View Full Version : Tenting in the Smokies

11-04-2003, 12:01
If I really don't want to use the shelters in GSMNP what kind of trouble will I get into by tenting near the shelters? I realize this is OK when they are full, but I want to tent even if the shelters have room available.

Lone Wolf
11-04-2003, 12:04
I always tent regardless. Have for many,many years. I've never seen a ranger on the trails.

11-04-2003, 12:15
Official rules seem to be: Thruhikers (if you start and end 50 miles outside the park) can tent at a shelter if it is full. Everyone else has to use the shelter. I've spent a fair amount of time in the Smokys and have yet to see a backcountry ranger. There are only 3 for the whole park, anyways. At some of the more popular shelters during spring break I suppose someone might show up and ridgerunners have been known to come by. Then again, at the more popular shelters during spring break, you will probably have to tent it anyways.

Whether or not you follow the regs is up to you, just don't contribute to a problem. Put your food in the cables, take out your garbage, and try to set up in a durable area (lots of this around the shelters), or somewhere that people just don't camp at. Also, I wouldn't tempt fate by setting up before the day hikers go home (an hour before light goes).

If you don't want to sleep in the shelters, there is no reason to camp near them. There are some great places to camp along the AT in the Smokys that are no where near a shelter. You'll have to deal with water in your own way, though. Some nice places include near Tricorner, north of Russell Field on the Russell Field trail, Mt. Cammerer, Rocky Top, etc.

11-04-2003, 12:40
I wouldn't tempt fate by setting up before the day hikers go home (an hour before light goes).
What's the issue with the day hikers? Is there a concern that they might report a thru-hiker for setting up outside of the shelter?

Just wondering as I've noticed that comment before....


11-04-2003, 13:29
I have been in Cosby Knob shelter after dark when an armed ranger walked in and demanded to see permits! But this was the peak of the season. Question: why tent near the shelter? Why not just stealth camp? I am not condoning this.. 8-)

11-04-2003, 14:11
mostly its a question as to how smart the bears are in the area - one might want to tent near the shelter to have access to the bear cable system of hanging one's food/pack. In areas where the bears are not habituated stealth camping is a reasonable idea but given the population of habituated bears in the smokies I think that tenting near the shelter is a good idea just so as to have access to the bear cable. On the other hand if one is carrying a bear canister then stealth camping is probably OK (again not suggesting anything but ...)

bearbag hanger
11-04-2003, 14:36
When we went through last April, they were enforcing the shelter only thing. I managed to not get caught, but a few of the people who were at Mollies Ridge Shelter the night before we go there got tickets. Don't remember what the actual fine was.

11-04-2003, 14:43
One issue with the day hikers is that they might report your tent site to the rangers when they get back. But, mostly it is just being nice to them. Some of the best camping spots are in popular areas: Mt. Cammerer, Rocky Top, etc. I'd camp on Gregory Bald or Andrews Bald in a heartbeat, but I wouldn't want to set up until I was sure my tent wouldn't be in the way of day hiker's views. Spending an afternoon hiking up to Rocky Top only to find a couple of tents pitched next to the trail is not a fitting reward for making the effort. If you wait until they have gone home, then you don't have to worry about spoiling the end of someone's hike and tempting fate to spoil one of yours someday.

Bears are a good point, particularly in the western end of the AT in the Smokys. The cables help alot with this. If you want to throw a line, that should probably be sufficient, though. Water is another point. Shelters are conveniently located close to water, whereas if you decide to stealth camp you either need to be carrying enough water or have to be lucky enough to find water close to where you want to camp. In the springtime, this isn't a problem in the Smokys, but this is also the season of ridgerunners.

The Weasel
11-04-2003, 15:15
Jeff ---

There are a number of reasons why its important to use the shelters, and all of them really matter.

First, it's the law. It's that simple. It's a Federal offense, too. If caught, you'll be ticketed, and in some cases it isn't a "mail in" ticket, but will require an actual trip to the Federal Court which, I think is in Asheville. I doubt that you'd want it to get that far; you can't be the kind who says, "I don't care what the law says, I'm going to do what I want no matter what."

Second, there's a good reason for the law. The Smokies are the most heavily used National Park east of the Rockies, and the AT stretch is extremely heavily used, with over a thousand thruhikers annually, many others on shorter treks but that may cover the whole AT segment, and - not least - horsepackers on much of the trail for 20 miles or so NOBO from Fontana Dam. The more that people use parts of the trails in ways that are incompatible with what the National Park staff wisely want the more this park gets destroyed. And it IS being destroyed; air pollution levels already are so bad that it is the most polluted park in the nation, with daily ozone levels in the summer often worse than major metropolitan areas like Washington and Richmond.

