A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to the AMC Hut System

I’m Jesse.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut “croo,” fall 2014

I spent this past fall working for the Appalachian Mountain Club, an organization oftentimes notorious within the thru-hiker community. The AMC maintains eight backcountry huts along the New Hampshire AT, spread out between Franconia Notch and Carter Notch.

I grew up hiking in the White Mountains with a view of the AMC not unlike that of many displeased thru-hikers. (I watched my camp counselors chant “Appalachian Money Club, Always Making Cash!” after hiking past huts as a young child.) However, as I learned more about the organization and became interested in serving on a hut “croo,” my views began to change. After working this past fall at Lakes of the Clouds Hut on the side of Mt. Washington, I happily became a convert to the AMC and a traitor to its critics. The Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader of the White Mountains, some might say.

Vader has a love-hate relationship with packing food for the huts. “I love the exercise and challenge but I’m worried about the long-term impact on my knees,” he says.

Vader has a love-hate relationship with packing food for the huts. “I love the exercise and challenge but I’m worried about the long-term impact on my knees,” he says.

Now, as I prepare for a thru-hike of my own, I’m back to square one – soon to be surrounded by distrust of anyone who charges for a tent-site and loathe for the capitalistic tendencies of the hut system. Can I find some way to bridge the divide between the AMC’s supporters and detractors? Between hut croos and disgruntled thru-hikers? Can balance be restored to the galaxy?

I’ll try to answer the most common questions and address the biggest issues when it comes to huts and thru-hikers co-existing in harmony. Lets start with a big one…

Why the heck are the huts so expensive?

At the root of most thru-hikers’ dislike of all things Appalachian Mountain Club is the cost associated with the organization’s backcountry facilities. Upon reaching the Whites, thru-hikers are greeted with the need to pay for their backcountry accommodations for the first time on their journey. While AMC tent-site and shelter fees are relatively low, the huts are for most thru-hikers – and, granted, for many more – prohibitively expensive. Rates for non-AMC-members on a weekend can reach $120 per night. So, AMC, what’s with this?

One reason is practical. The cost of a stay at a hut isn’t comparable to a night at a roadside, front-country destination because of the huts’ remoteness. Everything you find in a hut – literally everything, including the hut itself – had to be flown in by helicopter, which costs over $1,600 per hour of use, or packed in by foot. Keeping the huts stocked with food is particularly difficult.

caption

Pack mules were ruled out long ago but the AMC still relies on transport by trail. Here, the frequent packing of produce, meats, and eggs by the croo commences.

Add to this the overhead costs – flying out semi-composted human waste, upkeep of an electric system based entirely on solar and wind power, maintenance of a wooden building in the region’s harshest climate, etc. – and you’ll begin to understand how much effort it takes to keep a hut up and running. Of course, the croo must get paid, too.

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Empty propane tanks are flown out from Lakes of the Clouds.

The other reason for the high cost is philanthropic. The AMC uses a great deal of its resources for initiatives in education and conservation – it’s a non-profit, after all. Lodging revenue is one of the main ways the organization funds its broader goals, so buying a night at a hut essentially comes with a built in donation to the AMC. True, one doesn’t get to choose to “donate” or not, but at least it’s not pure evil. The money is going somewhere worthwhile, like outdoor programs for at-risk youth, conservation-oriented research, or trail maintenance (the AMC maintains most of the AT in the White Mountains and Mahoosucs).

Fair enough, but what’s a thru-hiker to do?

The magic words are “work-for-stay.” You will certainly hear about this on the trail. The basis of a hut work-for-stay is as follows: thru-hikers complete a maximum of two hours of chores around the hut in exchange for a place to spread out their sleeping pad as well as plenty of leftovers from dinner and the following morning’s breakfast. In theory, it’s a match made in heaven, the win-win of all win-wins. Hut croos need help with scrubbing things and eating all the leftovers, and thru-hikers need a dry place to sleep and love eating all the leftovers. It’s a rare work-for-stay that doesn’t end in smiles.

