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Shelter Etiquette

Appalachian Trail Shelter
Appalachian Trail Shelter

I’m writing this post at the request of one of our regular readers. He had a bad experience camping at an Appalachian Trail Shelter over the Columbus Day weekend with his children. Some other campers showed up and were drinking heavily. They got loaded and and rowdy and trashed the campsite, yelling and screaming until 2 in the morning. Luckily his kids slept right through it, though that’s hard to imagine.

I’ve had an experience like this myself on the AT, where a couple of old boys showed up for their annual weekend away from their wives, loaded with cases of beer, a boom box, a chain saw for cutting firewood, and even guns. They took over the shelter and listened to a New York Yankees game, radio blaring around a bonfire, late into the night. I just set up my tent far into the woods and had a peaceful night, but it irked me that these guys were using the shelter like a motel room.

More often than not, these incidents take place at shelters that are located near roads, which is generally a good reason to avoid them. Further, the people who get loaded and obnoxious, in my experience, are almost never hikers. Real hikers go to sleep when the sun goes down because they’re tired.

Short of calling the cops and hoping they show up, there’s not a lot you can do about people like this if you’re deep in the woods. This is why I often avoid established campsites or sleep as far away from the shelter gathering spot as possible. That, and the fact that people would kill me if they had to listen to me snore all night.

Have you ever had an experience like this? How did you handle it?


  1. I have experienced other backpackers in cabins who got up at five in the morning, and then had the nerves to talk and pack, in a very noisy style, their stuff together. There were 14 other people there still sleeping, so is very disrespectful.

    Once I arrived at a lean-to shelter 100m from a forest road, fire still burning, rubbish and empty beer cans flying around everywhere. I did not feel save and comfortable, so I made dinner, cleaned up and walked another 8 km to a lean-to which was far from roads.

    As you, I absolutely do not like to camp in shelters close to a road. If you got bad luck some idiots will show up and behave like morons. If I can avoid it, I will not be camping in a shelter close to a road.

  2. I always bring a bear costume and use it when things get out of control…

    Actually, I knew a guys who walked with a broomstick with a sickle on top. He intentionally hiked with it to intimitate people that didn't know him at shelters as it generally assured him the shelter was quiet(and often vacant). To those who knew him, he was strange otherwise, but he was harmless – a fact that was unknown to people who didn't know him personally.

    I think most people grin and bear poor shelter behavior as unfortunately people who lack common decency may also be the kind who turn violent or act further inappropriately. Short of simply asking them to keep it down and respect everyone, picking a fight or being more aggressive isn't a smart idea while in the backcountry.

  3. I'll have to look into getting an ultralight sickle, what with Halloween approaching. Maybe BPL will come out with one that screws onto a hiking pole. How about it Sam? This could be a bestseller….:-)

  4. On my A.T. thru-hike, I really only had one bad experience at a shelter, and, yes, it was right near a road. It was in Virginia, although I don't remember which shelter off the top of my head. But late that night, some local yahoos drove by and threw bottles and rocks at us. They hit one of the tents set up near the shelter.

    Otherwise, I pretty much found other hikers to be respectful, and they always made room as much as possible when it was raining.

    I never minded people getting up, moving around and getting ready before I did. Some folks like to hike earlier than others, and unless you tent off by yourself, I think it's to be accepted and tolerated if people get up earlier and make a bit of noise. It's the partying and rowdy, rude behavior that you describe that shouldn't be tolerated at any campsite or shelter (or motel).

  5. I was wondering if most of the problems from the "non-hikers" occurred over a week-end or during a school holiday?

    – David

  6. Good post. Same issue here in Australia although most hiking tracks are well away from roads. As a general rule , if they can't carry a "slab" of beer in, they won't go.

    In Tasmania, the Overland Track has a really comprehensive hut system. My only issue has been snorers. Usually chose to tent no matter what the weather to keep away from em. (and them away from me when I snore!)

  7. The double curse – being a very light sleeper and being a snorer. I know.

  8. A friend and I had a bad experience this summer (on a rather remote portion of the AT) when a bunch of through-hikers spent the night getting high. We were two women hiking together, and felt really uncomfortable being around the guys while they were high. Luckily we had a tent and headed to bed VERY early.

  9. The book titled The Gift of Fear<img src="; width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> is a very important book that talks about trusting your instincts in these situations. If you are afriad, then something is going on and you need to listen to that voice. I have bought it for my nieces and nephews.

    That said, I would rather be with pot smokers than beer drinkers any day of the week.

  10. On my thru-hike, I ran into a "thru-hiker" who had the reputation of being a loud mouth partier. We heard about him from northbounders days before we ran into him. Unfortunately, the miles timed out to put us in a really nice shelter when he was there.

    This hiker made so much noise, was so drunk, that it sounded like a huge party.

    Finally, in the middle of the night, I packed up, left, hiked about 3/4 of a mile away, and set up camp. Even from that distance, I could still hear him.

    A couple of years ago, in the BWCA near Ely, six local rednecks terrorized a bunch of campers during the night. They used guns, etc.

  11. I annoys me when people leave rubbish/trash all over a wildcamp spot or in and around a bothy/hut. I havent had any trouble with rowdy people off the beaten track but plenty on organised campsites. Like it has been said above, the further from a road/civilisation generally the better behaved people are…..

  12. Two thoughts here:

    1. Avoid shelters

    2. The AT (and now the PCT) are becoming more "party trails" than anything else. In the past people could afford to fly to Europe for their drunk backpacking adventures (and in later years, Thailand and Vietnam). The economy being what it is, expect more of this behavior, not less, in the future.

  13. In the morning when the drunks heads are ready to explode from their hangover I get noisy and roudy packing my gear up. I talk to them in a happy loud voice, shine lights around and have no pity when they whine to be left alone to die in their hangover misery.

  14. I haven't hard any problems with people drinking, but I have with people being noisy. Especially when you're sleeping and a group of people come near your camp talking as if there's no one around for miles. That really grinds my gears.

  15. Build a shelter and they will come.

    I wish they wouldn't build shelters in the wilderness because they attract people that never would have been there otherwise.

    I avoid shelters. When you set up your tent you own that space plus a big perimeter around it. It gives you time to react. Stay in a shelter and anyone at any time of the night can cozy right up to you.

  16. I'd agree with you except that shelters actually reduce the impact on the environment by concentrating the damage that people do into one area. Personally, I avoid them mainly because I hike until I drop and I'm usually in-between shelters when that happens. That is, unless I'm on the Long Trail and it is raining cats and dogs, which it has a habit of doing. Then shelters are ok with me.

  17. Listening to a Yankees game sounds like a good thing…even better if the yankees were beating the BoSox! :)

    We had a similar issue with a group overtaking a shelter this spring, so we sent the tent a distance away ….until of course about 40 Boy Scouts showed up and over ran us. the Scouts werent bad. And the guitar playing group in the shelter wasnt bad…it was the Whip-poor-will that wouldnt let up all night!!

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