New Hampshire’s White Mountains: Please Enjoy Responsibly
Notoriously difficult. Famously breathtaking. This roughly hundred-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail through New Hampshire is sure to stand out in the memory of any thru-hiker and the imagination of any aspiring one. The White Mountain stretch of the AT features 15 peaks above 4,000 feet, treacherous, rocky footing, miles of trail above treeline, pristine alpine forests, and the potential to encounter “the worst weather in the world.” It is also home to a unique set of rules and regulations that are not found anywhere else on the trail.
A Different Sort of Section
When I did my 2017 NOBO thru-hike, I knew in advance about the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). I knew about their hut system and the work-for-stay (WFS) program. I knew that their tentsites usually had caretakers who collected fees in the summer. I also knew that camping above treeline was illegal and, having summitted all the peaks along the AT in New Hampshire before, I knew that stealth camping spots were going to be very difficult to come by. I was okay with all of that, until I actually got to the Whites.
You see, by that point in the journey, my fellow NOBOs and I had been hiking for a LONG time. We were tired, hungry, smelly, chronically dirty. Most of us were set in our ways after 1800-ish miles and, frankly, most of us felt a little entitled (myself included). An AMC member of several years, even I found myself at times grumbling about the organization that some thru-hikers have derisively called the “Appalachian Money Club.” When it came time to pay for a campsite or try to finagle a WFS at one of the huts, it was hard not to look at the hordes of day hikers and weekenders and think “but I walked here from Georgia! How can the same rules apply?”
But they do apply.
They NEED to apply to everyone who visits the White Mountains. I reached out to the AMC to get some info on the work they do as well as the impact of hikers in the Whites. Here is what I learned:
It may be hard to believe, but according to the AMC’s guide for thru-hikers, White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) sees more visitors annually than Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks COMBINED. Millions of visitors, roughly 14,000 of whom will camp overnight, means major impact on the land. Trail crews work tirelessly throughout the year to curb the erosion brought on by these numbers. Legendary Northeastern environmentalists Laura and Guy Waterman went so far as to spend hundreds of hours observing the footsteps of hikers on Franconia Ridge to determine the optimal placement of each individual rock along the trail. Workers also maintain water quality and ensure the safety of rare alpine species⎼ some of which exist nowhere else on earth. Hut and campsite caretakers educate the public about minimizing their impact on the environment. They also pack in heavy loads of food, help with trail maintenance, and manually stir roughly 2,400 gallons of human waste to aid in decomposition over the course of a year.
Many of the thankless and labor-intensive jobs required to keep WMNF looking beautiful year after year are performed by dedicated volunteers. However, full time professionals and a great deal of money are still required to keep the whole operation running smoothly. The importance of a caretaker presence and designated campsites cannot be underestimated. During a single long weekend in 2013, a government shutdown that left all AMC campsites unmanned resulted in environmental damage that remains to this day.
The Role of Thru-Hikers
Thru-hikers may account for only about 5% of the annual visitors to WMNF, but that is still a large number of people. As men and women who choose to forsake the comforts of civilization to⎼ as the signs say⎼ seek fellowship with the wilderness for half a year, we have a special responsibility to be stewards of Leave No Trace practices and be extra appreciative of the work others do to maintain the trail. Keep the following tips in mind to help make thru-hikers’ impact on the Whites a positive one.
A Few Pointers
1) Follow Camping Regulations
-If you stealth camp, make sure you do so at least 200 feet from the trail and/or water sources.
-Do not camp above treeline. The alpine zone is home to many rare and fragile lichens and shrubs that cannot handle that kind of impact. It is also usually windy and dangerous.
-Do not camp within forest protection areas.
-Pitch your tent on a platform when camping in a designated campsite.
2) Have a Plan
-Flat ground with enough open space for a tent is limited in the Whites. Stealth camping spots are sparse through this section. Do your best to avoid illegal camping by knowing as much as you can about your sleeping options ahead of time.
-Hut croo members, other hikers, and hostel owners are all good resources for information about alternative camping options. Keep in mind, however, that not all campsites recommended by other hikers or even hostels are guaranteed to fall within regulations.
-At some point you should definitely try and do a WFS at one of the huts (they feed you so much good food!), but remember that they don’t always pan out. Be aware that the window for snagging a WFS is usually between 4 and 5pm.
-Expect the terrain to slow your pace significantly and be realistic about your mileage goals and ETAs.
-Expect a high volume of hikers and campers, especially on weekends and holidays.
3) Pay the Fees
-Just as you should plan your mileage with the Whites’ rugged terrain in mind, remember to plan your budget with the associated fees in mind too.
-Thru-hikers pay full price ($10) to camp at the first AMC campsite they stay at, and then are given a special card to present at all subsequent campsites and huts.* As of 2017, the card entitles you to half price camping, a free bowl of soup and two free baked goods!
-Be sure to carry enough cash through this section (caretakers can do a lot, but they can’t swipe credit cards).
4) Stay on the Trail
-Protect rare alpine species by not trampling them!
-Help keep erosion from spreading by not cutting new trails to circumvent the official one (I mean, who are we kidding? You’re already covered head to toe in mud anyway).
5) Practice Leave No Trace
-Obviously you should do this throughout the whole trail, but be especially diligent in high-density areas like the Whites. Just a few refreshers on some big ones:
-Bury your poop in a 6-inch cat hole far from the trail and/or water or, preferably in this area, use a privy.
-Do not build fires unless it is explicitly permitted.
-Do not remove/destroy/deface wild plants and rocks, especially in the alpine zone.
-For the love of Benton MacKaye (or Earl Schaffer or Grandma Gatewood or Miss Janet or whoever you prefer), DO NOT LITTER! Pack out ALL of your trash. Remember that apple cores, banana peels, peanut shells, orange rinds, etc. are all examples of trash.
6) Spread the Word
-If you see a clueless newbie or even another thru-hiker being less than respectful, don’t be shy. Speak up!
-Few people go into the outdoors actively seeking to harm the environment. You don’t have to be confrontational or rude. Simply explaining in a kind manner why it’s not cool to bury your beer cans or toss cigarette butts all over the trail can go a long way towards keeping the scenery looking pristine.
Remember that no matter how far we may have walked to get somewhere, we owe a great deal to the people and organizations who make the AT an ongoing reality. Hopefully by holding ourselves and our community to a high standard of humility and environmental stewardship, we can ensure that this storied section of the trail lives up to its reputation of unparalleled beauty for generations of thru-hikers to come.
*The AMC also operates 5 campsites in Southern Maine that have no caretaker and are free.
For even more information on AMC/thru-hiker relations, check out this fantastic article by thru-hiker and AMC staff member, Jeremy “Beowulf” Day.
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