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What you need to know before your winter hike in the Great Smoky Mountains

National Park Emergency Manager Liz Hall shared some tips to help you have a warm and safe trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.

TENNESSEE, USA — It's no secret the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is beautiful year-round.

Those brave enough to trek into the cold can be treated to stunning snowy views.

However, these winter hikes hold their own challenges as the weather can change quickly and temperatures can vary drastically.

Park Emergency Manager Liz Hall shared some tips to keep you warm and safe on your trip to the Great Smoky Mountains or any other wintry walk in nature.

Hall said it is important to know your limits before you even start planning your visit. Being honest about your fitness level can determine how much equipment you'll be able to carry and the type of hike you should pick.

"This is probably not the time if you're a first-time hiker to come out and try the big trails," she said. "This is an opportunity to maybe dip your toes in and try some of our smaller trails and get comfortable with the shorter distances before you get on a really long committed hike."

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She said it's important to consider your environment to make sure you can deal with East Tennessee's rapidly changing winter weather.

"If you're coming from a place that's maybe a little bit warmer, you may not be familiar with the cold winters that we can have here," Hall said. "It can be 70 degrees when you go out, and it can be 30 degrees by the time you get back to your car at the end of the day."

Plan Your Trip

  • Pick a trail that matches your experience level, keeping elevation changes in mind as a 4-mile hike could easily go up 2,000 feet in certain areas of the park.
  • Check the weather forecast and remember the conditions can change as you go up in elevation. 
  • Check on road closures at twitter.com/smokiesroadsnps
  • Let someone know where you plan to hike, when you plan to be back, what clothes you are wearing and what your car looks like.
  • Have an emergency plan for your group in case someone gets separated or injured.
  • Have a backup plan in case your first trail option does not work out or the weather takes a turn. 

"My recommendation would be that when you're coming to the park in the wintertime have a very conservative trip plan," Hall said. "Allow yourself all the opportunities to make mistakes, to get delayed, to have bad weather, whatever that may look like, and still be comfortable and have a good hike while you're in the park."

What To Bring

The equipment you carry can vary depending on the hike you choose, but there are some essentials to always keep in your backpack.

  • Water. The general recommendation is to drink a liter per hour. 
  • Snacks. Pick foods with high fat and protein contents for energy. Hall said Snickers bars are a favorite when she goes hiking with her kids.
  • Layers. Wear plenty of warm clothes that you can switch out during your hike. Keep a few waterproof pieces with you in case you fall in a stream or the weather changes.
  • Extra heat source. Hall recommends heat packs or a fire starter in emergencies.
  • Headlamp. Even if you do not plan to hike at night, Hall said the number one reason people have to get rescued in the park is not bringing a headlamp.

For longer treks in the backcountry, the park recommends 10 items: navigation, sun protection, insulation, a headlight, first aid kit, fire starter, a repair kit, food, water and shelter.

TIPS: Don't go on your next Smokies trip without trying these hiking hacks

Hall said a communication device that is not a phone is necessary since cell service is extremely limited in the park and the cold can drain its battery.

For winter hikes, trekking poles and microspikes are good for slippery and icy conditions.

Hit The Trails

  • Ask a ranger or drop by a visitor's center if you're not familiar with the area.
  • Keep track of time and have a turnaround point. Hall said these will keep you from getting stuck on a trail in the dark.
  • Walk intentionally. This is really just another way to say pace yourself. Don't go too fast on the first couple of miles and wear yourself out.
  • Try to leave the park better than you found it and pick up any litter you come across on the trail.

Hall said these tips are all part of being Smokies Smart on your visit.

Credit: Great Smoky Mountains National Park