Where Do Backpackers Sleep

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If you are considering a backpacking trip, you might be wondering where you sleep. There are three common options, tents, hammocks, and shelters. If you are staying at a walk-in campsite, you will backpack to a prepared camp. The campsite is where you will pitch your tent or tie up your hammock. However, if you are hiking a trail, then you can setup your camp anywhere along the trail according to the trail’s rules. Shelters can be anything from a primitive lean-to all of the ways to a four-star hotel located on the trail.

But let’s take a look at each of these options in more detail.

Backcountry Campsites

You are familiar with traditional front-country campsites. These sites are designed to be driven to and often feature RV parking. You often find potable water and, frequently, electricity.

Many state and national parks also have primitive campsites that require you to walk-in. These hikes could be as short as a quarter-mile and as long as 10 miles.

The campsites may be full campsites with fire rings, potable water, and a picnic table. While you might have campsite neighbors, you most likely won’t have any RVs next to you. There’s nothing wrong with RVs (we wrote a guide about buying them) but sometimes you don’t want to be surrounded by them.

These types of campsites are also great for testing your backpacking gear before you go on a backpacking trail.

Backpacking Trail Camping

When you are taking a backpacking trip on a trail like the Appalachian Trail, where you can camp will depend upon the trail’s rules.

Some trails will restrict your camping to only designated campsites. While other trails will let you do dispersed camping. With dispersed camping, you can camp anywhere you like, as long as you follow the 200 feet rule.

You need to be 200 feet off the trail. You must be 200 feet away from any water sources. And 200 feet away from your toilet. The last rule will probably be self-enforcing because of the yuck factor.

If you plan to hammock camp, make sure that you follow the rules for hanging hammocks in the park.

Tents Vs Tarps Vs Hammocks

One of the most vicious debates in the backpacking community is what’s the best way to sleep in the outdoors.

Most people will choose to sleep in tents.

Tents require less skill to make ready for sleeping. They provide the best rain protection. Tents also provide better protection from insects, snakes, rodents, and lizards that might be crawling on the ground.

Hammock campers swear that they are the most comfortable way to sleep in the outdoors. In warm weather, they’re lighter to carry than a tent.

But they require more skill to set up. And once you get into cold weather, hammocks can be bulkier and more expensive than tents because you need to bring underquilts.

Hammocks also require that you find an adequate pair of trees to tie your hammocks to. I’m in Texas, while many of our parks do have trees, it can be hard to find a campsite with suitable trees.

Tarp backpackers are the most adventurous. Tarps don’t have poles, zippers, or floors like a traditional tent.

But there are many different ways to configure a tarp shelter with and without trees.

A compromise between tents and tarps is trekking pole tents. These are tents that use trekking poles for their tent poles. By using trekking poles, you reduce the weight of the tent by eliminating tent poles. However, you still have the floor and rain coverage of a tent.

Trekking pole tents are not as stable as tents that use tent poles.

Whether to use a tent, hammock, or tarp is a personal preference. You can learn more about how to decide between them in this article.

Backpacking Shelters

Along many backpacking trails, you will find pre-built, primitive shelters. Many of these shelters were built by hunters. They are nothing more than a couple of walls to provide a wind and rain break.

Next, you can find more substantial but still primitive buildings. They may have bunks in them for you to place your sleeping pad. Outhouses or pit toilets might be located nearby.

The final option is in-town lodging. The lodging might be a backpacker’s hostel, or it might be a motel.

A hostel or hotel is not roughing it. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. In particular, if you have been on the trail for a few days. Or if you need to nurse an injury.

A hot shower, a warm bed, and a reliable HVAC might be what you need to re-energize for the next stretch of the trip.

If you’re doing a thru-hike or an extended backpacking trip, this can also be a great time to resupply.

Backpacking Sleep System

If you are going to be sleeping in a tent, hammock, or tarp it is important to remember your sleep system.

The sleep system is how you stay warm and comfortable. You will have a harder time sleeping comfortably while backpacking than car camping. When I’m car camping, I bring my cot, big tent, a fan or tent heater. I even have a nightstand for my phone and glasses.

While backpacking, you need your sleeping pad, sleeping bag or quilt, and your sleeping clothes. While a sleeping pad might help make sleeping more comfortable, its primary job is to keep you insulated from the ground.

Make sure the sleeping bag is rated for ten degrees colder than the expected low temperatures. Bring a sleeping bag liner or bivy to increase the warmth. A liner or bivy weighs almost nothing and could be important for survival if the weather is colder than expected.

You also want to make sure to bring along a set of clothes to sleep in. There are three reasons for this:

It’s going to feel more comfortable to change clothes.

Your daytime clothes might be wet.

In bear country you don’t want to sleep in the clothes you ate in. Bears can smell the food stains on your shirts and pants. They might want to lick that bacon grease off the shirt while you’re wearing it.

As you can see, there are a variety of ways to sleep while backpacking. Most of the time, you will be in a tent or hammock in a designated campground. However, there are valid reasons to choose a shelter, in particular, on long treks where you need a chance to recuperate or resupply.