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Do You Need a Tent to Hike the Appalachian Trail?

AT Shelters are a great place to make new friends - Bearfence Shelter in Shenandoah National Park

When hiking the Appalachian Trail, you always want to bring some kind of camping shelter, be it a tent, floorless tarp, or hammock, because there’s a very real chance that the shelter will be full when you arrive. Shelter occupancy is first come, first serve.

Next, there are plenty of shelters on the Appalachian Trail that you’re not going to want to sleep in. Some are absolutely disgusting, dirty, filthy, falling down structures that you’ll want to avoid. Some are infested with spiders and snakes, so ditto.

You also can’t guarantee that you’re going to want to sleep in the same room with the people who are already in the shelter or arrive after you. I’ve arrived at plenty of AT shelters that are already occupied by Aqualung types, and while some of them really are harmless hikers, it’s nice to be able to camp someplace else. I’ve certainly packed up after a few hellos and a snack and hiked down the trail a few miles to a less exciting campsite.

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 shelter 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.

Perhaps more irritating are the shelters that fill up with bachelor parties on weekends – I had this happen on my Shenandoah section hike last year – where people are blaring music and drinking Kool-aid shots while you’re trying to sleep. If you want to avoid the party crowd, chain-smoking cigarette smokers, dope smokers, people who want to drink beer all night and get f*cked up, people who insist on building campfires in front of the shelter and staying up late, hikers who snore loudly, or emit horrendous gagging farts all night, carrying your own shelter is well worth the added pack weight.

There are also shelters that you’re going to want to plain avoid because they’re located near roads or trailheads. These tend to be teenager and towny party magnets and are heavily vandalized despite the noble efforts of local trail and shelter maintainers. I give shelters like this a wide berth. You can never be sure who will arrive after dark.

The AT Wiley Shelter also in New York Located near a road, this shelter is dirty and sketchy looking
The AT Wiley Shelter also in New York. Located near a road, this shelter is frequently vandalized.

But the biggest and most important reason to bring a tent, tarp, or hammock on the Appalachian Trail is hypothermia. If it’s pissing down rain and you start shivering uncontrollably because you are hypothermic, you want to stop, pitch your shelter where you are, and crawl into a sleeping bag/quilt to rewarm yourself. If this happens and you haven’t packed a shelter, SAR will probably make you pay for your own rescue, if they even arrive in time to save your life.

Of course, some of my best experiences on the Appalachian Trail have been in shelters with other hikers I met along the way, but it’s nice to have the option to sleep alone sometimes too.

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 10 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 530 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.


  1. Well that makes the Appalachian Trail sound like the worst and most unappealing backpacking destination ever. I’d take the death from hypothermia over the people.

  2. NY gets my vote for the most rundown shelter.


  3. Aqualung types, that’s grand!

    I think hanging at the shelter
    eating then moving on setting up a hammock down the trail is ideal.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head regarding why you would want to carry a shelter. It gives you options.

    You are in the backcountry and hiking without one is plain irresponsible given many low weight designs of tents or tarps.

  5. Another down side to not bringing a shelter is that it can get you a new trail name. DripDry and I were hiking through Shenandoah with a friend who had sent his tent home. We stopped to camp at a campground that wasn’t open yet for the summer. The afternoon and evening were clear, so our friend didn’t worry about having to cowboy camp. In the middle of the night it started raining and our friend was no longer on the picnic table. Come morning we’re wondering where he ran off to sleep, when one of the bear boxes opens up and he uncurls from within it. That’s when his trail name became BearBox.

    • Now thats a funny story!

      No mention of the rodents who think you are bringing them snacks to the shelter? Only complaint ive had, so far, of shelters has benn the mice.

      Shelters, I’ve noticed, can be hit or miss when it comes to group chemistry. Sometimes its damn awesome, and other times its, “eh, I’ll keep hiking a couple extra miles”.

      • What? You don’t carry spring mousetraps? My record for an evening is seven meeces. I like lining them up outside of the shelter as a warning to other little rodents

        • I met a guy in the AT last year named Stretch who left mousetraps in every shelter he visited heading to Maine. There are not enough traps in this world to catch all of the mice on the AT.

        • And I met a guy who left a plate of gorp in one corner of the shelter and let the mice “have at it,” as he put it. In his view, this kept them from gnawing into his pack. Along the same line of thinking, he never locked his van at the trailhead.

        • I found an orphaned 3 day old mouse and with a lot of effort have raised her to where she is approaching her 3rd birthday. Her intelligence and gentle character has caused me to rethink human interactions with all small creatures. We should never kill because we can.

  6. I did this same hike, at about the same time of year, in 1968 when I was a high school student. I went with two friends and we didn’t bring a tent or tarp, but used the shelters. We also ran into only two other hikers the entire time and we had every shelter to ourselves. It was a memorable hike–dark and cold and even a bit spooky the first day out,but bright and warm thereafter. Deer were not at all timid and I recall how the wildflowers seemed to be more abundant as we pushed onward. Just a memorable hike that set a standard for me. I suspect, though, that these days April sees a lot of traffic on that part of the trail and chances are we had good fortune with the weather. Still, I bet it remains a beautiful section of the AT.