Third, yes, you WILL be seen. There ARE back country rangers (not enough!) and, in some shelters, there are "shelter caretakers" (Smoky Mountain Steve here is one) who may well report you when they check in (as they must) with Rangers every day orso. You'll be seen by others on the trail, who will think that if a thruhiker does it, it must be OK, and so further risk damage to the park. You'll be seen by other thruhikers, many of whom will not be supportive of a violation of not only the Park rules, but of what really IS a "AT Thru Hiker Ethic" - "We are the protectors of the AT."

Fourth, the Smokies have significant animal problems which the shelters try to minimize. Not only are bears a problem (you do not mention if you propose to tent by a shelter, where cables are available, or "stealth camp" anywhere you want to, where bears WILL get at almost anything you hang, if they want to), but deer (with ticks) are frequent beggars (and becoming dangerously hiker-food dependent), boars (a MAJOR problem) are attracted by food, as well as varmints. These problems are, I think, greater in the Park than before Fontana or after Davenport because of the greater usage along the trail.

Last, it's just not that big a deal to follow the rules for maybe 3 nights: If you start at the Fontana Hilton, you're not going to spend more than 3 before you get out of the park, or at most 4 nights. You can tent anywhere you want from Springer up to there, and anywhere else, for all practical purposes, all the way to Shenandoah. After that, about the only stretch which gets feisty is up in the Presidentials. And you'll have lots of scenic places to pitch in the Smoky Mountains outside of the park, so you're not giving much up.

The Weasel

Saluki Dave
11-04-2003, 15:24
I agree with Weasel completely, cheap lawyer though he may be...

11-04-2003, 16:27
"Cheap" is such a laden word, especially as it applies to the high-rollin' legal profession.

11-04-2003, 16:47
Rather than write out a long response to the Weasel that might ignite another deluge of posts like in another thread, I'll be brief instead.

Know the risks and stealth camp responsibly. All of the Weasel's points speak to effects of poor camping practices. If you camp well, you'll avoid the problems that Weasel speaks of (well, maybe camping well won't affect the ozone), including other people and animals. As no one could possibly advocate practicing destructive principles, the real argument is whether or not the letter of the law is to be obeyed simply because it is the law. I think not, but others disagree with this, as another very long thread indicates. Simply put, as long as I (or anyone else) can obey the spirit of the law (the reason it exists), there is no reason to obey it in letter except for fear of retribution (the penalties outweigh the gain).

Lone Wolf
11-04-2003, 17:34
I'm with Chris, I've been doing that way for 17 years.

Senor Quack
11-04-2003, 20:32
Originally posted by L. Wolf
I'm with Chris, I've been doing that way for 17 years.

I'm with you, as well as Chris..

Obeying the spirit of the law is what it's all about, and once I'm carrying a hammock (later in the season), it won't matter one bit: The impact of camping will essentially be zero.

11-04-2003, 22:30
Another problem with stealth camping in the smokies is the Hog Hunters ...the NPS shots hogs in the Park and it's done at night...though the chance of getting shot is very slim..these hunters take the camping rules real serious...they don't like folks disturbing thier hunting...now there's a way to get in trouble.

Chris even though I agree with you and I believe that you personnally do a great LNT job....not everyone does..but don't worry I can probably get a weassel to defend you after I tell on ya... :banana

Thanks THE WEASEL,,,
they'll all think I am NARC now


The Weasel
11-05-2003, 01:16
Folks -

If I had a little thinner skin, I might get offended about cracks about lawyers. We stick up for those who need sticking up for a lot more than a lot of others do....but, anon.

Friends - and I mean that; all of us who walk, or will walk and, as a result, love it, are part of a truly wondrous community of friends, there just isn't any such thing as the 'spirit of the law' except for those who try to find an excuse to say, 'I do not accept the burdens of society, althought I want the benefits.' People who are like that are, to my regret - I mean it - those we call, "lawless," and we do so for a reason: They are without law; they lack it. It is much like the person who says, "They needed killing, and I know that's true, so I didn't murder them; I honored the spirit of the law." I'm sorry; life doesn't work that way. That's why we obey the law; not (I hope) out of fear of punishment, but because we are lawful; we keep our side of the bargain that makes society work. That bargain is "following laws".

