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What is it Like to Sleep in an Appalachian Trail Shelter?

West Carry Pond Shelter, Maine Appalachian Trail
West Carry Pond Shelter, Maine Appalachian Trail

What is an Appalachian Trail Shelter?

Appalachian Trail Shelters come in many different styles and sizes. Most are built-in a lean-to style with one wall open to the elements, but here are many different shelter designs in use up and down the trail. Some have covered porches where hikers can hang out, many have bunk beds, or even a second story loft. Normally, you can expect a roof and a wood floor to sleep on.

In addition there are usually water sources located near a shelter, such as a spring, a stream, or a river, but not always. Make sure to check your guide or maps beforehand. In addition, most have a privy where you can take a dump to minimize the impact of human feces on the trail and it’s surroundings. Toilet paper is rarely provided, so be sure to bring your own.

Bear boxes are usually located near shelters where there is a large bear population.  These are designed to store your food during the night. They should not be used as trash bins. People found doing this are usually eaten by non-vegetarian hikers.

Hexacube Shelter, New Hampshire Appalachian Trail
Hexacube Shelter, New Hampshire Appalachian Trail

What the inside of a shelter like?

The shelter of the top of the page is pretty typical of what you’ll find on the trail. There’s a flat floor inside and people line up their sleeping bags side by side with their feet pointed toward the door. There’s usually a broom inside so you can sweep the floor clean before you lay out your gear for the night and maybe before you leave the next day. There’s usually a shelf that has the trail register on it and it’s customary to read past entries and to write one about your hike or whatever else you feel like. There’s also usually a map of some kind on the inside of the shelter or arrows painted on the outside walls that point to the nearest water and the privy.

Lean-to style shelters like this one have a sloping ceiling inside and it’s very easy to bang your head against one of the shelter cross beams unless you are careful. Older shelters also often have leaks in the walls or leaks in the ceiling. I find that most ceiling leaks are in the middle of the shelter and not along the side walls, but your mileage may vary.

When I get arrive at a shelter where I plan to stay the night, I usually carry my gear to the water source first thing and tank up for the night, unless there’s someone there already who can watch my pack and food so animals don’t steal it. After that I unpack all of my gear and set up my sleeping pad and sleeping bag. Then I start preparing dinner, eat, clean up, and hang out until dark when everyone goes to sleep.

Why would you sleep in an AT shelter if you carry a tent?

People sleep in the shelters for all kinds of different reasons. I like to do it because I often get them to myself when I plan trips on weekdays and can avoid the thru-hiker pack. But there are other times when I want to be social, or I can’t bothered to set up my shelter in the pouring rain. If I’m hiking in a very  remote area, like up in Maine, sleeping in a shelter can also be comforting at night.

On any given trip, if I think I’m likely to camp in AT shelters, I tend to bring my lightest shelter possible, a 9 oz tarp. There’s no point in carrying anything heavier if you’re unlikely to use it.

Mouse-Proof Food Hangs at Moose Mountain Shelter, New Hampshire Appalachian Trail-
Mouse-Proof Food Hangs at Moose Mountain Shelter, New Hampshire Appalachian Trail

What do you do with your food at night?

If I’m alone in a shelter in bear country, I usually hang my food bag in a tree outside of the shelter, unless of course, there is a bear box nearby. If there are other hikers staying in the shelter, I’ll usually hang my food on one of the many strings that hang near the front of shelters and have tuna cans on them, to prevent mice from jumping from the string to your food bag and eating all of your food.

Where are the shelters located?

Shelters or designated campsites are usually located every 10-15 miles along the AT, but there are exceptions. When you need to camp someplace else, try to use Leave-No-Trace principles.

Wiley Shelter, New York Appalachian Trail
Wiley Shelter, New York Appalachian Trail

Is it safe to sleep in an Appalachian Trail Shelter?

By and large yes, but the chances of being disturbed by non-hikers staying at the shelter or staying up late increases the closer you are to a road. A lot of hikers avoid these shelters for this reason, but they can be fine during weekday nights.

How many people can a shelter hold?

AT Shelters can vary widely in size, but they can usually hold a minimum of 6 hikers. However, some are very large and can sleep up to two dozen hikers.

Where can I camp if you don’t want to sleep in the shelter, but want to be near people, water, or a privy?

There’s usually an area adjacent to shelters with spaces designated for tent sites.

Brinks Road Shelter, New Jersey Appalachian Trail
Brinks Road Shelter, New Jersey Appalachian Trail

What if the shelter is full?

If you arrive at a shelter and it’s full for the night, you can usually find a tent site outside for the night. I find it’s best to carry some alternate form of shelter, instead of relying on shelters, in the event they are full or you feel uncomfortable with the people sleeping in the shelter.

What if someone snores so loudly that you can’t sleep?

You can trying rolling them over or hitting them for a while, but if that fails, it’s probably best to set up your own shelter outside and sleep out of earshot. Staying awake and angry all night is not worth it. Loud snorers should avoid sleeping in shelters to be courteous to other hikers.

