Winter hiking in the Smoky Mountains is a unique experience for a handful of reasons. Of course the landscape looks much different than it does in other seasons; you're bound to see snow, icicles, and mountainscapes through bare trees. But you can't just blindly set out on a winter hike without the right supplies and knowledge beforehand. Here are some tips that I've learned through trial and error for winter hiking in the Smokies.
Check For Road Closures
This might be the most important rule for winter hiking in the Smokies. Certain roads in the national park can be very dangerous under the right conditions, and during the winter season many of them will be closed. Newfound Gap Road (US 441), Little River Road from Townsend, the Cades Cove Loop - these are all important access points for certain hikes. The easiest way to stay in the know is by following Smokies Road Info on Twitter and calling (865) 436-1200 the morning of the hike.
Plan For An Early Sunset
We all know it gets darker earlier in the winter, and this is very important to remember when it comes to winter hiking. You don't want to get caught in the snow after dark. Consider that if you are going to be at a high elevation with deep, powdery snow it will take you longer than it normally would to hike that terrain. Even if you're a capable hiker the rest of the year, thick snow is going to slow you down. It's always a good idea to keep a headlamp or flashlight in your backpack just in case.
Recent Weather Matters
This one might seem obvious, but there are several factors at play. Most of the time you will expect to find snow when you're at an elevation of 5000+ feet, but consider what the weather has been doing over the week before your hike. If it's been stormy you might find large trees in the way of the trail. If Gatlinburg got a lot of snow a couple days before, expect that Mt. LeConte got even more. Conditions like these can determine whether microspikes or snow shoes are required.
It is also a great idea to check the daily posts from High On LeConte, the official daily blog of LeConte Lodge and its crew, if you plan on hiking to Mount LeConte in the winter. It's an excellent resource for preparing what sort of gear to pack for the weather conditions close to the summit. You might even find some specific trail conditions if the crew members have been hiking down one of the trails.
Snow Shoes & Ice Spikes
If you plan on winter hiking in the Smoky Mountains you will need to own either some sort of spikes or snow shoes. Spikes will keep you from slipping on ice and densely packed snow; snow shoes make it much easier to walk through powder. Other necessities include mountaineer boots that cover your ankles and long wool socks. Waterproof ankle boots are not going to cut it if you're walking through a foot of powdery fresh snow; your feet are going to get wet.
Layer With Care
I run pretty warm usually, so I tend not to opt for the big puffy winter coat that most people bring along on hikes like these. You don't want to end up sweating a lot in very cold temperatures. It's important to be able to shed layers when you get too hot and add them when you get too cold. I typically start with a thermal tank top under a thermal long sleeve shirt with a vest and a thick flannel. When you're moving along you won't want those outer layers, but you won't regret having them at the summit of a mountain with those icy cold winds.
Don't Sacrifice Body Heat
You will certainly need to take breaks on your big winter hike. When you do, it's a good idea to walk in place or keep your arms moving to maintain your body heat. Don't sit down in the snow for a long break. Losing the feeling in your fingers and toes is painful and scary; if you keep your blood pumping, you're much less likely to feel the extreme discomfort that these icy cold temperatures can bring. The summit of Mount LeConte is going to be very, very cold. Keep your lunch break brief and get back on the trail to regain warmth.
Choose A Familiar Hike
The first snowy hike I did this year was a new one: Newfound Gap to Clingman's Dome on the AT. The deep snow slowed us down greatly and we cut the hike short. The second one was a LeConte hike that I did back in October. Being familiar with the terrain was extremely helpful in navigating through the snowy landscape. On the AT, there were times when I would be walking along and suddenly it seemed as if the trail had ended; then I would realize it was a switchback.
This tip might just be more of a personal preference, but I do think I will continue to do repeat hikes in the winter rather than trying a bunch of new ones. It is useful in general to know what to expect from the hike, but having a reference of how long it took me to complete a hike in the fall was very helpful in determining if the same trails covered in snow were doable. Timing is very important, and familiarity certainly doesn't hurt.
This is another one that might seem obvious, but something about winter hiking can make you feel like you aren't as thirsty as you are. On my snowy AT hike I barely finished one of my 32 ounce water bottles. I am usually very adament about staying hydrated, but I didn't realize that I was thirsty because I wasn't hot and sweaty like I would be in most other seasons. It's also a good idea to invest in a water bottle with a built in filter in case you run out. You can always use the snow as a water source.
Is It Worth It?
Some of these points might make it seem like winter hiking isn't very much fun, but it is so worth it to gear up and explore safely. The beauty of the Smokies is unparalleled in any season, but the winter landscape is truly something to behold. You will also run into far less people than you normally would, and you'll see incredible mountain views through the barren trees. If you're interested in winter hiking in the Smokies, it's worth it to invest in appropriate gear and pick the right hike.
Caroline's GSM Hike Log
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