When night falls on the trail, you pull out your sleeping bag and your camp clothes and get ready to plop down onto the ground to give your body a well-deserved rest. In many cases, you’re asleep the moment your body hits the ground, but where you choose to hit the ground is an important decision. Just as important as what is going to surround you when you hit the ground. Should you unpack your tent and construct yourself a little home in the woods? Or should you head to that nearby shelter constructed by the volunteers who make the Appalachian Trail what it is? There are pros and cons to both and, importantly, a number of things to consider that will help you make your decision.
To start with, what are these shelters? Think small wooden cabins or lean-tos that dot the trail, offering a rigid structure for tired hikers walking the trail. These structures offer a few great benefits for the weary traveler.
Despite contradictory evidence from nursery tales, wooden shelters won’t blow over if they’re huffed and puffed on. Even if it’s nature thats doing the huffing and puffing. As they are structures, they offer good shelter from the wind and rain.
In addition, they often are congregating points for other hikers so, if you’re in the mood to socialize, you’ll have company for the night.
What shelters don’t offer, however, is mobility. They are in static locations throughout the trail and, though you come across them fairly often, that can lead to planning issues if you can’t make it to the shelter you had planned on. It also forces some level of scheduling which, to be fair, is very modest compared to the average day not hiking the trail.
The other option, and the one that most people think of when they think camping, is the good old-fashioned tent. Except they arn’t old-fashioned so much anymore. Tents today can weigh as little as 2 pounds, and offer a versatile way to hike the trail. They provide extra warmth by adding another layer around your slumbering body that helps to keep warm air in. Also, and this is a big one, you can toss a tent down in a large variety of places since you’re carrying it with you. You still can’t (or shouldn’t) put a tent down just anywhere, but there are certainly more locations available for them then there are shelters on the trail. Another great bonus? A tent is enclosed and made of mesh, so it does a great job of keeping bugs out. When you’re deep in the woods, nights exposed turn you into a delicious mosquito buffet. They don’t tip well either.
We’ll be taking a tent with us on the trail for what we consider the most important pro of the tent: privacy. Shelters are fun but, in a lot of cas
es, we know we are going to feel the need for privacy. In a tent, you essentially create your own personal space inside the woods. This will give us a chance to spend some time together relaxing which we both feel is very important. I can also snuggle with Kristin way more often (whether she wants to or not).
You can hike the trail using either option. Many people feel the weight saved by sticking to shelters and using a tarp-tent is worth it while others, ourselves included, cut the weight elsewhere in return for versatility and privacy. Either way, be sure to keep your food outside your sleeping area, as neither shelters nor tents are big enough for you and a bear.