AT Hikers: 9 Thru-Hiker Approved Ways To Tackle the White Mountains
The 104 miles of white-blazed trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Forest are hyped for good reason. This range is known for muscle-burning ascents, fun (or terrifying) alpine rock-hopping, backcountry huts, and vast overlooks. On the other hand, it’s also infamous for its roaring weather patterns, complex camping regulations, and crowds.
The logistics of traversing this stretch of trail can be confusing for AT thru-hikers. And while we’re all for Type-2 fun, being prepared to navigate the Whites during your Appalachian Trail thru-hike can make the journey more successful and less stressful.
What makes the White Mountains different?
This area is managed differently than the rest of the AT with an emphasis on forest protection. White Mountains National Forest consists of 148,000 acres of designated wilderness area stewarded by several organizations.
Thru-hiking may seem like a low-impact way to experience the mountains, but bear in mind that thru-hikers account for a fraction of the almost 6 million people who visit White Mountains National Forest per year. Backcountry camping regulations help to reduce the environmental impact of heavy visitation. The most relevant of these rules to thru-hikers are as follows:
- No camping within 200 feet of the trail
- No camping within 1/4 mile of any trailhead, cabin, shelter/hut, or developed campground or day-use area
- No camping in the alpine zone (except on at least two feet of snow)
- Additional regulations in specific areas (generally indicated with signage on the trail)
The Appalachian Trail only crosses a small portion of the high mountain region between Route 25 near Wentworth and Mount Moosilake and Route 2 near Gorham and Mount Moriah, but it packs a staggering 34,000 feet of white-blazed vertical gain into that 104-mile stretch.
Whether you are a thru-hiker or section hiker, whether you’re approaching from the north or south, the following advice will help you turn logistical stress into excitement about this stunning section of the AT. Here’s where to start.
READ NEXT – The 2022 AT Thru-Hiker Survey: General Information
9 Tips To Navigate the White Mountains on Your AT Thru-Hike
1. Bring Cash
Entering the Whites with at least $150 on hand will lift literal and metaphorical weight from your shoulders. Cash will help ensure you have easy access to camping and snacks.
Backcountry facilities in the White Mountains operate with limited resources. While this elevates the charm of the region, there are no charging outlets or card readers available at huts and backcountry campsites, compared to the rest of the trail where credit cards are widely accepted.
Dispersed camping is allowed in the Whites with some restrictions, but you should expect to pay to stay at designated campsites/shelters and potentially at huts and cabins. Bringing cash allows you to adjust your plans in hazardous weather. Even if you intend to stealth camp, plans can change fast in the Whites. It’s better to be prepared to stay in a shelter, hut, or cabin as needed.
To be on the safe side, budget enough cash to pay for every night spent sleeping in the Whites. Many a thru-hiker may grumble about the inconvenience of paid campsites and camping regulations, but camping fees help cover the maintenance and upkeep of high-use areas.
On a more positive note—snacks! The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) huts offer a variety of bars, candy, coffee, tea, homemade baked goods, and hot soup for a cash donation to visitors during the day. The luxury of a lightened food carry is worth carrying a few bucks.
2. Obtain an ATC Thru-Hiker Pass
Camping options in the White Mountains can be confusing. Your options are as follows:
- 8 AMC huts
- 13 designated AMC shelters/campsites
- 3 Randolph Mountain Club (RMC) cabins/shelters
- Several front country lodges
- Dispersed campsites (following posted regulations)
The AMC offers a Thru-Hiker Pass program to provide low-cost and reduced-impact camping options to thru-hikers in the region. The caretaker at the first AMC shelter/campsite that you choose to stay at will explain the details.
During my 2022 southbound thru-hike, acquiring the Thru-Hiker Pass meant paying $10 for the pass and a one-night stay at Speck Pond Shelter in Maine. I then paid a discounted rate of $5 at every subsequent AMC campsite I chose to stay at. For comparison: the standard nightly fee is $15 per campsite. Passes are non-transferable, non-refundable, and will not be replaced if lost.
