GATLINBURG, Tenn. — More than 9.5 million people visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) from January through September 2019. The record-setting pace for attendance shows no signs of slowing down in October, historically the second-busiest month of the year in the park.
More people mean more chances for an emergency on the trails. The park says you can be prepared for the worst by packing proper equipment and checking new webcams for current conditions at the highest elevations.
"Our new webcams at Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome show you a live look at the view, but also the temperature, the wind and humidity. The technology is awesome because for so long we had no way to check the current conditions unless a ranger drove over the mountain," said Brad Free, GSMNP interpretive ranger.
Many hikers dress for the conditions at lower elevations in Gatlinburg, then find themselves unprepared for the weather that can change wildly at the higher elevations.
"It can be raining or snowing at Clingmans Dome and the sun will be shining down here in the Smokies [at Sugarlands Visitor Center]. It is usually 15 to 20 degrees colder up there than Gatlinburg. You need to be sure to pack the proper clothing and equipment, even if it's just a short day-hike. And tell people where you are going to hike, so searchers will know where to look if you get stuck in an emergency," said Free.
Bob Gordon at Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in Gatlinburg sells outdoor equipment for hikers, including the 10 essentials for safety.
"Even if you're going out for just the day, it's important to have the equipment that you need should you get into any kind of trouble," said Gordon.
Carrying life-saving essentials does not mean having to weigh yourself down like a pack mule for a short hike.
"There are little base kits with some essential things like a sparker to start fires, tinder cubes, a solar flash, signal mirror, a whistle, and a waterproof emergency bag to cover yourself up. With just these two things that cover a lot of the essentials, I mean, you're talking less than a pound," said Gordon.
Gordon also recommends a small water filter that allows you to safely drink from any stream, creek, or puddle you come across in an emergency.
First aid kits, water filters, and emergency blankets may seem like overkill for a short hike. Yet, short trips are often the journeys that kill in the national park because hikers do not bring supplies.
In September 2018, an Ohio woman was on a relatively short hike near Clingmans Dome with nothing but her car keys. Susan Clements took a wrong turn on a trail, was unable to find her way back to her car before night fell, and died overnight of hypothermia. Fatal hypothermia can occur with temperatures in the 50s or 60s if conditions are wet and windy.
Awareness of weather conditions and a few lightweight items can help you prepare for the worst, while hopefully making your hike in the Smokies the best.
"Because you never know what can happen. You can get caught in a storm, have an injury, or any number of things where a short trip may suddenly mean you have to spend the night outside," said Gordon.