Camping & Shelters

If you've planned a hike longer than a day, you'll need to plan where you'll spend the night once you're on the Trail. On most sections, you have two potential choices: staying in a shelter or pitching a tent.

Where can I camp?

Backcountry camping is available at about 100 designated camp sites and is also allowed in the immediate vicinity of most of the 250 three-shelters along the Appalachian Trail.  These sites are designed for backpackers, not car campers. For safety reasons, they are usually located at least a few miles from the nearest road.

Can I camp anywhere I want?

It depends. In some areas you can choose your own campsite, but hikers are always encouraged to use designated sites even when you can legally choose your own. Using designated campsites means you will have fewer impacts on vegetation and wildlife habitat and will keep the trail corridor looking natural and pristine.

In many areas, especially the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina and most of the northern half of the Appalachian Trail, you are required to stay at designated camp sites or shelter sites. This is because these areas are heavily used. Visitor use is concentrated to avoid large swaths of the A.T. being denuded of vegetation and losing its natural, pristine quality.

What are the regulations for camping along the A.T.?

Camping regulations vary considerably along the Appalachian Trail.  A table showing regulations pertaining to camping (and fires) along the Appalachian Trail, listed from north to south, can be found here.

Why are the regulations for camping along the A.T. so complicated ?

This is because the Appalachian Trail consists of a patchwork ribbon of many different types of lands managed by more than 75 different agencies. The National Park Service has overall administrative responsibility for the Appalachian Trail, but sets regulations on only 40% of the land. In fact, more than 3000 different pieces of land were stitched together to create the 250,000 acre land base that we call the Appalachian Trail. About 40% are National Park Service lands, (6 different national parks plus about 600 miles of corridor lands acquired specifically for the A.T.)  Another 40% pass through 8 different national forests. The remaining 20% is a mix of other federal lands, state lands, and local lands.

Some areas are managed as federally designated wilderness, some as multi-use forests, some as game lands for hunting, some as wildlife refuges, some as watersheds, others as farmland. About 40% of the A.T. consists of a thousand-foot corridor of protected land for Appalachian Trail hikers; the remaining 60% is routed across lands that were originally put into public ownership for some purpose other than just hiking. These lands usually have a special A.T. management zone.  More than 99% of the Appalachian Trail is now on public lands, thanks to a decades-long effort lead by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy since 1925, in a unique partnership with the National Park Service since the National Trail System Act was passed in 1968.

What do designated camp sites offer?

Designated camp sites along the A.T. are usually very simple. They have relatively flat areas where you can pitch a tent. A natural water source such as a spring or creek is usually nearby. These sites seldom have privies.

If dispersed camping is allowed, how do I choose a location to pitch a tent?

Dispersed camping, sometimes called "stealth camping" means you can choose your own place to camp, but it takes a lot of extra effort to minimize your impacts in these pristine areas. Either choose an area where the ground is already completely bare from use by previous campers (an established site) or 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. Never build a new fire ring; only use existing fire rings and keep camp fires small. Use a camp stove and place it on rock or ground that is already bare.

What exactly are shelters and what's the deal with those?

Big Branch Shelter More than 250 backcountry shelters are located along the Appalachian Trail at varying intervals, as a service to all A.T. users. They are an average of about 8 miles apart, but the distance may frequently range from 5 miles to 15 miles apart, or even as much as 30 miles apart when there is a town with some sort of lodging in between. So, it's important to plan ahead and prepare, and carry a map or guidebook with you so you know where they are. You can also find shelters on ATC's interactive map.

A typical shelter, sometimes called a “lean-to,” has an overhanging roof, a wooden floor and three walls. It is open to the elements on one side but will usually keep you dry. Most (but not all) are near a creek or spring, and many have a privy nearby. Hikers may 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.

Some shelters in heavy-use areas require a permit, registration and/or fees.

Who takes care of shelters?

Shelters are built and maintained by volunteers. Many volunteers live in towns or cities an hour or two away, and the hike in to the shelter may take an hour or more. Hikers have the responsibility of helping take of the shelters, too. You should carry out all of your trash; do not leave or attempt to burn any kind of waste in the fire pit. Avoid eating in the shelter if at all possible. The smallest crumbs can attract rodents. Sweep out the shelter when you leave.

What are the benefits of shelters?

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. Meanwhile, other areas stay pristine. Keep the grounds litter-free, don't cut down trees, and don't tag the structures.

Is there a fee for camp sites or shelters?

Big Branch Shelter Usually, no. However, in areas with the heaviest use, campsites or shelters may require a fee, especially when an on-site caretaker is needed to help keep the area clean, manage backcountry sanitation at composting privies, and educate hikers about low-impact practices. These sites are mostly found in New England and are usually $10 or less. Free sites are interspersed between the fee sites, and with planning, it is possible to mostly avoid the fee sites if you choose. There is a fee ($4/night or $20 for thru-hikers) for a backcountry permit that is required in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Can 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 and other trash. 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 or the camping and fire table above 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 just before leaf-out and in fall. Temporary fire bans may also be in place.

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.

What else can I do to be a good steward of the beautiful places along the A.T.?

Visit our Leave No Trace page at www.appalachiantrail.org/lnt to learn how you can reduce your impacts on the plants and animals that call the A.T. home and the other people who will visit the Trail after you.

Are there motels or inn-to-inn hikes available along the Appalachian Trail?

Motels, inns, and B&Bs tend to be clustered in towns near the Trail. Those towns are typically from 50 to 100 miles apart at the northern and southern regions of the Trail and from 30 to 50 miles apart in the middle regions. Hostels (inexpensive bunkhouses catering to hikers) are available in quite a few towns along the Trail and occasionally in more remote areas.

The best 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, but guides are usually not available since commercial use is prohibited on the A.T. If you are willing to do a fair bit of logistical planning, you can connect a series of day hikes by staying mostly at B&Bs and occasionally other places of lodging in Maryland and various stretches in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. To read an article about hiking inn-to-inn in Shenandoah National Park, click here. For more information about inn-to-inn hikes, click here.