Last week, a Tennessee-based hiker named Benny Braden made local headlines when he completed a record-setting trek through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Braden obtained the record by hiking every known trail in the renowned national park—a network of more than 900 miles—within a 76-day period.
We recently caught up with Benny to chat about the logistics of his journey, his favorite trails, and some of the sights he saw along the way.
BRO: Tell us about the logistics of this journey. How many trails were involved? How did you get from one trail to the next? Did you sleep out on the trail? What was your eating strategy?
BENNY: Logistics of course were the biggest concern for me. Arranging shuttles, resupply and lodging were the three things I focused on the most.
For shuttles I depended on friends and sometimes strangers who later became friends. I would have someone meet me where I planned to finish and shuttle me to where I wanted to start. Sometimes, if it was a friend, they would hike with me too, which was even better.
Resupply was a lot easier during day hikes. I would go to the nearest town (Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Townsend or Newport) get my resupply for the next week or so. I went “No Cook” which made it easier. I would eat roughly 1600 to 2000 calories per day. Mostly made up of protein, energy bars, tortillas, almond butter and jelly, and maybe a Snickers or two from time to time. When I would day hike I would have milk, lunch meat, fresh fruit and veggies because I would go into town each evening.
Lodging was the most simple. If I was day hiking I would usually sleep in my truck in the parking lot of the store that I would resupply at. This also allowed me to have cell service so I could do my uploads and stay in touch with my beautiful bride back home. If I was backpacking, I’d plan my mileage and get my permits for the campsites I was planning to be at. I stayed in the backcountry 19 nights ( 15 nights in my Zpacks Duplex tent and 4 at shelters.
As for the number of trails. There are 150 trails in the park, but six are currently closed due to storm or fire damage.
BRO: What inspired you to set out on this record-setting hike?
BENNY: I was on a short backpacking trip to Mt. LeConte with my close friend Chad Poindexter of Stick’s Blog on Thanksgiving weekend of last year, the same weekend as the Chimney Top/Gatlinburg fires. While sitting at the Cliff Tops—a popular spot on the mountain—I decided I was going to take a break from section hiking the AT and focus on doing all the trails for 2017.
I began hiking the trails on Dec. 31, 2016 at 3am. My plan was to do all the trail in one full year, but after three weeks I already had 150 miles. When the GSMNP 900 Miler Club told me the quickest time it was ever done was four months and twelve days held by Sharon Spezia, I knew then it was with in my reach, and I started hiking seven days a week at that point. My goal wasn’t to just beat the record but to shatter it. I finished Mar 18, 2017 which established a new record of 2 months and 19 days, done completely in winter.
BRO: How long have you been hiking?
BENNY: I began hiking as a teenager. Which I grew up in the country so I was always out playing around in the woods. As I’ve grown older, I enjoy it even more.
BRO: Did you have a favorite trail along the way?
BENNY: Yes! Noland Divide Trail is my absolute favorite. It begins at Clingman’s Dome Road and ends at Deep Creek Campground on the North Carolina side of the park. It’s very diverse in its surroundings with a hemlock forest at the top followed a sections of rhododendrons, an exposed ridge line with 360° views and a hard wood forest at the bottom.
BRO: Any wildlife encounters along the way?
BENNY: Yes! I saw around 90 grouse, which will scare the living daylights out of you when they take off by the way, 40 wild hogs, 30 turkeys, 30 elk, 15 deer and 1 bear.
BRO: What was the most difficult and trying part of the hike?
BENNY: Honestly, the most difficult thing was finding shuttles. Everyone else was working during the week, so sometimes I’d just have to plan out some loop trails to fill in the day, saving the shuttle hikes for later. Also, while on the way home to swap out some gear, the motor in my truck blew up. I managed to drive it home from Pigeon Forge to Harriman, but I had to go about 40 to 50 mph the whole way which took forever. The next morning we rented a car for my bride to drive, and I took her car back to North Carolina with me.