The pros and cons directly from Rose ‘Comics’ Turner, who is finishing her thru-hike.
I’ve been thru-hiking south on the Appalachian Trail, and have primarily used a hammock system, but have spent roughly a dozen or so nights in the three-wall shelters as well. There are a few other common sleeping systems, but I’d like to focus on these two that I have the most experience with. Why do people choose one or the other? Let’s discuss the pros and cons of hammocks and shelters.
Hammocks vs Shelters
From personal observation, it seems like people thru-hiking or long-distance hiking on the Appalachian Trail are divided as such:
- 60% usually tent
- 20% usually shelter
- 15% usually hammock
- 5% usually other (bivy, tarp, cowboy camp, etc.)
For long-distance trails, the Appalachian Trail is unusual in that it has the option of shelters (conveniently placed roughly every 10 miles or so) and the trees are consistent enough to rely on hammocking.
As long as you set up your hammock (and its accompanying tarp!) properly, it should keep you and your things dry during heavy rains. With the right insulation and clothing, it has kept me pretty warm on 20 degree nights. That said, the tarp itself is of course going to get wet if it rains, and then you’ll have to put it in your pack all wet, which weighs it down a little extra and could potentially cause mold issues if you don’t air it out soon enough.
Shelters will probably keep you and all your stuff dry at night – assuming there is room for you, which is always a gamble. Shelters can also provide potential for extra warmth. Fairly often on cold nights, hikers will set up a tarp against the open side of the shelter to block out wind. After a while you can notice a pretty big temperature difference! There is also potential for cuddling in shelters, which is obviously great in it’s own rights, but sometimes essential for the extra warmth.
Actual comfort and sleep-ability
Hammocks are almost surprisingly comfortable to sleep in. If you’re a stomach sleeper, you’re out of luck. But otherwise, it’s a cozy lil’ space. Just remember to go for an asymmetrical lay to get a little bit flatter.
At least for me, I would need one of those annoyingly loud inflatable pads in order to be comfortable enough for a decent night’s sleep in a shelter. Otherwise, I “sleep” rotisserie style all night long, trying to find a position that isn’t too terribly stiff against the hard wooden floor.
In attempting to sleep in a shelter, you are likely to face a few loud snorers, someone with a loud inflatable mattress who just won’t be still, someone who gets up 10 times throughout the night, someone who gets up at 5am and starts an impossibly long cacophony of crinkling noises as they pack their bag and head out. In short, you have to deal with the noises of other people and may get less sleep because of it.
However, shelters are a communal spot where hikers can gather and eat, sleep, talk, laugh -and when you’re out in the woods alone for long periods of time, that has a huge appeal for many people.
In a hammock, you are by default at least a little bit further away from other humans. In fact, it’s quite easy to stealth camp almost anywhere along the trail if you’re using a hammock. However, sometimes those stealth spots can get a bit lonely. Sometimes every noise in the night seems like it could be an animal who smells your food, or maybe a human who poses a threat. Overtime you learn to relax to these things and only get your adrenaline pumping if it really is a large animal nearby.
You shouldn’t rely on shelters because you never know if you’ll get a space there, but they do serve a great purpose in community and protection from weather. Hammocks make life better, and you seldom have to walk more than an extra tenth of a mile to find somewhere decent to quickly set up and get some sleep. They are worth the cost and the weight.