This one ended in the Oreo Forehead-to-Mouth Game

This one ended in the Oreo Forehead-to-Mouth Game.

The knotty part of it all is that the AMC limits the number of work-for-stay spots available at each hut, with only two permitted per night at most huts. There’s only so much work to be done and so much leftover food to be eaten. Hopeful thru-hikers certainly won’t get kicked out into a blizzard at night, but the croo sometimes does have to say, “I’m sorry, we’re full, there’s a campsite not too far away.” It seems a little harsh in comparison to the abundant generosity found elsewhere on the trail, but I can assure you that the hut kid turning down a work-for-stay request does not count doing so as his or her favorite part of the job.

How can I increase my chances of landing a work-for-stay?

Like many things in life, timing is everything. Or at least it’s important. Huts generally begin to accept work-for-stays only after 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. This is done as much for thru-hikers as it is for the huts, as bottlenecks at each hut would form without it. If two thru-hikers show up at noon having hiked only five miles that day and take the work-for-stay spots, the folks coming in at 5:00pm after a full day on the trail will be understandably cross.

Accordingly, it makes sense for larger groups of hikers intent on doing hut work-for-stays to split up and spread out a bit when entering the hut system. The AMC also advocates for limiting oneself to three work-for-stays so that others don’t get short-changed, although it all depends on how many other thru-hikers are in the area.

That's a paddlin'

Regardless, it’s always worthwhile to have a backup plan, and also to ask a croo-person for advice on where else to spend the night if you are asked to move on – there may be lesser-known or unmarked options that they can point out.

What can I expect during a work-for-stay?

So, you’ve secured a spot – what’s next? First, you’ll most likely be asked to wait somewhere out of the way while the croo serves dinner to the regular guests. These guests are the croo’s primary responsibility, and the time between 5:00 and 7:00pm tends to be the busiest part of their day.

The croo serves soup to a full house of guests during the evening meal

The croo serves soup to a full house of guests during the evening meal.

Once the meal has been taken care of, the croo will invite you into the kitchen to load up on leftovers with them. Hut fare is hearty stuff that pleases most palates and is often in abundance. Included may be foods like steak or fresh salad that otherwise tend to be absent in the backcountry. Best of all, the meal was cooked by somebody else. Breakfast leftovers might include oatmeal, pancakes, eggs, coffee cake, and even bacon from time to time.

The work part of the work-for-stay usually occurs after dinner or following breakfast, or sometimes a little of both. In the evening you might be asked to take on a task in the kitchen like scouring pots or cleaning out the fridge, and if you’re sticking around the next morning it’ll most likely be sweeping out bunk rooms. Don’t worry, you won’t be asked to stir the composting toilets. In my experience, two full hours of work were rarely asked of thru-hikers, although it varies between nights and huts.

Beyond the basic aspects of a work-for-stay, there are factors that might make your experience more unique. For example, in place of work, willing thru-hikers are sometimes asked to give an informal talk and answer questions for guests about their thru-hike. This happens most often when the hut naturalist is on days off – when the “natty” is in, listen to his or her evening ecology presentation or the “Green Technology Talk” that is given before dinner for some bonus education and entertainment.

If you are sick and tired of the people you’ve been hiking with for the previous eternity, a night at a hut additionally serves as a great time to socialize with new faces. Guests tend to be fascinated by thru-hikers, and who knows – there might even be an inquisitive 18-year-old kid on the croo who wants to thru-hike himself and would love to hear your advice….

Other ways the huts can help maximize your White Mountain experience

Not doing a work-for-stay? There are plenty of other ways that the huts can work for you if you know about them. Like this: at some huts there is a “thru-hiker box” with free packaged food items left by guests or previous thru-hikers, as can be seen elsewhere on the trail – it can’t hurt to ask about it. Thru-hikers can also score breakfast leftovers if passing by a hut earlier in the day. The closer to the end of breakfast, the better your chances are. You might be asked to help out the cook with some dishes in return for the food, or you might just be asked to eat as much as possible so the croo doesn’t have to pack it out. If nothing else, there’s always soup and hot drinks for sale.

