If you've planned something longer than a day-hike, now is the time to anticipate where you might spend the night once you're on the Trail. On most sections, you have two basic choices: staying in a shelter or pitching a tent.
Where can I find shelters?
More than 250 backcountry shelters are located along the Appalachian Trail at varying intervals, as a service to all A.T. users. A typical shelter, sometimes called a “lean-to,” has a shingled or metal roof, a wooden floor and three walls and is open to the elements on one side. Most are near a creek or spring, and many have a privy nearby. Hikers occupy them on a first-come, first-served basis until the shelter is full. They are intended for individual hikers, not big groups. If you're planning a group hike, plan to camp out or to yield space to individual hikers who may not have the resources you do. Many shelters are near good campsites for tenting.
Shelter locations are noted in the maps and guidebooks, the Appalachian Trail Data Book, and the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers' Companion, all available through our Ultimate A.T. Store. Some shelters in heavy-use areas require a permit, registration and/or fees.
What's the downside of shelters?
Shelters can be grimy and rodent-infested when hikers don't clean up after themselves, and they may be crowded. You or your camping partners must carry a tent, in case a shelter is not available. Remember that shelters require considerable volunteer effort to build and maintain.
So, why stay at a shelter?
First, shelters are the best places to stay dry in wet weather; they fill up fast when it rains. Second, they are often a good place to meet and talk with other hikers, and most have privies and water sources nearby. But, third and more importantly, staying at shelters reduces hiker impact on the Trail environment and is a good Leave No Trace practice. It concentrates use in a relatively small area. A shelter site may seem trampled and overused, but, since the vegetation is already gone, the site will not deteriorate much more, no matter how many people use it. Meanwhile, nearby areas stay pristine. To encourage others to use shelters, please be considerate: Keep the grounds litter-free, don't cut down trees, and don't vandalize the structures.
Should I pitch a tent?
You can usually pitch a tent near a shelter, but your guidebooks will also indicate the locations of designated campsites at intervals along the Trail. Those usually have flat, cleared places to pitch tents and are near a water source; they rarely have a privy. Some may have “tent platforms” or pads where you can pitch and tie down a free-standing tent. Some campsites in heavily used areas require a lot of work by clubs to keep them pristine, and consequently a fee (usually $8 or less) is charged.
Can I find my own campsite?
In some areas, particularly the national forests of the Virginias and the southern Appalachians, “dispersed camping” is allowed. Dispersed camping means you can choose your own place to camp, but it carries with it a special responsibility of leaving no trace: You must be more careful to minimize your impact in pristine areas. Choose a site with no sign of previous use. Avoid places that show the beginnings of frequent use—those still have a chance to recover if left alone. Set up tents on durable surfaces, such as dead leaves or grass, well apart from each other and at least seventy paces from water. Avoid trampling plants and seedlings.
Should I build a fire?
Campfires create the worst visual and ecological impact of any backcountry camping practice. Building fire rings pockmarks pristine woodlands with blackened rocks, piles of ash and charcoal, blackened cans, and unburned wood. Vegetation disappears and soil packs down around the fire ring. Soil becomes sterile, which retards plant recovery. Hikers trample vegetation while looking for wood, and, when they find it, remove woody debris critical to a healthy ecosystem.
Leave No Trace principles encourage you to go without a fire. Use a backpacking stove instead. If you do intend to build a fire, check your A.T. guidebooks for fire restrictions along the Trail; some areas do not permit fires at all. Keep in mind that forest fires are always a potential hazard along the A.T., especially during early spring, summer, and fall.
Where fires are permitted, build them only in established fire rings. Don't add rocks to an existing ring. Keep fires small. Burn only dead and downed wood that can be broken by hand—leave saws and axes at home. Never leave a fire unattended, and never build a fire on a windy day.
Erase your campfire when you leave. Drown it with water, then stir the ashes. Feel for heat with your hand to ensure it is out. Remove unburned foil and plastic and pack them out. If you used an existing fire ring, scatter the ashes and camouflage the burned area with organic matter. Finally, scatter unused firewood you gathered in the forest.
Can I stay in a hostel or inn?
Hostels (inexpensive bunkhouses catering to hikers) are available in some towns along the Trail. Similarly, motels, inns, and B&Bs tend to be clustered in towns near the Trail. Those towns are typically from fifty to one hundred miles apart at the northern and southern regions of the Trail and from thirty to fifty miles apart in the middle regions. The only opportunities for “inn-to-inn” hiking on the Trail itself exist in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park and in the far more rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire.