Backpacking in Tennessee: TOP 5 Multi-Day Trails

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

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

Backpacking in Tennessee offers immense variety for outdoor enthusiasts, from the rugged slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains to the lush forests of Land Between the Lakes, including popular destinations like the Appalachian Trail and Cumberland Trail.

And that’s what this post is all about – backpacking in Tennessee. We’ll provide tips to help you prepare for backpacking in this diverse state as well as showcase the TOP 5 multi-day trails in Tennessee.

Interested? Let’s get started.

Key Tips for 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 Backpacking Trails in Tennessee

Explore Tennessee’s best scenic long trails for epic adventures featuring diverse wildlife:

1. AT: Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap

A photo of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, United States.

Length: 30.8 mi / 49.6 km
Type: Point to point
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: 5626 ft / 1 715 m
Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 7400 calories
More Details: See on AllTrails

Hike a scenic 30.8-mile stretch of the iconic Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap outside Gatlinburg. This challenging multi-day backpacking trip traverses high ridges and forested valleys, offering stunning vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains along the way. The route is accessible year-round but can be treacherous in winter. Be prepared for steep climbs, rocky footing, and changing weather at high elevations. Highlights include the spectacular views from Charlies Bunion and the Mt. Cammerer fire tower.

2. Savage Gulf and South Cumberland Loop

A beautiful sunny forest scene along the Savage Gulf Hike in Barkertown, Tennessee, United States, with bright sunlight filtering down through the colorful changing leaves of the trees

Michael Hicks, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr

Length: 26.2 mi / 42.2 km
Type: Loop
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: 3028 ft / 923 m
Location: Savage Gulf State Park
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 6300 calories
More Details: See on AllTrails

The rugged 26-mile Fiery Gizzard loop near Palmer is a challenging yet scenic backpacking trail through forested hills and valleys. Hikers are rewarded with rocky overlooks, waterfall views, and exceptional wilderness campsites. The steep, rocky trail requires scrambling at times but offers peaceful solitude during quieter seasons. Careful preparation and pacing allows backpackers to fully experience the remote beauty and magic of this diverse trail loop.

3. Cumberland Trail: Prentice Cooper Section

A scenic view showing a serene river winding its way through the lush green valley below towering cliffs, located in the Prentice Cooper State Forest in Chattanooga, United States

Length: 28.4 mi / 45.7 km
Type: Loop
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: 4422 ft / 1348 m
Location: Prentice Cooper State Forest
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 6900 calories
More Details: See on AllTrails

The scenic yet challenging 28-mile Cottonwood Trail loop near Chattanooga winds through forests and along streambeds in a remote gorge wilderness. Backpackers are treated to stunning winter views, rock overhangs, and waterfalls while contending with steep climbs, slippery leaf-covered surfaces, and occasional tricky stream crossings. The northern section has better maintained trails and camping access to water. With careful preparation for fluctuating terrain and conditions, backpackers will be rewarded with solitude and natural beauty on this loop.

4. Ridge Trail: White Rocks

A vista showing a sunny valley blanketed with trees and foliage below towering rock formations along the trail at White Rocks in Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, United States

Jeff Moore, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr

Length: 31.7 mi / 51 km
Type: Out and back
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: 5629 ft / 1716 m
Location: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 7600 calories
More Details: See on AllTrails

The challenging 31-mile out-and-back Pinnacle Trail near Cumberland Gap rewards backpackers with scenic ridge-line views but requires careful planning for limited water sources along the route. The trail involves steep inclines leading to the pinnacle overlook, then becomes more moderate beyond. Highlights include historic Hensley Settlement, White Rocks, and the solitude of the remote mountainous wilderness. With proper preparation for the strenuous uphill stretches, lack of water access, and changing terrain, this trail offers a great backpacking challenge with rewarding vistas.

5. Mt. Cammerer Backpacking Loop

A stunning photo capturing the beauty of a colorful Smoky Mountain sunrise illuminating the layered mountain peaks and valleys below as morning fog blankets the landscape from the Oconaluftee Overlook in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Justin Mier, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr

Length: 32.7 mi / 52.6 km
Type: Loop
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: 7001 ft / 2134 m
Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 7900 calories
More Details: See on AllTrails

The challenging 32-mile Mount Cammerer Loop Trail near Cosby winds through remote wilderness in the Great Smoky Mountains, rewarding backpackers with stunning 360-degree views from the historic fire tower atop Mount Cammerer along with scenic campsites and ridge walking. However, most of the trail is rigorous uphill climbing on the way in, so be prepared for a tough hike before enjoying the panoramic vistas. Careful planning is required between water sources and camping destinations across steep, uneven terrain.

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.

Alternative Backpacking Destinations

Not sure if Tennessee is right for you?

Don’t forget to check out our backpacking guides for Arkansas and North Carolina.


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 for backpackers carrying tents and gear while immersed in the wilderness. 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 outdoors. 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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