How to make hiking in the Smokies safer
As a local, I’m frequently asked the question: Is it safe to hike in the Smoky Mountains? The answer is an unequivocal yes from a statistical standpoint. Millions of people visit the Smoky Mountains annually. The number of those who encounter trouble or dangerous situations is very few. Still, there is nothing in life that comes without risk. It’s called the wilderness for a reason – it can be wild. So here are some basic safety tips and things you should know if you’re going to be hiking the Great Smoky Mountains:
Hike prepared, bring basic supplies
While the Smoky Mountains are overall safe, it’s important to come to your hiking destination prepared. Failure to plan and prepare is usually the main reason that results in an emergency in the backcountry. Truthfully, you are likely your own biggest threat when hiking in the Smokies. Here are some preparation tips from the National Park Service:
- Dress in layers
- Pack a flashlight or headlamp
- Wear good shoes or boots
- Bring a trail map
- Bring water (minimum 2 quarts per person, per day)
Follow the rules
Rules are in place for a reason. If a trail says no dogs, leave your pets at home. If an area is off-limits, do not venture into restricted areas. Areas around a waterfall are likely to be slick and therefore dangerous. If a sign tells you not to climb, do not climb. Hikers have been injured and worse by trying to climb on rocks near Ramsey Cascades.
Be wary of other hikers, too
Someone is rarely threatened on a trail. Logistically, if you’re planning to do some crime, the forest is a fairly difficult place to pull that off. While you can hike safely through the mountains with little fear from your fellow humans, it does pay to be aware of your surroundings and to keep your guard up around fellow hikers in deep country. It’s also wise to hike with a companion. There is safety in numbers. If you must hike alone, let someone know your route and your expected return time. If you do not return as expected, tell them to contact the park at (865) 436-1230.
Avoid getting lost, don’t rely on GPS
Your cell is not going to get service 50 feet into the park, much less deep on a trail. GPS can also be unreliable deep in the forest. Your best bet is to carry a current park trail map and compass. Know how to navigate. Also, remember while the map is flat, the country ain’t. Make sure you understand the topography before heading out on the trail. If you’re hiking with a group, make sure you stay together. Keep children within eyesight. The mountains can be quite noisy – especially if there’s wind or water nearby. It is easy for members of a hiking party to be relatively close to each other and not be able to hear the others shouting.
Bring plenty of water to avoid dehydration
I touched on this earlier, but it’s important enough to mention it twice. Carry enough water to drink adequate supplies to avoid dehydration. You should have at least 2 quarts per person per day, but 3 to 4 quarts are recommended. Even though mountain streams are clear and cool, water should not be consumed without having been treated or boiled. Also, do not attempt to cross swollen streams. Rushing water carries a lot of force and streams in the mountains can go from benign to dangerous rather quickly.
Be aware of snakes and insects
There are two types of venomous snakes in the Smokies, the copperhead and the rattlesnake. Still, snake bites are very rare. Yellow jackets can sometimes cause more issues. According to the NPS, they built nests in the ground along trails and streams and can be aggressive when disturbed. If you have an allergy, bring epinephrine. Finally, consider wearing tick and mosquito repellant.
Don’t hike in the dark
Stuff happens. Maybe you thought you allocated enough time to hike in and back out while the sun was plenty high in the sky. But a twisted ankle or some other issue delayed your return. The forest at night is not necessarily unsafe, it’s just dark and disorienting. You can get very lost quite easily in the daylight. You’re even more likely to get lost at night. If you are forced to stay overnight in the forest, you need to be warm and dry. If you’re camping, plan to reach your campsite by dark.
Be smart about wildlife
The Smokies have a variety of wild animals that can prove dangerous, including wild boar, elk and bobcats. However, the black bears are the ones you’ll hear about most often. The park bears are wild animals, which means they can be unpredictable. Bear pepper spray is permissible for hikers in the park, but it should not be used as a preventive measure. People have injured themselves spraying repellent on their equipment in the misguided attempt to ward off a bear before one is encountered. Here are some basic tips on black bear safety from the NPS:
- Remain watchful
- Do not approach the bear
- If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior (stops feeding, changes its travel direction, etc), you are too close
If you are too close to a bear, it may make loud noises or swat the ground. The bear is demanding more space. Do not run. Back away slowly and maintain eye contact. Increase the distance between you and the bear. In the very rare event of an attack, fight back. Most black bears will give up.
Pack it in, pack it out
This is more of a general tip than a safety tip. But the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the world. And perhaps surprisingly, the park operates with a limited staff. You may find that trash bins are somewhat limited along hiking trails. I want visitors to enjoy their time in the park, but please do so responsibly.
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Do you have extra safety tips to share? Leave them in the comments.