Is it ok to burn a fire at a shelter?

This really depends on the local regulations in the areas you’re hiking through. I’ve never had a fire at a shelter even if it had a fireplace, because it scars the ground. I just use my stove to cook with and go to sleep when the sun sets.

How bad are the mice in shelters?

I’ve only seen a few mice in my experience and they didn’t bother me. If you’re afraid of them, you can sleep under mosquito netting or skip the shelter and sleep in a test outside. I haven’t heard of a case of hantavirus in a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, but if it’s a concern, sleep elsewhere.

What else would you tell someone about shelters on the Appalachian Trail? Please leave a comment.

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  1. Nice writup. Floors in shelters are HARD. I like to sleep in the tent areas unless there is a lot of rain.

  2. Recieved great advice from a through hiker in Virginia. My son an I were doing a section of the trail and stayed at a shelter one night.

    His advice about the mice – don't push your gear or head up to the wall – sleep more in the middle. Mice follow walls when they move.

    Listened to them squeak and move around at night but the gear was hung so we had no problems.

  3. Good post. I was really uncomfortable with shelters last year when we did our hike, but grew to enjoy them. We had a few interesting moments with mice, but I think the problem greatly diminished when the weather got warmer. One night, a mouse filled our shoes with acorns, and another night I woke up to one staring me in the eyes! We also had fun watching an "experienced" hiker shaking them out of his food bag at 3am after he told us he "always used it as a pillow".

    One other piece of advice is to use a light with a red beam if you need to get up in the middle of the night. Shining a bright headlamp in the shelter is no way to make friends!

  4. That mouse was probably deciding whether to nibble on your nose! Good advice about the red light.

    I got over my fear of shelters on The Long Trail. Endless rain does that. I view them now as natural stopping points that provide me with a great deal of psychological comfort, particularly when I'm alone and in the middle of nowhere.

  5. Also, keep in mind that the regulations for tents at shelter sites change in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They only allow you to set up a tent if the shelter is full and you are a thru hiker…. Not sure if there are different regs in SNP or elsewhere.

    Earplugs are nice in the shelters, especially on the weekends. Weekend backpackers have different priorities than those who thru or do extended trips. Late nights around the campfire with a bottle of Jack…. while 10 other people are trying to sleep… grrrrr.

    If you are staying at a shelter in a popular area on a friday night…. expect some group to come in around 1am. Keep your earplugs handy….

    I prefer camping away from shelters when I can. I guess I'm turning into a solitary crumudgeon…

  6. True. Weekends during "high" season do sort of suck. Good time to sleep in a tent, out of earshot of the noise. I was stayed at a shelter once where a bunch of good old boys showed up with a radio to listen to the yankees game and had a chain saw to keep their fire stoked. I slept about 300 yards away.

  7. Wow! A chainsaw. I bet you had nightmares of waking up to somebody yelling "timber!"

    I have had some amazing experiences in the shelters. Getting to know other hikers, games, discussions, humor, food sharing, magic… all that.

    Unfortunately, it truly is amazing how rude some people can be, and never realize it though. Those guys were having the wilderness experience that they wanted to have. Felling trees and listening to the game. They were probably joking amongst themselves about how primitive your methods were. ;)

    Thanks for the write up on the shelters. I tend to have a more myopic view because I do most of my hiking in and around the smokies. It's always busy there…

  8. I could deal with the chainsaw, but a Yankees game? That's not humane.

  9. About twenty years ago, I was dealing with chain saw noise in the middle of the night. I could hear it idle, then speed up and cut and drop back to idle. This went on for about two hours and then I perceived it was a friend's snoring. At least he didn't sound like a Yankee's game.

    Last year, when backpacking with my brother in law, he heard a bear grunting and sniffing around outside our tent. He was about to wake me when he realized it was my snoring. As nervous as he'd gotten, he'd probably have preferred the Yankee's game.

    • That’s interesting that you heard chain saw noises too. Were you staying at the Laurel Falls shelter by chance? We stayed there on a stormy night one night and heard what we thought sounded like dirt bikes in the distance, but chain saws and dirt bikes sound very similar. The sound would come closer like someone was coming and then it would fade away. This happened all night so we didn’t get much sleep.

  10. We have a general rule in picking shelters- "are they far enough from a road (or enough elevation gain) to prevent a local from carrying in beer?"

    My worst shelter experience was my first- we crawled into the shelter before Blood Moutain in deep snow totally wiped out, and ended up sleeping like cord wood with a bunch of other hikers. The guy beside me must have had sleep apnea because he choked and snorted all night, and kept kicking me in the back everytime he did. We named him "Creeper". Thank goodness he dropped off the trail shortly after. One more night like that and I would have strangled him myself! I learned to pick my spot quickly and carefully.

    Once we were in VA the shelters were not very full and they became a pretty enjoyable experience. When deciding on a shelter, be aware of weekends, holidays and college spring break, which can significantly change the dynamic.

