By Abraham Mahshie

Hiking daypacks with essential supplies, including field guides and a first-aid kit, are available for free checkout at Macon County Public Library.

Winter hiking affords the opportunity to see the forest for the trees. But identifying those trees and the birds in them with field books, not getting lost by using a compass, seeing in the dark with a headlamp and staying warm in case of an emergency all require a backpack of essential items. If you do not have those essential items but you do have a Fontana Regional Library card, you can check out a fully equipped daypack for free.

“We wanted to encourage people to try something new without having to make a financial investment,” said Fontana Regional Library Director Karen Wallace about the backpack loaning program that began in 2015. “We’re lucky to have year-round hiking options in our area and this is a great time of year to hike. When the leaves come down, you can see through the trees.” 

With colorful leaves still visible at lower elevations and plenty of birds and mammals to be seen and heard, the coming hiking season is a unique way to get exercise and to experience the outdoors, she added.

“People should get out now for activity purposes because otherwise they will become couch potatoes,” said Kaitlyn Carver, manager at Three Eagles Outfitters on Siler Road in Franklin. “The trails are less crowded now and you can enjoy being out there on your own. You can also see waterfalls and get great views – even when leaves aren’t vibrant.”

The backpack includes field guides to Smoky Mountain trees and wildflowers, Appalachian birds, area hiking trails, a first-aid kit, headlamp and lightweight emergency thermal blanket.

When Franklin became a trail town with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2010, Wallace reached out to another trail town, Damascus, Va., about their backpack loaning program to learn how they were doing it, and how it could be implemented in Macon County.

Macon County native and NC State University student Kaitlyn Sutton used a General Hugh Shelton National Leadership Scholarship to finance the project with funds dedicated to enrichment and service experiences.

The library also has additional guidebooks and maps so that patrons can learn more about trails to reach waterfalls, rivers, wildflower meadows and mountain views. The Nantahala Hiking Club also meets at the library monthly, inviting all to attend before or after all the leaves fall off the trees.