Outing Ratings and Considerations
We rate our hiking outings as easy, moderate, or difficult, based on distance, amount of climbing, and terrain. Here are some general guidelines for these ratings:
miles or less and up to 1000' elevation change (on trail).
miles or less and/or up to 1500' elevation gain per day, on trail hiking.
For any outing, any of the following conditions will be considered in assigning higher difficulty ratings: off-trail sections on a lower mileage outing, rocky footing, deteriorated trail, or steep sections of outing.
Naturally, the ratings are subjective, and will depend heavily on the physical conditioning and mental readiness of the participant. Note that as an outing participant, you may find your own assessment of the difficulty of an outing to differ from the leaders' rating, either easier or harder.
All SMHC outings will have a front leader and a rear co-leader, who is frequently referred to as the "sweep". The "sweep" is responsible for making sure all members of the outing are accounted for as the outing progresses. Hikers should choose a pace that is comfortable and safe, even if the group tends to hike faster. For your safety during hikes, always stay between the two leaders, and always stay within sight of another hiker if the group gets spread out.
For more details on an outing, or to discuss if you will be able to safely complete an outing, contact one of the leaders a few days before the hike. We strongly encourage you to call a leader if you aren't fully sure you can handle the demands of the route. SMHC outing leaders will assess the capabilities of each person who shows up at the meeting place and the trailhead. If, in their estimation, a person cannot safely complete the outing, the leaders reserve the right to ask that person to not participate in the outing. This is for the safety and well-being of that person, as well as to ensure a better outing experience for the group.
If you are an older individual (60 years of age or more), have a history of, or have currently, health issues such as heart or circulatory problems, diabetes, smoking, dizziness or vertigo, or weight-bearing joint problems, please consult with your primary care physician before undertaking strenuous physical activities such as hiking. Also, please discuss your desire to participate in a hike with the hike leaders. At minimum, they will need to know about your health issues, and they also will decide whether you will be able to participate.
Rating Guidelines, and Additional Notes, for Off-trail and Manway Outings
NOTE: SMHC's off-trail and manway outings should not be attempted by the casual hiker who has only hiked on trails, without first contacting the outing leaders to discuss. The outings rated at difficult are easily capable of mentally and physically defeating unprepared or casual hikers. Even the more moderate off-trails can be quite challenging. Be advised that much off-trail hiking is more difficult, at times quite unpleasant, and demanding, than hiking on trail in the Smokies.However, the rewards of hiking off-trail exceed the punishment for those who enjoy it!
Easy: fairly good footing, discernable footpath in most places, little to moderate vegetation to be penetrated, relative lack of isolation and easily accessed, physical exertion not much more than on-trail of same distance. Examples: White Oak Sink, Mids Branch (Elkmont), Courthouse Rock.
Moderate: Longer route, footpath is harder to find or non-existent in places, sections of difficult vegetation, more physically challenging. Most off-trail outings will fall into the moderate category, with a broad range of factors to be considered. Examples: Bent Arm, Groundhog Ridge.
Difficult: Long distance, long steep climbs, fifth-class scrambling, exposure to heights, remote area, dense vegetation, exceedingly tough and demanding to complete. Creek hikes may involve frequent crossings of the stream, or 'rock-hopping' directly up it, and some leaders may plan to do this by wading. Examples: Lowes Creek, Anakeesta Slide, Hyatt Ridge, Defeat Ridge.
The SMHC has voluntarily adopted a party limit of eight hikers for our off-trail outings. This limit is intended to reduce environmental impact. Not all off-trail leaders will strictly enforce the SMHC party size limit. However, we recommend that all off-trail participants preregister with the leaders, via email or phone, in case the limit will be enforced.
There is some overlap and confusion in the usage of the terms 'off-trail' and 'manway'. In the broadest sense, 'off-trail' refers to any travel off the official trail system in an area. The term 'manway' is broadly used to refer to any unmaintained, unofficial route that can be followed by hikers. Accordingly, a manway can be a footpath, an old railroad grade, a settlement wagon road, a game trail created by animals, or an abandoned former official trail. However, some insist on a stricter distinction, that off-trail means being completely off a trail, path, grade, or any sort of recognizable human route. The SMHC frequently uses the two terms interchangeably.
Manways in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park generally follow old settlement roads, railroad grades, abandoned CCC trails,and other unmaintained routes that can be seen on the 1931 and 1949 maps of the Park area. Most of the off-trail/manway outings the SMHC conducts are in the Smokies, although there will occasionally be some scheduled in the surrounding areas.
On the outings, vegetation that will be encountered includes rhododendron, mountain laurel, sawbrier, thorny blackberries, doghobble, small sapling trees, and downed trees. Hiking through vegetation without benefit of a trail is challenging and discouraging at times. Although snakes, spiders, and stinging insects can be encountered anywhere on the trail system, the likelihood off-trail is considerably higher, particularly in the summer and early fall months.
NOTE! You must be prepared for minor injuries on these outings, most likely scratches, bruises, and pokes- and you WILL get dirty!
Worsening off-trail conditions ahead due to dead hemlocks
The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (HWA) insect has already killed the majority of the Smokies' eastern hemlock trees, and most of the remaining live trees are in poor condition and dying. This is despite the NPS' efforts to save some remnant population of the trees. We are expecting increasingly difficult offtrail conditions for the near future as these dead hemlocks fall and block trails, manways, railroad grades, streams, and other offtrail route features.
For more on the plight of the hemlocks in the Smokies, visit the GSMNP Focus on.. Dying Giants site.