***Updated October, 2008*** From Burnsville, go west on 19E and turn left at a light onto highway 197. After perhaps a mile, turn left on Bowlens Creek Road. Head south (upstream) along Bowlens Creek. After a few miles you'll come to a hairpin curve up and to the right. Just past the curve is a small cemetery on the right. We've parked cars here overnight in the past, and the forest service even used to advocate it. However, it is private property, and my understanding is that overnight parking isn't welcome there (although it may not be posted). The other option is the actual trailhead. To get to the actual trailhead, look for a narrow dirt road named "Water Shed" off to the left in the curve in the main road. There are actually two roads here - the level one on the right is the correct road. This road is just before the cemetery. The street sign here says PVT (private). It is unclear if this road is open to public access, but it has historically been used as such. The road leads up between two houses and into the national forest. The road is rough but is usually passable to passenger cars. It ends after a short distance at a turnaround and the remains of a bridge. The Black Mountain Crest Trail begins on the far side of the bridge. There is limited parking here. Please don't park before the end of this road, as the land is private.
My understanding is that the forest service is working to develop a better parking area / trailhead here. Updates will be posted as they become available.
Wilderness Exploration is surprisingly safe. Many people say that the most dangerous part of any hike is driving to the trailhead. This is false. Driving to the trailhead is the second most dangerous part of any hike. The most dangerous part of any hike is the drive home afterwards, when you're tired. There are a few dangers to be cautious of though. I will attempt to address each below, in order starting with the most significant.
Hypothermia, snow, rain, and wind - Hypothermia is always a concern, especially in the summer when it's unexpected. I've had a few brushes with hypothermia, and it seems like they've always been in May or June. I carry extra long underwear year-round. I also bring a rain jacket regardless of the forecast. Preventing hypothermia is simply a matter of staying warm. Staying warm is simply a matter of staying dry. If you're hiking, expect rain, or at least profuse sweating. If it's a cold day, try not to overdress at the start of the hike. If you do, you'll sweat once you warm up, getting all of your wonderful dry clothes nice and wet. If you're canoeing, expect to flip and plan accordingly.
Falls and ice - A fall isn't likely to kill you unless you're on a cliff, but a sprained ankle or broken leg can certainly make the hike out more challenging. I recommend a sturdy stick, or, if you're inclined to spend money on a stick, trekking poles, to help you maintain your balance. A good stick will also take pressure off your knees on steep downhills. They are most useful when rock hopping a stream. Wet, slippery rocks greatly increase the likelihood of a fall. Icy trails can also be a hazard. I strongly recommend carrying lightweight crampons or ice cleats during the colder months in case you run into a hazardous trail.
Lightning - If you're on an open mountain top or exposed ridge during a thunderstorm, there is just cause for fear. However, there aren't very many open mountaintops or exposed ridges in the southeast. If you're down in the trees you're probably fine, barring exceptionally bad luck. If you're hiking in the Rockies in the summer, plan on being below tree line no later than early afternoon. In those mountains, from July into early September, you can count on a thunderstorm virtually every afternoon.
The Wrath of God - See above.
Rednecks - If, by the term "redneck", you mean all country people, or all blue-collar people, or even all southern people, you have nothing to fear. "Country people" are among the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. For that matter, most folks that you encounter in the woods are decent people. However, if, by the term "redneck", you mean people who trash public lands, or destroy trails with illegal motorized use, or have no respect for other people or their property, there may be some cause for concern. To minimize the chances of an unpleasant encounter, camp well away from open roads. These people are generally lazy, so the farther you are from a road, the less likely you are to be bothered.
Car Vandalism - I've been parking my car at dubious trailheads for over a dozen years, and have yet to have had a bad experience. It can happen though. The obvious advice is to only park in secure areas, but that's usually not an option. My suggestion is to not worry - it's only a car, and presumably you have insurance. However, there are certain places with well-deserved reputations for car vandalism. The absolute worst is where the Appalachian Trail crosses US 19E north of Roan Mountain. Under no circumstances should you park a car there, especially overnight. The parking area off of US 321 at the Laurel Fork Bridge near Hampton, Tn., isn't much better. For the latest on these areas, refer to the Tennessee Eastman Hiking & Canoeing Club website.
