How to Survive the Snowy Smokies

The Situation

Should you be one of the lucky ones to afford a night at the Fontana Dam Shelter, you’ll be faced with a dire decision the next morning. Do you leave the comfort of arguably the best shelter on the Appalachian Trail in favor of heading up into the Great Smoky Mountains, or enjoy a “rustic” shelter complete with solar panels and hot water showers for a few more days? Ultimately, the weather forecast is going to have a large impact on your decision.

You’ve been hearing about these higher elevations for about 100 miles now. Hikers are notorious fear-mongering, hyping things up so that they seem more difficult than the reality. So, if the forecast calls for snow, I am telling you to not hesitate about moving forward.

Anecdotal Evidence

I was faced with the above scenario. I had arrived at the Fontana Dam Shelter just before dusk, with intentions on setting out the very next morning. Those in the shelter thought I was ludicrous. You see, it was supposed to rain with a high probability of that turning into snow amid the towering peaks. I had no fear, or maybe I just had ignorance. Either way, it snowed approximately seven inches my first night there, with drifts being thigh deep at times. And I arguably had the best time of the entire trail while in the national park.

The next morning, EVERYTHING was frozen. So began the hassles of the day of thawing things out and trying to keep other things dry. The following are some cold weather tips that will help keep you as comfortable as possible when faced with a snowy hiking experience. But alas, I have yet to find a way to keep your beard from freezing on those especially cold mornings.

Miscellaneous Cold-Weather Tips

1. Invest in that warmer quilt/sleeping bag. Quilts are all the rage now due to their lightweight composition. What’s an extra three ounces if it keeps you warmer by 20°F? Remember if you’re using a down option, you need to keep it dry in order to retain it’s insulating properties.

2. Keep water filters and electronics close. Nothing is worse than a frozen water filter that doesn’t work anymore. Keep it close to your body and let your heat actually do something for once!

3. Plastic bags. What a wonderful tool! I find that bagging up wet/damp socks and shoes and then putting them in the foot of my quilt is a wonderful way to keep things from freezing at night. Nothing is worse than a pair of frozen shoes.

4. Embrace the suck. This is the most important one. There will be times when you don’t want to continue, when plowing your way through knee-high snowdrifts for miles will not be “fun.” That is OK; it’s unrealistic to expect that every moment of your thru-hike be pure bliss. Instead, revel in it. You are one renegade creature to be willing to backpack through such harsh conditions. Take pride in that!

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Comments 1

  • Kevin Neft : Mar 3rd

    Great tips my man! I hope to encounter some situations where I get to use them (just not to many).


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