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What is the Best Backpacking Tent for the Appalachian Trail?

What is the Best Backpacking Tent for the Appalachian Trail

What is the best backpacking tent or camping shelter for thru-hiking or section hiking 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 single-wall and double-wall tents, q hammock, flat tarps, and shaped tarps, which one is the best to use? Can you just sleep and shelters and not carry a tent at all? What about early spring or winter hiking conditions? I’ve experienced all of these approaches while section hiking 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
  • On your need for personal comfort

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

Single-Wall Tents

The Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo is a single wall tent with plenty of ventilation
The Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo is a single-wall tent with plenty of ventilation

Most single-wall tents have walls that are part solid and part mesh. This improves airflow through the tent and helps to prevent internal condensation. Most single-wall tents have a fully integrated bathtub floor that 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 or side vestibule that can be used to cover gear in bad weather. Popular models include the Zpacks Duplex, the Gossamer Gear “The One”, Six Moon Designs’ Lunar Solo, and the Tartpent’s Rainbow. 

Advantages on the AT

  • Easy and fast to set up
  • Excellent airflow which helps reduce internal condensation
  • Lightweight and compact
  • 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

Double Wall Tents

A double-wall tent like the NEMO Hornet 2 has a separate inner tent and outer rainfly that prevents condensation transfer to your clothing and gear.
A double-wall tent like the NEMO Hornet 2 has a separate inner tent and outer rainfly that prevents condensation transfer to your clothing and gear.

Double-wall 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, 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 Durston X-Mid-1 and the Tarptent Notch don’t require a “fast fly” footprint to set up, while the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 and the NEMO Hornet Elite OSMO 1 & 2 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.

Hammock w/ Tarp

A hammock can still be used if the ground below is uneven.
A hammock can still be used if the ground below is uneven.

Hammocks come in a wide range of shapes, lengths, and weights, ranging from tricked-out backpacking hammocks like a Hammock Gear Wanderlust or a no-frills ENO Singlenest. 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 decent 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.

Flat Tarps

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Tarp set up in a flying diamond pitch
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Tarp set up in a flying diamond pitch

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. Popular flat tarps include the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Tarp and the Hammock Gear Traverse Tarp.

Advantages on the AT

  • Very lightweight and compact
  • Low cost
  • 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 that 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

Mids and 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

Mids (short for pyramid) and 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-wall 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 tarp tent since they’re the less expensive option.

Shaped tarps include pyramids, double-apex tarps, A-frames with front vestibules, catenary cut tarps, and so on. Popular models include the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2, the Mountain Lauren Designs Duomid, and the Zpacks Hexamid Pocket Tarp with Doors. 

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

No Tent or Shelter: Just Use AT Lean-tos

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 squat in it in winter.

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 spaced 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.

Tents and Shelters for Winter Conditions

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

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 the 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 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-wall or double-wall tent which is free-standing. 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. The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 1 or 2 are good freestanding double-wall tents that balance comfort, ease of use, and lightweight.

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 in 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.

While the shelters are emptier in early spring, the nights are quite cold.
While the shelters are emptier in early spring, the nights can be quite cold.

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 tarp tent which provides better ventilation as the heat and humidity of spring and summer increase.

Whichever tent or 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.

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  1. As someone who has section hiked most of the AT I have always used a lightweight free standing tent with a floor. I have, on occasion, given up a shelter space to a thru hiker that had no tent. This type of tent has served me well through the years.

  2. Yep. I’ve camped all over the country, all year around. The one shelter that works everywhere is a free-standing tent.

  3. Perhaps helpful.

    I leave extra long guy-lines on my Lunar Solo for setting up on platforms. I can then stake into the ground. Even though I use those wee thingamajigs you recommend, I find they don’t always do the trick, as platform construction can leave gaps too large for them.

