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Is It Truly Possible to Hike the AT Without Camping?

If you’re looking to hike the Appalachian Trail but are not a huge camper may wonder if it is possible to hike the entire trail without camping with a traditional shelter system?

Technically yes, you could definitely build a plan to hike shelter to shelter and stay without the need for a traditional campsite. While logically possible this is logistically difficult at best and at worst could leave you in a dangerous place should a shelter be full before you reach it and not be able to stay inside.

If you are interested though in how you could approach this style of a thru-hike and plan out a route, we’ve gone ahead and put together some ideas as well as tips to maintain some semblance of safety as there are plenty of shelters along the trail length.

blood mountain shelter discussing if you can you hike the appalachian trail without camping

How Frequent Are Shelters On the Appalachian Trail?

One quality part of the Appalachian Trail is that there are shelters placed with amazing consistency along the route. In fact, the shelters are usually placed about a day’s hike apart from each other, give or take a few miles.

So in terms of being able to find one when you need it, you’re almost always guaranteed to have one within reach at the end of the day.

However, the spacing can also be problematic as well. Because they are placed so close together it can be easy to hike past one thinking you can make it to the next one before the end of the day.

Additionally, because shelters are frequently located in the higher use areas by day hikers so they can sometimes attract too many people. You need to balance finding a shelter with having too many fellow hikers in it for comfort.

Benefits of Staying in Shelters

There are some real pros to staying in shelters overall and while not suggested it is possible providing the following benefits to a thru-hiker.

Physical benefits:

  • You can avoid carrying camping gear – This is how you can dump serious weight, especially with cheaper and more heavy gear.
  • Shelters provide a place to rest and recuperate – Offer a roof over your head and decent protection from wind typically on three sides.

Emotional benefits:

  • The shelter can provide a sense of security and safety.
  • They can offer a sense of community.
  • Can offer a break from being “on defense” all the time.

Practical benefits:

  • Can help you plan and pace your hike better.
  • Can provide a place to store gear and food.

Drawbacks to Staying in Shelters

The cons of staying in shelters can be boiled down to three main points: safety, cleanliness, and smells.

Safety:

  • Can be difficult to find an available shelter – Let alone with rain, storms, and thunder or lightning.
  • Can be noisy and bright inside shelters – Lots of people congregating together almost always leads to longer noisy times.
  • Can attract wildlife looking for an easy meal – They know food bags and items are frequently in the area.

Cleanliness:

  • Can be difficult to keep clean with so many people coming in and out.
  • Can harbor insects, snakes, and rodents – pretty much speaks for itself with spiders, snakes, and mice being prevalent.

Smells:

  • Frequently full of smelly hikers and lingering smells with so many people using them.
  • Can attract animals looking for food.

Finding Lodging While In Town

This will be similar to whether you carry shelter with you on the trail but even the most experienced hikers will want to find someplace to stay in town when you resupply or want a zero-day.

Hostels

The lowest expense for a covered space to sleep would be at a hostel. Hostels can be found in most towns near the Appalachian Trail and can offer a safe and secure place to stay the night.

They typically have bunk beds in large dormitories that can fit 10 or more people and sometimes have private rooms as well.

The cost can range from $20-30 per night and can offer other amenities like laundry, showers, and a place to cook your own meals.

Hotels and Motels

Another option for finding lodging near the Appalachian Trail is at a hotel or motel. The benefit here is that you can find single rooms which provide more privacy than a hostel but can be significantly more expensive.

This would be more of a last resort option as the cost can range from $60-200 per night depending on the location, time of year, and availability.

Concerns Around Hiking Without a Shelter

There are some serious issues with choosing to hike without a shelter as it can be incredibly dangerous and outright stupid in some situations. To start, you are significantly more exposed to the elements – which can lead to severe hypothermia or heat stroke.

You are more likely to be injured without a shelter – can lead to serious injury or death. Along with the issue that your gear can’t be as protected as it has to be left out exposed to others in the shelter.

Environmental Problems

A huge problem will be inclement weather while stuck in between shelters with no way to get to the next one in time or waiting out a severe storm. Normally you could always shelter down if something went wrong, not being able to may mean exceptionally wet gear.

Hiker Bubble

The bubble of hikers will lead to massive volumes of fellow hikers on the trail and all of them will lead to crowded shelters that can leave you high and dry without a spot to sleep if you solely rely on them for cover.

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 is a good choice, yet they might occur frequently if you start when most other thru-hikers start.

The only way to deviate around this issue would be to leave sooner, which can lead ti other issues with extremely cold temperatures, or wait and start well after the bubble to always travel behind it and have space available with much more certainty.

Shelters Are Frequently Gross

While shelters are placed well and widely available across all 14 states they do come with plenty of their own issues related to cleanliness, and frequent snake populations, then you have health hazards like mice poo.

All of these can lead to a subpar night’s rest and can also lead to serious health issues like Hantavirus if you come in contact with mice droppings.

People Can Be Gross

Another side problem of relying on shelters is that you have limited space and frequently are sharing very cramped spaces with other hikers. This can lead to problems with people snoring, being inconsiderate, or just general hygiene concerns.

There are very few things worse than trying to get some rest and the person next to you is belching all night or has terrible gas. These can be amplified in an enclosed space like a shelter along with worrying whether others put their backpacking food up away from you.

Planning Nightmare

Another huge thing to focus on is your mileage will be highly tied to shelter locations, if you reach one early you may be stuck waiting out the day as it could be too late to make the next shelter and still have space to fit in the shelter.

The trail is quite unpredictable so you would want to plan out shelters at a few distances to allow you to know where you are at and how far it would be to the next shelter in miles and in time to ensure you could get space or you may be stuck cowboy camping in the wild.

The Whites

One of the biggest issues you may encounter trying this style of thru-hike attempt is that in the Whites you have shelters but most of them are at a cost and are offered under work-for-stay.

This can severely hamper your efforts to not spend money on the AT and can also lead you to work a lot more than you might want to.

Final Thoughts on Avoiding Carrying a Shelter System and Camping

Overall, is it possible? Yes. Is it recommended? No. There are just too many things that can go wrong and being smart about your safety should be the number one priority when thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

If you can’t fit a shelter system in your pack or can’t afford one, consider partnering up with someone who can and splitting the weight. This can be a great way to help offset the cost and also help keep everyone safe in case of an emergency.

Otherwise, if you are really set on avoiding camping, be sure to start early to avoid the hiker bubble and give yourself time to reach shelters before they fill up.

Be prepared to cowboy camp or keep hiking if you can’t get a spot and always have a backup plan!

If you are looking for my choices for gear that can suit any thru-hike please feel free to check out my exhaustive gear page here, you can find everything you need from big three to headlamps and headphones.

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