By the time you reach the top of Mount Sterling in the North Carolinian section of the Great Smoky Mountains, you need a few minutes to rest before you’re able to enjoy the sting of the cold mountain air or the vistas that stretch for miles.

To reach the summit, you’ve either hiked over six miles, switchbacking up the north side of the mountain, or you approached from the south for a day or two over terrain that is just as difficult. Your legs hurt, your lungs burn, your face is flushed, hot and there is nowhere else you’d rather be. You’re alive, in shape, literally on top of a mountain and you feel great.

Credit: Sampson Jacobs/The Good 5 Cent Cigar
Credit: Sampson Jacobs/The Good 5 Cent Cigar

The main problem you run into on the trail early in the season is that rangers have only just started to maintain the trails. While hiking I would come across areas where the trail was blocked by massive trees or had been washed away all together. I would find other people in my group standing on the edge of a cliff, created by a mudslide, trying to figure out the best way to continue up the mountain. The terrain can be difficult and downright terrifying at times even if you’re experienced enough to know the limits of yourself and your gear.

Despite the dangers of living in the backcountry it’s worth every moment. Every tiny detail of your survival becomes important, every mile you hike shakes off another worry from your life back home. A task as simple as getting water isn’t as easy as walking to a faucet anymore. Depending on the condition of the water, you usually have to either boil it, use a ceramic filter or use germicidal iodine tablets to purify it before it’s drinkable. Putting yourself on the edge is part of what makes it so much fun, but part of it is also that you can see and exist in virgin land, untouched by the industrial human blight.

At night we would be settled in our camp and hours after the sun had gone down a group of students with insufficient gear and planning would sometimes come stumbling into camp. The hikers I am specifically referring to walked into camp after traversing switchbacks for over two hours in the dark, with nothing but a hand held flashlight. In all seriousness, they are lucky they didn’t die.

The students were in sneakers and day-hiking grade shoes, using a google map they had printed before leaving to navigate the backcountry. They had to camp on a steep slope and probably didn’t sleep much that night. But more than anything, they didn’t know how to use the bear-proof systems for protecting their food. They almost went to bed without storing it in a tree where animals couldn’t get it, which would have put everyone in the surrounding campsites in danger.

Credit: Sampson Jacobs/The Good 5 Cent Cigar
Credit: Sampson Jacobs/The Good 5 Cent Cigar

Students don’t always realize when they set out on an “alternative spring break trip”, like hiking through mountains in a national park, the risks they are taking. Tumbling down a mountain means you’’ll be lucky if it’s only a couple hundred feet on a 60 degree, or steeper slope.

Backpacking is the art of surviving with nothing more than what you can carry. The people attracted to the sport are usually also the type of people who literally can’t sit idle if we know someone is in danger. If we hear three blows on a whistle, SOS, our packs hit the ground and we are sprinting before the signal is even done. If you’ve fallen into a river and are risking hypothermia, we’ll pull the cloths off our backs to stand in the snow barefoot and naked to help you. If you’re hiking unprepared, you could be risking not only your life, but potentially the lives of people around you.

It’s fine to be a new hiker, everyone has to start somewhere. But do it right! Visit your local REI  or camping store and ask questions, a lot of questions, about every student detail you can think of. Backpacking is not taking a leisurely stroll through the woods, it’s work, it’s hard, it’s pushing yourself to your limit and seeing how long and far you can go on as little as you can.

It’s heart breaking when a hikers dies on a trail, no matter how experienced they were, it leaves the community reeling. Please don’t spoil the pristine beauty of a national parks with the trash and misery that comes from the unprepared hiker.