Hiker Hunger in the Smokies

Stretching from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap and covering just over 70 miles of the trail, the Smoky Mountains were without a doubt the most beautiful part of the trail I’ve been through so far. Before the Smokies, all the views were cluttered with barren trees. It did make for a nice effect at times, but just three miles before Clingmans Dome, the highest peak on the entire Appalachian Trail, I entered a lush pine forest that reminded me of the woods back home in New England. Dead trees and dead leaves gave way to white and purple wildflowers alongside massive pine stands that make you forget you’re five or six-thousand feet above sea level. There were some really cold days and absurd wind on the ridge lines, but it finally feels like Spring is here.

On top of the world at Clingmans Dome

As I headed into the Smokies, I was carrying about 18000 calories of food. My last two resupplies after Franklin I had mailed to myself at the NOC and the lodge at Fontana Dam. I had heard that both these stops were shaky or expensive for resupplies, and being vegan I wanted to make sure that I’d have enough food going into the admittedly intimidating Smokies. Being a national park, thru-hikers are required to have a backcountry permit on them. When you enter the park you only have eight days to get through to the other side, so I decided I wanted to have eight days of food on me just to be safe. I learned very quickly that 18000 calories are not enough for eight days on trail.

Hungry Hungry Hikers

From the moment you step on trail, you’ll hear people talking about hiker hunger. Even though every snack you buy on trail says you only need 2,000 calories a day, your stomach will violently disagree with that supposed fact. After just 10 days out here, I had already lost about ten pounds. That kind of weight loss is the type of thing that can put you off trail pretty quickly if you don’t switch up your diet. Since then I’ve been able to stabilize my weight at around 167 pounds, but that’s not to say I haven’t had a few scares with my food supply.
After my first day in the Smokies, I got curious and decided to check how many calories my phone says I’d burned. I hiked 15 miles that day with all the elevation gain you’d expect from the entrance to the Smokies. That workout of a day burned 4,000 calories. Suddenly my food bag was looking a bit too small. That 4,000 calorie figure was probably underestimated too, since I doubt that my phone knows I’m doing all this with a thirty-something pound pack on my back.

Stressing the Smokies

Even though it was looking like I’d need some more food, I still didn’t want to resupply until after the Smokies. The only chance for more food would’ve been to take a ride down to Gatlinburg from Newfound Gap, and I was not hearing good things about that town. I heard someone say that walking into Newfound Gap felt like walking into Disneyland after the solitude of the trail.The place was crawling with tourists and apparently Gatlinburg was more of the same. It’s not exactly a hiking town either. I heard one hiker got stopped by the police down there because they mistook him for a homeless person. I’d rather not deal with all that, and considering how intimidating the Smokies were, I thought it would be worth burning some fat to get me through them.
After that first day of climbing, the terrain of the Smokies wasn’t that bad. The worst climbs and descents always come from towns or low gaps. They can have elevations as low as 1000 or 2000 feet, and getting back up to the ridge-lines from that far down is tough work. Being a national park, you don’t see nearly as many gaps in the Smokies, so there isn’t quite as much up and down.
The only real problems thru-hikers face back there is the lack of privies at the shelters and the concentration of day-hikers. If either of those problems were taken in a vacuum, not much would come of it, but the lack of privies means that day hikers are also forced to shit in the woods, and they aren’t quite used to that. Looking into the designated “toilet area” of a shelter — particularly those right after Newfound Gap — you can see scattered fields of used toilet paper. The trail runs back and forth along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, and due to state policy, none of the shelters in Tennessee have privies. Of the privies in the North Carolina Shelters, many are closed to molder as they get overwhelmed with the traffic the Smokies see.
All this comes together to make the Smokies not quite difficult but definitely annoying. Even though it’s a beautiful place, the challenges of the Smokies got me quite ready to leave them behind, but I had one more challenge to face that would extend my stay.

A misty morning in the pines

The Ankles Again

Just afterI left Newfound Gap, I rolled my right ankle. Again. This time I didn’t have to walk as far to a shelter, so it didn’t get too bad, but it still got me stuck for another shelter zero, this time at Icewater Spring Shelter. Just from that name you can already see how this could be helpful. There was a particularly cold piped spring that I was able to ice my ankle in. I ended up icing it for 10 minutes every hour or so, and those sessions doubled as water gathering so I could minimize my walking even more.
The hardest part of this episode was falling behind my tramily again. By now I’ve been forced to accept that “hike your own hike” means that people will come and go. I match pace with certain people for certain times, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be with them forever. Once I got over that emotional hurdle, I was confronted with a new puzzle: how do I stretch my food supply to last another day?

This question had a very simple answer: I don’t. I had to work with what I had and the charity of others to fuel my exit from the Smokies. Some other generous thru-hikers gave me a bag of nuts and some instant mashed potatoes. With that little boost, I had just enough to have meals and snacks all the way until my final morning in the Smokies, where I had enough for one final breakfast of oatmeal and granola.

I was looking at ten miles mostly downhill that day, and with a little food and a lot of determination, I saw myself out of the Smokies. Just 20 feet from where I deposited my backcountry permit, Iwas greeted with some excellent trail magic at Davenport Gap. A trail angel named Gram Gram had setup tents with hot pasta, marinara, salad, and whole tables of snacks and candy to greet hikers on that rainy day. After filling up there, I moved on to the hostel at Standing Bear to stay the night. I had planned to take a zero there, but I’ve ended up taking that zero today instead at the Laughing Hearts Hostel in Hot Springs. I saw Ed and the crew again, they took a zero yesterday and took off this morning, so I figure I’ll see them from time to time just like everyone else out here.

The aftermath of a rainy day at Max Patch

I was originally going to make this post about both the Smokies and the topic of dreams on the trail of all things, but it didn’t feel right giving the Smokies only half of an article. That article about dreams is still coming, but I’m going to keep it in my back pocket for when I’m really out of ideas. I’ll try to post more often going forward, but I won’t make any promises. Until next time.

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Comments 3

  • Bryan : Apr 16th


  • Jennifer : Apr 16th

    Gotta eat ❤️ Sent you some encouragement. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Ryan : Apr 16th

      Awesome job completing the Smokies! Wish you all the best with no more ankle trouble!


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