Lightning has been dancing across the sky for about an hour now. I’m on the edge of Fontana Lake, pitched on one of the concrete tent pads. The shelter here is called the “Hilton” and in 2016 I bypassed it completely. Noro virus was rampant then, and a few friends and I split a room at the Lodge for a mere $20 per person. This time around, I started to setup inside the Hilton, until I saw the sign for tenting.

Putting a Tarptent Protrail up on a concrete pad is no easy task. It’s certainly more “tarp” than “tent,” so I had to get creative. Non-free standing tents like this rely heavily on stakes, and thus a concrete slab is a real obstacle. Thankfully I got the rear of the tent staked into the ground, and some previous hikers left some large rocks to anchor the front to. I butchered the remnants of my bear bag line, and made it work.

My intro to backpacking was with a 10’x10’ nylon tarp. It was the cheapest lightweight shelter I could find, and it forced me to brush up on my knots. My intro to cycling was similar, and my first two road bikes were literally pulled from the trash. Cheap entry to any activity comes with a learning curve, but the knowledge you gain that way is more valuable in the end.

Another factor with these concrete slabs, is that the rain just bounces off of them. I’ve had many drops come bouncing in, but it’s a warm night, thankfully.

Due to weather, many hikers in the shelter are taking a zero tomorrow. I’ve decided to head out though. Tomorrow I’ll head up to Fontana Village to purchase a thru-hiker permit for the Smokies, and grab my resupply box. My sister was kind enough to mail it out for me, and she included my winter mitts. It’s warm now, but tomorrow I’ll be two or three thousand feet higher, in one of the least predictable environments in the South East.

Two years ago I went into the Smokies for an overnight. I was packed in a fashion ultralight (UL) hikers call “stupid light.” It was mid-July and in the high 80’s when we left the car. Three hours later it was 57F, pouring down rain, with gusts up to 25mph. With food and water my overnight load was 11lbs. It was Summer, so I ditched my stove, my rain jacket, and my puffy. All things I had done for months on the AT the year previous. The months I wasn’t in the Smokies…

Within two hours I began to go hypothermic. I could tell, because touching my thumb and pinky together was nearly impossible. This is an early warning sign I learned from Cody Lundin in his book 98.6 The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive. Thanks to that book, I ran the next seven miles to the shelter, and kept my ass alive. I ate four ounces of cheese, stripped and put on my base layers, then crawled into my 55 degree bag. I slept for twelve hours.

As my friend Myra taught me early on. When it comes cold, wet, and wind, you can survive any of the two, but never all three at once. As I teach people now, bring a rain jacket! Frogg Toggs is all you need, and it’s the lightest and cheapest there is. Also, respect the Smokies!

On this trip though, my main concern is my decreased mileage per day due to my legs. This means I’ll need to carry more food, probably close to a week’s worth. That’s around fourteen pounds total. Among my errands tomorrow is checking the total mileage of the section, and planning my food around ten miles per day. Worst case scenario, I’ll resupply in Gatlinburg.

The Smokies are somewhat unique in that they require a permit, have poor resupply access, and demand all hikers sleep in the shelters no matter what. Tenting is permitted only when shelters are full, and full means your neighbor hiker is breathing on you.

What do I really dread about the Smokies? It’s not the gigantic pack-stealing bears, the weather, or the big food carry. It’s the fucking shelters, and being turned into a sardine for a week. All AT NOBOs must go through this though.

So I’ll enjoy the privacy of my tent for one more evening. This beautiful nylon roof under which I can write, snore, and get up to pee without bothering my neighbors. Shits about to get cozy.

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