North Carolina Ultralight Hiking
By Steve Gillman
In the mountains of North Carolina the hiking can be hard
on the ankles, and it rains a lot. So my days traveling a stretch
of the Appalachian Trail would be another good test for my ultralight
gear. I had on New Balance running shoes (14 ounces each), a
GoLite Breeze backpack (14 ounces), and would be sleeping in
a Western Mountaineering HighLite sleeping bag (17 ounces!),
under a lightweight tarp. My pack weight was around eleven pounds
total, with all food and water.
A friend from Asheville took me up to Newfound Gap, and we
took in the view with a hundred other tourists. Then he hiked
with me for the first mile or two, before heading back. I found
a good tree-branch on the ground and made it into a walking stick.
I figured it might help my knees on the steep downhill stretches.
It was cloudy, and getting cooler, but I hadn't heard anything
about bad weather.
I think I was actually in Tennessee when it began to snow.
The Appalachian Trail here in the Smoky Mountains National Park
weaves back and forth across the border. In any case, I was somewhere
near Clingman's Dome, above 6000 feet. It was getting dark and
the flakes were getting larger. I had tarp-camped in snow before
- one time, but I hadn't expected to in early May, in North Carolina.
I set up the tarp quickly (and illegally, I was later told)
on a hidden hillside, with a shoe on a stick holding up the weight
of the snow gathering on the nylon roof above. I woke up occasionally
to see how far I had slid down the hill and to shake the snow
off the tarp.
In the morning I was within a foot or two where I started,
and somehow dry. There was a blanket of snow seven inches deep,
covering everything. I packed up quickly, and went up the trail
to the top of Clingman's Dome. There is an incredible tower there,
with a spiral ramp going to the top. I had the view, or what
there was of it, to myself.
Fortunately, by noon I was below the snow, in the cold rain.
It was so wet everywhere, that when I reached one of the Appalachian
Trail Shelters, I couldn't get a fire going in the fireplace
- for the first time in my life. I ate my soggy noodles cold.
Fortunately, my Frogg Toggs rainwear kept me dry during the hours
of hiking in snow and rain. I was happy for that. My feet were
even dry for a while, before the rain returned that evening.
Hiking Through the Seasons
I discovered that the trees above a certain elevation in North
Carolina don't get their leaves by early May. Lower down they
get them weeks earlier. After hiking the Appalachian Trail for
half a day, and explaining to the through-hikers that I wasn't
just on a day hike ("Is that a day pack?"), I headed
lower. The trail went up and down, and I passed from leafy forests
to winter landscapes repeatedly. It made it seem like more time
was passing than the few hours it took me to reach a good campsite.
By now, after a conversation with a couple backpackers in
the shelter, I knew that I was hiking illegally, or at least
I was camping illegally. It was too late to go get a permit,
so I went off the trail far enough to be out of sight when I
set up my tarp. The rain returned, and I realized that one of
the benefits of a tarp is the space to move around during long
stays. Another is the view. Birds and squirrels made regular
In the morning, I realized that although I was warm, dry,
and impressed with the equipment, I had enough of North Carolina
hiking. I don't like rainy woods, and you don't get to see the
mountains in the heavily-wooded Smokies, like you do in the Rockies.
Twenty miles later I was on a highway, and in another 19 miles
I found a bus to take me back to my friends in Asheville.
I had never hiked 39 miles in a day before. I don't think
I could have in hiking boots. And I stayed warm and dry through
snow and rain. My North Carolina experience proved to me the
value and safety of ultralight backpacking techniques
and equipment. It was also fun to tell the other hikers that,
no, I wasn't day hiking.