In New York’s Catskill and Adirondack park, camping in a lean-to can be a great experience. I’ve had some of my best experiences camping in these shelters. Meeting new people, seeing wildlife, the freedom of not pitching my tent, the warmth of the fire in the shelter, and the sense of history as some of these shelters have been around since the early 1900s.
It has its roots in days before tents were used, and back-country guides would build crude shelters from the materials found in the forest for hunters. Today, these three-sided shelters are made from materials brought in and “kits” assembled on site.
These sites are hand-picked and usually close to water sources, close to main trails, and scenic. Many have a privy and fireplace. The ability to camp in a shelter with a fire going all night is a wonderful experience.
Considerations when using a lean-to
Research your shelter: Call the local ranger or land manager and ask about the shelter. Simple things like its condition, is it still there (yes, they get moved or removed), capacity (some shelters are larger than others), and if there is anything else they feel you should know.
Remember, if you are hiking long-distance and relying on lean-tos, check your distances and how they are situated to your destination. Will you need to deviate from your main route to get to one? In New York’s Catskill and Adirondack Parks, you can usually find one within a day’s walk (or less).
Never count on a shelter: Even though a lean-to is there, this does not mean that you will find space in it. A lean-to will have a capacity of 7-8 people on a first-come, first-serve basis. Lean-tos can’t be “reserved.” Always have a backup plan. When I was a Scout Master, and we backpacked with 7 or 8, we always needed to carry tents because if a lean-to had two people in it, we would not fit.
Never pitch your tent in a lean-to. In New York, it is against DEC regulations to do so, but I see it done. A lean-to is not a tent platform or, for that matter as a storage place for large equipment. A friend of mine who is not an avid camper decided to give camping at a lean-to a shot.
Related post: Catskill Lean-tos and Primitive Campsites
He and his wife hiked to a lean-to close by a river and found two guys in it with all their gear, kayaks included! When asked, they refused to remove them. It was October and already dark. My friend in his wife ended up sleeping on the ground, as he put it, “under a big tree.” They were lucky it didn’t rain or snow, and they had a fire to keep them warm.
Don’t use clear plastic tarps and nails: No plastic can be used to close off the front of a shelter. No nails or other permanent fasteners can be used to affix a tarp on a lean-to. However, you may use a rope to tie canvas or nylon tarps across the front.
Don’t start a fire in a shelter, enough said.
Yes, really, don’t do that.
Expect to sleep with wildlife. Mice, porcupines, raccoons, chipmunks are a few of the common visitors. We were camping at the Bouton Memorial lean-to one night, and I awoke to the feel of something scurry across my sleeping bag. I looked up and saw nothing. After a couple of minutes, I heard sounds and looked up again and shined my headlamp around and a small mouse was in my boot! As with your tent, NEVER keep food stored in the lean-to!
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On another chilly night at the Devil’s Acres lean-to, about 2 am, I awoke to two porcupines sitting on top of the fireplace, which was still warm from our small night fire. If you are looking for a barrier of sorts from animals and insects, use a tent.
Be ready for trash if the lean-to is close to a road: The closer the lean-to is to the road, the harder it is to keep clean. I’ve maintained three lean-tos over the years. The closest to the road was the Baldwin Lean-to on Mount Tremper. Each year we would pull out a few bags of trash, not just at the lean-to but many yards away as beer-drinking visitors would throw their bottle off into the forest. The other lean-tos were miles away from anywhere, and I rarely had a problem.
Put something down to sleep on: Even though the lean-to has a wood floor, it’s hard; use a sleeping pad. You may also want to bring a lightweight ground cloth as animals scurry around and in lean-tos. Rodent dropping and urine have become more of a concern in the shelters. If there is a broom, sweep the lean-to out and put your lightweight tarp below your sleeping pad. Hopefully, this will protect you from any animal excrement.
Always have a backup plan: There are many reasons you may never get into or to your planned lean-to. Always have a backup plan. Become proficient in setting up tarps as a shelter. Tarps are lightweight and can be adjusted to almost any spot. Who knows, you may never get back to using a tent or shelter!
Winter can be awesome, but be ready…
Camping in a lean-to during the winter is fun but can be challenging. Some of the challenges that you’ll face are snow in the lean-to, especially when you arrive, and even more so if the lean-to has not been used or there has been fresh snow. Bring a shovel.
The firepit may be buried and frozen over. With the open space in a lean-to, there is no way you can “warm” the air like you can in a tent. Having said this, using a tarp to close off the open end of the lean-to will help cut down on wind and preserve some warmth.
Related post: Build a fire–even it’s unbelievably cold.
Just don’t do it inside the lean-to. As stated above, don’t rely on the shelter; bring a tent, or know how to build a Quinzee.
Backwoods wanderer with a passion for backpacking, hiking, kayaking, and exploring the wilds of the Catskills and Adirondacks in New York. A Catskill 3500 Club Member and Adirondack Forty-Sixer. Climbed Mount Rainier. Professionally an Exercise Physiologist.