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The Frugal Guide to Getting Started Stargazing

Photo: Jack Schroeder

Western North Carolina is renowned as a haven of outdoor beauty. Our night skies are no exception; Asheville’s relatively low level of light pollution and easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway make it an ideal spot for seeking fantastic views of the night sky.

If your looking to expand your outdoor hobbies, we recommend giving stargazing a go. It’s a low-key way to enjoy the our outdoor paradise, it is equally fun solo or with a group, can be enjoyed regardless of your fitness level, and doesn’t require a large investment to try.

Get started frugally. You don’t have to shell out big bucks for a fancy telescope to enjoy stargazing. In fact, you can see up objects up to 2.5 million lightyears away without any equipment at all. To get started with minimal investment, we recommend purchasing a star chart (great options are available for under $20) and heading to a dark spot on the Parkway (check out some of our fav spots below). You’ll be surprised at what you can see!

Get help from experts. Most amateur astronomers are enthusiastic about their passion and happy to help new comers. Think about joining one of the group star gazes hosted by Astronomy Club of Asheville or one of the many public events hosted by UNCA at the Lookout Observatory. This can be a great way to learn more about what you’re observing and make connections.

Ready for a better view? You can purchase an excellent pair of binoculars for a much smaller investment than a mediocre telescope + their versatility and ease of operation make them ideal for beginners. Added bonus, they’re a breeze to throw in your pack for incredible views on a nighttime hike.

Great Places to Go:

Blue Ridge Star Park and Observatory– Spruce Pine, NC Recognized by the International Dark Sky Association as a dark-sky place.

Mt. Pisgah Trailhead (Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 407.6)

Stoney Bald Overlook (Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 402.6)

Tanbark Ridge Overlook (Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 376.7)

Craggy Dome Overlook (Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 364.1)

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WNC Trail Triple Crown Challenge

We’ve partnered with our friends at Asheville Trails and Diamond Brand Outdoors for the WNC Trail Triple Crown Challenge.

Visit Frugal Backpacker or any Diamond Brand Outdoors location to check out the awesome new Asheville Trails kiosks with dozens of local trails. We believe the outdoors are for everyone of all abilities, so you’ll find lots of good stuff at the kiosk, like directions and insider tips on easy, moderate, and difficult hikes of varying distance. Find a trail you like, and then snap a picture of the info sheet with your phone. And then visit the Asheville Trails website to get driving directions and more trail info.

Hit any three trails from the displays during April and we’ll give you 20% off up to five items, plus a free Asheville Trails sticker! Just post a pic to Instagram while you’re on the trail, tag both @frugal_backpacker and @ashevilletrails, and use the hashtag #WNC3C.

Once you’ve hiked three of the trails, return to Frugal Backpacker or any Diamond Brand Outdoors location to receive your discount. A team member will take a look a look at your tagged photos — which we’d probably like to share on our feed if you give us permission!

Discount cannot be used for gift cards, boats, or special orders. See store for any other exclusions.

Winter Hiking in the North Carolina Mountains

It may be a little hard to imagine layering up for a winter hike with the unseasonably warm weather we’ve seen over the past few weeks, but a chilly trek with friends is one of my favorite activities during the season of staying inside. When a sunny day shines down between bouts of frosty mornings and blustery afternoons, it’s a great time to explore new trails that are harder to access during the warmer months. It’s the perfect prescription to warm you up on those chilly, gloomy days!

As a kid, winter is the season of finding the best spot for sledding, snowball throwing, and snow fort building quicker than anyone else. As an adult, it can be making fresh tracks in the snow or avoiding mud puddles as you check out a view usually obscured by leaves during the spring and summer. There are also few sights that compare to a frozen mountain waterfall and one of the coolest sights to be seen in WNC: needle ice.

There are plenty of rewards to a winter hike including refreshing temperatures, fewer fellow hikers, and endless views of deep blue skies. While higher elevations typically see snow, the valleys around Asheville are usually clear and great on mild days. The North Carolina Arboretum is a great place to explore during these months as sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway are often inaccessible since it’s never treated or plowed.

