The Smoky Mountains are especially gorgeous in the winter, with the added benefit of being relatively free of crowds compared to the summer high season. If you plan to hike in the Smokies this season, here are some weather-appropriate safety tips to keep in mind.
1. Make a plan and stick to it.
Consult a current trail map to choose a route that will remain passable even in inclement weather. A shorter trail may be the safest bet during the winter months, especially for inexperienced hikers. Once you’ve made your plan, carry a map with you and make sure you know how to read it. If you need to be rescued, it will be more difficult for authorities to do so if you deviate from established trails.
2. Practice safety in numbers.
The National Park Service recommends always hiking with at least one other person and designating a third person who is aware of your route and can notify the proper authorities if you haven’t returned at the specified time.
3. Dress in layers.
While you may experience unseasonably warm temperatures in lower trails, weather can quickly drop below freezing as you ascend. Pack extra layers just in case, as well as a poncho, gloves, a waterproof winter hat, and even an extra pair of socks. Cotton absorbs moisture and is slow to dry, so stick to nylon and fleece fabrics. If your clothes do get wet, change them immediately to prevent life-threatening hypothermia.
4. Prepare for slippery conditions.
Ice-packed trails combined with inappropriate footwear is a recipe for injury. Make sure you’re wearing hiking boots with plenty of traction, and consider either a hiking stick or crampons designed for mountain climbing to complete a successful trek during snowy, slippery conditions.
5. Be ready for an emergency.
At the minimum, your backpack should contain (along with your dry clothes) a small first aid kit, at least two quarts of clean water, protein-packed snacks, and flares. While you may have cell phone reception in some areas of the Smokies, this should not be relied upon in case of emergency.
6. Check the weather.
Not only can reviewing the forecast before heading out keep you aware of any storms that could be headed your way, it can also inform which trails are open that day. Check out the National Park Service website to find out whether any of the trails on your hiking plan are closed for inclement weather.