I'm not trying to start a discussion of jurisprudence (that's the precise term for legal philosophy) here, although I may be doing so, to my probably regret. I'm trying to be practical in the extreme: First of all, the social contract - and there is nothing more practical on a day to day basis than that (if you doubt me, look at what happened when law broke down in Baghdad) - says, "I will compromise. I will expect others to act lawfully, and I will do so myself." When that system breaks down, we can't ask others to pay their side of that bargain, or at least we can't do so honestly. Those who see the illegal horse usage and fouled water sources in the Smokies ("But it was just a few hundred yards, and I saw hoofprints before me!" "But it was just for them to water themselves, and it was so far to carry waterbags, and they couldn't help crapping!") know this is a real issue in the Park.

That plays out in the Smokies in some other pretty practical ways when it comes to stealth camping. First of all, there just isn't any such thing as "zero impact camping." It doesn't exist. It's not possible. Just bushwhacking to the two trees, and thence to the water source, and thence back, begins a new trail. I see them constantly in many places, and many experienced backpackers will know the difference between those and animal runs. So others follow (and they do), and despite our best efforts, we damage further what we love. And that damage - in a highly threatened and extraordinarily fragile ecosystem (the Smokies are the most biologically diverse location in the Americas, and among the most endangered by humans) - is serious in the Park.

Second (and I continue to assume that people are talking about tenting/hammocking/sheltering some distance from shelters), it sends a message to others that "as long as you're cool about it, and do the right thing, it's OK." But not everyone is as perfect - see above - as you are, Chris. And they do their damage, far greater than you, and move on, leaving it behind.

These problems aren't as severe in the areas outside of GSM National Park; the traffic and usage is less and more dispersed by a factor of 10 or 20 times fewer people, and stealth camping is usually reasonable under those circumstances. But our National Parks are under massive assault, from a number of directions. We have a national administration that was unwilling to budget adequately for the Park System fully before the Iraq War, and is far less able to do so now. GSMNP's trail maintenance budget is absurdly low, and were it not for Trail Maintainers, the AT would be a joke in the Park. Usage is growing dramatically. I'm sorry, folks. I'd like to have that "special place" just off the trail too. But we're loving that park to death, as a nation. We have to draw the line somewhere, and honoring a set of NPS rules that are there not arbitrarily, but for very good reasons.

In the final analysis, how we behave depends on our own willingness to do, as Spike Lee pretty clearly demonstrated, "the right thing." That's not the easy thing, and it's often not even the most pleasant thing. But, it is the right thing.

The Weasel

11-05-2003, 09:02
Originally posted by The Weasel

...there just isn't any such thing as the 'spirit of the law' except for those who try to find an excuse to say, 'I do not accept the burdens of society, althought I want the benefits.'

Spirit of the Law = Reason for the law. Note, this contrasts with the words of the law, which are just that, words.

Originally posted by The Weasel

That plays out in the Smokies in some other pretty practical ways when it comes to stealth camping. First of all, there just isn't any such thing as "zero impact camping." It doesn't exist. It's not possible. Just bushwhacking to the two trees, and thence to the water source, and thence back, begins a new trail. I see them constantly in many places, and many experienced backpackers will know the difference between those and animal runs

How would camping on Rockytop (which really is just rock on top) or in the Mt. Cammerer fire tower cause appreciable environmental degradation? Sure, I might crush a bug when I put out my ground cloth, but I don't think that is what you mean. Note that off trail hiking is not banned in the park. So, the park seems to recognize that simply walking off the trail does not harm the park in an appreciable manner.

Originally posted by The Weasel

But not everyone is as perfect - see above - as you are, Chris. And they do their damage, far greater than you, and move on, leaving it behind.

I never said that I was perfect, only that I can camp without leaving a trace. So can everybody else if they take the time to learn a little. But, I do like the idea of being perfect. Maybe I could get a special license for that.

Originally posted by The Weasel

But our National Parks are under massive assault, from a number of directions. We have a national administration that was unwilling to budget adequately for the Park System fully before the Iraq War, and is far less able to do so now.

As much as I like the new shelters in the Smokys (I don't, by the way, know how much the park put into them), I'd rather withhold funds from them to prevent another road being built in the Smokys. If this means giving up a renovated shelter or a front country campsite, great! If it means that washed out bridges are not replaced, even better! The AT through the Smokys appears to be maintained entirely by volunteer effort, and it looks great. The popular side trails are maintained by the large numbers of people passing through. The less popular trails don't seem to be maintained in the least, which is fine with me. If the park had more money, they could build that road. They could put up another visitor center. They could build more stuff.

