Whether you’re backpacking for one night, a couple of weeks, or a few months on a long-distance thru-hike you will need a secure place to rest your head each night on the Appalachian Trail. Other than the shelters that are placed along the trail the go-to choices for most people are hammocks and tents. Which is better though and how can you decide?
Thankfully thousands of people have trodden the path before you and they have experimented with almost every imaginable form of hiking and camping, some even going without a tent at all. The experiences of others serve well to determine the pros and cons of each approach. Almost everything in hiking is personal and no one person can decide everything for you. Only by weighing the different aspects of hammocks and tents can you decide if one is better for you than the other.
Where will you be sleeping?
When you set off to hike the Appalachian Trail you can expect that most of your nights will end in and around shelters, also known as a “lean-to”. These are three walled bare-bones wooden structures studded along the trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) estimates there are a little more than 250 of them. Whether you have a tent, a hammock, or some other shelter you are still likely to end up around these spots on a regular basis. It isn’t necessary of course but it is important to be aware of when considering your own shelter.
These lean-to shelters dot the trail at an average of 8-mile intervals and they are typically the target for a days hike. At least this is how many people plan their day to day walking distances. The shelters are key waypoints where hikers meet, exchange stories, socialize and rest. The shelters are also sometimes, and sometimes is the operative word here, near a spring or water source. They are also occasionally equipped with some kind of toilet, typically something a couple of steps removed from a hole in the ground. Most importantly some of these shelters have storage systems in place to protect your food from bears. That is very much an issue.
You can’t rely on these locations every night though. The shelters operate on a first come first serve basis and during hiking season they can fill up quickly with other thru-hikers. Other times, even when the shelter is not full, you’re just not going to want to sleep in it. These places become permanent homes for all sorts of bugs, snakes, mice, and other animals. The structures can also get very run down and very dirty since they are exposed to the elements and difficult to maintain on a regular basis.
Then there is the very real issue of other people. Depending on your comfort level around certain types of people you just might not feel comfortable sleeping in the same space with particular strangers. The trail can attract longe term vagabonds, drifters, and the homeless who all try to make use of these shelters on a more permanent basis. Most of these fellows are probably totally harmless but you have to go with your gut.
The key takeaway here is that shelters are these focal points for evenings on the Appalachian Trail. You can benefit from their water source, nearby privy, food storage for bears and the camaraderie that occurs there. It is important to appreciate that you won’t always be able to rely on these spots though nor will you always want to stay in them. Stopping in for a quick hello and then moving on down the trail to make your own campsite isn’t unheard of.
This means that you absolutely must bring your own form of shelter when hiking the trail. You will be needing it and using it even though the shelters are there. This does become less of a problem towards the end of the trail usually so some people do try cowboy camping at that point. Cowboy camping is where you just sleep out under the stars and hop from shelter to shelter when necessary. That’s a matter of personal preference but you’ll definitely need a shelter at the beginning and you’ll probably still want one towards the end.
Taking a tent: pros
If you’re going to spend an extended period of time outdoors the go-to shelter is usually a tent. There are several tried and true reasons for this. For one, tents can be very good at protecting you from the elements. With the current waterproofing and rain flies available a decent tent will keep you and all your stuff nice and dry during a rainstorm or snow. Good tents are also built with a waterproof floor that curves up on the sides to help hold out water even as it pools outside.
With tents, you can also put a ground tarp down beneath the tent and a sleeping pad down inside the tent. This creates several layers of insulation and protection to make sleeping a lot more comfortable than just sleeping outside. An excellent sleeping bag adds the final touch to keep you cozy. If you are on uneven terrain or cold ground it is better to have these layers. All the ground layers of the tent, as well as the tent itself, also serve well to keep bugs and small animals out. Inside the tent, you can almost completely shut out the world.
With a good tent, you will stay warm. In addition to the ground layers acting as insulation, your own body heat will build up inside the tent. The further north you go later in the season the more important this will become. There is nothing quite like pervasive cold to slowly chip away at your resolve. Having a warm tent to retreat into can be such a relief.
Tents are also an excellent option because you can set them up almost anywhere. This is perfect for any backpacker trekking through the backcountry. You just need a mostly flat area big enough for your tent to fit and there you go. You can even set your tent up inside a shelter to give yourself some privacy or to make an otherwise run-down shelter livable. Tents beat hammocks on this point because a hammock requires two points from which to hang it while a tent does not. Anywhere can become your next campsite, even wide open prairies or old buildings.
As a corollary of a previous point, tents are great for protecting your stuff as well. You never know what or who is lurking while you sleep and with your whole world stuffed into one backpack it is best to keep it inside and in your line of sight. Tents aren’t really a defense against bears though so you should still make use of a bear box if present. Also, this isn’t to say that you need to hike in a state of constant apprehension of others. If anything people on the Appalachian Trail are more likely to give you the shirt off their back, literally, than they are to take something from you. They are great people with great traditions. A tent can just give an added degree to your peace of mind.
