Danny Bernstein photos
Nace Few putting on a YakTrax Pro.
The Smoky Mountains offer great opportunities for hiking — even in the winter months. You probably won’t ever need ice axes, crampons or snowshoes, but it’s still a good idea to keep yourself bundled up comfortably on those cold, windy days and nights.
In western North Carolina and east Tennessee, a number of well established independent stores and retail chains offer the clothes, accessories, and advice to make that winter hike safe and memorable.
Diamond Brand Outdoors, one of Asheville, N.C.’s largest independent outfitters, has been around since 1934 when it produced its first Boy Scout pack. Its first retail store opened in 1964. Sarah Grace Wood, a sales associate, suggests a number of ways to keep warm by layering your clothes.
“Start with a base layer which moves moisture away from your skin,” Wood says. Patagonia Capilene offers synthetic tops and bottoms. For wool lovers, merino wool such as Smart Wool keeps you warmer without smelling. But it’s still wool, so it needs to be washed carefully.
Over the base layer, Wood wears an Arcteryx Hercules jacket, a soft-shell windproof jacket with some water resistance. It’s expensive ($325) but will last for years. For women, Isis Cassandra pants are her favorite. Made from a synthetic blend stretch, the pants can be worn anywhere.
The temperature is unlikely to get below 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the Smoky Mountains, unless you’re camping on a mountain in January. For winter camping, John Stephens, a buyer for Diamond Brand, recommends a down sleeping bag.
“Down is warmer for the rating,” he explains. “It’s lighter, holds its loft better and will last longer than synthetic. It also stuffs into a smaller package, but you don’t want to get it wet or it will be useless.”
His best bag is a Western Mountaineering Ultralite 20, rated at 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a high quality down made in the U.S. For car camping where weight is not a problem, Mountain Hardwear Lamina 0 works well. This heavier synthetic bag (4 pounds, 4 ounces) is not going to compress as much or last as long. Outfitting experts recommend not storing the sleeping bag stuffed up at home. Instead, put it in a large bag where it can breathe.
Smoky Mountain Outfitters in Gatlinburg, Tenn., has been at Winery Square for five years. The store may look small but there are several rooms full of clothing, winter sleeping bags, fleeces and rain jackets. Mike Povia, a sales specialist with more than 32 years of experience as a hike leader and rappelling instructor, knows the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park well. He recommends Polarmax polyester, a technical base layer in light or medium weight at a smart price ($27.50).
Gore-Tex, a breathable and waterproofed material, is well known for rain jackets, and many companies seem to have an equivalent material. Mountain Hardwear Epic jacket, made with Revivex, works well at $120. For those who need to be outdoors regardless of the weather, the same company makes a Gore-Tex jacket that retails at $300.
“Casual hikers can pick their weather conditions,” Povia says.
Keeping warm while you camp also means making sure you have hot food. Povia prefers white gas for cooking. The familiar and convenient canister with a propane and butane mixture will not work under 20 degrees.
Backcountry Outdoors, at the entrance of the Pisgah National Forest in Pisgah Forest, N.C., is a small store packed with quality gear. Harvey and Cheri Rosenblatt, owners for 13 years, specialize in hiking, backpacking and camping gear. They’re in the store daily. Most of their clientele are visitors who may have forgotten something at home or lost an item on the way. People come in for advice, so the store stocks lots of books and maps.
“Winter is a short season here,” Cheri Rosenblatt says. “People may not want to make a large investment in winter gear. I use long underwear under summer pants, like Duofold Varitherm with polyester/merino wool blend.”
A North Face Warrio Triclimate jacket (3 in 1) goes on top of a base layer. You can wear the fleece, shell or both together. It’s a good deal for under $200. Hand warmers and toe warmers will keep your gloves and socks warm for hours when you’re sitting in camp or hunting. Columbia neck gaters help with layers. An Outdoor Design cap with ear flaps runs for $23.99 along with their lined and waterproof gloves at $29.99.
REI has been a trusted retailer of outdoor gear since the 1930s and is now the nation’s largest consumer co-op. Their Arden, N.C. store in Biltmore Park opened in 2007. They have a large children’s clothing section. The North Face (3 in 1) jacket even comes in pink.
Nace Few, a footwear and outerwear specialist for REI, recommends YakTrax Pro, a coil contraption that stretches over a boot to provide tracking on packed snow or ice. Few also likes REI Mistral pants, soft-shell pants with stretch and warmth. At $100, they’re versatile, tough and windproof.
Brian Fisher, a sales specialist with REI, highlights useful winter gadgets such as a hand-cranked Micro link Weather radio for entertainment on long winter nights. Nalgene Bottle insulators protect your water from freezing. A Camelbak insulated tube does the same for your water bag.
“You need to blow the water back into the reservoir and not leave any water in the tube which can freeze overnight,” Fisher says.