  4. CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

    Phillip, through your site, and encouragement, I became a dedicated Section Hiker. The information you provide, absolutely invaluable to anyone contemplating backpacking in general, and the AT specifically. After I retired from the military (35+years), and federal wildlife law enforcement, (25+years), I trained and prepared to thru hike the AT. An old Navy aircraft accident back injury, one Sunday morning, flared up 10 miles from nowhere, three weeks into my attempt. On a mountain top, I had cell coverage, called my wife (she was working at the church food bank in western Massachusetts), “please come get me!”. She did, I went home. And frankly, that plane accident from 1976, was a Godsend….as I found the AT to be a “2200 mile long Petri dish of humanity mixed with a testosterone-heavy Frat Party”. I now only do sections of the AT off season. And I still gain knowledge from your experience. ….and I do volunteer work, bikepack, dayhike with my Aussie. I have a Tarptent Bowfin (semi freestanding….and one of Shires’ Duplex (requiring Trekking poles). Now, I’m looking for a really compact tent for my long distance bikepacking trips! You da’ man, Philip! I admire your knowledge…more importantly, your willingness to share it. Branco-Zulu on a great website….and on being so willing to share.

  5. Can’t beat slingfin 2lite.

  6. I’ve section hiked the AT in Virginia and Pennsylvania. I used a solo tent then and now I use a much lighter and better Tarptent Notch Li solo tent.

    For me the TT Notch Li is the best tent for the AT. No sharing a shelter with mice and early rising thru hikers, no snoring to withstand and the Notch Li is very light yet stormproof. It also works great in the western mountains where higher winds are more common. Thank you for a great design Heny Shires.

  7. I’ll stick to my Zpack’s Altaplex. Easy one pole design. Fast setup. Small footprint. Just enough space to sleep and store your gear. And if I wasn’t going to use that it would be a Zpacks Duplex XL. It requires a bigger footprint and on the AT you may end up setting up in someone’s privy. And last I checked the Zpacks Duplex regular size is the most liked tent on the AT. And all of these weigh less than 2 pounds and made of dyneema. Dyneema doesn’t absorb water and sheds water very well. You can also pitch with your trekking poles. As far as saying a disadvantage is that it needs level ground is just a way of promoting using a hammock. Which requires two trees. Which will require about the same amount of time to find as a flat piece of ground. And platform camping is synonymous with the upper AT. So newsflash…prepare in advance to pitch a tent on a wood platform. HINT: rope and a tent stake that fits between the slats. Or anything else you can use to tighten down your tent. Happy trails.

  8. This review is so thorough! Thanks

  9. Excellent review for sure…
    I would add that you do not have to limit yourself to one kind of shelter. I through hiked in 1992 through the winter, and used a hammock and tarp for the fall and spring, and then used a double wall tent in winter. All the resupplies at towns on the A.T. offer amazing flexibility.

  10. Really good shelter review. With almost half the AT in my rear view mirror section hiking, the article and comments seem to be spot on. I’ve used almost all these shelters at one time or another from Warbonnet hammock with underquilt, to zpack tarp with bivy, and have the 6moon trekker tent. Each has the already accurately mentioned pros and cons. I like the hammock best except that I just don’t sleep as well in them but there are a lot of trees (use your phones measuring app to distance trees). The tarp /bivy I think are the lightest option even with stakes and cordage added. But it require ingenuity and time to set them up for bad weather but you could use the bivy in the shelters to keep the 2am whiskers off your cheeks. But like a hammock those trail shelter floors often just have air under the boards so it can get pretty cold if your sleep pad is not well insulated. I do like my Sixmoon trekker (or other brands that are similar). It has to be one the easiest and fastest to set up and tear down ( hint: it requires only 5 stakes [mini groundhogs] and they are permanently tied to the tent) and is within my 2lb item max pack requirement. It breaths well very little condensation, and in blizzard conditions I just stuff snow or leaves around it to keep wind out. True those wooden platforms can be challenge for its length but learn to use roots, branches, and rocks to tie off to or to pin your stakes down with.

  11. Another factor in shelter choice is if you are traveling with someone or alone. If solo in cooler weather, I prefer going shelter to shelter but I bring a bivvy sack for wind an bug protection or in case the shelter if full. In warm weather or with my son, it’s hammocks. If my lady is coming, definitely a tent so we have some privacy.

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