Ok, I violated my originial intent and posted a rambling diatribe here akin to what appeared in another thread. This will be all from me on this note.

Lone Wolf
11-05-2003, 09:10
Y'all are too long winded! I'm still gonna tent outside the shelters.

The Weasel
11-05-2003, 09:17
Chris --

Never said you were perfect...just that others aren't as perfect as you. So you don't get a license!

As for how someone can damage Rocky Top? Maybe, maybe not. But someone sees you camping where you want to there, and figures they can camp anywhere THEY want to. And I'm sorry Chris...I don't doubt that you try every bit as hard as I do to LNT. We fail, and not by "killing one bug." The traces may be small, but they are there, and they accumulate. And, frankly, there are enough people who think LNT means burning their aluminum foil and burying their tuna cans that when they "stealth camp" (because they know it's OK...why? "If them thru hikers can, why can't I? I pay taxes just like theml!") they continue, far more badly than us, the example we should not have set.

As for shelters and roads, neither of us are so naive as to think that if "we"give up a new shelter, that means they won't build a road. Issues like that stand and fall individually, and are rarely the product of bargaining: The ATC doesn't usually negotiate like that, and the NPS isn't that successful.

There's a big difference between bushwhacking to explore the park, and saying, "I'm going to thruhike the AT but I want to stealth camp GSMNP." And as for "spirit of the law," well, forgive my chuckles. Us lawyers have a term for people who use "the spirit of the law" - "Sure I did it! But I honored the SPIRIT of the law!" - as their defense.


The Weasel

Lone Wolf
11-05-2003, 09:32
I bet you drive over the posted speed limit daily.

11-05-2003, 10:40
with drawn

11-05-2003, 10:49
To add more fuel to the fire 8-) it seems like the backcountry permit idea is faulted too. I always get a permit but in retrospect seems like I could skip it. If you have a light and you are caught on the trail with no permit you can always claim you intend to hike until you reach the next trailhead and you are carrying your sleeping gear just for emergencies. If you are caught stealth camping, you can say you intended to make it to the trailhead but got too tired! (I enjoy Weasel's and Chris's debates).

11-05-2003, 11:00
Up until Y2K, Shenandoah National Park -- also a Park with lots of bears, visitation, and the other issues ascribed to the Smokies -- made minor criminals of those who tented within a half-mile of a shelter. An overzealous ranger could and sometimes would issue citations which required a detour to court in Charlottesville.

For a number of years, a very small number of hikers argued with the Park and even with some of the Powers-That-Be in the local maintaining club that this policy was absurd. Almost everywhere else along the A.T., where there is room, tenting is actually encouraged within a few hundred feet of shelters -- without any significant downside and in fact some appreciable upside. So why, as soon as A.T. hikers cross the boundary into SNP did the advised suddenly become ill-advised?

For several years in the '90s, the NPS went through the customarily ever-slow gummint bureaucratic methods of making changes to Shenandoah's all-encompassing backcountry management plan. When it was finally put into effect in 2000, designated tentsites were established near all A.T. overnight shelters (called "huts" here). And guess what -- none of the doom-and-gloom predicted by the naysayers has been seen.

It's tempting to say that the few (very few) hikers who made this an issue had something to do with the change in policy but honestly I just think wiser heads prevailed and the new designated tentsites fit in perfectly with the rest of the new backcountry plan.

Some of the tentsites, hardened by Park employees and each marked with an identifying post, may leave a bit to be desired as they could be larger, less rocky, and more level side-to-side. Volunteer hut maintainers or others may need to improve upon the Park's handiwork and this is slowly being done at some huts. Still -- the most important thing is that hikers who tent near huts in SNP are no longer criminalized.

The managers of the Smokies could learn a lot from SNP's experience in this regard.

11-05-2003, 16:15
Re: Manzana's comment about backcountry permits, I think they have limited real-world benefit as currently handled but perhaps some potential. I will speak from the perspective I know best--Shenandoah National Park--but the same comments might find a home at GSMNP and others where the backcountry permit system is operated similarly.

Right now, they serve as little more than toe tags should you be that one in a million found deceased inside Park boundaries. In fact, I know thru-hikers who refer to them as toe tags! Perhaps there is some dubious secondary benefit to be derived favoring the paid staff that gets to input the data, keep statistics, go to court to testify against hikers who get citations for not properly having one, etc.

