Interview: Joe Miller talks backpacking in North Carolina

Joe Miller, author of Backpacking North Carolina: The Definitive Guide to 43 Can’t-Miss Trips from Mountains to Sea, shares his wisdom about the many diverse hiking opportunities the great state of North Carolina has to offer. Visit his blog at or follow him on Twitter @JoeAGoGo to learn more about his experiences with the great outdoors. Spring is around the corner–the perfect time to put his wealth of knowledge to use!

Joe Miller
Q: This book is the first-ever stand-alone guidebook to backpacking in North Carolina. What motivated you to create it?

A: I think a lot of hikers are intrigued by the idea of backpacking, of extending their journey into the woods, but aren’t sure where to start. There’s a good deal of information out there on gear, but not much on where to go once you’ve got the gear. And trying to piece together a route based on hiking guides, which focus on day trips and hearsay, is a dicey proposition. My goal was to create a guide that identified good trips and provided just about everything you’d need to know to plan and take those trips.

Q: What kind of audience are you hoping to reach with the publication of this guidebook? Beginners? Or more seasoned backpackers?

A: The book should appeal to any backpacker, regardless of experience level, because even the most experienced backpacker will find a new trip or a new approach to a trip he or she already is familiar with. But it’s really geared toward the beginner/novice. I run into a lot of hikers who like the idea of backpacking but are intimidated by the misperception that it is an arduous task intended only for the most hale and fit—and folks who don’t mind being uncomfortable. That’s just not the case, thanks in large part to technological advances that have made equipment lighter, more efficient, and less quirky.

Q: What does Backpacking North Carolina have to offer to readers that other guidebooks do not?

A: There are a plethora of hiking guides for North Carolina, some covering the entire state, some specific regions. All focus on day hikes. Backpacking North Carolina focuses on longer trips and includes specific backpacking information—camp sites, water availability, nearest outfitter in case you forget to pack socks—that guides with a day-hike emphasis don’t have. In addition to the details of a trip, this book gives a better sense of the experience. I think it’s important for readers to know, for instance, that you should expect to emerge from a trip with mud on your behind and broken tree parts wedged in your backpack (Linville Gorge, No. 6), or that web feet are a plus on a trip rife with water crossings (Wilson Creek’s Harper Creek, No. 9).

Q: This book features what you consider to be the 43 best backpacking trips in North Carolina. Did you hike all of these trails before writing this book? Did you write/take notes for the book during these journeys?

A: Yes. You can’t make this stuff up—if you try, the reader will very quickly unearth your deceit, and that will cast doubt on the entire book. Besides, who wouldn’t want to do all these trips? And yes, I have dozens of little notebooks with illegible scrawl taken on the fly and at night in the tent, notebooks that had to be transcribed immediately upon returning to the office while their meaning was still fresh.

Q: In the prologue, you mention that backpacking is no longer a “sufferfest.” What did you mean by that?

A: Boy, where to start? People used to backpack in jeans; your jeans get a little wet, you stay a lot wet for the rest of the trip. Tents used to be terrible at shedding water; just brushing against one would break the surface tension that was keeping the rain out. Cooking was done over a fire (which was fine for beans and franks, but nothing more enticing); we used yucky iodine tablets to purify our water; we had no featherweight sleeping pads to help lull us to sleep—and we liked it. Or at least pretended to, unaware that the technological advances ahead would make backpacking so much more enjoyable.

Q: This book includes several sidebars with unusual information, such as solitude ratings, whether or not a trail is family friendly, bailout options, etc. Why do you think this information is valuable to readers?

A: We all seek different experiences on a backpacking trip. Sometimes we just want to get away from it all and not encounter another human being. If we go with the family, we don’t want a trip with the potential to turn into a “Survivor” episode. And if we pull up lame, our water purifier doesn’t purify, or the weather goes further south than we’re equipped to deal with, then it’s helpful to know if there’s a bailout option. I included some of these entries based on my personal experience, some based on conversations with other backpackers and aspiring backpackers.

Q: What regions/trails would you recommend for someone who has never been backpacking before?

A: A great starter trip is No. 35, the Birkhead Wilderness of the Uwharrie National Forest. It’s an easy, 7.4-mile loop with gentle ups-and-downs, mild weather, water where you need it. The loop negates the need for setting up a pesky shuttle car, and it’s centrally located, an hour, give or take, from Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle. Another good beginner trip is No. 40, Raven Rock State Park. The Campbell Creek loop is just 5 miles, but the wilderness campsite is in a surprisingly remote location.

Q: You mention how important backpacking gear is to the overall backpacking experience. What do you recommend for those that don’t want to spend a lot of money on buying the latest equipment and gear?

A: You don’t have to buy the best gear; there’s good, solid gear available cheap. A few years back Backpacker Magazine sent a couple of editors into a Wal-Mart with $200, and they emerged with a full complement of backpacking gear that they then took on a trip and found extremely functional. The main thing you pay for with big-buck items is weight. You can pay $100 for a titanium cookset that weighs 18 ounces or you can pay half that for an aluminum cookset that weighs twice as much. Also, if you’re not sure you’re ready to take the plunge, several outfitters rent the more pricey items—tent, backpack, etc.—and if you go with an experienced group, you can mooch off them for cooking gear, water filters, and other backpacking-specific equipment.

Q: Most of the trails in your book are located in the mountains of North Carolina. What makes this region such a popular place for backpackers?

A: We’ve got two national forests—Pisgah and Nantahala—with nearly 2.5 million acres of wooded land. We’ve got the highest mountains east of the Black Hills of South Dakota; we’ve got some of the nation’s most photogenic waterfalls; we’ve got mysterious balds that afford stellar views. And it’s all very accessible. It’s a backpacker’s playground.

Q: Throughout the book, you provide several anecdotes about your own personal experiences hiking some of these trails. What do you hope people will learn by reading them?

A: What not to do. I am not a natural outdoorsman, I make lots of everyman mistakes out in the woods. While it’s a pain for me, I think—hope—it’s helpful to the reader.

Q: When did you first become an avid hiker/backpacker?

A: Curiously, I grew up in Colorado but only went on one backpacking trip, which was something of a comic disaster. It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina in 1992 and started rediscovering the outdoors (I lived five years in Dallas before that, so simply having nature was a treat) that I really got into backpacking. My first trip was in 1994 in the Uwharrie National Forest’s Birkhead Wilderness. I had a freeze-dried ice cream sandwich one night in camp and was hooked.

Q: Which trail (featured in this book) is your absolute favorite? What makes it so special?

A: I’m supposed to demur at picking a favorite, but I won’t. Much as I love the Shining Rock Wilderness, my favorite trip is No. 23, the 14 miles of Appalachian Trail between Carvers Gap and US 19E. Hiking south to north, you start off with three of the best balds in the state—Round, Jane and Grassy Ridge—then head through a tunnel of mountain ash. On Hump Mountain, a high bald a ways down the trail, I counted eleven ridgelines disappearing west into Tennessee one clear afternoon. One stunning view after another.

Q: You briefly discuss how the “back-to-nature movement” of the late 1960s and early 1970s made backpacking popular. Do you think that backpacking is as popular now as it was back then?

A: According to The Outdoor Foundation, backpacking is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the nation, though that’s based on figures for the past few years. How it compares to the 1970s is difficult to say, since reliable figures weren’t kept that far back. Anecdotally, it’s hard for me to say since I lived in Colorado, one of the epicenters of the nation’s backpacking movement, in the 1970s. Based on what I’ve seen on the North Carolina’s trails over the past few years, I’d say that backpacking is certainly alive and well today.