Some thru-hikers are in fact interested in staying as a regular paying guest at a hut or two (more often than not, these tend to be hikers from the older crowd on the trail). Thru-hikers receive a 20 percent AMC member discount at any hut or lodge. It’s important to know, however, that while a walk-in reservation is possible on many nights, huts are oftentimes booked to their maximum guest capacity well in advance, especially on weekends.

Take advantage of the hut croo’s knowledge of the area, especially if you are new to the White Mountains. Croo-members are likely to be experts on the terrain surrounding their hut, if not on the White Mountains as a whole, so bring forward your questions about the trail ahead, upcoming campsites, or even the alpine wildlife if someone is available. Many thru-hikers also like to check the weather report from the Mt. Washington Observatory posted daily in each hut, and anyone is free to use the maps and guidebooks available to guests.

At the very least – supposing that even after reading this you still detest the huts and want nothing to do with them – stop in, fill up your water bottles, sign the hiker log, and enjoy the remarkably civilized toilets. The seats may be chilly but it smells better than a privy.

Caption

Even Vader takes care of business in style. Did you ever wonder what he was really doing in there? Now you know.

Beyond the huts

Other Appalachian Mountain Club facilities, such as AMC tent-sites and shelters, are also well visited by thru-hikers. Spending a night at one of these costs $8 per person, but they are well maintained by a full-time caretaker and provide wooden tent platforms. Why the fee? The short answer is that the ridiculously high usage of the White Mountain National Forest (greater than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined) necessitates unusually intensive practices to minimize the impact of all the people – all the people’s poop, in particular. A more complete answer with an actual cost breakdown is here. Check it out if you want to be surprised about how much money can be spent on poop.

It is worth noting that the AMC’s roadside lodges along the trail, distinct from huts due to their front-country nature and larger size, do not offer work-for-stay. Although they are still likely to exceed a thru-hiker’s budget, they are a more affordable option than a hut. Finally, know that the emergency shelter below Lakes of the Clouds Hut, referred to as “The Dungeon,” is open to thru-hikers; your other options besides the hut in that area are very inconveniently reached. For $10 a night you’ll get just about what you’d expect from a room with a name like that, but, as one thru-hiker friend has said of it, “indoors is indoors.”

EP6_ILM_53

The AMC will refund your $10 if the resident rancor tries to eat you.

For more details on thru-hiking amidst the AMC in the White Mountains, the organization offers a short guide.

A final plea for mutual understanding

I have yet to meet a hut kid who lacked a good heart and a “people-person” disposition, but there are situations when even the most well-intentioned hut employee might seem stressed or burdened by a thru-hiker’s presence. Thru-hikers shouldn’t take this personally. It’s important for both croos and thru-hikers alike to understand where each respective party is coming from.

For thru-hikers, that means putting yourself in the shoes (likely the crocs or clogs or something else dorky) of a hut kid – specifically the cook of the day, who will most likely be the one managing work-for-stay. You started your day at 5:30am to cook breakfast for the pervious night’s guests and have been in the kitchen ever since. At the time thru-hikers start popping in to ask for work-for-stay, you are currently attempting to assemble a four-course meal for up to 94 guests. And you are doing it in the middle of the woods, by yourself.

More generally, try to understand why the huts are the way they are, and take advantage of what they can do for any thru-hiker who walks in the door. Know that while the work-for-stay system is by and large quite awesome for both the huts and thru-hikers, using it does require more thoughtfulness than might be immediately apparent.

Most importantly, keep in mind that the White Mountains are incredible – this section will likely be one of the most challenging, beautiful, exciting, and rewarding stretches of your hike. So, AMC huts aside, savor this part of the trail as best you can. And finally, avoid the tempting Dynasty Buffet in Gorham. Word on the trail is that you will regret it a couple hours later.

Cheers, to peace and nightly accommodations for all.

