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Backpacking with kids North Carolina

Hi All, I’m planning a 3 night backpacking trip with my family in  NC/TN in July. I have two older children and a 5 yo. How many miles should I plan to do per day considering my youngest is new to hiking and elevation?


Any trail recommendations? Bouldering, rivers and waterfalls will be a great way to break up the days. 

6 Replies

You didn’t give the older kids ages, so I wonder how much help you can expect with the littlest.

Anyway, maybe 2-4 miles along a river and see how it goes, then adjust accordingly.

REI Member Since 1979

Adding, I have a saying “no such thing as a small accident in the mountains “. I personally would shy away from bouldering with really small kids in the woods, unless you’re prepared to carry one out, unless you’re the one with a broken ankle, sorry to be such a kill joy

REI Member Since 1979

Is there another adult in the party?  If not, I definitely agree with Phillreedshikes.  For that matter, be really careful around the water, as well.

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Hi, my older kids are 14 and 12 along with my wife 40. I figure 4 miles a day will be plenty. 
Thanks for the advise regarding boldering. We’ll be careful. 

Can you recommend any specific trails? Is there a trail you can recommend that includes river and peaks/vistas in a 12-15 mile loop? 




Hey @EK

I LOVE North Carolina! I noticed that this is in the Asheville forum, but if you could, update me on where are y'all specifically going, and that can help me help you a little better, as the border for the two states is pretty long.

If y'all are going to be around Asheville, Pisgah National Forest (here's the map) is one of my favorite places. I particularly like the Shining Rock Wilderness area, and the Blue Ridge Parkway will give a ton of access to day hiking that will include waterfalls, etc. Just east of BRP milepost 419 is the overlook for Graveyard Fields; that's the photo mural on the wall of our Cary, NC store!  For backpacking, please know that while you don't need permits or reservations to backpack most areas in Pisgah, some areas do require a bear can for overnight trips. 
Areas that require bear cans.
Recent statement from NFS re: bear activity.

But also along the NC/TN border is Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are a TON of options there, but be aware that it is the most visited NP in the country, so between that and current COVID restrictions, your options may be limited. However, I was there back in March and a ranger gave me a very good recommendation of a loop out of the 20-Mile Ranger Station. I saw three people the entire time I was out, and water wasn't an issue. You will need permits/reservations for this area, but I was able to get a walk-up permit. If you decide to go this route, depending on where you're coming from, you may even be able to drive the Tail of the Dragon, a beautiful mountain road famous for its 300+ turns in the 11 miles. 

Also, even though it's July/August, please bring cold weather gear with y'all. I was in the GSMNP this time last year and bundled up in my 20* quilt in my hammock at 6,000'! 

I hope this is somewhat helpful. Again, I can give better specifics if I know roughly where y'all are planning, but I hope this is a good starting point.

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

Hi there @EK 

I may be a little late to the game, but for future reference, I am a big fan of Big Creek Campground.

This could easily be a 3 night adventure by camping the first night at the main campground. Then there are a few backcountry sites (37, 36, 38) while taking the 2-night Mt. Sterling Loop Trail. Overall it is a 17 mile loop, with a bit of elevation gain when climbing up to Mt. Sterling, which may not thrill the littlest (or you having to carry littlest). Just make sure to get permits through NPS.

Backcountry Campsite 37  is the closest to Big Creek Campground at 5.5miles, with 36 just a few trots further.



The first day will have the most activities and stops. Along the Big Creek Trail you will find Midnight Hole, great for swimming, and Mouse Falls. The first backcountry campsites (37 & 36) are along the river and relatively flat, a good area for a family.

The next day is mostly a wooded climb up to the Mt. Sterling fire Tower, 4.4 miles on a steady up. Beautiful, but no great stops for smalls kids on your way to backcountry campsite 38. Camping that night is not as flat, but there are some great little alcoves for family time. Before you head up, make sure you've got plenty of water... the water resource at this site is a bit further than the campsite (then a climb back up).

The last day is a 6.6 mile up & downhill as you make your way back to Big Creek Campground. Wooded and lush, but no waterfalls or bouldering.



It may be fun and easy to try making a basecamp by booking at Big Creek Campground. Stay there the first night, then backpack up to backcountry site 37. With plenty of stops along the way, and such a flat & friendly backcountry site, it's a good start to testing how your littlest does. Stay the night, and then hike back past all the beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes again. You end right back at your Big Creek Basecamp.



Another option, that I have not personally done, is looking into an out and back from Cosby Campground. Start there and hike the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail to Backcountry Camp 35, the next day head to the Davenport Gap shelter, and then reverse it all. 

Be sure to plan ahead and speak with the Campground about overnight parking & policies so there are no unpleasant surprises.

Enjoy the Smokies!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.