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It’s just after 4:00 and I’ve been at the Flint Mountain Shelter for over an hour. My hike today was relatively short, about twelve and a half miles, so I was able to get to the shelter early. There’s been a constant drizzle all day. When it’s wet out, setting up the tent becomes very unpleasant. Even if everything inside my tent somehow stays dry, the tent itself will get soaked, and there’s no dry place to cook. So on rainy days, everyone heads for the shelters. There’s a friendly saying on the trail – “The shelter always has room for one more person in a rain storm.” I’ve seen this maxim tested, and can assure you that at a certain point, it no longer holds tue. In a snowsotrm we fit eleven people in a shelter designed for six. I heard of 22 people and a dog crammed in to a shelter just a bit bigger, but two of those crawled underneath the platform to sleep. By then, the leaws of physics says there is no more room, and the latest arrivals are sent out in the rain to tent. The rules are first come first serve, and that’s why I’m glad I got here early today and I know I’ll have space.

It’s not always like today. take the Spence Field Shelter I stayed at a few weeks ago in the Smokies. The sky had been clear all day, but there was a half foot of snow on the ground from the day before. In places alond the ridgeline, the trail went through thigh-high snow drifts. In the morning, the trail was icy, then by afternoon it turned to sloppy slush and mud slides. The going was slow and frustrating, not to mention cold and wet. On that sort of day, hikers often arrive at a shetler around lunchtime and are not inclined to push on to the next one. So they stay around for the rest of the day and try again tomorrow.

So when I arrived at about five o’clock, the scene was not welcoming. After spending the last few hours in peaceful solitude, I pulled back the tarp covering the front of the shelter to find a shocking density of unhappy humanity. People with foggy breath bundled in winter hats filled every corner–standing on the small dirt floor, huddled over small pots of ramen, catatonic in their sleeping bags. No one smiled or said hello as I dodged around them; I was just another body to fit in. Their gear had exploded everywhere. Backpacks and food bags hung like pinatas from the ceiling and the flood was littered with boots and trekking poles. Clotheslines stung from the rafters hung all manner of rain jackets, pack coveres, and tents up to dry like some strange decorative curtains. On one side was a fireplace with a crowd of four men tending a twig fire, above which hung a line of wet Smartwool socks. The whole scene was Dickensian, with the chimney straight out of Bob Cratchet’s house on Christmas Eve. I looked around for a spot. “Hey, do you think you could make some room right in there?” I pointed to a sliver of bare wood I had discovered between sleeping bags. A man who looked asleep said “I don’t really know who’s there, hey Tin Man, is that a spot between you and Snake Eyes?” Thankfully, they made some rom for me. I felt like I was in a refugee camp. Four more people fit into Spence Field Shelter before the end of the night.

But when the alternative is setting up a tent in the snow, it really doesn’t seem so bad. And most days, it’s a much more pleasant place. This particular shelter is a pretty decent one. Right now it’s nearly empty, but soon it will be covered in people who arrive with equipment and energy like a circus in town for one night. The structure is simple. It’s built of logs, with most of the cracks filled in. These form three complete walls, and a little on either side of the fourth. The roof is a slanted frame of two-by-fours covered in tin, which seems to be keeping everything dry. On either side of the interior are two plywood sleeping platforms raised about chair-height from the dirt floor. There are a couple of good nails for hanging up packs, and someone has even strung up a clothesline. Just outside are a picnic table and a fire ring, and around the corner are cables for hanging up food away from bears. There’s not much to it, but on the trail it has all we need.

These shelters were a part of the A.T.’s original visions when it was conceived and built in the 1930s. No only were they to provide ovenight lodging, but they were intended to be part of education and work programs, where city dwellers would go to learn avobout nature or participate in organized programs. This part of the plan never really panned out, but the legacy of the vision is that hikers have a place that feels like home out in the woods. Some shelters on the tail date from the original construction, but most have been built or rennovated by various hiking clubs since then. Now, there are over 250 shelters spread out over the trail, about one every eight and a half miles.

They share the same basic structure – roof, three walls, raised sleeping platform – but each is a little bit different, and these variations make some shelters much better or worse than others. Some have a second or third sleeping platform in a loft, anywhere from 3 to 6 feet high. They can be built from logs, or lumber, or stones, or even cinderblock. One is a giant converted barn. Most don’t leak, but some are draftier than others. Some are designed for just five people, while the Fontana Dam Shelter, dubbed the Fontana Hilton, comfortably sleeps 24. Here are some of the features that make a great shelter:

  • Skylights.
  • A tarp to keep the weather out from the open fourth wall.
  • Fireplace and chimney. So far, only the Smokies shelters have these.
  • Without a fireplace, a good fire ring.
  • A broom for tidying up.
  • Covered cooking area. In the Nantahala, the southern part of North Carolina, the shelter roof extends well in front of the sleeping platform over a table, providing plenty of dry space to cook. Having almost two rooms felt luxurious.
  • Plenty of hooks or pegs for hanging packs and gear.
  • Tables or shelves for cooking.
  • Bear cables. It’s much easier to use the hook and pully system than to throw a rope over a tree limb.
  • Without bear cables, there should at least be mouse hangers. These ropes hang from the ceiling with a stick tied to the end to hand up a food bag. An empty tuna can with a hole threaded upside down higher up the rope keeps mice from climbing down.
  • Nearby privy.
  • Nearby spring, on the other side of the ridgeline from the privy.


It usually takes a moment of thought for the thru-hiker to realize that by any standard other than a one-person backpacking tent, these places are dumps. They all have mice. Even homeless shelters have mattresses, in a heated building with showers. One shelter with two short sleeping platforms and marked body-width slots looked uncomfortably like a slave ship. There’s always someone who snores. But really, they’re all we need. And besides, shelters have a purpose beyond providing shelter from the storm. They are the place for socialization on the trail. Most people hike alone or in pairs all day long, so the shelters are where they congregate to talk about the weather or share gossip. Every shelter has a register. These notebooks are filled with notes from the people who have passed through before, and so they serve as the trail’snewspaper. Each night, the shelter houses a makeshift family that will move on in the morning. Many people say they come to the trail for the sense of community. It’s these spaces, and some occasional rain, that make that community.

-Cherokee National Forest, April 19