The Social Lifeblood of the AT: An Insider’s Guide to Appalachian Trail Shelters

Sleeping in Appalachian Trail shelters is an iconic part of a thru-hike. Learn the benefits and downsides of these communal spaces along the 2,190-mile trail.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

Blood Mountain Shelter on the Appalachian Trail
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For anyone looking to attempt a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, there is a huge benefit in consistent shelters along the trail. The Appalachian Trail boasts more than 250 backcountry shelters along its entire length from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Baxter State Park in Maine.

These lean-to shelters provide a perfect place for the hiking community to get cover from inclement weather like heavy rainfall and lightning. They also provide hikers a place to dry off, relax, meet and greet, and help reduce the impact of dispersed camping along the entire trail.

The AT is the only trail of the big three triple crown trails that even provides shelters along the trail. This makes it unique and adds a larger social community aspect to the journey.

Sleeping in lean-to shelters is such an ingrained part of Appalachian Trail culture.

Getting to Know Appalachian Trail Shelters

Most commonly, these are decent-sized three-sided structures in either single-story or two-story shelters, have a sleeping platform, and are open on the front.

The sleeping platforms are raised off the ground, and sleeping in them frequently uses a sleeping pad.

Appalachian Trail shelters typically can hold around 12-20 people. Some of the larger shelters have been known to sleep upwards of 30 people.

Sometimes, this limit is pushed based on the need, like in the Smokies, where hikers must camp in shelters.

The sleeping platforms in the shelter are first-come, first-serve. So if you arrive at a popular shelter and all the sleeping spots are complete, you may have to sleep on the floor or set up your tent outside.

Most shelters will also have a privy area, allowing a hiker to use a more civilized bathroom than going in the woods.

What Does the Interior of Shelters Look Like?

The shelter interior resembles a log cabin built using large lumber beams. As you enter, the sleeping platforms are raised off the ground and arranged so that you can see who is sleeping where.

Most of the time, there will be a small burn ring near the shelter to house fires safely. This is used to help dry out wet gear and provide extra warmth when relaxing on colder nights.

There is also usually an accessible water source nearby the shelter, which is a huge benefit when you come in, are low on water for meals, and rehydrate effectively.

Appalachian Trail shelters are usually located in beautiful locations with stunning views. Some of the more popular ones have been known to have very long waiting lists for thru-hikers.

sleeping shelters on appalachian trail - Example Single Story

The Benefits of Sleeping in Shelters

The most obvious reason long-distance hikers would want to use an Appalachian Trail shelter is their presence. Having a solid roof over your head during bad weather, like a storm, can be highly beneficial.

Another big reason why hikers sleep in shelters is the social aspect. The Appalachian Trail is known for its large and supportive community ; this chance to interact with fellow hikers is one of the reasons people love the trail so much.

Shelters provide a great place to meet new people, learn about different hikes, and even make friends for life. The community on the Appalachian Trail is unlike any other, and sleeping in shelters is a big part of that experience.

Sleeping in shelters is a great way to do that for those looking to reduce their impact on the trail. By sleeping in a shelter, you are not impacting the environment around you as much as you would if you were to camp in a tent.

This is especially important in areas with high use, like the Smokies. When everyone is sleeping in shelters, it helps to reduce the overall impact on the trail.

Shelters also provide a great place to dry your gear if it gets wet from rain or crossing streams. This can be a huge benefit, especially in the colder months when you need all your gear to be dry and warm.

All in all, sleeping in Appalachian Trail shelters is a unique experience that is worth trying out. While it may not be for everyone, it is a great way to meet new people and experience the trail differently.

Finding Shelters Along the Trail

They are regularly located throughout the AT. Per the ATC or Appalachian Trail Conservancy, these range mostly between 5-15 miles apart(1).

Depending on the miles you hike daily, you may be influenced to stop early or push hard if you want to reach a shelter each night.

Planning Your Stays in Advance

There are parts of the trail where other hikers can reserve shelters, which means a thru-hiker must exit the trail should someone with a reservation show up.

This is mostly found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Baxter State Park and, while not frequent, can be a damper on having to set up a shelter in the middle of the night.