There COULD be a benefit to the backcountry permit's existence if the occasion to educate hikers about important things such as Leave No Trace, no primitive campsite fires, hiker etiquette, safety, proper gear, and protecting the Park's many resources, etc. were optimized. But this would take a major effort by paid staff and/or volunteers who would have to be available year-'round (and not just 9 to 5) at each of the permit issuing points. This simply isn't feasible, and it definitely is not done. Most permits are self-issued at one of several self-registration kiosks. Education, if at all, is minimal.

So does the permit system allow hikers to be easily located in emergency situations? Very doubtful. By the time this data finds its way into the Park-wide system for quick access, the hike is well underway or in some cases long over with. Also, if hikers deviate from their original plans at all, the itineraries on those permits are fiction, so good luck finding someone.

Does the permit system allow Park staff to "manage" use so no part of the Park is over-used on a given day or weekend? I don't see how, given the lag time before this data is available Park-wide. It does, however, allow someone to find gainful employment analyzing statistics after the fact.

So as currently operated, is the backcountry permit system worth all the effort for staff and hassle for hikers? My vote would be no. Anyone have a different perspective? Did I overlook something important?

11-05-2003, 17:42
Permits in GSMNP are not self-issued. You gotta call the Man and see if he has room. Frequently during peaks times, he doesn't.


11-05-2003, 18:05
It's been four years since I hiked the Smokies and maybe things have changed.

When I did it in September 1999, we self-registered at a kiosk near the ranger station close to Davenport Gap not that different from what you'd find at one of the Skyline Drive (SNP) entrance stations. We went up to the ranger station just to see if anyone was there, but it was locked. The form itself was different, but the procedure nearly identical.

There was nothing on the info board at the kiosk indicating we had to "reserve" space or ask for permission to stay at specific shelters, tho there WAS space to put an itinerary on the permit similar to SNP's. We did that, and hiked.

11-05-2003, 18:07
Originally posted by manzana
Permits in GSMNP are not self-issued. You gotta call the Man and see if he has room. Frequently during peaks times, he doesn't.

Apples and oranges...

The backcountry permits are the things you fill out at the self-serve kiosks. Gotta have one no matter what campsite or shelter you're going to stay at.

You're thinking of a reservation, which is required for all shelters and some campsites. For those you do have to call and get your reservation number, which you then put on the backcountry permit.

Lone Wolf
11-05-2003, 18:20
The permit system is a klusterphk. Shelters are always overbooked. Sometimes a week will go by before rangers pick up the filled out forms at the self-reg. areas. This so-called rule that 3 bunks per shelter per night are reserved for thru-hikers is BS too. Where on any official NPS document does it state that? It's not posted at the kiosks or on the registration form. And beginning your hike 50 miles north/south of the park qualifies one as a thru-hiker, therefore one can stay at any shelter and/or tent is BS also.

The Weasel
11-05-2003, 19:34
Originally posted by L. Wolf
I bet you drive over the posted speed limit daily.

Are we putting money behind that bet? I can always use a little extra walking around dough.

The Weasel

11-05-2003, 21:12
Skyline - do you know if the latest move on SNP self registration applies to the kiosks that are on the AT also - that is to say do the rangers lock up the self registration kiosks on the AT the same way that they are locking up the others such as at Panarama one hour before sun down so as to keep people from self registering / back country camping after dark?

Saluki Dave
11-05-2003, 22:06
Okay, I stayed out of this as long as I could.

The argument has been advanced that if you practice LNT principles, tenting in the Smokies, or by extension anywhere you please is OK. Exactly how good do you have to be at LNT before you can tent where you like? I'm pretty good; perfect...probably not. Am I good enough? How about my friend Dan? He's not quite as good as I am. Maybe we should have testing and licensing. Of course, that brings up the problem of enforcement. What if you screw up once in a while? Should your license be revoked? Exactly what constitutes a violation?

It seems to me that the most equitable position to take is the one that has been taken. No tenting away from the shelters.

Of course, you could also argue that it's just as equitable to permit tenting everywhere by everyone. Imagine that...

11-06-2003, 23:52
HOI, I asked the same question on the PATC Trails Forum last week. The new "apparent" procedure to lock up the SNP self-reg kiosks near Skyline Drive entrance stations one hour before dark kinda has me and a bunch of others pissed.

I do not know how it affects self-reg on the A.T. at the north and south boundaries. It's hard to imagine rangers walking in there--especially at the north boundary--every night and again the next morning to lock/unlock. My fear is that they might decide to just do away with on-A.T. self-reg altogether. That would be a big mistake IMO.