It’s a joy to experience the Great Smoky Mountains with your kids—and to introduce them to the wonders of the natural world in the process! Some parents are a bit cautious about hiking with children out of safety concerns. Hitting the trail with the younger crew can be an absolute blast, and with a bit of planning and common sense, the risks can be minimal.
Let’s break down some ground rules of hiking safety with kids in Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
1. Stay Together on the Trail
Stressing the importance of staying together on the trail is essential. We don’t have to tell you that many kids tend to stray, so this can be easier said than done. Keeping everybody clustered in a single file allows you to keep constant tabs on your crew. Besides protecting children, this approach minimizes disturbance to other trail users. They only have to deal with briefly passing a family group rather than a spread-out succession of rambunctious tykes.
2. Stick to the Trail
Make sure your kids stay on the trail. That’s important for “Leave No Trace” protection of the Smokies’ natural resources. It also greatly reduces the chances of pintsized hikers getting lost.
3. Dress the Kids in Bright Colors
Wearing bright colors isn’t a bad idea for hikers of any age. Such outfits are much easier to pick out from a distance and in dense vegetation. You can eyeball children who wander off into the woods more quickly if they are wearing vibrant hues.
4. Save the Hide-&-Seek for Back Home
Speaking of wandering off, hide-and-seek isn’t a trail-friendly game in the Great Smokies. (It also doesn’t really jibe with the whole stick-to-the-trail thing.) Small children can be pretty darn good at the “hide” part of the routine, and in the forest, “hiding” can turn into “getting lost” in no time.
5. Teach Kids to Wait at Forks in the Trail
Ideally, your family hiking party will come to trail junctions and splits at the same time. After all, you’re sticking close together. In reality, though, you may be dealing with children who like to motor on ahead or a switchbacking path that makes it challenging for everybody to stay in view all the time. Kids who know to wait when they come to a footpath fork or intersection are less likely to take a wrong turn and blindly tromp on ahead.
6. Equip Kids With Their Own Packs—and Essential Gear
It’s vital that children not carry more weight than they can handle, but kids on the trail should have their own pack. Ideally, that’s a backpack, but fanny packs can work as well. These should have the same basic outdoor safety items all hikers, regardless of age, ought to bring with them. That includes extra food and water, a headlamp or flashlight, warm outer layers and rain shell, and an emergency whistle (which can also be worn around the neck). A favorite stuffed animal or another beloved object can provide comfort in a scary trailside situation.
7. Drill Down on What to Do When Turned Around
It’s critical to emphasize with your children what they should do if they find themselves lost in the Great Smokies. That can be frightening for anybody, and even grownup hikers may panic to the point of getting themselves more thoroughly off-course.
The “S.T.O.P.” acronym is a useful one to go through with kids. Even if they don’t remember what the letters stand for exactly—“Stop,” “Think,” “Observe,” “Plan”—they’ll remember that staying put is the best course of action. A lost child (or anybody else) who remains where they are stands a better chance of getting found than one who keeps moving, desperately looking for the trail or other people.
Children with the right gear will have food, water, and warm layers if they become lost. They can use their emergency whistle to broadcast their location with blasts of three. Reassure them that they shouldn’t hide from people calling their name in this situation, even if they’re strangers.
8. Make Sure Everybody’s Drinking Enough Water
Staying hydrated is critical on the hiking trail: It’s easy to become dehydrated, sometimes dangerously so. Children should drink roughly a cup or two of water every hour. Make it simple for them to sip as they go, and encourage them to hydrate even if they aren’t thirsty.
9. Impart Wildlife Safety Fundamentals
The Great Smoky Mountains boast abundant wildlife, and it’s not uncommon to see animals on a hike in the national park. For the well-being of critters and people alike, it’s important to give wildlife plenty of room.
Make sure kids know not to feed animals—even those chipmunks or songbirds that seem to expect handouts—and not to approach them. Black bears tend to be what everybody focuses on when thinking of wildlife safety in the Smokies. But plenty of other species may understandably act defensively if they’re being chased or handled by an overeager kid.
10. Be Careful Around Waterfalls & Drop-offs
Waterfalls such as Laurel and Grotto Falls rank among the most popular hiking destinations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They’re a magnet for young and old alike. They’re also risky, given their slippery footing, deep pools, and swirling currents. Pay extra-close attention to your kids’ whereabouts and stop them from clambering around waterside rocks.
The same goes for the (relatively rare) cliffs and other steep drop-offs in the Great Smokies, as at Charlies Bunion or the Jumpoff.
11. Always Have a First-Aid Kit Along & You Know How to Use It
Minor scrapes and bruises come with the territory when hiking with kids. Make sure you’ve got a first-aid kit at hand to treat these injuries promptly. Children who are old enough to understand the basics should carry a first-aid kit in their pack, too.
12. Encourage Everybody to Look Out for Everybody Else
Whether it’s “buddy-system” stops at the trailhead restroom or mid-hike snack breaks, remind your kids to look out for one another at all times. The same goes for teens and grownups in your hiking party: Make it everybody’s responsibility to be watchful, and the odds of mishaps go way down.
Safe Family Hiking in One of America’s Most Extraordinary Parks
Follow the above safety tips, and you’ll have more peace of mind to enjoy the lush and lovely Smoky Mountains with the whole gang. You’ll be churning out shared family memories for a lifetime, left and right!