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What is the Best Tent for the Appalachian Trail?

Appalachian Trail Sign
Appalachian Trail Sign in Connecticut (so the distance is less than 2200 miles)

What is the camping tent or backpacking shelter for thru-hiking and backpacking all or some of the Appalachian Trail. Running over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail travels across heavily forested and mountainous terrain, with widely varying temperatures, both hot and cold. Frequent rain, ferocious insect life, and hiker competition for good camping spaces are all important factors to consider when selecting a tent or shelter to hike the trail.

Given the choice of a hammock, single-walled and double-walled tents, flat tarps and shaped tarps, which one is the best to use? I’ve used all of them on the Appalachian Trail and the answer is…it depends:

  • On nighttime temperatures
  • On biting insects
  • On the availability of good campsites
  • On your wallet
  • On your tolerance for carrying bulky gear and more gear weight

Let’s take a look at the different options and consider their advantages and disadvantages.

Hammock and Tarp

Hennessey Hammock Ultralite Backpacker Asym with a Down Underquit at Lost Pond on the AT in New Hampshire
Hennessey Hammock Ultralite Backpacker Asym with a Down Underquilt at Lost Pond on the AT in New Hampshire

Hammocks come in a wide range of shapes, lengths, and weights, ranging from tricked out backpacking hammocks like the Hennessey Hammock Hyperlight Asym Zip Hammock or the Warbonnet Blackbird to a no frills ENO Singlenest or Hummingbird Hammocks. The biggest advantage of using a hammock is that you can make camp wherever there are trees to hang your hammock from, which is just about everywhere on the Appalachian Trail (as long as regulations permit). That’s a huge advantage, since there are a lot of places on the AT where it’s hard to find a descent place to camp: where there’s no level ground, where the campsites fill with water in the rain, or where crowded conditions require the use of stealth site.

Advantages on the AT

  • Great for camping in forests, especially when good ground-level campsites are scarce
  • Bug proof and slither proof, provided you add a bug net if your hammock doesn’t come with one
  • Never have to worry about rain flooding your shelter floor
  • Provides coverage for your gear at night and a place to cook out of the rain
  • Easy to pack and set up when used with snakeskins
  • Great stealth camping option

Disadvantages on the AT

  • Requires extra bottom insulation and wind protection layers under 60-70 degrees which can be expensive, bulky, and heavy compared to other options.
  • Not a good option when no trees are available. It happens, even on the AT.
Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo Single-Walled Tarp Tent on the Vermont Appalachian Trail
Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo Single-Walled Tarp Tent on the Vermont Appalachian Trail

Single Walled Tents, including Tarp Tents

Most single walled shelters, including tarp tents, have walls that are part solid and part mesh. This improves airflow through the tent and helps to prevent internal condensation. Most singe-walled shelters have a fully integrated bathtub floor which is sewn to the walls of the tent making it easy to keep the interior dry if you have to set up in the pouring rain. Many also have an integrated front beak that can be used to cover gear in bad weather. Popular manufacturers include Tarptent.com, Six Moon Designs, Zpacks.com and Sierra Designs.

Advantages on the AT

  • Easy and fast to set up
  • Excellent airflow which helps reduce internal condensation
  • Lightweight and compact
  • Many set up with trekking poles, which helps eliminate some weight
  • Bug proof and slither proof

Disadvantages on the AT

  • Drafty and cold in cool weather.
  • Requires good campsites with level ground and adequate space to set up
  • Difficult to pitch on wooden platforms at designated campsites
  • Seam-sealing is often required when purchased from smaller manufacturers
Double-walled tents are ideal for camping in cooler weather since they offer better wind protection than any other alternative.
Double-walled tents are ideal for camping in cooler weather since they offer better wind protection and livability than any other alternative. A Tarptent Scarp 1 Tent, shown here on the Mahoosuc section of the Appalachian Trail in Maine in late October.

Double Walled Tents

Double-walled tents offer excellent weather protection, especially in cool, windy, and wet weather during the cooler spring and autumn shoulder season months on the Appalachian Trail. They have an inner tent with a bathtub floor and mesh walls, and a separate rain fly that covers the inner tent and collects any internal condensation that may occur at night.

