Back-Country Trail Etiquette

When I plan my back country hikes, I do so with the hope of solitude. My idea of a hike is to enjoy nature and take in the beauty and majesty the Creator provided for us. Even though an estimated 11 million people visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park last season not everyone hiked.  The majority of hikers stick to the most popular trails. I understand over 134,000 people hiked Laurel Falls between July and October alone. The National Park maintains 803 miles of trails, which means that with a little research you can find a fairly secluded trail where it is possible to not encounter a fellow human being. That being said there is still a “trail etiquette” expected of the backcountry hiker.

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Should you happen to encounter a bear on the trail DO NOT offer him your lunch! OK, that’s a given, but the bear is given right of way at all times. While the park biologist says the trail belongs to the hiker and the forest belongs to the bear, I assure you the biologist isn’t going to magically appear and remind the bear of the park policy. You could turn and run, but that only works if you are hiking with someone slower than you. What works for me is to stop, fumble for my camera, make all the appropriate settings, and then just as I am ready to get a great picture, I realize Mr. Bear has politely returned to the woods (probably laughing hysterically about how quickly the hiker turned white and began shaking uncontrollably).

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Should you happen to encounter a buck trucking up the trail, as you are heading down, the assumption is the trail and the forest belong to the buck. He has horns on his head and isn’t afraid to use them! On this occasion I happened to see the buck several minutes before he saw me. I’m guessing he had his mind on something else, like maybe rutting season? When he finally did see me he actually came a little closer. By the time he was within 25 yards I had already calculated which tree I was going to attempt to scale. Then at the last instant he slowly stepped to the left and walked up the slope about 15 yards giving me the trail. Once I passed he returned to the trail to continue his journey. From that encounter I gathered when meeting a buck on the trail, the person/animal going uphill will vacate to the left to allow the person/buck going downhill the right of way. I haven’t had the opportunity to confirm this theory.

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There are times when you encounter other hikers in a NO PASSING ZONE. The passing/no passing zones aren’t clearly marked, but are easily identified. These situations present an obvious problem. On this particular occasion, everyone was moving in the same direction (up Trillium Gap). Those of us with 2-wheel drive weren’t able to maneuver nearly as well as those equipped with 4-wheel drive.  The ladies seemed to be in a hurry and actually tailgated us from time to time. We stopped several times in hopes that they would just go around us, but alas a no passing zone means no passing. They pushed us up the trail for nearly .10 of a mile until we came to a pull out. Apparently the speed limits are not enforced as strictly, as these ladies flew past us at their first opportunity. By the time we reach LeConte Lodge (our destination) they were already there eating their dinner.

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