Elements of an Appalachian Trail Shelter

Follow along with outdoorsman and writer Johnny Molloy as he treks through the mountains of Northeast Tennessee.

The Appalachian Trail covers a variety of terrain ranging from towering mountains to lowland streams and some of the best panoramic views in Northeast Tennessee for a memorable 220 miles. In fact, the shelter along Roan High Knob sits at the highest point along the Appalachian Trail.

Within striking distance of Johnson City, the nearest AT access points include several mountain towns throughout Northeast Tennessee. 

Appalachian Trail Shelters
Within that 220-mile stretch, there are 23 official AT shelters. A trail shelter is generally a three-sided structure with an open front, and are spaced roughly every 10 miles, which hikers can use to spend the night. These shelters take many forms, from huts made of native stone to more advanced concrete block structures, rustic models made entirely of wood, with most topped by a tin roof. Some shelters are more than 70 years old, but still functioning with a little care from volunteers.

Five Elements of a Trail Shelter
There are five elements to a trail shelter, but before we go on let us review the backcountry camping basics. Now, the five elements of a trail shelter are the shelter itself, water access, privy, fire ring and bear storage cables.

1. The Shelter Itself
The trail shelter does what it implies, provides refuge from rain and wind. Most shelters face east for two reasons, to block cold winds from the northwest (most cold fronts pass through our area from northwest to southeast), and to allow the morning sun to illuminate and warm the quarters. Inside, shelters have wooden bunks to stretch out sleeping bags. A few even have outside cooking platforms, as some shelters even have a picnic table.

2. Water Access
Normally, AT shelters are located within striking distance of water. Since most of the Appalachian Trail runs along the highest ridges in the East, accessing water can be challenging. Therefore, most water sources are marked by a blue-blazed spur trail leading from the shelter to the water source, usually a spring located on a slope below the shelter.  

3. A Privy
The third element of a trail shelter is a simple thing. Volunteers dig a hole in the ground and build a platform above the hole, then set up a toilet. A wooden screen offers privacy, and a roof sheds the elements. Current privies use a moldering system, which helps with composting. After you do your business, simply toss a handful of leaves in the privy hole and the breakdown process is sped up.

4. Fire Rings
Fire rings are also located near each shelter. Most AT hikers like a fire for warmth, cooking, and ambiance. Some fire rings are simple circles of rocks, while others are made entirely of metal, complete with an attached grill. Some trail shelters have stone fireplaces inside them, which can be especially handy on a frozen winter night.

5. Food Storage Cables

To prevent hiker-bear interactions and food thefts by other critters, food storage cables are typically found erected near shelters. These devices allow hikers to use a pulley system to lift their food well above reach. Food storage cables keep wild animals wild, and hikers from losing their food. 

Day/Weekend Hikes During Off-Season
The heaviest use periods in Northeast Tennessee are April through mid-May, when AT thru-hikers pass by on their way to Maine after starting in Georgia. There could be 15 or more shelter occupants each day. The shelters are used through the summer, especially on the weekends. There is an upward spike during fall leaf color, then use drops off from November through February. 

Guided Trips
For guided day and overnight backpacking trips, we recommend White Blaze Outdoors.

Leave No Trace
Remember to leave our trails with no trace, so adventures can last a lifetime. Find out how you can make a difference with our leaders for litter-free Tennessee efforts.

Johnny Molloy is the author of many outdoor guides including Best Tent Camping: Tennessee, Paddling Tennessee, and Five Star Trails Tri-Cities: East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.