Hikers Should Be Prepared For All Conditions

The hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on some hikes can be 10 degrees cooler than when you left the lower elevation. Combine this with the fact that the Smokies are also the wettest place in the South, and you have the possibility for great discomfort in the event of a sudden storm. The higher elevations in the park can receive upwards of 90 inches of precipitation a year.

Don’t judge the complete day by the morning sky. In summer, the days usually start out clear, but as the day heats up clouds can build up, resulting in a heavy shower. Winter is a great time to be in the Smokies, but also represents the most challenging time as well. Frontal systems sweep through the region, with alternately cloudy and sunny days; though cloudy days are most frequent in winter. When traveling in the Smokies, it’s a good idea to carry clothes for all weather conditions. Always bring rain gear and a wool sweater. They don’t weigh much and can make the difference between being miserable or not in the event it rains. As mentioned earlier, the Smokies get approximately 90 inches of rain a year; this is good. It’s what makes the Smokies such a wonderful place to be. Don’t start a hike if thunderstorms threaten – some of the most devastating damage ever to the park has been from great storms in years past.

Stay on the designated trail. Most hikers get lost when they leave the path. If you get temporarily lost, try to retrace your steps until you cross the trail again. Then it’s just a matter of guessing which way you were headed when you left the trail. You will either continue the way you were headed or go back to your starting point – either way, no harm is done.

Footwear should be a major concern. Though tennis shoes may be generally appropriate for some day-hikes, boots should be worn on the uneven trails in the park. They support the ankles from sprains and the foot from cuts and abrasions. Cross streams carefully. Getting wet, even in summer, could lead to hypothermia, which leads ultimately to disorientation, poor decision making and in extreme circumstances, death. Having said that, don’t let a fear of hypothermia, getting lost, or bears prevent you from the enjoyment of trekking the trails of the park.

There is no record of anyone ever being killed by a bear in the Smokies. When we questioned a Park Ranger about how to react to meeting a bear on the trail, he smilingly told us the most likely sighting of a bear will be its tail disappearing over a ridge. Most “incidents” occur when an ignorant visitor feeds or otherwise harasses a bear.

To avoid crowds, hike during the week. Avoid holidays; go during the “off” season. Also, go in the morning before most folks are finished with breakfast; this is a good time to see wildlife – and morning light is great for photography! You can also avoid crowds by using the outlying trailheads such as those found at the Cosby and Wears Valley entrances.

Plan Your Hiking Trip with Care

Regardless of how small or large your group, tell a responsible person about your trip and establish a check-in procedure. This person is to notify the park authorities if you are overdue. Keep your group together. Always keep track of your buddy, have a buddy system. Stay on the trail; if you get off the trail, you can become truly lost in seconds in the dense growth. You are then impossible to find from the trail. If night finds you, stay put. The chance of injury and becoming more lost increase dramatically. Hiking alone is dangerous; if you do so, leave a detailed itinerary with someone, and then stick to it. With a little care and planning, your hiking trip to the Smokies can be much more rewarding, with great memories.


The hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on some hikes can be 5 to 10 degrees cooler than when you leave the lower elevations. The Smokies is also the wettest place in the South. In the upper elevations of the park, it can receive as much as 90 inches of precipitation a year. The rain is what makes the Smokies such a wonderful place to be. Don’t start a hike if threatening thunderstorms are in the forecast. Some of the most devastating damage ever to the park has been from great storms, which can be upon you with little warning.

Spring… March has the most changeable weather; snow can fall on any day, especially in the higher elevations. Spring backpackers are often caught unprepared when a sunny day in the 70s turns into a wet, bitterly cold one. Many major blizzards have occurred as late as early April. The weather is usually milder in mid to late April.

Summer… The days usually start out clear, but as the temperatures rise and the day heats up, clouds can build up resulting in a heavy shower. Most thundershowers occur in late afternoon. Summer weather usually persists through mid September. Expect in the upper elevations for the temperatures to range from the upper 50s to the mid 80s.