  11. The mouse hangers in the shelters are not for food. Unless you would like animals coming into the shelter in the middle of the night. Those hangers are for packs, so the mice cant chew on them.

  12. No. Those lines are for hanging food bags, but you can also hang packs off of them. Personally, I hang my pack from the nails on the sides of shelters and keep the pockets open so mice won't have to chew into them if they want to visit. Needless to say, don't keep food in your pack.

    • Am I the only person here not stupid enough to keep my food where I sleep? Hang a bear bag least 100 feet away, 12 foot up and 4 foot or more away from the tree trunk. Or AT hiking must be way different than wilderness backpackin. I prefer not waking up to staring a bear in the face.

  13. The mice typically chew on packs for the salt, applied by your built up sweat. You definately do not want to hang food in the shelter, trust me.

  14. That's really a problem for thru-hikers. Most people don't wear a backpack for 6 months, straight. What do you do about your shoes? That's where I really sweat (my feet).

  15. The majority of LD hikers I have seen use the hangers for their foodbag and hang the pack on a hook on the wall after opening all the pockets. In fact I don't remember ever seeing a pack hung from the hangers. I don't claim to be an expert, but have been told the "salt chewing" isn't a mouse problem but is common with other "critters".
    I always try to put my hiking poles inside the shelter as the cork handles are often a target. I have never had a problem with anything chewing on my pack or poles (except for the time I left a bag of peanuts in the hip belt pocket and a mouse chewed through).

  16. Personally I think the mice chewing on the packs is a hiking myth, haven't met anyone who actually had it happen to the them. Last year I hung my pack on the wall hooks or left it on the shelter floor for three months without it ever being chewed on by mice. I sweat a lot and there were plenty of mice, so it should have happened if it really is an issue. Now I did always make sure to leave open the hip belt pockets where the daytime snacks were carried.

    On nights when the hangers were full, I would hang my Spectra cloth (exploded airbag) food bag with on OP sack inside on the wall hooks. None of the varmints successfully breached it, plus I couldn't tell if they even tried.

  17. One night to give my fleece a little airing out, I laid it over my pack. Mice apparently think fleece makes good bedding! Several holes and lots of pilling.

  18. Porcupines are the big salt chewing offenders. If you see chew marks on the wodd in a shelter, make sure shoes and packs are off the ground – shelter floor included in the definition of ground.

    Mice are strictly food seekers, and I have seen them chew through packs, but it's not common. Mice are attracted to water, too, so don't leave any open top water containers accessible to mice, either, or you may wake with one or more dead mice in your water container.

    I will sometimes hang food from the tuna strings (with strong reservations) but usually hang bear style and always use bear provisions when provided. I hang the pack on a nail if there, on a tuna string if shelter has room for it, or along wall if nothing else provided.

    Mice do hug the walls for sure. That's the best information about mice to have when deciding where to leave stuff.

    Unmortared stone shelters are the worst mice harborers. Visit the Smokies if you want the full mouse experience.

  19. Had a shelter mouse chew through a pack pocket to get at some piña colada lip balm I’d forgotten about. Gnawed the balm cap as well.

  20. Sorry Rev Lee but the mice chewing on the packs is not a myth. Had it happen to me and I wasn’t even in a shelter. On the same trip different shelter one of the other members of our group had a mouse chew through a pocket to get at some food inside the pocket.

  21. We slept on the floor of an AT shelter 35 degrees and were plenty warm. What if it’s 25? Would the wood shelter floor be much colder than a tent on the ground? Seems so given airflow beneath the boards. Thanks, CR.

  22. Great article. I’m training now for my first real section hike on the AT this summer (GSMNP). In the GSMNP, they now require you to sleep in the shelters, and you aren’t allowed to sleep in a tent outside the shelter (thru-hikers are the exception, but only if the shelter is full). So, you’re recommendation to take minimal shelter (ie: a tarp) is even more critical to that section of the AT.

    Really glad I found your site! Lots of good, real-world info for someone who’s always hiked, but never really backpacked. Thanks Philip!

  23. When I see ‘shelter’ on the AT, thinking Norwalk (sp?) Virus and getting very sick… tent or hammock for me, I think.

  24. im planning a hike in a couple weeks from harpers ferry going north until I reach main or I realize that I bit off more than I bargained for im a experienced out doorsman and spend countless hours in the woods can anyone give me any advice on the northern mountains

  25. W.W.I.T. aka Valerie

    In the comments that I read (I did not read all of them) most of the critters that were a nuisance were nice. In 2012 my husband, daughter, and I thru hiked the A.T. It seems to me people either have forgotten about or didn’t realize the bats that were in many of those shelters! We didn’t have any problems with either critter, but we also made sure to hang our bags and not keep any food by our side for a midnight snack, like a weekender did one night!
    Happy trails to whoever is thinking about hiking and enjoy the views. “Just follow the white blazes, man.”
    The Walking Stix
    2012 GaMe

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