The mountain wilderness of the Smokies poses many dangers, but you can minimize risks by traveling sensibly and being prepared. You'll always want to account for adverse weather, as conditions can change rapidly in the mountains.
Although there are plenty of bears, as well as venomous snakes, the far greater threat to park visitors is an accident involving motor vehicles, falls (while hiking, horseback riding or cycling) and swimming.
A few other hazards in the park to keep in mind are slippery or icy trails, various poisonous plants (poison ivy among them) and stinging insects.
Mosquitos can be a problem in the Smoky Mountains, depending on where and when you go. In the height of summer at lower elevations, you'll need to liberally apply repellent to avoid getting devoured. At other times of year (and at higher elevations), the nefarious insects are less of an issue.
Ticks can also be present in the region, so you'll want to check yourself carefully after visiting the park. Since some ticks can carry Lyme disease, you'll want to avoid them if possible. Repellent with DEET and appropriate dress (long pants, a hat) will minimize the risks.
Watch out for yellowjacket wasps, which can be aggressive and deliver painful stings. Their nests are sometimes found on trails and alongside streams. If you have allergies to bee or other insect stings, be sure to travel with an epinephrine kit.
Other insects you may encounter on the trail include gnats and biting flies. DEET and protective clothing will help.
Remember the cardinal rule: stay at least 50ft away from all wildlife in the park. Never approach an animal, and make sure you dispose of food scraps and other waste in the animal-proof receptacles at campgrounds and some trailheads.
Some animals, including skunks and raccoons, carry rabies, so be sure to report any unusual animal behavior to a ranger.
Black bears are active throughout the park – an estimated 1600 at last guess – and can be dangerous. Campers should keep all food in their cars or tied to cables, and hikers should never approach or feed bears. If a bear approaches you, back away slowly. If the bear continues to approach, shout or wave your arms to intimidate it. As a last resort, throw rocks or other objects, or try to deter the bear with a large stick (again, that walking stick comes in handy). Never try to run.
Twenty three species of snake are found inside the park, but only two species are venomous: the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead. Snakebites are rare, and no one has ever died in the park from a snakebite. That said, be mindful of where you place your hands and feet, particularly when gathering firewood.
Though they often look quite docile as they sit chewing grass on park fields, elk can be aggressive, especially during the mating season (September and October). With elk and all other park wildlife, you should always observe the park rule to stay 50yd away from the animal. If your approach changes the animals behavior in any way, you're too close. Don't ever turn your back on an elk, and if one charges you, get behind a large object (tree, car). Be particularly mindful if you're traveling with a dog, as they can cause elk to act aggressively.
Even short hikes can become treacherous after heavy rain. At any time of year you might encounter moss-covered rocks, wet leaves and slick roots. These can lead to bad falls, and the consequences can be significant on trails that traverse steep, narrow cliff faces. Always travel with appropriate footwear: wear ankle-supporting boots with good soles, and use crampons or some other winter traction device during icy conditions – which can persist into May on some trails.
Waterfalls & Rivers
The park's numerous waterfalls are among its most outstanding attractions, but take care when visiting them as slippery rocks can lead to some bad falls. Along those lines, don't ever try to climb up the waterfalls – you might see rocky, muddy paths going up – but this is never a good idea as there have been dozens of falling deaths over the years (including one as recently as 2017).
You'll need to be cautious around mountain rivers and streams. Drowning is one of the leading causes of death in the park, and unfortunate hikers have suffered serious injuries from falls along riverbanks. Streams can become swollen after heavy rainfall, making passage across dangerous. Some log bridges can be slippery, so watch your step. On stream crossings where there are no bridges – or the bridges have washed away (not uncommon after heavy storms) – you'll have to use your best judgment; when in doubt, don't do it! In general, if the water is flowing rapidly, don't cross if it's above your knees.
There are no lifeguard-surveyed swimming areas in the Smokies. Rangers advise against swimming and riding inner tubes anywhere inside of park boundaries.
Cold & Heat
Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition that occurs when prolonged exposure to cold thwarts the body’s ability to maintain its core temperature. Hypothermia is an all-season danger and can even occur during the summer at higher elevations due to wind, rain and cold. Remember to dress in layers and always carry rain gear.
During the summer, you'll also need to prepare for the heat, when the Smokies can be very hot and humid. Carry plenty of water to avoid dehydration, wear a wide-brimmed hat and use sunscreen. Know your hiking limits: hikes along the challenging uphill trails can lead to heat exhaustion.
Trees & Limbs
Have a look around before resting on the trail or setting up camp for the night. Move away from any trees or limbs that might fall or pose a hazard.