The Thru-Hiker Pass also entitles you to two free baked goods and one free bowl of hot soup at the huts, 10 percent off merchandise at AMC locations, and other specials at front country visitor centers. Some thru-hikers make it through the White Mountains without staying at a single AMC campsite. This hiker accomplished a balanced mix of AMC shelters, dispersed camping, and one night of work-for-stay.
3. Split Into Smaller Groups
Depending on the time of year, the White Mountains can be a crowded place. People travel great distances to share this special mountain range. Some campsites can host up to 50 people per night. The AMC campsite caretakers are a kind, fearless bunch with a job to do. Thru-hikers should expect crowded shelters, large groups of all ages, and requests to set up multiple tents on one wooden tent platform.
For those thru-hiking in groups, spitting into groups of two to four people makes it easier to secure camping each night. Use FarOut or the AT Guide to plan ahead and break the Whites down day by day so that all parties know what to expect.
4. Remember That the Huts Are a Blessing
Side quests are everything. The high mountain huts are an absolute highlight for this section of the Appalachian Trail. Eight huts are spaced along the trail in the Whites. These facilities (Lonesome Lake, Greenleaf, Galehead, Zealand Falls, Mizpah Spring, Lakes of the Clouds, Madison Spring, and Carter Notch Hut) are seasonally maintained by the AMC to promote outdoor recreation and provide shelter, education, and amenities to those traveling through the region.
The huts are different from designated campsites and shelters. Each has an enclosed dining room, kitchen, bunk area, and bathroom facilities. For a thru-hiker, huts mean food, enclosed waterless toilets, potable water, protection from inclement weather, and the chance to pick up emergency gear.
Most thru-hikers do not stay in the AMC huts because of the cost. A reserved bunk can cost upwards of $150+ per night, with no access to power outlets, showers, or laundry. However, as dispersed camping can be dangerous to humans and the environment in alpine zones, AMC offers thru-hikers additional, more affordable ways to stay. These include work-for-stay programs and “The Dungeon” of Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Spots are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. To cinch a work-for-stay spot, you must arrive at the hut at or after four p.m.
If spots are unavailable, you may be asked to pay for a bunk or continue on. However, if a dangerous storm is rolling in, know that the huts will not turn you away—even if all they have to offer is sleeping space on the dining room floor.
5. Take Advantage of Breakfast Leftovers
Let’s talk breakfast leftovers. Hot breakfast is for hut guests. Cold leftovers are for thru-hikers: scrambled eggs, stodgy oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins, and fluffy pancakes left over from a feast that was served hours prior. Breakfast leftovers make for a great morning snack or lunch. The rules vary at each facility: one hut may ask for a cash donation, and another may require the completion of a chore (like sweeping the dining room floor).
If you’re nice and ask before assuming, the Hut Croo are likelier to extend kindness back. On a related note, when you’re at the huts, take the time to refill your water bottle, grab a hot bowl of soup or homemade baked treat, and wash those grimy hands.
6. Be Prepared to Slow Down
Your daily mileage will decrease when you hit the Whites. If you’ve fallen behind schedule by the time you hit Mount Moosilauke, this is not the time to make up miles. Many former thru-hikers suggest planning for around 10–17 miles per day due to challenging elevation change, terrain, and conditions.
There are stories of hut Croo members holding hikers in place for a day or more to allow storms to pass over. Draw up a rough schedule before entering the Whites, then add a few days of buffer to account for unplanned weather and rest days, and slowdowns on tough terrain. In determining when conditions or physical challenges are enough to warrant a zero, listen to your body and consider the advice of other hikers.
Some days will be more strenuous than others. There is a six-mile flat stretch of flattish trail; it’s your turn to go find and enjoy it!
This is not meant to fearmonger, but to encourage thru-hikers to enjoy the mixture of luxury and challenge these mountains provide. Look forward to spoonfuls of lemon and dill potato soup at the huts. Grab ice cream bars at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Wait out dangerous weather indoors. Take a moment to send postcards from Mount Washington. Blue-blaze all the Presidential 4,000-foot peaks. These are the memories that matter.
