Whether you’re new to hiking or you have hiked every trail in the Smokies, everyone should review the way they prepare before heading into the woods. This narrative (which is by no means comprehensive) will help to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable outing.
Head to Toe
We are not trying to make a fashion statement while on the trails, but the adage "dress for success" is very appropriate to hiking. Think about the following as you select clothing for your hike.
- The head: In the winter, keep your head warm with a wool or synthetic hat. Light sun hats are ideal for sunny days. A pair of sunglasses is good protection against water and sun glare, especially when hiking on snow.
The middle: Comfort is key when you dress for a hike. Check the weather and plan your outfit based on the temperature, trail difficulty, and chance of precipitation. Basics to keep in mind:
- Cotton kills! If you get wet, due to rain or a slip in a creek on a stream crossings, you’ll stay wet for a very long time. This can be deadly in the winter when hypothermia can set in. Always select clothing made with moisture-wicking or quick-drying fabric. They should be able to insulate the body from cold and be breathable to allow body moisture to escape.
- Layers, layers, layers! In the winter especially, you will appreciate being able to remove outer layers as the day warms or as you climb hills and build up body heat. But, also in the winter, when you stop to take a break, some of those layers may need to be put back on. Don’t underestimate the need for layers in the summer. It’s not unusual to climb to higher elevations and find that the temperature has dropped 20 degrees.
- Don’t forget your hands — if you’re doing a winter hike, gloves are essential to help keep heat inside your body.
- And if there’s a chance you might get wet (rain or snow), make sure you’re prepared with a rain jacket and pants.
- The toes: When hiking, you need to make sure your shoes are made for walking because that’s just what they’ll do. Shoes or boots made specifically for hiking are your best bet versus vs. the old tennis shoes in the back of your closet. Depending on the terrain, you’ll want to look for shoes that will provide good grip while walking on rocky slopes. Water-proof boots can be a must for cold stream crossing. Some hikers prefer mid-top hiking boots that provide good ankle and foot support while others prefer a low-top hiking shoe. Your socks matter, too. Hiking-specific socks are crucial to helping your feet stay dry and blister free. Also, ice cleats or crampons are requisite if hiking on ice.
Consider the following as you gear up for your hike:
- Water: Water is extremely important when it comes to staying hydrated during your hike. Even in colder temperatures, it is vital that you drink plenty of water throughout the day. One liter of water is the minimum you should consider – and more on a hot summer day or for a long trek.
- Trekking Poles: Trekking poles are a great hiking accessory for muddy, slippery, or rugged terrain. If you want solid knee and back support, poles can ease the weight on your legs, especially on steep climbs. They are particularly helpful on tricky stream crossings.
- 10 Essentials: No matter what trail you’re trekking, you should always be prepared with what’s known in the hiking world as the 10 Essentials. We’ve added an 11th one of importance:
- Food: an extra day’s worth of nutritious, no-cook food and snacks
- Water: and water treatment supplies
- Warm clothing and rain gear: hats, gloves, extra socks, rain shell
- Light: flashlight, headlamp, along with extra batteries
- Sun protection: SPF, sunglasses, hat
- Fire starters: matches, lighter, or an actual fire starter
- Navigation tools: map, GPS, compass
- Repair kit: knife, scissors, screwdriver and/or multi-tool; duct tape
- First aid kit: bandages, antibiotic ointment, hydrocortisone ointment, moleskin, etc.
- Emergency shelter: emergency blanket or bivy, tarp, space blanket
- If you have a known severe allergic reaction to something in the environment, bring whatever your doctor has advised you to carry.
- Backpack: Wondering how you’re going to carry all that gear? That’s where your hiking backpack comes in. Choose a pack that feels comfortable for you and that won’t put excess strain on your back and shoulders. Always wear both shoulder straps, and make sure the backpack rests close to your body and high on your back. Backpacks with padded, adjustable hip belts are great for hiking, as they take the strain off of your shoulders and back.
Also Keep in Mind
Consider the following as you gear up for your hike:
- Safety First — Heading out into the wild, even if only for a day, comes with certain risks. Here are some tips for staying safe during your day hike.
- Plan ahead. Familiarize yourself with your trail and make sure you have all the necessary gear.
- Share your itinerary. Make sure someone knows where you’ll be hiking and approximately what time you should be finished.
- Bring your cell phone in case of an emergency, but turn it off when you are not using it to conserve battery.
- Keep an eye on the weather. Be willing to turn around if the weather starts to look dubious.
- Stay alert. Always remain aware of your surroundings.
- If you don’t know, ask. Don’t be afraid to ask fellow hikers for help.
- Trail Etiquette — Who has the right of way?
- Hikers vs. Hikers: Downhill hikers yield to uphill hikers. You may see uphill hikers let others come downhill while they take a breather, but that’s the uphill hiker’s decision. If you hear someone coming up behind you, be considerate and step aside to let a faster hiker pass.
- Large groups yield to smaller groups.
- Hikers vs. Bikers: Mountain bikers yield to hikers. However, mountain bikers are usually moving fast, so it can be easier for hikers to step aside and yield the right of way.
- Hikers vs. Horses: Everyone yields to horses. If you’re sharing the trail with equestrians, give them a wide berth and don’t make abrupt movements. It’s recommended to step off the trail to the downhill side while yielding to a horse.
- Leave No Trace:
- Always pack-out anything you bring in — food waste, wrappings, etc.
- Walk single file in the middle of a trail.
- Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects where they are.
- Don’t follow or feed wildlife.
- Insects and Snakes: No matter where you go day hiking, there will likely be bugs, so be sure to throw some insect repellent in your hiking backpack. Mosquitoes can carry vector-borne diseases, so this is a must. It’s also a good idea to check your clothes and body for ticks, since they can transmit a number of illnesses. Be watchful for yellow jackets especially late summer and early fall. Snakes are an important part of our ecosystem. If you see one, simply give it a wide berth. Even venomous snakes are really not interested in striking unless disturbed.