We love the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We love hopping on rocks in the rivers (we call it “rock-hoppin’” Creative, huh?). We love setting off on hikes that are too intense for our kids. We love just driving along the tree-covered roads and marveling at creation.
But for all the fun the Smokies offer, danger can lurk, as well. Here are 10 ways to keep your kids safe on a trip to the Smokies. These are taken from my actual “mom experience” and from the booklet, “Your Complete Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains.”
10 ways to keep your kids safe
1. Be very, very careful around streams and waterfalls (but do take the time to play along them).
That first bit of advice is from the official Smokies people, but the second part is mine. The rivers and waterfalls can be very dangerous, but they are also one of the best things about the park. Take the time to stop and let the kids “Rock Hop,” but stay close to them at all times (especially the littlest ones). The mist and moss make rocks and logs very slippery.
2. It’s not safe to drink water in the rivers.
Well, I guess you never know what’s in there. Take water bottles on your hike, or bring a water filter system. Don’t let the kids take a drink right from the stream. Here are some other things to take on a hike with kids, in case you’re new at this!
3. Swimming is not always safe in the Smokies (but again, it can be fun).
The park officially recommends against swimming. It can be really dangerous, and several people have died doing it. There are often submerged rocks, logs, and debris. And flash floods sometimes occur with little to no warning. So be EXTREMELY cautious! But there are some famous swim holes that can be great fun, if you’re careful. Here’s a post about where to swim in the Smokies and how to be safe doing it.
4. Don’t feed the bears.
Not only is it crazy dangerous, it’s actually illegal in the park. Feeding bears makes them bolder and more dangerous for everyone. And if a bear gets too used to being fed, they’ll take it into bear jail (okay, not really, but they take it to some top-secret facility) and get it ready for the wild again. Which can be unpleasant. So be nice to the bears and don’t feed them. Keep you campsite clean and put trash in the special bear-proof trashcans. Keep any food in the trunk of your car, not on the seats. Or at least cover it up. Smoky Mountain black bears are so smart, they know what food packages look like and go for it! (Is this reminding anyone else of Yogi?)
5. Be familiar with general bear safety.
Here’s a post about the black bears and what to do if you see one. Rule of thumb to remember: if you see a black bear, slowly back away, keeping your eyes on the bear. If it follows you, try to make yourself look bigger — talk loudly or shout; use your arms to look big. Never, ever run or turn your back on it.
Now that I’ve freaked you out, know that in all our time hiking in the Smoky Mountains, we’ve never come across a bear that threatened at all. Once we saw one far in the distance, and the other time I saw one in the stream in downtown Gatlinburg. So it’s not like you’re going to encounter one on your hike to Laurel Falls. Probably. But it’s best to be prepared.
6. Watch out for ticks and poison ivy!
Staying on marked trails will really help with this. But you can also wear extra clothes, such as hats, long-sleeved t-shirts and long pants. Use insect spray. But most importantly, check kids for nasty little ticks after a hike. Look especially carefully in hair. If you find a tick, remove it with tweezers and wash the area with soap and water. Consult a doctor if your child develops flu-like symptoms, because he/she could have Lyme disease.
7. Don’t leave valuables in your car.
Well, you say, that’s common knowledge. I suppose it should be, but somehow, when you’re out in nature, you tend to forget. And if you go to a trailhead for an early hike at 6 a.m., you may be the only ones there and feel very safe and secluded. But by the time you come back down, there could be 50 cars at the trailhead. Take care, lock your doors. And hide valuables.
8. Bring a sweatshirt.
And maybe a rain jacket. Temperatures in the ridges are often much cooler than in the valleys. It’s amazing how much the temperature can vary on a hike in the mountains (or even just during the day, playing in Pigeon Forge). And storms can take you by surprise. Be prepared — bring a sweatshirt for the kids.
9. Carry water and snacks along.
Some hikes will take you much longer than anticipated. I know we’ve had more than one hike turn out twice as long as we expected because the kids were tired and needed extra breaks or even that we were just having so much fun playing in a waterfall that we lost track of time. Make sure to bring lots of water to keep your kiddos hydrated and a few high-protein snacks, too.
10. Don’t be a worry-wart!
Okay, that’s not really a way to keep your kids safe. But as moms, we can easily get too caught up in all this stuff and over-protect our kids. Don’t be stupid — watch your kids like a hawk and be prepared. But let them explore nature, too. Let them run and jump and play. They’ll never forget the experience. (But carry a few Band-Aids, just in case.)
What do you worry about with your little ones in the mountains? Or do you not worry at all? What do you think — is society as a whole too safety conscious?