Hiking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in winter can be extremely rewarding for those who are prepared. Lower temperatures in winter mean you'll likely have trails all to yourself. Since the leaf cover has long since dropped, it's also easier to spot birds and wildlife. In February and March, average daytime temperatures are 50° to 60° — perfect hiking weather. Temperatures drop into the 30s at night and early morning, however, so it's important to be prepared and time your hikes right.
Remember that elevations range from 875 feet to 6,643 feet, and temperatures can vary 10 to 20° from the base of a mountain to the peak. Weather can be unpredictable this time of year, and just because it's sunny at lower elevations doesn't mean it won't start snowing as you climb. Pack for the worst-case scenario and you'll have peace of mind, safety, and comfort no matter what Mother Nature has planned.
Cold-Weather Hiking Clothes
The key to staying comfortable on winter hikes is layers. Start with a base layer of a wicking long-sleeve shirt and long underwear, and then add a sweatshirt or warm technical layer topped with an insulated fleece jacket and pants. Carry a rain jacket and pants in your backpack. You'll also want waterproof hiking boots, wool socks, a hat, and gloves.
Navigation & Safety
Even if you're taking a well-marked trail, it's important to have a map in a protective case, a compass, and the ability to use it. Your safety kit should include matches or a lighter in a waterproof pouch, or a Swedish fire steel, a multi-tool knife, and strips of duct tape. If you're going on a long hike, pack a small first aid kit that includes different sizes of adhesive bandages, gauze pads and medical tape, moleskin and blister treatment, and antiseptic wipes. A small flashlight or headlamp is important in case you get caught out after dark, and sunscreen and lip balm are important even in winter.
Food & Hydration
For day hikes, pack a protein- and carbohydrate-dense meal and snacks. Peanut butter, protein bars and trail mix are perfect lightweight and nutritious choices. Conventional wisdom is to pack twice as much as you think you'll need — just in case. Carry plenty of water and consider packing a water filter or water treatment tablets.
A lightweight, reflective Mylar blanket can come in handy for emergencies or warming up at higher elevations. You may also want to carry a whistle or personal locator beacon, a bag for collecting trash (and carrying out your own), a field guide to birds or plants, and binoculars. It's a smart idea to leave a copy of your planned hike with a friend or under the visor of your car.
Hike the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in winter and enjoy a sense of quiet, peace, and solitude unique to this time of year. It's worth the effort of bundling up.
Jon Hoffman is Reservations Manager of Volunteer Cabin Rentals specializing in Smoky Mountain cabins near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN. Visit them today at http://www.volunteercabinrentals.com to book cabins for weddings, vacations, reunions and other special events.