Staying in Shelters

13 June 2013 11:15 pm2 commentsViews: 64

Deciding to stay in shelters or not stay in shelters is an important part of trip planning while on the AT.

My first overnight where I stayed in a shelter was in May of 2011. I had no idea of what to expect. I had the incorrect impressions that every one stayed in shelters and that it was somewhat devious to bed down for the night elsewhere.

So, not knowing any better, I took great care to plan my 4 night, 52 mile trip to end at shelters each evening. My first night was at partnership shelter, which is a massive two-story, 16-person affair:

Partnership Shelter in VA

Before shelter story time, let me outline for you some of the cons and pros of shelters.

Drawbacks of Shelters

  1. Inconsolably hard sleeping surfaces both in the shelter itself and in the surrounding high-use compacted campsites.
  2. Unneeded additional miles down spur trails that in some places may add full miles to your day and have 100′s of feet of steep elevation difference to traverse in each direction.
  3. Mice everywhere: Animals are very aware of reliable sources of food and a shelter is a very reliable source of food. From crumbs dropped to unopened snacks in packs, mice will find what is there and try to get into it. I’ve woken in the night in shelters to a mouse crawling right over my arm in his attempts to get at food.
  4. Larger animals searching for food at the regular source.
  5. Crowds of people who inadvertently wake you when they toss and turn, when they snore, or when they get up for midnight pee breaks.
  6. Crowds of people socializing or partying near the shelter while you are trying to head to bed.
  7. Potentially cramped spaces sleeping next to total strangers.
  8. Unnecessarily rigid options for daily mileages: you can only stop at a shelter at certain combinations of mileages for a day rather than having the flexibility to walk until you are tired.

Advantages of Shelters

  1. A roof and 3 walls, which will stop sideways rain worse than a tarp/tent. Regardless of whether you camp out or sleep in the shelter, your wet clothes will stay wet until the morning if its still raining.
  2. A chance to socialize, which, by the way, you can take advantage of without staying there. I recommend eating at a shelter if you want the company and then proceeding up the trail to cover more miles in the evening before you camp.
  3. A picnic table to sit at and perhaps cook on, which, again, you can take advantage of without staying there.
  4. A register in which to leave a note for companions behind you or to check for upcoming trail conditions, which, you should realize by now, you can take advantage of without staying there.

What advantage does staying in the shelter being me?

Many hikers stay in shelters without questioning the value of doing so brings them. Examine what advantage a shelter brings you before staying in one.

If you find staying in a shelter will not be advantageous for you, set your tent up in a low impact method of a location of your choice & bed down.

Shelter Story Time

Here continues the story of my first night out in a shelter in southwest Virginia near the peak season for thru hikers passing through. I hope the account will help you better anticipate your experience staying in a shelter if you were to chose to do that at a busy time.

Partnership and the surrounding woods was crawling with hikers. One camp had a fire going, and the picnic table was filled with hikers at various stages of boiling water with their backpacking stoves. Tents encircled the area and the main floor of the shelter was packed with the laid out sleeping bags on pads of the first hikers to arrive.

I peeked around, having really no idea what the proper etiquette was. I asked someone if there was room upstairs and he suggested I poke my head up to investigate. So I set my pack by the wall and climbed up the ladder.

Poking my head up, I caught a glimpse of the loft, which was a dark fully enclosed space. The only light that trickled in was from a tiny window at each end of the loft and through the opening in the floor where I stood on the ladder.

There was a sliver of a space next to the ladder opening. It looked just big enough for one more, and I asked the hiker setting up next to the potential space if it was taken. He graciously waved me ahead so I went back down for my bag and matt.

Back in the upstairs loft, I set my bedding up. Since I was backpacking without a stove, I went back down and ate my dinner of granola and a cliff bar. I milled around and when it was close enough to bed time, I went up to take my spot and get some rest, or so I thought.

The upstairs-fully-enclosed loft created a symphony hall for an orchestra of snoring which reverberated with astonishing power. The noise was reminiscent of grizzly bears fighting and loudly vocalizing their dislike of each other. I woke countless times throughout the night as various snores crescendoed in a snort of the halt of breath.

Between the noise and stiff floor, it was undoubtably the worst night of sleep in my life to date.

I woke every thirty to ninety minutes and questioned louder and louder if 3 or 4 am was too early to get up and start hiking. I certainly wasn’t getting any rest there.

I was more astonished than upset. While I hadn’t known what to expect, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed anything like the noise I encountered would have been the result of staying in a shelter, which to me naively conjured images of the “great outdoors” and camaraderie of a few hikers.

When I was awakened again at 5:00am, I finally decided to just get up for the day to escape the thundering snoring and move past this misadventure in the shelter. By 5:20, I was walking out of the sea of tents and onto the solitary early morning trail.


Examine what advantage you will gain from your decision for or against staying in shelters. Enjoying a shelter visit is dependent on the value you identify matching your priorities on any given trip in the woods.



  • Mike Miklic


    Returned from Warren’s and had to check out your site. Enjoyed this article. In fact I laughed out loud. (which is always good.
    Think I’m going to do the long trail in vermont from Route 4 to Canada first of August. That way when I do AT in 2014 I’ll complete both the Long Trail and the AT.
    Good Luck,

  • Thanks mike, glad to hear you liked it and about the Long Trail plans.

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