  7. fully agree with the sentiment. Having some shelter with your, even if it’s only a tarp, is vital to your trail longevity. Shelters can be awesome meetups, but it’s really hit or miss on whether the one you’re at is awesome or a bust. I haven’t hiked the AT in a long time, but watching a few who thru-hiked last year, and it was universal with each hiker when it came to some of the shelters….”I’m not staying in this.”

  8. To me, having options is always worth the weight.

  9. In my book, shelters are there for meal-stops only. Much easier to prep a meal on a picnic table or other flat surface – THEN MOVE ON! I’d rather pitch a tent or hang a hammock in the pouring rain than subject myself to a shelter. I’m in agreement with Early Light – too much noise, smell, vermin, and partiers. I’m in the woods for the zen.

  10. I completely agree – you should definitely bring a tent / tarp / something on an overnight hike, for all the reasons mentioned in this post. Unless you are comfortable with cowboy camping every night (and who wants to do that in the rain?), I think it would be foolish to assume that shelters will have room or be good to sleep in every single night. I am one of those weird people who actually enjoys sleeping in shelters (vs. putting up a tent), and I still bring a tent every single time: it’s insurance!

  11. I agree as well that bringing some kind of shelter is a must because you never know what you’ll end up needing for the night. This past October I hiked from Bake Oven to Port Clinton with a friend; we spent three nights out, and used a tarp the first, a shelter the second night, and just sleeping bags under the stars the third night as I had secured permission from the LVAAS to overnight at the Pulpit Rock Observatory.

  12. Someone over at the Whiteblaze forum recently asked if he would be fined for illegally camping along the trail in unauthorized spots, and if he were ticketed, how much the fine had been that anyone knew of personally. No one could give him an answer to either. I recall that he said he was elderly and wanted to hike the AT but might bonk along the way and be unable to make it to the next legal spot. I think this question applies to the current tent article too.

    Also — about the hypothermia remark and SAR. I have always wondered, but never seen a factual answer: does SAR in most places charge the person they rescue? Also, for many of the AT hikers I’ve seen, they are young and have no money to pay if billed. From what I’ve seen SAR folks are real “trail magic.”

    • I believe you be fined in the Smokies for camping outside a designated spot, but I doubt a ranger is going to fine you if you’ve done it out of necessity. The regulations are different up and down the trail, so there is no one answer.

      SAR is also not managed uniformly across states and locales. If you hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire without some kind of shelter and need to be rescued, you could possibly be charged. It’s really up to the local authorities. They have become rather vigilant with people who don’t act responsibly this year. Having no money doesn’t get you out of paying a fine.

      • Years back, i got a Bivy Shelter, when hiking shelter to shelter. does not take much pack space, and its easier than setting up a tent in a pinch, and all you need is some decent high ground off trail, the size of your own body, and it’ll get you through the night.
        As most of my hiking has been in the Whites, the shelters are pretty decent for the most part, and an early arrival and set up, its fine. Bring earplugs or a I-pod and earbuds, if you can sleep to soft music, Snoring is universal and in every shelter I have been ion. (Huts too!)

    • I too often wondered about the cost of an emergency SAR extraction. I decided to get one of those Satellite Emergency beacons with the optional SAR insurance. If you believe in “just in case” for tents, you may also want to get SAR insurance “just in case it gets worse”.

  13. I agree. On my thru hike, I stayed in shelters twice. Mice chewed my hat in one and a snake crawled over my face in the other. Hammock is my choice of shelter. Hanging high and dry and alone was the best route for me.

  14. I really enjoyed your blog on needing tents. I would love to hike the Appalachian Trail and it is on my bucket list. Now I know to bring a tent along. Thanks for the great advice

  15. Planning my first section hike on the AT next month. I purchased a Eureka ‘tube’ tent. Does anyone have experience with this tent?

  16. That photo of Fingerboard brings back memories. Got in there late after a long day of hiking in 60F weather with constant drizzle and wind. I had packed “stupid light” that trip – why bring a lot of warm clothes and proper raingear in summer. Went into mild hypothermia as soon as we stopped. Ended up pitching our freestanding tent inside the shelter for protection from the elements. The place was full of soot and smelled like a cigarette warehouse had burned down.

  17. I agree getting caught in bad weather is one of the best reasons to carry a tent. But saying you can get in a sleeping bag to re warm yourself is wrong. Great insulation prevents further heat loss but will not warm you up. You must have an external heat source to do that, hot drinks, hot water bottles, another body, fire, vigorous exercise etc to bring your core temp back up. It is misleading to suggest a sleeping bag alone can re warm you if you are truly hypothermic.

  18. I agree getting caught in bad weather is one of the best reasons to carry a tent. But saying you can get in a sleeping bag to re warm yourself is wrong. Great insulation prevents further heat loss but will not warm you up. You must have an external heat source to do that, hot drinks, hot water bottles, another body, fire, vigorous exercise etc to bring your core temp back up. It is misleading to suggest a sleeping bag alone can re warm you if you are truly hypothermic.

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