Testing your limits is something I encourage any person to do, you should never tell yourself you can’t do something before you ever try. I’m no expert on the subject, but if there’s one thing I learned from this excursion it’s that fear is failure’s best friend.
The idea to do a solo backpacking trip wasn’t my favorite at first, but I definitely learned a lot along the way. Since this was my first backpacking trip I was appropriately terrified. There were so many things I kept thinking of that could go wrong and the thought of sleeping alone in the woods wasn’t all that settling either, but I wanted this badly. Once I swallowed my self doubt and worries that came with embarking on this endeavor, I felt invigorated to take on the challenge. When traveling alone you’re also planning alone, making decisions alone, doing long drives alone. Everything is on you, and truthfully, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. While outlining my backpacking trip I had a hard time deciding what section of trail to hike. Having been a pretty avid hiker for most of my life I felt comfortable going the distance, but it’s a whole different ball game when there’s thirty pounds strapped to your back. I landed on a well reviewed section of the AT (Appalachian Trail) that stretches from Carver’s Gap Tennessee to Highway 19E in North Carolina. The total mileage ended up being around 18 miles, the first 10 being brutal uphill climbs and the last 8 being the opposite, consisting of down hill mud slides.
This section of the AT was stunning, and I mean just breathtaking views with so much variety. The 360 views of the smokies, to moss covered forests, a bedazzled latrine, open prairie fields on hill tops, it was all just incredible. In early March there isn’t much that’s alive and colorful but the mountain views made up for that plus more. As much as I wished I could have done this hike in the summer beauty, spring temperatures in the smokies were a dream for hiking. The daytime temperature was between 45 and 60 degrees, sun shining, and a slight breeze. Perfect. Even overnight it only got down to around 35 degrees, but the wind was less than forgiving, but more on that later.
For my first backpacking trip I was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly it went. Right away when I got to the trailhead it was an uphill climb to the first overlook point, Jane's Bald, at 5,807 feet. It was a tough climb, and I didn’t practice with my pack before I left for the trip. So, tip #1 - Don’t be like me, and if you’re about to head out on your first trip, do a few practice hikes with your pack.
Once I got into the groove of things and up the first couple climbs, it felt like a breeze. After a couple of hours I got to Over Mountain shelter which is an old barn that was used for mountain men to have shelter during the Revolutionary war. The barn itself is in poor condition and no one is allowed inside anymore, but it’s in a small field right off the trail and hikers are allowed to camp in the field. This was my planned out campsite for the night but I had a few hours of daylight left and decided to push a little further. Only after using the one and only bedazzled latrine, for sure the best view I’ve ever had while taking care of business.
After a few more miles of uphill trudging and many breaks taken to appreciate the views, I got to Big Hump Mountain which became home for the night. Looking back, this is the only part of the trip I would do differently. The top of Big Hump has zero shelter from the wind and cold, an oversight in the excitement of the moment. I had checked the weather at least twenty times during the day to make sure I wasn’t going to be in high wind or rain overnight and I came to the conclusion that the wind would be gentle enough to make it a good place to camp. Wrong.
Little sleep was had after about 1am when the wind started a wrestling match with my tent. At this point there was no plan B and I knew I’d just have to stick it out until the morning. I ended up dozing here and there when there were lulls in the wind, but if you’ve never been in a tent with such conditions it’s comparable to trying to sleep in a car with all the windows rolled down while driving down the interstate. Tip #2 - Don’t camp on a bald unless you want to wake up with your tent collapsed on top of you. But, I did manage to escape the night without any wildlife encounters which was my biggest worry about the whole adventure. You win some and you lose some I suppose.
The next morning when I woke up I was met with the most incredible sunrise of my life. The strong wind, sore legs, and lack of sleep was all made worth it at that moment. Tearing down camp was a bit of a struggle because the wind had only increased into the morning, but I managed to get everything in my pack without losing anything to mother nature. But let me tell you, I was cold and insanely hungry at this point but knew that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with my camp stove up there. After retrieving my bear canister and orienting myself back on trail, I found shelter behind some conveniently positioned rocks and enjoyed my breakfast.
The remaining several miles of trail were all downhill and mostly winding trails through forests. I only came across one other group of hikers but otherwise was totally alone to enjoy the quiet morning. My phone was lingering on 10% battery for the rest of the hike so I had to go without music and mostly guess where I was supposed to be going. Tip #3 - Always make sure your battery pack is fully charged before you head onto the trail. I got back to Mountain Harbor Hostel where my car was parked at around 11:00am and it was definitely a bittersweet feeling. Although I was so happy to be able to take my pack off and sit, I was sad that my trip was over and I had to go back to reality.
Overall it was an amazing trip and I’m so happy I decided to take the leap to do it solo. It tested my self confidence a bunch but there was definitely a lot to learn from the experience that went deeper than survival skills. This solo trip taught me SO much about myself mentally and physically, so with that I so strongly encourage anyone wishing to do the same to just take a leap of faith and do it. I promise you it’s worth it (and good for the plot).
Happy trails! :)