Taking a tent: cons
The biggest downside of lugging a tent everywhere is often the weight. The tent can easily be one of the heaviest and bulkiest things you carry due to the tent poles and stakes. If you have the money to spend there are some high-end ultralight tents available that are made with lightweight and high-grade materials. These are nice but there is still some weight on them. Anything under 5 lbs can get quite pricey. For example, the 2 person 3 season Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 Tent weighs only 3 lbs but it will cost you around $450. As the price drops the weight goes up!
Tents can also become very uncomfortable depending on the climate and what you have. All the body heat that a tent traps is great during cold weather but during the summer it can become unbearable. It then becomes important to ventilate your tent well and keep it breathable so you don’t cook alive inside of it. Tents that breathe better can also be pricier than those that don’t. Condensation is another issue. Hot humid and rainy environments all combine with the water vapor of your own breath to create damp and moist areas inside the tent. Again, ventilation is key as well as a good rain fly to help prevent condensation.
Relative to other forms of camping like hammock camping or cowboy camping the tent can be a real chore to set up and take down. It isn’t too much of an issue for the first few days but doing it every evening and every morning for months can become a bit laborious. There will be times when you just don’t feel like it and even contemplate just passing out on the ground, especially when thru-hiking. It helps if you hike with someone else and you can work together or take turns with camp setup and breakdown. Otherwise, if you’re solo, the smaller the tent the better.
Depending on what you spend and what you get your hammock gear can be much lighter than a tent. Saving that weight on your back can translate into huge energy gains that make your daily hike more enjoyable and boost your mileage. Even if you spend big money on the higher end and splurge for something like a Hennessy Hammock Ultralite you will still spend less that you would for a tent. That Hennesy Ultralite weighs in at only 1 lb. 15 oz. and costs around $230. Sure, that is pricey but when compared to the $450 Big Agnes Copper Spur tent mentioned earlier it isn’t that bad.
Of course, you don’t have to spend that much. It’s just important that you have the essentials. For bug-filled summer nights, you can stay cool and protected with a bug net and for rainy nights you will want a good rain tarp. You need the whole hammock system including an underquilt for insulation. With those equipped, you can get through most climates fairly well in a hammock.
Hammocks are usually more comfortable than tents too. It does depend on preference and how you sleep but laying in a nice hammock up above the ground just might be the best sleep you get on the trail. During the summer months especially a hammock is nice. Unlike with tents, the hammock won’t trap your body heat as much so you can stay cool in the heat of the night.
Set up and takedown are also a nicer experience when you are camping with a hammock. You just need two trees, posts, or hooks far enough apart to hook up to. In the morning you release these and you are on your way. Easy as pie. What’s also nice is that hammocks work in places that tents never could. After heavy rain when shallow spots become flooded you can just sleep above them. The same goes for really rocky and uneven ground, just string the hammock overtop and you are good to go.
The great benefit of an easy setup is also part of the downside of hammock camping. It is only easy, and possible, to set up if you have the right kind of place to do so. You can’t just set up camp anywhere like you can in a tent. You have to search for the right spot that has adequate support and enough space to hook up your hammock. This isn’t always possible and with no backup, you’ll be sleeping on the ground.
Another consideration, not so much a con to hammock camping necessarily, is that hammocks aren’t always lighter than tents. You have to keep in mind that the hammock still requires a rain fly and bug net along with all the straps to hang it. That weight can add up depending on the quality of the hammock.
Also, even with all the right equipment, a hammock will not protect you from the elements as well as a tent can. Since a hammock does not trap body heat it is very cold during the winter and on chilly nights. You can set up an underquilt or Therm-a-Rest and that insulation can help. It can also get very wet when it rains hard enough. Even with a rain tarp set up the water still finds a way to you. Most hammock setups are not totally isolated from the outside world so there is always room for outside climates to get in.
You must also consider that hammocks are typically big enough for you but only you. This means you can’t keep your gear inside the hammock with you for one. Rainy nights present a challenge then for keeping you and your stuff dry. They are also best suited for people who sleep on their back and sometimes side sleepers can have trouble getting a good night’s sleep.
Why not mix it up?
There is no rule stating that you have to finish the trail with the same camping equipment you started with. You could easily start at the southern terminus with a hammock and then switch to a tent as you go along. You could even transition entirely to cowboy camping at one point as you get more comfortable in the outdoors. Some Appalachian Trail campers have done exactly that.
It all depends on your degree of experience, comfort and when you are hiking. Regardless, mixing things up in terms of how you camp each night can add a nice amount of variety, and learning, to the overall experience. Your first time camping without a hammock or tent can have a bit of a learning curve in terms of finding comfort and rest but it is worth trying.
When your hiking the Appalachian Trail hammocks and tents can bothe be good options depending on your preferences. If you favor a warmer more climate protected place to sleep at the cost of weight and relative comfort then a tent might be right for you. Otherwise, if warmth and climate barriers aren’t more important than weight and comfort sleeping a hammock may be the better choice. The pros and cons extend beyond these as you’ve read and it is important to really weigh both before making a choice.
Bonus tip: Join one hiker on the Appalachian Trail as he explores and discusses the shelters there!