National Parks Journal: ‘Plan & Prepare’ for Great Smoky Mountains Backcountry Hiking, Camping, Backpacking

by Jon D. B.

Headed to Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s wilderness? There’s no one better to prepare with than GRSM’s Backcountry Manager, Christine Hoyer.

From bears to stranding, a whole lot can go wrong in the backcountry of any national park. Setting out into the backcountry requires a lot more prep and knowledge than the typical park adventure. Yet as any Outsider will tell you, few experiences ever beat the paths less traveled.

Ask any park ranger and they’ll tell you, preparation is key for any NPS adventure. But preparation is absolutely paramount when it comes to backcountry hiking, camping, and exploration in general. And there’s no better ranger to help tackle this for Great Smoky Mountains National Park than park Backcountry Manager Christine Hoyer.

“If you’re headed into the backcountry here in the Smokies, here is what I would have you think about,” Hoyer begins for our National Parks Journal. “Firstly, the rules in the Smokies can be different than what you are used to in other parks. Knowing what is expected of you when you’re here, and knowing how to ‘Plan & Prepare’ for the Smokies specifically is key.”

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Backcountry Breakdown:

  • Call ahead to the Backcountry Information Office for help planning at (865) 436-1297
    • Phone calls are the office’s preferred method of communication
  • Reservations and permits are required for all overnight stays in the backcountry
  • Download the park trail map to find the location of trails, backcountry shelters, and campsites in the park
    • Have a map! Cellphones eventually die, and signal is unavailable in the majority of backcountry
  • Backpackers and hikers are subject to all Backcountry Rules and Regulations, so be sure to review them
    • Failure to abide by park regulations may subject you to a max fine of $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail

Thankfully, planning is made much easier in the Smokies than many other national parks due to their Backcountry Office. “We have the benefit of a backcountry operation,” Hoyer says, “and our office is open seven days a week. Visitors can call ahead before their backcountry trip and we will help you plan and prepare.”

GRSM’s Backcountry Information Office Phone: (865) 436-1297

If you call Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Backcountry Office before your expedition (which Outsider and NPS highly recommend), Hoyer and her team will first get a feel for what it is you’re looking to do in the backcountry.

“That’s what we do! We help people plan their visits by helping them figure out what their goal is. Then, how do we help them achieve that goal safely?”

With over 800 miles of trails offering hikers a wide range of scenery, Hoyer and her team can help significantly narrow down where visitors should head – all depending on what they’re looking for. Want spectacular mountain vistas? Rushing streams and waterfalls? Historic structures? Or are you in it for a quiet grove of old-growth forest? No matter your preference, Plan & Prepare with GRSM staff to form a goal, gameplan, and then safety execute both. Research shows that this type of preparedness is an NPS’ explorer’s best way to avoid becoming stranded, injury, or even death.

Once you’ve tackled her recommendations above, Christine says it’s time to tackle these next steps before tacking Great Smoky Mountains National Park backountry:

  • “Always check the weather and park conditions before coming, then plan accordingly.”
  • “Know where you’re headed, and always tell someone where this is. If you become stranded, this can make the difference between a successful rescue or a much more unfortunate outcome.”
  • “Know what your turnaround plan is. Having a plan for exiting the backcountry is just as important as entering it.”

“All of these things wrap in perfectly to ‘Plan & Prepare,'” Hoyer cites. To accomplish each, the backcountry team can help you choose a fitting destination that suits your desired Great Smoky Mountains National Park adventure. Once you do, pick up a physical map at the park (provided for free) and drawing out your path. But don’t just do this from your entry point to your destination. “Know what your turnaround plan is,” Hoyer emphasizes. “Having a plan for exiting the backcountry is just as important as entering it.”

In short: Be sure to think through and map out your exit, too. Will you use the same trail to get to, then exit your campsite when your trip comes to an end? Or do you want to see as much as possible backpacking through almost 900 miles of designated trails? Whatever your goal, remember that your exit strategy is what gets you home safely.

And always, always tell someone who is not venturing with you exactly where you plan to go, for how long, and when you plan to exit.

The majority of GRSM search & rescue missions result from a failure to do this one simple thing.

Feeling ready for that backcountry adventure? Then get out there and enjoy the magnificent Smokies! *But before planning your backcountry trip, please read through GRSM’s important information about reservations and permits, regulations, bear safety, trail closures, and more.

For further information on how to Plan & Prepare for GRSM, see our ‘Leave No Trace’ in U.S. National Parks: Breaking Down the Seven Principles with Christine Hoyer next. Then, learn How to ‘Recreate Responsibly’ in the Great Smoky Mountains with NPS’ Dana Soehn.

And remember, black bears are ever-present in the Smokies. Our National Parks Journal: How to Be BearWise with Great Smoky Mountains’ Lead Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver is another excellent resource to view next.

Happy trails, Outsiders!