There are two types of double-walled tents: tents where you have to set up the inner tent before you pitch the rain fly; and double-walled tents where you can pitch the rain fly and inner tent at the same time, or with the rain fly first and then hang the inner tent under them: the Terra Nova Laser Competition, Tarptent Scarp, Tarptent Notch, Hilleberg Enan, Wild Country Zephyros, don’t require a “fast fly” footprint to set up, while The Big Agnes Fly Creek, Copper Spur, and other comparable tents do.

Advantages on the AT

  • Can be used in all three-season weather conditions, including colder weather
  • Wind-proof with fully enclosed walls
  • Bug proof and slither proof
  • Usually have a vestibule for covered gear storage
  • Inner tents have deep bathtub floors that can prevent flooding if water pools underneath

Disadvantages on the AT

  • Can be hard to find campsites with sufficient space or level ground
  • Tend to be heavier and bulkier than tarps and tarp tents although weights have been coming down.
Flat tarp pitch on the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail
Flat tarp pitch on the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail.

Flat Tarps

Flat square or rectangular tarps have square, 90 degree corners and are kind of old school now. They’re worth mentioning however, because they’re inexpensive, lightweight, and highly adaptable since they can be set up in many different shapes and orientations. They also fit very well into narrow spaces between trees and can incorporate landscape features like fallen trees and large boulders.

Pitching them is a bit of an art form and requires a lot of creativity, but can also be a lot of fun. Still good campsite selection is important because flat tarps don’t have floors and must be augmented with an inner bug bivy or bivy sacks to provide more bug and wind protection. Flat tarps are sold by a lots of different manufacturers including Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, and Equinox.

Advantages on the AT

  • Very lightweight and compact
  • Low cost, low tech options available
  • The most basic A-frame pitch is easy to master
  • Can be pitched using trekking poles or tied to trees/shrubs
  • Does not require a flat surface to pitch
  • Can be configured in an infinite number of ways, including ones which incorporate landscape features such as fallen logs or boulders
  • Can fit into narrow spaces between trees, unusable by other shelters

Disadvantages on the AT

  • Does not provide as much cold, damp, or wind protection as a shelter with a floor that is fully enclosed on all sides
  • Requires some form of bug protection such as a bug net or bug bivy
  • Takes considerably more skill and practice to master setting up
  • Requires that you carry more stakes and guy lines because you never know what “shape” you’ll pitch in advance

Shaped Tarps

Shaped Pyramid Tarp, the Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid on the Connecticut Appalachian Trail
Shaped Pyramid Tarp, the Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid on the Connecticut Appalachian Trail

Shaped tarps differ from flat tarps in that they can only be pitched one way, as dictated by their shape. They’re essentially floorless single walled tents without an inner tent, although most people opt to use some kind of inner shelter with them on the AT for rain and bug protection. These inner shelters are equivalent to the inner tents found in double-walled tents. Alternatively, you can use an ultralight bivy bag with a mesh cover over the face, often with some kind of UL footprint. However, when you factor in the need for an inner tent, it almost makes more sense to buy an all-in-one single-walled shelter or tarptent since they’re the less expensive option.

Shaped tarps including pyramid, double-apex tarps, A-frames with front vestibules, catenary cut tarps, and so on. Makers include Black Diamond, Mountain Laurel Designs, Six Moon Designs, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, and Zpacks.com among others.

Advantages for the AT

  • Lightweight and easily packable
  • Bug and slither proof when used with an inner tent or bivy sack
  • Walls can be raised for better ventilation or pitched flush with the ground to protect against rain
  • Many set up with trekking poles, which helps eliminate some weight

Disadvantages on the AT

  • Requires good campsites with level ground and adequate space to set up
  • Difficult to pitch on wooden platforms at designated campsites
  • Seam-sealing is often required when purchased from smaller manufacturers
Possibly the worst shelter on the AT - the Fingerboard Shelter in New Yorks Harriman State Park has two fireplaces inside and is filled with soot and debris from people who try to live in it.
Possibly the worst lean-to on the AT – the Fingerboard Shelter in New York’s Harriman State Park has two fireplaces inside and is filled with soot and debris from people who try to live in it in winter.