7. Plan Ahead for Weather
Folks hike in the White Mountains year-round; it can be done, but this region requires more caution than most other parts of the AT.
Thru-hikers are known for their stubbornness, and we certainly don’t stop hiking at the first drop of rain. However, traverses above treeline carry additional risk. The winds are stronger, the temperatures are colder, and quick response by emergency crews are impractical.
And conditions in these mountains are notoriously unpredictable. Mount Washington (6,288 feet above sea level) is literally known for having the worst weather in the world.
READ NEXT – Mount Washington’s -108 Degree Wind Chill Breaks US Record)
Many resources are available for hikers to monitor forecasts and trail conditions in the White Mountains. Multi-day weather reports are updated each morning at backcountry huts. In locations with cell reception, online resources such as the Mount Washington Observatory and atweather.org are great for checking throughout the day.
Familiarize yourself with local resources and side trails that lead off high ridges. If inclement weather is expected or is brewing before your eyes, have a backup plan ready.
For example, my hiking group experienced sunny skies on Mount Madison followed by static electricity and sustained 55-plus mph winds going over Mount Adams. We dodged it by taking a 1.2-mile out-and-back blue-blaze to stay at the Randolph Mountain Club Gray Knob Cabin ($25) as nighttime rain passed over the Presidential Range.
Keep in mind that temperature decreases on average by 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit per 1,000 feet of elevation. The huts will not turn anyone away in dangerous conditions, but the definition of “dangerous” can be variable. If you are ever in doubt, turn around.
8. Layer Up
Yes, stranger, I do recommend continuing to carry your one long-sleeve shirt as you enter the White Mountains. (Someone really asked me this once.) Adequate clothing is a must in the Whites. In addition to that long-sleeve shirt, make sure you bring a waterproof shell, insulating layers, and at least one pair of leg coverings.
Proper layers, combined with high-energy food (calories) and plenty of water, can save your life in an emergency. It also wouldn’t hurt to carry some shoulder season gear like a sleeping bag liner or beanie through the Whites for extra insulation. For instance, I picked up an $8 synthetic sleeping bag liner from Walmart in Gorham. The extra weight was worth it to supplement my 30-degree quilt.
Northbounders will likely continue to need those extra layers in Maine. SOBOS, meanwhile, can probably send that gear home when they reach Hanover (though they’ll need it again later in the season).
READ NEXT – Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Gear List
9. Tread Matters
Make sure to have shoes with tread you can trust. While it’s a point of thru-hiker pride to wear shoes until they disintegrate (this author regularly brags about a pair of Topo Athletic Terraventure 3s that lasted almost 900 miles), it’s a good idea to start this challenging section with a fresh pair.
Good footwear with decent grip is critical in the Whites and southwestern Maine. The AT above treeline in the Whites is an alien, rock-strewn world where cairns replace white-blazed trees. The AT below treeline in the Whites is full of slick stream crossings, polished wooden bog boards, and slabby climbs. Whether it be boots or trail runners, find comfortable shoes with dependable tread before you get into the Whites.
READ NEXT –
- The Top Footwear on the Appalachian Trail: 2022 Thru-Hiker Survey
- Best Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking
- Best Hiking Shoes for Thru-Hiking
The Southbound Perspective
Heading south meant I hit the Whites with fresh legs and a fresh perspective on the AT. This section ended up being one of my favorites, full of beautiful scenery and memorable experiences. This is the region where I first truly felt my trail legs on a bluebird day ascending Mount Moriah. Blue-blazing the Presidential 4,000-footers led me to realize the thrill of climbing mountains. Every day included a side quest. I continue to share this excitement with all who ask.
My timing meant early northbounders could share fragments of their experience from the last 100 miles with me as they finished the Whites and I began them. While a number of these comments were unhelpful and negative, a handful were informative and upbeat; those hikers’ wisdom is embedded in the advice above.
In the end, the White Mountains can be a hiker’s wonderland or a hiker’s nightmare. It’s up to you. Be smart, make good decisions, leave no trace, and have fun.
And most importantly, enjoy the journey.
Featured image: Photo via Jeff P; graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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