After my first day of hiking in Georgia, I arrived at Hawk Mountain shelter to find the whole area packed. I claimed my tent spot among the thirty-some other tents, then I headed toward the stream. On my way through camp, I witnessed two guys who were starting a fire in the fire pit. There was a tent set up close by. Upon spotting the fire-builders, the tent owner came running over saying, “You can’t build a fire. The embers might put a hole in my tarp!” The fire-builders politely stopped trying to set their twigs aflame, and they moved to a different fire pit (most shelters only have one fire pit).
Now, it was polite of the fire-builders to move to a different location, but it leads me to wonder, why would you set up your tent right beside a fire pit and get upset when other people want to build a fire? There was plenty of space for tents, but only a few locations to build a fire.
One of the great things about the Appalachian Trail is that there are no real rules. You can pretty much do whatever you want. That said, it’s only polite to be mindful of others.
Appalachian Trail Shelters Explained
Shelters exist along the Appalachian Trail frequently. You are likely to pass by several in a day. The benefits of staying at these shelters are plentiful: there’s usually other hikers around, there are outhouses, there are often boxes or cables to hang food, and there’s always a water source. Plus you can sleep in the shelters if you want to avoid bad weather or setting up your tent.
However, shelters are a shared space and it would be prudent to mind your manners and be aware of the people around you. Here are some things to keep in mind when taking advantage of the shelter system.
Follow Leave No Trace
This is applicable no matter where you are on the Appalachian Trail, but is sometimes forgotten. Whatever you bring with you into the wilderness, also bring it out.
Perhaps you’ve packed too heavily and have extra food or clothes you want to get rid of. Abandoning them in a shelter is not the move. If it’s food you’re trying to get rid of, just ask other hikers if they want any. Someone is sure to say yes. If you simply abandon it, animals are likely to get to it and this creates a problem of critters becoming dependent on human food.
As far as unwanted clothes or gear goes, just carry it for a few more days until you get to town. You can mail it home or leave it in a free box.
You will sometimes see other hikers burning their trash. This is not LNT and it also smells bad. Plus, trash does not take up much space and it’s really not a big deal to just carry it out. It’s understandable if you’re burning paper to start a fire, but burning plastic or wrappers is not cool.
Make Room for Others
Sometimes you have to pack in tightly into the shelters, especially if the weather is bad. I know it’s a bummer when you’re cozy in your sleeping bag and someone else shows up looking for a spot, but imagine if it was you.
While the shelters are first come first serve, that doesn’t mean that if you’re the first person you get the whole place to yourself. It just means that you get a spot.
Going along with making room for others is being mindful of how much space your belongings are taking up. Keep things neat and tidy. Don’t explode your pack all over the shelter.
It’s also important to note that you should still be prepared to camp if there is not space for you. I was once at a crowded shelter that was filled beyond capacity. A thru-hiker showed up insisting that someone had to leave the shelter and set up their tent because he personally did not have a tent. Like, how are you gonna be hiking the Appalachian Trail without any form of shelter?
Be Mindful of Late & Early Hours
This goes both ways. Some people are night owls and some people are early risers. Try to be as quiet as possible when others are sleeping. If you get into the shelter late, just be as quiet as possible when you set up your stuff. Don’t wake people up to move for you or shine your light on them.
The same goes for the morning people. The older men love to wake up early, and sometimes talk loudly to each other while they cook breakfast. Guys, its 5 am and people are sleeping.
If you’re a loud snorer, it would be kind of you to make a point of setting up your tent. It’s understandable if they weather is bad or you’re very tired, but in generally try to sleep away from others.
Holy moly, I’m sure I’ve violated this recommendation a time or two (or ten). But I’m quite a bit older now than when I first thru-hiked, and I would like to think much wiser.
If you are planning on drinking alcohol and staying up late with your trail friends, perhaps find a spot far away from the shelter to do so. And be mindful of if there are families with children around. Act accordingly.
Additionally, it’s poor manners to smoke weed or cigarettes in the shelters when there are other people around who may not be OK with it. Just walk away a short distance to do so. Or simply ask if it bothers anyone. Also, if you’re a nonsmoker do try to be sympathetic when someone wants to stand under the awning when it’s raining and have a cigarette. They’re not trying to be a jerk; they’re just addicted to cigarettes.
There are people of all different ages, religions, races, and genders on the Appalachian Trail and many people will not have the same attitude or beliefs as you. Be respectful towards everyone.
The outdoor community has long be tailored to and most accepting of men or more specifically white, cis men. I know it’s easy to buddy up with people who are similar to you, but make a little extra effort to include everyone.
Also, don’t say rude things to or about other people. No one wants to hear racist comments or listen to guys objectify the female hikers. Be chill. And call people out on that nonsense if you hear it. It’s the only way they’ll learn.
Outhouse & Cathole Etiquette
Most shelters have outhouses, which are more commonly referred to as privies. They are maintained and cleaned by volunteers, sometimes infrequently. It’s a team effort to keep them usable. Basically, if you make a mess clean up after yourself.
Read the signs that are posted in the privies. Some of them are OK to pee in and some are not because of the way they compost. The sign will tell you. Behave accordingly. It’s fine to put toilet paper in the privy, but tampons are not OK.
If you need to go when there is no outhouse around, dig a cathole. That’s right, go off the trail and dig a hole that is 6 inches deep. And don’t leave toilet paper on the ground. Pack it out.
Ladies, to avoid packing out a bunch of toilet paper and tampons, I recommend using a Diva Cup for your period and a pee rag when you pee. There are also female urination devices that allow you to pee standing up and not have any dribble.
Shelter Etiquette Hall of Shame
Sometimes the things that people do are just so absurdly inconsiderate, all we can do is laugh about it later. Here are some of the more memorable moments that I wish I could forget.
- The guy who peed by the water source at a crowded campsite in front of everyone.
- Any men in generally who pee in close proximity to women they don’t know. Like, I don’t know what y’all do when it’s just you dudes out there in the wilderness, but keep it to yourself.
- The guys who are too lazy to put their shoes on at night and stand at the edge of the shelter to pee outside. No one wants to step in that!
- People who hog the shelter logbook. Some people want to sit there and read every entry. If other people are waiting to sign it, give them a chance. You can read it after you’ve shared.
- People who set their tent up inside the shelter. Like, I understand they do it to be protected from bugs, but why not just set it up outside?
- Couples who make out or hook up in the shelter when other people are around. If I hear rustling sleeping bags coming from the couple in the corner, I’m going to assume the worst. Just set up the tent.
- Sometimes people leave books in the shelters for other hikers to pick up and read. You’re not really supposed to do that, but I understand why you would. But the worst thing ever is when I see someone rip a few pages out to start a fire (usually done by a person who proudly proclaims, “I don’t read.”) The English major in me cringes that they are making a perfectly good book unreadable to everyone.
- Weirdos who intentionally try to sleep right next to women they don’t know.
- That guy who once took over an entire shelter with his belongings and refused to let anyone else in.
All of this said, these aren’t really rules. They’re more like guidelines. Just know that anything can happen at a shelter.
Also, it’s likely that you’ll break shelter etiquette more than once during your hike (hence why it’s more of guidelines). Just make an honest effort to be courteous to others, and everyone will get along better.
Do you have a guideline for shelter and campsite etiquette that you feel particularly strong about? If so, shout it out in the comments.