Jesse Metzger, Lakes Croo F’14

Jesse’s personal blog: fromthegap.weebly.com

Images courtesy of: fabriciusphoto.com for lead photo; imgarcade.com for Vader in ‘Vader Packing’ image; whitemountainsojourn.blogspot.com for background in ‘Vader Packing’; comicvine.com for ‘That’s a paddlin” image; jimsmash.blogspot.com for ‘Vader’s toilet’ image; starwars.com for Rancor image. All other images by Jesse Metzger.

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Comments 17

  • Shawn Hudson : Feb 10th

    I appreciate the insight. As with most things, it’s important to understand the other side before getting huffy about it.

    Not sure if this is true across the board, but I thought I’d ask. One hut had over half of its bunks open (I want to say Zealand … ), but the croo asked us to sleep outside of the bunkroom.

    A paying guest even asked if we could sleep in the empty bunks, because I think he felt bad for us (appreciated!) but the croo “leader” said no, in so many words. Three of us wound up sleeping in this one corner, under some tables, because the croo leader even requested that we not sleep in the large open center space, in case guests wanted to walk around at night. It was kinda demeaning.

    Is that standard?

    Reply
  • Goliath : Feb 10th

    At $90+ a head and 90+ paying customers a night, is it really necessary to change thrus $10 to sleep in the emergency dungeon under lake of the clouds?

    Reply
  • R**** : Feb 13th

    article is interesting , but I don’t think it will change they way thru-hikers feel about amc huts.

    Reply
  • Andrew : Feb 13th

    I was up there last September and while I find the article informative, When all is said and done, I have seen a lot nicer camping accomodations on other parts of the trail that cost nothing that were all maintained by a volunteer workforce. Not to imply that being “Croo” isn’t hard work, just that well…my opinion is not changed. Have free campsites at decent intervals and then we can start talking about changing opinions.

    Reply
  • Marty : Feb 15th

    Much of the issue of thru-hikers feeling that the AMC Huts are somehow treating them unfairly would be resolved by the thru-hikers not having an attitude of entitlement. This article is excellent. There are now so many thru-hikers that the stated policy of limiting work-for-stay spaces is only reasonable. When I was on Hut Croos in the early 1970s, there were maybe 25 or 30 thru-hikers each summer, so it was relatively easy to let them all work-for-stay. 40+ years later that is no longer true.

    Reply
  • Marci Weber : Feb 15th

    Great post! I’m glad to see someone standing up for the AMC hut system. I had no trouble with work-for-stay in the Whites, and I’m pretty sure I SAVED money by eating so much free food.

    Also, what many thru-hikers don’t realize is that other big tourist spots on the trail are funded either by federal taxes (The Smokies, Mt. Rogers Area, Shenandoah, etc.), or by state taxes (Amicalola, Baxter, Bear Mountain, etc.). The Whites are expensive because they happen to be a national forest (with less funding for tourism than national parks have), and a private organization (the AMC) manages their recreational use. Most shelters on the AT don’t have fees because taxes are funding their maintenance. This includes remote, expensive-to-maintain sections like the Smokies.

    As a libertarian, I fully support the privatization of recreation management, in which the people actually USING the park pay for it, rather than all the taxpayers in the state or nation paying for something they may not be using.

    Reply
    • Lucy : May 3rd

      Womp womp, actually the USFS makes about 8 billion a year, nearly four times the amount as the NPS ENTIRE budget. The USDA leases forests and public lands to mining and logging, whereas the NPS makes most of its money for upkeep and preservation of the parks…YOUR national heritage whether you use it or not…from concessions and entrance fees and outside organizations and donations. So your logic is not sound, but you’re a libertarian so I don’t expect you to have the best reasoning skills.

      Reply
  • Kate Balano : Feb 23rd

    Great post! I am one of those “older” hikers and I hope that I will be able to stay at the huts if I can get my timing down. I am an AMC member as well. Having hike in the Whites previously, I know my 60 year bod will happily carry less food and have a bed at the end of the day. I have always thought that no one had articulated the viewpoint of the Croo. Thanks for doing so.

