Any time you head out into the wilderness for more than a picnic or a day hike, it's a good idea to figure out where you can take shelter. Weather conditions along the trail can be severe, especially in the spring and fall, so it's important to make sure that you have a safe and secure place to rest your head after a long day.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that helps to maintain the trail, provides access to more than 250 backcountry shelters that are located along the trail. The shelters are typically three-sided structures, with a roof and one side that's open to the elements. They're usually located close to a water source, and they're meant for thru-hikers. The shelters are great features, because one of the best parts of hiking the Appalachian Trail for many people is meeting and talking to other hikers, and the shelters provide a natural meeting place at the end of the day.
Sleeping in a shelter is an attractive option for many hikers because it provides a place where you can stay dry during rain without having to set up a tent. And when more hikers sleep in the shelters, it means fewer campsites, which translates to a reduced impact on the natural areas around the trail. However, the shelters aren't perfect; they can often be dirty and rodent-infested, and because they're so popular, they tend to fill up pretty quickly.
For those reasons, anyone who is planning to spend more than one day on the Appalachian Trail should bring a personal tent. Tent designs vary widely, but if you're planning to hike the entire trail, you probably want something that is both lightweight and that can protect you from the elements through three seasons (spring, summer and fall). But even if you take your own tent, you can't necessarily camp anywhere you please. The trail passes through different types of public land, and they all have rules about camping. Some places, like national forests, for example, permit "dispersed camping," while others allow camping only in designated campgrounds. To stay on the park rangers' good sides, check the local rules before setting up your tent, and always pack out whatever you pack in [source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy].