Things to Consider when Planning a Hike in Western North Carolina
The following are some of the things you will want to keep in mind while hiking in Western North Carolina. Points are listed in no particular order. These items are not to be considered a complete list of everything you should know. Also, this site assumes you are familiar with hiking as an outdoor activity before partaking on any hikes listed within. Most of the hard-core advice here applies to longer trips than the average family day-hike, but it's a good idea to read this over and keep the important stuff in mind even if you're just going on a short stroll in the woods.
It is important to remember that the weather can change quickly in the mountains. Remember also that the area covers a large geographic region with wildly varying weather conditions. And most importantly, the weather varies considerably with elevation. Always check the forecast before you go, and always take it with a grain of salt! You can also find more information on this site about Weather and Climate in Western North Carolina.
Although experts nearly always demand that you wear sturdy hiking boots with "ankle support", I do not personally think this is always necessary - especially in this region. Let's face it - boots are expensive, heavy, smelly, bulky, hot, and take forever to dry out. The level of "ankle support" they provide is dubious, and they can even exacerbate a lot of foot problems in some cases.
Boots may be what you want in cold or wet weather, if you have a propensity for twisting your ankle, if you plan on carrying a weighty backpack, or even if you just find them to be comfortable. But keep in mind their limitations, too. One of the beauties of hiking is that no particular special gear - except something in which to carry water - is required to participate! There are many people who enjoy hiking in old sneakers, high-tech hiking shoes, sandals, or even barefoot.
What's most important is that you wear what is comfortable for you, and appropriate for the conditions on the trail.
With that being said, some trails in this area will be extremely rocky and difficult, so keep that in mind when choosing footwear. Rocks tend to be slick when wet or covered with mud or algae. Wool socks can be great in cold weather, but should not be too tight to restrict blood flow (same goes for boots) or worn when they will make your feet too hot. Waterproof boots may be beneficial on some trails after wet weather, but if it's raining, they'll just get wet and soggy and you may be better off without them. Nothing dries faster than bare skin.
Ultimately, I don't recommend any one particular kind of footwear - or footwear at all - for all hikes and conditions. Experiment with different types and see what works best for you.
Like footwear, it is important to wear clothes that are comfortable and appropriate for the conditions in which you will be hiking. Unlike footwear, however, I do have some very strong recommendations here. It cannot be emphasized enough to dress in layers that can be added or removed as weather conditions change! I consider this more of a "rule" than any other piece of advice in this arena. Several thin layers are way better than one thick, insulated layer in almost all cases.
A waterproof outer garment can be quite handy - if not critical - during heavy rain, but beware of the supposed "breathable" moniker given to many high-tech fabric coatings. Although they technically allow water vapor to pass out while keeping liquid water from coming in, they only work well for me in cooler temperatures. In warmer weather the body just generates way too much sweat for this to be effective, and I'm more comfortable getting wet by rain than being sauteed in sweat inside a parka. And they tend to break down over time, letting water in anyway. Again, several layers of quick-dry material that can keep you warm even when wet might work better here.
Getting soaked by rain followed by cold weather (common when a cold front comes through) can be a life-threatening event, and it might be necessary to stay dry. This is definitely a time where you will need to plan ahead, know what weather to expect in the amount of time you will be on the trail, and to experiment safely near shelter to find what works best for you.
Food and Water
What people eat on the trail varies almost as much as what they wear. In general, you will want to carry more food than you think you will need - although personally, I tend to eat less while hiking for some reason. Still, getting caught hungry isn't fun and can be dangerous in its most severe form. Keep food in plastic baggies to stay dry, and carry plenty of high-energy food with you. Fruit is great, as are nuts and of course energy bars. Bread is also good, but be careful of sandwiches (or anything else) that might require refrigeration. It's hard to be more specific than this except to say: avoid junk food (sugary, fatty stuff) - the energy you get from it will wear off quickly!
You will also drink a lot more on the trail than you expect to - especially in hot weather. I always carry more water than I think I will need. I typically carry 100oz for a long day hike in warm weather, in a bladder style water container and I've never run out (when hiking alone). Running out of water can quickly become dangerous and drinking from area streams is probably not a good idea without filtration or sterilization. Bring a filter (preferable), or water treatment tablets (chlorine or iodine) to treat water if you will need to replenish before the end of your hike (typically on overnight trips). Boiling can also sterilize water, but requires a fire or camp stove (stove preferred) and a heavy pot or container. Electrolyte loss can be a problem if you sweat a lot, but typically is not an issue for day hikers who are eating well. Check with a sports medicine expert if you are concerned about this.
Animals and Other Dangers
It goes without saying that the woods are filled with potentially dangerous creatures - everything from honkin' bears down to the lowly bacteria that can make us all sick. However, encounters with wildlife are rare, and when they happen, even less likely to be up-close. Being attacked by a bear, cat, wild boar (hog), or the like is a very slim possibility, but just not very likely to be the thing that ruins your day.
There are venomous snakes in the area - which run slightly higher on my to-worry-about list. There are copperheads and rattlesnakes present across the mountains. However, the VAST majority of snakes you will find are not venomous. Snakes don't give chase - but they do slither quickly away from people most of the time - and and as long as you don't come within striking distance, you simply won't have an issue with them. If you stay on visible trails, then you also shouldn't accidentally put a hand or foot in the most likely place to get bitten: a hidden area behind a log or rock where a snake is hanging out.
Using good common sense should alleviate almost all concerns about animals, and you will want to focus on less popularized things to keep yourself safe while in the woods. For a good example, read and consider this story of mine from a few years back. It was a lack of water, not the mother bear sheltering her cubs I encountered, which really gave me problems!
Maps, compasses & Getting Lost
Experts will also demand that you carry a map and a compass on every hike you take. While I do agree that a map is *almost* always essential, knowing how to read one - and knowing a map's limitations - is JUST AS IMPORTANT! A compass can come in handy but is generally not absolutely necessary on our trails. A GPS can be useful as well, but keep in mind that mountains and trees can make getting a satellite signal difficult. If you're heading into the wilderness, do carry a compass - and just as importantly - know how to use it. Always let someone else who is not hiking know your plans, so that in the worst case they can get the search team started in the right direction.
If you find that you have become lost, it is usually suggested to stay put and let yourself be rescued. But that's just assuming that everyone is helplessly lost. In reality, it is up to you to decide what you will do at that time, and finding your way back out isn't always unreasonable. Ask yourself a few questions. Are you REALLY lost, or did you just fail to find the trail or landmark you were looking for? How lost are you? Do you remember the way back to where you started? Are you alone? When's the last time you know you were on track? If you're alone, when's the last time you saw someone else? What's the terrain like? How much light do you have left in the day? How many provisions (food, water, shelter, etc.)? What's the weather forecast? Is the weather doing strange things that weren't in the forecast? How many people are with you? Is anyone injured? Sick? Tired?
The answers to these kinds of questions will be very case-specific and may dictate what the best course of action will be. Even if you do decide to stay put and await help, knowing this information will be key in deciding how you will proceed. If you stay put, try to make yourself comfortable and visible. Build a fire. (In some places, this alone will trigger the officials to come out and give you a citation, ensuring your rescue!). Many people have indeed been found by rescuers when staying in one place. But the bottom line is that every situation is different. Many have found their own way out of the wilderness. Many have died trying! This is where your best judgment will have to be trusted.
The best course of action is to never get yourself lost in the first place. Always at least know how to backtrack if you lose your way.