Beyond providing information for seasoned hikers who may not have been to the area before, one of the goals of this site is to introduce local trails to residents of the Cumberlands that may have never been hiking. Hiking is a wonderful (and free, at most sites!) way to get and stay in shape, enjoy the outdoors, and see parts of the region that may have been hidden for a lifetime. Traveling in the backcountry does require some preparation, though, and so we’ve provided a Frequently Asked Questions page for the site to cover some of the basics.
1.) Do I need to know how to use a map and compass? That depends…although these skills can literally be a lifesaver in the woods in the unlikely event that you become lost. Most of our local trails are well-blazed, signed, and are easy to follow. However, there are many places in the region that can pose challenges for backcountry navigation. We have labeled these types of hikes as “difficult” – regardless of the steepness and length of the trail – whenever trail conditions pose difficulty with navigation, although your safety and ability to successfully navigate any trail is entirely up to you. Learn how to use a compass and consider purchasing (and learning to read) a topographic map. Most of the region covered by this website can be found in National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated map covering the Clinch Ranger District of the Jefferson National Forest. Above all, don’t assume that your cell phone can get you out of trouble: cell service is spotty in the mountains, and your battery’s charge will not last forever.
2.) I’ve never been hiking before. Do I need to be an elite athlete to hike in the region? Absolutely not. Trails in our region vary from rugged, narrow backcountry trails to wide, gently-sloping trails made of crushed gravel. If you’re considering hiking for the first time, we suggest giving an easier trail like the Guest River Gorge or one of the novice trails at our regional state parks a try. Start out slow and short and work your way up from there – eventually, you may end up being ready to tackle a much tougher, true backcountry trail.
3.) Do I need special shoes and/or clothing to hike? Possibly, depending on what you already own. In terms of shoes, either hiking boots or more lightweight shoes made specifically for trail travel can do wonders in terms of preventing injury, stopping blisters, and ensuring comfort on the trail. A number of outdoor companies now make specialized trail shoes that provide a bit more flexibility and comfort than traditional boots, especially if you’re planning for only light hiking. Give some thought to the shoes you might want to purchase (most regional outfitters have experts that can give great advice), and be sure to break in your footwear prior to logging large miles on the trail. Most high-quality boots or trail shoes can last for months – if not years – of comfortable hiking.
For clothing, make sure you tailor how you prepare to both the season and your destination. High-elevation hikes will likely be a good bit colder and windier than surrounding valleys, even in warmer months. Weather can change quickly in the mountains and usher in rain with little notice. Layers are therefore key in any season: these allow you to add or remove clothing as necessary as your activity levels and weather conditions change. Lightweight, non-cotton activewear material is often a choice clothing item by many hikers since, unlike cotton, it helps to wick away moisture that can contribute to both discomfort and (in the worst case) hypothermia. Experiment with different options on shorter trails first to figure out what the best combination of protection and comfort is for you.
4.) How else should I prepare for a hike? One common mistake seen with first-time hikers in our region is a lack of preparation. That is, it’s not uncommon to see hikers miles into a backcountry trail without a backpack, rain gear, water, or food. This is almost always a recipe for disaster. Regardless of the length or difficulty of your hike, make sure that you pack enough water and food for your trip. Don’t assume that you can simply drink water found on the trail: nearly all local streams now run the risk of transmitting microorganisms like Giardia that can cause severe gastrointestinal illness. Bring clean water from home and pack out any food waste that you carry in.
It’s also always a great idea to inform someone reliable about your trip: where you’re going, what exact route you plan to take (a multi-trail loop, out-and-back hike, etc.), how many people are in your party, and when you plan on leaving the woods. This way, first responders will have a much better idea of where you might be – and that you’re missing to begin with! – if something unfortunate happens on the trail. It’s also a good idea to pack a list of emergency contacts with you. Beyond 911, knowing the phone numbers of the local agency responsible for managing the trail, such as the USDA Forest Service or a state park, can be useful in the unlikely event of an emergency.
5.) Should I worry about wildlife? No. While you may see plenty of wildlife on your hike – this is actually one of the benefits of being in the woods! – we thankfully live in a part of the world where the risk of harm to humans from wildlife is incredibly, incredibly low. Most negative encounters with wildlife can be avoided by: (i) watching where you step and place hands in the woods (to avoid stinging insects and snakes), and (ii) making some light noise as you hike to alert larger animals, like bears and deer, to your presence. Black bears are common in the mountains but rarely pose any threat to humans. Keeping food items, waste, and other “smellables” packed in an airtight container will keep curious bears away, and should you run into a bear at close range, don’t run: make plenty of noise and make yourself look as large as you can. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a bear will run upon encountering a human.
Lastly, avoid indiscriminately killing or harassing wildlife in the backcountry. Don’t pick flowers (take a picture instead), and remember that you’re a visitor in the home of local species. Even animals that many see as “harmful,” such as snakes, should simply be left alone. These pose virtually no threat if observed from a distance, and most snakebites actually occur from humans trying to antagonize or kill snakes. If you see a snake or similar wildlife, enjoy the experience and leave it alone – the next hikers to come along may be looking for a similar experience!
6.) What about “trail etiquette?” One important thing to remember about any trail is that once you’re out of an established trailhead or picnic area, you’re in the backcountry, where facilities will be limited. None of the trails featured on this website are managed as developed attractions or amusement parks, and it’s up to us to make sure that they remain scenic, pristine places for younger generations. Unfortunately, litter and graffiti are major problems on several of our regional trails, most the result of disrespectful visitors giving little thought to the long-term condition of our public lands.
When you visit a trail, give some thought to how you can minimize any negative impacts from your visit. Leave the Sharpies and spray paint at home, and take a photo of your trip to remember it instead. If you pack anything in such as food or extra clothing, make sure it gets packed back out with you and thrown away at home – even small items like candy wrappers and soda cans. Trash left on the trail not only harms wildlife and contributes to pollution…it also can be a major turnoff to visitors from outside the region who would otherwise come here and spend tourism money in our local communities. Lastly, make sure that you are courteous of other trail users: don’t block vehicles or access roads at trailheads, be respectful and avoid being overly loud with your group in the woods, keep pets leashed (and clean up their waste), and allow passing hikers room to get by safely on the trail. A little thought can go a long way into making the trail a pleasant place for everyone and ensuring that it stays a popular destination for generations.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to minimize your impacts in the woods, check out Leave No Trace outdoor ethics.