Backpacker 'Tipi' takes to the trails

Walter Wehner of Tellico Plains sits beside the four-man tent he regularly brings on his extended backpack trips. Tipi Walter, as he's known on the trail, is seen here last Saturday in the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness Area, almost two weeks into a 20-day trip.

Most backpackers seldom spend more than a week on a trail before returning to civilization. An exception to that is Walter Wehner.

The 65-year-old Tellico Plains resident sometimes spends weeks in the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

"I like the freedom of being out in the woods. A lot of people, when they retire, they play golf. I go backpacking," says Wehner, who goes by his trail name of Tipi Walter.

"I try to get out once a month. I especially like the winter."

Wehner, who stands about 6 feet tall, regularly carries a backpack more than half his weight of 150 pounds. He got his trail name by living in a tepee 21 years on the outskirts of Boone, N.C. The closest thing he had to a modern convenience then was a wood-burning stove.

photo Walter Wehner, a 65-year-old Tellico Plains resident who goes by the trail name Tipi Walter, makes frequent extended hiking trips with a backpack weighing about 85 pounds when he sets out.

"I guess I just wanted to be out in nature," he recalled during a trip last weekend.

While living in the tepee, Wehner worked and ultimately retired from an Episcopalian church in Boone as a custodian, although he has degrees in health education and music from Appalachian State University. He played in the wind ensemble at ASU.

"I made just enough to buy food and stuff," Wehner said about his position at the church.

Joining the U.S. Air Force in 1969, he served four years and played in the Air Force band. He then used the GI Bill to attend college.

Now, when not on a trail, he usually is getting ready for his next trip. He normally starts with 40-45 pounds of food, but he once backpacked 24 days.

"That was a lot of food," he said.

"I dehydrate everything at home so I don't have to buy it. You're supposed to eat two pounds a day - generally that's the rule. The two pounds give you enough calories."

Food is not the only item that pushes his pack up to 85 pounds. Wehner also packs a heavy tent - a four-man Hilleberg version that weighs 10 pounds, 10 ounces, according to the company website. Most backpackers use tents that weigh less than five pounds.

"I just like my space. The bigger it is, the easier it is to stay put in bad weather," Wehner said.

A vegetarian since 1973, he filters his water to drink and to rehydrate his food. He cooks on a backpacking gas stove.

"I started out with 44 ounces of gas and now I've got 20 ounces left," Wehner said Saturday at the Hangover, a backcountry campsite about seven miles off the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina.

He began his current trip on July 6 at Bald River Falls near the Tellico River. Saturday was the 13th day he had been on the trail, with another seven days to go.

He packs up and moves every day, weather permitting.

"On day one I saw a copperhead, on day five I saw a rattlesnake, and on day eight I saw a black bear," he said.

To stay somewhat in touch with daily events, Wehner carries a small radio.

"You can hear about tornadoes and blizzards coming," he said.

Wehner's life has not always been one that he has been proud of.

"I was stationed in Panama while in the Air Force. I guess I sort of hit bottom," he said about his alcohol drinking while in the military. "People don't realize how hard it is to quit alcohol. It is poison."

His life now is not carefree, either.

"I've got just as much crap as anybody else," he said. "I've got as much worries as anybody else. You worry about your health, family and everything else."

Fellow backpackers say he shows his concern in positive ways, however.

Raymond Myers, the organizer for the Nashville Backpacker Meetup, said of Wehner, "I think he is an awesome backpacker and a great guy."

Myers, whose trail name is "Rain Man," has backpacked with Wehner twice.

"I feel like I am a rookie when I am with him. He is very supportive with his advice, and he helps a lot of people," Myers said, noting that Wehner does more than hike from one site to another.

"He carries clippers and he helps maintain trails," Myers said. "I wish more hikers would do that. He definitely leaves the trail better than he finds it."

Patrick Mason of Knoxville - trail name "Patman" - makes 30 to 40 backpack trips a year. He first found Wehner on the Internet and connected with him over the years.

"I've been backpacking with him for about five or six years," said Mason, who with his wife, Susan, on Saturday had joined Wehner on his current trip.

"I will do a route that will intersect with his route," Mason said. "He does it year round. He totally does his own thing."

When will Wehner stop backpacking?

"When I can't walk anymore," he says.

Contact Gary Petty at