A photographic and historic exploration of man-made shelter on the A.T
Architectural Homage
A photographic and historic exploration of man-made shelter on the A.T.

A nostalgic desire to get out and experience the Trail again, led new mother and former thru-hiker Sarah Jones Decker to begin a richly informative examination of the varied and unique structures that offer shelter to hikers on the Appalachian Trail. In The Appalachian Trail: Backcountry Shelters, Lean-Tos, and Huts Decker explores the more than 250 backcountry structures that exist along the 2,193-mile footpath.

“I thru-hiked the A.T. in 2008 right after grad school,” she says. “After my daughter was born in 2017, I decided to celebrate my ten-year ‘Trailsversary,’ by hiking sections of the A.T. more often near our home.” (Sarah and her husband own an organic farm outside of the Trail town of Hot Springs, North Carolina.) “I wanted to get back in shape and decided to set the goal of hiking every month of 2018,” she says. “Since the A.T. runs some 70 miles right through and near Madison County from Max Patch to Big Bald, it was easy to get out every week. I revisited my journals from my thru-hike and saw that I had doodled about the idea of documenting all of the shelters on the Trail. I took pictures of some shelters in 2008, but definitely not all, so I had to go back to almost every shelter again.”

Decker then reached out to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) for help with what was becoming a huge documentary project that had many questioning why it had not been done before. What started as a simple idea turned into a two-year in-depth project that took her back to all 14 states along the Trail. “I did not know at the time that my commitment to hike every month would eventually turn into a book project,” she says. “I got to hike with family and friends in every type of weather imaginable, 24 months in a row. It was an awesome experience to share.”

As she re-hiked sections of the Trail, Sarah often had a special hiking partner in tow. “I carried my young daughter, beginning when she was just nine months old, on day hikes for over 350 miles in eight states,” she says. “She even took her first steps on the A.T. in Pennsylvania. Spending time with her in the woods is a memory that I will treasure forever.”

While creating the book, Sarah was inspired by two of her art heroes, German photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher. The conceptual duo’s extensive body of work documented industrial buildings in Germany and organized them in grids, known as typologies, to compare the subtle differences. As a result of over 200 section hikes and countless hours of collaboration with the ATC, hikers, historians, photographers, writers, and maintaining clubs in the Trail community — Sarah has produced a first-of-its-kind resource packed with Trail and shelter photos, history, information, and detailed maps.

The book highlights how their forms and nuances vary — from elaborate shelters and huts that have sleeping lofts, multiple stories, wooden bunks, or large front porches (a rare few even have solar showers) – to rudimentary lean-tos that serve the sole purpose of allowing hikers to just barely escape the elements. As the Trail continues to grow, change, and evolve, so does the need for the conservation and stewardship of each of these unique structures. More than just a dry roof over weary travelers, the shelters along the Trail provide a gathering place and a sense of community.

Even if you don’t stay at a shelter, it is still part of the Trail experience. It would be impossible to hike the entire A.T. and not have at least walked by a shelter. “Most hikers, even hikers who hike the Trail in its entirety, probably won’t see every shelter,” she says “because all of the side trails would add another 65-plus miles to the already 2,193-mile journey. It was an honor to put all this information together in one place. I hope this collection of images rekindles hikers’ own stories and inspires others to get out and to create new ones.”

Sarah with her daughter Josephine on the A.T. in Pennsylvania
Sarah with her daughter Josephine on the A.T. in Pennsylvania