Tenting Along the Appalachian Trail
One of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world, the Appalachian Trail spans 14 states as it winds its way across the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The Appalachian Trail stretches about 2,180 miles, and tenting is permitted along most of its length. Whether you intend to hike the A.T., as it’s often called, from end to end or simply explore a short section over the weekend, it’s important to know where you can spend the night.
More than 250 trail shelters are situated along the Appalachian Trail. Most of these are three-sided wooden lean-to shelters, spaced roughly 10 to 20 miles apart, which are open to all hikers on a first-come, first-served basis. Most shelters have privies and water sources nearby, and some also include fire pits, picnic tables or tent pads.
If a shelter is full when you arrive or if you simply don’t like the idea of sharing sleeping accommodations with other hikers, most shelters have plenty of room nearby to pitch a tent. Even if you intend to stay at shelters as you hike the A.T., it’s wise to carry a tent in case a shelter turns out to be full when you get to it.
In addition to shelters, many sections of the A.T. also have designated campsites alongside the trail. These campsites typically consist of nothing more than a cleared area where you can pitch a tent, often in the general area of a water source.
Campsites are typically unmarked, but most trail maps and guidebooks show their location. As with shelters, campsites are first-come, first served and free of charge, with the exception of certain areas that are maintained by a particular organization or trail club, in which case a small fee might be charged.
Dispersed backcountry camping is permitted along much of the Appalachian Trail, including national forests of the Virginias and many other areas. Dispersed camping means that you can pitch your tent overnight at any suitable location, but you also have the responsibility of leaving no trace of your presence. Rules for backcountry camping vary.
The A.T. passes through numerous national forests, national parks, state parks and state forests, and regulations for that specific area generally apply. In most national forests, for example, you can only camp 200 feet or more from water sources and 100 feet or more from trails. If you have an Appalachian Trail guidebook — an essential tool when you hike the A.T. — it should break down the trail state by state and include location-specific camping information and regulations.
Choosing a Tent
Choosing a tent is largely a matter of personal preference, but there are a few factors to consider, including size, weight and durability. Tents used on the A.T. should ideally be waterproof and easy to set up, and you should choose the lightest tent that suits your needs.
One- or two-person tents are common choices, and models are available that weigh 4 pounds or less. Tents with two layers — a breathable inner screen and a waterproof outer fly — are good for a variety of seasons and conditions. Also consider tent sealer to make sure the floor, seams and all sides are waterproof.