No Tent or Shelter: Just Use Appalachian Trail Lean-tos

One option is to hike the Appalachian Trail or a section of it and not take a shelter at all, with the intent of just using the designated lean-tos which are space at 10-15 mile intervals. I’d advise against doing this because having a tent or shelter with you is an important piece of safety gear, if you have an accident and can’t go on, weather conditions pin you down, you can’t make it to a shelter each night, a shelter is already full when you arrive (first come, first serve) the shelter has resident Copperheads, Rattlers, or a wasp’s nest inside, you don’t want to share a shelter with the people already there, or it’s so disgusting and decrepit that you’d never want to sleep in it.

Bring a lightweight tent or shelter, even if you only use it infrequently. You’ll be glad you did.

DuoMid in Snow - Crawford Notch, White Mountains - 2011
Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid in Snow – Crawford Notch, White Mountains near the AT

Winter Conditions

Hikers, especially thru-hikers, are increasingly taking to the Appalachian Trail in March to avoid trail crowding despite the fact that winter conditions still prevail down south. Winter adds an entirely different dimension to shelter selection on the AT since it’s nearly impossible to pound tent stakes into frozen ground if your shelter requires them. Instead, pitching a non-freestanding tent on top of snow requires the use of deadmen (stakes frozen in place) which takes longer to set up since they need to freeze while you wait, while 12-14 hour-long nights make shelter comfort and livability more of a priority.

Black Diamond Firstlight Tent
Freestanding Black Diamond Firstlight Tent on the Massachusetts Appalachian Trail

Unfortunately, none of the shelter types mentioned above is ideal for such conditions, unless you can find a good single-walled to double-walled tent which is free-standing. Truly free-standing, lightweight tents are relatively rare, but are great in cold weather because your body weight and your gear are enough to keep them from blowing away without staking in the relatively protected campsites you find on the AT. They also can be set up in the rain without the living compartment getting wet. They’re not ideal for hot and humid weather however, when you’d be a lot more comfortable switching to a tarp tent.

Freestanding Tents:

If you were thinking about hiking the AT in March (or earlier) and using the lean-tos since they won’t be full, I’d urge you to reconsider. Sleeping in a shelter with one open wall in freezing and windy weather where it’s so cold that you need to spend every second of a 14 hour night on your sleeping bag is the pits. There’s really no comparison between that and sleeping in a comfortable, windproof freestanding tent, even if it weighs a bit more to carry.

Wild Country Zephyros 1 is a double-walled tent with an inner tent that can be hung after the outer rainfly is pitched keeping it dry in rain.
Wild Country Zephyros 1 is a double-walled tent with an inner tent that can be hung after the outer rain fly is pitched keeping it dry in rain. The fly can also be used independently from the inner tent to save weight. (see my review)

How to Decide?

I’ve covered a lot of different tent and shelter options above, but how do you decide which one to bring? I think the most important factors depend on the weather you plan to hike in and your personal comfort needs.

  • If the ground is still frozen and it’s impossible to drive stakes into it, I’d recommend using a freestanding tent because you don’t have to stake it out and they can be set up in rain without the inner tent becoming wet.
  • After nighttime temperatures rise consistently over 40 degrees, I believe a hammock is the best option, as long as you augment it with some bottom insulation like a foam pad or underquilt. Different amounts of insulation are needed as temperatures increase, but the ease of finding campsites and the ability to set up a dry shelter in the rain are the chief selling points of hammock-based shelter systems. If you don’t like sleeping in a hammock, you’ll be more comfortable switching to a tarptent which provides better ventilation as the heat and humidity of spring and summer increase.

Whichever shelter you choose, don’t forget that you have the option to hike the Appalachian Trail in warmer weather, deferring thru-hikes or section hikes to a later date when you need to carry less insulation (clothing and sleeping) and lighter weight shelters.

Disclosure: Philip Werner purchased all of the shelters photographed in this post with his own funds, but has received sample products for review from several other manufactures listed over the years including Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Six Moon Designs, and Hummingbird Hammocks.  This post contains affiliate links. 