    Reply
  • Kathy Karch : May 15th

    Nope. Sorry. No sympathy from me on this one. Mind you, I have NO animosity toward the hut “croos.” You dudes and dudettes are absolutely Awesome with a capitol A! Especially since you get paid absolute crap for all your unbelievably hard work: ~$7.50/hr w/o any health or dental. It’s the AMC organization I have beef with. It’s a bloated organization that misappropriates funding as badly as if it were a government agency. Case in point, Mitzpah Hut has a capacity of 30 bunks. I just checked availability in June. They’ve already sold out of bunks for one Saturday night. $90.00? Forget that. It costs $127.00 per person IF that person has already paid $50.00 to become a member. Let’s assume for simplicity’s sake that those 30 folks are AMC members. That hut is going to bring in 30 x $127.00 = $3810.00 (Don’t forget that the organization already pulled in 30 x $50.00 = $1500.00 from these folks in this scenario). I did a little research. Helicopters make a supply drop-off/waste pick-up flight to huts ONCE per season. So the hut pays for that helicopter visit in a SINGLE night. And the bark that is used for the composting toilet facilities costs $9000.00 on average. Okay. That means that the hut covers the cost of the bark in less than three days of full capacity. Food costs money, and so do structural maintenance supplies. We know. And yes, the actual “croo” members get paid a whopping $7.50/hr (approximately). The huts are not even close to just breaking even. They’re turning a profit, son. A big one. Where do the extra funds go? Your guess is as good as mine. Well, maybe mine is better. I’m guessing catering and rental fees for overpaid administrators in the AMC organization and toward paying for way-too-fancy AMC “celebrations” and “fundraising events” in Boston. And don’t forget that if you’re not a through hiker (which I and my family are not), you also have to pay for an overnight parking pass. So, for my husband and I to attempt to expose my two sons to the awesomeness of an overnight adventure in an AMC hut it would cost us $75.00 (family AMC membership fee), plus $5.00 (parking fee), plus $254.00 (for my husband and I), plus $234.00 (for my two sons) = $568.00 for a single night’s stay for my family. The AMC mission statement: “The AMC… promotes the protection, enjoyment, and understanding of the mountains, forests, waters, and trails of America’s Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. We believe these resources have intrinsic worth and also provide recreational opportunities, spiritual renewal, and ecological and economic health for the region. We encourage people to experience, learn about, and appreciate the natural world.” Yeah… but only if you’re rich enough to be able to afford it. You ask for mutual understanding? I ask that AMC stop pretending that their hut system is financially accessible to anyone but the wealthy. Would I ever bitch at a “croo” member working his/her ass off in a hut should I stop in at one? No way. I’d give them a hug and tell them to keep up the awesome work. I also would continue on my merry way, regardless of weather or fatigue, because I can’t f***-ing afford to pay that ridiculous sum of money.

    Reply
  • Tom Murphy : Jun 11th

    Love all the posts from thrus expecting free accommodations, hike a few miles of the trail and you can easily find a stealth site.

    Reply
  • TJ Forrester : Jun 11th

    During my last thru-hike I arrived at Madison Spring Hut while there was a thunderstorm on Mt. Washington. The hut had accepted its limit of thru-hikers for the night, and the leader of the croo adamantly told me there was no room for one more, despite my offer to sleep on the floor! Given the danger of the current weather, her decision was as hard-hearted as they come. I went over Madison at a run–thunder booming behind me–got caught in the storm two-hundred yards down the other side. I bailed off the ridge and hunkered down among the rocks, cringed each time a thunderbolt crashed nearby. When the hail began, I unrolled my sleeping pad and crouched beneath it. This was one of the most scariest times in all of my thru-hikes, and I still can’t believe how callous that croo-leader acted toward another human being.

    To balance this story, I’d like to point out that I’ve hiked through the Whites four times on the AT, and the rest of my experiences with the hut-peeps were quite different. They were cool people, accommodating, and I look back on them with fond memories.