Autumn… In mid September, a pattern of warm, sunny days and crisp, clear nights begin. Cool, rainy days also occur. Most leaves begin to turn in October making for a brilliant show of reds, yellow, orange, and gold which splash the mountain sides and valleys, as the leaves turn the region into a visual wonderland. Dustings of snow may fall in the higher elevations.

Winter… Is a great time to be in the Smokies, but remember that the temperature will be much cooler in the higher elevations and is the most challenging time as well. Frontal systems sweep through the region, with alternately cloudy and sunny days; though cloudy days are more frequent in the winter. The days during this fickle season can be sunny and 70 F. or snowy with highs in the 20s. Major snow storms often leave backpackers in the higher elevations, especially in the Appalachian Trail.


Footwear… Footwear should be chosen with great care. Hiking shoes or boots should be worn when hiking in the park. Boots will support the ankles from sprains and the feet from cuts and abrasions. Truly waterproof boots can be a big plus in the Smokies; not only will they keep your feet drier during rainy weather, but they also give you a little extra assistance when crossing shallow streams. Wear an inner pair that is light and non-absorbent to prevent excess moisture buildup next to your skin. Wear a pair of socks that are wool or synthetic blend for extra cushioning. You can find hiking socks at many sports stores. The proper footwear will make a difference.

Clothing… The one essential piece of clothing for hiking in the Smokies is rain gear. The Smokies get approximately 90 inches of rain per year. Bring it along even on sunny days when there’s not a cloud in the forecast. During the cooler months, always carry warm clothing, including hat and gloves. Many a balmy morning has turned into a frigid, wet afternoon on Mt. LeConte or the Appalachian Trail. During the springtime months, you might want to carry a light jacket or sweat shirt just in case it is a little chilly. Remember even in the spring, the mornings can be 5-10 degrees cooler in the higher elevations.

Backpack equipment… take the appropriate clothing with you in a backpack. An emergency space blanket is no larger than your fist and weighs only a couple of ounces. A coach’s whistle can be carried in your pocket or around your neck. Always carry a medical supply kit, with ankle & knee braces, bandages, ointment for minor cuts, sting kit, water filter, waterproof matches, flashlight, high-energy foods, pocketknife, compass, and crampons. Include Benadryl or similar medicines for reactions to stings.


Stream Crossing & Waterfalls

Heavy rains – particularly in warm weather – cause swollen streams that may be unsafe to cross. Do not cross a stream unless you are sure you can make it. Also, make sure your pack can be discarded quickly. Wear shoes to protect your feet, use a stout stick for extra support, and even if you lose your footing, float with your feet downstream to protect your head. Just walking near a stream on moss covered rocks can be hazardous. Waterfalls can be extremely hazardous, climbing on them has resulted in numerous fatalities.

Drinking Water

All water obtained in the backcountry should be treated before drinking to protect you from health hazards. The recommended treatment is boiling for one minute. Pump-style water filters may not remove certain bacteria or viruses, but most now remove Giardia. Chemical disinfectants require very long contact time for the water temperatures found in the mountains. Do not drink untreated water.

Bears & You

Bears in the park are wild and unpredictable, but they have caused few injuries to people who followed reasonable precautions. In fact, only when bears have been fed or have taken unprotected food from humans do they tend to cause property damage or injury. Always remain watchful. If you are lucky enough to spot a bear, observe it from a distance; do not throw food or leave food behind for it to eat. Keep your pack and food nearby and maintain a watchful eye in the adjacent woods. Bears can be sneaky. If a bear approaches you, quickly gather your supplies and retreat along the trail. Leaving food behind only encourages further problems. Report all bear incidents to a park ranger.

Insect Stings

Reactions to stings from yellowjackets, bees, and wasps range from minor local swelling to life-threatening phylactic shock. Local pain and swelling can be expected in 24 hours. Benadryl, an over the counter antihistamine, is helpful. Redness and local warmth are common and is not necessarily due to infection. Itching and hives are a more serious reaction, which should have medical attention. Multiple stings can make a person very ill. In the United States, many more people die from insect stings than snakebites each year.