As with any season, it’s best to be prepared when heading out for a hike of any length. Trail-tested essentials to keep in your daypack year round are water bottles, trekking poles, snacks, first aid kit, and whistle. A headlamp and a rain jacket are also imperative if you like to enjoy too-beautiful-to-miss sunsets or make a wrong turn. This is one season you can leave the insect repellant at home.

With heavier used trails, winter hiking can present packed snow turned slick or slushy mud. Consult with one of our footwear experts to choose footwear based on expected trail conditions. Winter hikers usually have better grip and sturdy ankle support. A good pair of hiking boots – no matter the season – provide great piece of mind.

Even though it seems like spring has come early, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy an afternoon or weekend hike and come back home for a warm bowl of chili or cup of tea. Layer up and get outdoors.

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Outdoor Safety Basics

We truly live in an outdoor paradise. WNC offers hundreds of beautiful hiking trails and breathtaking overlooks. But to make the most out of your adventure, it’s vital to be well prepared and think about a few essentials for a rewarding (and safe) experience.

Water

Always bring along enough water for your hike. An average adult will likely drink a minimum of 2-3 liters of water on a full day of hiking, but will likely need more, especially in warm weather or on particularly strenuous hikes. Good news! Water is plentiful in WNC and delicious! Just bring along a filter, pump, or treatment solution and you will have all the clean water you need.

Rain Gear: 

Rain gear is critical in WNC, one of the rainiest parts of the country! During popular spring, summer, and fall months rain and thunderstorms are a common occurrence. Stay dry, stay warm, stay safe, and play more

Maps: 

If you’re doing the Art Loeb, venturing into a wilderness area, or just hiking off the Blue Ridge Parkway on a new trail, make sure you know where you’re headed and can find your way back! National Geographic and Pisgah Map Company maps are affordable and readily available.

First Aid: 

Whether taking the family to a swimming hole or camping out during an overnight, First Aid is important. Scrapes, cuts, bee stings, sunburn and other more serious injuries can and do occur. Be prepared.

Camping: 

Whether hammocking or curling up in a tent, camping is an awesome way to experience the WNC wilderness! Pisgah National Forest has designated campgrounds for easy car access and also allows dispersed camping anywhere in its boundaries. Certain portions of Pisgah require the use of hard- sided bear canisters. Please check their website for up-to-date information or stop into Frugal Backpacker for advice!

The nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires a permit and advance reservations for all backcountry camping in the park. In the busy season these spots go fast, so plan ahead!

Bear-Bagging is a useful skill when camping anywhere in bear country. WNC is home to a large black bear population and even when camping in areas that do not expressly require bear canisters, we suggest bear-bagging your food and smellables(deodorant, soap, toothpaste, etc). The PCT method of bear-bagging is our preferred system at Frugal Backpacker. If you are unfamiliar with it, drop into the shop and ask one of our experts to demonstrate. All it takes is a bag, some paracord, a carabiner, and a stick!

Leave No Trace and Wilderness Awareness: 

The mountains and forests of WNC are a wonderful resource and welcoming opportunity to learn and explore! Please be respectful of the land and help preserve it for future generations and fellow enthusiasts alike! Bag your trash and carry it out with you. Dispose of human waste responsibly and away from water sources and trails. Thoroughly extinguish any fires and obey fire ban ordinances when and where applicable. Do not disturb wildlife and be mindful of slippery surfaces near the many creeks, rivers and waterfalls that dot our mountains. More people die from slipping and falling each year than every other cause put together!

If you don’t know, ask! 

Getting into a new activity or learning a new area takes time, but expert guidance can make a huge difference. Stop by Frugal Backpacker or our sister store, Diamond Brand Outdoors and ask our friendly expert staff for info on the local area or gear suggestions. We’re always happy to help!

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