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15 comments

  1. Planning a 2017 thru-hike and gosh, this is an awesome post. Was thinking about a Feb/March start but will probably go later. Sounds pretty unpleasant to winter camp when the days are so short. Hadn’t thought about that.

  2. I can do it for a day or two at a time, but not for a month. You couldn’t pay me enough. I prefer to backpack in more temperate conditions.

  3. Excellent overview. Thanks for the article

  4. I’m glad you mentioned “as long as regulations permit” when talking about pitching hammocks on the AT. The NPS is getting stricter about allowing hammocks in their units. It’s another factor to consider in pre trip planning for whatever section a person might be hiking.

    • You don’t see this much on the AT (where trees rule), but there are many designated campsites in national parks and forests that aren’t that great for pitching hammocks, with few trees or huge gaps between them. You might say that the NPS and USFS are tent-centric. Something to consider when you reserve a campsite in advance and expect to hang in it.

  5. They certainly are tent-centric. I recall three years ago, on our trip up to the Whites, driving through the campgrounds to find a site that I could pitch a hammock. Sometimes, we had to move on to another campground.

    On that trip, my wife slept in the hammock and I slept on the ground below. I not only had to find two properly spaced trees, the area below needed to allow me a place to sleep since I had one tarp to pitch over both of us.

    In Big Bend, hammocks aren’t allowed in the backcountry. In the High Chisos, it’s strictly tents in designated sites. Once you get down to the desert, there’s not much to hang from and you’re still not allowed to use the trees. It’s even against regulations to hang anything, such as your pack or binoculars, from a tree. I compromised by hanging my gravity water filter from a dead tree near the campsite.

  6. For freestanding tents I love my Big Sky Soul, which even has a small vestibule. I love it for three seasons. I remember reading about delays in delivery years ago, but I purchased mine two years ago and it was delivered on time. I’d love to have a solid inner to go with it.

    I don’t have one, but if I were backpacking in cold conditions, I would probably like to try the Big Sky Chinook, which also seems freestanding double wall.

  7. I can’t tell if you need to stake those rain flies down. The pictures on the Big Sky website are unclear on that point, which is one of the reasons why I don’t recommend them as well Could you clarify?

  8. I have a Big Sky Mirage 2P, a single-wall tent. The vestibules require staking. I thought I read on their site that the Chinook is free standing with the third pole and a “pole cord”, though of course I can’t find it now. That web site is indeed a bit of a mess, though it’s better than it was in the past.

  9. Picture me trying to dig holes in the ground with an ice axe (no snow, just frozen) in order to set up tent stakes and you’ll see why I’m particular about using the literal meaning of freestanding – as requiring no stakes to set up. I also hate the Big Sky web site. Terrible to use.

  10. Yes, the website is bad :) Most Big Sky models require staking, but the Soul is truly freestanding and it does not for structural purposes. Just like the three wedges you mentioned, you still want to secure it do it doesn’t fly away…

    Again, I don’t own a Chinook, but some models seem to have three poles and be freestanding. They seem like a better option for winter/cold weather conditions than the single skin options mentioned above.

  11. Hello Phil, I’m planning to through hike Mar-Sep 2018, one of the things that I’m constantly wrestling with is food so I have a number of questions. Looking at the National Geographic maps I should be able to resupply every 5-6 days is this feasible? In order to keep my rucksack weight bearable do you know of any guides or websites that look at menus or recipes for lightweight foodstuffs….thanks mate Peter

  12. Dude – Buy the AT guide. http://amzn.to/2crX2Ba
    Most people resupply every couple of days. March/April can be tough because AT support is seasonal and many places remain closed. Lots of food posts and advice on my website. :-)

  13. That is a great book! But if you’re hiking SOBO, do you have to read it upside down?? :P

    Gotta tell you Phil, it seems you are posting the perfect things at just the right time, while I’m planning my 100 Mile section hike for next year. Ever time I have a question, it seems you’re posting about it!

    As far as hanging along the AT, unless there are certain restrictions (or no trees), are you okay to just hang where-ever you stop for the night/weather? Or do you have to make sure you hit a lean-to or designated site?

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