For anyone who loves the outdoors and physical activity, hiking is a sure thing to win your heart. Hiking is one of the great activities that is done in the wonders of the ‘wild’ that can be done solo, with a partner, or with a group. Hiking is a very easy way to get some serious steps, increase your energy, better your physical health, and really impact your life all together. A deep respect for nature develops quickly. Moreover, hiking really can improve your mental wellbeing as much as your physical well being.
Regardless if you’re new to hiking or a hiking aficionado, Tennessee (and the southeast) is a great place to be. If you’re new at hiking you can start on nature walks. (See “where to go” below.) Build experience on various trails and work your way to the big hikes that our region is known for. Hiking is a very easy hobby to start, the only bare-bones basics that you need are right shoes and a means to carry hydration – as simple as a bottle of water. As your experience and endurance levels increase, you can add gear slowly to grow with you. When you get to the multi-day, heavy terrain levels you’ll need a full pack. Here’s the average contents of my hiking pack:
- The pack itself – my multiday pack is about 70L and my day pack is about 30L. The “L” stands for liters, which just tells you the overall capacity of your pack. Only my big pack is an internal-frame pack; however, both have full straps (don’t stress your shoulders – carrying a pack that has a waist strap is a MUST. Your hips are the best weight-bearing part of your body and you’ll feel a LOT better hiking with even distribution of weight.)
- Med Pack – I keep my med pack in a thing called a “stuff stack” (various sized sack that you get to literally “stuff stuff” in). The contents of my med pack vary slightly based on the length and terrain I’m going to. It always has OTC pain killer, benedryl, ace bandage, band-aids, etc.
- Water Bladder- 3L
- Water filtration system – never drink stream/natural water unless it’s “that or nothing”. Natural water often has microscopic bacteria that can cause severe abdominal upset.
- Trail food – light weight and packed with proteins and carbs. Hiking with a pack on heavy terrain burns a TON of calories, make sure your body has fuel!
- Water flavor packs. This is one of my treats. I carry these to mix with water if I have to filter it from a stream. While filtered stream water often tastes just fine, the flavor packs help to mask any mineral flavor that may be present.
- Rain gear – functional and lightweight. This includes a rain cover for my pack.
- GPS, compass AND maps. I never take just one. I use the GPS because it offers a lot of really nifty features but I never trust battery-powered things 100%. Better safe than lost.
- Flashlight and headlamp. I carry both all the time because, again, I don’t trust battery-powered things 100%.
- If I’m staying overnight, I always have my hammock. It’s more lightweight than a tent and far more comfortable. But, a small tent is just fine for my daughter!
- If I’m hiking in bear country I carry bear spray. Also, if I’m staying overnight in bear country I’ll take my bear canister (it’s a bear-proof canister for foods and anything that has an aroma of any kind)
- Trekking poles – not a necessity but when you’re clumsy like me, it’s better to be safe.
- Always take a very strong respect for nature and remember that what you pack in you also pack out. I also always try to pack-out any trash that I see while I’m on a hike.
If you’re wondering where to go, around this part of the country you have so many options it’s hard to settle on one. If you’re brand new to hiking try a nature walk like the 4.5 mile loop at Harrison Bay State Park. It has very easy terrain that is only occasionally broken by roots or rocks and the elevation variance is virtually nil. If you’re looking for a bit more of a challenge, try The Walls of Jericho (around 8 miles, I think) near Winchester, TN/Stephenson, AL. This hike offers good scenery and a relatively challenging elevation variance. If you live north of the city, try Laurel Snow Pocket Wilderness in Dayton, TN. It offers 2 different hikes, both found from the same trailhead (one is 9 miles r/t and the other about 5 r/t with different terrain for each). Want more wilderness in your hike? Try anything near the Cohutta/Cherokee parks that cross the GA/TN/NC lines (easy access near Springer Mtn, GA or Ocoee/Reliance, TN; heavy concentrations of bear). There are hundreds of trails in that area with varied lengths and terrains. The Benton MacCaye (pronounced mack-eye) goes through here; it’s a 300-mile trail). Are you ready to summit a mountain? I recommend Rainbow Trail in the GSM Park, take the Rainbow Falls trailhead all the way to the summit of Mount Leconte from Gatlinburg stoplight #8 (apx 13 miles r/t, very difficult and I do NOT recommend this as a 1-day trip; there is a free group camp area/shelter at the top that you can use with reservations through GSM). Like I said, around here it’s not a matter of where to go, it’s a matter of picking one trail out of the variety available. (Of note, you can't take your 4-legged bud with you on Federal Park trails.)
What to expect out of hike really varies depending on where you go and the length of time you’re out. Always research where you’re going and what wildlife you may encounter (and how to react to said wildlife!). I’ve encountered rattlesnakes and bears (even been charged by a bear!) and knowing what to do when you encounter wildlife is a MUST. If you’re looking to start hiking and are new to it, join me someday for one of my group-led hikes at Harrison Bay. It’s an easy walk and four-legged, well-behaved leashed friends are welcome. If you’re looking for more, check out some local hiking clubs. I’m out at least twice a month hiking and always willing to share my passion for hiking with anyone!