Eric Rudolph - Eric Rudolph was arrested last summer and is currently sharing a cell with Saddam Hussein. I don't think there's any reason to fear Eric Rudolph, though I am disappointed that I missed out on a chance at that reward.
Hunters - There are various hunting seasons. The only one to be seriously concerned about is gun season for deer. In the NC mountains the season usually runs from approximately Thanksgiving through New Year's. During that month, stick with areas where hunting is unlikely or illegal (i.e. State and National Parks). Also, hunting on Sunday is illegal in North Carolina, so do your dayhikes then.
Getting Lost - I rarely worry about getting lost. I have a natural knack for navigation, though some people I hike with might laugh at that claim. Generally the hard part is finding the trailhead. The rest is easy. Typically our goal on a Sunday dayhike is to get thoroughly lost in the morning, just so long as we get found again that afternoon and allow plenty of time to eat dinner at a nice restaurant afterwards. I think this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon sums it up nicely.
Seriously though, it's actually rather hard to get lost in the southeast. The wilderness just isn't that big. However, people seem to manage it on a regular basis. Always bring a topographic map of the area, know how to read it, and try not to leave it in the car. A compass is a good idea, too, though I rarely use mine. In areas like Linville Gorge and Wilson Creek, where the trails are unmarked, be cautious about the numerous side trails that aren't shown on the map. If you're canoeing, navigation is usually just a matter of going downstream. Just make sure you know where the takeout is.
Giardia - If you read those forest service trailhead signs, you might believe that so much as coming into contact with untreated stream water will inflict you with a horrible intestinal disease. One sign I saw recommended boiling water for a full TWENTY MINUTES before consumption. To be on the safe side, why not boil it for 2 hours? Seriously though, if water comes to a FULL BOIL, a few seconds is plenty. Generally I only boil cooking and washing water. For drinking water, I use a filter. Water coming directly from a spring can probably be consumed without treating it, but don't take my word for it. You'll have to make your own decisions about how much risk you're willing to assume.
Bridges - Trail bridges are generally safe as long as you don't fall off. We do have one hiking club member who is deathly afraid of bridges, especially when they are narrow or lacking in railings. The worst bridge I ever encountered was one on the Foothills Trail over Corbin Creek. Technically, the bridge was still under construction, which added to the hazard. Another unpleasant experience came when we crossed the French Broad River on a railroad bridge.
Heat, humidity, and the sun - Bring plenty of water. On a typical dayhike I consume 2-3 quarts. On long hikes in the summer I often drink much more. If you bring a dog with you and won't be passing streams, make sure to bring extra. If you're going to be out in the open, sunscreen is a good idea - even in the winter.
Bugs - Bugs are rarely a cause for fear, but they can be a nuisance. My worst bug experiences have involved stepping into a nest of yellow jackets. This has become something of an annual event for me. It goes without saying that if you're allergic, bees are a valid thing to fear. Ticks can also be a problem. I've pulled more ticks off of me than I care to recall. Ticks have to be attached for a long period of time (some experts say 24 hours) to transmit disease. The best advice is to search yourself carefully at the end of every day for them. This can be a lot of fun if you have a willing partner. Do this even in the winter. The worst tick bite I ever had was in subfreezing temperatures in January. Spiders are rarely a problem, though walking through spiderwebs is certainly a disgusting experience. Mosquitoes are rarely a problem in the southern Appalachians, but they can ruin a trip in other places. Minnesota in May, the South Carolina coast in September, and Yellowstone in July come to mind.
Bears - People that don't go hiking universally fear bears. Those of us that do go hiking know better, which is why bears appear rather far down this list. I've seen bears on a handful of occasions, and each time they've run away before I could even get a decent photo. The one exception to this is in the Smokies (and other national parks). Hunting isn't allowed in the parks, so bears don't have reason to fear humans. Therefore, the danger from a bear is somewhat magnified in a national park.
Snakes - We probably step within a few feet of a snake dozens of times every year. Usually we donít know it. A handful of times a year we'll actually see one. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of snakes aren't poisonous. If you're worried about getting bitten by a snake, you might as well worry about having a tree fall on you.
Falling trees - See Wrath of God above. Actually, someone I know who has a friend of a relative with a 3rd cousin twice removed actually had a tree fall on them while sleeping in a tent. If you have that sort of luck, you should probably consider a hobby that involves having a roof over your head at all times. Also, try to avoid pitching your tent below dead trees. Areas infested by pine beetles don't make for pleasant camping!
