Hazards and Risks

Backpack hiker on park trail
Always be prepared when hiking and camping in the backcounty.

Christine Hoyer Photo

Hiking and camping in the backcountry, even on short trips, can be challenging and risky and requires careful planning before you begin. Your safety depends on your own good judgment, adequate preparation and constant observation.

Trees and Limbs: Before you set up camp, take a moment to look up and around you for any trees or limbs that may pose a hazard. Camp away from any areas that may be threatened by tree or limb fall.

Wind: High winds associated with approaching weather fronts can bring down trees and limbs. Wind can also decrease your ability to keep warm.

Stream Crossings and Waterfalls:

1. Don't attempt to cross any stream unless you are sure you can make it.

2. As a general rule, do not attempt to cross any white water (water that is flowing rapidly enough to have white-colored areas) if it is above your knees.

3. Scout the stream bank for the best location to cross. The best location may not be where the trail comes into the stream.
4. Often the most narrow point of the stream is not the best place to cross as water flows more quickly in that area.
5. Undo the chest strap and hip belt of your pack before crossing any stream. If you fall in, you can quickly escape from your pack. Otherwise, the weight of the pack can help drag you downstream or pull you under water.
6. Wear shoes to protect your feet. Many hikers bring water sandals or shoes for creek crossings.
7. Use hiking poles or stout sticks to help you get across.
8. Most stream rocks in the Smokies are extremely slippery.
9. If you lose your footing, float with your feet downstream to protect your head and upper body.
10. Many rain swollen streams in the Smokies are too dangerous to cross. If in doubt, don't do it!
11. Never camp next to a rain swollen stream and never camp next to a stream during heavy rain. Flash floods are common and can easily sweep away equipment and people.
12. Never climb on waterfalls. There have been many fatalities in the park from doing so.

Drinking Water: All water obtained in the backcountry should be treated before drinking to protect you from health hazards. Either boil water for at least one minute or use a high-quality water filter designed for backcountry use. Chemical disinfectants require very long contact times for the water temperatures found in the Smokies. Although most park waters are clear and free-running you should never drink untreated water!

Hypothermia: Hypothermia is when body temperature falls below the point at which the body can maintain its own heat. It is an all-season killer and results from exposure to a combination of wind, rain and cold. A higher elevations, a hiker can succumb to hypothermia even in summer and hypothermia symptoms can appear quickly even in mild weather. Be prepared for sudden weather changes and learn how to take care of yourself in various weather extremes. Always carry rain gear as storms arise quickly.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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