Hiking and Backpacking in Tennessee: Tips & Trails

Backpacking in Tennessee: Two hikers enjoying a scenic valley view during a sunny day

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Tennessee offers diverse and rewarding hiking and backpacking experiences, featuring over 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the eastern part of the state.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at hiking and backpacking in Tennessee from a lightweight standpoint, providing useful tips to help you prepare for your upcoming outdoor expedition.

We will highlight the TOP 5 trails in Tennessee, split into two parts. The first section covers day hikes under 25 miles, ideal for exploring the area in a single trip. The second part features multi-day adventures, allowing you to restock supplies every couple of days.

Key Tips for Hiking and Backpacking in Tennessee

  • What to expect: In Tennessee, you’ll find stunning mountain trails cutting through dense forests, offering a range of terrains from easy creekside paths to challenging climbs over rocks and roots. Trails have different surfaces, including gravel on well-kept park trails and natural dirt and rock on others. The difficulty varies, providing options from easy to very challenging grades.
  • Essential gear: Don’t forget your water filter to treat water from streams, a bear-proof food storage canister to keep food secure, quality rain jacket and pants for unpredictable weather, and waterproof matches or lighter in case a campfire is permitted in the area.
  • Wildlife: Black bears are common throughout the state’s forests, so you could potentially see one on or near the trails. Other predators to be aware of include bobcats and coyotes, though encounters are rare. Venomous snakes like copperheads and timber rattlesnakes inhabit forests as well, so watch where you step and place your hands. Birds like wild turkeys may startle hikers on the trails. Insect-wise, summer brings biting flies, mosquitoes and ticks carrying diseases like Lyme.
  • Wild camping: In Tennessee’s national forest lands, wild or dispersed camping is allowed, following Leave No Trace principles and staying at least 100 feet away from water sources, with a maximum 14-day stay limit. However, random camping is not permitted in state parks and national parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where camping is restricted to designated campgrounds. Camping on private land without permission is considered trespassing. Additional restrictions on camping in public lands may exist in local municipalities, so it’s essential to check local rules for guidance.
  • Best time to go are generally May, September-October, and late summer from August-September. These periods offer milder weather without heavy rains or snow. Spring from March to May brings blooms but muddy trails, while June-July can be intensely hot and humid. October through early November allows for viewing fall foliage, though higher elevations may see snow. Winter from December-February brings unpredictable conditions at higher elevations.

Top 5 Day Hikes (Under 25 Miles)

We’ve chosen what we believe are some of the best day hiking trails in Tennessee, where utilizing ultralight gear can significantly enhance your overall experience:

  1. Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte (11 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Charlies Bunion via AT(8 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Virgin Falls Trail (8.1 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Mount Cammerer via Low Gap Trail (11.1 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Ramsey Cascades Trail (7.9 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Top 5 Multi-Day Trips

Discover the picturesque trails in Tennessee, where you’ll encounter resupply points regularly spaced no more than two days apart:

  1. AT: Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap (30.8 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Savage Gulf and South Cumberland Loop (26.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Cumberland Trail: Prentice Cooper Section (28.4 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Ridge Trail: White Rocks (31.7 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Mt. Cammerer Backpacking Loop (32.7 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Annual Weather Averages

Tennessee’s climate varies by season and region. Here’s a brief overview:

  • Spring (March-May): Daytime highs are usually 60-70°F (15-21°C). Rain is common in spring, especially late March through early May.
  • Summer (June-August): Daytime highs average 80-90°F (27-32°C). Afternoon thunderstorms are common. July and August tend to be the wettest months.
  • Fall (September-November): Daytime highs are around 70-80°F (21-27°C) in September. October brings colorful foliage. Temperatures range 50-60°F (10-15°C) in November.
  • Winter (December-February): Daytime highs are typically 30-40°F (-1-4°C) with overnight lows 20-30°F (-7- -1°C). Mountainous areas may see some snowfall at elevations above 2,000 feet. Rain is more common than snow at lower elevations.

Before selecting your gear and hitting the trailhead, check out the year-round weather averages for Tennessee (Knoxville):

High °F485262717885878781716051
Low °F313441495866696861504034
Rain/Snow (D*)991010121314118789
Note: This table is approximate; weather can change with altitude.
D* – Days of rain or snow.


How to deal with wildlife encounters while backpacking in Tennessee?

Always be aware of your surroundings and try not to surprise animals. Give bears and coyotes space if seen from a distance and do not leave food unattended. Never feed or attempt to touch wildlife as this could cause them to attack to protect themselves. Carry bear spray and know how to use it for protection if needed. Make noise on trails to avoid sneaking up on animals. Be aware that snakes and ticks are common in many parts so stick to trails and do thorough tick checks after being in wooded areas.

Where in Tennessee can I get on Appalachian Trail?

There are several main access points to the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee where hikers can join the iconic trail, including Davenport Gap and Spring Mountain near the Tennessee/North Carolina border which are two of the major southern access points; Rocky Fork Creek located near Unicoi close to the state line provides another access further north; the AT can also be accessed from points near Watauga Lake in northeastern TN, the scenic Roan Highlands area has numerous access points in and around Roan Mountain, and Big Laurel Branch Wilderness offers an entry point near Hampton in eastern Tennessee.

What are some safety tips for backpacking in Tennessee?

Exploring the lush forests and rolling hills of Tennessee by backpack is an exhilarating adventure into nature, but proper precautions are key. Before trekking to breathtaking backcountry campsites, pick up a detailed trail map and inform friends of your route. Wear bright gear in case you lose your way on winding wooded trails. Make noise to avoid surprising black bears and other wildlife. Bring plenty of water since adventure spurs thirst. Pack a first aid kit, flashlight, whistle and rain poncho in case conditions turn hazardous. With preparation, you can delight in the state’s natural beauty and mountain vistas while backpacking, as long as you prioritize caution and safety when immersed in Tennessee’s wilderness. Taking measures to stay found, stay hydrated and stay safe will allow you to fully embrace the joys of backcountry exploration.

Is it allowed to have a campfire while backpacking in Tennessee?

Campfires are allowed while backpacking in Tennessee but have restrictions. In National Parks, fires are only permitted in designated rings at backcountry sites. State parks require free fire permits and may ban fires during droughts. Wilderness areas prohibit ground fires year-round in some ecologically sensitive spots. When allowed, use established rings, keep fires small, and fully extinguish them. Collect only dead wood, follow all regulations, and consider a camp stove when cooking to minimize impact. With proper precautions, you can safely enjoy campfires in permitted areas while exploring Tennessee’s natural beauty.

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