Keeping it Old School- Tents Only

There's nothing like basking in a glorious sunset, knowing you're safe from the elements. Photo Credit: Laura Scott, "Bug Out"

There’s nothing like basking in a glorious sunset, knowing you’re safe from the elements! Photo Credit: Laura Scott, “Bug Out”

If you’re old school and would take a good tent over any of these newfangled ideas any day, you’re experienced. You’ve been around the block (or forest) a time or two. You understand that the need for some privacy outweighs the need to cut weight or have a good time around the campfire. This thru-hike will be a breeze for you- heck, it’s probably your third or fourth one! Why reinvent the wheel?

You just keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll be fine. However, as with those tent-carrying shelter-goers, you’ll be toting around some excess weight, causing some shorter mile days and emptier bellies. They won’t feed themselves! With all the extra food and more frequent town stops, you’ll blow through your money too quickly.

New Agers- The Hammocker

Nothing says comfort like a breeze beneath your bum!

If you prefer chilling in the trees with a breeze blowing all around you to sleeping on the cold, hard ground, you’re a gear-nut. You did the online research, visited all the big outdoor stores, chatted with previous thru-hikers then headed back to the computer to research a little more (probably all in one day). You know the ins and outs of every possible shelter structure there is, and, when it comes right down to it, the hammock is the only reasonable option. (All your friends and family probably know why, too.)

With so much outdoor knowledge rattling around in your head, you’re certain to make it to Katahdin! However, you’ll probably make it there with about 30 pounds of new gear (the old, replaced gear will be shipped home, awaiting a future trip when you might need that 24.5 degree, 3.427 ounce sleeping bag). Gear designers never sleep, and you’ll find a newer, better, more versatile option at every town stop. Thus, you’ll blow through your money too quickly.

There you have it. The next time you go visit the gear store in search of that perfect shelter, don’t think it’s just a matter of strolling down the aisle, grabbing the best option and hitting the check-out lines (done in under 5 minutes, right?). Oh no, be very careful in deciding just what kind of hiker you want to be! Also, no matter what, you’ll blow through your money too quickly, so start saving now.

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Comments 3

  • Dominy : Oct 30th

    I’m doing a hike as I can I hiked from Ami cola falls Ga. Steps and All, to Woody Gap 12-15 Oct/15 in 3.5 days and I’m going back for a overnighter from Woody Gap to Nell’s Gap.then a 4 nighter to Helen GA.. The Wife and the Good Lord says no to a thru hike all at once so I’m doing it 4-5 days @ a time,remember I retired Army Infantry and I’ve spend many Days years away from Home in the Bush so Now,it’s a little at the Time,I have fallen in Love With the A.T. Signed P.W.D.

    • High Five : Dec 11th

      Good luck and have fun!

  • Duke "Chopper" Conrad : Nov 9th

    It’s funny, but during my thru-hike this year with my brother and niece, we probably combined most of the shelter options you highlighted so humorously. I started with a tent and finished with a hammock, while my brother stuck with his tent and my niece did likewise with cowboy camping as she split from her slower Uncles and ventured out on her own. My brother & I were well prepared financially as retirees with full support of our wives and my niece saved and budgeted like a champ. She finished in less than 5 months and my brother and I on August 30th, 5 1/2 months after our start. Thanks for a fun article?
    Chopper, Mtn. Goat & Greyhound


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