Some shelters used in heavy-use areas require a permit, registration, and/or fee payment(2).

sleeping shelters on appalachian trail - Laurel Fork Shelter

The People Who Make Shelters Possible

Tremendous thanks need to go out to the people who work their rear ends off to keep the amazing shelters in shape for use, as they often go unnoticed.

If you come across a sleeping shelter, please take the time to clean up any trash before you leave as it is disrespectful to those who maintain the shelters and future hikers who will use them.

Shelters are constructed and maintained by volunteers only respect them and their work by being the best hiker out there at the shelter and be on your best behavior.

Many volunteers live in the local area towns or cities, but some may make journeys of over an hour or two to the trailhead and then an additional journey to the shelter itself, which may take an hour or more.

More on the Benefits of Staying in Shelters

Shelters provide visitors with many benefits that make their experience much more enjoyable. They protect you from the elements, provide a place to socialize with other hikers, and can help reduce your impact on the trail.

Let’s discuss these benefits in greater detail below:

Protection From Elements

It is the best place to be when hardcore storms hit, bar none. We all have been through storms in a home before and on the trail, a shelter is the closest thing you will find to this level of defense.

The materials used to construct sleeping shelters are meant to withstand high winds and driving rains common in many regions the Appalachian Trail goes through.

You do not have to worry about your gear failing in the middle of the night should a storm hit while you sleep.

Social Gathering Place

These are the social network of the trail, the place where the news is spread, and the location where you may find your next adventure buddy.

You will often find a fire ring near the shelter, perfect for cooking dinner and telling stories around the campfire, a place for everyone to decompress after a long and hard day.

Access to Privy & Water Source

For those who are trying to limit digging cat holes the ability to have access to a privy is super important and a reason, they may deviate at times from the main trail to get a potty break-in.

Not all shelters will have water sources right at the shelter but they are usually within a few hundred feet of the sleeping area.

This can be extremely important to have easy access to water as you do not want to have to hike a long distance in the morning to get water for breakfast.

Reducing Impact on Nature

Shelters help to protect the surrounding nature and limit the human impact. They are typically located in areas with high use, meaning that there are many people hiking and camping in the area.

By sleeping in a shelter, you are not impacting the environment around you as much as you would be if you were to camp in a tent, cowboy camp, or other dispersed “stealth” campsite.

This is especially important in areas with high use, like the Smokies. When everyone is sleeping in shelters, it helps to reduce the overall impact on the trail.

Food Protection

Many shelters, especially Georgia while starting to have bear boxes and bear cables to hang food or enclose extra food in a fully bear-proof manner. As the trail leaves Georgia though, these become less frequent.

Black bears are common along the AT and love human food. Starting with the boxes and cables allows you to begin getting comfortable utilizing and hanging your bear bags and placing bear canisters.

Potential Drawbacks to Sleeping in Shelters

There are loads of benefits to a shelter, but there are some cons to deciding to stay in a place with other people, from loud noises to rodents and, at times disease. Sometimes your shelter is a better option.

Frequently Very Crowded

Shelters tend to be busy hubs of people, as there are frequently day hikers, section hikers, and then thru-hikers all passing through and some possibly staying late or overnight in addition to long-distance hikers.

This is compounded if you are hiking in the “hiker bubble, ” the biggest group of hikers heading in the same direction.

The hiker bubble leads to massive amounts of people in the same place, causing chaos in finding spots in a shelter if you aren’t early.

Rodents & Animals

Rodents, bears, and other animals have understood that shelters may equal food. This often leads to animals hanging around shelters, which can be a huge pain.

Rodents have been known to gnaw into backpacks for a forgotten Snickers wrapper, causing gear failures and similar problems, which is also a general annoyance.

Vector For Sickness

When many people sleep near each other, diseases can easily spread, from the common cold and flu to something more severe like norovirus.

When staying in shelters, it is essential to practice good hygiene, including washing your hands and using hand sanitizer, along with making sure not to eat from other people’s food bags, and you can cut down on getting sick.

Overall Noise

As people are coming and going at all hours it can be difficult to get a good night’s sleep in a shelter. People may be talking loudly, snoring, or making noise throughout the night.