Mice - If you stay in a trail shelter, you can expect to have mice running over you while you sleep. If you don't think you can handle this, sleep in a tent.
Boy Scouts - There's really nothing to fear with boy scouts, as long as you aren't camping near a full-blown jamboree. For planning purposes, boy scout friendly areas include Mount Rogers, the Uwharries, and in the summer months, Cold Mountain.
Tourists - Tourists rarely venture far from the road. The deeper into the wilderness you go, the less likely you are to share your experience with them. The biggest trouble you're likely to have with tourists is on the drive to the trailhead - especially on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As mama always used to say, the weather is as the weather does. As a rule of thumb, conditions are almost never as nice or as nasty as the weatherman will have you believe.
10 minutes, tops.
You're right, it is hard. I wouldn't try it if I were you.
Actually, we usually eat quite well. Myron and Dorcas have perfected the use of their backcountry oven for baking pastries and other treats. Fungirl has created a number of excellent wilderness recipes, especially with Asian and Mexican foods. After much experimentation, Bob and Laura have determined that the best freeze-dried entrees are made by Mountain House. They strongly recommend the Chili Mac. Wayne and Linda usually grill steaks - even for breakfast.
To summarize, breakfast usually involves oatmeal, though ambitious mornings sometimes includes eggs or pancakes. Dinner often involves pasta or rice in some form or another. Lunch is the tricky part, especially on long trips. Dried fruit and granola bars are a staple at lunchtime.
If you drop food on the ground, it's still ok to eat if you pick it up within 10 seconds. However, this isn't so much a rule as a guideline. If you drop a glob of tuna, you may just want to leave it. If you drop an M&M, 10 minutes isn't unreasonable. In fact, towards the end of a week-long trip, the next morning rule is occasionally invoked - especially when chocolate is involved.
Some people can discuss the various advantages and disadvantages of different types of gear for hours. I'm not one of those people. As long as my gear gets the job done, I'm happy. Generally, most any quality brand of tent / backpack / sleeping bag, etc. will do. But to answer the question....
Fungi and Fungirl use a North Face Tent, prefer Moonstone Sleeping Bags, carry Osprey Packs, and have had good results with Technica and Vasque boots. Bob and Laura alternate between REI, Kelty, and Sierra Designs tents, Marmot, North Face, and Mountain Hardware sleeping bags, carry Dana Designs packs, and wear LL Bean and Vasque boots. Joel uses North Face, Kelty, and Marmot tents, uses a Marmot sleeping bag, carries an external frame Kelty pack, and wears LL Bean boots. Myron and Dorcas have enough gear in their garage to stock an outfitters store. They use North Face and Eureka tents, North Face, REI, and Marmot sleeping bags, carry Dana Design packs, and wear LL Bean boots. Kevin uses whatever he can borrow from the rest of us.
Please see my suggestions on the recommendations page.
First, you'll probably want a partner. Most people find that it adds a lot to the experience. Assuming you've found a more or less willing partner, you'll want to find a place where you aren't likely to be interrupted by a passing church group or boy scout troop. Almost anywhere will do in the winter, when the chance of encountering a church group or boy scout troop is slim. However, winter has a number of drawbacks, not the least of which is the danger of frostbite on the unmentionables. For this reason, I recommend sticking with the warmer months and finding a place that you're likely to have all to yourself. I could print a list of such places; however, such a list would be largely self-defeating. On the other hand, I will print a list of places that you definitely want to avoid:
The swinging bridge at Grandfather Mountain
The top of Stone Mountain
Big Hump (really!) in the Roan Highlands
Little Hump (not quite as bad as Big Hump, but close)
Hunt Fish Falls (actually this is generally acceptable behavior at Hunt Fish Falls, but expect an audience)
Mount LeConte (get a room!)
The Blowing Rock
The top of Mount St. Helens
The Mount Mitchell observation tower
Any Blue Ridge Parkway overlook
Any Appalachian Trail shelter, but especially the ones in the Smokies
And, just added:
Hurricane Pass in Grand Teton National Park
The summit of Greybeard Mountain
Click on the links above to find out why!
Yes, that was me.
Sure. Or you can have this one.
Please remember to Leave No Trace!