    Reply
    • Jill Roberta : Jun 12th

      Maybe that croo leader can ‘splain herself…..sounds like something we should all know in advance if we approach the shelter in awful weather.

      Reply
  • Sokrates_14 : Jun 11th

    RULES FOR AMC HUTS:

    *disregard the entire above article*

    1. Be a pretty girl, age 18-29 (sorry, 30+ and you’re out of luck), preferably by yourself, max 1 friend (must also be pretty girl, age 18-29).

    2. Everyone else can hack it, rain or shine.

    2b. Corollary rule: if you are bold enough, you can peacefully and cordially resist their suggestion that you hike out at 6 pm into an impending ice storm, over Mt Washington, and seven more miles to a campsite at Madison hut. DON’T LET THEM INTIMIDATE YOU AND RISK YOUR SAFETY.

    Source: Numerous anecdotes and personal experience from my ’14 thru hike.

    If I could do it all over again (maybe one day, eh?), I would say avoid the huts and just enjoy the Whites. The huts are ultimately just an interruption to the pristine isolation of the mountains, the type of overpriced “my father and his father and his father:pseudo-Thoreauean experience people from New England old money really get off on. The croo will most likely be annoyed by your presence as a thru hiker and will be at best indifferent (not always the case, but better safe than sorry). It’s easy to get over-hyped (after hundreds of miles of building expectations) over the romantic images of sipping hot stew while watching the alpine sunset and settling into a warm bunk as an ice storm rages outside, but it’s really just one night on a journey that supersedes any single defining experience.

    TL;DR : Huts are the most over-hyped trail experience. They are generally a bad scene and will kill your groovy thru-hikin’ vibes you’ve worked so hard to find. Protect your vibes and hustle onward to Maine or Vermont and keep on walkin’. Superior vibes await you, hiker! Into the wild!

    Reply
  • Kyle : Jun 11th

    The hut croos at two of the three huts I stayed at had very audible booze fueled orgies the nights I stayed there. Customers and children could hear the racket. No oversight at those remote mountain brothels

    Reply
  • Brother Blood : Oct 21st

    What a ridiculous post. The Hut system is not the problem. I have no issue with charging a lot for the LL Beaners to be warm at night. And the “Croo’s” pretty much treated me well during my hike. But to claim that the AMC is using their money for the betterment of the outdoors is naive beyond pale.

    People will believe what they want to believe, and not read the financial disclosures of an organization. Please learn something about this group’s finances before praising them.

    Reply
  • Gary : Jun 6th

    First off, based on the near perfect quoting of All My Cash Propaganda, Jesse doesn’t exist as portrayed. I see Jesse as a 40 year old beaurocrat wanting to pad the AMC wallet.
    As the CEO makes over “6 figures a year” do you seriously believe all the “this is where the money goes” cat hole contents “Jesse” spewed?
    It sure doesn’t go to maintaining the blazes on the Appalachian Money Club area of the AT. The excuse of those who have BUILDINGS on or near the AT, state “It is to preserve the wild nature of the area” because as we all know, a 2 inch by 6 inch white blaze is MUCH more distracting than a building that can comfortably house up to 90 guests.
    I do appreciate what the CROO do, but it is inexcusable to me that (and I have heard of this happening often) to send anyone out into a storm. I for one would NOT go, have dealt with bullies who make it to management before, not a hard task as all bullies are cowards.
    AND NO, I am not an entitled hiker, charge what you charge & accept that you are price gouging, & catering to the wealthy! Please: just don’t demean us by making VERY LAME excuses.

    Reply
  • G13Man : Jul 2nd

    what would a night at a motel cost ?
    with a full course dinner and a full course breakfast !
    transportation to this spot to continue your hike ?
    time spent in transit ?
    Well $38 on the trail in 85 !
    nice aligning the huts up in a row for that dry , fed , easy distance walks , for a week ! treatment !
    [ still , take the sleeping bag ! ]

    Reply

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