This can be a huge problem if you are trying to get an early start in the morning as people may still be sleeping and you will have to tiptoe around the shelter.

Then you have the snorers, and snoring is a big issue in the close and compressed area the sleeping area of a shelter offers. Much of these fall under etiquette issues, which we can dive into next so that you can avoid being “that person” in the shelter.

Respecting Shared Shelter Spaces

There is some common etiquette that all shelter users should follow that makes the experience enjoyable for all who come and utilize the space.

For a longer list, check the ATC website(3).

  • Smoking (Vape or Cigarettes) – Besides packing out the butts, keep the shelter healthy and free of secondhand smoke by putting some distance from it should the need hit you.
  • Never Set Up Camp Inside A Shelter – Please under no circumstances decide you need to set up your tent, hammock, or another shelter inside as they take up space people can use.
  • If You Bring a Dog, Use a Tent – As a courtesy to the other hikers in the shelter, dogs tend to growl, spread mud and dirt, and, yes, even be overly friendly so let them have their space. Dogs also are frequently tick spreaders making the shelter a point of concern where normally it is a place of relative safety.
  • Make Space – Don’t distribute your gear about the shelter. Limit your space needs to ensure the other hikers can also fit into the shelter as needed.
  • Sound Pollution – No one is interested in your phone calls or music blaring; please be considerate and use headphones or earbuds to keep the sound to yourself.
  • Follow LNT Principles – This should go without saying, but you still need to follow Leave No Trace and manage your impact on the area and the shelter itself.
  • Always Sweep the Shelter – Whenever you get to a new shelter or are planning to leave, take a few minutes to sweep out the shelter, as this helps remove anything that can attract rodents and other animals.

Understanding When Shelter Fees Apply

In areas with a lot of foot traffic, the use of certain shelters may necessitate the payment of a fee. When an on-site caretaker is required to assist keep the location clean, run composting privies, and educate hikers about low-impact practices, this is frequently the case.

Fees are usually $10 or less and are generally found in the state of New England. Free sites can frequently be found between the fee sites, so with prior planning, you may be able to bypass these paid sites.

Answering Common Shelter Questions

There are some common questions about shelters on the Appalachian Trail I wanted to help provide answers to.

How many people can an Appalachian Trail shelter hold?

In general, most shelters will fit 6 easily with many maxing out around 12-24 people but there are many sizes of shelters so you should note this number each morning.

Many will be able to hold much more in a pinch, like in bad weather.

Is it safe to sleep in an Appalachian Trail Shelter?

Most of the time, staying at a shelter will be perfectly okay. But if you’re close to the road, there’s a greater chance that people will bother you or stay up late.

A lot of hikers avoid these shelters due to this reason but for the majority of people, they are perfectly safe(4).

What if the shelter is full?

You can either hike onto the next shelter or set up your personal shelter at one of the campsites. Don’t try to cram extra people into a shelter if they’re full as this makes sleep more difficult for everyone.

If it is during the daytime though you can stop and use the shelter as a break location before moving on to the next shelter or other camp location.

Is it okay to burn a fire at a shelter?

If there is a pre-made fire ring, then yes, you don’t want to make it yourself as it takes a long time, years, for nature to recover afterward.

In addition, you will need to properly put out the fire, which can take 25-30 minutes to ensure no risk of fire.

How bad are the mice in shelters?

Overall as with any structure, it provides them protection and if it is a source of non-stop food they will be bad.

Hanging your food and sleeping with your pack in the shelter can help alleviate this issue as they will not have easy access to your food.

shelters on appalachian trail - Roan Mountain Shelter

Final Thoughts on Sleeping in Appalachian Trail Shelters

There are many reasons why thru-hikers choose to sleep in shelters instead of personal shelters, even with the abovementioned downsides.

From the social aspect to the ease of water and food access, there are many reasons to consider sleeping in a shelter when you take on your Appalachian Trail thru-hike.

So when you get to start planning your thru-hike, don’t forget to include some shelter time in your itinerary. Even introverts can gain some good life experience by mixing it up. I’m living proof!

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