Backcountry hiking in the Smoky Mountains allows you to hike longer and reach more remote sights in the park. Backpackers can plan journeys of one, two, three, or more days, with nights spent at backcountry campsites and shelters. For many people, the self-sufficiency of carrying all that you need on your back is a joy. Twenty-four-hour immersion in the wilderness—sometimes without seeing another person—is equally appealing.
Multi-day hiking journeys require planning. Consult reference guides and maps carefully. You can also call the volunteers at the Backcountry Information Office (865/436-1297, daily 9 a.m.–noon) for help planning your trip. As you plan your route, remember that five to eight miles is a reasonable distance to cover each day. You’ll be carrying a heavy pack, and will need time at the beginning and end of each day to set up and break down camp.
Rules and Regulations
Every backcountry hiker is required to obtain a free permit from the park service. You can obtain these from most visitors centers and campgrounds, including Sugarlands, Cosby Campground Office, Greenbrier Ranger Station, Elkmont Campground, Cades Cove Campground Office, Abrams Creek Ranger Station, and Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.
All backcountry sites are near sources of water—although sometimes springs or creeks go dry. They have a cleared area for your tent and a cable system for hanging your food out of the reach of bears. Seventeen campsites and all of the Appalachian Trail shelters require advance reservations. These may be made up to a month ahead with the Backcountry Reservation Office (865/436-1231, daily 8 a.m.–6 p.m.). Remember, camping is allowed at backcountry sites only.
Several rules apply at backcountry sites: You can stay at any one site for a maximum of three nights, and a maximum of two nights at any backcountry shelter. No more than eight people can camp together at one site. Fires are prohibited, except at designated sites. Neither are you allowed to stake your tent at a shelter site.
Certain equipment is essential for backcountry camping. You are advised to bring two flashlights, water, raingear, comfortable ankle-supporting shoes, high-energy food, and extra clothing. Always carry a map and know how to use it. A camp stove, water-purification tablets, and a spade for burying human waste are also very useful. Of course, you will also need to carry a sleeping bag and tent for the night.
In the higher elevations, you must be prepared for cold, wet weather. Expect snow as early as October and as late as April.
Leave No Trace
As you hike and camp in the backcountry, remember that it is up to you to leave the environment as you met it. Never cut, deface, or take any plant, animal, or historic feature. Don’t use soap to wash your dishes or bathe in streams and rivers. Human feces should be buried at least six inches deep at least 100 feet from the nearest water source.
Perhaps the most important rule is that all food should be stored at least 10 feet off the ground and 4 feet from the nearest tree limb. Most all backcountry sites have special cable systems for this purpose. This keeps food out of the reach of bears.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition