Mountain hiking is the ideal pastime for people who enjoy exercise and an active, outdoors lifestyle. With over 800 miles of backcountry trails, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is among the premier hiking venues in the eastern United States. Safety is a primary concern for all hikers, novices and veterans alike. There are inherent risks associated with trekking a mountain trail and when you venture out on a backcountry trail, there is only one person responsible for your hiking safety: You!
A hiker must consider many factors to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Potential hazards you may encounter include (but are not limited to) sudden thunderstorms or snowstorms, dangerous wildlife, and narrow trails along exposed cliff faces. A safety-conscious hiker will have the proper gear, maintain good physical fitness, use good judgment, and be aware to his surroundings at all times.
Hiking Safety Tips
Consider these tips to ensure a safe hiking trip in the Smoky Mountains:
Don’t Overreach: Novice hikers often overestimate their stamina and ability. Remember, the mountain trails can be rugged and steep. A five-mile roundtrip hike should be plenty challenging for a beginning hiker.
Pace Yourself: Don’t hike too quickly on a day hike. Enjoy the scenery and remember hike you are going to need energy for the return trip.
Tell Someone Where You Are: Give your hiking itinerary to a friend or family member. Let them know your expected time of return, and check in with them when you get back.
Hike with a Partner(s): Beginners should never hike alone. Hike only as fast as the slowest member of your group. Don’t allow your group to separate.
Stay on the Trail: Venturing off designated trails (bushwhacking) increases your chance of serious injury or getting lost.
Start Early: Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy your hike to the fullest and still get back to the trailhead before dark.
Wear Boots with Good Ankle Support: Appropriate footwear is of paramount importance. Boots with good ankle support prevent twists and sprains on rugged trails.
Be Prepared for Weather: Mother Nature has no pity for the unprepared. The GSMP averages 90 inches of rain per year and the weather can change very quickly in the mountains. Carry lightweight rain gear in your pack, even on sunny days. Carry a warm sweater and wind breaker in your pack. It can be quite cool at higher elevations.
Be Prepared for Ice and Snow: Those who hike higher elevations during the winter, early spring, or fall may encounter snow and/or ice on the trail. Use crampons or similar devices on your boots to improve traction.
Bring a Flashlight: Darkness falls quickly in the mountains. If you get a late start or are delayed on the trail you may have to finish in the dark. A small flashlight or headlamp is essential safety gear.
Bring a Fire-starter: Always carry waterproof matches or another source of fire on the trail. It could save your life in an emergency.
First Aid Kit: Bring a first aid kit and know what to do in case of injury or emergency. Take a first aid class to familiarize yourself with treating various injuries.
Carry Moleskin: If you get a blister or a hot spot, you can relieve the pain and stop further damage by using moleskin. Keep your feet dry and changing your socks if they get wet will help prevent blisters.
Bring Plenty of Water: Dehydration causes physical debilitation and impaired judgment.
Don’t Drink Untreated Stream Water: Water in mountain streams looks clear and clean, but it may be populated with all sorts of unpleasant pathogens. A particular problem in the GSMNP is Giardia Lamblia, a protozoan that causes severe intestinal distress in humans. You must have a means of treating and purifying stream water if you cannot carry enough water to complete your hike.
Bring High Energy Snacks: Granola, trail mix, protein/power bars, peanut butter, and beef jerky are good options for keeping your energy level high.
Don’t Cross Swollen Streams: Do not attempt to cross rain swollen streams. Swollen streams typically recede quickly after the rain stops. Be smart and wait it out.
Don’t Approach Wildlife: There are over 1,500 black bears living within the boundaries of the GSMNP. There are also wild hogs, deer, and Elk. These are wild animals and their behavior can be unpredictable. Seeing wildlife in its natural habitat is exciting and fun, but remember to respect the animal’s territory, keep a safe distance away, and never attempt to feed animals in the wild.
There are two species of venomous snakes in the park as well. Snake bites from the northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake are extremely rare in the park, but visitors should be aware of the snakes’ presence, particularly around old the foundations of old buildings and stone walls.