While the winter months are upon us here in the Great Smoky Mountains, there’s truly never a bad time to visit! With more than 11.3 million annual visitors coming through the national park annually, winter is one of the BEST times to avoid the crowds and take in mountain views normally obscured by trees at other times of the year. However, taking a hike in winter months is not without its own set of risks. Here are some winter hiking tips to keep you and your family warm and safe on the trail.
Set a Turn Around Time
When you’re visiting a new area and you’re on a time crunch, it’s easy to try and fit lots of fun things into your day. Hiking is often times one of the things our visitors like to experience, but in the winter months you’re short on daylight. The day before your hike, make sure to look up what time the sun sets and . You’re going to want to make sure you’re back to your vehicle before this time. If you’re new to hiking, or if you don’t do it often, it’s best to give yourself a pace of 1 mile per hour to make sure you’ve got time to get off trail safely. This means if the hike you’re planning is five miles, you need to give yourself 5 hours (at minimum) to complete the entire hike. Your destination on any hike is always the same as your starting point – NOT the summit of a mountain or other point of interest! Setting a turn around time is important, but you have to make sure you stick to it.
Does it feel like it’s getting late to you? You may not have cell signal in the mountains to tell you what time the sun will set that day. In case you find yourself out on trail and the sun sinking fast, you can always estimate sunset using your hand. Stretch out your arm as far as you can, with your palm facing you. Now, count how many fingers between the sun and the horizon. Each finger will represent approximately 15 minutes of daylight left. Read more information about this method here.
While a nice cold drink of water doesn’t sound as appetizing in the winter months as it does in the summer months, drinking water throughout your hike is still just as important! Despite the cooler temperatures, your body is still working hard on your nature walk, and you’re going to want to make sure it’s hydrated. Dehydration can occur even in the coldest of weather! Even if you’re not sweating, you can lose water in the winter months just by breathing – a fact many people don’t know. Proper hydration is important for both physical AND cognitive function on the trail and mild dehydration can cloud your judgement. Make it a point to take a drink of water every time you stop and take a photo, or every time you stop to take in a view. If you can’t remember the last time you had a drink of water, it’s definitely time for a sip. If you’re going to be hiking someplace where the temperatures dip below freezing, storing your tightly closed water bottle upside down in your pack can help keep the cap from freezing.
Water isn’t your favorite beverage? You can find many options of flavored drinks in just about any store. Choosing a drink with electrolytes is an added bonus! Of course, you may want to choose bringing a warm drink in a thermos on trail with you, and that’s okay too. If you want to bring a warm drink on trail, try to keep it low in caffeine, or alternate a warm caffeine drink with your water or sports drink. Caffeinated drinks can dehydrate your body and actually might make you dehydrate faster than if you had nothing to drink at all!
In winter months, your body needs more calories when you’re active outdoors. By bringing a high protein, easy-to-eat set of snacks with you, you’ll get the energy your body needs to keep moving. In cooler months, stopping for a long picnic isn’t always ideal. Bringing individually wrapped snacks you can eat quickly is always a bonus. By bringing smaller single serve snacks, you can carry them without using a bigger backpack as well. Having a snack in your pocket means quick access and faster breaks to keep you warm. Fast and easy snack ideas include trail mix, beef jerky, nuts, and protein bars. Always make sure to double check you’re packing out the wrapper, fruit peels, or nut shells. By packing out all of these items and leaving no trace, you’ll ensure the safety of wildlife and future visitors.
Layers Layers Layers!
In winter months, sweating is your enemy. By wearing multiple lightweight layers, you’ll not only stay warm, they’ll help wick sweat away from your skin. While merino wool and bamboo are highly recommended, if you don’t do a lot of outdoor winter activities, a lightweight synthetic layering system will also work well. While sweating is enemy #1, cotton clothing is enemy #2. Avoid wearing any cotton layers directly on your skin, including as socks or gloves. While cotton breathes very well, it doesn’t wick away moisture and will keep the dampness right on your skin, which can cause hypothermia.
Winter months often mean unpredictable weather, and here in the Smoky Mountains that is definitely true! Some weeks can see 60-degree temperatures, followed by a cold front with sleet and snow only a few days later. That means the hike you planned from the comfort of your warm house or Gatlinburg rental cabin might not be the hike you get to take! By having a backup plan or two, you’ll still be able to get out and enjoy the more than 800 miles of hiking trail our national park has to offer. Being prepared for road closures or inclement weather means you won’t be disappointed and can still find a way to get out into the park.
Proper Navigation Equipment
It’s easy to forget that paper maps and a compass are still the preferred method of navigation in the mountains, especially now that we live in a time of digital media. While that fancy app on your phone might show you photos from past visitors or elevation profiles based on exactly where you stand, electronics can also fail when you’re in the woods. Not to mention, in cold weather batteries can die much faster! Purchasing a paper map and knowing how to read it is an important skill, especially in the winter months. While fancier waterproof maps do exist, a paper map you can purchase for only $1 from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Visitor Centers will do just fine.
Letting someone know your plans
One of the great things about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the fact that it is often visited, and heavily trafficked. Although it’s the most visited park in the country, you can still find solitude without a cell signal. Because of the size of the park and the lack of communication, it’s important to let someone know where you’re headed, how long you expect the trip to take, and when you expect to be back. This information can not only help others in your group feel more comfortable with you being out on the trails, it can also help out in case of an emergency. If you’re on vacation with your family, everyone in your group might be out hiking with you. In that case, let someone at home know your plans and when you expect to be back.
It may be considered “off season” right now, but we think it’s a great time to visit the Smoky Mountains! If a winter time mountain getaway is calling your name, check out a list of our list of Gatlinburg Cabins with Views so you won’t miss a minute of the mountains on your trip. Book your Smoky Mountain winter vacation today!