The Lean-to is an open faced camping shelter found throughout the Adirondack Park back-country areas and along the Appalachian Trail. They are also found in the Nordic European nation of Finland, although in Finland they are called “laavus” instead. These Finnish lean-tos serve as temporary housing for people on hiking, camping or fishing expeditions out in the wilderness. They are especially common in the Pukala national forest of Finland.
Lean-tos are built mostly by hand with chainsaws and chisels and the logs are assembled using a scribe notching technique that results in a very tight fit of joints and allows the use of the entire length of logs. The floor space usually measures 12′ x 8′ in size.
The original plans for building a lean-to were published by the New York Conservation Department – Bureau of Camps and Trails in March 1957 entitled as Plan # 184. The original plans can still be found here.
New York State maintained lean-tos are open to any and all comers up to the marked capacity of the shelter. As is the case at other campsites, you may not stay at a lean-to for more than three consecutive nights without a free DEC permit. When using a lean-to, don’t hammer nails into the logs or make other “improvements.” It’s even illegal to set up a tent inside a lean-to!
There are benefits to winter camping in an Lean-to. Foremost, is that you don’t have to carry your shelter with you. They are spacious; although each lean-to can be different typically there is adequate room for 5. The lean-to provides a level, dry platform for changing clothes, setting up a stove, mixing food, or just plain sitting.
On the other hand, lean-to’s aren’t particularly warm – even if you close off the open side with a tarp. They are usually situated in high-use areas. And the sleeping arrangements can leave you laying wide awake between two prodigious snorers.
In the past 12 years of winter camping only once have we encountered a lean-to in use by others. On Martin Luther King weekend in 1997 at the popular John Pond lean-to in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area a boy scout troop had hiked in before us and were staying at the lean-to, so we tented.
Appalachian Trail Lean-tos
WhiteBlaze, a forum dedicated to the Appalachian Trail, has a forum devoted to Shelters & Lean-tos where users share their shelter experiences and discuss issues related to shelters of lean-tos from Georgia to Maine.
DSettahr over at Adirondack Forums posted a spreadsheet of all the lean-tos in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains. He stated it was his “(long term) hiking goal… to spend a night in every single lean-to in the Adirondacks and the Catskills.”
The spreadsheet has two pages: one that has all the lean-tos listed in alphabetical order and one that lists them by the management unit in which they reside. Currently, there are 295 lean-tos on the list. Subsuquent posters noted corrections where lean-tos no longer existed. You can download the file from here or here. You can read the whole discussion here.
I culled through a long discussion at ADKforums.com on the guidelines and rules for sharing lean-tos. Basically there are guidelines stating that it is nice to share lean-tos, however, there are no regulations requiring they be shared.
WildRiver stated “There is no regulation compelling lean-to users to share the shelters with latecomers. Latecomers have no regulatory right to move into lean-tos that are currently being occupied, even if there is room. On the other hand: No one can claim exclusive occupancy of any portion of state land, whether it be a lean-to or an off-trail campsite in the middle of nowhere. Basically, the state’s land use regulations are completely mum on the topic of sharing campsites. No matter where you go in the Forest Preserve, you have no guaranteed “right” to solitude, nor do you have the “right” to intrude on someone else’s.
However, there is by all means a valid expectation for solitude. The word is an integral part of the legal definition of “Wilderness Area,” meaning that solitude is a feature the state is officially trying to promote and perpetuate. In fact, the Five Ponds Wilderness UMP specifically addresses people “who go into the wilderness primarily as a social excursion seeking the company of others and facilities where they might congregate” by stating: “Users” in [this] category are not really seeking a wilderness or the experience of it. Therefore, the accommodation of user group 5 is not a goal in the management of this unit.
So there is an official obligation to provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude,” and in fact this is a key part of the wilderness experience. Most people that you meet in the back country are in search of privacy to one degree or another, and it is to everyone’s mutual benefit to give each other space when choosing a campsite.”
The formal DEC regulations can be read here.
“Decided to sleep in lean-to, floor like C-ment. To those who come behind us, bring a mattress. – Griffin Rapids.”
Finally, there is always the added benefit of reading the lean-to register for entertainment as captured in No Place I’d Rather Be: Wit and Wisdom from Adirondack Lean-tos by Stuart Mesinger. Stuart took several years and read hundreds of registers to compile his book. Stuart received permission (and sponsorship) from the ADK to go through the register archives. Stuart flagged the interesting entries, had a High School student type them up and then organized the book into themes: love stories, tall tales, partying, complainers, weather, critters, bugs, food, the privy, the campfire, the long walk, adventures, culture clashes, hunting and fishing, companions, religion and solitude.
There are over 200 lean-tos in the Adirondacks and we have all read the lean-to registers. Stuart took several years and read hundreds of registers to compile his book. Stuart received permission (and sponsorship) from the ADK to go through the register archives. Stuart flagged the interesting entries, had a High School student type them up and then organized the book into themes: love stories, tall tales, partying, complainers, weather, critters, bugs, food, the privy, the campfire, the long walk, adventures, culture clashes, hunting and fishing, companions, religion and solitude.
Adopt a Lean-to
Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adopt a Lean-to program began in 1985 with the approval of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Adopting a lean-to does not entail major reconstruction work, and adopters do not need to be ADK members. The adopters hailed from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Canada. Although adopters drop out of the program each year, it’s remarkable how many don’t: seventy-three individuals and groups have adopted lean-tos for at least five years; 44 for at least ten years; 20 for at least fifteen years; and 4 for at least twenty years.
Lean-To Rescue Efforts
Lean2Rescue – a group of hard-working hikers, climbers, hunters, skiers, paddlers, and all-around good people – have restored, rehabilitated and rescued more than 30 of these Adirondack icons since 2004. Started by Paul DeLucia of Baldwinsville, NY, the all volunteer group works closely with the DEC to identify and complete suitable projects – from roof repairs to entirely new structures. Most of the work is carried out using non-motorized tools and vehicles, and the bulk of the building material is carried into the woods via canoe, portage carts, and human pack mules. And perhaps most impressive of all, Lean2Rescue operates year-round, not even breaking for the harsh Adirondack winters.