Snake Bites

There are copperheads and timber rattlesnakes within the park, but they are usually not aggressive, preferring to avoid human encounter. Most bites occur from stepping on an unnoticed snake, or when attempting to handle or play with the snake. Prompt local pain and swelling signal injected venom, unless a rare bite directly into a vein has occurred. Beware that copperheads blend in with the trees, branches, rocks and the surface of the ground. If bitten, keep the victim calm, avoiding any unnecessary activity. Splint the extremity as though for a fracture. Send for help. If walking out is necessary, do so slowly, with many frequent rest stops.

Poisonous Plants

Learn to recognize poison ivy by its characteristic three-leaf pattern. Vines may be difficult to identify. Playing or swinging on vines may be hazardous enough without adding the inconvenience of an itchy rash. Washing with soap and water within 30 minutes of exposure may be preventive. Smoke from burning poison ivy vines can cause the same rash, but all over your body, so don’t throw vines on the fire.

Ankle Injuries

A twisted ankle can bring an outing to an abrupt halt. An audible snap usually signals a serious sprain or fracture. Immediate first aid measures of ice may not be available and may be contrary to the goal of getting back to transportation at the trailhead. The decision to walk or limb out is one’s own decision. Those with weak ankles should favor heavy boots with adequate ankle support, and possibly a brace to wear in the boot. The slip-on variety is sold in pharmacies.

Heat Related Illnesses

Heat exhaustion is caused by water and salt depletion in a hot environment. Weakness, feeling faint, nausea with possible vomiting, headache, dizziness, and possibly fainting, alone or in some combination are frequent symptoms. Muscle cramps may be present. The victim usually appears cool and clammy.

Prevention includes the use of cool, loose fitting clothing, frequent rest in cool places, avoidance of direct sunlight, and drinking lots of liquids. Field treatment for heat exhaustion consists of cooling measures, removal of excess clothing, seeking shade, lying down, resting, and drinking cool liquids slowly and steadily. Victims of suspected heat strokes should be cooled at once by whatever means is available. Drenching the clothing with creek water would be ideal, but any water will do. Send for help, this is a true medical emergency.


This is an extremely dangerous condition involving the lowering of the “core” temperature {the temperature of the body’s vital internal organs} beyond the lower level of efficient metabolic function. This causes involuntary shivering in an attempt to generate heat by muscular activity. At this point the victim may say they feel very cold but be rational. Confusion and loss of muscular coordination soon follow without treatment. One of the first signs may be falling behind or tripping often. The victim may behave and walk as though drunk and may lose coordination of fine motor skills such as those needed to strike a match. With this or soon after comes mental behavior. Hypothermia victims may be confused as to undress in freezing conditions or hallucinate.

This condition is brought on by a combination of factors. The cold, wet and wind are potentially a deadly combination even with temperatures in the 50s. Children are at a greater risk because of their greater ratio of surface area to weight. At higher elevations in the park, there is a year-round potential for this to occur.

You lose heat through breathing, becoming wet, being exposed to wind, sitting on cold objects, and through radiant losses (the heat your body gives up to its surroundings). Prevention is aimed at those factors present on the day of your hike. Cotton is great for coolness in the summer, but a disaster when wet and cold. Avoid blue jeans in the winter. Synthetic pile fabrics are best for dependable warmth. A wind and rain suit will do double duty in foul weather, offering added insulation against radiant losses. Be sure your head is covered up, 40% of your heat loss can be from your head. In the winter, and transition seasons, take a sweater in case the weather turns, or you’re caught out late. Field treatment involves stopping further heat loss and warming the victim. Usually getting dry and warming with a hot drink is sufficient. More sever cases may require an emergency shelter to warm the victim.

Getting Help

If you are faced with a situation where outside help is needed, don’t panic. Take a few minutes to sit down and fully assess the situation and plan your actions. Plan your route to the nearest trailhead where help may be obtained, or back to your car as the situation dictates. Seek the closest phone or park ranger station. The General Information Number is 911 – emergency service is available in many areas. With common sense and good judgement, the chances of you having anything but fun are remote. Proper planning will further reduce the likelihood of problems on your outing.