7 Backpacking Lessons Learned in the Smokies

One day I was mindlessly browsing Facebook as we all do, and I came across a post from my friend and former campus minister Todd. He asked if anyone in East Tennessee would like to backpack the AT through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap; I was immediately interested. After some sporadic Facebook messaging, I decided to join Todd with only about a week to prepare for a five day, seventy-two mile hike. It would be the longest backpacking trip I had yet undertaken, and our planned pace would average out to fifteen miles a day. Upfront I have to admit that we didn’t make it. After falling behind schedule, we slowed down and hiked out after thirty-seven miles over three and a half days. Although the trip wasn’t quite a success, I left the Smokies feeling like I had learned some important lessons.

1. Know your limits or train to beat them

Todd and I fell behind schedule for several reasons, but the first among those was undeniably a lack of fitness. Neither of us was prepared physically to keep a fifteen mile per day pace in the grueling conditions we faced. Steep uphill climbs, rain, and heavy packs added stress to our legs and ramped up our heart rates. We frequently stopped to rest, but still our bodies could not recover from the immense strain we put on them. Each time I arrived to camp, I slunk onto a bench, let my pack slide off my back, and let out a deep sigh while my body released an incredible amount of built up tension. My legs burned and my back was knotted. I thought about how I could have trained weeks before to make the days easier. I thought about how just hiking a slower pace by adding a day would have helped. By the fourth day, I knew my body was giving in when both my Achilles tendons threatened to snap from each upward step. I realized I should have taken a harder look at my limits before committing to that pace.

2. Pack light, and then remove 5 more pounds

Packing light for a backpacking trip sounds obvious, but you never realize exactly how heavy a pack is until you’ve carried it on your back for nearly forty miles in a few days. When I began planning for this trip, I knew I would want a light pack, so I left out clothes except for one change. I packed only enough food for six days—one extra than our planned itinerary. I begrudging left my beloved Nikon DSLR and all the accompanying gear behind. The only sandals I own are heavy Chacos, so I left them out too. But then I decided to keep some other “necessities.” I packed a small, hand-held coffee grinder for my whole bean coffee. I packed my GoPro selfie stick for filming the trip. I also included two universal external batteries for my phone, watch, or GoPro. I took my camp cook kit without discrimination for the items inside. Once my backpack was ready, I weighed myself with and without it. I determined it weighed slightly less than thirty pounds without water. This seemed perfectly acceptable to me at the time, but I would learn otherwise. As my pack weighed down on me, I regularly thought of something else I could have left out. Twenty-five pounds with water will by my goal for the next trip.

3. Pack everything in dry bags or Ziploc bags

Rain happens in the Smokies. We knew going into this hike that the weather would not be ideal; however, we didn’t have the option to reschedule. Rain struck hard on the first day, soaked us to the bone, and continued to plague us the rest of the hike. Luckily I had previously purchased a 20L drybag in which I stored my spare clothes, food, a book, and spare GoPro batteries. However, this drybag took up a majority of space in my pack and forced me to unpack most of my supplies each time I needed something. It would have been much more efficient to have a drybag for each category of gear as well as one for my sleeping bag, which got wet through the bottom of my pack. This is a tip I have seen online but ignored. I won’t ignore it again.

4. Duct tape is better than moleskin

This lesson was pretty simple, and Todd was the one who actually tested it out. After a couple days applying moleskin patches to blisters only to have them peel off, he tried a tip I picked up online and covered all his blister hotspots with duct tape. He had no more problems, and the blisters did not spread like they did when he used moleskin patches. I’m not saying that moleskin doesn’t work, but in this case duct tape performed better. Plus, most people have a roll of it in their house already, and packing it is as simple as wrapping a short strand around your lighter several times. I always have a little bit in my pack for repairs and other uses, but Todd proved that it is also great for blister prevention.

5. Plan even daily mileage

Just as in long distance running, pace is a very important concept for backpacking, especially for a hard trip. One of our biggest disadvantages was how late we reserved shelters. We essentially planned each day’s distance based on which shelters still had open spots. Because of this we had a short first day, and a tremendously long second day. On day one we arrived at our shelter in mid-afternoon and could have pushed on. However, we had reserved shelter spots there. We planned to cover nearly eighteen miles the second day, and it just didn’t happen. Exhausted and with strain already ailing my Achilles, we arrived at a shelter six miles from our reserved location–it was already 5:00 pm. We decided there that we would stay and cut our trip short. Todd and I firmly believe that our chance for success would have been higher had we hiked farther the first day and had less distance to cover the second. Each day’s mileage should have been much closer to our planned average pace.

6. Take advantage of the social opportunities

The AT was surprisingly crowded in the Smokies. Okay, it wasn’t a raging madhouse of tourists in flip-flops and jeans like some trails, but there was always another group of backpackers or a solo hiker just up or down the trail. And the shelters were full every single night. This gave Todd and me the chance to meet some very interesting people. We talked to thru hikers and section hikers alike who were checking the Smokies off their maps. One group consisted of three men in their late sixties to early seventies who were hiking the whole Smokies section in seven days. They were all retired doctors with distinct, humorous, almost abrasive personalities (except Marvin, the quiet one), and they were more fit than anyone else on the trail. We joined and listened in on conversations ranging from the morality of selling organs, to drag-racing, to raising pet snakes, and much more. Then, the day we hiked out, another hiker also needed to catch a ride to Gatlinburg, so all three of us hitched a ride to the city and chowed down on huge pizzas while Todd and I waited for a ride to Davenport Gap. Don’t expect to spend a backpacking trip through the Smokies in quiet solitude; instead, embrace the company, and learn what you can from the people you meet.

7. Learn to enjoy your failures

Most of this post comes across kind of negative. Although the impression may point to a disappointing trip, the opposite can’t be truer. I was still able to hike a great distance and see some incredible views. I met interesting people and learned a lot about myself. The trip was far from being peaches and roses, but that’s fine. That’s what beaches are for. I had a truly memorable and enjoyable experience backpacking in the Smokies, and that is much more important than reaching the end of the trail.